Santiago de Compostela is a beautiful and historic city that is well worth visiting. It is also the endpoint of the famous Camino de Santiago and an excellent place for pilgrims to rest after their walk. There is something for everyone, including stone streets, artistic Baroque buildings, amazing Spanish cuisine, the awe-inspiring Santiago de Compostela cathedral, and scenic landscapes.
To make the most of your time in Santiago be sure to do some homework. Gather some maps, collect brochures, Google the best restaurants and most popular things to do and then follow your instincts. Here are the top things you must never miss when you are in Santiago de Compostela.
1. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Right in the heart of Santiago is the magnificent cathedral. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is one of the main attractions for tourists and pilgrims alike. The remains of St. James the Great, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, are reputed to be buried here.
This magnificent building stands in the Praza do Obradoiro and boasts a Romanesque structure with later elements of the Gothic and Baroque styles. Make sure to see the Pórtico da Gloria (the Romanesque porch entrance by Mestre Mateo) and the Holy Door which is only opened during Holy Years on the Camino.
One of the highlights of Santiago’s cathedral is its massive swinging Botafumeiro – its giant thurible. It is not swung every day, so you will need a bit of luck to catch it in action. and, if you are not scared of heights,
Plan Your Visit to Santiago de Compostela’s Cathedral
The Basilica (Sepulchre of Saint James the Apostle) is open every day, from 7 am to 9 pm. The museum is open with visits to the permanent Collection, Gelmírez Palace, and Portico of Glory on Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 am to 2 pm and 4 pm to 7 pm, and Sundays, from 10 am to 2 pm. It is closed on Mondays.
The Pilgrim’s Reception Office at the cathedral is open from 10 am to 6 pm to claim your Compostela certificate at the end of the Camino.
2. The Charming Casco Antiguo (Old Town)
After visiting the cathedral you are in the perfect place to explore Santiago de Compostela’s Old Town. This part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that extends from south of the cathedral to the Plaza de las Platerías.
There are two main streets in the Old Town, Rúa Nueva and the Rúa del Villar. Walk down the granite streets, gaze up at the arches and people watch in the squares. There are plenty of museums around, as well as some of the oldest University buildings.
When your feet get tired find a seat in one of the wonderful cafes and restaurants. The food here is wonderful! Enjoy a cup of coffee and Spanish pastries, then wander on and buy souvenirs for loved ones back at home.
The “New Town” is less picturesque but is full of wonderful places to eat and shop.
3. The Galician Contemporary Art Centre
For those of us who enjoy art and galleries, the Galician Contemporary Art Centre is an excellent thing to do in Santiago de Compostela. The building itself is a work of art. Designed by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, it was awarded the Mies Van der Rohen prize in 1988 and the Pritzker prize in 1992.
Inside you will find examples of many of the main trends of art in the last few decades. There are retrospectives on internationally established artists as well as exhibitions of Galician art. Check their website before you visit to see what temporary exhibitions, lectures, artist-driven workshops may be on while you are in Santiago.
The art centre is a perfect place for those who are enthusiastic about Galician culture and art.
4. The Church of Santa María a Real do Sar
If you are looking for something that is a bit off the beaten track on your visit to Santiago de Compostela, we recommend the Church of Santa María a Real do Sar.
This church is in the outlying district of the town by the banks of Sar River. It was built here in the 12th century in the Romanesque style, with rounded arches, arcaded colonnades, rose glass windows and a remarkable cloister that offers splendid views of the garden.
In 1895, the church was declared Bien de Interés Cultural which means “Heritage of Cultural Interest”. The church is open daily to the general public for visitations. If you want to find some quiet time away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the church is one of the ideal things to do.
5. Cape Finisterre and the Lighthouse
Take a short trip from the city to visit “the end of the Earth” at Finisterre! Cape Finisterre is the westernmost point of Spain and is only 90km from Santiago de Compostela.
Many pilgrims on the Way of St. James will continue on after reaching Santiago and end their Camino in Finisterre. Of course, you don’t need to walk or cycle to get here. There are plenty of options to take a tour out to the coast or get a bus or shuttle.
Bring a picnic and some water with you because the cape has no shops, eateries or hotels. It is a beautiful wild destination boasting unspoiled nature and sea waves crashing into the rocky shores.
The main attraction of Cape Finisterre is the lighthouse. The Lighthouse of Finisterre stands on top of the peak of Monte Facho, a mountain on the cape. Come prepared to enjoy the ocean breeze, picturesque sunsets and Celtic spirituality. Right alongside the cape, there is a quaint fishing village by the name of Finisterra. It is a perfect stopover for travellers to get some rest and enjoy fresh seafood.
6. Casa do Cabildo house and Praterias square
Galicia is well-known for its Baroque architecture, and one of the best examples is Casa do Cabildo. This hidden gem sits on the southern side of Platerías Square.
The aristocratic residence was built in 1758 and is today a cultural and historic landmark and museum. The house is only accessible to the public during exhibitions.
7. Join a Santiago de Compostela Walking Tour
The best way to discover a city is by foot, and there are plenty of excellent walking tours available in Santiago. Ask at your accommodation for their recommendations or look online to find an option that suits you. From free walking tours (you are expected to tip) to tours focusing on food and wine, and museum tours to kid-friendly walks, there is something for everyone!
You will also find tours that focus on the history and myths of the famous Camino de Santiago.
8. Alameda Park
Alameda Park is a lovely sprawling park right in the heart of Santiago de Compostela. The park has over 90 types of plants, a flamboyant statue of the Fandiño sisters, and scenic walkways. This is the perfect place to soak in some nature and take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the city.
From Paseo da Ferradura, you get fantastic views of the Cathedral. While you can visit the viewpoint any time of the day, the views of the city are most spectacular at nighttime. The park also hosts many festivals annually, so ask your accommodation provider or check online for what might be happening during your visit to Santiago de Compostela.
9. Explore the Seaside Town of Vigo
Santiago de Compostela is not just about museums and churches. There are so many more things to do. It is also excellently located for day trips to the surrounding countryside.
Travellers who want to experience the charm and peace of an old town should take a day trip to Vigo. The fishing town lies along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and is a place filled with warmth and beauty. You will find many cultural attractions and archaeological monuments here, as well as fantastic food!
10. Experience Galician Culture
The city of Santiago de Compostela is the hub of Galician cultural life. From religious festivals and poetry recitals to contemporary exhibitions and theatrical performances, there is so much going on in the city that will fascinate you.
You can learn loads about the development of Galicia through its food too, so make sure to explore local shops and eat what the locals eat. Try some of the delicious canned foods – canning is a huge industry in northern Spain! Munch on delicious pastries from the many bakeries, and listen to the world go by. See locals doing their shopping in the historic Mercado de Abastos and pick up some gorgeous products for yourself too!
Our biggest recommendation for things to do in Santiago de Compostela is to spend some time looking online for events, gigs, festivals, and other activities that are popping up when you arrive.
You can also listen to our podcast about the top things to see and do in Santiago de Compostela here –
Santiago de Compostela and the Camino de Santiago
The Camino’s full name roughly translates to “the road to Saint James”, the Saint that Santiago is named after. His relics lie in the cathedral and are the endpoint of the pilgrimage. You can learn more about Saint James on our blog.
Each year, over 300,000 pilgrims and thousands of tourists visit Santiago. Pilgrims cycle or walk to the city via the ancient routes, and tourists arrive by plane, train and bus.
To join these pilgrims on the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela – get in touch with us! We can offer you a customised itinerary to suit your style and the length of time that you have available. Whether you are looking for a long weekend on the Way or a month or more walking a full Camino route, we can help.