Santiago de Compostela

Whether you are making your way to Santiago de Compostela on foot along one of the Camino trails or visiting the city for other reasons, you’ll find plenty to keep you entertained for at least a day or two (see my accommodation suggestions if you are staying overnight).

Here are some of the best things to do in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

Head for Praza do Obradoiro

This is the main square outside the entrance to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. As such, you will encounter hundreds of weary pilgrims who, having completed their pilgrimage, are experiencing a myriad of emotions as they gaze at the magnificent building in front of them.

The scaffolding that had marred its beauty for 5 years has now been removed to reveal the completed restoration works although these are now underway inside the cathedral (see below).

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Praza da Obradoiro has long been the hub of the small city. If you can tear your gaze away from the cathedral, you’ll see the wonderfully sculpted Hostal dos Reis Católicos to the north of the square.

This was originally built in the 15th century to provide a space for pilgrims to recover from and receive medical treatment after their arduous journey. It’s now a 5-star Parador hotel – the perfect reward if your budget stretches that far.

Opposite the cathedral is the colonnaded Pazo de Raxoi government building and on the other side of the square, you’ll see the early 16th century Colexio de San Xerome university building and its Romano-Gothic doorway.

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Admire the cathedral from inside

Once you’ve had your fill of the exterior Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, it’s time to go inside.

Note that restoration work is underway inside the cathedral in preparation for the Holy Year in 2021. This means that masses are being held in other nearby churches and some areas are restricted.

When Dori and I finished our Camino, we were exhausted and decided to save the experience of entering the cathedral for the following day. On reflection, I wish I’d gone in as soon as we arrived, even if only for a short time, before my emotions had subsided.

Even though being inside the cathedral didn’t provoke an emotional response, it certainly has the wow factor. From its humble beginnings as a small chapel in the 9th century, it has evolved into a splendid monument filled with richly decorated side chapels, awe-inspiring organs and the elaborately carved Portico da Glória, which was built in the 12th century and was being restored when I visited. If it’s anything like the one in Ourense Cathedral, it must be wondrous indeed. To see the Portico da Gloria durign the restoration works, you’ll need to pay to enter the museum as it’s currently behind panels.

Note: You can book a private tour of the cathedral online to get a better understanding of its history and details from a real person if you don’t want to use the audio guides.

The high altar is dripping with gold and presided over by a statue of St. James (more about visiting St. James in a moment) and the enormous incense burners known as botifumeiros.

If you happen to attend a pilgrims’ mass (held daily at noon) on one of the few days that the botifumeiros are swinging, you’re in for a smoky treat. These gigantic incense burners were once essential for masking the stench produced by hundreds of unwashed pilgrims who were often festering from injuries sustained along the Way.

You can check the schedule at the cathedral to see which dates they plan to use them or you can pay to arrange this in advance for your dates.

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Visit St. James’ tomb in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

It would almost be rude not to pay a visit to Saint James while in his cathedral. While there are numerous statues of the saint dotted around, the most important is the one overlooking the high altar.

The entrance to the steps that pass behind his effigy are opposite the tomb said to contain his relics. Don’t be surprised to find a queue, controlled by a traffic light system to control the flow of devotees.

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Explore Galician culture at the Museo do Pobo Galego

Galicia’s leading ethnographic museum is contained within the former convent of San Domingo de Bonaval and the entrance fee gives you access to the convent as well as the museum. I particularly enjoyed the triple spiral staircase as well as the frescoes and sculptures inside the ancient church.

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The Galician People’s Museum is full of excellent models, exhibitions and photography that gives a great insight into local traditions, agricultural and seafaring activities and the different types of typical village houses.

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Visit the Galician Centre of Contemporary Art

This is one for contemporary architecture fans too – the building was designed by award-winning Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. Inside the gallery, you’ll find an array of works by both renowned and emerging artists from the Galicia region.

Before you leave this area, head behind the art gallery and museum to find the small but charming Bonaval Park. This was once the cemetery for the São Domingo de Bonaval Convent  and  transformed by Álvaro Siza Vieira into a peaceful green space filled with flowers and lawns where you can sit in the shade and admire the views across the city.

Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval, Santiago de Compostela
Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval, Santiago de Compostela

Go for a stroll in Alameda Park

The more famous park in Santiago de Compostela is the 16th century Alameda Park, just on the edge of the maze of medieval streets leading to the cathedral. You’ll walk past or even through it if you follow the Portuguese Camino but not on other routes.

It’s a popular site for local festivities – when I was there, there was a fun fair inside the park. Even if there’s nothing special happening, you’ll find plenty of people making the most of the tree-lined Paseo da Ferradura for its picturesque views of the cathedral and old town.

Hit the cute shops in the medieval quarter

The maze of streets that spreads out from the cathedral has been classified as UNESCO World Heritage since 1985. Many of the beautiful old buildings are arched at ground level to provide shade and shelter from the elements.

Within these atmospheric walkways lie treasure troves in the form of boutique, specialist, gourmet and souvenir shops to suit all budgets.

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If you’re more in the market for fresh local produce, head for the 19th century Mercado de Abastos, open from 7 am to 3 pm Monday to Saturday.

Journey to the end of the world

While most Caminos end in Santiago de Compostela, you could continue yours to the tip of the peninsula at Finisterre. The Romans thought this was the ‘end of the world’.

The Santiago to Finisterre Camino is a quieter route than the others and the symbolism of the end point makes it deeply meaningful for many people.

If you want to walk to Finisterre, get in touch.

If you don’t have time and would like to take a day trip to Múxia and Finisterre as well as a fishing village and waterfall, you can book a small group tour online here.

Drink an ice cold Estrella Galicia beer

Dori and I developed a taste for this regional version of Estrella lager. It’s slightly darker than the original version and a bit richer in flavour. Perfect for quenching a thirst or celebrating achievements on the Camino!

Dori and I with celebratory beers having reached Santiago de Compostela on the Portuguese Way of St. James
Dori and I with celebratory beers having reached Santiago de Compostela on the Portuguese Way of St. James

How to get to Santiago de Compostela

There is a daily Alsa coach service between Casa da Musica interchange in Porto and Santiago that takes just over 3 hours. Or you can drive there in about 2.5 hours.

If you have limited time and want to take a day trip, one of these should do the trick. Some stop in the fortress town of Valença do Minho and others at the hilltop basilica in the coastal town of Viana do Castelo so choose which you’d rather visit before you book.

Full day small group tour from Porto to Santiago via Viana do Castelo

Full day private tour from Porto to Santiago via Viana do Castelo

Full day group tour from Porto to Santiago via Valença do Minho

Where to stay in Santiago de Compostela

As you might expect from a city that attracts thousands of pilgrims and other visitors, Santiago has a wide range of hotels and guesthouses to choose from.

For 5-star luxury, especially as a post-Camino treat, go for the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos Parador in Praza do Obradoiro. The beautiful 15th century building has a cloistered inner courtyard, a wealth of rich historical decor and features including vaulted ceilings and 4-poster beds in some rooms. Check availability and photos

The 4-star San Francisco Hotel Monumento is in what used to be a Franciscan monastery. Featuring indoor and outdoor pools, peaceful gardens and a terrace, it’s an ideal spot to relax in. See photos and check room options

The 3-star Hotel Praza Quintana is a stylish hotel in a historical building within walking distance of all the main sights and squares. The free 24-hour breakfast buffet is an added bonus. Check prices and availability

See other accommodation options in Santiago de Compostela

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what to do in Santiago de compostela

Things to do in Santiago de Compostela

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may receive a small commission if you purchase a tour or hotel using my links.

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