Traditional and contemporary delights contribute equal doses of charm in the northern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Widely known as being a UNESCO World Heritage City, the home of the tomb of Saint James and the end of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, Santiago attracts millions of pilgrims each year, as well as plenty of other tourists.
At the end of my long walk along the Camino de Santiago, I joined the visitor count and spent a few days recouping and exploring in Santiago. Here are six wonderful activities I enjoyed during my visit.
1. Visiting the Cathedral
There is no denying that the Santiago Cathedral is an impressive religious structure. Towering over Obradoiro Square, in the heart of historical Santiago, the elaborate Baroque facade of the Cathedral hints at the inside glory. As you enter the spacious halls, footsteps echo off arches and columns, interrupting the thick silence that hangs between the hundreds of pews, and light flicks from candles to the gilded alter.
On your left, as you enter from the main entrance, there is a sneaky stone staircase leading into a wing of the Cathedral where you’ll find ‘Iconographic Compostela’, a intriguing exhibition of impressive paper sculptures depicting the saints of the Compostela. The characters are a bit Pixar like and well worth a look.
Entry to both the main hall and exhibition is free and you are welcome to attend a mass. There are also tours through other parts of the Cathedral, which can be booked in the office under the main entrance. (See the tips below for more info).
2. Hanging out at La Flora Cafe
La Flora is one of those funky, eclectic cafes that makes you wish you never had to leave. Artfully decorated with mismatched furniture, bird-themed wallpaper and a clash of functional and superficial delights, La Flora serves delicious wine and tapas, coffee and cake, and a mean cream soup of the day (among other satisfying dishes). The local customers are edgy and flamboyant, the wait staff have a charismatic flair and the wi-fi is free and reliable. This cafe-bar is seemingly a local favourite, so grab a seat if you see one.
3. Exploring the Santiago’s Galician Centre of Contemporary Art (GCCA)
This clean, welcoming space is a delight to wander through, with captivating exhibitions across a wide range of mediums. A few of the contemporary delights on display include knitted works, paintings of the world’s highest peaks, documentaries and neon light displays.
GCCA is located right next to Museo do Pobo Galego, just outside the old town, has a great little book shop (mostly in Spanish) and is free to visit. More info can be sourced from their website.
4. Visiting Museo do Pobo Galego (Museum of the Galician People)
If you are keen to learn about the people, history, art and lifestyle unique to the region of Galicia, where Santiago de Compostela is located, the Museo do Pobo Galego is a great place to visit. It is also a great place to visit if you like impressive spiral staircases, beautiful old churches with no crowds, life-sized ship models with cheery sailor music and museums in beautiful old buildings.
At only a few Euros per person, this museum is worth a look, especially as it is happily plonked on the edge of the historical quarter and next to the Galician Centre of Contemporary Art.
5. Wandering the historic quarter in search of tapas and wine
Weaving between the narrow cobbled streets of Santiago’s historic quarter would provide pleasure enough, but hidden around crooked corners are tapas and wine bars crammed full of people having fun. I found delight in the serendipitous wandering as much as I did in the delicious food and wine, which honours the fine foody reputation Spain. Head towards streets on either side of the Cathedral to find clusters of bars and people during siesta (2-4pm) and evening (8.30-midnight-ish).
6. Buying food from Mercado de Abastos
Tucked away from the main plazas in Santiago’s old town is a thriving little world of market bliss. The halls and stalls of Mercado de Abastos are filled with fresh fish and prawns still flapping from the sea, wheels of cheese, cabinets of sweets, rows of susages hanging overhead, and boxes of fresh produce, juicy and fresh.
Open Monday to Saturday between 9.30am and 3pm, the mercado is a great place to meet local vendors who proudly display their stuffs, watch the locals navigate the stalls like pros and salivate over the Spanish love of fresh, good food. Saturdays are particularly vibrant, and around 10am you can watch the procession of little old Spanish women with wheeled trolleys en route to the market, through the narrow cobbled streets.
Other tips for visiting Santiago de Compostela:
- Remember that while the old town is beautiful and full of hidden delights, Santiago has some other great areas to wine, dine and explore. Try Rua de San Pedro, which is part of the Camino trail and leads into the historical quarter.
- Noon on Sunday is when the Cathedral hosts pilgrims in mass. Even if you don’t understand most of the Spanish sermon, it is lovely to listen to the Spanish language echo around the Cathedral walls. At the end of the mass, a blessing is performed with incense, which is burnt from a big silver urn swung across the crowd in a dramatic puff of smoke.
- For a bit more info, check out the official Santiago Tourism page or visit the tourism office in Santiago, which is just around the corner from the Cathedral (see local maps in the main plaza for directions).