Santiago de Compostela is a lush little city and a great choice for a weekend break. My Aussie and I spent a couple of days at New Year here on our way back to the boat after Christmas in the UK. The charming old town with its museum like streets is a lovely place to while away a couple of days. Here are my top tips for a good trip.
Santiago de Compostela is best known for its cathedral which attracts visitors from all over the world. It is also the perfect place for a weekend getaway. Although a reasonable size city, the old town – Casco Historico – is easily navigable on foot and also car-free. Church spires, ornate façades and fountains punctuate the narrow arcade streets. Everything is constructed in local grey granite but when the sunlight hits the beautiful façades, they look golden. The locals are relaxed and friendly and the food and drink scene is thriving. During term time students fill the lively bars. Rua do Franco has the highest concentration of bars and eateries. Wander from place to place trying the pinchos – bar snacks washed down with a glass of Albariño or 3.
Saint James and the Camino de Santiago
The city is the culmination point of the 790km (490m) pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago. The main route starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France, however, there are starting points throughout Europe. All around town you will see the scallop shell sign directing walkers to the cathedral where the remains of Santiago (Saint James in English) are believed to lie. Saint James was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. In the old days people who made the pilgrimage collected scallop shells from the Galician beaches to prove to others that they had made it.
See + Do
Cathedral of Saint James
This is Santiago de Compostela’s crowning glory. The original Romanesque structure (built 1075 – 1211) was later given Gothic and Baroque flourishes. Including the elaborate Baroque western façade (18th century). Visitor entry is around via the southern side.
Inside a lot of construction work is currently going on. Head to the lavish, gilded Altar Mayor (high altar). Behind the altar you will see a small staircase leading up to a statue of Santiago, which has been there since the cathedral’s consecration in the 12th Century. In front of us people were hugging and kissing the statue. Go down the stairs after the statue to the crypt to see the silver casket, which is said to house Santiago’s remains. There is also the Portico da Gloria, featuring 200 Romanesque sculptures, however when we visited there were only guided tours in Spanish being offered and as our grasp of the language is not too good, we gave that a miss.
Praza do Obradoiro
The cathedral’s beautiful western façade dominates the main square – the Praza do Obradoiro (Workshop Square). Thus named as a result of the stonemasons that set up here during construction of the Cathedral. The square contains no bars or cafés and instead, is surrounded by grand buildings including the Renaissance style Hostal dos Reis Católicos. Built in the 16th century as a recuperation centre for pilgrims it is now a parador – a state owned luxury hotel. Some of the areas are open to visitors, you can do a self-guided tour following a leaflet.
Do as the locals do and take a stroll around the landscaped gardens in Alameda park. On the central walkway have your photo taken with as Duas Marias, a sculpture of two sisters who in the middle of the 20th Century got dressed up daily to come and flirt with the university students! Their brightly coloured clothes actually hide a tragic story of a family punished for their anti-Franco connections. You can find other depictions of them around town.
Mercado de Abastos
The market is worth a look. Galician cuisine is renowned because of its great produce. Locally caught fish and shellfish, local meats, cheeses, vegetables, flowers and good traditional bread are all attractively displayed. Check out the cute coloured handbags with robe straps at Pilgrim Bag on one of the outside stalls. Open Tues-Sat: 7am – 3pm, Mon: 9am-2pm.
Eat + Drink
Located in one of the outside market stalls and spilling out onto the street is this hip, innovative taverna. The, largely seafood, menu changes daily depending on what the market has to offer (€3.5 – €18 – the lower priced items are tapas size whilst he more expensive items are a big plate which could be ordered as a main – like a bowl of clams). Order a few of these of these to share or go with the €30 menu which allows the chef to choose 5 dishes to suit your tastes. We had oysters, crab lasagne and pickled mussels – all delicious.
Restaurant dos Reis
The elegant restaurant in the renovated stables of the Hostal dos Reis serves up quality local fish, seafood and meat plus vegetarian dishes. Reportedly excellent food – unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to eat here, next time will do for sure. Prices looked reasonable for the setting. (starters €14-€18, mains €22-€39).
Little bar serving raçiones which are larger sharing plates. Generally speaking, with raçiones, you want to order 1-1.5 dishes per person and share. The tortilla de patatas here is good and check out other Galician specialties like the polpo a feira (grilled octopus with paprika) and zambarinhas (small scallops). Dishes €7-€13.
A Michelin star gastro bar serving up a fusion of Galician, Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. Order several dishes and share at the communal table or on stools at ledges around the edge of the room. You see the chefs in the open kitchen. Another place I really wanted to try; this was unfortunately closed at New Year. (small to med dishes €8-€20).
Budget: Nest Style Santiago
Basic but comfortable enough rooms in the downtown area. Very central and just a few minutes from the Casco Historico – old town. Friendly staff and buffet breakfast. Doubles with breakfast from €40.
Blowout: Hostal dos Reis Católicos
5* luxury at very reasonable prices. Traditional luxe style rooms with 4 poster beds and views of the Cathedral. Doubles with breakfast from €150.