05 Jul Coasts and cañas: What to do in one day in A Coruña
On a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic ocean is A Coruña, a Spanish port city with a decidedly Galician flavour. Look beyond the modern city streets and you’ll find UNESCO world heritage sites, great food and a wild, rugged coastline. A Coruña might not be the first place you’d think to visit in this part of Spain, but my city guide will show you some of its hidden gems.
I can’t resist a day out to a nearby town whenever I’m on a city break. Somehow it feels a little strange to stay in one place for a whole trip. And besides, I think a little adventure beyond the city limits is a great way to get feel for a region and find a different perspective.
On our recent trip to Santiago de Compostela in Spain I was particularly keen to get out and about. In part, I knew that Santiago wasn’t a huge city and that we might appreciate a change of scenery (although delightfully Santiago turned out to be bursting with things to do). But we were also curious about Galicia’s wild Atlantic coast, and a train ride to A Coruña was the easiest way to reach this.
Now here’s the honest bit. The weather wasn’t the best on the day that we visited, and I’m not sure that we saw A Coruña at its finest. I’m not entirely confident in shouting from the rooftops that you should head here immediately with your next available chunk of annual leave. But if you do find yourself in this neck of the woods, you be reassured that there are some surprises sprinkled around this coastal city – and I’m going to share them with you in this post.
(Oh, and if you do find yourself here under brighter skies let me know what it is like. I’d be heartened to know that’s a little chirpier with a bit of sun on it)
Want to know more about our adventures in Santiago de Compostela? Find out why you should give this underrated yet beautiful city a try.
A quick introduction to A Coruña
A Coruña is the second largest city in the region of Galicia and located on the Atlantic coast of north-west Spain. It’s a major industrial port as well as a university city, with a population just shy of 250,000. And much to my surprise, it’s also the home of clothing chain Zara. Or rather, it’s home to their first ever store. Zara’s offices are based in a small town nearby.
Whilst all this makes the city sound like a pretty contemporary sort of place, it has ancient roots too. There were prehistoric settlements here long before the Romans arrived two thousand years ago, transforming A Coruña into an important trading post. The rest, as they say, is history. The city has maintained its position as a strategically important port ever since.
How to get to A Coruña
Unless you’re travelling by car, chances are you’ll be travelling from – or via – Santiago de Compostela.
Taking a train is the easiest and quickest option. A single off-peak ticket cost us €5.90 from Santiago, and we arrived in a little under 45 minutes. If you’re flying into the region, a bus will take you from Santiago-Lavacolla airport to Santiago station for the rail connection. Alternatively, there are direct rail services from major Spanish cities, including Madrid, several times a day.
Check Renfe’s website for timetables.
What to do once you’re in A Coruña
First of all, don’t be disheartened by the walk from the station. A Coruña sits on a peninsula, with the older and more interesting parts some way from the station. The first part of the walk in this direction is through the land that architecture forgot. Suburban A Coruña was born mostly in the ’60s and ’70s and is a labyrinth of grey dual carriageways, concrete and tower blocks. But keep going, there’s good stuff beyond.
The old town and city streets
To get a feel for the old town of A Coruña, head straight for Maria Pita square.
This grand plaza is the metaphorical heart of the city. It’s also a great example of the traditional architecture that it’s famous for. One side is flanked by the imposing town hall, whilst the others are lined with grand townhouses each with glazed galerias on the upper floors. Galerias are a wonderfully Galician thing – covered balconies with huge windows to the front. They’re designed to allow you to sit out in all weathers and you’ll find them dotted throughout the city.
Narrow shopping streets radiate out from the square, higgledy-piggledy with shops, cafes and restaurants. Follow Rua San Augustin and you’ll find the city centre’s covered market. We popped inside to escape the drizzle and take a look at the day’s catch and veg on display.
One of the little passageways leading off the square brings you out on the waterfront, at the rather charming Parque La Marina. There’s galerias galore here, and an easy route onto the coastal promenade – the Paseo Maritimo.
There’s plenty to look at and explore this part of town. The nearly San Carlos garden is also an easy stroll along pretty streets. Just remember that as in most of Spain, shops are largely closed between noon and three or four pm and it gets rather quiet. But it’s not a problem – rather time to try something else.
Explore the Paseo Maritimo
A Coruña is rightly very proud of the Paseo Maritimo.
The Paseo, or promenade, sweeps along the city’s coastline – all 10k of it. It’s a wide boulevard that hugs the water and is made for strolling, cycling and running. Although walking the full length of it is a fairly ambitious undertaking, spending some time exploring sections is a great way to get a feel for the city and the coast beyond. From sandy beach to ferry terminal, you’ll find every face of the city along here – along with plenty of its residents.
Castillo de San Anton
If you’re exploring the city’s waterfront, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll spot the castle of San Anton jutting out into the channel. This little fortress is home to A Coruña’s archaeological museum, and in my opinion, it’s worth half an hour of anyone’s time.
You might recall that from my posts about Santiago that I’ve got a new rule when it comes to museums. If entry costs less than a cup of coffee (by British standards at least) it’s always worth a punt. When we found ourselves strolling past the castle it was drizzling and a sign announced entry was just €2. I was sold.
My expectations weren’t high as it looked rather tiny, but it’s actually a captivating little place. Not only is the building and history of the fortress interesting, but it’s also packed with medieval carved stonework, Iron Age artefacts and Roman remains. I’d go so far as to recommend stopping by even if the sun is shining (I suspect the views from the roof would be fabulous).
Museo Arqueologico – Castillo de San Anton Paseo Alcalde Francisco Vázquez 2. 15001 A Coruña
Take in the Tower of Hercules
The Tower of Hercules is the city of A Coruña’s pride and joy, and the reason why most tourists make their way here.
A phenomenally large stone structure, the tower is a lighthouse that has guarded this piece of coastline since the Romans first arrived. Variously restored at different times over the centuries, it’s mostly retained its original appearance and stonework. No mean feat for a building two thousand years old. It’s been rightly recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site, and one with a pretty outstanding location.
You can climb the tower inside, but with a fair few visitors milling around, we decided we were happy to admire it from outside.
Something you don’t expect to encounter in a major port city is a huge expanse of white sand. But that’s exactly what you’ll find in A Coruña.
To the west of the old town, sheltered by the promontory of rock that’s home to the Tower of Hercules, the shoreline sweeps in a wide arc. This bay is home to two beaches; Riazor and Orzan. It’s not your typical seaside town – the beaches are backed by a main road with hotels and office buildings facing out to sea. But you could easily see how spectacular (and appealing) it would look on a sunny day.
Apologies for the lack of tantalising photos but on the day we arrived a serious-looking team of machines were working on a beach restoration project. I’m fairly confident it’ll be looking cracking by now!
Eating and drinking in A Coruña
As with the rest of this region, you’ll have no difficulty finding great places to eat and drink here. There’s almost perfect storm where fantastic regional produce meets just enough visitors (but not too many), resulting in an abundance of affordable, regional and authentic food.
You’ll find the majority of places to eat in the streets close to Maria Pita square. Unlike many seaside towns, there’s very little on the waterfront which surprised us a little. But once you know where to go, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
For really good coffee
Ben uncovered Dispar online, which was handy as we’d never have spotted it otherwise – it’s hidden along a narrow passageway. This tiny shop brews coffee for coffee enthusiasts, and if you’re gagging for something other than a cafe con leche (which to be fair, I could drink until the end of time) it’s the perfect stop.
It’s notable for two reasons; one because it’s refreshing to see a young, independent cafe in this part of the world, and two because it’s actually in a part of town that’s home to lots of great looking cafes. Even if this place doesn’t float your boat, I’m sure one of its neighbours will.
Dispar Alcade Canuto Berea 4, A Coruña
For a spontaneous lunch
When we arrived in A Coruña, we spent a short while perusing the old town before heading out towards the Paseo Maritimo. And in the way that so often happens, time seemed to rush by. Before we knew it, the clock was striking two and we’d not actually had any lunch.
I’d had at the back of my mind that we might eventually come across somewhere nice to eat on the waterfront. But as this didn’t seem to pan out, we optimistically made a beeline from the Tower of Hercules back towards the city centre. After a few moments, we stumbled across Jamoneria Vales. We could have continued further into the centre for a more formal lunch, but the dark interior and delectable produce twinkling in the window just look so good.
Vales is a delicatessen and wine bar, and an absolute delight. Selling everything from ham and cheese to beautiful little appetisers and tapas to take home at the front of the store, the back serves tapas, snacks, coffee and wine at elegant tables. Starving, we tucked into their ‘gourmet’ bocadillos. Mine overflowed with crispy bacon and melty local goats cheese, Ben’s with chorizo and tetilla cheese.
Jamoneria Vales Calle de la Torre 48, A Coruña
For little of the local brew
A Coruña happens to the hometown of Galicia’s most popular beer – the eponymous Estrella de Galicia.
And as it would be rude not to sample all the local delights whilst we were here, we called into the old brewery – now a modern beer hall of sorts – on our way back to the station. If I’m honest, in part we just wanted to escape the grey skies and drizzle. But the cheery atmosphere and outrageously good value tapas made it a worthwhile stop in its own right.
It’s not the fanciest of bars, but if you want to drink like a local and see a real-life side to the city, this is the place to do it.
Cerveceria Cuarto Caminos Cerveceria Estrella de Galicia, Concepción Arenal, 10, A Coruña
So that’s A Coruña in a nutshell.
It might not be a destination city, but it’s real Spain and there are some real delights. The city is a curious contrast to nearby Santiago de Compostela, if you’re craving bright city lights and authentic contemporary Spain. And if the sun is shining, I imagine it’s an absolute joy.
And as seems to be a theme in this part of the world, no matter what you think of the city you won’t be disappointed by the abundance of great food.
Galicia – it’s delightfully different and delicious.