The Way of St. James via the French Way, Spain

Photograph by Samuel Aranda, Corbis
Photograph by Samuel Aranda, Corbis

Best For: True pilgrims and hikers looking for a long walk through Europe

Distance: 472 miles

The Way of St. James, or the walking path to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, which is thought to house the remains of St. James, has been a trade route since ancient Roman times and a Christian pilgrimage since the Middle Ages. All that foot traffic has made it not just a sacred journey for the devout, but also one of the best walking paths in Europe. There are numerous “ways” to travel to the sanctuary, many of them maintained, but the most popular is the French Way, which begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and rambles across the Pyrenees into the heart of the Galician countryside, taking in cities like León and Pamplona, the latter famed for its running of the bulls in July.

Since it sees so many hikers, the French Way, which has been declared part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, is well maintained and signed with the exploding star that is the symbol of the pilgrimage. Though ample accommodations and easy access to supplies make it possible to speed hike, it’s more fun to savor glasses of rioja and stop in small towns along the way or to hear the stories of pilgrims and the prayers they hope to have answered (or sins washed away). If you’re walking at night, be sure to look up at the sky—the Way of St. James route parallels the path of the Milky Way.

When to Go: In spring and fall the weather is cool and crowds lighter. Stay away in August, when all of Europe goes on vacation.

Shortcut: The English Way, traditionally taken by pilgrims who took a ship to Spain from England and then walked to Santiago de Compostela, is a much shorter trail, just 45 miles from the seaport of A Coruña to the cathedral.

Insider Tip: If you are in fact doing the Way as a religious gesture, you can purchase a pilgrim’s passport, which is like a coupon book good for low prices on accommodations and meals along the trail.