16 things you must do in Santiago
1. Get lost in the streets of Santiago
Santiago remains a small city with some 40,000 university students contributing to its permanent population of around 100,000. These numbers swell in the summer months when tourists flood its busy little streets.
The city has two distinct parts; the old medieval town, once enclosed by its own city walls, and the new town to the south of the old city gates, where the locals go about their modern day business.
The old town is a real labyrinth of flagstone paved alleyways and narrow streets that gently meander towards the cathedral. The real hub of tourist activity and cafes, bars, restaurants and shops are around, and to the south of the cathedral, and they can become extremely busy. But look beyond these streets to the maze of alleyways and squares that form the eastern quarter of Santiago and you will discover the true secrets and passions of the locals, away from the crowds. Our advice? Throw away the guidebook and get lost!
We insist! Where else in the world can you walk upon the roof of such a magnificent cathedral? It is a unique and exhilarating experience. You get to view the city and the cathedral from extraordinary angles, learn a little more about its history and gain entrance to the 12th century palace of the Archbishop Gelmirez.
To enjoy this exceptional tour you must book at least one day in advance. For more information visit the booking office at the front of the cathedral or catedralsantiago.es.
This delightful daily indoor market is housed on the eastern side of the old town. Four grand hallways separate the fish, meat, fruit and vegetable produce. It is a true focal point for the local community and a buzz of activity alive with wonderful characters selling their homegrown and homemade products. It is a great place to be in the morning when the sun begins to warm the city and the air is filled with the fresh aromas of the market. It closes at around 2pm. Come lunchtime, you can park yourself in one of the nearby cafes, confident in the knowledge that you will be enjoying the freshest seafood in the city. An absolute must.
Santiago de Compostela
Ría de Muros y Noia
2. Get up on the roof
3. Visit the Mercado de Abastos
4. Go to the parks
There are two main parks in Santiago, both within easy reach of the old centre.
The famous Alameda Gardens are pitched to the south of the city. Within minutes, you’ll find yourself strolling uphill and leaving the city crowds behind you. It has two outstanding vantage points, one of the cathedral and city, the other looking west towards the university campus, offering a great place to watch the sunset.
Parque de Santo Domingo de Bonaval is more of a hidden treat. Situated on an upward slope on the opposite side of the city, it is surrounded by a famous cemetery and offers surprisingly different views of the red roofed city.
They are both small parks but great places to get away from the crowds and admire the city from afar. So grab something to read and take some time out to soak in the views, enjoy the sun and maybe have a siesta. The locals do!
5. Indulge in a seafood feast
Galicia claims to have the finest seafood in Europe and who can argue?
Fresh from the market, the city’s restaurants stock up their enormous bubbling fish tanks with giant lobsters, oysters, clams, razor fish, barnacles, cockles and muscles, enticing you take the afternoon off and indulge in a once in a lifetime seafood feast.
Rúa do Franco is the capital’s most famous restaurant street. Here, classic signage beckons you into narrow doorways where restaurants expand before your very eyes.There is an art to consuming the diverse menus on offer and it usually includes a nicely chilled bottle of Albariño and a clear diary.
Look out for the Menú del Día (Menus of the day,) that are on offer at lunchtime and you can get great value for money - three courses for around 12 euros.
If seafood isn’t your preferred menu, then look out for Carne a la Piedra. A large rump steak will arrive cooking itself on a heated stone and you get to slice it up as and when you think it is done. Marvelous!
The Galician’s love their long lunches, their food and their wine. Join them and indulge!
6. Go visit a museum/exhibition
The city of Santiago is like a living, breathing museum in itself but look beyond the obvious historical sites and there are many contemporary exhibitions, which are worth visiting.
There are three dominant museum buildings that are always popular; The Cathedral Museum (+ info), The Galician Centre for Contemporary Art (+ info) and perhaps most fascinatingly The Museo do Pobo Galego (+ info) which guides you through the real life history of the Galician People. Next to this building is the famous stairwell at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Bonoval.
In addition to these three popular attractions, there are many historical buildings that now house more contemporary and local artist exhibitions: these include Casa de la Parra in Quintana Square, the Church and Monastery of San Martin Pinario in Plaza de la Inmaculada and the University building in Plaza de Mazarelos to name a few.
The tourist information office in Vilar Street publishes a monthly guide with information on current exhibitions.
7. Shopping in New Town
The new town resides to the south of the old, walled city. Aesthetically pleasing it is not, but it is a hive of local activity and the best place for modern day shopping. Famous Spanish brands such as Zara, Mango, Berska, or renowned Spanish designers such as Adolfo Dominguez, Roberto Verino and Antonio Pernas can be found lining the up and down streets that make their way to the central focal point of the New Town: Plaza Roja. So if shopping is on your agenda head south with your credit cards.
8. Sweet tooth
Food glorious food! There seems no end to the delectable world of Galician food. Pastry making is an art in this part of the world as Pastelerías persuade the most diligent of dieters to abandon their regimes. Cream filled pastries, chocolate laden sweeties, empanadas, meringues, custards, cakes, deserts, cheese cakes, pineapple cakes, cream filled buns and gooey goodness on every shelf will tempt you at every turn. Give in, indulge, enjoy! You’re on holiday after all.
9. Galician products
As is the case with a tourist capital, there are souvenir shops at every corner offering up a fine selection of the ridiculous to the unexpected. But there are also some real gems to be found which are unique to the region and worthy of your attention. The traditional artisans of Santiago were the silversmiths and the jet-stone artists and their work continues today. You can purchase these gifts in the knowledge that you will be buying a unique piece of art and giving something quite special to a chosen one. You’ll also be supporting this rather rare craft. Galician food products are also unique. Look out for the Queso de Mama, (a round breast-shaped soft cheese,) local wine labels and home made liquors, including the throat burning Aguardiente (Fire-water,) which comes in different flavors and colours, including a radioactive green. By buying products true to the region, you are supporting the region, it’s a good thing to do.
10. Head to the coast
This is an absolute must. Santiago is just 35km from one of the most spectacular coastlines in Europe. In forty minutes you can be sunning yourself on a pristine white-sanded beach away from all the noise and the hustle and bustle of the city. Noia is the closest seaside town where the nearest beach, Playa de Testal is situated just a couple of kilometers from its medieval town center. There is so much to discover along this beautiful coastline, wonderful views, quaint little villages and fantastic beaches to explore and enjoy.
11. An early evening stroll
The city rests a little in the afternoon and reawakens in the early evening as the shops and bars re-open. It is a nice time to stroll around the narrow streets and do a bit of window-shopping. Our favourite stroll is to follow Rúa da Calderería as it makes its way into Rúa do Preguntoiro, the street is full of tucked away boutiques that offer up a very pleasant window-shopping experience.
12. Sleeping beauties
Santiago has many beautiful historical buildings and the authorities do a good job in ensuring that they are well preserved even if they now function in a new guise. The last few years have witnessed many new hotels come into being, with beautifully designed modern accommodation mixing seamlessly with old aesthetics. Pull out the wallet and treat yourself to a night of old comfort, from the budget to the luxurius.
13. Coffee hot spots
There can be few cities in Europe with so many cafes and bars crammed into its narrow streets and open squares. It is natural to act on impulse and sit down wherever there is a space and an opportunity for some light refreshment but look beyond the obvious tourist traps and just a few streets further away you’ll find places where the enjoyment of a coffee is magnified by the ambience and atmosphere of the location. The locals know the best places for coffees, hot chocolates and beers and which places offer a little nibble with your beverage.
14. The New Cuisine
Amongst the plethora of traditional restaurants that line the famous old streets of Santiago there is a new wave of delicious culinary thinking to which it is well worth exposing your taste buds.
Spain is becoming renowned within the international culinary community for innovative and surprising dishes and there are many new restaurants in Santiago that fall into this category. So be prepared to be tastefully surprised and seek out some new cuisine at our recommended restaurants.
15. Track down an outdoor concert
Music is the cornerstone of the Galician culture. Traditional costume, dance and music led by the Galician Bagpipes remain prevalent at most Galician festivals. In Santiago, the students form Tuna groups that play late into the night to serenade loved ones and this “music on the move” can build up quite a following through the narrow streets. There are also often spontaneous jamming sessions conjured up by local musicians outside bars, all of which contribute to the jovial atmosphere of the city. The council often puts on outdoor concerts in the summer and some are ticket-only affairs. They are worth the entrance fee as you get to experience one of the main squares as part of an exclusive audience. To see what’s on during your time in Santiago, pick up a free copy of the “Culturall” magazine from one of the tourist information offices or check out the Xacoveo website: www.xacobeo.es
16. Staying out late
For the Spanish, the day is split into two distinct halves, separated by a long lunch during which many indulge in a siesta and a large number of shops are shut. This is especially the case the further out of town you venture.
Santiago remains predominantly a student city and as is their nature, they enjoy the bars until the early hours of the morning. Restaurants and bars start to fill up at around 9pm, but the real buzz of activity doesn’t occur until about 11pm and it can go on until 5am. Santiago is a beautiful city at night, golden street lamps and a warm ambience contribute to a gentle atmosphere as tucked away taverns and bars fill up with local residents. Thursday nights through to Saturday nights are particularly busy as the students let loose for the weekend, but there is always a pleasant, friendly and safe atmosphere around the city, which takes on a new persona in the early hours of the morning. So don’t be afraid to take that siesta and gather up the strength to really enjoy the local culture all through the night.
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