The city of Santiago de Compostela became a symbol of the Christian Reconquest in Spain, due to the discovery here in 814 of the supposed tomb of Saint James, the patron saint of Spain and one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. Since then, the city has been an important pilgrimage site. The world-famous cathedral, where the apostle is said to rest, is the destination for those walking the Way of St James, whose tendrils stretch across Europe. The city center, where you will find the cathedral and several other important and majestic monuments, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. While walking through the stone streets, you will discover quaint taverns and medieval arcades that will take you back in time. Given the current world situation, the celebration of the Xacobeo Year, a date eagerly awaited by pilgrims around the world, will be extended for the first time for two consecutive years (2021 and 2022). But even if you are not religious, this city is a perfect destination for your vacation and we will show you why in this article. Here are the top 10 things to do in Santiago de Compostela!
Do the Camino de Santiago and visit the Museo das Peregrinacións
The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) is the route pilgrims have taken since the 9th century to Santiago de Compostela to visit the tomb of the Apostle Santiago Maior, said to be located in the city's cathedral. Nowadays, however, there are many reasons to walk this path besides religious ones. You can go on this adventure just to simply be in touch with nature and visit the breathtaking sights of Santiago de Compostela (or just to find out if you can!). It is a spiritual and cultural path. Whatever the reason for your journey, it is a unique experience! Every year thousands of people embark on this route, since it is a great way to explore the majestic monuments of the city and admire beautiful landscapes. Across Europe, there are several routes that lead to Santiago da Compostela, but it is also possible to walk only part of the way to get to know the Galician countryside. The introduction of the Holy Year in Santiago dates back to the 15th century, and the first in history is said to have been the Jubilee of 1428. The Xacobeo Year, also known as the Year of Saint James, Holy Year or Jubilee Year, is celebrated when the celebration of the Apostle Santiago falls on a Sunday on July 25th. The well-known "Rutas Jacobeas" of the Way of St James are derived from this date. The Catholic Church promised forgiveness of all sins to anyone who made the pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle during the Holy Year. To learn more about the history of the Way of St James, you can visit the Museo das Peregrinacións, which shows the development of the city and explains the phenomenon of pilgrimage.
Admire the majestic Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
This cathedral is the greatest symbol of the city in which the apostle James is said to rest. It was this tomb that made this majestic monument the main destination for Christian pilgrimage in Europe (after Rome) during the Middle Ages, through the Camino de Santiago. This religious monument is the final destination for many pilgrims walking or cycling this route. The cathedral was built between 1075 and 1128. The original structure is Romanesque in style, but later Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements were added, giving the cathedral an interesting mix of styles. The interior of the cathedral is virtually the same as it was in the Middle Ages. Stars are a common decorative element, both on the façade and inside the cathedral, alluding to the legend of the city’s foundation. The Pórtico de La Gloria is the main entrance and is a beautiful work of art with 200 figures relating to the Apocalypse and a figure of Saint James. Inside, you will find the Botafumeiro, a huge incense burner that hangs in the center and is usually swung 13 times a year. Admire the incredible artwork and majestic architecture!
Take in the lively atmosphere of the Plaza del Obradoiro
The Plaza del Obradoiro is the most important and famous square in the city. This magnificent square in the heart of Santiago de Compostela supposedly got its name due to the workshops (obradoiro, in Galician) of the stonemasons who worked here during the construction of the cathedral that dominates this square. In the middle of the square, you will find kilometer zero of all the roads in the city. Some of the buildings here are great examples of different architectural styles. They are actually some of the most important buildings in the city, such as the Hostal dos Reis Católicos (once a hospice for pilgrims, now a hotel), the Pazo de Raxoi (City Hall) and the building that originally housed the university and is now a library. Just by visiting this square, you can take in 700 years of architectural history and heritage! It is said that this square was a resting place for pilgrims, who restored their energies here after their long walks. The square has a dynamic and lively atmosphere, and nearby you will find several small shops and many restaurants!
Explore the Casco Historico
The historic center of Santiago de Compostela, that extends from south of the cathedral to the Plaza de las Platerías, is made up of beautiful ornate monuments, convents, palaces, Romanesque and baroque churches, ancient streets and imposing buildings. Because of its features, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the heart of the historic center, you can stroll through the Rúa Nueva and the Rúa del Villar, two charming and picturesque arcaded streets that are the hub of the town's life, with their many cozy cafés, traditional restaurants, boutiques and some of the oldest University buildings. Rúa do Franco, the old town’s gastronomic street, is also a must-visit. Here you can stroll among old stone houses and enjoy some of the best restaurants in the city. The historic center of Santiago da Compostela is undoubtedly of great spiritual and cultural importance, so a stroll through the streets steeped in history, where you can still see traces of the past, is also a must!
Visit the beautiful Monastery of San Martiño Pinario
This magnificent monument in the Plaza de la Inmaculada is the second largest religious monument in the city after the cathedral. The main façade is Baroque in style, as is most of the monastery, although there are also Renaissance and Neoclassical elements. Its construction began in the last third of the 16th century and ended two centuries later, at the end of the 18th century. The monastery was founded by Benedictine monks who settled here after the discovery of the Apostle's remains. However, little remains of the original medieval buildings that once stood on this site. In the mid-19th century, this monument became the headquarters of the Major Seminary of Santiago’s Archdiocese, of Compostela Theological Institute and the School from Social Work. The enormous church is open to visitors as part of a museum and the building also houses a hotel. Inside the church, the chapels, most of which were built in the 18th century, the three altarpieces from the same period and the incredibly ornate main altarpiece are some of the main highlights.
Discover the green oasis of the Parque de la Alameda
After so much walking and exploring, there is nothing better than relaxing and spending a pleasant afternoon in the Parque de la Alameda, the city's main park, which is a true architectural and botanical heritage! Since the 19th century, this park with its large lawns has been a major attraction for tourists and residents. Conceived as a Romantic garden, it consists of three very different parts: Paseo da Alameda, Carballeira de Santa Susana and Paseo da Ferradura. This picturesque park full of trees, exotic flowers, fountains and lakes is located near the historic center and dates back to the 16th century. From here you have a fantastic view of the west façade of the cathedral! With an area of around eight hectares, this park leaves no one indifferent with its Mediterranean vegetation and imposing monuments such as the Iglesia de El Pilar or the Porta dos Leóns. The Jardínes de Méndez Núñez is one of the highlights of the park – it’s a charming garden with centuries-old trees and various statues honoring famous Galician personalities. Food markets and dance and music shows are often held in these gardens. Enjoy Santiago's most emblematic green space and the peace and tranquillity it offers! Take a photo with the Las Dos Marías statue (two sisters in colorful dresses who walked through the park at the same time every day) and take advantage of the viewpoint to admire the imponent cathedral and the low buildings of the old town.
Try the seafood and the local specialities
In Santiago de Compostela, you will find outstanding tapas bars and restaurants, with delicious typical dishes for you to try. There are a lot of local specialties! One of Galicia’s biggest attractions is definitely its high-quality fish and seafood. The Galician octopus, for example, is one of the gastronomic treasures that Santiago de Compostela has to offer. The dish is called polbo á feira and is served with cachelos, potatoes cooked with their skins on. The octopus is boiled and cooked with salt, paprika and olive oil, and usually only the tentacles are served. Steamed mussels and padrón peppers, for example, are some of the popular tapas you should definitely try! Visit the Rúa do Franco, where fresh meat, live fish and seafood are displayed on the doors of the many restaurants.
Visit the Museo do Pobo Galego
This museum was founded in 1976, although the first rooms were opened in 1977. It is located in the ancient Convento San Domingo de Bonaval, originally from the 13th century. The purpose of the museum is to reveal the unique characteristics of Galician culture. There are ten rooms, each dedicated to a different theme (sea, countryside, crafts, music, costume, habitat, architecture, society, archeology and art). It is an anthropological museum, although it also houses rooms dedicated to painting, sculpture and sacred art. The rooms focus on the Galician people and their culture, giving you an insight of what defines this beautiful region. The museum also has a library, video library, graphic archive and sound archive. The Convento of San Domingos de Bonaval also houses the Pantheon of Illustrious Galicians.
Admire the peculiar Colegiata de Santa María la Real de Sar
This church was built in the 12th century on the banks of the river Sar, and is, along with the cathedral, the church which has best preserved its original Romanesque structure. The most peculiar detail of this church is the inclination of its columns, which gives it an unstable but undoubtedly unique appearance. The floor plan consists of three naves separated by columns. The capitals are decorated with plant motifs. Inside, you will be surprised by the proportions of the church, but also by the columns and the beautiful collection of archaeological pieces on display. The façade turret, the baptismal font, the cloister and the buttresses, built between the 17th and 18th centuries, are some of the highlights.
Stroll through the traditional Mercado de Abastos
Stroll through the traditional When in Santiago de Compostela, be sure to visit the Abastos Market, especially if you are a foodie! The market consists of a long passage with several stalls on both sides selling all kinds of fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, seafood and fish. Many stalls also serve meals, making it the perfect place to sample local specialties and wines. The market has been in the same place for about 300 years! The building dates back to 1941 and a visit is the perfect way to experience the daily life of the locals. The market will take you on a real gastronomic journey, which you should take at your leisure and without hurry, while enjoying the best of Galician cuisine!
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