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Things to see and do in Fátima - Portugal

Fátima is a popular destination for both religious pilgrims and tourists alike. Located in Central Portugal, just 120 km north of Lisbon, it is also one of the most visited sites in Portugal!

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima is one of the largest Marian shrines in the world.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima is one of the largest Marian shrines in the world.

The history of Fátima Portugal

Most visitors to Fátima are Catholics. After all, this region of Portugal is deeply connected with religion and is one of the world's most famous Marian apparition sites.

The spotlight on Fatima began on May 13, 1917, when three children, Lucia dos Santos (age 10) and her cousins Francisco Marto (age 9) and Jacinta Marto (age 7), claimed to have seen "a lady brighter than the sun" on a holm oak tree while pasturing a small flock in Cova da Iria, near the small rural village of Aljustrel.

The three shepards who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary in Fatima in 1917

The three children claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary in six apparitions, between 13 May and 13 October 1917, and shared several prophecies that caught both public and religious authorities' attention.

The children said the Virgin Mary told them prayer would end World War I, as well as other politically motivated messages involving Russia. They also said that on October 13 of that year, the Virgin Mary would perform a miracle "so that all may believe". Newspapers reported the prophecies and during the following months, thousands of pilgrims flocked to Fátima, drawn by reports of visions and miracles.

However, not all those who heard about the apparitions believed them. The children's accounts became deeply controversial, drawing intense criticism from both local and religious authorities.

On 13 August 1917, provincial administrator Artur Santos intervened, as he believed these events were politically disruptive to Portugal, which was a highly conservative country at that time. He took the children into custody, jailing them before they could reach Cova da Iria on what was expected to be another day for apparitions.

Santos interrogated and threatened the children, hoping to force them to share the contents of the secrets they claimed to hold. Lúcia's mother also hoped the officials could persuade the children to end the affair and admit they had lied. They did not and were eventually released. That month, instead of the usual apparition on the 13th, the children reported they saw the Virgin Mary on 19 August, at the nearby village of Valinhos.

The most documented apparition was the last, which occurred on October 13, 1917. After newspapers reported the Virgin Mary had promised a miracle for the last of her apparitions on 13 October, a huge crowd, including reporters and photographers, gathered at Cova da Iria to witness what would become known as "The Miracle of the Sun".

Various claims were made about what happened during that day. The three children reported seeing a panorama of visions, while other people present declared witnessing a "miracle". According to different accounts, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky, casting multicoloured lights across the landscape and the surrounding clouds. Some witnesses reported their previously wet clothes became "suddenly and completely dry, as well as the wet and muddy ground which was previously soaked".

Page from Ilustração Portuguesa, 29 Oct. 1917, showing people looking at the Sun during the Fátima apparitions
'Ilustração Portuguesa', 29 Oct. 1917, showing people looking at the Sun during the Fátima apparitions

However, not all witnesses reported seeing the sun "dance". Some people only saw the radiant colours. Others, including some believers, saw nothing at all.

The only known picture of the sun taken during the event does not show anything unusual, nor where any unusual phenomenon of the sun observed by scientists at the time. Sceptics have offered alternative explanations, including psychological suggestibility of the witnesses, temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at the intense light of the sun and optical effects caused by natural meteorological phenomena.

Regardless of the doubts that have persisted over the past century, Fátima's fame has grown internationally, with pilgrimages to the site taking place all year round. Especially between May and October, on the thirteenth day of each month.

On the anniversaries of the apparitions, millions of pilgrims visit Fatima to pray or witness the beautiful procession of Our Lady of Fátima, both during the day and by the light of tens of thousands of candles on the night of the 12th.

Procession of our Lady of Fatima. Image credits:
Procession of our Lady of Fatima. Image credits:

Some pilgrims even reschedule their lives to journey to Fátima on foot, especially before and after the 13th between May and October. A Catholic tradition that is still very much present to this day… If you’re driving around the region during the height of the celebratory processions, you will see hundreds of pilgrims walking there.

Pilgrims walk to Fátima form all over Portugal. Image credits:
Pilgrims walk to Fátima form all over Portugal. Image credits:

Although not all Catholics believe in these apparitions, they are acknowledged by the Portuguese Catholic Church and the Vatican. The Sanctuary that evokes the memories of the apparitions has been awarded three papal golden roses and visited by Popes Paul VI (1967), John Paul II (1982, 1991 and 2000), Benedict XVI (2010) and Francis (2017). Pope Francis canonized two of the visionaries, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, on 13 May 2017 during the centennial of the first apparition.

Lúcia, the eldest child visionary and the only one to survive into adulthood (she died in 2005, at the age of 97), may also be considered a Saint in the future, as the process of canonisation is currently underway.

Today, Fatima is one of the most important Marian sanctuaries in the world and a major international destination for religious tourism, receiving six million visitors a year.

What to see in Fátima Portugal

There is a lot to see in Fátima Portugal. And while most things are related to religion, there are other things you can see and visit.

1. Visit the Sanctuary of Fátima

Regardless of whether you are a pilgrim or visiting Fátima for leisure, exploring the Sanctuary is always an unforgettable experience.

The construction of the Sanctuary of Fatima began in 1919 with the first Capelinha das Aparições (Chapel of the Apparitions), built on the spot where the three children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary for the first time.

While it has been rebuilt since then, the Capelinha das Aparições is still considered a sacred location for those who believe and is one of Fátima's main attractions.

Chapel of Apparitions in Fatima Portugal

At the centre of the chapel, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima has encased in its crown one of the bullets that struck Pope John Paul II in1981.

Pope John Paul II credited Our Lady of Fátima with saving his life following an assassination attempt on May 13,1981.

On the bank of lit candles to the left of the chapel, dozens of pilgrims queue every day to place a candle, fulfilling promises in a tradition deeply rooted in ancient Catholic customs.

At the end of the Sanctuary's huge plaza, you will find the most iconic building in the shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima (Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário). Its construction began in 1928.