Thousands embark on a pilgrimage to the medieval city-shrine of Santiago de Compostela every year, but behind the religious fervour is a beautiful and engaging destination that demands exploration
The capital of the Spanish region of Galicia, Santiago is heaven sent. Follow the dusty footprints of thousands of pilgrims past and you’ll see why. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the city’s winding stone streets have earthly spectacles on every corner – from crumbling churches to sunny squares, palaces and monuments. The heart of the city is encircled by green foliage, with lush gardens and chestnut trees, perfect for picnics. Listen out for Galician music influenced by the city’s historic Celtic inhabitants, dine on fish plucked fresh from the Atlantic Ocean, or enjoy a glass of the local white wine, Albarino, widely considered the prince of the region’s tipples.
What to do
A city made for strolling, Santiago is very pedestrian-friendly. You can’t miss the Praza do Obradoiro, Santiago’s stunning central square; here you’ll be confronted with the glorious baroque facade of Catedral del Apóstol. Inside, there’s enough to keep you busy for several hours – gaze at the 12th-century Gate of Glory, the cathedral’s original exterior before it was replaced during the 18th century, marvel at the ornate high altar and delve into the crypt below in which the remains of St James are believed to be buried. Attend mass to witness Santiago’s impressive dispenser of incense, the botafumeiro (smoke spitter). Constructed in the 13th century, it swings across the transept on a pulley system, reaching impressive speeds of up to 70mph. The museum next door is also worth a visit.
Inspect the surrounding architectural highlights – the elegant 18th-century Pazo de Raxoi (city hall) and the Palace of Archbishop Xelmirez. Roam the streets nearby and you’ll unearth even more treasures; to the south is the Praza das Praterias (Silversmiths’ Square), with the Romanesque masterpiece Fuente de los Caballos cathedral at its centre.
Stroll along Rúa Nova and stop at Praza do Toural for the impressive Museo Granell (www.fundacion-granell.org), home to the surrealist artwork of Galicia’s Eugenio Granell, among others. Ending up in the pretty garden of Caballeria de Santa Susana, look back towards the city for lovely views of the old town and the towering cathedral.
Where to stay
A charmingly converted 16th-century monastery is home to the San Francisco Hotel Monumento. Architecturally stunning, the hotel has its own restaurant, museum and pool. Just a cobbled street away is Hotel Costa Vella, offering a homely option. Each room is full of welcoming touches and it is worth staying the night for breakfast alone; try tasty plates of Galician cheese with honey in the garden. Plump for something a little plusher at Parador de Santiago de Compostela, the Hostal dos Reis Católicos. A medieval monument fit for a King (or Queen), it was once home to the Royal Hospital, established to treat visiting pilgrims.
Where to eat and drink
Galicians place great emphasis on the quality of raw ingredients so expect simple dishes using excellent produce. Seafood also figures highly – feast on fresh clams, sardines and sea bass, or try much-prized percebes (goose barnacles). For uncomplicated, traditional fare Casa Camilo (00 34 981 584 594; Raiña 24) is the best place to start. Opt for little plates of jamon, pimientos de Padrón (small green peppers fried in garlic) and chipirones (squid).
You might have to elbow a few hungry punters out of the way to get a seat at the hip Casa Marcelo (00 34 981 558 580; ww.casamarcelo.net), but it’s worth the fight to snag one of the nine tables. Daily visits to the market dictate the menu, which is always fresh, simple and delicious. For cutting-edge Spanish cuisine head to A Curtidoría (00 34 981 554 342; www.acurtidoria.com). Start with pulpo a feira, octopus salad dressed with olive oil and paprika, then move onto deliciously firm oven-roasted turbot.
If you’re heading out on the tapas trail, follow your nose all the way to Rúa do Franco and Rúa Raíña – these two lanes are full of excellent bars.
Time running out?
Soak up the sights and smells of the bustling fish market, situated on Rúa das Ameas.
Visit in July for the Festival of St James. Various celebrations take place, including firework displays and feasting.
Currency is the euro. Santiago de Compostela is one hour ahead of GMT and a two-hour flight from London.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Santiago de Compostela. Iberia Air (0870 60 90 500; www.iberia.com/gb) flies from Heathrow to Santiago de Compostela, via Madrid.
Santiago de Compostela Tourism: Rúa do Vilar 63 (00 34 981 555 129; www.santiagoturismo.com).
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.