Which Camino should I walk? What are the differences? The overview of the most important Caminos de Santiago in Spain and Portugal.

There is not «one» Camino de Santiago – even if the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela is usually referred to as «the Way of St. James». In reality, there is a network of paths through the whole of Europe, which become more and more dense in the direction of Spain and finally lead to the Camino Francés. And even if this so-called French Way was historically the most important, there are many other Caminos on the Iberian Peninsula. Each of them has its own characteristics and appeals to different pilgrim preferences. Here I present the most popular Ways of St. James in Spain and Portugal.

Here I present the most popular Camino de Santiago in Spain and Portugal:

Camino Francés – The most popular

Camino Francés caminos santiago overview spain

When people talk about the Camino de Santiago today, they usually mean the Camino Francés, Spanish for «the French way.» It starts in the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees, about 800 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela. In the 1000-year history of the pilgrimage to Santiago, most pilgrims came via this route. That is why the most important historical remains from the history of the Way of St. James can also be found on this route – Perfect for anyone interested in history and culture.

And still today, the Camino Francés is by far the most popular route to Santiago – about 50 percent of all pilgrims choose this way. In 2022, that was around 220,000 people. Don’t worry: half of them only travel the last 100 kilometers – the minimum distance to receive the official pilgrimage certificate. Which means it is less crowded in the first 700 kilometers!

Thanks to the popularity of the Camino Francés, the infrastructure is top-notch. Every town and village has adapted to the needs of the pilgrims – some bars and shops even only open during the pilgrimage season.

In this sense, the Francés is the easiest way, and doesn’t have any logistical difficulties in high season from Easter to the end of September.

Caminos De Santiago overview Spain Camino Francés

The basics of the Camino Francés

Suitable for: Beginners, history buffs, people looking to meet other pilgrims.

Route: From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela

Length: 800 kilometers

Time required: 5-6 weeks

Difficulty level: Easy to moderate. Although there are a couple mountain ranges you have to climb, these are doable for anyone of average fitness. About 250 kilometers of the Camino Francés also runs through the Meseta plateau and therefore has hardly any hills.

Best travel time: Spring and Autumn

Landscape: The first few days the way crosses over the Pyrenees and their foothills followed by gently undulating landscape with vineyards and grain fields. After Burgos (after about 14 days) we go to the flat Meseta plateau for about 10 days. After that it is hilly and very green for the next 250 kilometers to Santiago.

Infrastructure: Very good


  • Excellent infrastructure
  • Easy to plan
  • Interesting encounters with pilgrims from all over the world
  • Historically significant
  • Nice landscapes


  • The last 100 kilometers in the high season very crowded
  • Partially very commercialized

My conclusion: I love the Camino Francés because it is the most important historical path (with corresponding historical evidence). The combination of landscapes between mountains, plains and hills is magnificent. You meet people from all over the world and there is a nice sense of community among the pilgrims. However, you should avoid the high season in summer.

Here you find my suggestion of the stages on the Camino Francés.

Camino del Norte – The Alternative

Caminos Santiago overview spain Camino del Norte

The Camino del Norte, the Northern Way, starts in Irun on the Franco-Spanish border and runs mostly along the Atlantic coast. Such famous (and worth seeing) cities like San Sebastian, Bilbao or Santander are along the way. Historically, the «Norte» was the first Way of St. James, which pilgrims from the rest of Europe took to make their way through Spain. Then later (after the fighting with the Moors shifted to the south), the Camino Francés emerged as the main route (for the history of the Way of St. James, see here).

With only about 5 percent of all pilgrims walking this way (about 20,000 in 2022), the Camino del Norte ranks 6th among the most popular Ways of St. James. Because of the few pilgrims, the northern way is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to the Camino Francés.

The overnight accommodation for pilgrims to St. James is still sufficient. However, there are hardly any shops and bars that are only geared towards the needs of pilgrims. This makes the trail a more authentic experience. However, you should avoid the months of July and August. With the hoards of beach-holidayers, the coastal towns can get crowded.

The landscape is spectacular: the Atlantic Ocean rushes in on one side and the partly snow-capped mountains of northern Spain rise up on the other.

Camino del Norte

The Basics of the Camino del Norte

Suitable for: Pilgrims looking for an alternative, city lovers, culinary fans

Route: From Irun to Santiago de Compostela

Length: 850 kilometers

Time required: 5-6 weeks

Difficulty level: Moderate to difficult. It’s very steep and hilly/mountainous in the Basque Country as well as Galicia. Good fitness is recommended.

Best travel time: Spring and Autumn

Landscape: The landscape between sea and mountains is spectacular and wonderfully green. Sometimes the path leads directly to the cliffs or over the beach. However, there’s a lot of climbing. 

Infrastructure: Good.


  • Great landscape
  • Interesting cities and towns
  • Few pilgrims
  • Great culinary variety


  • Infrastructure less developed than on Camino Francés, particularly in Basque Country.
  • In the summer there are a lot of holiday crowds due to beach tourism.
  • A lot of the way is on asphalt.

My conclusion: I have a somewhat divided relationship to the Camino del Norte. The scenery is spectacular and the small number of pilgrims contributes to a quieter atmosphere. However, the crowds of beach tourists bothers me a lot in summer. Therefore, I definitely recommend going to the Norte in the off-peak times. I personally prefer the Camino Francés to the Camino del Norte.

Camino Primitivo – The Original

Camino Primitivo

The Camino Primitivo starts in the city of Oviedo and meets the Camino Frances in Melide, so it shares the last three stages with the main route. Its length is «only» about 300 kilometers, so it can be done in about two weeks.

Even if the Camino Primitivo comes in fifth place statistically speaking, the route is still an insider tip for international pilgrims. Because more than half of the approximately 21,000 pilgrims are Spaniards, who usually do not hike the entire route.

Historically, the Camino Primitivo is said to have been the first pilgrimage route to Santiago: hence the word “primitivo”– the Original. King Alfonso II is said to have taken this route from his capital Oviedo in the 9th century and is supposedly the first pilgrim ever to walk to the newly discovered tomb. Although you can find ruins of medieval pilgrim hostels along this way, large crowds have never walked this route. Traditionally pilgrims took the Camino del Norte and then later the crowds moved over to the Camino Frances.

The route is considered strenuous because you have to cross the Cantabrian Mountains. However, the highest point only reaches 1200 meters. On some days you have to climb up to 1000 meters in altitude, but the paths are well developed (mostly dirt roads) so that anyone with a normal level of fitness can do the Camino Primitivo.

Internet forums are often full of «horror stories» about how strenuous the journey is. This is totally exaggerated! However, the path may not be suitable for people with joint and knee problems because of its many ups and downs.

The path is not yet overcrowded and therefore not commercialized. It combines a great hilly landscape with an original pilgrimage experience. I highly recommend the Camino Primitivo.

Tip: If you start on the Camino del Norte, you can turn onto the Primitivo from the town of Villaviciosa which leads south to Oviedo.

Caminos Santiago overview spain

The Basics of the Camino Primitivo

Suitable for: Pilgrims who are looking for an alternative and who prefer something more sporty and/or quiet.

Route: From Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela

Length: 310 kilometers

Time required: 2 weeks

Difficulty level: Moderate to difficult. However, anyone with a normal level of fitness can do the Camino Primitivo. People with joint or knee problems should be careful.

Best travel time: Spring and Autumn

Scenery: The scenery is magnificent. First you cross the Cantabrian mountains and then the hills of Galicia. There are no big cities until Lugo.

Infrastructure: Good


  • Great landscape
  • Few pilgrims
  • Original pilgrimage experience


  • A lot of steep climbs and elevation gain, therefore not suitable for people with health problems.

My conclusion: The Camino Primitivo is a wonderful Way. I like the landscape and the small villages you pass through. The path isn’t commercialized (but there are enough pilgrim hostels), so that an original pilgrimage experience has been preserved. If you only have about 2 weeks, you should consider walking the Primitivo instead of the Francés.

Via de la Plata – The Long One

Via de la Plata map

The Via de la Plata goes from Seville in Andalusia to Santiago de Compostela. With a length of around 1000 kilometers, the Plata is the longest Camino in Spain.

The Via de la Plata follows an old Roman road from Seville via Mérida, Cáceres and Salamanca to Astorga. Officially, the Plata merges into the Francés. However, most pilgrims take a variant that turns west north of Zamora and reaches Santiago from the south, called the Camino Sanabrés.

About 10,000 pilgrims choose this route each year, about half of which only walk the last 100 kilometers from the city of Ourense. In other words: the Via de la Plata is wonderfully empty! This means that even if there are enough hostels (both public and private), the infrastructure is not specially designed for pilgrims, which offers an authentic experience. You share the bars, restaurants and shops with the local residents and don’t move in a «pilgrim bubble» which often happens on the Camino Frances.

The path is flat for large parts, which some pilgrims describe as monotonous. I, on the other hand, find this wonderful. Especially in the Extremadura region where you pass through many oak forests where the black Iberico pigs and large herds of cows graze. However, the Plata requires a little more planning than the other Caminos. You can go hours or all day without passing through a village. Along the Plata there are some very beautiful and historically important cities: Seville, Merida, Caceres, Salamanca. A day of rest and sightseeing is always worthwhile in the larger cities.

The weather can be a challenge: in summer, the temperature in Andalusia and Extremadura climbs to over 40 degrees for days. The best travel times are Spring and Autumn. I walked the Via de la Plata in July and got terrible heat stroke that took three days to recover from. 

The Via de la Plata is not a Camino for beginners.

Via de la Plata

The Basics of the Via de la Plata

Suitable for: Pilgrims looking for an alternative and who love solitude.

Route: From Seville to Santiago de Compostela

Length: 1000 kilometers

Time required: 5-7 weeks

Degree of difficulty: Moderate, since there are no high mountains to be overcome. And even in hilly Galicia, the gradients are manageable. However, the Plata requires a little more planning because there’s less infrastructure. The Plata is not for beginners.

Best travel time: Spring and Autumn

Landscape: Large parts of the Via de la Plata are flat with wide open views. From Galicia the landscape becomes hilly.

Infrastructure: Medium


  • Great landscape
  • Few pilgrims
  • Original pilgrimage experience
  • Some very nice cities (Seville, Mérida, Salamanca)


  • Much less infrastructure than on other Ways
  • Lonely
  • More planning needed

My conclusion: I love the Plata precisely because it is more isolated and because the infrastructure is not geared towards pilgrims. «My Plata» was a few years ago. This is the way I would like to walk again next!

Camino Portugues – A Rich Variety

Camino Portugues

The Portuguese Camino now ranks second behind the Camino Francés. The reason: The terrain is easy and doesn’t require a high level of fitness. But just like the Camino Frances, a large proportion of the approximately 90,000 pilgrims only walk the last 100 kilometers. Many international hiking groups or individuals book walking holiday trips on the Camino Portugues through a travel agency. Along with the Camino Frances, the Camino Portugues is the most commercialized.

While all other Ways have a clear route, the Portuguese Way has several variants. Traditionally, the Portugues starts from Lisbon and passes through the interior of the country via Coimbra to Porto and further inland to Tui and finally Santiago de Compostela.

Nowadays, however, only the section from Porto is usually referred to as the Camino Portugues, since hardly anyone starts in Lisbon.

From Lisbon there are two variants: the inland route and a route along the coast.

There are even three variants from Porto:

  • The classic route inland via Tui
  • The Coastal Path (Camino Portugues da Costa), which runs more or less near the coast.
  • The so-called «Senda Litoral», which runs directly along the coast, partly on boardwalks on the beach. In terms of landscape, this variant is definitely appealing for beach lovers. However, this variant is purely a tourist project that has nothing to do with the historical route.

On the Galician side, a new variant starts from the city of Pontevedra – the Camino Espiritual  or «the spiritual path.» It’s a perfect marketing gimmick! Pilgrims often choose this way because it is called “spiritual” and they think they are on a particularly powerful path. However, this route is only a few years old and was created to lure tourism to an otherwise neglected region. The variant is certainly attractive in terms of landscape, but is in no way historical. Incidentally, the path was only named «Espiritual» because it leads past two monasteries.

Caminos Santiago overview spain

The Basics of the Camino Portuguese

Suitable for: Pilgrim beginners who want an easy path with good infrastructure

Route: From Lisbon or Porto to Santiago de Compostela

Length: From Lisbon: 600 kilometers, from Porto: 250 – 290 kilometers (depending on variant)

Time requirements: Lisbon: 4 weeks. Porto: 10 days to 2 weeks

Difficulty level: Easy, no major inclines

Best time to travel: All seasons. Cooler in summer than other Caminos.  In winter expect a lot of rain.

Landscape: Inland: lush, green hilly landscape. On the coast: beautiful sandy beaches, bays, coastal forests.

Infrastructure: Good


  • Great landscape
  • Good infrastructure
  • Several variants to choose from


  • Very touristy from Porto
  • Many pilgrim-tourists

My conclusion: The Camino Portuguese is definitely attractive in terms of landscape, and I also like the Portuguese way of life and hospitality. What bothers me, however, is that the path has become very commercial, which can also be seen in the route of the Senda Litoral, which was created purely for tourism and has no historical reference. 

Pictures: Maps and the picture of Portugal are taken from shutterstock

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