Pilgrimage Routes: Finding Your Inner Wanderer

The world’s pilgrimage routes are filled with spiritual seekers – but also with everyday backpacking women or solo travelers fleeing modern life stresses and looking for serenity, or for something else.

Camino sign
The Camino, one of the most popular pilgrimage routes. These days signs make sure you don’t get lost

What is a pilgrimage, exactly?

A pilgrimage is usually a spiritual journey, often arduous and demanding, that involves travel to sacred sites – most often a shrine or site of religious or mystical importance.

But not always.

Many women undertake cultural pilgrimages with a mundane twist. These can range from music pilgrimages – a visit to Graceland in the footsteps of Elvis, for example, or to Abbey Road in search of Beatles history – to a literary pilgrimage that brings great literature to life.

For the more politically minded, pilgrimages can be to the tombs of leaders like Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square or Mao Tse Tung’s in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

There are even film or cult pilgrimages – in the steps of the Da Vinci Code, for example, or around New Zealand to visit film locations for Lord of the Rings.


Pilgrimage routes have been traced since Antiquity – to Karnak and Thebes in Egypt, to Ephesus in Byzantium and to Delphi in Greece – and once each four years, during the Olympic Games, to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. But only with Christianity did pilgrimages really take off.

Oracle at Delphi, Greece
The oracle, Delphi, Greece

Pilgrims were usually men – pilgrimages were seen as too dangerous for women – and almost too tempting, leading to ‘loose morals’.

But that didn’t stop women.

Empress Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, was already enjoying pilgrimage travel some 1700 years ago between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. A Spanish nun, Egeria, followed in her footsteps a few years later.

In medieval times, literature was filled with stories that served as warnings to honest women: in one, Saracens captured a wealthy pregnant noblewoman on a pilgrimage; in another, a female pilgrim was raped – she ended up in a harem. Enough to discourage any honest female pilgrim!

But no, this didn’t stop intrepid women from tracing their own journeys, but it did ensure only the bravest ten percent did so.

Today, women don’t need to avoid pilgrimages anymore – and no one questions whether we are ‘honest women’ either.

That said, the same rules apply to pilgrimage routes as they do to other travel by backpacking women: dress modestly, be culturally appropriate, and don’t show off with money or possessions.

On the Camino to Santiago
Scallop shell – on the way to Santiago


Many pilgrimage routes are well-known: the Muslim Hajj, which should be undertaken at least once in a lifetime by all healthy Muslims who can afford it; following in the steps of the Buddha; Catholic pilgrimages such as the pilgrimage to Santiago, or El Camino (Way of St James) in Spain or Lourdes in France; the Hindu Chardham; or the Jewish pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, to name a few major ones.

Some religious pilgrimage routes are best traveled in a specific manner – pilgrims on the Camino, for example, are encouraged to arrive on foot, horseback or bicycle, at least towards the end.

However you travel, what counts is what you experience as a result. Wherever you go, whatever you do, your pilgrimage will always be your special spiritual adventure, to relive and to remember.

— Originally published on 28 February 2011