15 Must-See Places on the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago has long been a magical road, but thanks to Martin Sheen’s star role as a pilgrim walking The Way, the route is surging in popularity. Whether you prefer to drive, cycle, walk, or go by donkey, the Camino is a vast adventure full of natural beauty and medieval architecture spanning two stunning mountain ranges in north-central Spain. This pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and the purported tomb of the apostle Saint James the Greater in northwestern Spain began in the 9th century. Commonly known as a Christian road for more than a thousand years, the Camino was, in fact, built over Celtic and Roman roads that were twice as old. The modern visitor can journey in more comfort than in medieval times but savor the same natural and cultural highlights. Here, we’ve picked the top 15 experiences, some famous and some intimate and surprising, to give a taste of the real Camino in the midst of its recent rediscovery.—Beebe Bahrami

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Pyrenees

Among the most breathtaking views along the Camino is the pinnacle at the beginning, a few miles after pilgrims depart from the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The highest point, just before reaching the Spanish town of Roncesvalles, is at the Col de Leopoder, one mile (1,450 meters) above sea level. An ancient native beech forest anchors one’s feet below, and at eye level is the infinite layered mountain vista of the Pyrenees.

Insider Tip: Clouds can move in quickly so be sure to plan your arrival with clear skies.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s The Pyrenees Guide

Beebe Bahrami

Burguete

Burguete is a magical mountain setting, especially when Roncesvalles is overflowing with pilgrims. Set between enchanted forests, this is where Hemingway stayed to go trout fishing in the Pyrenees, eternally captured in The Sun Also Rises. A hike from here to the village of Espinal, 2.2 miles (3.6 km) to the west offers a taste of the medieval pilgrimage route and takes trekkers through beautiful wildflower-covered rolling hills into a native pine and oak forest.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Bilbao and the Basque Country Guide

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Pamploma

Famous for the running of the bulls and Hemingway, the real appeal of Pamplona is not when the city swells with the bull-running masses to celebrate their city’s patron saint, San Fermín, but during the everyday of this pedestrian-friendly city. Local life is centered on the colorful main square, the Plaza del Castillo, and the surrounding cobbled streets. Here cafés cater to the best of those small plates known as pintxos in Basque and pinchos in Spanish. Take a seat, order, and savor the slow lane.

Insider’s tip: The Café Iruña on the Plaza del Castillo, famous as the bar where Hemingway’s characters ate and drank (and drank) in The Sun Also Rises, remains a great place to stop for a glass and pinxtos or a full meal.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Pamplona Guide

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Eunate

No one knows who built this little 12th-century octagonal church, which is one of the highlights of the Camino. Its arched cloister surrounds the chapel like the rings of Saturn and its beauty is further accentuated by the solitary hill on which it stands, surrounded by rolling green meadows dotted with grazing sheep and swaying wildflowers. The church’s engravings show enigmatic characters that speak of mixed esoteric traditions and the diversity of the medieval masons who built it.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Bilbao and the Basque Country Guide

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Estella Irache

The first pilgrim’s guide, the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus, hailed Estella as one of the Camino’s most beautiful towns serving some of the best food and wine. It retains its medieval beauty, set on the banks of the Ega River, and its cafés serve excellent garden-to-table cuisine and local wine. Two miles (3 km) away, through vineyards and oak and pine forest, Bodegas Irache winery maintains the medieval tradition at Irache’s 10th-century monastery by keeping the pilgrim’s fountain flowing with both water and wine.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Bilbao and the Basque Country Guide

Beebe Bahrami

Torres del Rio dome

Like Eunate, Torres del Rio’s 12thcentury Holy Sepulcher church is octagonal and beautifully harmonious. Inspired by the architecture from Islamic Spain and borrowing the cross ribbing of Cordoba’s mosque dome in the south, it is worth the one euro the chapel caretaker asks from visitors. Enjoy the space’s acoustics and look up to take in the overall architectural magnificence. Note the carved capitals and their menagerie of fantastical creatures.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Bilbao and the Basque Country Guide

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Najera vineyards

Across the entire Camino, pilgrims pass through diverse and excellent wine country, but this 6.5-mile (10.4 km) stretch in Rioja wine country is especially pleasing for the walker, not just the wine lover. The landscape is of red earth, green vines, and dark blue undulating hills against clear skies. Both the medieval hamlet of Ventosa and town of Nájera have local cafés where visitors can order a glass of wine from the very land they just traversed.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Rioja Guide

Beebe Bahrami

Oak forest

Oak trees were sacred from prehistory into the Middle Ages and many churches and chapels across Iberia are surrounded by oak, but few are set in such a vast lyrical oak forest as the one in San Juan de Ortega’s valley. The church of the celebrated and sainted 12th-century engineer, San Juan de Ortega, possesses a harmony that is a physical delight to experience. Nearby Atapuerca, Europe’s oldest site for human remains (around 1.2 million years old) makes this the Camino’s most ancient terrain.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Castile-Leon Guide

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Burgos

Burgos is justifiably famous for its immense 13th-century Gothic cathedral, one of the largest in Spain, and its beautifully preserved, walled medieval town where El Cid was a native son. Across the Arlanzón river is the new world-class human evolution museum showcasing Europe’s earliest human remains. But for the ultimate experience of Burgos, head to the colorful main square, the Plaza Mayor, to join the locals in the evening ritual of enjoying tapas and a glass of wine with friends.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Burgos Guide

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Fromista church

Considered one of the earliest and purest forms of French Romanesque architecture in Spain, with its animated, folkloric sculptures capturing the medieval world of the 11th century, Frómista’s church of San Martín embodies the Romanesque’s ideals of harmonious physical and acoustic proportions. The church is set in the central square of a welcoming and small Castilian town with good food and wine, which adds to the magic of coming here.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Castile-Leon Guide

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Sahagun

Sahagún was a prosperous and diverse place in the Middle Ages, and its buildings reflect the influence of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Europeans from many origins living side by side. The town retains its traditional Saturday market when the central square fills with riotous colors from foods, crafts, and household goods. All around are four churches worth visiting—San Tirso, San Lorenzo, La Peregrina, and Virgen del Puente—all built in the signature red brickwork style carried north by Muslim craftsmen.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Castile-Leon Guide

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Leon

A Roman garrison town in the 1st century, León has a 13th-century Gothic cathedral that steals the limelight. Built over old Roman baths, this cathedral is considered one of Spain’s most French Gothic churches and possesses an unusual lightness and lyricism. But the treat is in stepping inside to stunning stained glass windows of saturated colors, especially the electric cobalt blue. This is so pronounced that the building appears as if it is made entirely of light and color, not stone. The old town surrounding the cathedral is a food and wine lovers’ delight with medieval pedestrian paths leading to numerous taverns serving the best of hearty Leonese cuisine.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Leon Guide

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O Cebreiro

The third highest point on the entire Camino, O Cebreiro treats pilgrims to one of the route’s most beautiful vistas and layered sunsets. It is the gateway to Galicia, the final region of the Camino; from here, pilgrims have 92 miles (148 km) left, passing through mountains, valleys, and rolling hills to the final goal at Santiago de Compostela. The village’s sweet round granite homes with thatched roofs preserve its medieval appearance and its earlier Celtic roots. The intimate 9th-century church is the site of a famous miracle.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s O Cebreiro Guide

Beebe Bahrami

Biduedo to Samos

A few kilometers after O Cebreiro, this 9-mile (14.5-km) section of the trail from Biduedo to Samos descends into misty green valleys, gently rolling hills, and chestnut and pine forests with occasional hamlets untouched by time. It is one of the Camino’s most enchanting stretches. The Benedictine monastery at Samos, founded in the 6th century but rebuilt in the 16th century, appears in its bucolic setting with the final descent into the village.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Galicia and Asturias Guide

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Santiago de Compostela

Medieval Santiago de Compostela’s gray stone buildings turn mossy green when it rains, while its cathedral—the pilgrim’s ultimate goal—holds the radiant center. All around, stone-arcaded cobbled streets, with a lone musician playing a medieval tune, transport visitors to another time, while the farm-to-table food scene and the daily market, Mercado de Abastos, brings you right back to the present. The cathedral’s beauty is not its ornate façade, but just inside, at its original 12th-century engraved gateway that leads in to an airy and harmonious space where Saint James reigns. Excavations under the cathedral confirm the presence of ancient tombs from Celtic and Roman times.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Santiago de Compostela Guide