It is said that in the summer of 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared before three young shepherds in the town of Fatima, in what is now the central region of Portugal. The place where they saw her has become a huge shrine and one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Christianity. There are two cathedrals, a plaza where thousands of devotees can gather, and a route of locations with special significance to the apparition.
Besides these museums, high-rise hotels and some rather tacky souvenir shops. You don’t have to be Catholic to be blown away by the size of Fatima and the number of devotees who visit in the summer. But if you’re Catholic, the story of the sanctuary and three children makes more sense.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Fatima:
1. Sanctuary of Fatima
For many Catholics, standing on this massive square can be a lifelong ambition.
For everyone else, it’s still something you need to do to gauge the staggering size of this place and understand what makes so many people tick.
At each end of the square are the two cathedrals of Fatima, and the two new churches on the south side have a large modern cross in front of them.
The most dramatic views face the slope towards the ancient sanctuary, which is surrounded by colonnades.
If there’s a best time, it’s around the 13th of each month from May to October, when there will be “major” and “minor” shrines of pilgrimage.
2. Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário
Only ten years after the appearance of the ghost, construction began on this church, which has an exciting neo-Baroque architecture.
It is said that the young shepherds saw Mary’s light there, and at first they mistook it for a thunderstorm.
The architect was the Dutchman Gerardus Samuel van Krieken, and when the church was finally built and consecrated, Pope Pius XII granted it the status of a chapel. The tombs of siblings Francisco Mato and Jacinta Mato are located at either end of the transept.
There is also a mosaic made in the Vatican on the porch at the entrance, showing the Holy Trinity Coronation Mary.
3. Capela das Aparições
The first place of worship established in Fatima after the sighting was this simple chapel, which was completed two years later in 1919. It was built to meet Mary’s hypothetical request for three shepherds, and is now housed in a larger, modern building with a row of benches for devotees.
The statue of the Virgin is located at the exact location of the holm oak, where the Virgin Mary is seen and in a glass case in front of the chapel.
The tree itself soon disappeared as its branches and trunk became religious relics.
4. Holy Trinity Cathedral
By the mid-20th century, Fatima’s popularity had exploded, with plans for a second, larger cathedral since the 1950s.
The project was finally realized in the 2000s, led by Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis.
Like many Fatimas, non-Christians will appreciate this minimalist building for its dazzling sense of scale.
It can accommodate more than 8,633 worshippers and has a magnificent work of liturgical art as well as a smaller prayer room in the basement.
Note the massive bronze doors and panels by Portuguese artist Pedro Calapez, as well as the three-meter-tall Virgin of Fatima statue made of Carrara marble.
5. Grutas da Moeda
On the other hand, these wondrous caves were discovered by accident in 1971, when two hunters chased a fox into a hole and found themselves surrounded by mysterious nodules.
There are ten separate chambers, each with calcareous rocks shaped by millions of years of running water, and honoring Fatima with a religious name.
The network stretches over 350 meters and in summer it is a refreshing day as the temperature in the caves stabilizes at 18°C. The interpretive center provides some geological background about the cave and displays minerals and Jurassic fossils.
6. Casa Jacinta e Francisco Marto
The three shepherds lived in the small village of Aljustrel, a kilometer or two from the sanctuary of Fatima.
If you want, you can drive, take a tourist train, or even walk across Sacra Street.
People travel to visit the humble home shared by siblings Jacinta and Francisco Mato with their parents and three other siblings.
It was in 1919 and 1920 that Francisco and Jacinta died during the post-World War I influenza epidemic.
No matter what you think about religion, you can still get an idea of how the area lived at the time, because knowing that you are standing in the home of two saints, even though their brief lives were difficult, is a special feeling.
7. Valinhos Reserve
The route of the three shepherds from Aljustrel to the place where the Cova da Iria appeared became “Via Sacra” in the second half of the 20th century.
There is a paved path through idyllic olive and holm oak groves with 14 stops, each with a cross station.
It all ends with the 15th station, the church of Santo Estêvão, to represent the resurrection.
Like the rest of Sacra Avenue, it was funded by Hungarian Catholics who were unable to practice their religion in their own country during the Cold War.
8. Lucia House
While you are in Aljustrel, you can also stop at the home of another young shepherd, Lúcia de Jesus dos Santos.
A cousin of the Marto siblings, she survived the flu epidemic to become a nun and lived to be 97, dying in 2005. Since she only recently died, Lucia is still in the process of becoming a saint, fast-forwarding to her canonization by Pope Benedict in 2008. Like her relative’s home, Lucia’s house is best suited to non-Catholics as an insight into life in the Portuguese countryside a century ago.
Furniture and few items are original, including a rickety wooden loom.
9. Sierra Museum
You’ve seen Fatima’s churches, chapels, and children’s homes, with plenty of spin-off attractions and gift shops.
One of the best is this wax museum, which is more tasteful than you might think.
The museum uses 31 vivid images to illustrate the story, historical background and cultural influence of the ghosts of Fatima.
You’ll also gain some background on Christendom in 1917, and leave with a little more insight into the phenomenon of Fatima.
10. Igreja Paroquial de Fátima
A mobile site in Fatima was the parish church long before the Apparition.
It has a discreet Renaissance style and dates back to at least the 1500s, even though it has undergone many reconstructions since its sighting.
The most recent of these occurred in 2000, when Jacinta and Francisco were canonized.
Inside you can find the baptism of the three shepherds.
Some extra solemnity is added to the front necropolis, where Jacinta and Francisco were buried before being transferred to the Basilica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário.
11. The Christian Life Museum
More than a tourist trap, this purpose-built museum houses more than 200 high-quality wax figures telling the life of Christ.
The figures are arranged in 33 different scenes, from the Annunciation before Christ’s birth to the ascension after the resurrection.
Opened in 2007, the museum is the only museum of its kind in the world.
For the secular visitor, there’s a lot to appreciate about the museum’s modern architecture and the level of care and craftsmanship embodied in each image.
You may be ready to take a break from Fatima’s religious beliefs, in this case the seat of the municipality is only 10 km away.
Ourém is a charming old town ruled by a hilltop castle with an almost absurd slope.
Ourém’s first rule is to scramble through the alleys and stairwells of the old town with well-fitting shoes.
All the hard work pays off hugely when you come across views that can catch you off guard and the luxurious residence of the Earl of Oren.
This became a high Gothic pleasure palace in the 15th century, at the highest point of a square several hundred meters above sea level.
13. Day Trips
For nature, venture south, where the countryside becomes striking within the Serra de Aire.
It’s a nature park with a walking trail through deep chalk valleys and long-abandoned mine shafts.
The Mira de Aire cave, 15 km away, is the first of many underground systems.
Batalha presents another spectacle, with a medieval monastery listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The stone carvings on this monument are a hideaway and worth as much time as possible.
Don’t miss the unfinished chapel and the mausoleums of John I, Philippa of Lancaster and their sons who ushered in the Portuguese Age of Navigation.
14. Natural Monument of Ouron-Torres Novas de Nossa Urio
Fatima is just a stone’s throw away from what could be Portugal’s top paleontological site.
In a former quarry in Serra de Aire are the oldest and longest sauropod footprints found anywhere on Earth.
Sauropods are among the largest creatures on Earth, with long bodies and tails, and small heads.
Their footprint on this site is about 175 million years old and is in the limestone of what was once a muddy lagoon.
The best footprints are on the 147-meter-long track, so detailed that paleontologists can draw new conclusions and theories about the animal’s anatomy and behavior.
If you do have the chance to dine at a traditional restaurant near Fatima, there are local recipes dating back to before the time of the Three Shepherds.
Meals need to be filled and make good use of whatever is on hand.
So the leftover bread is repurposed for preparations like migas, where it will be fried with cabbage and chouriço.
There were many old-fashioned soups (sopas do verde) that used any ingredient back then.
In special cases, the blood of freshly slaughtered livestock is used to thicken the broth.
More appetizing is the lamb stew, where the meat is marinated overnight with paprika and garlic.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Fatima, Portugal
Lowest price guaranteed.