25 Jun 24

Portuguese Camino versus Camino FrancÉs: What are the differences?

Adrian Mayer Camino

So you’re finally ready to undertake the potentially life-changing journey that is walking the Camino, but don’t know which route to walk? Or maybe you’ve walked the Camino Francés (Spanish Camino) and were wondering how the Portuguese Camino differs?

Having initially completed the Camino Francés twice and more recently walked the majority of the Camino Portuguese, I believe I am well qualified to offer my personal views on this. There are several fundamental differences between the two, which are explained below.

Just to clarify, this Portuguese Camino analysis is based on walking from the vibrant UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Porto to Santiago (265km, 18 days), which is the most popular section. From Porto, walkers traverse the Atlantic Coast of Portugal before heading inland after Pontevedra in Spain and then wallk all the way to Santiago. Very few people walk the full Portuguese Camino from Lisbon (620km / 38 days to Santiago; 18 days to Porto). This is because en route to Porto there are some long walking days (sometimes through industrial areas), very few fellow walkers, less signage and the infrastructure is limited. Walking all the way from Lisbon is really just for hardy walkers looking for solitude and a challenge.

Let’s get started.

1. The terrain

This is probably the biggest difference. While there is little altitude apart for a few short bursts, the Portuguese Camino can still be tough going because of what’s underfoot. Through Portugal itself, days can involve up to 80% or more walking on footpaths or roads, many of which are cobblestoned.

While the Camino Francés is predominantly town-edge of town-countryside-edge of town-town, the Portuguese Camino is more town-suburbs-not town but still populated with houses and roads-suburbs-town. There’s little actual country paths, especially for the first half until Baiona. The balance does improve after that, but there’s still a lot more road walking than the Francés.

With the Portuguese Coastal Camino, there are often two options: the Coastal route or the Seashore route (commonly known as the Litoral). Mostly we recommend walking the Coastal route, but there are times when the Litoral is the better option. On these stretches you could be walking on boardwalks or even on the sand itself.

2. The scenery

This is where the Portuguese Camino really comes into its own. At least if you’re a fan of dramatic coastlines. There are really some wonderful coastal views, with several days’ walking directly along the coast. It varies from gentle beach scenery to wave-crashing, rock-strewn, pulse-racing, dramatic Atlantic coast.

When it comes to the full Camino Francés (790km), the landscapes vary dramatically. You’ve got the majestic rocky mountains of the Pyrenees, the undulating vineyards of La Rioja wine region, the stark and vast plateau of the Meseta, as well as lush fertile countryside. It has it all. Apart from coastal views!

If comparing walks of a similar distance, the Porto to Santiago section of the Portuguese Camino equates roughly to the Leon to Santiago section of the Camino Francés. Much of the first half of this walk offers beautiful mountain vistas, followed by similar terrain for the last half to that of the Portuguese, with country lanes, rural surrounds and gentle undulations. In this sense you have a clear choice between the two Caminos: mountain scenery with the inevitable climbing versus the predominantly flatness and coastal scenery of the Portuguese.

3. Camino infrastructure

This one dfinitely favours the Camino Francés. While signs, symbols, graffiti and all things Camino abound on the Francés, they are fewer and farther between on the Portuguese. While generally well enough signed in between towns, Camino directions on the Portuguese can be very difficult to find when walking through towns. On the Frances, Camino symbols are more often than not embedded into the very pavement for easy guidance.

Don’t let the lack of signage put you off. We’ve written and published our own guidebook on the Portuguese Coastal Camino, which when used in conjunction with our bespoke navigation app means you have the best possible information and guidance for this route. On the Camino Francés it’s nearly impossible to get lost but for peace of mind you can also use our app, which will show you exactly where you’re at – no getting lost.

Food-wise on the Francés, offerings such as the discounted pilgrim’s menu (set 3-course meals with bread and wine) are prevalent throughout, something that can’t really be said for the Portuguese Camino. Having said that, food is ridiculously cheap in Portugal itself and pilgrim’s meals as such aren’t necessary. Pilgrims meals become more prevalent once you enter Spain from A Guarda onwards.

And lastly, towns and suitable accommodation are spaced further apart on the Portuguese, making breaking down the mileages harder. On the flip side, the public transport infrastructure (local trains and buses) on the Portuguese is much healthier than on the Francés, making it much easier to shorten distances on any given day without resorting to taxis.

4. Pilgrim numbers

This is a very definitive difference, but whether one or the other is preferable is very much a personal choice. The number of pilgrims on the Francés far outweighs those of the Portuguese, although this difference is narrowing year on year. Although I walked in November (the off-season for the Portuguese), I only came across maybe 20 other pilgrims for the entire trip. Depending on which section of the Francés you’re looking at, you would see this many daily even in the off-season; and during the peak season, you would see this many in 10 minutes on some sections!

Depending on which way you look at it, this can be positive or negative. Some people love the constant companionship and camaraderie of having many pilgrims around them. Others love the relative solitude of tranquillity of only passing pilgrims occasionally, sometimes not at all for long stretches.

5. So which Camino is better?

Like most things in life, this answer is subjective. It depends on what you’re looking for and your particular circumstances, including ow much time you have available, the type of scenery you prefer, your physical fitness, whether you’ve already walked a Camino, and the time of year you’ll be walking.

In this writer’s humble opinion, if this is your first Camino and you want that real Camino “feel”, then the Francés is your best option. If you’ve already walked the Francés and are looking for something more adventurous with fewer pilgrims, then the Portuguese is a good option. Either way you’ll have completed something special and you should be proud.

Adrian Mayer

Written By

Adrian Mayer

Adrian is RAW Travel's resident Camino expert having walked four Caminos, including the full Camino Frances twice. This is a culmination of a life spent travelling, with over 70 countries visited, plus a career spent working in travel. Tailoring personalised Caminos is one of Adrian's favourite pastimes.

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