While it doesn’t have the same name recognition as Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena is considered to have some of Europe’s most iconic pilgrimage sites. The 1100-mile journey traces the route Archbishop Sigeric the Serious took in 990 A.D. as he traveled from Canterbury to Rome.
Because the full journey requires a hefty time commitment, the vast majority of pilgrim walkers choose to begin their journey in Switzerland or Italy.
This classic medieval pilgrimage presents those who travel with an opportunity to reflect, seek answers, heal, grow, practice gratitude, celebrate, commune with others, and discover. While many pilgrims choose to stop at churches along the way, the vast majority will tell you that some of the most memorable moments of their journey took place outdoors.
Indeed, nature and the outdoors are critical components of what makes the Via Francigena so special. It’s no coincidence that pilgrimage sites coincide with some of Switzerland’s and Italy’s most beautiful terrain.
Pilgrims pass through Swiss meadows, alongside lakes, over the Alps, and through many rice fields, forests, and archeological ruins as they head toward their final destination: St. Peter’s Basilica.
Whether you are traveling on foot, by bike, or on horseback, here are 20 of the most iconic pilgrimage sites to look forward to between Geneva and Rome:
The Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne is a Gothic-style masterpiece constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries. The view from the cathedral overlooks the city and nearby Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, as the Swiss refer to it).
Happily for pilgrims, the route elegantly hugs the lake’s scenic shoreline for two days. The waters of Lac Léman are so clear that if you are walking in the summer, you are guaranteed to see bathers inside enjoying a dip.
Expect to pass alongside miles of carefully sculpted gardens and vineyards originally planted in the 11th century by Benedictine priests.
The picture-perfect town of Saint-Maurice owes its name to a Roman legionnaire who was martyred in the 3rd century after refusing Emperor Maximian’s orders to kill the resident Christians.
The word ‘decimated’ stems from the Latin ‘decimatus,’ and the emperor’s order to have every 10th legionnaire killed. Provided there is availability, a stay at lodging provided by the Abbey of Saint-Maurice is a very special experience: not only are the priests incredibly kind, they invite you to join in Mass and morning breakfast.
In addition to the Abbey, after you’ve set down your bags and gulped some water, head to the Notre Dame Chapelle du Scex. It is a steep climb up with a few hundred steps, but the lovely chapel and views are 100% worth the effort.
Martigny is the last big city in Switzerland before the famous ascent up the St. Bernard Pass. It was conquered by Julius Caesar in 57 B.C. and features well-preserved Roman ruins.
Thirsty? The city is especially proud of its water, and what you get from public fountains is both ice-cold and deliciously refreshing. Check out the excellent St. Bernard museum, which honors both pilgrims and the role St. Bernard dogs played in rescuing travelers who were lost in the mountains during blizzards.
For an especially gorgeous look at the city and surrounding mountains, visit the 13th-century Chatêau de la Batiaz. Make certain you put down your bags at your hotel/hostel/church lodging before you climb!
Although the castle is perched on a hill, the climb is definitely worth the effort. If you have a pilgrim passport, both the Catholic and Protestant churches allow pilgrims to lodge in their facilities for a €20 donation on a first-come, first-served basis. After Mass in the morning, pilgrims are invited to join priests and share in their simple breakfast.
Col du Grand San Bernard, Switzerland
With an elevation of 2470 meters (8100 feet), the Col du Grand San Bernard marks the highest point on the pilgrim trail. The famously difficult pass was named in honor of St. Bernard of Aosta, the 11th-century Italian priest who founded the hospice at the top.
Trekking to the pass takes an immense effort that challenged Napoleon’s troops and continues to challenge even superbly conditioned athletes. Expect to get up close and personal views of Swiss cows with tinkling bells strung around their thick necks and to see lush patches of blackberries and raspberries in the summer.
The legendary hospice at the top offers weary travelers a welcome chance to rest and replenish. If you are craving a very special experience, consider attending evening Mass at the hospice’s on-site church. In the morning, enjoy a communal breakfast of coffee or tea, bread, butter, and jam with your fellow pilgrims before crossing the border into Italy.
Aosta Valley, Italy
The city of Aosta was founded in 25 B.C. and is famous for its extraordinarily well-preserved Roman ruins, such as the Arch of Augustus and Roman Theater. The city showcases a fascinating history, with Roman paganism juxtaposed against medieval Catholic Churches.
Pilgrims get a more intimate experience of the valleys and mountains during the segment from Echevennoz to Aosta, which feels timeless. As you pass through small villages, expect to see pristine vegetable gardens and flowers displayed in windows with charming, bespoke shutters.
Aosta is well-known in Europe for its outdoor activities, and those who love nature will enjoy the long trails through the forest. One of the most unique aspects of this segment is that the route parallels the ingenious rus irrigation system the Romans created to deliver Alpine melt to their crops.
While hiking through the woods, be on the lookout for a special statue in a grotto. The art is unique in that it’s rare to see depictions of Mary with an adolescent Jesus.
Chatillion to Verres, Italy
This segment of the Via Francigena is graded as very challenging in almost every available guidebook. After visiting Chatillion’s beautiful churches, expect a continuous set of steep ascents and descents along rocks and cliffs as you journey to Verres.
The difficulties of this stretch are balanced by the beauty and charm of the ancient villages and by the friendliness of the locals. It is a gorgeous walk through woods, villages, and vineyards – just ensure you bring plenty of food to keep your energy up. Fortunately, there are plenty of public fountains gushing clear and delicious water to satisfy your thirst during the walk.
The Via Francigena traverses through the Piedmont region. Italy’s best-known grain is wheat, and its bread and pasta are globally famous. It might therefore come as a shock to hear that Italy has been cultivating rice since the 15th century and that Italy is currently Europe’s largest rice producer.
During good years, the rice fields are nourished by Alpine water coming into the Po Valley. Caution: Almost NO PILGRIM actually enjoys passing through these rice fields!
Indeed, many choose to bypass this section of the journey. In the summer, there is very sparse shade to shield you from a scorching Italian sun, water replenishment opportunities are few and far between, and the rice fields are laden with mosquitos.
Why do the rice fields make the list of must-see pilgrimage sites? Every pilgrim who enters them leaves with a keen appreciation for the hard work and effort of the farmers, as well as gratitude for the blessings of food, water, and shelter.
Mortara also falls within the Piedmont rice-growing region. It has an ominous name: the word “morta” means “death”. During the 773 A.D. battle between Charlemagne and the King of the Longoboards, so many died that the area changed its name to reflect the devastation.
Some of the local churches feature artwork that commemorates the battle. As unpleasant as the mosquitoes in the fields are, it is worth traveling through them to get to the Abbey of Saint Albino, located just outside Mortara. This fantastic 5th-century church monastery was later expanded by funding from Charlemagne to bury his soldiers who died during the Longoboards battle.
For a €20 donation, the Abbey of Saint Albino’s hospice provides pilgrims with a bed, a hot shower, and a delicious dinner and breakfast.
Pavia is a famous university town. The University of Pavia, one of the oldest universities in the world, dates back to 1361. After Rome and Florence, Pavia is famous for having Italy’s third-largest Duomo. That the Pavia Duomo is magnificent is no surprise; Leonardo da Vinci himself contributed to the design.
What may come as a surprise, given the importance and rich history of this city, is that there are only three hotels. Are you a pilgrim in urgent need of lodging? Head for Santa Maria in Betlem. The hospitable nuns may be able to arrange a bed for you near the 12th-century church.
Capuchin monks have welcomed pilgrims at the Convent of San Lorenzo the Martyr for several centuries. Pilgrims, kings, knights, and merchants have all been recipients of the kindness of the Capuchins.
A €20 donation for the night’s lodging helps ensure that they can continue their legacy of hospitality. An excellent way to get a sense of the region’s history is to stay at the convent and attend an evening (or morning) Mass at the adjacent church.
Pontremoli has a quiet, understated, warm quality that makes it feel like a tucked-away gem. Because of its position – surrounded by hills, rivers, and forests – it’s a fabulous place to walk and hike. Within the town itself, expect to see medical houses and dozens of quaint churches.
Two that are definitely worth visiting and lighting a candle at are Santa Maria Assunta, a baroque church with dozens of glittering chandeliers, and the Church of the Capuchin Convent, which has a display of Padre Pio relics.
Filetto is a comune with a population of roughly 1000. It is a popular stopping point for pilgrims who want to break up the long distance between towns. Filetto is well worth a visit.
On a hot day, the area around it smells of figs, oregano, cedar, and rosemary. The tiny comune is wonderfully preserved and cared for, and Filetto’s church bells rank among the most powerful of the trail.
Are you a foodie, or simply looking for an exquisite carb-load before another full day of walking? Try testaroli – one of the earliest known forms of pasta-making. It’s a regional specialty.
Many people do a double-take the first time they see the Apuan Alps, wondering whether the white patches on the mountains represent fresh snowfall. It is not snow they see but exposed Carrara marble.
More marble has been quarried from this region of Italy over the course of several centuries than any other location in the world. Hundreds of churches throughout Europe have art created from slabs that came from these hills.
Do you love Michelangelo’s David? It’s carved from Carrara marble. Are you a fan of archeology? One of the most interesting features of this route to Avenza is that it passes Luni, an ancient Roman town in Liguria.
If you’d like to see an authentic Roman amphitheater where gladiators once fought without a heavy tourist crowd, forgo the Coliseum in Rome and head to this region.
The area dates back to 177 B.C., and archaeologists from the National Archaeological Museum are still making discoveries. One more enticing reason to enjoy Avenza? It’s less than two miles from the Ligurian Sea.
San Miniato, Italy
The origins of this town date back to Etruscan-Roman times. It also attracts attention as a place where Bishop Sigeric the Serious stopped. Considered the start of “classic Tuscany,” it’s easy to understand why so many pilgrims and tour companies chose to start the pilgrim experience beginning at San Miniato.
The town is positioned at the top of a steep hill, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards. The views of the countryside are so beautiful as to trigger disbelief that they are real. Those who love Italian food will be thrilled with the options here. San Miniato is famous for its truffles, with a festival in November to celebrate their white truffles.
San Gimignano, Italy
This region of Tuscany is famous for its Chianti, and pilgrims on foot or bike can expect to pass alongside many vineyards before beginning the long, steep climb to San Gimignano.
The town has a very distinctive silhouette compared to other medieval towns because of its enormous towers, designed to showcase the residents’ wealth and prestige.
The “Town of Fine Towers” is protected by a 13th-century wall, and the town’s architecture is bound to impress. Like Siena, this pilgrimage site can be very touristy, particularly during the day, so the best way to experience it is in the early morning.
Colle di Val d’Elsa, Italy
The Colle di Val d’Elsa, “Hill of Elsa Valley,” traverses a beautiful stretch of woods and the Elsa River. What’s particularly striking about the Elsa River is its color: because of the limestone, the water is a very unique blue.
Provided that your legs are fresh, you’ll have a fantastic time crossing the river multiple times using nothing but rope and rocks to support you. (However, on a hot day, many pilgrims choose to shed their backpacks and jump in anyway.) The general consensus seems to be that the cool water feels delightful.
Siena has a decidedly festive feel to it, with each of the 17 contrade (neighborhoods) having its own distinctive style. A 1000-year-old wall surrounds the popular 12th largest city in Italy.
It is famous for many things, such as its architecture and red rooftops, and its spectacular Duomo, which houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Bernini. Siena is also known for the Palio horse races, which are held in the Piazza del Campo every year on 2 July and 16 August.
Many pilgrims come to Siena to see the relics of St. Catherine, one of the most famous and influential saints of the 14th century. St. Catherine’s legacy was so important to the city that although her body was buried in Rome, her head was stolen and returned to Siena in 1381. Relics of the mystic currently reside inside the Church of San Dominico.
Radicofani is one of the most remote pilgrimage sites on the trail. The village offers long-ranging and incredibly scenic views of the Italian countryside. It’s entirely possible you’ll see farmers or flocks of sheep grazing on the hills.
The town’s focal point is the 10th-century Fortress of Radicofani, considered one of Italy’s most important medieval fortresses. The castle was overtaken in the 14th century by Ghino di Taco (Italy’s equivalent of Robin Hood). How iconic was the Italian? Dante himself mentioned him in the Inferno.
Montefiascone dates back to the time of the Etruscans. The path leading to the city is especially pretty and weaves uphill through meadows and woods. You may even encounter a flock of sheep or a herd of goats on the way.
Psychologically, Montefiascone is a very important marker: it lets pilgrims know they have 100 Kilometers (60 miles) remaining to Rome. It’s also unique in that the town has a special monument dedicated to pilgrim walkers, with an inscription at the base reminding pilgrims to: Forget the steps you have taken. Remember the marks you have left.
Because of its easy proximity to Rome, Montefiascone’s Papal fortress (Rocca Dei Papi) was a popular summer residence for popes during the 13th and 14th centuries. The ancient town has stunning views that overlook the volcanic caldron known today as Lake Bolsena.
Departing Montefiascone, the route directs pilgrims onto a small segment of the Via Cassia Antica. It’s humbling to think of the millions of feet that have crossed over the same uneven surfaces as they traveled into Rome.
Viterbo is in the Lazio region, located near the base of the Cimini mountains. While there, visit the Palazzo Dei Papi, where popes resided in the 13th century. Other must-see sights include the city’s medieval center and the 12th-century San Lorenzo Cathedral, with its stunning black-and-white Gothic bell tower.
The Via Francigena officially ends in Vatican City, at St. Peter’s Basilica. Although there are literally hundreds of churches and chapels in Rome and Vatican City, St. Peter’s is considered THE most recognizable symbol of the Roman Catholic Church.
For many pilgrims, arriving here is an emotional experience that represents both an accomplishment and the sad reality of saying goodbye to friends made along the way. Thousands of international visitors flock to the world’s largest church each day, which is home to relics of St. Peter and some of the world’s finest art.
Although entry is free, the majority of visitors who want to go inside either need to queue in what can be a very lengthy line or book a tour with a licensed guide. However, did you just walk the Via Francigena? Show your pilgrim’s passport, and you will be allowed to bypass the line to get your final stamp and certificate.
Beautiful Pilgrimage Sites on the Via Francigena
It may be a truism, but as beautiful as each of these places is, it is the people you encounter en route and form friendships with that make this journey truly unforgettable. Buon Camino – here’s wishing you a safe and very happy journey!