In this tutorial you will build a simple documentation project using Sphinx, and view it in your browser as HTML. The project will include narrative, handwritten documentation, as well as autogenerated API documentation.
The tutorial is aimed towards Sphinx newcomers willing to learn the fundamentals of how projects are created and structured. You will create a fictional software library to generate random food recipes that will serve as a guide throughout the process, with the objective of properly documenting it.
To showcase Sphinx capabilities for code documentation you will use Python, which also supports automatic documentation generation.
Several other languages are natively supported in Sphinx for manual code documentation, however they require extensions for automatic code documentation, like Breathe.
To follow the instructions you will need access to a Linux-like command line and a basic understanding of how it works, as well as a working Python installation for development, since you will use Python virtual environments to create the project.
Setting up your project and development environment¶
In a new directory, create a file called
README.rst with the following
Lumache ======= **Lumache** (/lu'make/) is a Python library for cooks and food lovers that creates recipes mixing random ingredients.
It is a good moment to create a Python virtual environment and install the
required tools. For that, open a command line terminal,
cd into the
directory you just created, and run the following commands:
$ python -m venv .venv $ source .venv/bin/activate (.venv) $ python -m pip install sphinx
The installation method used above is described in more detail in Installation from PyPI. For the rest of this tutorial, the instructions will assume a Python virtual environment.
If you executed these instructions correctly, you should have the Sphinx command line tools available. You can do a basic verification running this command:
(.venv) $ sphinx-build --version sphinx-build 4.0.2
If you see a similar output, you are on the right path!
Creating the documentation layout¶
Then from the command line, run the following command:
(.venv) $ sphinx-quickstart docs
This will present to you a series of questions required to create the basic
directory and configuration layout for your project inside the
To proceed, answer each question as follows:
> Separate source and build directories (y/n) [n]: Write “
y” (without quotes) and press Enter.
> Project name: Write “
Lumache” (without quotes) and press Enter.
> Author name(s): Write “
Graziella” (without quotes) and press Enter.
> Project release : Write “
0.1” (without quotes) and press Enter.
> Project language [en]: Leave it empty (the default, English) and press Enter.
After the last question, you will see the new
docs directory with the
docs ├── build ├── make.bat ├── Makefile └── source ├── conf.py ├── index.rst ├── _static └── _templates
The purpose of each of these files is:
An empty directory (for now) that will hold the rendered documentation.
Convenience scripts to simplify some common Sphinx operations, such as rendering the content.
A Python script holding the configuration of the Sphinx project. It contains the project name and release you specified to
sphinx-quickstart, as well as some extra configuration keys.
The root document of the project, which serves as welcome page and contains the root of the “table of contents tree” (or toctree).
Thanks to this bootstrapping step, you already have everything needed to render the documentation as HTML for the first time. To do that, run this command:
(.venv) $ sphinx-build -b html docs/source/ docs/build/html
And finally, open
docs/build/html/index.html in your browser. You should see
something like this:
There we go! You created your first HTML documentation using Sphinx.
First steps to document your project using Sphinx¶
Building your HTML documentation¶
index.rst file that
sphinx-quickstart created has some content
already, and it gets rendered as the front page of your HTML documentation. It
is written in reStructuredText, a powerful markup language.
Modify the file as follows:
Welcome to Lumache's documentation! =================================== **Lumache** (/lu'make/) is a Python library for cooks and food lovers that creates recipes mixing random ingredients. It pulls data from the `Open Food Facts database <https://world.openfoodfacts.org/>`_ and offers a *simple* and *intuitive* API. .. note:: This project is under active development.
This showcases several features of the reStructuredText syntax, including:
a section header using
===for the underline,
two examples of Inline markup:
**strong emphasis**(typically bold) and
an inline external link,
noteadmonition (one of the available directives)
Now to render it with the new content, you can use the
as before, or leverage the convenience script as follows:
(.venv) $ cd docs (.venv) $ make html
After running this command, you will see that
index.html reflects the new
Building your documentation in other formats¶
Sphinx supports a variety of formats apart from HTML, including PDF, EPUB,
and more. For example, to build your documentation
in EPUB format, run this command from the
(.venv) $ make epub
After that, you will see the files corresponding to the e-book under
docs/build/epub/. You can either open
Lumache.epub with an
EPUB-compatible e-book viewer, like Calibre,
index.xhtml on a web browser.
To quickly display a complete list of possible output formats, plus some
extra useful commands, you can run
Each output format has some specific configuration options that you can tune,
including EPUB. For instance, the default value of
inline, which means that, by default, URLs are
shown right after the corresponding link, in parentheses. You can change that
behavior by adding the following code at the end of your
# EPUB options epub_show_urls = 'footnote'
With this configuration value, and after running
make epub again, you will
notice that URLs appear now as footnotes, which avoids cluttering the text.
Generating a PDF using Sphinx can be done running
provided that the system has a working LaTeX installation,
as explained in the documentation of
Although this is perfectly feasible, such installations are often big,
and in general LaTeX requires careful configuration in some cases,
so PDF generation is out of scope for this tutorial.
More Sphinx customization¶
There are two main ways to customize your documentation beyond what is possible with core Sphinx: extensions and themes.
Enabling a built-in extension¶
For example, to enable the
extensions list in your
conf.py and add one element as
# Add any Sphinx extension module names here, as strings. They can be # extensions coming with Sphinx (named 'sphinx.ext.*') or your custom # ones. extensions = [ 'sphinx.ext.duration', ]
After that, every time you generate your documentation, you will see a short durations report at the end of the console output, like this one:
(.venv) $ make html ... The HTML pages are in build/html. ====================== slowest reading durations ======================= 0.042 temp/source/index
Using a third-party HTML theme¶
For example, to use the Furo third-party theme
in your HTML documentation, first you will need to install it with
your Python virtual environment, like this:
(.venv) $ pip install furo
And then, locate the
html_theme variable on your
conf.py and replace
its value as follows:
# The theme to use for HTML and HTML Help pages. See the documentation for # a list of builtin themes. # html_theme = 'furo'
With this change, you will notice that your HTML documentation has now a new appearance:
Narrative documentation in Sphinx¶
Structuring your documentation across multiple pages¶
index.rst created by
sphinx-quickstart is the root
document, whose main function is to serve as a welcome page and to contain the
root of the “table of contents tree” (or toctree). Sphinx allows you to
assemble a project from different files, which is helpful when the project
As an example, create a new file
docs/source/usage.rst (next to
index.rst) with these contents:
Usage ===== Installation ------------ To use Lumache, first install it using pip: .. code-block:: console (.venv) $ pip install lumache
This new file contains two section headers, normal
paragraph text, and a
code-block directive that renders
a block of content as source code, with appropriate syntax highlighting
(in this case, generic
The structure of the document is determined by the succession of heading
styles, which means that, by using
--- for the “Installation” section
=== for the “Usage” section, you have declared “Installation” to
be a subsection of “Usage”.
To complete the process, add a
toctree directive at
the end of
index.rst including the document you just created, as follows:
Contents -------- .. toctree:: usage
This step inserts that document in the root of the toctree, so now it belongs to the structure of your project, which so far looks like this:
index └── usage
If you build the HTML documentation running
make html, you will see
toctree gets rendered as a list of hyperlinks, and this allows you
to navigate to the new page you just created. Neat!
Documents outside a toctree will result in
WARNING: document isn't
included in any toctree messages during the build process, and will be
unreachable for users.
One powerful feature of Sphinx is the ability to seamlessly add cross-references to specific parts of the documentation: a document, a section, a figure, a code object, etc. This tutorial is full of them!
To add a cross-reference, write this sentence right after the
introduction paragraph in
Check out the :doc:`usage` section for further information.
doc role you used automatically references a specific document
in the project, in this case the
usage.rst you created earlier.
For example, to reference the “Installation” subsection, add a label right before the heading, as follows:
Usage ===== .. _installation: Installation ------------ ...
And make the sentence you added in
index.rst look like this:
Check out the :doc:`usage` section for further information, including how to :ref:`install <installation>` the project.
Notice a trick here: the
install part specifies how the link will look like
(we want it to be a specific word, so the sentence makes sense), whereas the
<installation> part refers to the actual label we want to add a
cross-reference to. If you do not include an explicit title, hence using
:ref:`installation`, the section title will be used (in this case,
Installation). Both the
:doc: and the
:ref: roles will be rendered
as hyperlinks in the HTML documentation.
Where to go from here¶
This tutorial covered the very first steps to create a documentation project with Sphinx. To continue learning more about Sphinx, check out the rest of the documentation.