Santiago de Compostela Travel Guide

Santiago de Compostela lies some 615km north west of Madrid in the remote territory of Galicia with Portugal only a short distance to the south. For centuries this ancient city has welcomed pilgrims from all corners of the Christian world who have walked (and cycled) the well trodden Camino de Santiago. Indeed Santiago is considered to be the third most important city in the Christian world after Rome and Jerusalem.

Legend has it that the body of St James was transported here by two disciples who travelled from the Holy Land in a stone boat after he was executed in AD44. The boat landed at Padrón and an urn containing his body was buried some 17km inland. In 813 a grave was discovered by a hermit following lights to a sacred place (‘Campus Stellae’, or Compostela, is Latin for ‘guiding star’) which was believed to be the remains of St James (Santiago in Spanish).

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – Photo Credit: CC Contando Estrelas

The city offers a lively nightlife thanks to a large student population and there are some excellent restaurants in Santiago serving delicacies of Galicia. Wine enthusiasts can enjoy tours of the Rias Baixas wineries which shows you around the region’s vineyards whilst there are some stunning day excursions from Santiago up to Finisterre along the rugged ‘Coast of Death’.

Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela. Whilst there are a number of recognised routes, the most popular is known as the ‘French Way’ which runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Roncesvalles in Spain on to Santiago. This route involves crossing the Pyrenees then walking (or cycling) about 780km across northern Spain. If the exertion of such a journey is too much for you then you can book on to one of the specialised Camino de Santiago Tours which covers part of the route with a driver carrying your luggage ahead for you. Some English speakers refer to the ancient pilgrim route as the Way of St James.

Camino de Santiago
Walk or cycle to Galicia along the Camino de Santiago

Santiago de Compostela Airport

Santiago de Compostela’s Labacolla airport lies 10 kilometres north east of the city centre on the N-547 road to Lugo (15km if you take the main A-54 road). The majority of flights to Santiago are domestic ones operated by Ryanair, Iberia and Vueling. There are few scheduled arrivals on a year round basis though a few additional services become available during the summer months. If you can’t find a convenient direct flight you could always fly to Madrid or Barcelona then take a domestic service to Santiago de Compostela. Other visitors to the region fly to A Coruña to the north and travel down to Santiago by public transport.

The cheapest way of getting into the city from the airport is to take the Santiago Airport Bus which leaves from next to the terminal and runs to the city’s main bus station, the train station then the city centre at Dr. Teixeiro. Departures from the airport are every 30 minutes from 7am to 1am. Services also operate to Lugo and to A Coruña.

Taxis meet all incoming flights and charge about €20 into the city plus luggage surcharges per item. You can’t miss the taxi rank which is in front of you as you step outside the arrivals area.

Santiago Airport Car Hire: Galicia is mainly a rural area which is difficult to discover by public transport alone so collecting a hire car at Santiago airport is a good move which allows you the freedom to explore the stunning countryside of the region. Driving is fairly straightforward with excellent roads connecting all the main tourist destinations. Even the cities are fairly laid back as far as driving in Spain is concerned so no need to worry that you’ll be faced with the madness of the big city roads.

Driving Distances: Here’s a list of distances from the airport to some of the main places you’re likely to be visiting:

  • Santiago de Compostela (15km)
  • A Coruña (68km)
  • Lugo (105km)
  • Pontevedra (73km)
  • Vigo (98km)

Santiago de Compostela Hotels

Below we recommend a few Santiago hotels for you to consider that are located in or near the historic city centre.

Santiago de Compostela Parador
Rating: 5-star
The Parador of Santiago de Compostela, or the Hotel de Los Reyes Católicos as it is better known, dates back to 1499 and is one of the great historical hotels of Spain. Conveniently located on the north side of Plaza do Obradoiro in the heart of the city centre next to the Cathedral it has long attracted pilgrims from all over the world who have walked the Camino de Santiago to visit the resting place of St James who was buried here.

Gran Hotel Los Abetos
Rating: 4-star
Located 3 kilometres from the centre of Santiago this luxurious hotel is set in beautiful gardens. The free minibus to the city centre means you can combine sightseeing with relaxation.

Hotel Ciudad de Compostela
Rating: 3-star
This hotel is located in the city centre near the historic area of Santiago. It was opened in April 1999 and has a spa which is great to relax in after a busy day’s sightseeing or even walking the Camino de Santiago.

Hotel Santiago Apostol
Rating: 3-star
Located at the entrance to the city on the Camino de Santiago this hotel has a warm and friendly atmosphere and is perfect for pilgrims and tourists alike. The restaurant serves a wide range of regional dishes using local ingredients.

Santiago Tourist Attractions – What to See

You will have no problem spending a few days in Santiago, wandering around its old stone streets, mingling with pilgrims and savouring the magnificent food and wines of Galicia. The city is small enough for you to do most of your sightseeing on foot though there are tourist buses and a mini road train to take you around if you prefer. Without a doubt your first port of call will be the Plaza del Obradoiro from where you can stand back and marvel at the magnificent Cathedral. You’ll also discover plenty interesting places to visit in the surrounding streets.

Praza das Praterías in Santiago
Praza das Praterías in Santiago – Photo Credit: CC juantiagues

The main sights and tourist attractions of Santiago de Compostela are the following:

Santiago Cathedral: St James reputedly appeared to Christian soldiers in their battle to reconquer land from the Moors and became known as ‘Matamoros’, the Moor slayer. A small chapel was built on the site where his remains were discovered which developed into the city’s Cathedral and today represents the principal tourist attraction of Santiago de Compostela.

The Cathedral is undoubtedly the city’s highlight where you’ll find hundreds of pilgrims milling around (inclusing when mass is taking place). A pilgrim’s mass takes place at midday every day and if you’re very lucky you might see the botafumeiro being used. This is the enormous incense burner which swings from the roof on strong ropes with flames burning inside (centuries ago this acted as an air freshener when the ‘sweaty’ pilgrims attended mass after their long walk across northern Spain).

The architecture of the Cathedral is mainly Romanesque but due to many extensions you’ll also notice Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical styles which have been added over the years. The Cathedral has three naves containing various chapels and cloisters and the altar is quite stunning. You can visit a crypt where the remains of St James are believed to be kept in a silver urn.

Entrance to the main Cathedral building is free though there is a charge to enter the museum (containing the cloister, treasury and crypt) and the Pazo de Xelmírez. The Cathedral is open daily throughout the year from 7am to 9pm. Hours for the Museum and Pazo de Xelmírez vary from season to season.

Hostal de los Reyes Católicos: The building to your left as you look at the Cathedral from Plaza del Obradoiro (also called Plaza de España) was formerly a hospice built by Fernando and Isabella for pilgrims to the city. Today it is the city’s Parador and certainly the city’s most prestigious place to stay. You cannot wander around at will as it is a private hotel but there are official visits to see the fountains and chapel of the cloistered courtyard provided you are accompanied by an official guide from the Cathedral.

Santiago University: The Faculty of Geography and History and history is well worth a visit. It was built in the 18th century and is the most impressive building of the University of Compostela where you can visit the Central Hall, the Rectory and the Libraries. It is also home to the Institute for Galician Language.

Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo: In a city focused on the old and the ancient the opening of this gallery was a breath of fresh air to the city of Santiago. Here you can browse works by contemporary Galician artists and enjoy splendid views of the city’s old town from balconies of this impressive building. Entrance is free and it is open from Tuesday until Sunday from 11am to 8pm.

Monasterio de San Martín Pinario: One of Galicia’s most important monasteries is located in Praza da Immaculada. The Baroque facade of San Martín Pinario dates back to 899 and is one of Spain’s largest religious buildings. Take a look at its magnificent interior.

Pilgrimage Museum: This museum is dedicated to the countless pilgrims who have journeyed to Santiago to pay tribute to St James over the centuries. It outlines the various pilgrimage routes to Santiago and how they developed with all kinds of interesting objects and images related to the routes on display.

Recommended Restaurants in Santiago de Compostela

Galicia offers some of Spain’s best seafood from the nearby coast and estuaries. Classic local dishes include pulpo a feira (boiled octopus with cayenne pepper), necoras (spider crabs) and zamburiñas (baby scallops). As well as the exquisite seafood we highly recommended that you try a meal consisting of caldo gallego (Galician soup) as a starter followed by lacón con grelos (ham hock with greens) all washed down with some of Galicia’s fine wines, most notably Albariño and Ribeiro whites.

Pulpo a la Gallega
Pulpo a la Gallega – Photo Credit: CC Javier Lastras

Toni Vicente
Address: Rosalía de Castro, 24
The Nouveau Cuisine created from traditional Galician ingredients won this restaurant the 1998 prize for Spanish cuisine. Main course specialities include scallops with quinua couscous, steamed grouper in sweet pepper sauce, roast young pigeon with its giblets, wild mushrooms and pear in wine sauce filled with chestnut purée. The marinated sea-bass salad is the most popular starter. Desserts include fruit salad with tiger nuts and verbena ice-cream. It has a great wine selection.

Casa Marceloa
Address: Rua Hortas
Marcelo Tejedor describes his cuisine as “Galician in products, unique in contents, and fleeting by definition”. And that is the way it is: he supplies himself with products from nearby markets and exchanges and treats them with unusual culinary wisdom; his dishes, in the form of a single set menu, vary every day. But his cuisine is of the highest class: small crab soup with artichokes, pastas and cockles, grouper in lemon and tomato pil-pil sauce, jaws in puff pastry with vegetables. The desserts are also brimming with creativity. An excellent bodega, very up-to-date, and an unsual setting, an 18th-century house where the kitchen is part of the dining room.

Address: Rúa das Carretas, 2
This typical Galician restaurant is only 100m away from the Cathedral. Its specialities include seafood and fish, shoulder of pork with parsnip tops and fried custard. If you fancy local seafood specialities order the variado de mariscos which is a huge platter of prawns, crab, barnacles, etc.

Don Gaiferos
Address: Rúa Nova, 23
A warm atmosphere and careful service awaits you at Santiago’s most distinguished restaurant. Specialities are mainly Galician including fish stew, king prawns stuffed with smoked salmon, scallops and the delicious almond tart.

Fogón Retiro da Costiña
Address: Avenida de Santiago, 12
Located in a Galician country house with a bodega that may be visited this restaurant offers creative cuisine. Wild mushrooms and goat cheese flame-grilled with caramel, poached eggs with Iberian bacon and potatoes and crystallised pineapple in rhum sauce with hazelnuts and port wine cream are just a small sample of the interesting menu. Valet parking. Closed on Sunday nights and Wednesdays.

Fornos (Marisqueria)
Address: Calle Horreo, 24
Located in the centre of Santiago, near the Cathedral. Seafood from the ría, seafood paella, “filloas” (Galician crepes) filled with custard are some of the wonderful dishes on offer here along with delicious Galician wines.

La Tacita d’Juan
Address: Calle Horreo, 31
This restaurants serves well-prepared, classic Galician cuisine. Octopus “empanada” (pasty), “mero a lo pobre” (poor man’s grouper) and caramelised “filloas” (Galician crepes) are a selection of the dishes you may order.

Moncho Vilas
Address: Avenida de Villagarcía, 21
Moncho Porto Vilas loves to chat with his customers about Galician cuisine. His acclaimed dishes use such local seafood ingredients as oysters, clams, crayfish, lobsters and spider crabs. Salmon with clams and hake in a paprika sauce is a popular choice. A sampling menu is available and is a good way of checking out a range of Moncho’s excellent dishes.

Address: Avenida Vedra s/n
This restaurant and small hotel has three rooms available. In a beautiful setting, an old Galician country house with a large garden, Roberto Crespo insists on modern, seasonal cuisine with Galician roots. His scallops on potato cream have already become a much-imitated classic. Very good fish dishes and a wide offer of meats which is unusual in the area. The bodega is excellent.

San Clemente
Address: Rúa de San Clemente, 6
Near the Cathedral, this Galician establishment specialises in seafood and fish, fish stew and “filloas” (Galician crepes).

Address: Calle Rosalía de Castro, 88
The most classic of the classics, for its history and cuisine: clearly traditional Galician cuisine with masterpieces like its version of octopus, the excellent tripe with chickpeas, or the stewed hock. Careful selection of seafood and fish, depending on the season. Good bodega. An institution in good health. Closed on Sundays.

Some Recommended Bars in Santiago

In a city with around 33,000 students and countless bars there’s no shortage of nightlife in Santiago. The weekend starts on Thursday as many students head home to see their families at weekends but plenty remain to party on through until Monday.

Take an early evening wander along Rua do Franco which is the street running off the Cathedral square to the right as you look at it. Along here and the parallel Rua da Raiña there are over 200 bars and cafés which attract students, locals and tourists alike. Wander in and order an Albariño wine served in a small, white ceramic cup together with a plate of pulpo a feira (thinly sliced octopus served on a wooden board and sprinkled with paprika and the finest olive oil).

As the evening develops these streets become packed with well behaved students crawling their way between bars. Hardcore revellers begin their evening at Bar Paris at the top of Rua Franco and drink their way to Bar Dakar on Rua de Raiña via many of the (or all?) of the 48 bars that make up what has become known as the Paris-Dakar race among the student fraternity.

No doubt you’ll discover your own favourite bars as you stroll around these streets but a few worth mentioning are as follows:

  • Bar/Cafetería Dakar (Rua do Franco 13)
  • O Gato Negro (Rúa da Raiña, s/n)
  • Borriquita de Belén (Rua San Pelayo, 22)
  • Casa das Crechas (Vía Sacra, 3)
  • Beiro (Rua da Raiña, 3)
  • O 42 (Rua do Franco, 42)
  • Pepa a Loba (Rúa do Castro, 7)

Day Excursions from Santiago

From Santiago de Compostela there are some great opportunities to take a tour out of the city to discover the stunning beauty of rural Galicia. Below we’ve suggested some private tours which include your own driver. Self drive tours are another interesting option.

As well as those listed you should take a look at Galicia Wine Tours which provides information on a range of tours in the region which have a food and wine theme.

Albariño Grapes
Albariño Grapes – Photo Credit: CC Miguel Ángel García

Finisterre Lands End Tour: This private tour starts in Santiago de Compostela and heads over to the ocean then follows the rugged coastline known as the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death) as far as Finisterre via numerous coastal villages.
Tapas Tour in Santiago de Compostela: This is a guided tour of some of Santiago’s best tapas where you can sample the best of Galician cuisine. It is aimed at groups of 2 – 6 people.
Santiago de Compostela Historical Walking Tour: A fine way to get to know the city of Santiago de Compostela is on this walking tour with an official tour guide who will introduce you to the city’s old quarter and take you around the magnificent cathedral.