Santiago de Compostela is probably the world’s first tourist destination. Since the ninth century, millions of pilgrims have walked the 900-km (560-mile) long Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, from just across the French border to Santiago, reputed to be the burial spot of the Apostle James. Major attractions in Santiago de Compostela, therefore, center around this pilgrimage destination, but there is much more than this to this northwestern Spanish city. Santiago de Compostela also has great museums, beautiful parks and magnificent medieval buildings just waiting to be photographed. Oh, the city also is known for its great food; be sure to try the pulpa a la gallega, a boiled octopus dish that is considered the Holy Grail of seafood, at least here.
Monte do Gozo, or Hill of Joy, is an important part of the Camino de Santiago. Located about two miles from the city center, it’s the hill where pilgrims get their first view of their final destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. From there, pilgrims have about another hour to walk, reaching the end of a journey that took weeks, maybe even a couple of months, to complete. The hill has a large statue marking the top, a hostel, a concert auditorium, gardens, walking paths and the Chapel of San Marcos.
The Cidade da Cultura (City of Culture) is an architectural marvel (or disaster according to some) of the 21st century. Sitting on Mount Gaias, the modernistic complex of cultural buildings is designed to look like rolling hills with thousands of windows, each one custom-made in different shapes. The state-of-the-art technological complex is connected with streets and plazas. The facility includes a museum, Library of Galicia and archives. Due to the high cost of construction, some facilities, such as the performing arts center, were not built.
Pargue de Alameda is a great place to relax and recharge the batteries after hectic sightseeing in Santiago de Compostela. The city’s main urban park is actually three parks in one: Paseo de la Alameda, Carballeira de Santa Susana and Paseo de la Herradura. Since the 19th century, this has been the place where Santiagans go when they want a leisurely stroll through a beautiful setting of trees, fountains and sculptures. It’s close to the historic district and provides great views of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, too.
Since Santiago is the capital of Galicia, it’s only natural that it is home of the Museo do Pobo Galego, or Museum of Galician People. This former 13th century convent is one of the top tourist attractions in Santiago de Compostela, featuring exhibits on the crafts and culture of Galicia, including archaeology, dress, painting and sculpture. It also houses the remains of several people important to Galicia’s history. The museum is located outside the city walls along the pilgrim’s route into town.
Considered one of the most beautiful historic districts in Europe, the Zona Vella or Old Town is anchored by the Plaza del Obradoiro and its historic buildings, including the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the Reyes Catolicos hotel. Moving away from the plaza, wanderers will find smaller squares, parks, arches, and Baroque and Romanesque churches as they stroll the winding streets. They’ll also come across small cozy cafes that provide a place to rest weary feet. Some of the city’s most exciting nightlife can be found in Old Town, too.
The Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos was built in 1499 as a hospital and temporary lodging for traveling pilgrims. Because it allowed overnight stays, it has the honor of being known as the oldest hotel in the world. As a hotel, this is a lovely combination of modern and luxurious amenities in a building that is over 500 years old, making it a rare and amazing opportunity as a place to stay. The hotel continues to provide free services to a limited number of pilgrims.
According to legend, St. James’ body was taken to Galicia by boat from Jerusalem and carried inland to where Santiago de Compostela is now located. The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes to his shrine in the city’s Cathedral. To earn the compostela (certificate of accomplishment) one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km (62 miles). In practice the closest convenient point to start is the small city of Sarria, as it has good connections to other places in Spain. While many pilgrims only do that final portion of the route, there are great rewards for starting much further away and several Europeans walk all the way from their homes, following one of the many routes.
San Martin Pinario Monastery is a centuries-old Benedictine monastery dating back to 899. It has been almost completely rebuilt in the last few hundred years. Its original chapel is now part of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The former monastery is the second largest religious monument in Santiago, the cathedral being the first. Three of the most famous Spanish artists of the day worked on decorations for this Baroque building. Today, it is a seminary and government building.
The Plaza del Obradoiro is the largest square not only in Santiago de Compostela but also in all of Galicia. It is surrounded by Santiago Cathedral, Rajoy Palace where the city council meets, Reyes Catolicos hotel where pilgrims stay and San Xerome College. It is the finishing point for pilgrims who walk part or all of the Camino de Santiago. The plaza is a popular gathering spot for Santiagans, tourists and pilgrims swapping stories of their walk. It also hosts concerts and other open-air functions, including the July 25 celebration of St. James day.
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral began as a small ninth century church built over the tomb of the Apostle James. Although it has a Baroque façade, it is considered one of the finest Romanesque churches in Spain. Indeed, it is considered one of the most beautiful medieval buildings in Europe. After looking at it, travelers will find it hard to disagree with this assessment. Must-sees include the Baroque front of the Praza do Obradoiro and the interior porch, Pórtico da Gloria. The ornate cathedral is a landmark on the Plaza del Obradoiro. For centuries pilgrims who completed the Camino de Santiago touched a pillar containing the statue of St. James, wearing grooves in it.