Travel Guide Hiking Pilgrim walks
Pilger bei ihrer Ankunft in Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrim trails

Pilgrimage is probably the most original form of hiking. Long before people set off for hiking or spent their free time in nature, they went to distant religious places to thank, repent or seek help. Especially in secularised societies pilgrimage today is understood more as a kind of hiking, still with the aim of contemplation and meditation.
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What does pilgrimage mean?

What distinguishes a long distance hiking trail from a pilgrim trail? Actually, the answer to this question is quite simple.

At the end of the route, pilgrims will find a religious place, such as a church, a temple, a place of sacrifice or a relic. And not only the destination is important, the way there is also celebrated through prayers and the wearing of religious signs.

For many pilgrims, religious reasons are still in the foreground today. However, the number of those who take time and space for themselves, discover new cultures and get to know people or are simply looking for a challenging outdoor experience is increasing at the same time.

One of the most famous pilgrimage destinations: Santiago de Compostela
Photo: CC0,

The history of pilgrimage... probably as long as the history of mankind itself. Already in ancient times people made pilgrimages to holy places like the Oracle of Delphi or the Temple of Artemis.

The early Christians set off to Jerusalem, where supposedly the relics of Holy Cross were found. Some time later, they also went to Rome to see the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul.

In the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela was the main pilgrimage destination in Europe, after the supposed tomb of Saint Jacob was found there around 820 AD.

The route to Jerusalem also continued to expand as the Crusaders – who saw themselves as armed pilgrims – moved to the Holy Land.

The English Puritans ("Pilgrim Fathers") can be described as pilgrims of a somewhat different kind. They sailed to America in 1620 in order to establish a colony where they could finally practise the freedom of faith they had ever longed for.

Pilgrimages in Christianity

Pilgrimage in Christianity can look back on a long tradition. The number of customs around the pilgrimage is correspondingly large.

At the beginning of the pilgrimage, there is usually a service for the pilgrims to receive blessing for the upcoming journey. Until the 13th century, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was certified by a shell that people wore on their hat.

Nowadays, pilgrims receive a certificate at their destination, but the pilgrim's shell is still considered a sign of recognition.

Jacob's pilgrim with shell on rucksack
Photo: CC0,

Pilgrimages in other religions

There are actually pilgrim's paths in almost every religious denomination – even if many of them are not developed for tourism and almost exclusively used by clergymen and local pilgrims. For example, every summer at full moon dozens of shamans gather on the 3800 m high Kalinchok to celebrate the return of the gods and to offer animal sacrifices to them.

Much better known are the great pilgrimage destinations of Islam: Mecca and Medina. One of the five pillars on which religion is based is the Hajj, according to which a devout Muslim must make a pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca once in his life. The journey is often combined with a pilgrimage to the tomb of Mohammed in Medina.

In Buddhism there are four holy places, all of which are connected with the life and work of Buddha.

Jews pilgrimaged to the temple of Jerusalem in ancient times until it was destroyed in 70 AD. Only the Wailing Wall remains, but its visit is not considered a pilgrimage in the true sense of the word.

Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba in Mecca.

Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago (also Camino Francés) leads in its classical variant from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. It measures almost 500 miles and is usually divided into 32 daily stages.

Beside the main route there are numerous alternative routes in Spain, as well as in Portugal. This variant leads from Lisbon or alternatively from Porto to Santiago.

In numerous other European regions there are connections of the Camino de Santiago nowadays.

Non-religious destinations

Since the 18th century, the number of pilgrimages to secular destinations is increasing. In the Romantic era, for example, art lovers travelled to the creative sites of celebrated artists. Nowadays, people even speak of "pilgrimage" when millions of fans visit the home town of their prominent role model.

Also worth mentioning is the Ecumenical Pilgrimage for Climate Justice, a movement with which about 7000 people "pilgrimaged" to the climate summit in Paris in 2015 to set an example for a far-reaching and binding climate agreement.

Where do pilgrims stay overnight?

As early as the Middle Ages, hostels were built along the most popular pilgrim routes where pilgrims could spend the night at a reasonable price – sometimes even for free.

Monasteries along the way also welcomed pilgrims. As secularisation progressed, however, the accommodation of the faithful had to be passed into public or private hands.

Today, pilgrims can choose between several types of overnight accommodation. Unlike long distance hiking, camping is rather unusual – most pilgrims spend the night in hostels, guesthouses and private accommodation. The more upscale option includes accommodation in hotels.

If possible, accommodation should be booked in advance. But especially in hostels the principle "first come first serve" applies. Whoever arrives first will surely get a bed and does not have to go to the emergency camp.

Dormitory in a Middle Age Hostel
Photo: CC0,

The equipment of a pilgrim

In the past, pilgrims were traditionally equipped with a long coat, a broad-brimmed hat and a pilgrim's staff. Today most walk in practical outdoor clothing.

As with long distance hiking, you should be careful not to pack too much when you are on a pilgrimage. In most cases you wil be travelling from hostel to hostel, so that a backpack of up to 8 kg is sufficient.

What belongs to a pilgrim in any case is the pilgrim's identity card. It contains the name, destination and sometimes the type of transport and asks for help and support. The pilgrim's identity card serves as proof of successful pilgrimage. At the same time it gives access to pilgrimage hostels.

Pilgerrucksäcke an einer Mauer, die mit dem Kreuz des Heiligen Jakobs geschmückt ist


  • 2 T-shirts (one for walking, one for staying overnight)
  • 1 longsleeve/midlayer/fleece
  • 1 long and 1 short pants (or zipper pants)
  • 2 pairs of socks (one for walking, one for the evening)
  • Hat and thin gloves
  • Rain jacket and trousers
  • suitable footwear



  • drinking bottle
  • pocket knife and lighter
  • sunglasses and sunscreen
  • maps (at least on a scale of 1:50,000, even better 1:25,000)
  • first aid kit
  • mobile phone (make a note of emergency numbers beforehand and save them if necessary)
  • headlamp
  • hygiene articles (small towel, e.g. made of microfibre, toothbrush, soap)
  • pilgrim's identity card


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