Journey’s end for tired pilgrims and the purported resting place of one of the 12 Apostles, Santiago de Compostela is a city with a staggering artistic and historical wealth. It’s one of the most important destinations in the Catholic world.
You’ll need a lot of time to see the old centre and its rich ensemble of churches, monasteries and stately squares that took shape around the pilgrimage site from the 900s onwards.
The main monuments all belong to a UNESCO site and are wonderful architectural achievements with details such as Romanesque sculptures that have been preserved for a thousand years.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Santiago de Compostela:
1. Camino de Santiago
When you visit Santiago there’s a good chance that some of the people on the streets have walked a very long way to be here.
The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) is a Europe-wide network of trails that converge at Roncesvalles and Jaca near the Spanish border and then continue the 800 km route west through northern Spain to Santiago.
It’s a Catholic pilgrimage to the saint’s supposed final resting place at the cathedral.
To see some Galician countryside you could try walking a small stretch of the route, marked by the famous scallop shell.
2. Catedral de Santiago de Compostela
And this is what those pilgrims walk those hundreds of miles for. This is where they say St. James is buried. It’s a supreme piece of Romanesque architecture and one of Spain’s most iconic buildings.
The entire city was built around this monument, and at 10,000 metres you’ll need a lot of time to explore every nook and cranny.
Excavations have been ongoing, and there’s a Cathedral Museum that you can enter for a small fee to see items recovered.
Much of the interior is in the baroque style, like the silver High Altar, where the Pilgrim Mass takes place every day at noon.
3. Pórtico de la Gloria
An attraction of its own, this is the cathedral’s main gate. You may find yourself staring at this incredible portal, mouth agape for a very long time.
That’s down to the detail of the Romanesque carvings made by the local sculptor Maestro Mateo in the late-1100s.
Fair to say that this was his life’s work: He agreed the contract in 1168 and the carvings weren’t completed until 1211, six years before he died.
Under the terms of the contract the poor guy would have had to pay 1000 gold pieces had he decided to back out at any time.
There are 200 sculptures in all, and as an ensemble its considered the pinnacle of Romanesque art in Spain.
4. Praza do Obradoiro
This vast square is ruled by the cathedral’s spellbinding baroque facade, and as you look around you’ll see masterworks spanning 700 years of the city’s history up to the 18th-century.
In the centre is a stone slab marking “kilometre zero” on the trail.
It’s a suitably monumental setting for the fireworks that take place on the 24th of July, the eve of St. James’ Day.
If you visit for this festival you’ve got to get to a bakery and buy a Torta de Santiago, made with ground almonds and dusted with icing sugar.
Also on the square are the Cathedral cloister, the Xelmírez Episcopal Palace and the neoclassical Palacio de Raxoi, now housing the city council.
5. Casco Historico
Within Santiago’s city walls you’ll be forgiven for believing that you’re stepping around a film set.
The Santiago tourism office lets you download an mp3 that you can listen to as you take a languid, three-hour amble around the most prestigious sights in the city’s historic centre, guiding you to all the main squares and ending up in the leafy Alameda Park.
Little Rúa do Franco, which connects with Prazo do Obradoiro, is a gorgeous old street, a slender pedestrian artery between old stone houses where many of the city’s best restaurants are found.
6. Monastery of San Martiño Pinario
This was founded in the ninth century by a group of Benedictine monks who settled in the city after getting news of the discovery of St. James’ remains.
What you see today dates from the late-15th century, the result of an injection of wealth after the monastery became part of the City of Valladolid’s Benedictine Congregation.
The church is a powerful piece of baroque architecture, regarded as one of the most spectacular in Spain.
Step up to the choir to see the staggering detail of the wood-carving and admire the altarpieces by the 18th-century architect Fernando de Casas Novoa.
7. Parque de la Alameda
City parks in Galicia are unlike the rest of Spain as the climate makes lawns easy to grow.
This is the case at Parque de la Alameda, which has large grassy areas as well as horse chestnuts, oaks, eucalyptus trees, cypresses and palms shading its paths.
Check out the gas-lit central avenue, which illustrates a quirk of 19th century Spanish society: There are different walkways depending on your social class.
The various flower beds, ponds, sculptures and fountains make Alameda a lovely place to be, but the views across to the Cathedral are what will stay with you after you’ve left.
8. Praza da Quintana
This square is completely sequestered by the majestic monuments of the Casco Historico. The east side is blocked by the tall, flat wall of the Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares.
This was founded in the 800s to look after the tomb of St. James, which had then only recently been discovered.
On the west side of course is the clock tower of the Cathedral of Santiago.
This is named the Berengial, after archbishop Berenguel de Landoira who oversaw its construction in the 1300s.
Down the steps, the lower part of the square was actually a burial ground right up to the late-18th century.
9. Mercado de Abastos
There can’t be many more beautiful market halls in Spain, and the Mercado de Abastos has been at this location for 300 years.
The current building, which dates to 1941, was designed to match the city’s architecture and has the appearance of a Romanesque church with its stone walls and long arches and windows.
Like most central markets in Spain it’s the place to be to witness everyday life.
The permanent stalls are set within arches facing a central aisle, selling local cheese, cured meat and fish and seafood fresh from the Atlantic.
Temporary stalls are also set up by the entrance, selling fruit and veg.
10. Colegiata de Santa María del Sar
Even against Santiago’s beautiful architecture this little collegiate church is special.
It’s a Romanesque building that was constructed in the 1100s next to the River Sar.
Little has changed in the intervening years, except buttresses were added down the sides in the 1700s to make the structure a little more sound.
Even now the church has a slightly wonky appearance.
The most beautiful details are the baptismal font, which dates to the church’s consecration, as does the cloister.
Take time to admire the detail of the stonework in the cloister: The arches and capitals were carved by Maestro Mateo, responsible for many carvings in the cathedral.
11. Hostal dos Reis Católicos
In the 1400s the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel walked the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain.
After completing it they provided the pilgrimage route with a lot of new infrastructure, including churches, bridges and hostels.
And this hostel next to the Cathedral was the most ostentatious part of the program.
It was completed in 1486 after ten years of construction and today is believed to be the oldest operating hotel in the world.
Now it’s a plush five star hotel with every modern luxury, for those in need of worldly comfort at the end of their long spiritual journey perhaps!
Spain is a nation in love with fish and seafood, and a great deal of it is supplied by Galicia from the Atlantic: Crawfish, razor clams, cockles, mussels, scallops, crabs, lobsters are all divine here.
Octopus is especially identified with this region, and the dish pulpo á feira is popular throughout Spain.
Octopus is boiled in a copper cauldron and then sliced and seasoned with paprika and served with boiled potatoes.
In fact potatoes are also a big part of the local diet, and it was here that they were first planted after specimens had been brought back from the New World.
13. Galician drinks
There are also a host of alcoholic beverages that are distinctly Galician, so you’ve got to give one or two a try.
Orujo is a pomace brandy, made with what’s left of the grapes following the pressing process for wine, and often also distilled with herbs or nuts and dried fruits.
Occasionally it will be served with some coffee, and is usually poured into a glass ice-cold.
Albariño is a Galician white wine with slight acidity (the grapes don’t ripen easily in the cool climate here) that makes it superb with the region’s seafood and fish.
Since you’re this close to Galicia’s stunning coast you should push on a little further and see it for yourself. Noia is the first town you’ll come to.
Like many on the coast it relies on fishing and a huge shellfish harvest that takes place in the autumn.
Like Santiago Noia has a charming old centre with the breathtaking gothic church of San Martino at its centre: As you enter via the main portal look up at the elaborate carvings in the arch.
The other great reason to visit is to trace Galicia’s wild Atlantic coastline, which has deep fjord-like crags, called rias here.
You can walk from Noia to get to the nearest beach or get in the car to discover 30 more within 45-minutes.
If you’ve had tapas in Spain you’ll have seen or tried the little green peppers named after this rural town.
Most have a mild flavour, but one or two in a batch may be fiercely spicy.
Finding out which one is part of the fun of eating them!
Less than half an hour towards the coast you’ll be able to see where they originated.
The best time to make this trip is in the first weekend of May when there’s a Pimientos de Padrón festival at the Franciscan monastery (they are credited with bringing the seeds back from the Mexico).
There’s Galician bagpipe music, free tastings and a vermouth session too.