12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Santiago de Compostela
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Pilgrims once traveled on months-long journeys by foot from all over Europe to arrive at the Tomb of Saint James, which is housed in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. During the Middle Ages, this sacred city was equal to Jerusalem and Rome as a pilgrimage destination. The route that medieval pilgrims traveled is known as the "Way of Saint James" or the "Camino de Santiago" in Spanish.
Still one of the most revered shrines in Christendom, Santiago de Compostela continues to draw modern-day spiritual pilgrims. However, the city also offers a wealth of interesting museums, a charming Old Town and a luxuriant park with botanical gardens that ordinary tourists will enjoy.
No matter how or why you arrive here, Santiago de Compostela is a rewarding destination at the heart of the beautiful Galicia region. The historic center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago is one of the most outstanding monuments in Spain.
Make the most of your time in this fascinating historic city and discover the best places to visit with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Santiago de Compostela.
See also: Where to Stay in Santiago de Compostela
1. Catedral de Santiago
The most sacred Christian monument in Spain, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a sight worthy of an arduous pilgrim's journey. The cathedral stands majestically on the Plaza del Obradoiro, with its towers soaring above the town.
An outstanding example of Early Romanesque architecture, the building was constructed between 1075 and 1211 on the site of an earlier 9th-century church that was destroyed in 997 by Almansor's Moorish army.
The cathedral was renovated numerous times in different architectural styles, including Gothic, Plateresque, and Neoclassical.
Welcoming pilgrims is a splendid entrance called the Portico de la Gloria. Created by Master Mateo in 1188, this doorway is a profusion of sculpture featuring 200 figures from the Apocalypse story and the figure of Saint James the Apostle.
The Obradoiro Facade (facing the square) was created by Fernando de Casas y Novoa. This lavish facade is considered to be the finest example of Spanish Baroque style.
The cathedral's grand first impression sets the stage for an inspiring spiritual experience. Upon entering the sanctuary, visitors are awed by the grandiose and serene space of three naves with an astounding surface area of about 8,300 square meters.
Directly beneath the opulent Baroque main altar is the main draw for all pilgrims to Santiago, the Crypt of Saint James the Apostle, patron saint of Spain. The crypt contains the Tomb of Saint James, the object of veneration for pilgrims.
The Capilla de las Reliquias, the first chapel in the south aisle, contains tombs of kings and queens of the 12th to 15th centuries. Beyond the south transept to the right of the Puerta de las Platerías is a gorgeous 16th-century Plateresque cloister, one of the largest and finest in Spain.
Located within the Renaissance cloister, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Museum illustrates the history of the cathedral and presents an assortment of artworks. Highlights are the tapestries by Rubens and Goya. The museum also contains the Cathedral Treasury.
Festivals are another reason to visit Santiago de Compostela. The Fiestas del Apóstol Santiago (Festival of Saint James) celebrations are held every year during the last two weeks of July. Festivities include music concerts, folkloric dance performances, traditional parades, street entertainment, light shows, and fireworks. Most of the events take place on July 24th and 25th. In years that Saint James Day (July 25th) falls on a Sunday, it is considered a Holy Year feast day.
Address: Plaza Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela
Official site: http://catedraldesantiago.es/en
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Santiago de Compostela
2. Hostal de los Reyes Católicos
This former pilgrims' hostel is a splendid example of Gothic Plateresque architecture, with a decorative facade and four interior courtyards. In 1499, the Catholic Monarchs created a place of lodging for weary pilgrims who had journeyed from far and wide on the Way of Saint James trail. It's easy to imagine the joy travelers must have felt when they reached this beautiful destination.
Continuing the tradition of hospitality, the historic building has been renovated and converted into a luxurious 5-star hotel, the Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos. Guests will enjoy the comfortable rooms and regional Galician cuisine served at the hotel's gourmet restaurant.
Visitors may also continue their spiritual journey by worshiping at the lovely chapel here, the Capilla de Enrique de Egas.
Address: 1 Plaza Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela
3. Plaza del Obradoiro
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela forms the east side of the Plaza del Obradoiro, a large pedestrian square that represents the heart of the Casco Antiguo (Old Town). The plaza's name, which translates to "Workshop Square," originates from the time when the cathedral was being built – for years, numerous stone masons worked here while constructing the edifice we see today.
This grand square is boxed in by three other historic landmarks, including the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos to the north; Pazo de Raxoi (Santiago City Hall) to the west; and the 17th-century Colegio de San Jerónimo, which is now a part of Santiago University, to the south.
Next door to the cathedral, the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario is another landmark building with a rich history.
4. Camino de Santiago and Museo das Peregrinacións
The Camino de Santiago is the name for the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. This important medieval pilgrimage began in the 9th century with various routes, also known as the Way of Saint James (or the "Chemins de Saint Jacques de Compostelle" in French), originating all over Europe. Pilgrims set out on this walk with the goal of venerating the saint's tomb in Santiago.
During the High Middle Ages, a pilgrimage culture flourished, and splendid Romanesque churches were built at key stopping points along the way. The pilgrims' symbol is the scallop shell, and historic sites related to the Camino de Santiago are indicated with a shell icon. Modern-day pilgrims tie the scallop shells to their backpacks.
The Museo de las Peregrinaciones y de Santiago (Museum of Pilgrimages and Santiago) allows visitors to discover the fascinating history of the pilgrims of Saint James. The museum explains the importance of the Saint James' relics to the pilgrims, and illustrates the cult of Saint James through ancient artifacts and religious objects.
Exhibits present historical information that explains the origin of Jacobean worship, beginning with the archaeological transfer of the Saint's apostolic body (relics) from Jaffa in the Holy Land to Libredón, the name of the hilltop site that is now part of Santiago de Compostela.
Visitors learn about the influence of pilgrimages on the development of Santiago de Compostela's artistic crafts guilds. The museum has two sites: One is located on Calle de San Miguel and another at Plaza de las Platerías, the square facing the cathedral.
Address: 4 Calle de San Miguel & Plaza de Platerías, Santiago de Compostela
5. Explore Casco Antiguo (Old Town)
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the atmospheric Old Town of Santiago extends south of the cathedral and the Plaza de las Platerías, the south square that faces the cathedral's Romanesque facade. This fountain-adorned square is enclosed by ornate Baroque monuments.
At the heart of the town's historic center are two parallel streets, the Rúa Nueva and the Rúa del Villar with the 18th-century Casa del Deán at its near end. These two arcaded streets are the hub of the town's life and are filled with cafés, restaurants, and boutiques. Tourists will enjoy strolling around these charming pedestrian streets.
Much of the Casco Antiguo and the area around the cathedral is closed to automobile traffic, adding to the quaint old-world ambience.
6. Wander through Parque de La Alameda
Locals and tourists alike adore this elegant landscaped park, which is located adjacent to the Old Town. Dating back to the 16th century, the park is an important part of the city's urban landscape and offers wonderful views of the cathedral's west facade.
Mediterranean vegetation flourishes in the Parque de La Alameda, along with subtropical species, exotic flowers, and a variety of roses. The lush eight-hectare park includes three separate gardens and noteworthy monuments such as the Iglesia de El Pilar (built in 1717) and the famous Porta dos Leóns (Lions door), carved in 1835.
For two centuries, La Alameda has been residents' favorite place to take a stroll, a fact memorialized by the As Marías monument, a sculpture of two sisters (well-known local residents) who once took their afternoon walk here each day at 2pm, usually wearing colorful dresses.
A highlight of Alameda Park is the Jardínes de Méndez Núñez, a pleasant garden shaded by centuries-old trees. This delightful garden includes a wooded area, a rose garden, and an assortment of statues honoring celebrated Galician figures. The Jardínes de Méndez Núñez hosts gastronomy fairs, dance performances, music concerts, and other events throughout the year.
7. Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea
The Galician Centre of Contemporary Art provides a glimpse of the region's modern-day culture. The center is dedicated to contemporary Galician art, which is displayed in the sleek exhibition halls of a building designed in the late '80s and early '90s by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza.
From the building's terraces, visitors can take in stunning views of the historic quarter. Part of the property includes a garden that belonged to the neighboring convent. In addition to the permanent collection, the center also hosts temporary exhibits related to trends in art.
Address: 2 Calle Ramón del Valle Inclán, Santiago de Compostela
Official site: http://cgac.xunta.es
8. Casa do Cabildo
Considered one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in the Galicia region, this opulent aristocratic house was built in 1758 and is renowned for its exquisite facade. The building is found on the Plaza de las Platerías, a picturesque square with an impressive fountain at its center.
The Casa del Cabildo provided inspiration for Spanish author Valle-Inclán and is described in his story Mi Hermana Antonia.
The building was renovated in 2011 and converted to an exhibition space; the monument is part of the association of museums in Santiago de Compostela. The Casa del Cabildo is open to the public when art exhibitions are hosted here.
Address: 2 Plaza de Platerías, Santiago de Compostela
9. Museo do Pobo Galego
Opened in 1976, the Museum of the Galician People is housed in the former Convent of San Domingos de Bonaval. The exhibits illustrate the defining aspects of Galician culture, such as their relationship with the sea, the land, and each other.
The permanent collections are devoted to the cultural heritage of Galicia, with a focus on folk culture of the region. The museum presents archaeological findings, as well as information about traditional costumes, architecture, and trades such as fishing and farming.
Visitors also learn about the regional culture through the museum's exhibits of Galician clothes, music, crafts, paintings, and sculptures.
Address: Calle San Domingos de Bonaval, Santiago de Compostela
Official site: http://www.museodopobo.gal/web/index.php?lang=en
10. Cidade da Cultura de Galicia
In stunning contrast to the historic buildings of Santiago de Compostela, this sleek, modern complex of buildings designed by Peter Eisenman brings the city into the 21st century.
The City of Culture of Galicia includes the Gaiás Centre Museum, a free museum that hosts temporary exhibitions, many of which are installations too large to be displayed in most venues.
There is also the Library of Galicia, a theater, and a central plaza for outdoor performances; English-speaking guided tours are available.
The Cidade da Cultura is a short bus ride from the historic town center of Santiago de Compostela.
Address: Monte Gaiás, Santiago de Compostela
Official website: www.cidadedacultura.gal/en
11. Visit Colegiata de Santa María la Real de Sar
On the outskirts of town, this remarkable Collegiate Church of Santa Maria dates to the 12th century. The building has an interesting tower and flying buttresses on the exterior that were built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Typical of a Romanesque church, the floor plan has three naves separated by pillars, and the capitals are decorated with plant motifs. The sanctuary features barrel vaulting with ribbed arches, creating a graceful sense of spaciousness.
The interior is illuminated by the side windows and a rose window. Be sure to visit the cloister, a marvelous example of Romanesque architecture. The arcaded colonnades feature intricately sculpted decorative details, and offer views of a peaceful garden.
The church is open daily to the public for visits (with an admission fee).
Address: Plaza de la Colegiata de Sar, Santiago de Compostela
12. Day Trip to the Historic Seaside Town of Vigo
The historic seaside town of Vigo is 87 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela along the Atlantic Ocean shores and the estuary of the Rías Baixas. The town's historic quarter has the ambience of a fishing village. Vigo is renowned for its Galician cuisine based on fresh local fish.
The town has an interesting 20th-century church, the shrine of Nosa Señora da Guía, inspired by the Baroque architecture of Santiago de Compostela.
Housed in a lovely 17th-century pazo (palace), the Museo da Cidade Quiñones de León (Municipal Museum of Vigo) displays an excellent collection of archaeological findings and paintings by Galician artists. The palace is surrounded by a park with fountains, ponds, and gorgeous French formal gardens.
Another interesting cultural attraction is the Museo do Mar de Galicia (Museum of the Sea), which educates visitors about the history of fishing and the traditional seafaring way of life of the Galicia region.
Where to Stay in Santiago de Compostela for Sightseeing
- The Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos is one of the most historically significant hotels in the world, located on the Praza Obradorio, next to the Catedral de Santiago, in the heart of the Old Town. This five-star luxury hotel features a fine-dining restaurant that serves traditional cuisine and beautiful cloister gardens.
- A Quinta da Auga Hotel & Spa is a four-star boutique hotel that offers historic charm and exceptional service. Guest rooms and suites feature old-fashioned French country-style decor and views of the garden, farm, or forest. This Relais & Châteaux property has a spa, indoor pool, hammam, sauna, and fitness center. The hotel's restaurant serves traditional Galician cuisine prepared from seasonal ingredients. Accommodations includes a gourmet breakfast.
- A four-star hotel with mid-range prices, San Francisco Hotel Monumento is centrally located in the Old Town just steps from the cathedral. The hotel has an indoor swimming pool, a central courtyard, and a garden. There is also an excellent on-site restaurant that offers room service.
- Located within just a few minutes' walk of the center of Old Town attractions, the three-star Altair Hotel offers excellent value, with stylish rooms. In addition to an amazing breakfast with homemade jams, amenities include a 24-hour front desk and concierge service.
- Hotel Atalaia B&B may not have the frills and amenities of more expensive accommodations, but the guest rooms feature stylish modern decor and have city views. The friendly service and comfy beds make you feel at home while staying right in the Old Town.
- Another centrally located budget hotel is A Tafona do Peregrino, which offers airport transportation and concierge service. Travelers with children appreciate the family rooms and on-site restaurant. A breakfast buffet is available.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Santiago de Compostela
- Exploring the Costa da Morte: A full-day sightseeing Finisterre Day Trip from Santiago de Compostela is an excellent way to see some of Spain's seaside towns and fishing villages along the picturesque Costa da Morte. Highlights of this Atlantic coastline include Cape Fisterre and its lighthouse on Monte Facho, the village of Muxía, and the town of Fisterre.
- Visiting Santiago de Compostela from Portugal: Tourists staying in northern Portugal can take a full-day tour from Porto to Santiago de Compostela, led by an expert guide. The tour includes a visit to the Catedral de Santiago and plenty of time to have lunch and explore the Casco Antiguo. The tour stops in Valença do Minho on the way back, a quaint town on the border of Spain and Portugal that is known for its towered fortress.
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Pilgrimage Churches: As pilgrims made the long journey along the Camino de Santiago, they would visit churches in other Spanish cities on the route. Pamplona, although more famous for its annual Running of the Bulls, is home to a Romanesque church that was on the Way of Saint James. The medieval town of Burgos also welcomed many pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela.
Exploring Northern Spain: Santiago de Compostela is a good base for exploring the attractions of northern Spain, such as the pre-Romanesque churches of Oviedo and the historic city of León. Another important stop along the Way of Saint James pilgrimage trail, León boasts an amazing Romanesque church and a remarkable Gothic cathedral.