The Portuguese Way (Portuguese: Caminho Português; Spanish: Camino Portugués) is the second most popular Camino de Santiago route after the Camino Francés. Regardless of whether you begin in Lisbon or Porto, or take the central or coastal way, this camino is a special experience that justifies its popularity.
These are our six favourite Portuguese Way highlights.
Trio of Historic Cities
Pilgrims who start the Portuguese Way from Lisbon have three historic cities to serve as milestones along the way to the more popular starting point of Porto: Santarém, Tomar and Coimbra. It’s well worth exploring these cities even on tired feet, and taking rest days in Tomar and Coimbra will help you appreciate all they have to offer.
Santarém, 92km from Lisbon, contains several beautiful Gothic churches and a park atop the castle ramparts that affords sweeping views over the Tagus river valley. A dawn departure from the old town through the Santiago gate and down a forested hill overlooking the river is one of the most atmospheric city exits on any camino.
Tomar, 61km further on, is famed for its Convent of Christ (Convento do Cristo), arguably the most impressive single attraction on the entire Portuguese Way. A 12th-century fortified religious complex that served as the seat for the Knights Templar and its successor in Portugal, the Order of Christ, the convent is known for its impressive walls and hilltop location, its stunning round church and later additions including a magnificent late Gothic Manueline window. Beyond the convent, Tomar has a picturesque old town containing several medieval churches.
Coimbra, 83km north of Tomar, is Portugal’s most important university town and was an early capital of the nascent kingdom before its final borders were established. Coimbra’s university library, the Biblioteca Joanina, is the most famous library in Portugal, while its religious complexes contain the tombs of some of the country’s most famous monarchs including its first king, Afonso Henriques, and its pilgrim queen Isabel, who undertook the journey to Santiago in 1325.
Although the Portuguese camino contains more road walking than some other routes, especially early on out of Lisbon and between Coimbra and Porto, it is still a largely rural walk and the picturesque countryside setting is a feature of this camino.
Pilgrims can expect to regularly walk among olive groves and vineyards both before and after Porto, with vineyards continuing all the way to the last day into Santiago. North of Porto, these vineyards typically take the form of attractive arbours or ‘vineyard tunnels’, created using stone pillars as stakes. Additionally, there are eucalyptus plantations, corn fields and pine forests to walk in along the way, and as with most caminos, the countryside paths will take you alongside rivers, on stretches of Roman roads and across medieval stone bridges.
If you walk from Lisbon in September, you will see tomatoes being industrially harvested in the first few days and grapes being picked locally at various stages along the route. If you want to get in on this autumn harvest yourself, you can pick delicious, ripe figs right off the trees, especially between Tomar and Coimbra. Alternatively, walking the Camino Portugués in spring will reward you with colourful wildflowers along the way.
Whether you start your camino here or arrive after more than two weeks on the trail from Lisbon, Portugal’s second largest city is sure to enchant you. It’s a bit rougher around the edges than Lisbon, but this dilapidated charm and the riot of colour that make up the hodgepodge architecture of the city is what gives Porto its distinct character.
While losing yourself among Porto’s alleyways is part of the city’s appeal, there are also plenty of attractions to enjoy while you’re there. These include the cathedral, the Clérigos Tower, the azulejo tiles at São Bento train station, a boat trip on the Douro river, or even some Harry Potter tourism if you’re a fan of J.K. Rowling’s book and movie franchise.
Across the river, Gaia is the home of port wine and offers beautiful vistas of Porto. And if you’re already on camino and arrive in Gaia on foot from the south, a special moment awaits. On the approach to Porto, the city is completely hidden until suddenly and dramatically revealing itself far below your vantage point on the Luís I Bridge – or better yet, even higher up at the Morro Garden. The view is utterly spectacular and surely serves as the most impressive city entrance on any camino.
One of the obvious advantages of choosing the Portuguese Way is that it allows you to experience Portugal as well as Spain. And with that comes the ‘Portugalidade’ – Portuguese-ness – that defines the identity and culture of the country.
The Portugalidade that you will encounter on camino will vary according to your own experience. It could be simple but eye-catching sights like the bright colours or rustic trams of Porto or Lisbon. It could be the enticing smell of a fresh batch of pastéis de nata wafting out of a bakery as you walk past. It could be the emotional sounds of fado music or the anticipatory popping of corks on bottles of port wine or vinho verde. Or it could be the generous hospitality and welcome that you will receive at albergues such as Quinta da Burra or Casa da Fernanda, or by friendly local people who offer to help you on the trail.
If you start in Lisbon, you’ll see this Portugalidade begin to shift the further you walk towards the lands of Portugal’s birth north of Porto. There, the local colours and mentalities begin to resemble those of Galicia and the connection between these lands, nurtured by the Camino de Santiago, becomes apparent.
Whatever the Portugalidade that you encounter along the way, one thing is certain: your experience of Portugal is likely to have a lasting impression on you well after your camino ends.
To learn more about Portugalidade and the experience of walking the Camino de Santiago in Portugal, listen to episode 1.2 of the Spirit of the Camino podcast below or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.
Arriving in Spain
Crossing into Galicia is always an emotional moment on any camino, but on the Portuguese Way it is extra special because it doubles as the crossing into Spain itself.
On the central camino route, pilgrims walk from the castle-town of Valença on the Portuguese side over a bridge on the Minho river and into Tui on the Spanish side in one of the most memorable sections of the entire Portuguese Way. Valença and Tui are both good overnight options, but Tui has more of a camino atmosphere because it’s the starting point for many pilgrims, especially those from Spain, who are walking the last 100 kilometres of the Portuguese Way to receive a compostela.
On the Portuguese coastal route, a ferry or fisherman’s boat transports pilgrims across the Minho near the mouth of the river and into Spain, and the camino continues along the Galician coastline before rejoining the central route at Redondela.
No matter which route you take, arriving in Galicia is a special but bittersweet moment, because while it offers the promise that Santiago is finally within reach, it also means that your journey will soon come to an end.
The Variante Espiritual
Shortly after Pontevedra towards the end of the camino, pilgrims have the choice of continuing on the regular trail or taking the Variante Espiritual, an alternative route that I highly recommend.
This variant might take an extra day depending on the schedule for the Translatio boat on the third day, but you will be rewarded with two fabulous days of walking that include the monasteries at Poio and Armenteira, the seaside hórreos (Galician granaries) at Combarro and the beautiful Stone and Water Route, a 7km forest trail alongside a flowing stream and ruins of dozens of water mills.
Finally, the boat trip in the wake of the posthumous journey undertaken by St. James himself allows for reflection and perspective before the final day of walking into Santiago de Compostela and the end of the Portuguese Way.
For more on the Variante Espiritual, listen to episode 1.5 of the Spirit of the Camino podcast below or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.