Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is the capital city of Galicia, Spain, and one of the most important places in Catholicism because it is reputed to be the place where St. James, one of the twelve Apostles of Christ, is buried. It is the final destination of the Way of St. James, one of the most important Christian pilgrimages.
Santiago de Compostela was founded by the Suebi in the early 400s, as part of the collapse of the Roman Empire. In 550 the whole settlement together with the rest of Galicia and northern Portugal was incorporated by Leovigild into the Visigothic kingdom of Spain. Raided from 711 to 739 by the Arabs, Santiago de Compostela was conquered by the Visigothic king of Asturias in 754. This was about 60 years before the identification of remains as those of Saint James the Great, and their acceptance as such by the Pope and Charlemagne, during the reign of Alfonso II of Asturias. The remains were found in the small and close town of Iria Flavia, but they were moved to Santiago according to political and religious reasons. From then on, this settlement was not just a city, but a holy city, and one of the main centers of Christian pilgrimage. Still, there are some who claim that the remains found here were not those of the apostle James. One of the most famous theories is that these are the remains of Priscillian. They are also thought by many to be someone else altogether.
Santiago de Compostela was captured by the French during the Napoleonic War. Its capture broke the spirits of the many Spanish guerrillas who were fighting the mighty invading armies of Marshals' Soult, Victor, Massena and Napoleon's brother, the new King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte (called Pepe Botella by the Spanish resistance). During the war, many attempts were made to recapture it by Spanish partisans, who believed St James would come down on the field and destroy the French if they earned his favour by beating the French out of the holy city, which was St James's city. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Santiago was under the control of the fascists from the beginning. It suffered from very brutal repression during the dictatorship. After the Spanish Transition, when the democracy was restored, Santiago de Compostela was declared capital city of Galicia.
Santiago de Compostela today
With a population of about 95,000 inhabitants, it's one of the seven major cities of Galicia. It is the most touristic of them, receiving thousands of visitors every year, many of them attracted to the ancient history and the religious tradition. It was declared by the UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its cathedral and old city center.
The University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) is one of the oldest Spanish universities. It has more than 30,000 students, making Santiago one of the centers of the university education in Spain, with Salamanca and Granada.
The climate of Santiago is typical of the Spanish Atlantic coast: wet winters with frequent rains which, in light or heavy bursts, lasts from September to June. The summers are slightly less rainy than the rest of the Cantabrian coast.
Temperatures remain mild throughout the whole year with a yearly average of 19ºC. They drop down to about 8ºC in January, the coldest month of the year.
By Camino de SantiagoThe traditional way of getting to Santiago de Compostela is by walking about 780 km from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, on the Way of St. James. It is just as traditional to arrive on horseback, though considerably more difficult in terms of facilities. You may be able to stable your horse with a local farmer, but virtually no hostels provide this service. Cycling is also popular.
By busAnother way of getting to Santiago is by bus. The bus station is in the outskirts of the city, but there you can get a public bus or a taxi to get to the city centre. You can get to Santiago by bus from several places:
- From cities and towns of Galicia, try Arriva or Monbus or Empresa Freire.
- From other parts of Spain, try Alsa, one of the most important bus companies of Spain.
By trainIf you want to arrive to Santiago by train, you should visit the RENFE webpage. The train station is relatively close to the city centre.
Santiago de Compostela AirportIt is the 2nd busiest airport in northern Spain after Bilbao Airport.
Luggage lockers are available in the airport's parking garage (-4 level), €5.07 per day.
The following airlines operate here:
- Adria Airways: Ljubljana
- Aer Lingus: Dublin
- Air Europa: Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Caracas
- EasyJet: Geneve and Basel
- Iberia: Madrid and Bilbao
- Ryanair: Frankfurt Hahn (about 2 hours away from Frankfurt), Milan, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Malaga, Palma de Mallorca, Lanzarote, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Tenerife
- Volotea: Venice, Ibiza and Menorca
- Vueling: Barcelona, Málaga, Paris and Zurich
Even so, there are several bus lines that connect every part of the city. These services are offered by the company Tralusa. The ticket costs €1.00 for adults (for people under 18 it costs €0.55). If you are going to take several bus trips, you may buy a bono (Bus Pass) of 10, 20, or 30 tickets with a price of €0.55 for each one. You can buy these bonos from the bus drivers and you must pay a deposit of €3 that will be paid back to you if you return the card in good condition. The most interesting line for visitors is the number 5, that stops at the bus station and goes to the city center.
Taxis are not very expensive and the taxi drivers are usually kind and willing to help tourists.
Taxi from to and from the airport are available at a fixed rate of €19 (2010 rates).
The official languages of the city are Galician and Spanish. Galician is has many similarities to Portuguese.
Praza do ObradoiroIn the heart of the city, it's named after the workshop of the stonemasons that was established during the construction of the Cathedral (Obradoiro is the Galician word for workshop). This is the arrival point of thousands of pilgrims every day and kilometer 0 of the Way of St. James is in the center of this square. The surrounding buildings are examples of different architectural styles. At the east, the baroque front of the cathedral with the museum at its right and the Gelmírez Palace at its left. At the West, the Rajoy Palace, which serves as the current city hall. At the north, the Catholic Kings Hostal, a plateresque building destined to host the pilgrims. At the south, the San Jerónimo College, an old students residence and now the head office of the University of Santiago de Compostela.
phone: +34 981 569 327address: Praza do ObradoiroThis cathedral has so many examples of different architectural styles that covering them all would be beyond the scope of this article. Maybe the most important are the Baroque front of the Praza do Obradoiro and the interior porch, Pórtico da Gloria. The tomb of Santiago (Saint James) is under the Cathedral, and it is possible to visit its tomb and even hug the sculpture that represents the saint. On regular occasions the church shows its "Botafumeiro", a huge solid silver incense burner which is swung from the ceiling of the church by a team of energetic men ("tiraboleiros") hauling it on ropes.
Hostal dos Reis Católicos (Catholic Kings Hostal)The hostal was built as a hospital after the visit of the Catholic Kings to Santiago in 1486, to attend the pilgrims. With the years, the Catholic Kings ordered the building of a big hostel with the money they had earned with the conquest of Granada. Its style is Plateresque. At its front, two coats of arms of Castilla can be seen.
Palacio de Raxoi (Rajoy palace)An 18th-century building, it was built under the classic canons to host the city council, a jail, a seminary and the residence for the children of the choir. At the top, there's a sculpture of St. James riding his horse and fighting with the Arabs.
Colexio de San Xerome (San Jerónimo College)It was founded by the archbishop Alonso III de Fonseca to host poor students. Its front has a Romanesque style.
Palacio de Xelmírez (Gelmírez Palace)Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, it's now the home of the archbishop of Santiago. It's a great example of the Romanesque civil architecture.
Plaza da Quintana (Quintana Square)This is the square at the other side of the cathedral. It's divided in two, Quintana dos Mortos, just until the staircase and Quintana dos Vivos, the upper side. In the past it served as cemetery and market. There's a legend that if you're at this square alone at midnight, you will be able to see all the dead buried there.
Praza de Praterías (Silversmith's Square)Close to the Quintana, it has a well-known fountain and it offers one of the best sights of the cathedral.
Monasterio de San Martiño Pinario (San Martín Pinario Monastery)Benedictine monastery of the 9th century. The building is baroque. It's one of the most emblematic buildings of all the city. It's in the Praza da Inmaculada.
Casa da Parra (Parra House)At the Quintana dos Vivos, this building has the typical chimney of the 18th century.
Praza de Abastos (City Market)The second most visited monument. This market is the typical Galician market and one of the biggest all over Spain. It's the perfect place to buy some fresh seafood, vegetables and meat.
Cidade da Cultura (City of Culture)Peter Eisenman's ambitious project in the outskirts of Santiago, impressive especially for those interested in architecture. It consists of a museum, a library, cafeteria and archives, which are all open and functioning at present. Guided tours are available for free.
The city has several museums that are worth the visit. Some of them are:
address: Praza do Obradoiro.It shows the Cathedral’s history and artistic testimonies, from the first basilicas and archaeological remains, the Romanesque period, the work of Master Mateo, with the reconstruction of the Cathedral’s Stone Choir; sculpture in the Cathedral between the 13th and 18th centuries, a tour of the Mannerist Cloister, Library, where the Botafumeiro censer is exhibited and the Chapterhouse, ending on the top floor with an important tapestry collection, which includes a room dedicated to Goya, and the spectacular continuous balcony that dominates Plaza del Obradoiro and the streets of historical Santiago.
Museum of the Galician PeopleThe former Convent of Santo Domingo de Bonaval on a hill outside the walls of the historical city, beside the road used by pilgrims to enter Compostela, now houses the Museo do Pobo Galego (Museum of the Galician People), which, provides a general view of the most representative expressions of Galicia’s own culture. It displays different aspects of coastal life, traditional trades, the country, traditional costumes and architecture. It also includes sections of Galician archaeology, painting and sculpture. Different temporary exhibitions are regularly organized on a variety of subjects. It's where many important Galician figures are buried. Rúa de San Domingos de Bonaval.
address: Rúa Ramón María del Valle-InclánThe building was designed by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza and finds a careful balance between the outer and innerspace.
Pilgrimage Museumaddress: Rúa de San MiguelThe exhibition highlights the importance, for European culture and Hispanic America, of the pilgrimage and worship of St. James.
- One of the best ways (and maybe one of the most comfortable) of seeing the city and learning things about its building and history is to get on a little train that will take you through different parts of the city showing it in an unique way. It has an English speaking guide. It departs from the Praza do Obradoiro it costs €5 for adults and €3 for children between 4 and 12. Here you can check the route
- If you want a guided visit on foot through the Old District, just try one of the guided visits that the City Hall organized with an English speaking guide. These visits depend on the day and the season. For more information check this link
- There are several guided visits, but they are only available in Spanish. For example there are a night tour or a tour visiting the different churches. Although this, if you're a big group (more than 15), you could ask for them in the Official Tourism Office at Rúa do Vilar, 63 or through this email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you feel like having a different view of the city you could book an aeroplane tour of Santiago de Compostela. It's expensive (and prices vary by tour) but it's an original way to see the city. For more information see
- If you are one of the hundreds pilgrims that arrive following the Way of St. James you can get a diploma certifying that you completed the pilgrimage.
If you want to buy clothes, move to the Zona Nova (New District) and visit the stores that are all over these district. Here you can find Zara, Bershka, Pepe Jeans... and other famous brands. Maybe the most original brand you could find is Rei Zentolo at Rúa Santiago de Chile, a Galician brand with original and really funny T-shirts and other clothes.
There are two shopping centers in the city. The first one, Área Central, is located at the district of Fontiñas (you can get there by taking the bus number 11 in the City Centre) and it has fashion shops, fast food restaurants and one big supermarket. The other one, Hipercor, at Rúa do Restollal, is a typical department store.
Also try pimientos de padrón. The saying goes, "Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non" meaning that in a single serving, some are spicy while others are not.
Try the Albariño wine, a white wine from the south of Galicia. Other popular drinks are:
- Licor café is a popular local liqueur, which tastes strongly of coffee.
- Orujo, also known as Aguardiente or Caña, is also a popular local drink, made with the grapes after juicing them. It's often served in little glasses (chupitos) or just a trickle with the coffee. There are three kinds: Orujo Blanco, just eau-de-vie, Orujo de hierbas, often green, it has different tastes depending on the kind, it's usually served very cold, and Tostado, that it's the result of soaking the grapes with nuts and other fruits.
- Queimada, very traditional drink, it's a mix of aguardiente, sugar and some fruits and coffee beans. It's set on fire before drinking it while someone recites the conxuro (a sort of spell)
- Crema de Orujo Orujo's cream, very sweet and tasty, 15-20% of alcohol.
El Mosquitoaddress: Rua de San PedroA very old-fashioned bar. Everything there seems like the 1950s, even the customers. The only exception is the LCD 42" TV that displays football (soccer) matches. Very nice and local environment. They sell a little cup of Ribeiro wine for a small price. You can ask also for a bottle of Likor Kafe or Crema de Orujo (less than €10) it's all homemade, they fill an empty bottle of wine in front of you. You can also buy a bottle of Ribeiro wine (Vino Ribeiro) they fill a 2 L plastic bottle with it (they wash the bottles in front of you as well). This is a very local place, and seems like you need to be at least 50 years old to get in, but that's not true.
Later in the evening, there are several places to go because Santiago de Compostela is a city with a very interesting nightlife.
If you want beer or cocktails to begin the night, try Nido del Cuco or Momo, both at Virxe da Cerca. The last one, Momo, during the summer season has a big and nice garden and during the winter it has performances of singer-songwriters. Other interesting places are Casa das Crechas (Vía Sacra, very close to Praza da Quintana), where you can hear some folk music, A Calderería (Rúa da Calderería), spot where many foreigners get together and sometimes there are music performances or Modus Vivendi (Praza Feixoó).
To continue the night, Santiago has many pubs where drink and dance different kinds of music. The following ones are only examples of the great variety you can find in Santiago.
- El Retablo: the music is mainly Spanish and international pop. It's usually full of people, mainly young people. Rúa Nova.
- Avante: really famous little pub where you can dance and listen to ska and traditional nationalist music. Cantón de San Bieito.
- A Reixa: well-known indie bar. Here you can listen mainly to 1960s music, with a great poster of Björk decorating the pub. Rúa Tras Salomé.
- Fonte Sequelo: a small pub, with music of different styles. Rúa Xelmírez.
- Forum: gay pub, very little and always full of people. Music of different styles. Rúa Travesa.
- Meia: very popular specially between the Erasmus students (it even has discounts for them), the music is international pop. Rúa Algalia de Abaixo.
- Blaster: popular pub, with music of very different styles and a really original decoration. Expect lots of people. Rúa República Arxentina.
- Krooner: one of the most original places, depending on the day and the hour, you can listen to indie rock, 1960s music or house. It's also an after party from 10:00 to 14:00. Rúa República Arxentina.
- Guayaba: pub with Latin music (merengue, salsa). Rúa Nova de Abaixo.
- La Ruta: popular disco and the oldest one, it has two floors. Up, indie and alternative rock, down, house and electronic music. Gay-friendly place. You must pay €5 to get into. Rúa Pérez Constanti.
- Liberty: one of the most popular discos to finish the night. Mainstream pop. The admission is not free for men (€5) and depending on the day either for women. Rúa Alfredo Brañas.
People with a bigger budget can stay in the luxury Parador de Santiago, known as the "Hostal dos Reis Católicos", the former medieval pilgrim hostel, situated on the same square, O Obradoiro, as the cathedral. It is owned by the Paradores group, a large hotel-chain which operates hotels exclusively in historic buildings.
Hesperia Gelmirez3-star hotel with very good rates.
Hostal R Mexicoaddress: Republica Argentina 33For the budget traveler.
Hostal Pazo de Agraaddress: Rúa Calderería 37Another budget option
phone: +34 981 563 444address: Rúa Doutor Teixeiro
phone: +34 98 1558070Avenida Burgo das Nacions
phone: +34 981570846address: Rúa dos Basquiños, nº 67Clean backpackers' hostel, 5 minutes walk from the bus station. Mixed and female-only dorms, and private rooms. There´s a kitchen, common room and a garden. The owners have another pension in a different location in town.