Lying at the foothills of the Pyrenees that mark France's border with Spain, this small town is a major religious centre and one of the most important international Catholic pilgrimage destinations. The town gained this reputation in 1858 when a young peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, was thought to have been visited 18 times by the Virgin Mary in a grotto, which later became known as the Sanctuaire Notre Dame de Lourdes (the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes).
With millions of visitors flocking to the Sanctuary each year hoping to be blessed by its holy waters, it can sometimes seem like this is the town's only real attraction; however, if you look closely there are some other great sights that shouldn't go unnoticed.
A second eye-catching landmark in Lourdes is the Château Fort, a dramatic castle located on a rocky outcrop behind the town. This thousand-year-old fortress was actually famous before Soubirous's apparitions, and houses the Musée Pyrénéen (the Pyrenean Museum) which offers a detailed history of domestic, rural, and religious life in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. The hill is steep, but fear not, there is a free lift that takes you up to the castle so you can get great views of the town with minimal effort.
For more incredible views (panoramic, this time) head to the Pic du Jer viewpoint just outside of town. For the adventurous among you, you can hike to the top in about three hours, or if you fancy a more chilled approach hop on the funicular railway, which takes a far more speedy six minutes.
Another of this town's fascinating religious traditions is the Torchlight Procession that parades through the streets every night at 9pm. Made up of pilgrims carrying candles, torches, and a statue of the Virgin Mary, the procession ends at the Rosary Basilica, and includes a recital of prayers from the Rosary (a form of Catholic prayer) and a blessing for the pilgrims. The sea of flickering candles and displays of religious devotion are impressive whatever your faith, exhibiting this town's most important historical traditions.
There are a number of other religious sights to see which give more insight into the life of Soubirous and the customs of a pilgrim in Lourdes. These include La Source, the source of the fabled holy water, Soubirous's birthplace Moulin de Boly, Le Cachot, a prison where her family spent a year, and Chemin de Croix, a hillside pilgrimage location with 15 sites dedicated to telling the story of Jesus's journey with the cross.
Lourdes is about a two-hour drive from Toulouse and three hours from Bordeaux. If you're travelling from Paris, Lourdes is a hefty eight hours away by car, or you can hop on the speedy TGV and be there in just over five hours.