Lourdes is a town in the French Pyrenees. It is a global centre of Marian pilgrimage, receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Many Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, appeared 18 times at the Grotto to a young girl, Saint Bernadette Soubirous.
Originally a sleepy market town on the road to the spas of the Pyrenees, Lourdes has grown into the largest Marian pilgrimage centre in the world. The town has two sections: the international portion by the river, consisting of the spiritual area containing the Grotto and churches (known as the Domaine or the Sanctuaries), and the "French" portion, centred around the marketplace & Hotel de Ville.
In prehistoric times, assorted nomadic tribes had made Lourdes one of their settlements, of which one of their legacies include the still-standing Château Fort. The castle was then made into an estate jail throughout the 17th century and again during the Napoleon era.
Lourdes was the victim of a number of power struggles. In the 8th century, skirmishes erupt between Mirat, the local leader of the Muslims of Al-Andalus and Charlemagne, King of the Franks. According to legend, an eagle unexpectedly dropped a trout at the feet of Mirat. Seen as a sign of bad omen, Mirat eventually surrendered the fort and converted to Christianity, taking the name Lorus of which was the origin of the name of this city, Lourdes.
In the Middle Ages, for 45 years, Lourdes belonged to England as France surrendered from the Hundred Years War. In 1405, King Charles VI launched an operation to capture the city in an 18-month siege. The next century, the town witnessed another conquest between the Roman Catholics, the Protestants, and the Huguenots; the former of which eventually won and claimed the town in 1592.
Until the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1858, Lourdes was just a sleepy town of 4,000 residents and a transit town for tourists hiking into the Pyrenees.
The Apparition of Mary
On 11 February 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous along with her sister, Toinette, and a friend named Jeanne were gathering firewood near the grotto at Massabielle when the former heard the sound of a gushing wind. Lifting her head, she saw a small lady, bathed in light, looking at her and smiling. This would be followed by a near-daily apparition for 17 times until that July. Progressively, the whole town believed the story. The grotto was soon barricaded however, as reportedly 9,000 people witness the 15th apparition, but was reopened by the order of Emperor Louis Napoleon III that October.
The effects of the apparition are certainly enormous, especially after the Catholic Church confirmed the apparitions in 1870. A shrine was built there and was soon designated as one of the pilgrimage destinations of Roman Catholics around the world. People also take home or bathe in its spring water which is believed to have healing effects. The term Immaculate Conception was said by Mary as she introduced herself to Bernadette. As for Bernadette, she entered into a religious order 8 years later, settled in Nevers and is celebrated as one of the saints of the Church.
Lourdes is mainly mild, especially compared to Paris or northern France, and relatively rainy, regardless of the season. That said sunny or partly cloudy days can be especially easier to be found in the summer. Winter is usually cool though nighttime temperatures below 0°C are not unheard of and can last for a couple days.
There are several trains and buses connecting Lourdes to other French cities. It is also easily accessible by car, and close to the border with Spain.
Lourdes is about 9 hours from Paris via Toulouse and the A64. Lourdes is easily accessed by car, although the narrow streets around the holy sites can become quite congested at weekends and holy days. Roads from the Southwest of France and from Spain are also good. On your GPS, make sure that you put the silent s with no apostrophe or you may end up in a village far away (there are several of them). Many foreigners make mistakes to the amusement of the other villages.
Several trains travel to Lourdes, including TGV & night train service from Paris (six and nine hours respectively) and Tarbes in addition to intercity trains from Pau, Bayonne/Biarritz, and Toulouse. The small SNCF station offers minimal services, but there are free toilets, a small coffee/pastry counter, vending machines, and an adjacent cafe and quick service restaurant (service can be rather surly, even for France). Accessibility is excellent due to the large number of infirm and disabled pilgrims who visit Lourdes and many trains passing through Lourdes offer special services for the disabled. For information on trains to and from Lourdes, visit the SNCF website.
- 1 Lourdes railway station (Gare de Lourdes), 33 Avenue de la Gare (a few hundred metres from the town centre, and offers easy access and clear signs to the Domaine area).
Organized tour groups from all around the world may have dedicated coaches (and even priests as tour guides) that take them to town. Coach arrivals from Ireland and the UK to Lourdes are charters, run by specific travel agencies or charity organisations for organised pilgrim groups.
ACROSS organises all-inclusive tours every week between Easter and the end of October for those with special needs in the UK.
The nearest airport is 2 Tarbes-Lourdes (LDE IATA), approximately twenty minutes' drive from the town itself. Air France and its low-cost subsidiary HOP! operate daily flights from Paris Orly airport, while most other destinations in western and central Europe and the USA's east coast are served by charter flights. During the summer season, Ryanair operates flights from London Stansted and Milan (Bergamo). Public buses run depending on flight schedules for €3 one way, in general 2½ hours before departure time from Lourdes (Gare-SNCF, Cire, and Paradis bus stops) and 45 minutes after arrival from the airport.
There are other nearby airports with more flights, all of which require a transfer by train to Lourdes at the respective cities' train station:
- 3 Pau Pyrenees Airport (PUF IATA). Air France and HOP operate multiple daily flights from both Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly airports in Paris. Pau airport is approximately 40 minutes' drive away from Lourdes; a taxi would cost from €80 one way.
- 4 Toulouse-Blagnac (TLS IATA). Toulouse-Blagnac is a bigger airport that is two hours away by car. To take the train to Lourdes, transfer by bus or taxi to Matabiau station.
- 5 Biarritz Airport (BIQ IATA). Biarritz Airport is accessible from Lourdes by train and has flights from Paris, the UK, and Ireland by Air France, HOP!, Easyjet and Ryanair.
- If you arrive in Toulouse there is also the possibility of a transfer by minivan. Some operators, such as Ophorus and Toursud also organize guided day tours to the city.
Due to the small area of the town, most destinations can be reached on foot. Some buses do seasonal runs between the train station and some of the biggest or furthest hotels.
The Gave de Pau river splits the city into two. The east are where most of the shops and hotels are. The west part contains the Sanctuary complex and a number of high-end hotels a short walk away.
The downtown area is south of the train station and north of Avenue Marechal Juin. Most shops and restaurants can be found south of, and along the Rue de la Grotte, and west of Avenue Général Baron Maransin.
Lourdes is a pedestrian-friendly city with several pedestrian only streets and it is very easy to get around the town centre. It really is worth walking and exploring. The town is also used to disabled visitors, help is also readily available.
Lourdes has a complicated one-way street system around town and, because many streets are pedestrian only, it can be confusing and time-consuming getting around town. There are many places to park on the outskirts of the city (especially off the rue de Pau) and walking to the grotto is easy so, if possible, park and walk is the easiest way to get around.
Lourdes has 5 bus lines that connect the center with the suburbs. Routes L4 and L5 are useful for travel within the old town and the Lourdes Sanctuary Complex.
Each ride costs €1.00 regardless of distance.
While tourists who come here will usually look for ways to immerse in the religiosity, those that need some time out can certainly seek the rich history of the town.
Lourdes Sanctuary Complex
The compound is open from 5:00 to 00:00 daily.
- 1 Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, 1 Avenue Mgr Théas, ☏ +33 5 62 42 78 78. Daily 05:00-00:00. The largest church of the compound, with a spire 70 meters tall. Above the entrance is a mosaic depicting Pope Pius IX, who defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. The clock plays the Ave Maria hourly, and chimes the hours with a 2-tonne bell called Jeanne-Alphonsine.
- 2 Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, 1 Avenue Mgr Théas, ☏ +33 5 62 42 78 78. Daily 05:00-00:00. A Byzantine style church finished in 1899. The nave, surmounted by a dome, contains the fifteen decades of the traditional Rosary. Surrounding the nave are each of the traditional mysteries of the Rosary (from left to right, Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful mysteries), each featuring a mosaic incorporated with smaller images of related themes and Latin scripts. A mosaic of Mary, whose appearance is based on Bernadette's depiction, can be seen in the upper wall of the sanctuary and written Par Marie a Jesus which means "From Mary to Jesus".
- 3 Basilica of St. Pius X, 1 Avenue Mgr Théas. A basilica almost entirely underground, with a capacity of 25,000 people, and usually used for major events and notably, the International Mass (see Do). On the walls are 52 images in the gemmail style of overlapping stained glass. On the west ramp are the 15 traditional Mysteries of the Rosary, and on the east ramp are the 15 Stations of the Cross, designed by Denys de Solère. On the lower part of the east side is the series "Bernadette's Way of Light", based on sketches by René Margotton, which depict the eighteen apparitions together with two scenes from her life. There are two further images, one on each side of the entrance to the sacristy.
- 4 Church of St. Bernadette. The most modern church, across the river from the basilicas. It was built on the exact spot where Bernadette stood during the final apparition.
- 5 The Grotto of Massabielle. Down the large basilica is where Bernadette saw Mary, and out comes the spring water. People young and old, healthy and sick, flock from around the world to drink or wash with the miraculous water, or obtain the water for their keepsakes. You are asked to be respectful, however, to the people praying for their wishes to come true, by not speaking.
- 6 Château Fort Musée Pyrénéen, 25 Rue du Fort, ☏ +33 562 423 737. 15 April-14 October daily 10:00-19:00; 15 October-14 April Tu-Su 10:00-18:00 (Mo 10:00-18:00 during French school holidays). A thousand-year-old castle at the tallest hill within the town, offering magnificent views of the valley and informative objects that tell the story of Lourdes and the Pyrenees settlers. Adult €7,50; children 6-17 & students €3,50..
- 7 The Wax Museum, 87 Rue de la Grotte, ☏ +33 5 62 94 33 74, +33 06 87 16 39 87, email@example.com. Open Palm Sunday-October. M, Tu, Th-Sa: 09:30-11:45 & 13:45-18:00; W & Su: 10:00-11:45 & 13:45-18:00. Discover the life size wax figures. Learn about the story of St Bernadette's and Jesus Christ. Adults €8,50; children €3,50.
- 8 Pic du Jer Funicular, 59 Av. Francis Lagardère, ☏ +33 5 62 94 00 41. April-June daily 10:00-18:00, July-August daily 09:30-19:00, September-October daily 09:30-18:00. Set foot at the highest viewing point of Lourdes by traveling up using a funicular. Then explore a 20,000-year old cave that is 360 meters long, and finally take a descent from the peak on foot, by a mountain bike available for rent, or again using the funicular. Adults €12,50 return €10,00 one way; ages 6-17 and students €10,00 return €9,00 one way.
Keep in mind that many of the activities in the city are only available from April to October, though visitors are of course welcomed all year round.
Don't miss the nightly candlelight procession (buy your candle beforehand from one of the souvenir shops or at the sanctuary) in front of the Basilica and around the main square, with singing, prayer and a rosary recitation in maultiple languages. The procession of the sick to the Underground Basilica each afternoon is particularly moving, as well. Other religious activities available include confession (available in French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch), adoration, stations of the cross, candle lighting near the Grotto, and rosary in front of the Grotto each afternoon (in French) and at other times/places in other languages.
If you have a car, spend a day in the wonderful Pyrenees. Roadtrips to Pont d'Espagne, Gavarnie or de Col de Tourmalet offer breathtaking mountain scenery and lots of opportunities for hiking. There is a historic chateau on a hill visible from the town, as well.
If you're Catholic (or even if you're not), you can go to a Catholic Mass in any of the churches of the City. Unlike Vatican in which most of the service is held in Italian or Latin, you can find Mass held in some of the major languages of the world. And they are of course, free.
At the Sanctuary Complex, Masses are offered by the church or visiting pilgrimage groups in various languages throughout the day at many locations. Simply look at the TV screens at the main entrance, in front of the information center, and the baths for the schedule.
- Holy Water. Daily 06:00-00:00. Fill up a container with spring water that Bernadette dug during the apparation of Mary. Your patience will be tested as the water drops slowly and you have to touch the tap multiple times to keep it on. While it doesn't have any minerals unique to other springs, people are reported to be healed both physically and spiritually with its water, which is why those visiting bring this memento to their loved ones who cannot make the pilgrimage. There is also a water fountain behind the taps if you wish to drink it directly or to also fill up your container, but they also have low pressure. free.
- International Mass, St. Pius X Basilica (97 Boulevard Rémi Sempé) (held at the Underground Basilica). April-October Sundays, Wednesdays, Ascension & Assumption day 09:30. Held in six languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Dutch) simultaneously. Arrive early to get a seat. One wonderful experience is to arrive about 90 minutes early to be part of the choir (open to anyone who arrives early to rehearse). You get to sing with people of all 6 languages and have an excellent view of the Mass.
A mass in English is also held daily at 09:00 and Saturday nights at 18:15 at the Chapel of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which is on the same building as the Chapel of Reconciliation along the river.
- Torchlight Procession, Starts from the courtyard. Between Easter and October: Daily 21:00. Light a candle and participate in a bright night full of prayers. Pilgrims will recite the Rosary mysteries depending on the day in various languages and singing Ave Maria that tells the apparition stories while marching behind a statue of Mary. You are also invited to say your own intentions in between prayers and get to know fellow pilgrims. The procession starts from the front of the Basilica.
- Water gesture, Bathhouse next to Grotto. Daily 09:00-11:30, 14:00-17:30. Partake in one of Lourdes' infamous rituals where you will feel the spring water gushing from the ground that Bernadette dug. While the original custom invites you to bathe, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the use of its water to wash your face, your hands, and drink from your palms. Regardless of that, line up early before opening time to secure a place. free.
- 1 Lake Lourdes, Chem. du Lac (Bus L2), ☏ +33562427740. A breathtaking blue lake with wonderful views of green forest and mountains. Popular with the local population for partaking in water sports and fishing.
- 2 Lourdes Pyrénées Golf Club, Chem. du Lac, ☏ +33620586109. 16 April-15 October Daily 08:00-18:00, 16 October-15 April Daily 09:00-17:30. An 18-hole par 72 golf course by Lake Lourdes with views of the Pyrénées. 18-hole peak season €52, low season €42.
- 3 Hautacam. Winter during school holiday: Daily 09:00-17:00, non-school holidays W, Sa, Su 09:00-17:00, Summer school holiday: daily 11:00-19:00. A mountain resort with ski slopes, snowshoeing, and sled rides during the winter. In summer, treat yourself to downslope rides using bikes or electric scooters. All year round, go down the slope with a luge or watch the starry skies in the observatory.
Lourdes has an enormous number of shops selling all sorts of kitsch and religious souvenirs like statuettes of saints, rosaries, candles, containers for storing the water from the source near the Grotto, mugs and fridge magnets. If items like these are your thing, the large Palais du Rosaire offers an enormous selection and will wrap items for you to take home. Rue de la Grotte is perhaps the most crowded street in Lourdes as that is where most of Lourdes' stores and restaurants are located.
Many shops will close for 1½ – 2 hours around lunch; be prepared to be shooed out of the store or hurried along with your purchases if you are shopping around 12:30. On Sundays, a few shops and supermarkets should remain open, though maybe with reduced hours and staffing, to take a chance on foot traffic to or from the churches.
Shops often have flags or signs outside indicating the languages (besides the obvious French, usually English, Spanish, and Italian, although sometimes German and Dutch) spoken there.
- 1 Les Halles, 11 Place du Champ Commun, ☏ +33 5 62 42 54 11. Daily 06;00-13:30. The local merchant market that sells fresh produce and an opportunity for savoring some French snacks.
All these are in the city centre:
- 1 Le Seven, 12 Pl. Jeanne d'Arc. An interesting place with a motor theme and American life. Warm welcome. The pizzas are very good. The waiters are pleasant and efficient.
- 2 Restaurant Tibétain Lung ta, 8 Rue des 4 Frères Soulas. Authentic, friendly. The momos are excellent. Traditional salted butter tea to be discovered. Great little restaurant. Great Tibetan cuisine.
- 3 L'Occitan, 25 Rue Basse. Very friendly welcome. Simple and delicious cuisine in a natural setting. The welcome is friendly. The cooking of burgers and the leg of lamb is perfect. Home made fries.
- 4 Restaurant Pizzeria L'Angelus, 38 Rue du Bourg. Super friendly service. It's delicious and the staff are impeccable. Real Italian cuisine. Warm atmosphere.
- 5 Chez Tonton's, 4 Rue de Langelle. Excellent at service and atmosphere. Generous and excellent pizzas with homemade dough and top quality toppings. Super nice owners. Very friendly family atmosphere.
- 6 L'Epsylone, 6 Av. de la Gare. Excellent pizzas, a warm atmosphere, a cocoon of good humor. A simple and hearty cuisine. They have menus is a lot of languages.
- 7 Castel Pizzeria Restaurant Italien, 42 Rue du Fort. Very nice family atmosphere. Pretty tasty home made pizza. Nice and smiling people.
- 8 Pizzeria da Marco, 45 Rue de la Grotte (rue de la Grotte, at the top of the hill), ☏ +33 5 62 94 03 59, firstname.lastname@example.org. Tu-Sa 12:00-14:00, 19:00-22:00. A popular Italian pizzeria that also offers other classic Italian fares. Owner often personally greets customer or otherwise baking the pizzas. Especially busy at dinnertime. Staff are friendly. Pizzas from €12, seconds from €20 (Sep 2022).
- 9 Alexandra By Le Bon Sens, 3 Rue du Fort (rue de Fort, off the Rue de la Grotte), ☏ +33 9 54 30 26 91. W-Mo 12:00-14:00, 18:00-22:30. This small family-run restaurant specializes in local delicacies and has an intimate atmosphere. From €15 (Sep 2022).
- 10 Piment Rouge, 37 Rue de la Grotte, ☏ +33 5 62 41 47 87. Th-Mo 12:00-13:45, 19:00-22:45. Restaurant offering dishes from the Basque area, including duck, steak, and squid as specialties.
- 11 New Orleans Café, 13 Rue Sainte-Marie (near St Joseph's Gate, on rue Sainte-Marie), ☏ +33 5 62 42 13 97. Daily 08:00-01:00. Though the name says the namesake American city (and it speaks from the design), the food is ostensibly European. Dishes include sandwiches, pastries, soups and salads. For something more filling, opt in for the paella, pizza, or lasagna. Alcoholic drinks also offered. Food from €5, beer from €3 (July 2018).
While there are not a whole lot of bars in the city, it is worth noting that despite being an overwhelmingly Catholic city, the religion itself doesn't necessarily prohibit alcohol - even Jesus turns water into wine during a wedding and a couple Benedictine seminaries worldwide brew their own beer! What is frowned upon (and sinful), however, is excessive drinking to the point of being disturbing to everyone else.
Bistros usually offer a wine bar while brasseries would usually offer a full lineup.
- 1 Au Roi Albert, 109 Rue de la Grotte, ☏ +33 5 62 94 00 11. Daily 07:00-02:00. European comfort food and snacks, with a seemingly extensive pub and drinks ranging from wine to beer.
The famous water that gushes out from the springs are of course free. People would usually drink it for healing and spiritual purposes. Bring your own bottles, or buy one of the thousands containers or jerrycans (or one of the tasteful plastic bottles in the shape of a Mary statuette) available at almost every shop in town.
With both backpacker and suitcase styles, the town offers multiple hotel options that fit almost any budget most of the year. Because of the large supply, extremely cheap accommodation can be found, with double rooms in hotels comparable to hostel prices (for example, €40 for a double room). However, prices can soar during the summer and especially around Christmas and Easter, religious events and the Tour de France.
There is a special youth village on the left side of the Gave River offering accommodation and facilities to young people. There are campsites in or around Lourdes, and these can also be relatively inexpensive.
- 1 Hotel Lutetia, 19 Avenue de la Gare, ☏ +33 5 62 94 22 85. A modest family-run hotel near the train station with rooms overlooking the Pyrenees. Breakfast available for a fee. Near some of the cheapest places to eat in town. From €35.
- 2 Grand Hotel Moderne, 21 Avenue Bernadette Soubirous, ☏ +33 5 62 94 12 32. A big hotel only a short walk from the Lourdes shrine. Rooms range from singles to families with interconnected doors. Cavernous dining rooms with breakfast buffets and all-day Mediterranean offers. The friendly staff are proficient in English, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Doubles from €130.
Being a pious city doesn't mean that there's no crime. Use common sense and street smarts. Pickpockets may be common especially on streets with plenty of pedestrians. Do not leave your stuff unattended.
As many attractions may involve queuing, allow extra time and be patient.
The code area for Lourdes is 562 with 5 being the code for southwest France. Telephone numbers for the region are usually written as 33 5 62 (the phone number) using two digits after every space.
All of the major French telecom companies are supported within the city proper; coverage may be spotty if you are on the rural area of the Pyrenees. However, if you need to call the emergency number (112), by law your call should go through regardless of the telecom company. If you use an international SIM, check your telecom company to see if it has roaming partnerships with France. Alternatively, use a short term SIM card if you will be here for a while.
The same operator should also provide fast 4G LTE connection for Internet. WiFi (pronounced Wee-Fee, not Wai-Fai) is usually provided by your hotel and at some restaurants (usually indicated with the @ symbol), but hardly ever at churches; however the point being there for most is to pray, immerse in the liturgical events or talk to fellow pilgrims.