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A once-isolated little town in Portugal, about 40 miles north of Lisbon, Fátima is one of the most popular and revered pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe. Steeped in culture, history, lore and faith the town of Fátima exudes a mystic aura that is hard to deny.

For the nearly six million Catholic pilgrims who visit Fátima each year the experience is considered quite holy. For those who approach the town with reverence for their faith or those who simply enjoy a deep dive into culture, Fátima is certainly a fantastic day trip.

First, The Story of Fátima

So how did Fátima grow from small town to major destination for the faithful? It all began in 1917 when “Tres Pastorhinos”, or “Three Little Shepherds” were making their way home with their sheep. The three shepherds, children, were Lucía dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto.

The children claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, “a lady brighter than the sun” by their account,  who spoke to them and told them she would reappear to them on the 13th of each month for the next six months, ending on October 13th. Over 70,000 people arrived in Fátima to see the Virgin Mary but she only appeared to the children.

The Virgin is said to have instructed the children to pray, fast and share their faith. She also instructed them to tell the townspeople that they should build a chapel for the town in her honor. The chapel is located in the Cova da Iria quarter of the town which is where the children said the Virgin appeared to them.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima

There are in fact two churches which bookend the magnificent esplanade. The area is known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima and is actually a group of many churches and other religious buildings dedicated to the Marian Apparition. It’s also where you’ll find the Chapel of Apparitions built on the very site where the children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary.

The Neo-Baroque Basilica of Our Lady of The Rosary has a tower of more than 200 feet topped by a large crown made of bronze and a crystal cross. The tower houses the resting place of the Three Little Shepherds and a stunning and massive 70 year old organ with well over 120,000 pipes. The Basilica is surrounded by retreat houses for the faithful pilgrims and rest homes or hospitals for those seeking a cure.

At the other end of the enormous esplanade is the Basilica of The Holy Trinity, a relative newcomer built between 2004 and 2007. This sleek and modernistic church is the fourth largest Catholic Church in the world and its construction was initiated by Pope John Paul II. What’s fascinating about this modern church is its symbolism that echoes the universality of the Catholic faith. The architect was Greek, the orange crucifix in front is from Germany, the breathtaking mosaic mural is Slovenian and the crucifix on the altar comes from Ireland.

Other Sites in Fátima

About a mile from the Sanctuary, in the hamlet of Aljustrel on Fátima’s outskirts, you’ll find the houses of the three children. The homes are open for tour and furniture and other possessions illustrate everyday life in the little village at the time the Three Little Shepherds were there.

Less than ten miles from the Sanctuary is a fantastic site to visit. The Coin Caves or Grutas da Moeda were discovered in 1917 by two hunters chasing a fox. The site boasts a large, multi-storied, limestone cave. You can take a guided tour and browse through the interpretive museum. There’s even a place to grab a quick bite.

Another set of caves, The Mira de Aire Caves, is also about ten miles from the Sanctuary. The caves were cited as one of Portugal’s Seven Natural Wonders in 2010. Well worth a visit, the caves are actually Portugal’s biggest cave network, which spans over nine miles. You can inspect over one-third of a mile of cave, which is tourist-friendly with an elevator to take you back to the top.

A Wonderful Day Trip

While Fátima is a revered and holy place for Catholic pilgrims it’s also filled with culture and history and so much beauty. That’s why this peaceful, mystical, enchanting place is so well worth a visit.