Santiago de Compostela is a beautiful city in Galicia, Northern Spain. It’s one of the most important cities in the region. Most foreign tourists visit it as a part of their Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of Apostle St.James, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Since the rediscovery of the tomb of St.James in the 9th-century hundreds of thousands of people arrived in Santiago following different Camino routes. Even if you’re not a pilgrim the city is a great place to visit. Santiago offers many interesting things to do from visiting historical monuments to wine and tapas tasting.
How to get to Santiago de Compostela?
There is an international airport Santiago–Rosalía de Castro Airport 12 km away from Santiago de Compostela. There are direct flights to Santiago from London, Dublin, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lisbon, and many Spanish cities. If you’re coming from the US, Canada, Australia, etc. you’ll need a connection flight. There is a bus that runs every 30 minutes between the airport and the city.
Santiago is connected by bus and train services with many cities such as Madrid (train and bus), Lisbon, and Porto (bus, train with one switch). If you’re coming from Barcelona it’s better to take a flight, both train and bus journeys take very long, over 10 hours.
The best time to visit the city
Summer months, June to August, is when the weather is the best in Galicia; warm, sunny, and not too much rain. Unlike in Madrid, Barcelona or the south of Spain, it never gets very hot here and rains happen often even in the summer. August and the first half of September is the peak season for the Camino de Santiago when thousands of pilgrims arrive in the city every day. If you decide to come at that time book your accommodation in advance.
Border season of April-May and the second half of September-October is far less busy than the summer though it might be quite chilly and rainy all depends on your luck.
Winter months, November to March, are the coldest and rainiest months in Galicia. It’s not the best time for visiting Santiago de Compostela. Due to bad weather, many things to do in Santiago, mostly outdoor activities, might be not available.
Places to stay in Santiago de Compostela
I’ve been to Santiago 8 times; once as a tourist and 7 as a pilgrim. I’ve stayed at many places in different parts of the city. Usually, after staying in many albergues on the Camino we book private accommodation in Santiago. I can definitely recommend staying in or close to the center. It’s cheaper to stay a couple of kilometers away but you’ll have to walk these kilometers several times a day which is not ideal if you arrive in Santiago after walking the Camino. Whatever you want to do in Santiago de Compostela to visit the Cathedral to go out is in the historical center.
My favorite places to stay in Santiago de Compostela
Budget | Santiago KM-0 | A great albergue/hostel just 50 m away from Praza Obradoiro and the Cathedral, close to the Pilgrims’ Office.
Middle price | Hospedería San Martín Pinario | This place is located right next to the Cathedral. There are special rooms for pilgrims at Hospedaría, these rooms are much more basic compared to the standard room and cost less. If you’re a pilgrim walking the Camino you can book one of these rooms via email [email protected] If you walk in the peak season the booking has to be made a couple of weeks in advance.
High-end | Parador de Santiago – Hostal Reis Catolicos | You can’t find a place to stay closer to the Cathedral and the historical center than this hotel. It’s been an important part of the Camino de Santiago for centuries. It was built in 1486 and is considered to be one of the oldest hotels in Europe. This hotel is just a recommendation, I’ve never stayed here but the next time we’re in Santiago after completing the Camino we’re going to spoil ourselves and stay at Reyes Catolicos for a night. If staying at is out of your budget but you really want to see how it looks from the inside you can do a guided hotel tour.
There are more amazing places to stay in the center of Santiago if for some reason you can’t book any of the recommended above.
Amazing things to do in Santiago de Compostela
Visit the Cathedral
The Cathedral is the main attraction of Santiago de Compostela it’s something not to miss. For pilgrims such as ourselves arriving at the Cathedral is the highlight of their journey. If you’re not one of them yet you’ll see many excited people with backpacks and walking sticks on the square around the Cathedral.
The construction of the current Cathedral started in 1075 under the reign of Alfonso VI. It was expanded and modified over the centuries; the last changes to the Cathedral were made in the 18th century. Both the exterior and the interior are impressive. Inside the Cathedral is just as impressive. The richly decorated baroque altar is an elaborate piece of art. You can visit the crypt under the altar with the relics of Saint James. Entrance to the Cathedral is free though you are not allowed to walk around and take photos during masses. You can do a guided Cathedral and Museum tour to learn more about its history.
The best view of the front facade you get from Plaza Obradoiro, a beautiful square in front of the Cathedral. My favorite time to come to Praza Obradoiro is late evening when it gets quiet and you can enjoy the square and the Cathedral with lights.
- Open hours – daily from 9 am to 8.30 pm
- Entrance – free
Attend the Pilgrim Mass
Even if you’re not a pilgrim it’s interesting to visit the Cathedral during the mass. The main mass takes place daily at 12 pm. It lasts between 30-45 minutes. If you’re lucky you might witness the Botafumeiro Ceremony when a massive silver incense burner attached to the ceiling is swung by 6 specially trained monks. It doesn’t happen every day only on special religious occasions such as Christmas, Easter, etc. In the peak Camino season (August – September) you have better chances to see Botafumeiro some groups of pilgrims book the ceremony for their arrival in Santiago.
Do a rooftop tour of the Cathedral
To make your visit to the Cathedral complete, do a rooftop tour. During the tour, you’ll get a unique opportunity to see the top part of the Cathedral from close by and to enjoy bird-eye views of Santiago de Compostela. The guided tour is about 1 hour during that time you can explore the roof and enjoy 360 views of the city and have a look from the top at the squares and streets around the cathedral.
Become a pilgrim for a day
Becoming a pilgrim even for a day is a unique thing to do in Santiago de Compostela. If all the Camino de Santiago vibe inspired you for a pilgrimage you can give it a try and spend one day on the Camino. You can start in Padron (the Portuguese Camino) or in O Pedrouzo (the Camino Frances). Both towns are about 20 km away from Santiago. Most pilgrims start their last day there.
You can take a bus to either of them in the morning, find yellow arrows indicating the Camino route, and follow them all the way back to Santiago. If you do it in the summer you’ll see hundreds of pilgrims on the Camino. It’s an interesting experience to become a pilgrim for one day and to see if it’s something you would enjoy doing for a couple of weeks or not. The walk finishes on Praza Obradoiro in front of the Cathedral where you can see many happy pilgrims. If walking 20 km in one day sounds like too much you can do a shorter vision and walk the last 7 km to Santiago with a tour.
As an option, you can walk the last 100 km to Santiago de Compostela. It’s the required walking minimum for getting the Compostela, the certificate that is granted to every pilgrim who’s walked at least the last 100 km to Santiago. The Camino Frances from Sarria is the most popular route to walk the last 100 km.
The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has a long history. According to historical documents, the first pilgrim on the Camino was Spanish king Alfonso II. He walked from Oviedo to Santiago in the IX century to commemorate the rediscovery of the remains of Apostle St.James. Nowadays this route is known as the Camino Primitivo or the Original Way.
Wander around the Old Town
Exploring the Old Town of Santiago on foot is a great way to explore the city. Its narrow cobblestone streets with beautiful old buildings, churches, squares, fountains, and parks are made for walking. There are many interesting buildings in Santiago make sure not to miss the main attractions: the Cathedral and Praza do Obradoiro, Abbey of San Martin Pinario, Praza de Quintana, Pazo da Fonseca, Pazo de Raxoi (City Hall), Colegiata de Santa Maria, University of Santiago de Compostela, Convent and Church of San Francisco, Alameda park, and many others. Pretty much the majority of the buildings in the Historic Center of Santiago are remarkable.
If you visit the city in the peak season and want to explore it without tourist crowds early morning is the best time to do it, especially if it’s a Saturday or Sunday morning. You can join a guided walking tour to learn about the history of the city and its main attractions.
Enjoy a cup of coffee with Tarta de Santiago
If you’re a bit tired of sightseeing, take a break at one of the street cafes. Sit down and watch people with a cup of coffee and the famous Tarta de Santiago or Cake of St.James – a must-try dessert in Santiago de Compostela. It’s an almond cake/pie with added lemon zest and brandy served with whipped cream and/or ice cream. The top of the cake is decorated with the Cross of St.James which gives the name to the pastry.
Try Pulpo a la Gallega & Pimientos de Padros
These two typical Galician dishes are very popular in Santiago; you can find them at most bars and restaurants. Both are great to eat as snacks with beer or wine. Pulpo a la Gallega or Pulpo a la Feira is a traditional octopus dish that comes from Melide, a small town 50 km west of Santiago. Octopus is boiled first in a big copper pot after boiling it’s cut into smaller pieces sprinkled with salt, paprika, and olive oil. Pimientos de Padron or Pardon Peppers is another traditional dish that comes from the small Galician town Padron, 20 km south of Santiago. Small green mild peppers are fried in olive oil and served hot with salt, a very quick and easy dish.
Go out for wine & tapas
Visiting local tapas bars is one of my favorite things to do in Santiago. Galician tapas are just as good and delicious as the famous pintxos from the Basque Country. At local tapas bars, you’ll find some incredible combinations from a tapa with brie cheese, jamón, and a strawberry or sweet pepper with chorizo and goat cheese to fresh prawns grilled in a seashell. Don’t limit yourself to one bar, do it the Spanish way, go to one place, drink a caña (a small beer) or a glass of wine and eat a tapa and move on to the next bar. In one night you can visit 5 to 6 bars, try a lot of different tapas and have a lot of fun.
Rua do Franco, one of the streets that start at the Cathedral is the best one for going out. There are many great tapas bars. I personally liked A Taberna do Bispo and Tapas Petiscos do Cardeal but I’m sure others bars are just as good. Taberna O Gato Negro in one of the nearby streets is one of the most popular bars in the area, it’s always packed with locals.
Friday night is the best time for going out when the streets are filled with people and music. Make sure to rest well before going out and don’t start too early you might get full and tired by the time the party starts. My favorite part of going out in Santiago is improvised parties when a person with a guitar at a bar starts playing famous songs and others just start singing or dancing. If you walked the Camino, going out for tapas is a great way to celebrate the end of it with your fellow pilgrims!
Stroll through Mercado de Abastos
Another not-to-miss place in Santiago de Compostela especially if you’re a gourmet. The market is a long passage with stalls on both sides selling all sorts of goods mostly locally produced or caught. Here you can find fruit and vegetables, meats, cheeses, seafood, and fish. If you like cooking with fresh products make sure to rent an apartment with a good kitchen rather than staying in a hotel. If cooking is not something you want to do on your holiday it’s still worth coming here. There are many stalls selling food. You can buy local specialties and wines and sit down at a small table to enjoy them.
- Open hours – Mon-Sat from 7 am to 3 pm
Go for a walk in Alameda Park
The park is a great place to come for a walk or a run in the morning. It’s a large green area in the center of Santiago. Alameda Park is almost 500 years old. Some alleys look like green tunnels created by massive oak trees. There are many walking routes through the park. The Paseo da Ferradura is the circular route that allows visiting different parts of the park. There are several monuments, sculptures, and fountains inside the park. Due to its location on the top of the hill, the park offers great views of the city center and the Cathedral.
- Open hours – 24 hours
- Entrance fee – free
Do a day trip to Finisterre & Muxía
A trip to the wild Glacian coast is a great thing to do in Santiago. After admiring the city and enjoying its gastronomy to discover unique areas of the Costa de Muerte or the Death Coast. You can rent a car for a day to do the trip, take a bus or join a full-day guided tour. Finisterre and Muxia are two capes with stunning scenery. The name Finisterre comes from Latin finis terrae which means “the end of the earth”. In Roman times the cape was considered to be the end of the known world.
Nowadays many pilgrims after finishing their Camino in Santiago de Compostela continue walking towards the coast following the Camino Finisterre. The cape is situated about 3 km away from the town Finisterre, you can walk there or take a shuttle bus/taxi. At the cape, there is a lighthouse and a hotel/restaurant with spectacular views of the coast. If you are looking for a romantic place to stay Hotel O Semaforo is the perfect option. There are a couple of small sandy beaches on the way. If you join a tour it’ll take you all the way to the lighthouse.
Muxía is another cape about 30 km north of Finisterre, there is a daily bus between the two towns. The scenery at Muxía is not as dramatic as at Finisterre but it’s still very beautiful with a chapel built on the rocks close to the water edge. Both capes are great for watching the sunset. There are many places to stay at both capes in case you decide to extend your trip and stay here overnight.
Recommended tours from Santiago to Finisterre & Muxía
Places to stay in Finisterre
Places to stay in Muxía
Enjoy local wines and fresh mussels in Rias Baixas
If you enjoy good wines visiting local estates and tasting their wines is a not-to-miss thing in Santiago. Rias Baixas is situated in the Pontevedra region, about 1 hour drive from Santiago de Compostela. The area is famous for its wines in particular Albariño, a white grape with thick skin used to produce refreshing white wine, a perfect wine to drink on a warm summer day. The best way of doing wine tasting in Rias Baixas is to rent a car in Santiago for a day and visit a couple of wine estates. The area is very beautiful with vineyards covering the hills and valleys. If you want to spend more time in the wine region you can stay for a day or two in Pontevedra and from there visit wine estates.
Places to stay in Pontevedra
If you don’t want to rent a car there are day tours from Santiago to Rias Baixas that you can join.
There are many other amazing day trips from Santiago if you have enough time you can explore more of Galicia;