Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s northwesternmost region called Galicia (as well as of the province of La Coruña), is among the most important places in Catholicism and the sole major tourist attraction in the region. After days of walking the world-famous Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), it can be quite surprising to enter a city that is all about tourism.
However, tourism certainly isn’t a novelty in this holy city. In fact, many consider Santiago de Compostela to be the very first major tourist destination in the world, and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have traveled to it every year for the last thousand years. As the burial place of one of the twelve Apostles of Christ, Saint James, this famous site is as important to people of the Catholic faith as Jerusalem or Rome.
What’s the history behind this city? Why do people go there? Are there any places in Santiago de Compostela that are worth visiting, besides its breathtaking cathedral? What about the culture of the place and its food and drinks? If you’re looking for answers to these questions, you’re in the right place – here’s everything you need to know about the capital city of Galicia and its wonders.
Table of Contents
- 1 The History
- 2 The Legends
- 3 Why go to Santiago de Compostela?
- 4 Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
- 5 Things to See in Santiago
- 5.1 Plaza del Obradoiro
- 5.2 Casco Antiguo (Old Town)
- 5.3 Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos
- 5.4 The Museum of the Galician Contemporary Art
- 5.5 Colegiata de Santa María la Real de Sar
- 5.6 Casa do Cabildo
- 5.7 Parque Alameda
- 5.8 Cidade da Cultura de Galicia
- 5.9 The Museum of the Galician People
- 5.10 The Museum of Pilgrimages
- 6 Where to Eat and Drink
- 7 Where to Stay
As the Roman Empire collapsed, the area of Spain that is now called Galicia was settled by a Germanic tribe called Suebi. The Suebi Kingdom was annexed by the Visigothic Kingdom, which, in turn, was conquered by the Arabs in the early 8th century. The only area of today’s Spain that was not conquered by the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate was its north-western corner, which became the Kingdom of Asturias.
In what is now Santiago de Compostela, the alleged tomb of Saint James was found by the bishop Theodemar of Iria. This took place in the early 9th century, during the Kingdom of Asturias period. A new settlement arose around the place of discovery and later came to be known as Santiago de Compostela.
An important thing to mention here is that the cult of Saint James of Compostela was not the only one to emerge in medieval Spain. In fact, there were a lot of region-specific cults in 10th century northern Iberia, such as Saint Aemilian in Castile or Saint Eulalia in Oviedo.
In any case, Santiago de Compostela became a much more politically important town during the 10th century, and several kings, such as Bermudo II or Ordoño IV, were crowned in its cathedral. During the same century, Santiago de Compostela was repeatedly attacked by Muslim invaders and Viking raiders, which lead to the fortification of the entire town.
By the mid-1100s, the pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James was not a Galician-only affair anymore – Santiago de Compostela became a place of pan-European importance. In the course of the following century, the only other places that were as revered and visited by Catholics all over Europe were Jerusalem and Rome. During this same time, the town became an archbishopric, which, in turn, increased its population and attracted even more pilgrims.
Centuries later, during the Napoleonic Wars, the town was sacked by the French. The consequence of this was the disappearance of the apostle’s remains, which were found nearly 100 years later in one of the cathedral’s cists, where the monks have hidden the relics from the French army. Nowadays, Santiago de Compostela has a population of nearly 100,000 and an increasingly diversified economy, although most of the city’s wealth still comes from tourism.
As the legend goes, Saint James, an apostle of Christ, found his way to Roman Hispania (modern Spain) to preach the gospel there. Even though pope Leo XIII acknowledged the genuineness of the relics in the late 19th century, the official Vatican has never really stated whether these remains belong to St James or not.
According to pseudepigrapha called Codex Calixtinus, Saint James returned to Judea from Galicia and was beheaded there under the orders of King Agrippa. The apostle’s disciples carried his body back to Galicia, where they had to deal with a local pagan queen called Loba.
She tried to trick the disciples and get them killed by a dragon and wild bulls, but, as the legend goes, these beasts calmed down and submitted to the disciples once they saw them carrying a Christian cross. Eventually, the disciples managed to reach their destination and bury Saint James at a location that is now known as Santiago de Compostela. For more read who was Santiago.
Around 800 years later, the relics were supposedly rediscovered by a local hermit, who immediately informed Theodemar of Iria, the bishop we’ve mentioned above. The bishop was then led to the burial place of Saint James by a star, which is the main reason behind Compostela’s name – “a field of stars” (from Campus Stellae). At the end of the Reconquista period, which saw Spain finally liberated from Islamic rule, it is said that Saint James miraculously intervened to save the Galician armies during their battles against the Muslims.
Why go to Santiago de Compostela?
Just like all other pilgrimages, the pilgrimage to this extraordinary Spanish city is done to pay homage to the relics. In this case, these would be the remains of Saint James (Santiago el Mayor in Spanish) who was, curiously, also a pilgrim in his time and went to many places in what are today Spain and Portugal. As you may have already guessed, that is precisely why Saint James is called “the patron of all pilgrims”.
And even though the Way of St. James (which is the English name for the network of European routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela) was immensely popular in the middle ages, it was gradually abandoned and fell into disuse during the 19th and 20th centuries. The main reason behind this is the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), which caused an intense secularization of European society and led to the confiscation of much of the infrastructure that was important to the Camino pilgrims.
However, in the late 20th century, there was a great effort to recover the Camino de Santiago in any way possible – the pilgrims were provided with new infrastructure in many places and new roads were built (and pilgrim routes established) in numerous sections of the network. This newfound accessibility is one of the reasons why the number of people making their way to Santiago de Compostela increases with each passing year.
However, the availability of the routes is still just one reason why people make an enormous effort to reach the Cathedral of Santiago on foot. The motivations are varied, and there are as many of them as there are people walking the Way of Saint James.
While it’s true that most people go to this city for religious reasons, a lot of them do so because of the cultural aspects of the entire journey. Obviously, a lot of pilgrims do it for their own, personal reasons, while some make the pilgrimage because of the good things they heard from people who traveled there previously. In any case, each motivation to visit Santiago de Compostela has its own set of nuances.
Another important thing to mention here is that Santiago de Compostela is home to thousands of students, due to its University of Santiago de Compostela. The university is one of the oldest in continuous operation and was established more than 500 years ago. The university is divided into three campuses, two of which are located in Santiago de Compostela itself (the South Campus and the North Campus).
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
There are many places worth visiting in this Galician city, but none of them are as important (or as breathtaking) as the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Located in the very heart of the city, this church is not only one of the most beautiful buildings of this type in Spain, but also in the entire world.
Along with St. Thomas Cathedral in India and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is only one of three existing churches that were built over the remains of Jesus’ apostles. It is a marvelous example of Romanesque architecture and a place where millions of pilgrims from all over Europe and the world have made their way in the last thousand years.
The very first religious building built over the burial site of Saint James was a simple chapel, which was then followed by two larger pre-Romanesque churches, the second of which was destroyed by the Muslim forces in 997. Today’s Catedral de Santiago de Compostela was founded in 1075, and its construction lasted all the way until 1211. It was embellished with various additions in the following years, which is precisely why it has many Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical, and Plateresque elements.
Welcoming the pilgrims are the Obradoiro Facade, one of the most lavish Baroque facades on the planet, and a massive doorway with over 200 religious figurines called Portico de la Gloria. The interior of the Catedral is extraordinary in every sense of the word – attending a mass in this church provides the pilgrim with an inspiring spiritual experience. By the way, the pilgrim mass is held twice a day – at noon and at 7:30 PM.
And while you’re there, make sure to pay a visit to the cathedral’s museum, which is located within the cloister’s westernmost section. There, you will find numerous exhibits that delve into a couple of different art forms, all of which explore the history of the church – tapestries, textiles, sculptures, paintings, archaeological findings, etc.
Things to See in Santiago
Whether you’re a pilgrim or not, this Galician city is a very rewarding destination with many things to see and do – there’s no doubt about that. Besides the magnificent cathedral we’ve mentioned above, there are many other attractions worth paying a visit to, and these are:
Plaza del Obradoiro
At the heart of Santiago de Compostela is a large pedestrian square called Plaza del Obradoiro. The cathedral forms its east side and the entire square is situated in what is called Casco Antiguo, which in Spanish means “old town”.
The name of the square, on the other hand, translates to “Workshop Square”. As you can already guess, this name has its origins in the old times when the cathedral was still under construction and there were a lot of stonemasons working on it.
Besides the cathedral, this historic Plaza is surrounded by a couple of other important landmarks as well. These include the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario, Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, the Colegio de San Jerónimo, as well as the Santiago City Hall (Pazo de Raxoi).
Casco Antiguo (Old Town)
The historic Old Town that we have mentioned above forms the center of Santiago de Compostela and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Old Town extends south of the Plaza de las Platerías and is absolutely worth checking out, whether you decide to do it on your own or by booking a tour.
At the center are two streets that are parallel to each other – Rúa del Villar and Rúa Nueva. The former of the two streets is particularly famous for Casa del Deán, which is an 18th-century building with gorgeous facade decorations. Taking a walk along these arcaded streets means seeing a lot of traditional buildings and experiencing the hustle and bustle of Santiago de Compostela – here, you will find a lot of boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops.
An important thing to mention here is that most of the Old Town is closed to automobile traffic. In other words, taking a walk through these lovely streets means experiencing the city’s center and its culture in a relaxing, quaint old-world atmosphere.
Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos
Once a hostel for the pilgrims, Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos is a phenomenal example of Plateresque Gothic architecture, with its four interior courtyards and a decorative facade. Back in the 16th century, the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile) founded this charming building as a place of lodging for the pilgrims.
Nowadays, Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos is a luxurious hotel, which only continues the building’s tradition of hospitality. The guest rooms are exceptionally comfortable and the hotel’s restaurant serves the best dishes of Galician cuisine.
One thing that makes Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos a great option for the pilgrims is that it has its own chapel. Its name is Capilla de Enrique de Egas and it allows guests to continue their spiritual journey even while they’re staying at the hotel.
The Museum of the Galician Contemporary Art
It is not a pretty building, but well worth visiting. The Centro Galego de Arte Contemporaine provides a delightful insight into the contemporary art of La Coruña and Galicia. Situated right next to the San Domingos de Bonaval Convent, the museum occupies an eye-catching building and displays various exhibits in its sleek, modern halls.
Breathtaking views of the historic quarter of this Spanish city can be taken in from the museum’s terraces. Another great feature is the charming park, which once belonged to the San Domingos de Bonaval Convent mentioned above but is now a part of the museum’s property. Besides the permanent collection, Centro Galego also hosts a variety of temporary exhibits.
Those who’d like to take a tour of this place will be pleased to know that the free guided tours can be taken by groups of four every week from Tuesday to Friday. Groups of students will even be provided with specific teaching materials on contemporary art during the tours.
Colegiata de Santa María la Real de Sar
On the outskirts of Santiago De Compostela is this impressive church that dates all the way back to the 1100s. The exterior of the Colegiata de Santa María la Real de Sar has flying buttresses that were added to it during the early modern period.
Just like many other Romanesque buildings of this type, this church also features three naves that are separated by pillars, and there are a lot of plant motif decorations in its interior. The barrel vaulting with ribbed arches of the building’s sanctuary, on the other hand, creates a very imposing feeling of spaciousness.
One particularly remarkable thing about this church is how well-illuminated its interior is. Another thing to appreciate here is the building’s cloister, which is one of the best examples of high medieval period architecture in the entire Galicia. If you decide to pay this place a visit, make sure to check out its serene, peaceful inner garden too.
Casa do Cabildo
When it comes to Baroque architecture, on the other hand, this building is one of its finest examples in the entire Galician region. Situated on the Plaza de las Platerías, this majestic aristocratic house was built in the 18th century and is well-known for its beautiful facade.
One of the most interesting facts about Casa do Cabildo is that it was the main source of inspiration behind “Mi Hermana Antonia”, a book whose story takes place in this holy city and which was written by Valle-Inclán in 1909.
Renovated 10 years ago, Casa do Cabildo is now an exhibition place and it’s open to visitors whenever it’s hosting art exhibitions. And due to its location on the Plaza de las Platerías, it’s next to impossible to visit the city’s cathedral without visiting this gorgeous building too.
When it comes to the parks of Santiago de Compostela, none are as well-known or popular as Alameda Park. Situated right next to the old town, the park is an alluring landscaped public space with lots of old trees and walkways. Don’t forget to visit the park’s Botanical gardens – these contain close to 100 different species of ornamental flora.
For the last 200 years, Parque Alameda has been a favorite place for residents of Santiago de Compostela to take a stroll or just relax in the sun. This fact was immortalized in a sculpture called Las Dos Marías, which memorializes the two sisters who used to take long walks through the park while flirting with the university students, back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Other monuments situated in the park are Porta dos Leóns (1835), the Church of El Pilar (1717), and Méndez Núñez Monument (1917). It’s one of the most soothing places in all of Santiago de Compostela and a must-visit destination for those traveling to this holy city.
Cidade da Cultura de Galicia
Here we have something completely different from the old buildings found in the city centre – an exceptionally sleek complex of modern structures. These were designed by an assembly of architects with Peter Eisenman at helm, and collectively serve as the centre of culture for all of Galicia.
This “City of Culture” was built on the top of Mount Gaiás, which is situated only a mile away from the cathedral. The Gaiás Centre Museum, which is one part of the complex, hosts a variety of very large and interesting exhibitions. Fortunately, there’s no entrance fee – the doors of the museum are opened to all who want to discover it.
Other parts of the complex include a central square for outdoor performances, a theater, as well as the Library and Archive of Galicia. Visitors who don’t speak Spanish have nothing to worry about – English-speaking guided tours can be booked at all times.
The Museum of the Galician People
Opened 45 years ago, Museo do Pobo Galego (which translates to “the Museum of the Galician People”) is situated in what was once the San Domingos de Bonaval Convent. As the name suggests, the exhibits displayed in this place illustrate the most important characteristics of Galician culture.
Some of the museum’s permanent collections include displays concerning the evolution of the people of Galicia from prehistoric to modern times, seen through the growth, trades, and tolls of the economies of this Spanish region.
Those visiting Museo do Pobo Galego can also learn about traditional art, crafts, and costumes through displays of Galician archeology, architecture, paintings, music, and clothes. Museo do Pobo Galego is open every day from 11 AM to 6 PM except on Sundays when it’s open from 11 AM to 2 PM.
The Museum of Pilgrimages
The final attraction on our list of places worth visiting in Santiago de Compostela is Museo das Peregrinacións, which, as the name suggests, deals with Camino de Santiago – a route, or to be more precise, a network of routes that lead from all over Europe to Santiago de Compostela. The most famous of the Camino de Santiago routes is Camino Francés (“the French way”), with more than 50% of pilgrims traveling to the capital city of Galicia via this route.
Situated only a couple of meters away from the cathedral, Museo das Peregrinacións provides visitors with a chance to learn more about the origins of Camino de Santiago and its pilgrims. The Museo explains the importance of the relics of Saint James to the pilgrims, and also demonstrates the cult of the apostle through religious objects and ancient artifacts.
Here, you will also be able to learn more about the influence of Camino de Santiago on the city itself and its artistic guilds. Museo das Peregrinacións has two sites – the one that’s just across the cathedral and the other that’s situated on Calle de San Miguel.
Where to Eat and Drink
One of the most well-known dishes of Galicia is cooked octopus, or “Pulpo”. Generally speaking, there are quite a lot of seafood restaurants in Santiago de Compostela, and these are suitable for all budgets. So, if you arrive in the city as a weary and hungry Camino pilgrim, make sure to visit one of these local fish restaurants – you won’t be disappointed.
However, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have to deal with long queues at the most popular eating places for the Camino pilgrims. This is particularly true for eateries that make and sell mouth-watering cakes, with the most famous one being “Tarta de Santiago”. While you’re in Santiago, don’t forget to try some pimientos de padrón, too.
When it comes to drinks, the Albariño wine is a must-try. Other popular drinks of this Spanish region include Crema de Orujo, Quiemada, and Licor café. And when it comes to places where you can try these drinks, the choice is huge. Rúa do Franco, for example, is one of the city’s main streets and it’s full of pubs and restaurants.
The following is a list of our favorite restaurants and bars in Santiago de Compostela:
Bodegón Os Concheiros – Located on Rúa de Berlín, this is one of the best places where weary Camino pilgrims can get their hands on cooked octopuses. The restaurant’s interior is quite modest and minimalistic.
O Gato Negro – Here, you’ll be able to enjoy a plethora of traditional Galician dishes, including orella de cerdo and berberechos. Just keep in mind that this place is usually very crowded, even in the middle of a hot July day.
Los Caracoles – You love snails? If so, this is the place to go. Besides snails served in paprika sauce, the cooks of Los Caracoles also prepare various types of seafood.
Enxebre – Located right next to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, which is the final destination of the Camino Pilgrimage, the Enxebre restaurant serves hearty meals such as Galician pancakes or the special fish stew called caldeirada de pescados.
Casa Marcelo – Chef Marcelo Tejedor prepares innovative dishes such as the combo of prawns and a dim sum of pork’s head. Expect communal tables and an open kitchen.
Modus Vivendi – Situated in what was once a stable, this pub is considered by many to be the oldest one in the whole of Galicia. Expect spirits, coffee liqueurs, cocktails, and a fine selection of Galician beers.
O Ateneo 30 – Out of all the bars in Santiago de Compostela, this one has the warmest and friendliest atmosphere. The interior is exceptionally stylish and there are plenty of warm and cold beverages to drink here.
Momo – In our opinion, the best thing about this place is its spacious terrace. With spectacular views of Santiago de Compostela, a bubbling fountain, and ample greenery, Momo’s terrace has an ambiance of its own.
Borriquita de Belém – Within this bar, you’ll be able to drink wines, rum, whiskey, and cocktails while listening to jazz, rock, blues, flamenco, and reggae. It’s one of the liveliest bars in all of Santiago.
Garoa – Need a cold drink on a hot July day? Garoa is the place to go. Here, you’ll find award-winning bartenders serving everything from tequilas to vodkas, rum, gin, and cocktails in a genuinely elegant environment.
Where to Stay
Those coming to Santiago de Compostela, their final destination on the Camino pilgrimage, will want to have a good night’s rest before exploring the city. If you’re on a budget, your best bet is Hotel Atalaia B&B, with its comfortable beds and friendly service. Another budget-oriented hotel with a great location is A Tafona do Peregrino. You’ll find family rooms, an on-site restaurant, free Wi-Fi, and airport transportation here.
Those looking for something a bit more upscale should check out the Altair Hotel and the San Francisco Hotel Monumento. The former offers stylish rooms and self-service laundry, while the latter provides its guests with an indoor pool and a charming central courtyard. What is more, San Francisco Hotel Monumento is situated less than 300 meters away from the cathedral.
Looking for a genuinely luxurious place to stay while you’re in Santiago de Compostela? If so, head over to the Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, which, as its name suggests, is situated inside the 16th-century building we’ve mentioned above. Another extravagant place you can stay at is Hotel Spa Relais, which offers numerous amenities such as a sauna, hot tub, indoor pool, and full-service spa.
One of the most revered shrines in all of Christendom, the capital city of Galicia is a great place to visit whether you’re a pilgrim or not. Besides the fact that Santiago de Compostela has many interesting attractions worth paying a visit to, it is also one of the most convenient locations for tourists who’d like to explore the west coast of Spain and the region of Galicia itself.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.