Wild secluded beaches, epic walking routes, seafood-tastic feasts, up-and-coming wines and a distinctive Celtic history are all features of this region in northwest Spain, which even has its own language, galego. Explore the enchanting capital, Santiago de Compostela, then head out on a road trip or walk along trails both medieval and modern – you’ll inevitably be lured back.
Galicia’s delightful capital famously marks the end of the fabled Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, which has recently sky-rocketed in popularity despite almost disappearing in the 19th century. In 2019, around 350,000 hikers made their way along the Camino’s various branches to reach Santiago’s magnificent cathedral (Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque), where what is believed to be the tomb of St James rests. But there’s much more to this elegant, ancient pilgrimage city.
The Unesco-listed old town is a vision of gleaming stone-flagged streets, hidden arcaded squares and beautiful romanesque, gothic, Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical buildings. Many of Santiago’s centuries-old homes have now been reimagined as Galicia-inspired boutique hotels or hostels, and the lively nightlife scene will see you stumbling home after countless rounds of seafood tapas and albariño wine (more on that later) and, if you’re lucky, a Celtic music performance.
In the heart of town, the 19th-century Mercado de Abastos pulls together everything that’s tempting about Santiago. You can have a coffee and a sliver of tarta de Santiago (almond cake) while shoppers zip between the fresh-produce stalls; sip local wines among stylish Galicians; or, pick your favourite seafood at on-site restaurants showcasing both traditional and innovative creations – it doesn’t get more market-fresh than that.
Marked by meandering rías (inlets), Galicia’s 1,500km (932mi) coastline conceals some of Spain’s outstanding and least-developed beaches. While this Atlantic pocket might not be as sunny as the Mediterranean, it’s wilder, quieter and a lot more dramatic.
On the westernmost tip of Spain, the untouched Costa da Morte (Coast of Death, named after the many shipwrecks that lie off its jagged shore) is Galicia’s eerily entrancing stretch of coastline. Little fishing villages such as Muxía, Laxe, Muros and Fisterra are dotted between towering wind-swept capes, remote powdery beaches, rugged sea cliffs and distant lighthouses that pop out of the mist. Most famed is the spectacular Cabo Fisterra, a rocky peninsula that the Romans believed to be the end of the world. The 2020 arrival of the brand-new Parador Costa da Morte hotel near Muxía adds to the area’s appeal.
The best way to uncover the Costa da Morte’s natural beauty is by hiking part or all of the thrilling, adventurous Camiño dos Faros (Way of the Lighthouses), a 2012-founded 200km (124mi) coastal path between Malpica de Bergantiños and Cabo Fisterra.
South from the Costa da Morte, the tranquil Rías Baixas make up Galicia’s most popular (and developed) coastline, with long sandy beaches, pleasant villages and towns (such as Cambados, home of albariño wine). You’ll also find all the seafood you could want, ancient bodegas and pazos (mansions), isolated offshore islands and the attractive seaside cities of Pontevedra and Vigo.
Reached only by boat trip from Vigo, the three pristine, protected Illas Cíes (Cíes Islands) are the highlight of the Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia and famed for their untamed beaches (particularly Praia das Rodas), exciting walking trails, sweeping lookouts and rich birdlife.
Along Galicia’s northern coast, the less-visited Rías Altas up the drama, with untouched surf beaches, crashing Atlantic waves, plunging cliffs and lush countryside stretching inland. Coastal towns such as Viveiro, Cedeira and Ribadeo make appealing bases, and standout stops include the mighty Cabo Ortegal (where the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay meet) and the trail-threaded Estaca de Bares peninsula. The port city of A Coruña, where Pablo Picasso spent part of his childhood, also deserves your time.
Galicia’s unique gastronomy is reason enough to venture here, and seafood fresh from the Atlantic is the star. Polbo á feira is the Galician classic: octopus tentacles served in olive oil and paprika. Don’t miss the mussels, scallops, cockles, clams, crabs, oysters and bogavante (lobster), or just-caught fish such as turbot, hake, sea bass or monkfish. Claw-like percebes (goose barnacles) are another shellfish signature. Grilled, salted padrón peppers, tortilla de betanzos (gooey potato omelette) and Galician cheeses are superb, too (try the smooth tetilla).
The perfect companion to all that droolworthy Galician food is the fruity white albariño wine, produced in the Rías Baixas, especially around the town of Cambados, where it’s perfectly paired with a plate of the speciality scallops. You can tour and taste at family-run bodegas dating back centuries, many with splendid mansions and gardens. Albariño isn’t Galicia’s only noteworthy drop, though: rich mencía reds are on the up, and some vintners are busy reviving long-lost traditional Galician grapes such as godello and brancellao.
Santiago and the coast might steal all the headlines, but unsung inland Galicia is just as rewarding. It’s home to beautifully green countryside, buzzy modern cities, little-known rural towns, serene medieval monasteries and enticing wine regions, not to mention excellent hiking, biking and road-tripping opportunities.
The city of Ourense, in southern Galicia, is known for its lively tapas bars, captivating labyrinthine old town and thermal springs flanking the Río Miño, while lovely Lugo hosts the world’s best-preserved Roman walls alongside a maze of old-town alleys and some top-rate tapas spots. In the history-rich and unbelievably scenic Ribeira Sacra, vines cling to impossibly sheer slopes above the Miño and Sil Rivers, producing terrific albariño, mencía and godello wines (which you can sample on in-depth tours); meanwhile, age-old monasteries pepper the landscape, and distant walking and cycling trails weave gently through it.
This year, it’s time to go back to Spain. Find out more at Spain.info.