Is it Worth Visiting Santiago de Compostela?
Created by Colleen Sims * 22 March 2023 * Updated 15 August 2023
Is it Worth Visiting Santiago de Compostela? Santiago is located in the northwest corner of Spain, it is an ancient city steeped in history and culture and Yes! It is worth visiting.
Santiago de Compostela has so much to offer, from its iconic cathedral to its fascinating pilgrim history and medieval centre, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Whether you are looking for a cultural getaway or you’re a pilgrim walking the Camino, Santiago de Compostela is a destination worth exploring.
Why is Santiago de Compostela Famous?
Santiago de Compostela is famous for being the site where the remains of the Apostle Saint James are buried and for being the end of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino has been one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimage routes since the Middle Ages.
People have been travelling on this route (The Way of St James) since the 9th century. Millions of people have walked the Camino de Santiago and it remains ever popular today. The end goal is always the same; to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of St James are said to be buried.
The Apostle St James and the Cathedral
Is Santiago de Compostela worth visiting? If for no other reason you should visit the magnificent cathedral dedicated to St James. The remain of St James were discover in 814 and the original church was built on the site in 829. Today’s Romanesque cathedral, in the heart of Santiago’s old town, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and continues to attract tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Visit the tomb of the Apostle, St James’ in the crypt beneath the main altar, explore its many chapels and marvel at its majestic stained glass windows. You can also attend one of several daily masses and if you’re lucky, you may even see the cathedrals famous Botofumeiro swing.
The Camino De Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is a network of iconic pilgrimage routes. The most famous route, the Camino Frances, begins in St Jean Pied de Port in South West France, crossing the Pyrenees and winding its way through 800 kilometres of northern Spain until it reaches the cathedral and the tomb of St James in Santiago.
I discovered the Camino in 2013 and I have walked at least once a year since. Reaching Santiago, even after so many visits, continues to enthral me and is always a very special moment.
Top Tip : To receive a Compostela from the Cathedral de Santiago you must walk at least the last 100 kilometres of any route that ends in Santiago.
How long to Spend in Santiago?
Santiago can easily be enjoyed in just a few days but if you really want to get under its skin then three days or more would be ideal. This gives you enough time to explore the key sights without feeling rushed or overwhelmed.
Many Pilgrims only allow a day; myself included. I’ve visited Santiago many many times and each time I discover something new and yearn to stay longer.
A word of warning; I have several pilgrim friends who fell in love with Santiago de Compostela and up-rooted their lives to live here. There is something very special about this ancient city.
What to do in Santiago de Compostela?
There is so much history and culture and life to Santiago that’s it’s impossible to quantify what you must see. However, if you are visiting for the first time there are a few places that should be on your to-do list.
Explore the Cathedral de Santiago
Visiting the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a must. The Cathedral is 97 meters long and 22 meters high, with a barrel-vaulted cruciform interior. It consists of a nave, two lateral aisles, and several chapels and inside you can find many works of art including sculptures, paintings and stained glass windows.
The most significant reason for pilgrims to reach to the Cathedral is to pay homage at the tomb of St James the Apostle who is buried here, but the cathedral has a fascinating history and is also worth exploring.
The Cathedral does offer tours but often they are only in Spanish, however there are excellent private Cathedral tours in English that you can book in advance of your visit.
Take a Tour of the Cathedral Roof
I have taken this tour three times and I would happily go again. It’s an incredible experience to see Santiago from the roof of the Cathedral. I would also stress that I am not great with heights but I have no problems with this tour.
You’ll need to ascend to the roof via an internal staircase, so you’ll need to be a little agile. From the roof you’re rewarded with incredible panoramic views over Santiago de Compostela, and see up close the beautiful architectural details, and look out for pilgrims arriving in Obradoiro Square.
Rooftop tours are booked directly on the Cathedral’s website. They aren’t always available in English but I would still recommend you take the tour!
Explore the Old Town on a Walking Tour
The very best way to see Santiago for the first time is with a registered guide on a walking tour. Explore some of the most famous landmarks such as Plaza do Obradoiro, the beautiful squares around the Cathedral, the beautiful Monasterio de San Martin Pinario and Convento de San Francisco.
There is so much to see in the city, this tour provides an opportunity to explore some of the city’s most iconic attractions as well as hidden gems that you wouldn’t find on your own.
People Watching in Praza do Obradoiro
People watching in Praza do Obradoiro is an experience like no other. Located in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, this historic square has been the end point of the Camino de Santiago for centuries.
I’ve spent so much time in this square, simply people watching. Sometimes I forget to admire the stunning architecture around the square, and the iconic views of the cathedral and its grandiose portico.
Take some time to stroll around and you’ll find a vibrant mix of locals and tourists and pilgrims. Listen to the conversations, watch pilgrims as they finish their journeys from across Spain, listen to the buskers and street music and simply soak up this unique atmosphere.
Exploring the Mercado de Abastos
If you’re looking for the authentic side of Santiago de Compostela, then look no further than the Mercado de Abastos. This bustling market has been around since 1873 and is the perfect place to explore the culture and cuisine of Galicia.
The market is located on Rúa das Ameas and offers a wide variety of fresh produce, seafood, meats, breads, cheeses, and more. It’s a great place to find local specialties like chorizo, empanadas, and other regional delicacies. You can also find handmade crafts such as pottery and jewellery.
The atmosphere is lively and vibrant. You’ll hear people chatting in Spanish or Galician while they shop for groceries and browse the stalls. The vendors are friendly and knowledgeable about their products, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!
The Mercado de Abastos is open mornings from Monday to Saturday and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in Santiago de Compostela.
Discover the Cuisine of Galicia
Santiago in Spain has so many restaurants and tapas bars that it’s difficult to know where to start. The dishes and ingredients found in Galician cuisine are heavily influenced by the abundance of seafood available from the Atlantic Ocean.
Popular dishes include boiled octopus, fresh seafood platters, hearty stews, Ternera Gallega (Galician veal), Albariño (white wine), Godello (white wine), Pimentos de Padrón (small green peppers), and various types of cheese.
One popular dish is Pulpo á Feira which consists of octopus boiled in salted water and served with olive oil, paprika, and salt. Another favorite is Caldo a la Gallega which is a soup made with potatoes, vegetables, chorizo sausage, and other meats.
Galicia’s cuisine also includes various types of pies such as Empanada Gallega which is filled with fish or meat. Cheese lovers will enjoy the variety of local cheeses such as Tetilla cheese which has a distinctive shape said to resemble a woman’s breast.
And you can’t leave the city with out trying it’s famous Tarta de Santiago which is an almond cake.
One of the best ways to discover the local cuisine is on a food tour where your guide will take the guess work out of where to find the best places to eat like a local!
Top Tip : I have celiac disease and must not eat gluten. In all my years of travelling around Spain I have found it to be one of the ‘safest’ countries for eating out. Tell the waiter that you are celiac and he will advise you on your options. In Spanish soy celiaca translates as I’m celiac and sin gluten is gluten free (without gluten).
Visit Museo do Pobo Galego
Muséo do Pobo Galego is an incredible cultural museum founded in 1972 and is dedicated to the culture of Galicia, with exhibits showcasing the region’s history, art, music, and traditional customs.
The museum consists of several galleries which explore different aspects of Galician life. There are permanent collections focusing on regional ceramics, woodworking, weaving techniques and musical instruments as well as temporary exhibitions exploring current topics. Visitors can also take part in regular workshops that cover a variety of topics ranging from cooking to dance and theatre.
Enjoy the views from Parque de la Alameda
Parque de la Alameda is a small park with plenty of charm and offers beautiful views of the old town and the cathedral. Stroll through the garden and enjoy its Mediterranean garden design with numerous species of trees and plants. The park dates back to the mid-16th century when it was donated to the city by the Count of Altamira.
The Alameda Park is one of Santiago’s oldest and most beloved parks making it an essential part of any visit to this beautiful city.
Learn about Pilgrim History at the Museo das Peregrinacions
The Museo das Peregrinacions is a museum dedicated to the history of religious pilgrimage. It was founded in 2010 and is located in the old city centre, close to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The museum houses a collection of artifacts and artworks related to the history of pilgrimage, including sculptures, paintings, photographs, and documents.
Visitors can learn about the different stages of the Camino de Santiago, from its origins in medieval times to its modern-day popularity as a spiritual journey.
Discover Santiago at Night
I love a walking tour and Santiago at night is a wonderful place. There are so many secret corners and narrow streets to discover that makes a walking tour such a great idea!
I love the Night Tour Land of Legends and Meigas which takes you through the streets of Santiago de Compostela, exploring the city’s unique history, culture, and mythology. You can hear local stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, visit special places where local superstitions are still alive and well, and sample some of the delicious local food and drink along the way.
If you’re lucky you might also get to see the shadow of the pilgrim under the baroque clock tower in the Plaza de la Quintana!
Take a day Trip to the End of the World at Cape Finisterre (Cabo Finisterre)
I found my pilgrim shell on a beach in the shadow of Finisterre and it was for me, confirmation that I should walk the Camino de Santiago. If you wish to explore beyond the city boundaries then Cabo Finisterre is the perfect place to visit.
The Finisterre and the oddly named Coast of Death Tour offers a fabulous opportunity to explore two of Galicia’s most popular tourist destinations. This full-day tour takes you to Finisterre – the End of the World as it was known in ancient times – and then along the stunningly beautiful Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), so named from its turbulent seafaring history and treacherous coastline.
Finisterre is beautiful; an area filled with rugged cliffs, beaches, lighthouses and ancient ruins and Muxia is simply stunning.
This is a beautiful trip and one that many pilgrims take at the end of their pilgrimage. If you don’t have time to walk for 4 more days then this tour is a must.
Top Tip : If you are a group of pilgrims then consider hiring a car and visit Muxia and Fisterra at leisure. I have done this several times when leading a group camino. You can hire a car from the train station at Santiago (not the airport). My groups have visited Muxia and then taken a picnic to watch the sunset at Fisterra.
Explore the stunning Galician Coast at Rias Baixas
Galicia is world famous for it’s seafood. Octopus is the regions most celebrated dish but it’s also famous for shellfish and the local Alberino white wine that accompanies it. Indeed if you walk the Portuguese Camino you’ll walk through Arcade and possibly Combarro which are both famous for their shellfish.
If you have time, then do explore the beautiful Galician coastline and sample some of the region’s finest seafood delicacies on this Rías Baixas Boat tour with Mussels and Wine tasting.
This trip alone will make you come back to visit (and walk) this coastal area; it did us!
Where To Stay In Santiago
Santiago has a myriad of hotels and hostels ranging from 5 star luxury accommodation to simple pilgrim bunk beds. I’m not going to list all of the options but I will mention a few noteworthy places worth investigating and where I’ve stayed and would happily stay again!
Don’t let the word hostel deceive you; the Hostel Parador de Santiago is a luxurious four-star hotel located in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, in the Praza do Obradoiro, directly opposite the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Paradors in Spain always offer luxury and this iconic hotel opposite the cathedral is no exception.
I have stayed here once after walking the Camino Portuguese in December 2019; it was beautiful and offers such opulence. If you are looking for somewhere very special to stay during your visit then this beautiful, stunning hotel is a must!
Libredón Rooms – Great Comfort Hotel
When choosing accommodation in Santiago I want to stay close to the Cathedral in the old town. The modern city is much larger than visitors expect so finding the right location is key.
My room at the Libredon had views of the Cathedral, indeed it’s just a few hundred metres from the main square, making it an ideal choice.
The rooms are simple but beautifully furnished, the bed very comfortable and the shower was spotlessly clean with lashings of hot water!
Numa Rúa Travesa – Perfect Apartments
If we plan a longer stay in the city then we always search for an apartment or studio. These can offer excellent value for money if there are two or three people sharing. I like to be able to cook my own meals and have a little more space to relax and an apartment can provide this.
Numa Rúa Travesa offers the perfect affordable solution and still within easy reach of the Cathedral
Hospedería San Martín Pinario – Simple Pilgrim Accommodation
If you are looking for a budget friendly accommodation choice in Santiago you can’t go wrong with San Martin. This is where I most often choose to stay when I’m in Santiago de Compostela but be warned places book very, very quickly so be quick!
There are two options for accommodation 1) the modernised rooms which are more akin to a hotel and 2) simple private pilgrim rooms which, whilst offer comfortable, they are not renovated. When I’m walking with my groups we stay in the pilgrim rooms and we’ve always been very happy.
To reserve your room you must contact the Hospederia direct or try booking on their website; I’ve had more success with an email.
Top Tip : Hospedería San Martín Pinario is a beautiful building and well worth a visit even if you’re not staying, It’s opposite the cathedral before you enter the Praza do Obradoiro. Honestly my favourite place to stay in the city!
Santiago KM-0 : Excellent Pilgrim Albergue
If you can’t find a bed at San Martin then the ever popular Santiago KM-0 albergue is always a good choice!
The Last Word : Is it Worth Visiting Santiago de Compostela?
Absolutely! With its rich history, unique culture, stunning UNESCO architecture, the pilgrims history and the Camino de Santiago and beautiful Galician countryside – not to mention its delicious cuisine – there really is something special about this corner of Spain that makes it worth visiting.
Santiago is a wonderful city and you won’t regret making a visit.