08 Jun More than the Camino: A city guide to Santiago de Compostela
Nestled in the verdant hills of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela is one of Spain’s most visited cities. Most visitors are here to conclude the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route through northern Spain.
But there’s much more to this city than the Camino. With fantastic food and architecture, Santiago is a budget-friendly, atmospheric destination for a city break.
I’ll admit Santiago wasn’t the most obvious choice for our spring getaway.
We knew of the Camino, and its connections with the city, but not an awful lot more. But Santiago de Compostela kept cropping up when we were looking for flights and we started to wonder if we should give it a go. A little bit of research online and a few conversations with friends later, and we’d established that it looked astonishingly reasonable. As a bonus, we heard rumours that the region is home to some of the best produce in all of Spain.
The signs suggested it should be worth a punt, and happily it was.
We indulged in four days of tapas eating, ancient street strolling and Camino wandering (well, when in Rome). And whilst the weather wasn’t quite Andalucia, Santiago certainly has its fair share of charms that deserve a little more recognition.
Here’s my guide to the city of the Camino.
A note about the Galician climate
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia, a region in the north-west corner of Spain. It’s a little pocket of green between the Atlantic coast and sweeping plains of central Iberia. And the lush landscape belies a simple truth. It rains here. For much of the year, Galicia is cool and wet. When the summer sun does arrive, it’s glorious – but it’s not quite like the Mediterranean.
Why am I telling you this? Because sometimes I get it wrong. I packed summer dresses and sandals for the end of May and, well, it was rather optimistic. Spring is warm but not hot, with misty mornings and frequent showers. The day tended to start damp, but evenings were brighter and warmer with temperatures in the high teens.
But don’t let this put you off. It’s a wonderful climate for hiking and exploring. The countryside is leafy green with vegetation throughout the year, and temperatures are rarely so sweltering that walking is no fun. Pack a waterproof and a few layers, but bring your sunnies just in case.
How to get to Santiago de Compostela
Easyjet flies to Santiago de Compostela (Lavacolla) airport from across Europe. We flew from London Gatwick, with a swift one hour 40 minute flight time.
Once you’re landed, it’s easy to find the orange coloured airport bus just outside the door of arrivals. This whisks you into town in just 20 minutes. Hop off at the city’s somewhat austere bus station or the more attractive Plaza de Galicia depending on which side of town you’re staying.
Buses are operated by Empresa Freire, and a single ticket from the airport to city centre cost just €3 in May 2018.
What to do in Santiago de Compostela
Half the joy of this city is getting lost and stumbling across its many charms. But to get you started, I’m sharing our favourite discoveries, and things not to miss.
Want to know how we packed these into our four days? Skip along to the itinerary at the end.
1. The Cathedral and nearby buildings
The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the heart of this city.
Whichever direction you approach from you’ll see the opulent spires rising up from the hillside, marking its centre.
It has several claims to fame, including the relics of St. James (the name James translates variously to Santiago or Jaume in Spanish, Santiago in this case) and the largest incense burner in the world. And for list lovers, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.
The cathedral is open free of charge throughout the day, and frankly you can’t visit the city without at least popping your head inside. But I actually enjoyed exploring the exterior most. Whilst the interior of the cathedral is graceful, and lets the star of the show – the grand altar and shrine to St. James – shine, it’s not huge or outstanding compared to some others in Europe. But from the streets and squares surrounding the cathedral, you’ll notice quite how extraordinary it is. It’s a brilliant mis-match of architectural styles and absolutely covered with some of the most elaborate stone carvings I’ve ever seen. You can happily pass an hour or more tracing the outline of the building and taking it all in.
The main entrance to the cathedral is currently undergoing restoration works, but never fear, the rest is just as interesting. Use the entrance on the very pretty Praze de Praterias instead.
2. Explore the old town streets
Just as you’d hope to find, the narrow streets and squares of Santiago’s old town are a delight.
As with any city, Santiago has it’s own quirks and charms that set it apart. It’s enjoyably neither over-restored nor overly shabby, a balance that can be hard to find in some parts of Europe. You’ll find something different around every street corner, from stone arcades with shops and cafes nestled underneath to glass-fronted Gallerias and chapels everywhere you look.
Whilst Rua Nova, Rua do Vilar and Rua do Franco are the main thoroughfares, there is plenty to stroll around and see elsewhere. Early in the morning is wonderful – you’ll have the streets largely to yourself and you can watch the city come alive. But if you want to experience Santiago at it’s very best, head out in the early evening with the crowds. Take a wander, stop for a drink and a tapas or two, and savour the atmosphere.
3. Meander around the city’s parks and gardens
There’s plenty to choose from, each with a distinctly different character.
Alameda park is closest to the cathedral and everything you’d want from a splash of green in a city centre. Wide and shady boulevards, great views, a deliciously fragrant rose garden and a smattering of elaborate staircases jostle for space.
For something a little more unusual, I loved Belvedere park just behind the Museum of the Galician People. The grounds of a former convent, the park weaves its way uphill with views of the old town. Towards the top of the park, you’ll find open, grassy spaces but lower down there are shady corners and labyrinthine paths to stroll along. Potter downhill a little more and you’ll find Belvis park – a much bigger green space that sits below the old town.
The least likely green space in the city turned out to be my favourite. High on a hill just outside the city is the curious City of Culture, a sweeping expanse of modern glass and stone. Intended as a sort of cultural focal point for the region of Galicia, the reality is that it’s a somewhat-still-under-construction building site. There’s a particularly excellent kids play area but a gaping hole in the plaza. Interesting as it is, it’s really not worth a visit in it’s own right yet.
But hear me out, there are still two very good reasons to make the 2km (ish) walk here. The first is for fantastic views of the city and it’s spires. And the second is for the Bosque de Galicia (or Woods of Galicia). The whole hillside is being cultivated with plant and tree species native to the region, and once it gets some more growing done you can tell it’s going to be great. It’s still very much in its infancy as of May 2018, but it’s definitely one to watch.
4. Abastos market
You knew I’d find a market, didn’t you?
Galicia has a proud heritage producing some of Spain’s most diverse and interesting food. There are few better places to see this in real life than on the colourful, crowded stalls of Santiago’s market. The Mercado de Abastos de Santiago is a little over ten minutes walk from the cathedral, and is actually six small halls clustered together. Built during the 1940’s, its modernist architecture makes it instantly recognisable.
Best and busiest early in the morning, the market is fragrant, lively, and packed with every kind of produce you can imagine – and more. Better still, head here on a Thursday when local smallholder and farmers join in with temporary stalls spilling out onto the surrounding streets.
5. Discover more about the region of Galicia
For a small city, Santiago packs in a lot of museums.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there are a number dedicated to the cathedral and the Camino. But it’s also home to several devoted to Galician culture, including the Galician Centre for Contemporary Art and the Museum of the Galician People. We decided to try the latter on a whim, and weren’t disappointed.
Housed in a former Convent on the edge of the old town, the Museo do pobo Galego looks a little austere from the outside. But head inside the vast wooden doors and you’ll discover a suprise – beautiful cloisters circling a lush green garden. And there’s an additional treat, the Convent’s chapel, which was as beautiful as any we saw in town.
The museum itself is excellent. Although most of the commentary is in Galician (there are explanatory cards in English and Spanish), the exhibits speak for themselves. There are areas dedicated to coastal fishing, heritage industries and local agriculture as well as traditional dresses and cultural celebrations. The colourful displays shed a fascinating light on the different geographies, climate and culture in this part of Spain. Delightfully, they kept us entertained for the best part of two hours.
It also happily fits my new ‘coffee’ rule. If entry costs less than (or the same as) heading to a cafe instead, it’s worth a try. Full price entry costs €3, with tickets for students and children just €2.
6. Head up high on the surrounding hills
Fancy something different to the Camino but want to get out the city? We found plenty of walking to enjoy without heading too far out – or needing to hop on a bus or train.
The surrounding hills of Monte Pedroso, Monte do Viso and Monte do Gozo are criss-crossed with paths and trails. We spent one morning happily exploring the slopes of Monte Pedroso and the river below. Head to Granxa do Xesto park just below the summit to get a flavour for the native woodland and have fun on the play trails.
7. Get a taste of the Camino
You can’t escape the influence of the Camino in Santiago. After all, it’s been drawing travellers here and shaping the city for hundreds of years.
And as they say – if you can’t beat them, join them. We decided it would be fun to walk a stretch of the Camino into the city to give us a feel for the experience and to approach the monumental cathedral on the hill on foot.
There are actually several Camino (or pilgrimage) routes that flow in and out of the city. The French Way, that runs from St.-Jean-Pied-De-Port on the French border is most famous, but there are other paths from elsewhere in Spain. We chose the Camino de Fisterra that links the city with the Galician coast. A quieter route, it gave us a chance to explore a different area of countryside close to the city. We took a bus (running hourly) to the nearby town of Negreria, from which it was a 20km (ish) walk back to Santiago. For us, it was a comfortable afternoon’s walk (we’re pretty pacey) that took us through a patchwork of farmland, forest, suburban towns and traditional stone walled villages. And just as things started to get tiring underfoot, the spires of the cathedral and terracotta rooftops appeared on the horizon, beckoning us home.
There are plenty of other options (using public transport) you could choose to walk a part of the Camino. The routes are well-signposted and you’ll find the paths peppered with others making the same journey.
8. Eat and drink to your heart’s content
Santiago de Compostela is hands down one of my favourite places I have eaten in Spain.
Galician food is much more than your average patatas bravas.
Aside from embarrassment of riches in the form of local produce, the city is also home to some surprisingly good tapas bars, bakeries and cafes. Finding more authentic food and experiences can be difficult in cities that attract lots of tourists, but you won’t have much of a challenge here.
I’ve got so much to share about what and where we ate, I’ve write a separate post all about it.
Check out our favourite finds and the best tapas bars in A food lover’s guide to eating in Santiago de Compostela
We had almost four full days in Santiago de Compostela, giving us plenty of time to explore the city and surrounding area.
Santiago could easily be enjoyed in a weekend trip as it’s pretty compact. If you’re planning to stay for more than two or three days I’d recommend either bringing your walking boots or heading out to explore some of Galicia’s other cities.
Here’s a quick summary of how we spent our time.
Arriving on a morning flight, we checked into our accommodation before hvaving a quick spin round the old town and stopping for our first cafe con leche. We spent the afternoon exploring the city’s parks and green spaces before tucking into tapas.
A half day hike along the river and into the foothills of Monte Pedrosa gave us a chance to get to know the Galician landscape a little more. An afternoon exploring some of the city’s museums gave us a flavour for Galician culture and heritage.
We headed out to the coast and the nearby city of A Coruna.
Read all about our adventure to coastal Galicia in Coasts and Canas: What to do in one day in A Coruna.
Walking in the footsteps of pilgrims, we strolled a day’s route of the Camino de Fisterra (that leads to Galicia’s coast) back into the city. The time felt right to visit the cathedral on our return, before one last fill of incredible local food.
Where to stay in Santiago de Compostela
There’s an abundance of good value for money accommodation in Santiago – from pilgrim auberges to luxury hotels.
We stumbled across Domus Stellae apartments on booking.com and couldn’t have been happier with our choice. Two minutes walk from the cathedral, the apartments are located in a lovely old townhouse overlooking the street below. Very recently converted, our studio was absolutely immaculate and had everything we needed and more. With a small but well equipped kitchen it would be great for a longer stay.
So that’s Santiago in a nutshell. Or rather a large nutshell.
Is it worth visiting? Absolutely.
But as it’s a smaller city, take the opportunity to explore the region of Galicia beyond Santiago de Compostela during your stay. It’s distinctively different to much of mainland Spain, making it a great choice if you’re looking to visit somewhere a little unique. Galicia is also perfect for those who want to walk and cycle (even if the Camino isn’t your cup of tea).
I’ll be back soon with more about indulging and eating out in Santiago (trust me, it’s one to look forward to!), plus a little more about our day trip to A Coruña.