Congratulations, you made it to the finish line of the Camino de Santiago! Whether you walked there or not, Santiago de Compostela is worth a visit.
Santiago de Compostela became famous as a pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages. According to legend, the apostle St. James was buried here. That’s why the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James became one of the most important pilgrimages in Europe. A vast network of routes connecting through the whole of Europe lead here. This means that while there are a few established and popular routes, you could start your pilgrimage from anywhere on the continent.
The Camino was revived as a long-distance hiking route, rather than religious pilgrimage, in the 1960s. Nowadays, it’s one of the most traveled hiking routes in the world. Because Santiago de Compostela is host to millions of pilgrims a year, there are a lot of hostels and hotels. However, despite the wide offering of accommodation, they tend to fill up quickly. This is the only stop on the Camino where booking ahead is necessary.
Of course, you don’t have to walk to Santiago. You can also fly in or travel by train or bus from elsewhere in Spain. The high-speed train from Madrid is particularly convenient. If you’re interested in visiting Galicia and seeing a different side of Spain, one that is greener and more rugged, I highly recommend taking a trip to Santiago de Compostela. It’s a beautiful city, steeped in history, and a great base for exploring Galicia.
To experience Santiago de Compostela to the fullest during your visit, I have compiled a list of travel tips from my own experience. I walked the Portuguese Camino in June 2022 and spent a few days in Santiago at the end of my hike. These are the best things to do in Santiago de Compostela in my opinion:
This post contains affiliate links. This means that I make a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you purchase any of the items linked on this page.
Walk around the historic city center
While Santiago has become a modern, sprawling city, the historic city center has been perfectly preserved. Walking around here feels like stepping a few centuries back in time. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you’ll immediately understand why when you see it.
The whole historical city center is car-free, but busy nonetheless. During the high season, you’ll be competing for space in the narrow streets with tourists and pilgrims alike.
The old town of Santiago de Compostela is a maze of cobblestone streets lined with beautiful architecture, leading you from monument to monument. It’s easy to get lost, but that’s alright because you never know what you might stumble upon by accident. I recommend taking enough time to simply wander around. Look at all the beauty, dip into shops and take a break at a café every now and then.
If you don’t feel like walking around aimlessly and would like some context to all that you’re seeing, I recommend booking a free walking tour.
There are of course a few highlights that you shouldn’t miss. The main square with the Pazo de Raxoi, Cathedral, and Hostal de los Reyes Católicos is where most people flock to. This is where weary pilgrims head upon reaching the city, so don’t be surprised if you see some sweaty, tired, and emotional people in hiking boots around.
Attend Pilgrim Mass at the Cathedral
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the heart of the city. The building dates back to the 11th century, with later additions in gothic and baroque style. The result is absolutely stunning! The Roman-Catholic Cathedral is massive and opulently decorated.
You can go inside the main part of the Cathedral for free, where you can see the beautiful chapels and go underneath the altar into the crypt. There is also the option to visit the museum or take a guided tour, both of which require a ticket.
The Cathedral is an active place of worship with regular religious services, during a service, entrance is restricted to those participating. Even if you aren’t catholic, I highly recommend joining for one, as they are very impressive. There is a special pilgrim mass every day at 07:30, 09:30, 12:00 and 19:30. It is tradition for pilgrims to attend this after arriving in Santiago as a way to formally end their Camino.
Since I arrived quite late in Santiago at the end of my Portuguese Camino, so I attended the next day. Even though I am an atheist, I really enjoyed the mass. It was a beautiful ceremony, with translations in English and German, which was convenient since I do not speak Spanish. During the pilgrim mass, they sometimes swing the giant incense burner through the length of the church, which is a very spectacular sight. This is only done when enough money has been donated, and I was lucky enough to witness it.
Visit a few museums
Being such a historic place, there is no lack of museums in Santiago de Compostela. Particularly interesting is the Pilgrimage Museum, especially for those who walked the Camino. Another popular history museum is the Museo do Pobo Galeco, which is all about the Galician people and their culture.
Try some traditional Galician foods
When you think of Spanish food, you probably imagine paella and tapas. And sure, you can find those in Santiago de Compostela as well, but the local cuisine is quite different. Because the climate in Galicia is wetter and colder than the rest of Spain, the local ingredients and traditional dishes are different. In my opinion, it is more similar to Portuguese cuisine than Catalan cuisine for instance.
Galicia is a coastal region, so fish and seafood are a big part of the local diet. Octopus is especially popular. Pork is also a staple in the diet, for instance slow roasted or as sausages. Vegetarians and vegan will have a tough time finding traditional dishes to try in Galicia. Luckily, there are plenty of restaurants in Santiago de Compostela that cater to a plant-based diet.
Empanadas are a good choice for anyone, as they come with all sorts of fillings. My favorite side dish while in Galicia were padron peppers, roasted non-spicy green pepper. Santiago de Compostela also has one signature dish: a cake. This torta de santiago is nicknamed pilgrim cake or St. James cake. It is made with almond flour and has the cross of St. James on it in powdered sugar. It’s supposed to be a special treat for pilgrims to celebrate their arrival in the city.
If you want to try your hand at cooking Galician dishes, you should go shop at the Mercado de Abastos. This traditional market has been around since… It features fish, meat, dairy, and fresh food and vegetable vendors. The perfect place to pick up high quality, fresh, local ingredients.
Take a tour to Finisterre
If you arrive in Santiago de Compostela after walking the Camino, you may hear other pilgrims mention a place called Fisterra or Finisterre. While the Cathedral of Santiago is considered the finishing point of the pilgrimage, many consider Finisterre the true end of the Camino.
Finesterra translated to “end of the world”, because that is what the Romans considered it. They thought there couldn’t possibly be anything further than this easternmost coastal point of Galicia. And once you get there and sit on the rock, overlooking the Atlantic, it’s easy to understand why. In Finesterra you will also find the 0.0 km milestone, signifying the end of the Camino. It’s a great photo op for pilgrims
Touristic as it may be, I definitely think it is worth taking a day trip to Finisterre from Santiago de Compostella. You can take a public bus there, or you can splurge and book a guided tour. This is what I did, and although I’m not usually one for guided tours, in this case I enjoyed it. The tour I booked stopped at a few other places of interest, such as Ponte Maceira, the Ezaro waterfalls, and Muros. This was a fun way to explore the Galician coast.
Santiago de Compostela is a beautiful city with a lot to offer. It’s especially a significant place for Camino pilgrims, but also a great destination for anyone who wants to see a different side of Spain. Travel to Galicia and dive into the history, culture, food, and natural beauty of this region. Santiago de Compostela is the perfect base to explore Galicia, but also a great quick city trip.
I’ve included what I consider the best things to do in Santiago de Compostela in this post, but there is obviously a lot more to see. Let me know in the comment which can’t miss activities you would recommend in Santiago de Compostela!
If you enjoyed this post, please show it some love. Like, save, comment, pin, and share with all your friends.