Fatima is a religious and touristic hub in Portugal. It is deeply ingrained in the Portuguese cultural and national identity. In fact, it is said that Portugal consists of three “F”s (Fatima, football and fado music). In other words, knowing Fatima is to know a significant part of this country’s culture.
Fatima is also one of the most sacred places in Catholicism. It has been visited by four popes. Also, the sanctuary has received three Golden Roses – a papal award given to special places or people (often only once). But its significance surpasses the boundaries of the Catholic Church – it is also revered by Muslims and even Hindus. Whether religious or not, a visit to Fátima is surely warranted.
What is the story behind Fatima? In 1917, when Portugal was experiencing a severe period of political upheaval due to an anticlerical regime and World War One, Our Lady is said to have appeared to three little shepherd children, to deliver a message of hope and repentance to a world plunged into conflict. The first apparition took place on May 13th, a Marian month. From that point onward, Mary appeared every 13th day of each month – except in August, when the children were arrested by the governor – gathering successively bigger crowds and attention. Finally, on October 13th, the date of the last apparition, a miracle took place: the Sun seemed to dance in the sky, shining with multiple colors and even appearing to plunge towards the crowd. This phenomenon was attested by hundreds of witnesses on the ground (and even by people miles away from the gathering), and recorded by Catholic and atheist journalists alike.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima was built on the exact location of these Marian apparitions. Located at approximately 120 Km from Lisbon, and 195 Km from Porto, the best way to get there is by road. There are several daily buses departing both from Lisbon and Porto and which stop at a mere ten minutes’ walk from the sanctuary. You can buy bus tickets online here – prices range from 5 to 18€. If you wish to rent a car, you should take the A1 highway, Portugal’s main highway connecting Porto and Lisbon, and take exit 8 (GPS coordinates: N 39°37’48.7″; W 8°40’36.2″) or use Waze app and write Santuário de Fátima as your destination.
As for the best time to visit, we recommend going during the springtime or summertime (April to September), when the weather is more likely to be favorable. However, bear in mind that May 13 and October 13 are usually very crowded, since these are the anniversaries of the first and last apparitions (the more important ones).
For those who may wish a calmer visit to the site, these two dates (and the days immediately prior or after) should be avoided. But those who decide to visit on these dates will be rewarded with the full Fatima experience. On the eve of these special days, there is a beautiful Procession of the Candles, where thousands of people light up candles and follow a procession with the statue of Our Lady. On the actual 13th, there is a colossal celebration of the Mass in the precinct of the sanctuary. On May 13th specifically, the celebrations end with the Procession of Goodbye, in which the pilgrims bid farewell to Our Lady by waving white handkerchiefs.
Bear in mind, though, that if you do decide to visit on May 13th or October 13th, you will be competing for space and lodging with thousands of pilgrims. It is advisable to book a hotel in the vicinity many months beforehand. You should be at Fatima at least on the day before, since roads will be likely clogged with traffic on the actual day and it will be impossible to get in or find parking.
August 13th tends to be a busy date also, since Portuguese emigrants usually come back to visit their home country and relatives during their summer vacations, and they take the opportunity to visit Fatima once more at this date.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima consists of a large precinct and three major places of worship. The first is the small Chapel of the Apparitions, the first one to be built. It was erected by the people on the actual place of the apparitions, two years after they took place. In front of it stands a small statue of Our Lady. The bullet that almost took John Paul II’s life on May 13, 1981, has been encrusted on the crown of this statue.
The second church is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. Built in a neo-baroque style, it seems to imitate the form of Our Lady herself. The bell tower has a golden crown on top, and its white color is similar to a white veil going down Our Lady’s features. On each side of the basilica there is a colonnade, inspired by the Vatican, and which represents Our Lady’s welcoming embrace to all the pilgrims. It is here that the seers of Fatima are buried (two of whom have already been officially canonized).
As for the third church, it stands on the opposite side of the precinct and is built in a more modern style. Of a cylindrical shape, the Basilica of the Holy Trinity has side doors standing for each of the apostles, and a main door with panels representing each mystery of the rosary. The interior has a magnificent golden mosaic representing the saints, including Our Lady and the three shepherds. Outside, in front of the basilica, there is a modern depiction of Jesus crucified, standing across from the Mary-shaped basilica.
Underneath the precinct, there are also some underground chapels where it is possible to go to confession, hear mass, and worship the Blessed Sacrament.
There are rosaries and masses offered every day in many languages and in several locations of the sanctuary. You can find the schedule of the celebrations here.
After visiting the sanctuary, you can also take your time to visit the city. There are many hotels and pensions flanking the sanctuary, and some restaurants as well, so lodging and food are not a problem. All around the sanctuary there are also many shops where one can buy souvenirs and religious items.
As for other attractions to visit nearby, we suggest the Fatima Wax Museum, located a few minutes’ walk from the sanctuary. Here, the visitors are guided through 32 scenes with 120 wax figures, telling the story of Fatima. You can check the official site here.
We also suggest a visit to the houses where the little shepherds originally lived, and also to the place of Valinhos. The latter is where the shepherds are said to have received apparitions from the Angel of Portugal in 1916, in preparation for the Marian apparitions the next year. The sanctuary of Valinhos also features a Via Crucis offered by Hungarian Catholic refugees fleeing persecution from the Soviet Union.
These places of interest are located 2 Km away from the city. The best way to reach them is by taking one of the many touristic mini-trains passing by the city each day (one of such trains can be found here). For those who prefer to go there by car, the coordinates for the House of the Shepherds is N 39°36’58”; W 8°39’49”. As for the place of Valinhos, the coordinates are N 39º37’05”; W 8º40’02″.
We also plan to write an article very soon about how to use Fatima as a hub to visit other touristic and religious spots in Portugal.
Fatima is a treasure for Portugal and the world, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It has an aura of peace and serenity about it that is very soothing for the soul. We certainly recommend a visit.