Portugal offers a roadmap of temples, devotions and religious festivals that you can follow out of faith or driven by a more universal spirituality, whether in search of the sacred or on a journey of self-discovery.
Starting in Fátima, Capital of Peace and one of the world’s most important Marian pilgrimage sites, there are many reasons for visiting, whether you are following the Cathedral route or to discover the simple shrines and chapels in honour of the local patron saint.
The Jews have also left their mark, particularly in Central Portugal, providing another reason for exploration. And there are also many paths travelled by pilgrims today, retracing the steps taken long ago to Santiago de Compostela.
After all, we are united in the same spirit of equality in difference, joined in a common cause which is the ancestral openness to others that is characteristic of the Portuguese. Motivated by this genuine predisposition for empathy and hospitality, in which we believe, we gladly welcome our visitors, whatever their religious belief.
Fátima, a Journey to the Altar of the World
The Shrine at Fátima is one of the most important landmarks in the Marian cult, drawing pilgrims from all over the world.
The location of the Shrine of Fátima, at Cova da Iria, had until 1917 been an unknown place in the municipality of Ourém, in the parish of Fátima. That year, a religious event changed its history and importance for ever, when three little shepherds, Jacinta and her two cousins, Francisco and Lúcia, witnessed successive apparitions of Our Lady of the Rosary. Initially looked at with suspicion by the Church, albeit cherished by the people, the phenomenon was not acknowledged by the Bishop of Leiria until 1930. From then onwards, the development of the village boomed, leading to Fátima being given town status, in 1977, and city status in 1997.
The world renown of the Shrine increased during the papacy of John Paul II, a confessed devotee of Our Lady of Fátima, who travelled there in 1982 to give thanks for having survived an assassination attempt the year before. In 2000, on his third visit to the site, he announced the beatification of Jacinta and Francisco, to whom the Vatican attributed the miracle of a cure.
The first apparition occurred on 13 May, followed by others on the same day of the ensuing months until October, and that is the day of the main celebrations in Fátima. One of the most important events is the Candle Procession, on the evening of 12 May, when thousands of candles held by the faithful filling the grand Shrine plaza lend a magic atmosphere of communion and religious devotion to this place. It is as important as the Farewell Procession on the 13th.
Not even unbelievers can remain indifferent when confronted by the Shrine’s grandiosity, spirituality and symbolism.
As you enter the Prayer Area, at one end you will see the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fátima, with its tall 65-metre tower. In the centre is the Monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, on one side, the Chapel of Apparitions, exactly where Our Lady asked the little shepherds to build a chapel.
At the opposite end, the Most Holy Trinity Church – Lesser Basilica, inaugurated in 2007, is a modern piece of architecture, without intermediate supports and with a capacity for about 8,700 people. The design is by the Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis, with contributions by other artists, such as the Portuguese Álvaro Siza Vieira and Pedro Calapez. Outside, there is a Tall Cross in bronze by the German Robert Schad.
Besides the Shrine, you can visit in the area the Museum of Sacred Art and Ethnology, the Wax Museum, the 1917 Fátima Museum and the Animated Nativity Scene and Village of Bethlehem.
Aljustrel, where the little shepherds lived, is about 2km south. To recreate the story, you also need to go to Loca do Anjo and Valinhos, other sites associated with the apparitions.
To get to know the region, we suggest a route passing through Leiria, along the coast between the beaches of São Pedro de Moel and Nazaré and via two monuments classified as World Heritage, the Monasteries of Batalha and Alcobaça.
A Visit to Braga
Braga is a lively city, one of the oldest in the country, and is teeming with young people who study at its universities.
Built more than 2,000 years ago, “Bracara Augusta” was, as the name indicates, founded by Augustus; it was located on one of the main Roman roads in the Iberian Peninsula, since it was the administrative seat of the Empire, and later given the status of capital of the Roman province of Gallaecia, present-day Galicia, by Emperor Caracalla. The Braga Diocese is the oldest in Portugal and, in the Middle Ages, the city even competed with Santiago de Compostela in power and importance. One of the Camiños de Santiago passed through here, when this pilgrimage cult grew with the Christian reconquest and the foundation of Portugal.
Braga’s Cathedral is also the oldest in the country and was built in the 12th century by the parents of Portugal’s first King, D. Henrique and D. Teresa, who are buried there. Braga is to this day one of the country’s main religious centres, having the Holy Week Celebrations and the São João Festival as the highlights in its liturgical and tourist calendar.
Besides the Tesouro-Museu da Sé (Cathedral Treasure Museum), it is worth visiting the Biscainhos Museum, housed in a Baroque palace, a landmark period in the history of Braga, and the D. Diogo de Sousa Archaeological Museum, since the city also abounds in remains from the Roman era. We suggest a leisurely stroll around the historic centre to visit some of the many churches, admire the houses and historical buildings, such as the Palácio do Raio, the Theatro Circo, the Arco da Porta Nova, and to have a coffee at the emblematic Brasileira with a view of the busy Avenida Central. But Braga is considered the youngest city in Portugal and, from its contemporary landmarks, the Braga Municipal Stadium stands out, designed by Souto Moura, one of the most prestigious Portuguese architects and winner of the Pritzker Prize.
Every visitor to Braga must see the Bom Jesus Sanctuary, a city icon, with its monumental staircase. Amid an expanse of greenery, it offers an excellent panoramic view of the city, as do two other churches nearby: Nossa Senhora do Sameiro Sanctuary, an important place of Marian worship, and Santa Maria da Falperra Church. Outside the historic centre, São Martinho de Tibães Monastery and S. Frutuoso de Montélios Chapel also warrant a visit for their beauty and historical significance.
In terms of gastronomy, codfish prepared in the Braga, Narcisa or Minho styles has to be inevitably mentioned, as well as roast kid and Pudim Abade de Priscos (crème caramel with bacon). Night-life, in this city of students, is not to be missed, as there’s some form of entertainment for everyone.
Over the last few years, the University and the quality of contemporary architecture have instilled an atmosphere of youthful vibrancy which has brought this ancient city an unexpected modernity.
Caminhos de Santiago (St. James Way)
The Caminhos de Santiago that cross Portugal from south to north have been followed by pilgrims for centuries. Taking them is to set out on a discovery not only of the country but of ourselves too.
The destination of these Ways is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, underneath which, so the legend goes, is the tomb of the Apostle James, who evangelized the Iberian Peninsula, then a province of Rome. The cult of this saint became popular during the Middle Ages resulting in great pilgrimages from every corner of Europe. And in Portugal it has been widespread since the 12th century, with the founding of the Portuguese nationality.
There are a number of Ways through Portugal to Santiago, depending on the pilgrims’ point of departure, but currently three main caminhos can be identified.
The oldest is the Northern Way. It leaves from Porto Cathedral and goes through Rates (where St. James himself ordained the bishop who gave his name to the Romanesque church of São Pedro), Barcelos, Ponte de Lima and Valença, where it enters Spain. In the Middle Ages, the Northern Way had variants, and it was common to pass through Guimarães (in whose Praça de Santiago legend has it that the Saint placed an image of Our Lady), but especially through Braga, which disputed with Compostela the title of the centre of Christianity in the Peninsula since it was the seat of the Archiepiscopate of the whole Iberian Peninsula. Its first bishop was in fact the Bishop of Rates. Another variant was the Geira Way (an ancient Roman road) that crossed Gerês up to Portela do Homem. But there was also the Northern Coastal Way which today is marked. It also departs from Porto and the route goes via Vila do Conde, Esposende, Viana do Castelo and Caminha, where you can cross into Spain, or continue to Valença.
The Inland Way links Viseu to Chaves, and enters Spain at Vilarelho da Raia, having gained new life with the erection of guidance signage and the opening of hostels for pilgrims. Leaving from Viseu, this Way passes through Castro Daire, Lamego, Peso da Régua, Santa Marta de Penaguião, Vila Real and Vila Pouca de Aguiar, before reaching Chaves. It joins Via da Prata, the ancient Roman trade route that crossed the west of Spain.
Further south, the great Central Portuguese Way coincides until Santarém with the Tagus Way on the pilgrimage to Fátima. It leaves from Lisbon Cathedral and follows the banks of the River Tagus via Alverca, Vila Franca de Xira, Azambuja, Santarém, Golegã and Tomar, the former seat of the Knights Templar in Portugal. From here it continues towards Coimbra, passing Alvaiázere, Ansião and Rabaçal. In Coimbra it’s imperative to visit the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova, since the tomb of Queen Isabel (14th century), who made the pilgrimage to Santiago and is buried with the symbols of the scallop shell, the cross of Santiago and the staff, is to be found here. Continuing north, the Way goes via Mealhada, Águeda, Albergaria-a-Velha, São João da Madeira and Grijó, before entering Porto, where the Northern Ways begin.
This route had a variant that also departed from Lisbon, and ran along the coast, passing through Sintra, Torres Vedras, Caldas da Rainha, Alcobaça, Batalha and Leiria, then on to Coimbra, where it joined the great Central Way. Today, however, it is not as adequately signposted as the ways that left from the Algarve in the Middle Ages.
The Caminhos de Santiago are certainly a good option for fans of long walks, whether they be motivated by the faith of a pilgrim or a desire for adventure and communion with nature.
Portuguese Way of St. James – Central Route
The most frequently used Portuguese Way of St. James is the Central Route, which passes through Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. It is fully waymarked from Lisbon with the unmistakable yellow arrows that mark the Ways of St. James, and sometimes with a yellow scallop shell on a blue background, the official symbol.
But there are several Ways of St. James in Portugal, all running south to north, as Santiago de Compostela is in Galicia, 120 km from the border at Valença in the north of Portugal.
South of Lisbon, the Way is not systematically waymarked yet, but it is known that it was also walked by pilgrims in the Middle Ages, in particular from Cape Saint Vincent to Santiago do Cacém, along a stretch that is today known as the Historical Way of the Rota Vicentina. The Rota Vicentina is part of the GR11/E9 route, which passes through Lisbon.
The Central Route passes through the following places (approximate distances):
FROM LISBON TO SANTARÉM
1. Lisbon > Alhandra, 33km
Lisbon > Sacavém > Alpriate > Póvoa de Santa Iria > Alverca > Alhandra
2. Alhandra > Azambuja, 24km
Alhandra > Vila Franca de Xira > Carregado > Vila Nova da Rainha > Azambuja
3. Azambuja > Santarém, 32km
Azambuja > Aerodrome > Reguengo > Valada > Porto de Muge > Omnias > Santarém
FROM SANTARÉM TO TOMAR
4. Santarém > Golegã, 30.5km
Santarém > Vale Figueira > Pombalinho > Azinhaga (birthplace of José Saramago, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature) > Golegã
5. Golegã > Tomar, 22km
Golegã > São Caetano (Quinta da Cardiga) > Vila Nova da Barquinha > Atalaia > Grou > Asseiceira > Santa Cita > Tomar
Coimbra > Adémia de Baixo > Trouxemil > Adões> Sargento Mor > Santa Luzia > Lendiosa > Mealhada
10. Mealhada > Águeda, 31km
Mealhada > Sernadelo > Alpalhão > Aguim > Anadia > Arcos > Avelãs de Caminho > Aguada de Baixo > Águeda
11. Águeda>Albergaria-a-Velha, 19.5km
Águeda > Mourisca do Vouga > Serém de Cima > Albergaria-a-Velha
12. Albergaria-a-Velha > Oliveira de Azeméis, 23km
Albergaria-a-Velha > Albergaria-a-Nova > Pinheiro da Bemposta > Bemposta > Oliveira de Azeméis
13. Oliveira de Azeméis > Grijó, 33.5km
Oliveira de Azeméis > Santiago de Riba-Ul > Cucujães > São João da Madeira > Malaposta > Lourosa > Moselos > Grijó
14. Grijó > Porto 23.5km
Grijó > Perosinho > Vila Nova de Gaia > Porto
FROM PORTO TO VALENÇA
15. Porto > São Pedro de Rates, 37 km
Porto > Araújo > Maia > Vilar do Pinheiro > Mosteiró > Vilarinho > Ponte de Ave > São Miguel dos Arcos > São Pedro de Rates
16. São Pedro de Rates > Barcelos, 17km
São Pedro de Rates > Pedra Furada/Goios > Pereira > Barcelinhos > Barcelos
17. Barcelos > Ponte de Lima, 34km
Barcelos > Vila Boa > São Pedro de Fins/Tamel > Ponte das Táboas > Outeiro > Grajal > Reborido > Vitorino dos Piães > Anta > Pedrosa > Ponte da Senhora das Neves > Ponte de Lima
18. Ponte de Lima > Rubiães, 22Km
Ponte de Lima > Arcozelo > Ponte da Geira > Ponte do Arco > Alto da Portela/Labruja > São Roque > Rubiães
19. Rubiães > Valença, 17km
Rubiães > São Bento da Porta Aberta > Gontomil > Fontoura > Paços > Pedreira > Tuído > Arão > Valença
Marian Shrine Route
Venerated in various ways over time, the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, is a constant presence in Catholic religious expressions in Portugal. Visit some of the temples dedicated to her to discover the depths of this devotion.
Fátima, where Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children in 1917, is undoubtedly the main place of worship in Portugal and one of the world’s principal shrines of Marian devotion. This place of faith and peace has received pilgrimages ever since, especially on the 13th of each month, and they reach their peak in May and October, when crowds express their faith in a way that touches everyone, believers or not.
In Portugal, the worship of Our Lady dates back to the founding of the nation and gave rise to monasteries, chapels, churches and shrines that are the scene of celebration and popular feasts. Most cathedrals in Portugal, therefore, are dedicated to Saint Mary, as is the case of the Cathedrals of Porto, Viseu, Lisbon, Évora and many, many others.
On a journey from north to south, we would immediately highlight the Church of Nossa Senhora da Agonia in Viana do Castelo, the centre of one of the most colourful religious festivals in Portugal. Braga is home to the oldest Portuguese cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary, and nearby there are demonstrations of great devotion at the Shrine of Nossa Senhora do Sameiro, the Church of Santa Maria da Falperra and the Shrine of Nossa Senhora da Abadia in Santa Maria do Bouro, Amares. In Guimarães, the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira and the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Penha are well worth a visit. In Lamego, the Shrine of Nossa Senhora das Remédios that dominates the city perched at the top of a flight of monumental steps, is one of the most famous places of Marian devotion on the occasion of its great pilgrimage.
In Porto we have the cathedral dedicated to Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Our Lady of the Assumption), and in Coimbra, the Old Cathedral, or Church of Santa Maria, is another fortress-like church of Romanesque features, associated with the foundation of Portugal. Continuing south you will find two monuments dedicated to Saint Mary, which are World Heritage: the Cistercian Abbey of Alcobaça, built by the first King of Portugal, and the true compendium of stone carving which is the Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória or Batalha Monastery because it commemorates the victory in a battle for Portugal’s independence. Nearby is the beach of Nazaré whose Church of Our Lady is the setting of another busy pilgrimage, associated with a well-known local miracle.
In Lisbon, there are several churches dedicated to Our Lady, some of true popular devotion, such as the Chapel of Senhora da Saúde, in the historical Mouraria district. But, besides the Romanesque Cathedral, or Church of Santa Maria Maior, the most important is the Jerónimos Monastery, one of the most striking monuments in the capital, classified as World Heritage, whose church is dedicated to Saint Mary of Bethlehem. South of Lisbon, you will find the Shrine of Nossa Senhora do Cabo, in Cape Espichel, the setting of an important pilgrimage, known as Círio da Senhora do Cabo or Círio Saloio.
In Alentejo, one of the major pilgrimage sites is the Shrine of Nossa Senhora de Aires, near Viana do Alentejo, but the Shrine of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, or Solar da Padroeira, in Vila Viçosa, has also gained prominence ever since King João IV proclaimed Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as the patron saint of Portugal in 1646.
Finally, in the Algarve, the Cathedral of Santa Maria, in Faro, the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo, in Tavira, and the Festival of Mãe Soberana (Sovereign Mother), held in Loulé in honour of Our Lady of Piety, are worth noting as part of a route of Marian devotion.
Why not make a journey inspired by the mysteries of the history of the Knights of the Order of the Temple and their symbolism full of occult messages, to discover Portugal’s Templar treasures?
The Knights Templar settled in Portugal in the 12th century to help the first Portuguese kings in the Christian Reconquest and to continue the Crusades. The castle they founded in Tomar in 1160 was inspired by the fortifications of the Holy Land, and at the time was the most modern and advanced military stronghold in the kingdom. But nearly two centuries later, in 1312, the Order was dissolved by Pope Clement V, who was intent on ending their fame and power. In Portugal, however, the Order of Christ was created, as the true heir and custodian of all the Templars’ spiritual and material wealth, preserving its crusading spirit during the Discoveries.
Let yourself be guided to the very heart of Portugal by stories that take you on an imaginary quest for the Holy Grail.
Between the River Tagus and its tributary the Zêzere, you will find the emblematic Almourol Castle, the riverside town of Constância and the mysterious Dornes Tower. The city of Tomar, which was once the meeting place of knights and heroes in the Quest for the Holy Grail, is now the culmination of a tour on which you will discover breathtaking landscapes and monuments.
You will learn more about the brave Christian knights who built the Convent of Christ, and discover that the Charola was built in the likeness of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and that the Manueline church replicates the proportions of Solomon's Temple, where the Order was founded.
Set out on a journey of discovery through towns, cities and villages, of a heritage rich in memories evoking the Jewish presence in Portugal.
Although there are some earlier references, it was between the 5th and 15th centuries that the Sephardic Jewish community, or Iberian Peninsula Jews, settled in the territory that is now Portugal contributing in the most diverse ways to Portuguese culture. Protected by the Kings, many of its members, amongst whom were philosophers, humanists, scientists and merchants, but also more common tradesmen, such as cobblers, tailors and weavers, participated actively in various significant moments of Portuguese history, in particular the foundation of Portuguese nationality and the settlement of the land, and later contributed financially and scientifically to the Age of the Discoveries. An important figure was the great 16th century mathematician and cosmographer, Pedro Nunes, who invented the nonius, a navigational aid.
In 1496, the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal obliged them to convert to Catholicism and become New Christians. Many left the country, but many others remained and secretly kept their faith, forming the so-called marranos or crypto-Jews. The symbolic marks and inscriptions of those times can still be seen carved in the houses of former Jewish quarters, whose traces survive in places like Trancoso, Belmonte, Guarda and Castelo de Vide.
Rua Nova (New Street), Rua Direita (Straight Street), Rua da Estrela (Star Street) or Espinosa are examples of names which indicate the former existence of a Jewish quarter. If you look at the houses, you will see a large door on the ground floor giving access to the store and a narrower one to enter the residence, located on the upper floor. They demonstrate the importance given by the Jews to trade. In some you can still see the slot for the “Mezuzah” (a parchment with words from the Torah, which according to Jewish faith should be placed on the right hand side of the doorframe).
One of the first printed works in the country was an edition of the Pentateuch, by Samuel Gacon, published in 1487 in Faro. Today there are several museums focusing on the Jewish presence in Portugal, such as in Castelo de Vide, Belmonte, Faro and Tomar, the latter housed in a 15th century former synagogue. It is also quite easy to discover the history of Portuguese Jews by following the Jewry Route, a testimony to the encounter between peoples and cultures, which we are proud to preserve.
In their Diaspora, the Jews also disseminated the Portuguese language and culture. During World War II, Portugal welcomed many thousands of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. Their existence has been legal in Portugal since 1912, and today the Jewish community has synagogues in Lisbon, Porto, Trancoso and Belmonte.
Festivals and Devotions
As an act of faith or the simple pleasure of discovery, you will find in Portugal a multitude of reasons for visiting and for religious celebration and as many options for spiritual quest.
Portugal, the oldest nation in Europe, whose frontiers have been defined since the 12th century, consists of lands conquered from the Moors who lived here at the time. In this Christian Reconquest campaign, the Portuguese kings were aided by the movements of the Crusades, particularly the Knights Templar. So it is a traditionally Catholic country, and even today many churches and religious cults have their historical roots in the foundation of the nation. Marian devotion is one such example, and here we find numerous Marian Shrines and various forms of veneration of the Virgin Mary. But Fátima, the site of the apparitions of Our Lady to the three shepherd children in 1917, is arguably the most important sacred site in the country. It is a place of strong spirituality, known as the City of Peace, to which no one, believer or not, can remain indifferent.
In honour of Our Lady and many other saints, many forms of devotion are expressed by hugely popular feasts, festivals and pilgrimages. This is the case of the Feasts of Senhora da Agonia in Viana do Castelo, the pilgrimages around Braga (Nossa Senhora do Sameiro, the Shrine of S. Bento da Porta Aberta and Nossa Senhora da Abadia), the Shrine of Nossa Senhora da Penha in Guimarães and Nossa Senhora dos Remédios in Lamego, just to mention those that attract the biggest crowds in the north. Further south the Rainha Santa Festivities in Coimbra are notable, the processions and pilgrimages of Nossa Senhora da Nazaré and Nossa Senhora do Cabo (Cape Espichel, Sesimbra), the Shrine of Nossa Senhora de Aires, near Viana do Alentejo and the Shrine of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, in Vila Viçosa, also in the Alentejo. In the Algarve we would mention in particular the Feasts of the Mãe Soberana in Loulé, perhaps the greatest religious display south of Fátima.
Besides these, many other colourful festivities take place across the country, such as the Popular Saints Festivities that are held in Lisbon on 13th June, for Santo António (St. Anthony), and Porto on 24th June, the day of S. João (St. John). Indeed, Santo António, whose church and museum by Lisbon Cathedral are much visited, is the subject of much devotion not only in Lisbon, where he was born, but throughout the country.
You will see that various pilgrimage routes can be followed in Portugal, but those that go to Santiago de Compostela, linking some important religious centres since the 12th century, are one of the strongest signs of European cultural identity. So you can join with pilgrims from around the world following the Portuguese Way (although there is more than one route), to discover the historical heritage and experience a sense of communion with nature.
Many Jews also lived here since the founding of the country - which they helped to populate - and particularly since 1492, when they were expelled from Spain. Today you can find records of the Sephardic presence in many towns and cities, particularly along an axis parallel to the frontier in central Portugal and northern Alentejo. Hidden for centuries, this presence is now revealed by the historical and cultural heritage of a community that made important contributions to the development of national navigation, medicine and economy.
You can visit churches and shrines throughout the country that are truly museums of gilt work, tilework and sacred art, real icons of the culture of a people. And you can encounter other faiths, since the country enjoys wide-reaching religious freedom. After all, religious Festivals and Devotions are also a call to travel, promoting the spiritual and cultural enrichment of the visitor.