Every year millions of people travel to see the Vatican. But Rome is not the end-all for religious tourism. Dozens of religiously significant cities and sacred shrines dot the vast and ancient landscape of Europe.
The following list spotlights some of the most visited holy places on the continent, from its western seaboard to its eastern boundaries:
1. Fatima, Portugal
The Chapel of the Apparitions is built on the site of a Marian apparition that appeared before three peasant children in 1917. Every year since then on the anniversaries of the apparitions, May 13 and Oct. 13, the streets of Fatima swell with throngs of pilgrims who make their way to the holy site. Fatima (88 miles north of Lisbon) is home to dozens of imposing churches and monuments. Shops selling religious souvenirs, hostels and hotels can be found throughout the city.
2. Camino de Santiago, Spain
One of the oldest pilgrimage routes in the world runs through Northern Spain, terminating at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This is the burial site of St. James, whose remains were transported from Jerusalem to Spain by boat. Pilgrimages to the area haven’t ceased since medieval times, and the route has enjoyed revived popularity since the 1980s.
Traveling pilgrims can expect barebones accommodations along the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James. Monasteries provide hostels for travelers and ask for small monetary donations in return. Pilgrims should be aware that a special Credencial, or religious passport, is required to stay at a monastic hostel. American pilgrims need to register online in order to receive one.
3. Lourdes, France
The largest pilgrimage site in France is Lourdes, which takes in some five million pilgrims a year. Lourdes gains significance from the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes and is a site of numerous miraculous healings. The stream unearthed by Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 is believed to have special properties that heal the ailments of sick people.
Tourists stay in one of 270 hotels in the city in order to visit the Sanctuary of Lourdes (commonly called the Domain). The Domain includes the Grotto where pilgrims can dispense Lourdes water from the taps and 22 separate places of worship on 126 acres.
4. Armagh, Northern Ireland
Armagh is a town with roots in Celtic paganism. When Christianity spread to the region in the 400s A.D., St. Patrick established his church there and Armagh became the ecclesiastical capital of the island. He decreed that only those educated in Armagh were fit to spread the gospel, so numerous educational institutions were founded.
The seat of both Protestant and Catholic archbishops, Armagh is the most venerated of Irish cities. The main points of interests are St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral. St. Patrick’s Trian, in a former church behind the tourist office, has exhibits on city history and St. Patrick’s writings. Armagh is going through an extensive city-center regeneration project, which includes upgrading all surfaces and adding new pedestrian walkways.
5. Einsiedeln, Switzerland
Einsiedeln gained popularity as a religious tourist destination thanks to its Benedictine Abbey, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Switzerland. More than 100,000 religious tourists visit annually to see the statue of the Black Madonna in the abbey’s lavishly decorated Baroque church. Also on visitors’ agendas are Diorama Bethlehem, regarded as the world’s largest nativity display with 450 hand-carved figures, and Panorama Crucifixion of Christ, a giant circular painting.
The town, about 25 miles southeast of Zurich, is close to many scenic hiking trails in the Swiss Alps. Geneva and Zurich have sites associated John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, Swiss leaders of the Reformation.
6. Altötting, Germany
For more than 500 years this Bavarian town has been Germany’s most significant place of pilgrimage venerating the Virgin Mary. More than a million pilgrims a year visit the Chapel of Grace (built around 700) and its Black Madonna. As history tells it, a child drowned in a nearby river in 1489 and his mother took his body to the altar at the foot of a wooden statue of the Black Madonna. He was miraculously revived, and the news spread quickly across the country. The shrine was expanded with a nave and covered walkway. Today the small chapel, where the hearts of Bavarian kings are stored in silver urns, is one of many points of interest in this town of 12,000 near the Austrian border.
The late Gothic, twin-towered Stiftskirche (Collegiate Church) and the Neo-Baroque St. Anna’s Basilica are two of many churches within walking distance of Chapel Square, where Pope Benedikt XVI celebrated Mass in 2006. Across from the Chapel of Grace is the New Ecclesiastical Treasury and Pilgrimage Museum, which is named for the Pope, a Bavarian who has been familiar with Altötting since childhood. Another draw is the Crucifixion Panorama, a 360-degree painting (dating from 1903) that depicts events that transpired on Good Friday in Jerusalem. From May to October, candlelight processions take place from St. Anna’s to the square.
7. Luther Country, Germany
Martin Luther has forever been embedded into history for sparking the Protestant Reformation. Travelers can follow in his footsteps in the states of Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, a region deemed Luther Country. Reformation-related sites are located in Eisenach, Erfurt, Lutherstadt Eisleben and Lutherstadt Wittenberg. Luther spent the majority of his life in Wittenberg, the site of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church), where in 1517 he nailed his 95 Theses, or demands for reform, on its doors. He is buried inside below the pulpit.
8. Czestochowa, Poland
Poland has a Christian history more than 1,000 years old, and during that time the city of Czestochowa has gone through periods of enemy invasions and occupation. The shrine to the Black Madonna in Jasna Gora Monastery, attracting more than four million visitors a year, symbolizes the Poles’ determination to preserve their heritage. The painting of the Black Madonna has been the subject of miracles including bleeding after being struck with a sword during a Hussite attack in 1430. The 800-year-old buildings around the monastery bustle with tourist commerce.
9. Medugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Apparitions of Mary have appeared before six children since 1981 in this Adriatic town and made the town a popular pilgrimage destination. The site annually attracts one million people, some of whom have witnessed visions in the sky including hearts and crosses around the sun. This once tumultuous region now has enjoyed an economic boom, thanks in part to religious tourism. More than 1,000 hotel and hostel beds are available.
10. Assisi, Italy
Assisi, an Umbrian hill town north of Rome, is most noted for being the birthplace of St. Francis. His influence is remembered in the Basilica of San Francesco of Assisi, which has been named as a World Heritage Site. This is just one of eight historic churches in the area. Two castles dominate the town, both built in the Middle Ages. In early May the Festival Calendimaggio re-enacts medieval life with games, processions, dances, flag waving and theatrical performances.
11. Jasna Göra Monastery, Poland
Said to be the third largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, Jasna Göra Monastery in Częstochowa, Poland, depicts a famous shrine of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrims from around the world come to gaze upon the Black Madonna of Częstochowa image that has been recognized by many as a revered icon, such as Pope Clement XI who designated the image a Canonical Coronation through the Vatican Chapter.
Tracked by the National Heritage Board of Poland, the site has also been one of the country’s National Historic Monuments since 1994.
Pilgrims have been visiting the site since the Middle Ages, and approximately 3.2 million worshippers from 80 different countries around the world have come to worship this magnificent shrine.
12. Great St. Bernard Pass, Switzerland
Only open for four months out of the year from July through October, Great St. Bernard Pass is the third highest road pass in Switzerland, connecting Martigny to the Aosta Valley in Italy.
The legendary Great St. Bernard Hospice was historically run by Augustinian monks at the beginning of the Middle Ages. The shelter symbolizes the generosity and friendliness shown by monks to travelers for centuries, and later became famous for its use of St. Bernard dogs in rescue operations.
Standing at 8,100 feet, the road is the lowest pass connecting the two largest mountains in the Swiss Alps, Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa. Religious travel groups can drive through Great St. Bernard Pass, indulging in the region’s stunning panoramic views along the curvy, winding roads.
13. Hagia Sophia, Turkey
Once an important place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was built in 537 A.D. as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral under Justinian order. The cathedral was later converted into an Ottoman mosque in 1453, and remained so until 1931.
In 1935, the building was secularized and became a museum. Although no longer active as a place of worship, this UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts visitors to marvel in awe at its exquisite Byzantine architecture, especially its carefully detailed and colorful mosaics.
14. Glastonbury Tor to Stonehenge, England
This 44-mile pilgrimage to one of the most highly recognized UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world takes religious group travelers through the countryside of Southwest England’s Somerset County, to the famous Stonehenge, a site of ceremonies for Neo-Pagans and druids since its construction dated as far back as 2,600 B.C.
This 15-hour hike from Glastonbury Tor to Wiltshire takes pilgrims through some of England’s most breathtaking countryside landscapes. If timed properly, religious group travelers can join the tens of thousands of visitors who gather each June to celebrate summer solstice.
15. Madonna del Ghisallo Chapel, Italy
A truly unique pilgrimage for religious group travelers, this seven-mile journey designed specifically for cyclists leaves from the touristy town of Bellagio, ending at the 17th century Madonna del Ghisallo Chapel in Lombardy.
A renowned cycling hub, the chapel features a statue outside its parameters dedicated to the cyclists who visit Madonna del Ghisallo. Formerly known as the patroness of travelers until 1949, Madonna del Ghisallo was then admitted as the patroness of cyclists by Pope Pius XII.
Inside the chapel, groups get the chance to marvel upon glass-framed jerseys featuring some of the best riders in the world, pennants of cycling clubs and a selection of historically significant bicycles.
16. Knock Shrine, County Mayo; Ireland
Legend has it that in 1879 during a two-hour long, rainy witnessing of the Apparition of the Virgin Mary in Knock, Ireland, not a single drop of water fell on the gable or vision. Since this numinous occurrence, Knock has become one of the most popular Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in Western Europe, attracting approximately 1.5 million visitors per year.
Pilgrims flock to this renowned religious site to see Knock Shrine, an altar sculpture depicting the accounts of the Apparition. Mary was described as being beautiful, dressed in all-white, boasting a luminous gold crown and standing a few feet above ground. This depiction can be seen on the altar sculpture.
17. Nidaros Cathedral, Norway
The northernmost medieval cathedral in the world and the second largest in Scandinavia, Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim was one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Christians during the Middle Ages.
With Gothic and Roman architecture throughout, Nidaros Cathedral was founded in 997 A.D. by Viking Olaf Trygvesson, with the hopes of spreading Christianity in Norway.
The pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral is known as Saint Olav’s Way, a 350-mile stretch from Selånger, Sweden to Stiklestad, Norway. Religious group travelers should expect to take at least 28 days to complete the pilgrimage.
18. Romedius Pilgrimage Trail, Austria
For nature lovers and advanced hikers, the Romedius Pilgrimage Trail could be just what you’re looking for on your next European pilgrimage.
Discover your inner spiritual self while following in the footsteps of St. Romedius, the son of a noblemen who withdrew to a rock cave to practice meditation.
This 111-mile hike isn’t for the faint of heart; expect to take at least 12 days to complete this pilgrimage, starting in the village of Thaur near Innsbruck. Throughout the trek, pilgrims will pass through sanctuaries, natural monuments, valleys, nature parks and lakes.
19. Stará Boleslav, Czech Republic
Situated about 15 miles northeast of Prague, Stará Boleslav is an ancient place of pilgrimage connected to the martyrdom of the patron saint of the Czech state, St. Wenceslas. St. Wenceslas was the duke of Bohemia from 921 A.D., until his assassination in 935 A.D.
Within Stará Boleslav lies the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a late Gothic church featuring one large tower, 16 chapels, two side vestibules, a sacristy and a double worm staircase. The basement of the church is used as exhibition space for the North-Bohemian Gallery.
20. Kirkkokari, Finland
Kirkkokari is a small island located in Satakunta, Finland. It is the only Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Finland, and one of the few in Nordic countries. The island has been a pilgrimage site for many Catholics since the 13th century. St. Henry is said to have been murdered on the ice of Lake Köyliö during the winter of 1156. Every year, the Finnish Roman Catholic Church organizes a pilgrimage to the island, an 87-mile journey via Saint Henry’s Way, beginning in the city of Turku.