Top 10 pilgrimage routes for tourists: St James Way, the Inca Trail and more

The greatest gatherings of people on our planet aren't at beaches or bucket-list icons, but on the banks of sacred rivers, around mysterious stones and the tombs of saints, at temples in whispering woods or in cathedrals. The Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India attracts 120 million Hindus during its two months, while 2 million people attend the annual haj in Mecca over five days. Millions visit Rome and Jerusalem; hundreds of thousands walk the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Surprisingly, pilgrimages are often overlooked in the travel world, perhaps because they're considered to be the territory of particular religious groups. In fact, the notion of pilgrimage is shared across many cultures and is promoted by Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims, alike. No matter our beliefs, pilgrim routes provide beautiful landscapes and culturally significant sights, test our stamina and allow us to ponder our place in the universe. They let us mingle with local communities and provide insights into the hopes, angst and beliefs of our fellow human beings.

Any journey that provides spiritual enjoyment is a pilgrimage of sorts. In fact, many of our beliefs about modern tourism evolved from the great medieval pilgrim era in Europe: ritual journeys, organised travel, veneration of certain sites, souvenir (or relic) hunting, the commemoration of dead people, our reverent circumlocution of temple-like museums. The pilgrim's central belief that making a journey is a transformative rite of passage is a notion shared with backpackers, while many of us take holidays to renounce our work and material life, even if temporarily.

All this makes pilgrim destinations interesting places to be and reminds us, in the midst of our busy, materialistic lives, that we should perhaps slow down, meditate and consider the grander picture. Here are 10 top pilgrim routes to renew your spirit.

ST JAMES' WAY, SPAIN

WHAT A network of pan-European pilgrim routes converges on Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, with a core 770-kilometre journey leading from Roncesvalles on the French border across northern Spain.

WHY El Camino features challenging terrain, beautiful landscapes and a region dense with great medieval cathedrals, chapels, monasteries and walled cities.

NEED TO KNOW The apostle St James (Santiago in Spanish) is reputedly buried in the Compostela's cathedral, ultimate destination of the pilgrimage. In the Middle Ages this was one of Christendom's most important religious sites.

REVELATIONS At Lavacolla, the trail reaches the top of a hill nicknamed "Mount of Joy" because Santiago's cathedral first comes into sight. For pilgrims and exhausted hikers alike, it's an exhilarating moment.

DIVERSIONS El Camino passes through Pamplona, famous for its wild July fiesta that culminates in the running of the bulls. See turismodepamplona.es

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ESSENTIALS Five weeks on foot; budget at least a week by car for sightseeing. Best weather in May, June or September. See caminodesantiago.com.au

See also: What are the best stops along the Camino de Santiago walk?

KUMANO KODO, JAPAN

WHAT The Kumano Mountains on the rugged Kii Peninsula south of Osaka have several trails linking Buddhist and Shinto shrines. The most popular Nakahechi route is 68 kilometres.

WHY Gorgeous hiking through pine forest, tea plantations and farming communities, plus dozens of temples and a stunning finale at a bright orange pagoda beneath Japan's tallest waterfall.

NEED TO KNOW Kii Peninsula has been revered since ancient times in Shinto mythology, in which numerous gods are believed to manifest themselves in trees, rocks, rivers and animals.

REVELATIONS Meditation logs beside the walking trails invite passers-by to lie down and contemplate Shinto mysteries – or simply the sun that filters into the fragrant cedar forest.

DIVERSIONS Yunomine, a village of wooden inns tucked into a tight valley, is one of Japan's oldest hot-spring resorts. Take a dip in the warm river or buy eggs to cook in the bubbling, sulphurous spring.

ESSENTIALS Allow four or five days for the Nakahechi route. Best weather in May or September. See wakayama-kanko.or.jp

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Japan

CROAGH PATRICK, IRELAND

WHAT A 764-metre mountain near the town of Westport in County Mayo in western Ireland. Several routes take you to the summit, but the pilgrim route from the car park is the best.

WHY It provides one of the best outlooks in Ireland. The steep, rocky track to the chapel on the summit tests your enthusiasm but rewards you with magnificent views over ocean, islands and battered coastline.

NEED TO KNOW Patron St Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity in the 5th century and supposedly fasted on this hill for 40 days. Archaeological evidence shows pagan pilgrimages as early as 5000 years ago.

REVELATIONS Your highlight might be encountering talkative Irish hikers, many in a devotional frame of mind as they ascend this impressive mountain.

DIVERSIONS Murrisk Beach at the foot of the mountain is a glorious stretch of wild sand best experienced on a horse ride. See murrisk.ie

ESSENTIALS Four hours return on foot. Traditionally climbed (led by the local archbishop) on the last Sunday in July. See croagh-patrick.com

VIA DOLOROSA, EAST JERUSALEM

WHAT The Way of Sorrow is a street in Jerusalem's old town linking Antonia Fortress with the Holy Sepulchre. It runs only 600 metres but covers Christianity's most important sites.

WHY The old town is beautiful in golden limestone and dense with the history of ages, and it's hard not to be affected by the obvious emotions – and religious devotions – of Jerusalem's varied tourists.

NEED TO KNOW Via Dolorosa is said to follow the path walked by Jesus carrying his cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre hosts both the site of his crucifixion and resurrection.

REVELATIONS Under candlelight, the Holy Sepulchre oozes blackened age and spiritual history. Despite the surging crowds, you might find yourself surprisingly moved.

DIVERSIONS Religious re-enactments along the route can be kitschy, as Roman soldiers in plastic helmets vie with self-flagellating, delusional Jesus wannabes for attention.

ESSENTIALS This pilgrim route is short enough to be tackled by almost anyone. Avoid dense crowds on major religious holidays. See itraveljerusalem.com

AMARNATH CAVE, INDIA

WHAT In the Lidder Valley 140 kilometres from Srinagar in Kashmir, 3888 metres above sea level. Pilgrimages start in Pahalgam, 47 kilometres away.

WHY The challenging high-altitude walk, nonetheless tackled by 700,000 Hindus annually, leads across high passes and skirts glaciers before arriving at the cave, in which a natural ice stalagmite is worshipped as a symbol of Shiva.

NEED TO KNOW Supreme Hindu god Shiva reputedly informed his wife Parvati, goddess of love, of the secret of creation and eternity in this cave in his Himalayan abode.

REVELATIONS The ice formation has shrunk in size in recent years, so you might want to meditate on global warming. Environmental issues have even become a religious issue, it seems.

DIVERSIONS Indulge yourself in Srinagar, on beautiful Dal Lake where houseboats float and the Himalayas shimmer on the horizon.

ESSENTIALS Four or five days return for the fit, only in the height of summer. See jktourism.org

ST FRANCIS WAY, ITALY

WHAT A 300-kilometre walking trail between Florence and Rome, mostly through beautiful Umbrian countryside. You could concentrate on shorter sections around Assisi.

WHY The route starts outside the world's largest Franciscan church – Santa Croce – and links destinations notable in the life of St Francis, including Assisi, Gubbio and other hilltop towns.

NEED TO KNOW St Francis was born in Assisi in 1182 and renounced a wealthy life to live as an ascetic and found the Franciscan order. He is associated with a love of nature.

REVELATIONS This is a hard, hilly hike, but few landscapes are more spiritually uplifting than the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, which perfectly blend nature and human endeavour.

DIVERSIONS The Slow Food movement is especially embraced in Umbria, where temptations of the flesh include traditional stringozzi pasta in spicy tomato sauce and pappardelle with rabbit.

ESSENTIALS Two weeks on foot, four days (with sightseeing) by car. This is a rugged route best tackled by experienced hikers in cooler weather. See viadifrancesco.it

WUTAI MOUNTAINS, CHINA

WHAT Five mountains at more than 3000 metres rise in Shanxi Province in northern China; pilgrims are supposed to ascend each peak in turn.

WHY About 40 monasteries and temples dot the valley, dominated by the 50-metre White Stupa at Taihuai. Temple bells tinkle across barren brown hillsides backed by snow peaks.

NEED TO KNOW Established as a Buddhist centre in the 4th century, Wutai is one of China's most revered mountains and an important destination, particularly for Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists.

REVELATIONS The 108 steps connecting two temples at Taihuai are said to represent 108 earthly worries cast off as pilgrims and tourists ascend upwards. At this high altitude, lack of fitness might be your first revelation.

DIVERSIONS Happily, this is one corner of China still not overrun by tourists and tacky souvenir stalls. You'll find few diversions to distract you from your search for nirvana.

ESSENTIALS Few people climb the five peaks; mini-buses haul tourists part way up several. You'll need two days to visit. Avoid winter. See shanxichina.gov.cn

PILGRIM'S WAY, ENGLAND

WHAT This 130-kilometre historical route took pilgrims from Winchester to Canterbury across southern England and is now a hodgepodge of ancient tracks and modern walking paths, often disrupted by roads.

WHY Linking two important ecclesiastical centres both with superb cathedrals, the route passes historical sites dating to Neolithic times and across the North Downs, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

NEED TO KNOW Canterbury became a pre-eminent pilgrimage destination in Europe following the assassination in the cathedral of its archbishop St Thomas a Becket in 1170, and was also immortalised by Chaucer.

REVELATIONS Even if you aren't religious, Evensong afternoon service, sung by the cathedral choir to organ music, is an uplifting age-old ritual.

DIVERSIONS Canterbury has a large university student population with correspondingly good pubs, including the Thomas a Becket, whose beer and food menu will banish any thoughts of fasting. See thomasabecket.com

ESSENTIALS Better drive than walk, at least in parts. If walking, use the prettier coastal North Downs Way. See pilgrimswaycanterbury.org

ADAM'S PEAK, SRI LANKA

WHAT A seven-kilometre path summits this peak in central south-west Sri Lanka near Dalhousie. Additional merit can be acquired by taking a longer route from Ratnapura.

WHY The 2224-metre peak is one of nature's cathedrals. Dawn is an awe-inspiring occasion, even if it means trekking at night along a lamp-lit path.

NEED TO KNOW A footprint in the rock here is, according to belief, either the footprint of Buddha, Shiva, St Thomas, or Adam where he entered the Garden of Eden.

REVELATIONS Hard not to be moved by sunrise on a mountaintop, especially as the shape of this triangular peak is thrown across the clouds, and views stretch 70 kilometres to the sea. Pure poetry.

DIVERSIONS Hop on a bike and cycle through the mist-shrouded tea plantations surrounding Dalhousie for more beguiling scenery.

ESSENTIALS A four-hour trek and 5500 steps test your will and lead you to the summit. The (mostly) cloud-free season runs December to May. See srilanka.travel

INCA TRAIL, PERU

WHAT One of the world's most famous treks has varied starting points. The most popular section runs 43 kilometres from the railway line well outside Cuzco and finishes at Machu Picchu.

WHY Although relatively short, altitude and terrain provide a big challenge and landscape changes from subtropical rainforest to mountain peaks. Incan archaeology along the way culminates in surely the world's most magnificently located ruins.

NEED TO KNOW Whether this was pilgrim trail or transport route is unclear, but Machu Picchu's upper town is dominated by religious buildings.

REVELATIONS The full effect of Machu Picchu is achieved by scaling Huayna Picchu, a soaring outcrop that takes another hour of effort but flaunts splendiferous views of the ruins in their mountain setting.

DIVERSIONS The railway stop below Machu Picchu is a backpacker hangout, and just the place to lose yourself among souvenir pompom hats and alpaca sweaters.

ESSENTIALS Four to seven days. Permits are required. May-September provides the best weather, though nights can be cold. See incatrailperu.com

SPIRIT OF PLACE: FIVE MORE PILGRIMAGE DESTINATIONS

FATIMA, PORTUGAL

The Virgin Mary reportedly spoke to three shepherd children here in 1917. It has since become one of Europe's top pilgrimage sites, especially in mid-May and mid-October. The huge square flanking its basilica is larger than St Peter's Square in Rome. See centerofportugal.com

VARANASI, INDIA

Hinduism's holiest destination is said to be the place where the spiritual and earthly worlds intersect. The city meets the Ganges in a sweep of temple steps where sadhus chant, pilgrims wash and pray, and bodies are cremated. See varanasi.nic.in

MEDINA, SAUDI ARABIA

The burial place of the prophet Muhammad (and many other significant figures in early Islam) is the holiest place for Muslims after Mecca, and home to the world's oldest mosques. The old-city core is, however, off limits to non-Muslims. See sauditourism.sa

LOURDES, FRANCE

In 1858 local girl Bernadette Soubirous saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary here 18 times. The town has attracted millions of Catholics since, especially those seeking a cure for illness, and is a confronting mix of piety and rampant commercialism. See lourdes-infotourisme.com

SALT LAKE CITY, US

Temple Square is the spiritual centre of the Latter-day Saints. Although the temple isn't open to the public, you can visit the assembly hall, gardens, visitor centre and the Tabernacle, where the sensational Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs. See visitsaltlake.com

INDECENT OBSESSIONS: PILGRIMAGES OF A PERSONAL PURSUIT

OLD TRAFFORD, UK

The world's most popular soccer team has its home in this Manchester stadium, nicknamed the "theatre of dreams". Sports fans shouldn't pass up the chance to see Manchester United in action at the 75,765-capacity stadium. You can also take behind-the-scenes tours that include the stands and changing rooms. Former players conduct some "Legends" tours. See manutd.com

OSTERIA FRANCESCANA, ITALY

Now that El Bulli and Noma have closed, the world's gastro-pilgrims are flocking to Modena and the world's best restaurant for 2016. Its chef Massimo Bottura has spent years pushing against unchanging Italian culinary tradition and brings inventive flair to regional flavours; experts rave about his dish Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano. See osteriafrancescana.it

GRACELAND, US

The home of blues, soul and rock'n'roll provides a pilgrimage for music lovers, but Elvis Presley fans especially will be thrilled to follow the trail to his birthplace, childhood home and Arcade diner where he devoured peanut-butter sandwiches. The culminating destination is his mansion Graceland, crammed with memorabilia, a pink Cadillac and sequined jackets. See graceland.com

GUERNICA, MADRID

This wall-sized Picasso masterpiece in Museo Reina Sofía was painted following the 1937 bombing of Guernica village during Spain's civil war. Of all the world's most famous paintings, it best conveys the emotional power of art in its depiction of violent chaos, and is generally considered the most powerful of all anti-war depictions. See museoreinasofia.es

GREAT WALL, CHINA

If you're one of those travellers who hopes to gain merit by ticking off bucket lists, then put the Great Wall on your pilgrim trail. You can't, despite the myth, see it from space, but it's still mighty impressive. Most people make do with visiting sections close to Beijing, but thousands of kilometres of the structure stretch across China. See cnto.org

See also: Bucket list - the new seven wonders of travel named

About the writer

Sydney-based freelance writer and regular Traveller contributor Brian Johnston has walked pilgrim trails from Spain to Japan and visited pilgrim destinations as diverse as Lourdes, Rome and Varanasi. "I'm not particularly religious, but I find the world's religions a fascinating source of culture and social beliefs. Pilgrim destinations provide a glimpse into a spiritual world on travels that can often focus just on materialistic comforts." Johnston charts some of the world's great pilgrim routes in our cover story.

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