When in the mid-1800s the Virgin Mary appeared to a young peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous, the fortunes of Lourdes changed spectacularly overnight. This small town in the Pyrenean foothills soon became one of the world’s most frequently visited pilgrimage sites, and today Lourdes attracts some six million visitors a year who come in search of physical healing and spiritual salvation. Here are the essential things to see and do in Lourdes.
No visit to Lourdes would be complete without a visit to the site that kickstarted religious tourism in the town. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, also known as the grotto, is the site at which the young Miss Soubirous experienced the first of her 18 visions of the Virgin Mary. During her ninth encounter with the holy apparition, Soubirous was supposedly instructed to wash in the grotto and today visitors wait in line for the opportunity to take a dip in its freezing waters.
The 1,000-year-old Château Fort de Lourdes (Fortress of Lourdes) is the town’s only major secular attraction, balancing atop a rocky outcrop on the edge of the city. Never conquered in its history, it is home to the Musée Pyrénéen, a museum of regional artefacts and art. Gaze upon reconstructions of domestic interiors and learn about festive costumes and beliefs unique to the area. The ascent to the fort is a short yet steep walk whilst the views out over the city and beyond to the Pyrenees are a glittering reward. Those who find this a daunting prospect can take the lift for free.
Overshadowing Lourdes, this jagged outcrop rises to 1,000m and offers exquisite views of the town and beyond. You’ll need roughly three hours – and plenty of bottled water – to reach the summit on foot. Failing that, the 120-year-old funicular offers a scenic trip that takes just 15-minutes. Disembarking at the top, you’ll find a restaurant as well as trails leading to various viewpoints and caves. The Pic du Jer is also a magnificent sight from below at night, crowned with its giant illuminated cross.
The Moulin de Boly – the birthplace of Bernadette Soubirous, in the heart of Lourdes – was originally a water mill where the girl spent her first 10 years. Renovated in 2012, the site is now a museum featuring a bedroom, kitchen and watermill. Informative tours are available, providing more detail on the simple lives led by peasant families at the time and for pilgrims, it reveals a more intimate portrayal of Bernadette’s early life.
For a break from sites of religious interest, this farm offers a fun and intriguing alternative surrounded by lush greenery. Meet and pet locally reared animals including ponies, guinea pigs and more. There are plenty of picnic areas for a leisurely lunch and if you’re visiting the town with young children, this farm provides a welcome diversion from the slew of historic sites.
Pilgrims come to this spring to collect Lourdes’ fabled water. The custom has its origins in the story of the Virgin Mary’s apparition to Bernadette, in which the girl was instructed to go to the source. It is important to point out that Lourdes water is not classed as holy water, as it has not been blessed by a priest. Nevertheless, there have been countless anecdotes of pilgrims finding themselves cured of various diseases and afflictions after drinking it.
These replicate the marble originals in Rome’s Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta) which, Catholic tradition holds, belonged to Pontius Pilate’s praetorium in Jerusalem, and were relocated in the fourth century CE by the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine. The Lourdes steps lead to the first Station of the Cross on the Hill of Espélugues. Pilgrims often negotiate the 28 steps on their knees in penance to Christ, who climbed the Scala Sancta to appear before Pontius Pilate for sentencing to death by crucifixion.
As part of a tradition that began in 1872, from April to the end of October, every night at 9pm, the Marian Torchlight Procession travels from the prairie to The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. Pilgrims join the march, bearing candles and torches as well as statues of the Virgin Mary. The walk takes about 90 minutes before blessings are dispensed by a priest.
Completed in 1912 after 13 years of considered construction, The Way of the Cross is an integral part of a pilgrimage to Lourdes: a winding route navigating the wooded hill of Espélugues for 1.5 kilometers. Along it, 115 lifesize iron figures depict, in vignettes, the 14 devotions, or specific events that made up Jesus’s last day on earth: these, the Stations of the Cross, invite you to pause, contemplate and perhaps take a photo. (For the more physically challenged, there is a separate and more easily accessible route.) At the tranquil summit you can lie back on the grass, catch your breath and contemplate the horizon, as Pyrenean peaks fade to infinity.
In the grounds of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, a natural spring emerges in the Grotto of Massabielle. The baths created around this spring have been a pilgrimage site for Catholic worshippers since the 1800s. Supposedly, the spring was revealed by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who described its location to Bernadette Soubirous. What flows from the spring is considered to be a form of holy water that some claim possesses various healing properties.
At this huge covered market – the culinary heart of Lourdes – people shop for fresh fruit and vegetables as well as specialty ingredients and weekend treats. Expect locally produced cheeses, spreads and condiments as well different kinds of honey, pickles and preserves stacked temptingly on top of one another. While you’re browsing, make sure to try the traditional local pastry gâteau à la broche, cake cooked on a spit in front of an open fire, thought to have been brought to France by Napoleonic soldiers returning from battle in eastern Europe.
Just a 20-minute drive west of the city is this labyrinth of magical limestone caves, running beneath the foothills of the Pyrenees. Comprising several levels they are the result of water erosion over millions of years. The system is so vast that part of it can be navigated by boat and part by a small electric train, introduced in the 1970s. You’ll see otherworldly rock formations as well as stalactites and stalagmites that cast eerily shaped shadows.
Alex Allen contributed additional reporting to this article.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.