Santiago de Compostela is the capital city of Galicia. It is also the most popular of the region’s cities when it comes to tourism and has a wealth of historic buildings in its old town. The city has its origin in the shrine of Saint James the Great, now the city’s cathedral, as destination of the Way of St. James, a Catholic pilgrimage route in the 9th century. In 1985 the city’s Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
General information about Santiago
Santiago de Compostela was foundered in the ninth century at the site of the tomb of Saint James, one of the disciples. Initially a small chapel was built over the actual spot where the apostle was discovered, but over the years this building has evolved into a huge and very significant cathedral.
Religion has always played a big part in the city’s development and it has several important and “visit worthy” churches and monasteries. Today Santiago de Compostel hosts the regional parliament (known as the Xunta) and although not the largest of Galicia’s cities, it is certainly the most well known internationally.
What to see: buildings, monuments and museums
With a very large old town, a famous and monumental cathedral, many buildings dating back to medieval times, and a great cafe and bar culture, you will never be short of something to do or see in Santiago de Compostela. Below are some ideas, however because of the size and interest level of this city these tips are only some of the many options available to a visitor.
Tip 1. Top of the list is the cathedral. This is partially located on the Obradoiro plaza along with 2 other buildings of note, the Rajoy palace (now the council and parliament building) and the Reyes Catolicos hotel. A fourth and smaller building also occupies this plaza which is conveniently close to many of the city’s other important buildings.
The cathedral is huge, so much so that different views of it can be enjoyed from three smaller squares that surround the back and sides of the building. You can explore the main open areas of the cathedral independently, or you can pay to have full access to the upper levels, the crypt etc. Guided tours can also be arranged in different languages and this can be done through the local tourist offices.
Tip 2. There are 3 monasteries that appear in most tour guides to the city and they are the monasteries of: Santo Domingo, San Martin Pinario and the convent of Santa Clara. All are worth a visit and all are within a short walk of the cathedral.
Tip 3. The pilgrims office is one of the most visited buildings in the city. The structure is nothing special, but its significance as the place where all visiting pilgrims go to officially complete the Camino (pilgrimage) makes it important. At busy times the pilgrims are forced to queue up outside the door which is marked by a traditional scroll that hangs down in front of it. A small number of pilgrims also choose to dress in 9th century apparel on the last leg of their journey and carry canes and the traditional pilgrims shell.
Tip 4. The church of Sar is yet another historically and religiously significant building that rears its head in most tourist maps, as is the San Francisco church that is connected to the monastery of the same name.
Tip 5. Plazas (squares) are found throughout the old town and, in addition to the Obradoiro, the other ones that are worth a look at are the Quintana, the Platerias and the Azabacheria. Each of these plazas has a least one notable building or fountain within it and all face one of the cathedrals facades. If you like what you see there are plenty more.
Ultimately there is so much to see in Santiago de Compostela that the best way to see things is simply to wonder around and take a closer look at anything that captures your interest. This could be a church, a civil building, a plaza or a restaurant.
Getting to and from Santiago de Compostela
The city has its own international airport and several major airlines fly either directly or indirectly from the UK. Ryan Airways are the only airline that currently fly none stop to Santiago airport and their flights depart from Stansted, just outside London.
The city has a good bus service, and car hire, taxis and trains can be used to reach many of the other places in Galicia.
One of the reasons for Santiago’s popularity as a base from which to explore Galicia, is the ease with which you can reach the other major cities from its centre. The cities of la Coruna, Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra are all less than 2 hours away by car.
As a final tip, if you do not like crowds it is not a good idea to visit Santiago de Compostela in late July. This period coincides with the Saint’s day and the result is a big festival with lots of activity and a huge influx of people.