You have decided to walk (or are considering walking) the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. You may have heard that there are multiple routes that you can walk, and now that your heart is set on undertaking the journey, you may be wondering which route is best, especially for a first-time pilgrim?
Which Camino route is best? The three best and most popular Camino routes are:
These three routes are the most popular for a reason, and they offer the best experience for a pilgrim, especially a first-time pilgrim.
We will cover these three Camino routes in detail, as well as offer additional runner-up routes for those looking to walk a shorter, longer or more challenging Camino.
It is important to note that any of the Camino routes can be shortened to fit your walking schedule. You have the freedom to start at any of the towns along the route. For example, the most popular Camino Frances route is 780km from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, however if you choose to start at Sarria, Spain, your walking distance would only be 111km.
The Pilgrim’s Office keeps track of how many people walk each of the routes (by counting the amount of Compostelas issued in Santiago de Compostela). Here are the number of pilgrims who walked each of the popular routes in 2018:
57% Camino Frances 186,199 pilgrims
21% Camino Portugues 67,822 pilgrims
6% Camino del Norte 19,040 pilgrims
The remaining 16% of pilgrims is split between the following Camino routes: Primitivo, Ingles, Portugues Coastal route, Via de la Plata, Camino de Invierno (winter Camino), Camino Finisterre-Muxia, and Otros (Other).
Whichever route you choose, you will need to walk at least 100km (or cycle 200km) if you would like to qualify for a Compostela Certificate. We wrote a post outlining the different requirements for a Compostela, you can find it here.
1) Camino Frances (The French Way)
The Camino Frances (French Route) is the best route for most pilgrims. Because it is the most popular and iconic Camino route, it offers the best infrastructure of lodging, food, and way-markers for pilgrims. When people refer to “walking the Camino”, they are typically referring to the Camino Frances route.
For those seeking a spiritual experience on the Camino, you will find this on any of the routes, but more so on the Camino Frances. The route has been in existence since the Middle Ages and was developed by several religious orders, including the Templars. Because of this you will find an abundance of monasteries, convents and churches which offer opportunities for spiritual reflection.
Many people choose to walk the Camino Frances because this is the route that is featured in the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. This movie has contributed to the growing popularity of the Camino de Santiago as a whole, but most who see this movie choose to walk the Camino Frances.
The other main reason that first-time pilgrims choose the Camino Frances is that it is designed to assist pilgrims the most. The entire route is well marked, making it hard to get lost. The Camino Frances also boasts the most lodging options of any of the routes. You will find an abundance of albergues, restaurants and shops along the route.
The Camino Frances is also the best route for getting transportation if needed. There are plenty of taxi services along the entire route, helping weary and worn pilgrims make it to their albergue at night if they are having a hard time walking. The luggage transport system is also excellent and can be a good option for giving your back and shoulders a break from carrying your backpack.
In terms of landscape, you will be walking on varied terrain ranging from the Pyrenees mountains to the flat section in Castilla to the rolling hills of Galicia.
Lastly, because the Camino Frances is the most popular route, it is the easiest route to get to know others if you are looking for a social Camino. Extroverts will enjoy the fact that you will be able to strike up conversations easily as well as walk with others. Introverts will also enjoy the route because you can choose to easily distance yourself from groups and allow for more time for introspection.
We recommend the Camino Frances for first-time pilgrims because of the many benefits it offers.
Because the Camino Frances is so popular, there are many different starting points. It normally takes 30-35 days to complete, if starting in St. Jean Pied de Port. Some pilgrims may not have a full month to dedicate to the trip. In this case, you can opt to start at any of the cities along the route. The most popular starting points along the Camino Frances are listed below.
Popular starting points on the Camino Frances:
2) Camino Portugues (Portuguese Camino)
The Portuguese Camino is the 2nd most popular Camino de Santiago route. It offers similar benefits as the Camino Frances. It is a highly developed route, but it is less developed than the Camino Frances. Because of this, there are not as many way-markers (yellow arrows) to help you find your way, so you will want to bring a good map (or Camino app) to avoid getting lost.
One of the main reasons pilgrims choose to walk the Portuguese Camino is its breathtaking scenery, especially if you opt for the Coastal Portuguese Route (which begins in Porto and runs up the coast of Portugal). Many pilgrims remark about the beautiful beaches, as well as enjoying the cool temperatures in the summer along the Coastal Route.
The route has varied terrain, with the Coastal Route mostly being flat. You will also pass many vineyards.
If you begin your Camino Portugues in Lisbon, you will pass very close to the city of Fatima, Portugal, a spiritually significant site where three children saw Marian apparitions in the early 20th century. If you are walking the Camino for spiritual reasons, taking a day to explore Fatima can be worth considering the Portuguese Route.
You can expect to pay slightly more money (per day) on the Portuguese route (as compared to the French route). There are fewer albergues, but you can still find plenty of pensions and hotels.
The Portuguese Camino has the most route options (detours) of any of the Camino routes. This can get a bit confusing when you get to Porto, but in essence there are several different routes that you can walk from Porto to Santiago de Compostela. Some are more popular than others. A good map and guidebook (or app), will help you navigate the different possible routes.
You can choose to walk the entire Portuguese route, beginning in Lisbon, or you can opt for one of the shorter routes, either starting in Tui, or Porto. We listed these popular starting points below.
Popular starting points on the Camino Portugues:
3) Camino del Norte (Northern Route)
The Camino del Norte is the 3rd most popular route of the Camino de Santiago. It is also known as the Northern Route, Camino de la Costa and Coastal Camino (not to be confused with the Coastal Portuguese Route).
While this route is a popular Camino route, there are far fewer people walking this route as compared to the French or Portuguese routes. This makes it a great choice if you are looking for a more solitary Camino.
The Camino del Norte is a coastal route, which means you will encounter many beautiful beaches and fishing villages. As with all coastal routes, you can expect more rain, but also milder temperatures in the summer. The summer months are best for walking the Camino del Norte, as are May and October. We have a post that details the best time of year to walk the Camino, you can find it here.
The terrain is varied, you will be walking through forests as well as roads that wind along the highway. Because you are on the coast, you will be crossing a lot of rivers, and you will have lots of ups and downs. In addition to the coast, you will be walking along mountainous regions as well.
The Camino del Norte is an established route with yellow arrows to point the way. However, it is the least marked route of the top three routes, so you will want to bring a map and guidebook. The final stage is marked very well.
Many pilgrims remark that the food is exceptional along the Camino del Norte.
You can start at any point along the Camino del Norte, but below are the two main starting points.
Popular starting points on the Camino del Norte:
Best Cycling Routes on the Camin0
There are two routes that Camino cyclists continually cite as the best routes for biking the Camino: The Camino del Norte and the Portuguese Coastal Camino. The terrain and weather make these routes well suited for those who would like to bike the Camino.
While the Camino Frances may be the best route for walking the Camino, it is not necessarily the best route for cycling. Because it is the most popular route, cyclists will have additional challenges like navigating crowds, dismounting frequently and having a hard time finding beds at albergues (because albergues give preferential treatment to walking pilgrims).
We wrote a post dedicated to everything you would want to know if you decide to cycle the Camino, you can find it here.
Best Challenging Camino Route
For those pilgrims looking for a physical challenge, consider walking the Camino Primitivo, also known as the Original Camino (which starts in Oviedo, Spain). The total distance of this route is 321km.
The first half of the Camino Primitivo is especially challenging as you traverse mountainous regions. The bold few pilgrims that choose to walk this route remark that the views are breathtaking.
While the Camino Primitivo is challenging physically, it can also be challenging in other ways as it does not provide as much infrastructure as other routes. Very few people choose to walk this route each year, so expect an introspective experience. Also, you will want to plan out your walking days since there are not as many albergues.
Longest Camino Route
The longest Camino route is the Via de la Plata Route which begins in Sevilla, Spain with a walking distance of over 1,000km. The route is also known as the Silver Route, or the Camino Mozarabe. This route would take 6 to 8 weeks to finish.
Shortest Camino Route
You can adjust any of the routes to create a short Camino pilgrimage, but if you are looking for the shortest complete Camino route, that title belongs to the Camino Ingles (English Camino). It begins in Ferrol, Spain, with a total of 118km to Santiago de Compostela. We wrote an entire post about the Camino Ingles, you can find it here.
While there are many routes to choose from, the best route for beginning pilgrims is the Camino Frances as mentioned earlier. It will provide the best infrastructure with plentiful albergues, restaurants and other services along the way. The path is marked extremely well and there will be many opportunities to meet other pilgrims from across the world.
We walked part of the Camino Frances in 2018, and are looking forward to walking it again, as well as possibly walking one of the other routes in the coming years.
We hope this information was helpful as you are preparing for your upcoming pilgrimage. No matter which route you decide to walk, you will not regret taking this pilgrimage journey to Santiago de Compostela.