To watch the pilgrims completing the Camino de Santiago
It’s quite an emotional and humbling experience to watch the pilgrims enter Santiago de Compostela after their epic journey of 780 kilometres (500 miles) across the top of Spain, from the small French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Stand in the square of the grand cathedral to get the best view.
Even if you’re not religious at all, attending mass at the Santiago Cathedral is quite an experience. During the ceremony, the priest will welcome the pilgrims who arrived that day and state what country they are from. Here you will see pilgrims from all walks of life sitting down to mass, some hobbling because of blistered feet or injuries, and others simply crying with emotion.
Also inside the cathedral, you’ll be able to see the famous botafumeiro, weighing 53 kilograms (117 pounds) and measuring 1.5 metres (4.9 feet). It sits suspended 20 m (65 feet) high up in the centre of the cathedral. On special occasions or after certain masses, a group of eight tiraboleiros will swing it across the crowd at great speeds of up to 68 km/hr (42 miles/hr), emitting strong incense from it as they do.
You don’t have to have walk the whole Camino de Santiago to get some idea of what it’s like. Why not head to the next town along and then walk from there into the city? You’ll hear nods of “Buen Camino” along the way and feel the strong camaraderie of other pilgrims around.
Santiago de Compostela’s historic quarter is among the most elegant in Spain, dotted with graceful monasteries, impressive churches and historic palaces. Its magnificent Gothic architecture and quaint cobbled streets are definitely worth exploring.
To stay at one of the most luxurious Parador hotels
The Hostal dos Reis Católicos was ordered to be built by the Catholic monarchs as a hospital for pilgrims who had walked the Camino. Today, it provides a different kind of comfort, being one of Spain’s most luxurious Parador hotels.
Galicia is a unique part of Spain with its own language, culture, flag and music. Santiago de Compostela is a great place to experience it. To learn more, visit the Museo do Pobo Galego (Museum of the Galician People), housed in the 14th-century Convento de Santo Domingo de Bonaval.
To see one of the most controversial building projects
The Cidade da Cultura de Galicia is a huge modern space, which measures roughly the same size as the city’s Old Town. It was commissioned by the Parliament of Galicia and was run as a design competition. American architect Peter Eisenman won with his design of leaning towers, undulating roofs and thousands of glass windows. Construction ran on the project for almost a decade, and costs almost doubled, until it was finally decided to stop it all together. Although the final two buildings were never completed, the cultural city does feature a museum, a library and a number of creative centres for culture and design.
To discover some of the most impressive monasteries
Santiago de Compostela is filled with so many amazing monasteries that it will take you more than a day to explore them all. One of the most impressive is the Monasterio de San Martín Pinario. It was founded in the 10th century by a group of Benedictine monks, after the remains of Saint James (Santiago) were discovered.
Galicia has its own unique cuisine, and Santiago de Compostela is a great place to try it. The king of Galician cuisine is, of course, pulpo, or octopus, which you can find on almost every menu. Other types of seafood, local cheeses or tortilla de patatas (potato omelette) are also excellent choices. To finish, order the tarta de Santiago – a dense almond spongecake from the city.
To visit one of the most amazing university libraries you’ve ever seen
The University of Santiago’s geography and history faculties are home to the most amazing library, festooned with elegant floor-to-ceiling carved bookshelves, crystal chandeliers and old-fashioned reading lamps. It’s so impressive in fact that the students here refer to it as Hogwarts, after Harry Potter’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Galicia produces some great tortillas depatatas (Spanish omelettes), and in Santiago de Compostela you can try one of the best. At the popular and crowded Bar La Tita, sit down to huge, gooey, freshly-made tortillas that will cover your entire table. Just half of one of their tortillas will feed at least six people.
Santiago de Compostela may be small, but it does has a lively nightlife scene. The Old Town is filled with small pubs, old taverns, cocktail lounges and tapas bars. Take a look at our list of the ten best bars in Santiago de Compostela for some great choices.