In the summer of 1917 the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three young shepherds in what is now the town of Fátima in Portugal’s Centro Region. The place where they saw her has become an immense sanctuary and one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimage sites. There are two basilicas, a square where thousands of devotees can congregate and an itinerary of locations that hold a special meaning to the apparitions.
Add to these museums, high-rise hotels and some rather tacky souvenir shops. You don’t need to be Catholic to be blown away by the size of Fátima and the number of devotees that visit in the summer. But if you are Catholic the sanctuary and the story of the three children will be that much more meaningful.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Fátima:
1. Sanctuary of Fátima
For many Catholics, standing on this gigantic plaza could be a lifetime ambition.
For everyone else it’s still something you need to do, to gauge the amazing size of this place and comprehend what makes so many people tick.
At each end of the square are Fátima’s two basilicas, and there’s a large modern crucifix in front of the newer of the two on the south side.
The most spellbinding view faces down the slope towards the older sanctuary, which is winged by a colonnade.
If there’s a best time to come it’s around the 13th of each the month from May to October when there are “major” and “minor” pilgrimages to the shrine.
2. Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário
It was barely a decade after the apparitions that construction began on this church with stirring Neo-Baroque architecture.
It is on the spot where the young shepherds are said to have seen Mary’s glow, which they at first mistook for a thunderstorm.
The architect was Dutchman Gerardus Samuel van Krieken, and when the church was finally completed and consecrated it was granted the status of minor basilica by Pope Pius XII. The tombs of the siblings Francisco Marto and Jacinta Marto are on either end of the transept.
Also at the portico on the entrance is a mosaic crafted in Vatican and showing the Holy Trinity crowning Mary.
3. Capela das Aparições
The first place of worship founded in Fátima after the sightings was this simple chapel, completed two years later in 1919. It was built to fulfil the supposed request Mary gave to the three shepherds and is now housed in a larger modern building with rows of benches for devotees.
The statue of Our Lady is at the exact location of the holm oak tree where Mary was seen and is in a glass case in front of the chapel.
The tree itself soon disappeared as its branches and trunk became religious relics.
4. Basilica of the Holy Trinity
By the middle of the 20th century Fátima’s popularity had exploded and plans had been in the pipeline for a second, much larger basilica since the 1950s.
This project was finally realised in the 2000s and was led by Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis.
Like a lot of Fátima, non-Christians will appreciate this minimalist building for its dizzying sense of scale.
It can seat more than 8,633 worshippers, has magnificent works of liturgical art as well as smaller prayer rooms in its basement.
Note the great bronze doors and panels by the Portuguese artist Pedro Calapez, and the image of Our Lady of Fátima, three metres high and shaped from Carrara marble.
5. Grutas da Moeda
On a different tack, these marvellous caves were discovered by accident in 1971 when two hunters chased a fox down a hole and found themselves surrounded by unearthly concretions.
There are ten individual chambers, each with calcareous rock shaped by running water over millions of years, and given religious names in honour of Fátima.
The network goes on for more than 350 metres, and it’s a refreshing day out in summer as the caves have a steady temperature of 18°C. The interpretation centre offers some geological background on the caves and has a display of minerals and Jurassic fossils.
6. Casa Jacinta e Francisco Marto
The three shepherds lived in the tiny village of Aljustrel, a kilometre or two from the sanctuary in Fátima.
You could drive, catch the tourist train or even walk the Via Sacra if you feel like it.
People make the trip to see the humble home that the brother and sister, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, shared with their parents and three other siblings.
It was here in 1919 and 1920 that Francisco and then Jacinta died during the flu epidemic after the First World War.
Regardless of your thoughts on religion you could still come to understand the lifestyle in the region at the time, as it’s also a special feeling to know that you’re standing in the home of two saints, even if their short lives were difficult.
7. Valinhos Sanctuary
The route that the three shepherds took from Aljustrel to the site of the apparitions at Cova da Iria was turned into a “Via Sacra” in the second half of the 20th century.
There’s a paved path through idyllic olive and holm oak groves, with 14 stops, each for a station of the cross.
It all ends with a 15th station, the Santo Estêvão Chapel, to represent the resurrection.
Like the rest of the Via Sacra this was funded by Hungarian Catholics, unable to practice their religion in their own country during the Cold War.
8. Casa de Lúcia
While you’re in Aljustrel you could also pause at the home of the other young shepherd, Lúcia de Jesus dos Santos.
She was the cousin of the Marto siblings and survived the flu epidemic to become a nun and live to the age of 97, dying in 2005. As she died only recently, Lúcia is still in the process of becoming a saint, fast-tracked to canonisation by Pope Benedict in 2008. Like the home of her relatives, Lúcia’s house works best for non-Catholics as an insight into rural life in Portugal a century ago.
The furniture and few possessions are all original, including a rickety wooden loom.
9. Museu de Cera
One you’ve seen the churches, chapels and homes of the children in Fátima there’s a plethora of spin-off attractions and gift shops.
One of the best of these is this waxwork museum, which is more tasteful than you might expect.
Using 31 lifelike tableaux the museum presents the story of the Fátima Apparitions, historical context and cultural impact.
You’ll also be given some context about Christendom 1917 and will come away a bit more informed about the Fátima phenomenon.
10. Igreja Paroquial de Fátima
A moving stop in Fátima is the parish church that here long before the apparitions.
With a discreet Renaissance style it goes back at least as far as the 1500s, even if it has undergone many reconstructions since the sightings.
The most recent of these happened in the year 2000 when Jacinta and Francisco were canonised.
Inside you can find the font where the three shepherds were baptised.
The large cemetery in front adds some extra solemnity, and it was here that Jacinta and Francisco were buried before being moved to the Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário.
11. Museu Vida de Cristo
Also much more than a tourist trap, this purpose-built museum is endowed with more than 200 high-quality waxwork figures recounting the life of Christ.
These characters are arranged in 33 different scenes, from Christ’s annunciation before his birth to his ascension after his resurrection.
The museum opened in 2007 and is the only one of its kind in the world.
For secular visitors there’s a lot to admire in the museum’s modern architecture and the level of care and workmanship that has gone into each tableau.
You might be ready for a break from Fátima’s religious devotion, and in which case the seat of the municipality is only 10 kilometres away.
Ourém is an enthralling old town ruled by a hilltop castle on an almost absurd gradient.
The first rule of Ourém is to wear sensible shoes to scramble around the alleys and stairways of the old quarter.
All the effort pays off big-time when you encounter views that can knock you off your feet, and the lavish home of the Counts of Ourém.
This was turned into a High Gothic pleasure palace in the 15th century and rises at the highest point, on a square hundreds of metres above sea level.
13. Day Trips
For nature you could venture south where the countryside gets dramatic in the Serra de Aire range.
This a natural park with a walking trails through deep chalk valleys and past long-abandoned mines.
The Mira de Aire Caves 15 kilometres away are the first of many underground systems.
A spectacle of a different kind is on hand at Batalha, where there’s a UNESCO-listed medieval monastery.
The stonework at this monument is out of this world and deserves as much time as you can afford.
Don’t miss the unfinished chapel and the tombs of John I, Philippa of Lancaster, and their sons who pioneered the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
14. Monumento Natural das Pegadas de Dinossáurio de Ourém-Torres Novas
Fátima is a whisker away from what might be Portugal’s top paleontological site.
On a former quarry in the Serra de Aire is the oldest and longest set of sauropod footprints found anywhere on earth.
Sauropods were some of the largest creatures to have walked the planet, with long bodies and tails, and small heads.
Their tracks at this site are about 175 million years old and are set in limestone that long ago was a muddy lagoon.
The best footprints are on a track that carries on for 147 metres, so detailed that palaeontologists could make new conclusions and pose theories about the animals’ anatomy and behaviour.
If you do get the chance to dine at a traditional restaurant around Fátima the local recipes go back to before the days of the three shepherds.
Meals needed to be filling and to make the most of whatever came to hand.
So leftover bread was reused for preparations like migas, in which it would be fried with cabbage and chouriço.
There are lots of old-school soups (sopas do verde) using any ingredients were available at the time.
On special occasions blood from newly slaughtered livestock would be used to thicken the broth.
A little more appetising is lamb stew, in which the meat is marinated overnight in paprika and garlic.