Tuesday, 16 April 2013

20 things to see and do in Santiago de Compostela

I'm often asked by pilgrims what there is to do in Santiago. “Lots” is the simple answer. The Tourist Office at number 62 Rúa do Vilar also has information about concerts and events. Here is my list of top 20 visit for pilgrims:


Visits in Santiago
  • Take your credencial as many places with an entrance fee offer reductions for pilgrims.
  • Please check the websites of each location as opening hours may vary with the seasons.

2           The Cathedral

The great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela dominates the medieval city. As other buildings were constructed over time none were allowed to be higher than the towers of the cathedral. Legend has it the Cathdral is the burial place of the remains of St James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus. It is the destination of the pilgrimage routes also known as the Caminos to Santiago along which pilgrims have travelled for many centuries. In modern times the pilgrimage has seen a revival and in 2012, 198,000 pilgrims who travelled the last 100 kms on foot or on horseback or 200 kms by bicycle received the Compostela, the traditional certificate from the Cathedral. When the Feast of St James (25 July) falls on a Sunday this is designated a Holy Year. A special door called the Holy Door, which is sealed at all other times, is opened during this year. 2010 was the last Holy Year and it is said 12 million people visited the Cathedral amongst which were 272,000 pilgrims who received the Compostela.
The Cathedral is a Romanesqe structure. Building commenced in 1075. There are later Gothic and Baroque additions.
There are number of places to visit within the Cathedral and its precincts. Details are available on the above website.  There is also an audio tour in many languages. You can rent earphones inside the door of the Cathedral which enters from the Praza Praterias.

2          Visit Cathedral Museum
The Museum of the cathedral was opened in 1930. There is much to see. There is access to: the cathedral cloister, in which cathedral canons continue to be buried; parts of the original Archbishop’s palace; and, a balcony on the third floor overlooking Praza do Obradoiro and nearby buildings. In the museum there is a large tapestry collection in addition a display of vestments. Valuable church artefacts can be seen in the Treasury.

There are regular visit to the roof of the cathedral where you actually walk on the roof. The views of Santiago are magnificent. If you wish to understand the guide who will be with you check when there is a tour in English.
To buy tickets enter by the door to the Left of the stairs to the main door of the cathedral.

Excavations in modern times have revealed an extensive burial ground under the cathedral which stretch as far as the High Altar. Scolars now think that perhaps the name “Compostela” comes from the Latin compostare meaning “to bury”.

The “Door of Glory” is the triple portal at the main entrance to the Cathedral through which pilgrims traditionally arrived. It was sculpted in the 12 century by Master Mateo. It is considered to be the finest beauty of the cathedral. The Portico has been closed for restoration and is covered in scaffolding at present. However there are guided tours to examine the design and intricate stone carving.

Every day at 12 noon there is a special mass to welcome pilgrims to Santiago. The Mass beings with a long list being read of the nationalities of pilgrims and their starting points. There follows a sung Mass often with many priests who have walked to Santiago also concelebrating. Look out for their boots under their vestments.Often, but by no means at every Mass, the Botafumeiro is swung. “Botafumeiro” means “incense spreader” and large thuribles were found in many cathedral and large churches in the middle ages. The Botafumeiro in Santiago de Compostela is the largest in the world, weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height.  In the Holy Years, whenever St James's Day falls on a Sunday, the Botafumeiro is also attached in all the Pilgrims' Masses. Eight tiraboleiros pull the ropes and bring it into a swinging motion almost to the roof of the transept, reaching speeds of 80 km/h and dispensing thick clouds of incense.

7        Corticela Chapel

If you enter the Cathedral by the door from the Plaza Inmaculada the entrance to the Corticela is immediately on your left. This chapel was once a separate church which over the years as the cathedral expanded became joined to the main building. However it remains a separate parish church with its own Parish Priest and is not under the jurisdiction of the cathedral.
The full name of the parish is the Parish of Santa Maria La Antigua Corticela. The church is the church of “foreigners, pilgrims and people from the Vasque country”. This is the place where pilgrims may get married or have their babies baptised.

8          Visit the Museum of Pilgrimages
There are two and entrance is free:
A          Plaza Platerias – beside the Pilgrims’ Office
B          Rúa San Miguel
The first is the Museum Of Pilgrimages and of Santiago. There is much history of the pilgrimage in relation to Santiago. There are a number of multi-media displays.
The second is the museum of pilgrimages around the world as well as in Santiago.
Both are well worth a visit.

This massive edifice was formerly a Benedictine monastery and is now a museum. Construction started in the 10th Century.
It has a magnificent baldicino over the altar with choir stalls carved in the 17 century. There is a treasury, portrait gallery and representation of the original pharmacy.

10        Ciudad la cultura
Exhibitions and the magnificent architecture of Peter Eisenman. The City of Culture is about 30 minutes walking from the Cathedral. The architecture is very interesting. Check in advance if there are any exhibitions to avoid disappointment.

11        The Museum of Galicia
The Museum of Galician life and culture situated at the Puerta del Camino were the Camino Francés enters the medieval city. It is housed in a former Dominican friary

The Galician Museum of Contemporary Art situated at the Puerta del Camino and opposite the Museum of Galicia.

The Eugenio Granell Foundation was created in Santiago de Compostela in 1995 and is housed in a building in the Plaza Toural just along from the Pilgrims Office.
As well as art exhibits, the Foundation also offers theatre, workshops for students and diverse groups, chamber concerts, conferences, guided tours. With each exhibit the Foundation publishes a catalogue. The Foundation also owns a growing library principally dedicated to surrealism and the art of the 20th Century.

14        Casa da Troia museum
Santiago is a university town and in terms time 50,000 students swell the resident population of 95,000 people.
This museum recreates the student atmosphere of the famous boarding house run by 'Doña Generosa' in Santiago de Compostela at the end of the 19th century and immortalized by the writer Alejandro Pérez Lugín in his novel 'La Casa de la Troya'.

Occupying the right hand side of the Plaza Obradoiro the Parador began life in 1499 when it was constructed by Royal command as a hospital for pilgrims. It remained so until in more modern times it became the headquarters of the Faculty of Medicine of the University. Subsequently it became a hotel and part of the Parador network. Therefore it is known as the world’s oldest hotel. The traditional of providing hospitality continues today as the hotel provides 3 free meals per day to the first 10 pilgrims who queue with their Compostela in hand. The meals are provided in the staff restaurant. 
 16        Visit the Colegiata do Sar
The Church of Santa Maria de Sar stands by the river of that name. It is the oldest parish church in Santiago and construction began in the 12 Century. It is very beautiful and boasts a cloister and museum as well as the church itself. It is open daily for visits.

Just 2 minutes walk from the Cathedral lies the monumental church and monastery of San Francisco. Housing a community of friars of the Franciscan Order the buildings date from the 13th Century. As their numbers grew smaller the Franciscans decided on an entrepreneurial initiative and have converted their former monastery into a 4* commercial hotel which is run professionally. The friars now reside in modern but modest accommodation.
San Francisco is also home to a magnificent museum of the Holy Land the heart of which is an impressive model of the Holy Sepulchre which was crafted in Jerusalem over 60 years ago by Franciscan Fray Bartolome de las Heras-Burgos.

The city´s most renowned and admired viewpoint is that of Paseo da Ferradura, located in Alameda Park, on the eastern slope of the Santa Susana hill. From there, there is a spectacular frontal view of the Cathedral rising up majestically over the mass of historical buildings: it is the most photographed postcard, the city´s timeless image. Recommended at any time of day, this viewpoint is a must at night-time to really understand why the Cathedral was and is a spiritual "beacon".
19        Monte de Gozo
Monte de Gozo, called “the Mount of Joy” because it is an elevation of land from which pilgrims can see the cathedral of Santiago for the first time. There has been a chapel there since 1105. Nowadays  Monte do Gozo has some tremendous facilities to accommodate pilgrims, which include a shelter with capacity for hundreds of people, restaurant, coffee shop and laundry. It is also the venue for concerts with a capacity of 40,000.
If you wish to walk the last stage of the Camino Francés from Monte de Gozo you can get the bus to the airport and ask them to let you off there.

20        The route of routes
See all of these places and more by downloading the guide to a one or two day walk which traces the entrance of the various camino routes into the city. The route also goes to Monte Pedruso high above the city with spectacular views of Santiago and the surrounding countryside.


  1. Thanks, John! When do we start the tour?

  2. Hello Johnnie
    For the pilgrims Masses - are they in Spanish or English?
    Dale M

  3. Rebekah - any time you wish!

    Dale - the Pilgrims' Masses in the Cathedral in Santiago are mostly in Spanish but increasingly with readings etc in different langiages.

  4. I hope I have time to walk the route of routes when I am there!! See you in May.

  5. The only thing I would add is the tour of the University.

  6. The last Holy Year was 2010 and not 2012. (6,5,6,11)
    1993,1999,2004,2010,2021. My soul will be there.

  7. Worthwhile suggestions! The only thing I haven't done yet is the Route of Routes. That's for later this year or 2014.

  8. Hi Jonnie, I would love it if we could colloborate and write something similar for my website? Please drop me a line Mark.Auchincloss@mydestination.com cheers

  9. Couple of corrections/updates:
    1. "Compostela" is an amalgamation of two Latin words "Field" (2nd def is also ""to bury", as in "compost") and "stella" or
    "stars" So the city's name actually means "Field of Stars"
    2. The Botafumiero is ONLY used on Holy Days and at the 7:30pm mass on Fridays. I'm specifically ending my Camino this year in June on a Friday to be present at the 7:30pm mass just to witness this.

    Buen Camino, todo!

  10. Jennifer - thanks for your comments. Alas neither of them are correct.

    The name: Legend has it that the city derived its name from the two words Campus and Stellae - field and stars because of the legend that the bones of Saint James were discovered in a field through the guidance of a star. Nowadays academics argue that since a very large cemetery has been unearthed under the Cathedral and the latin for to bury is compostare then that may be the derivation of the name.

    The post accurately says that the Botafumeiro is used "often but by no means always" - there dozens of occasions when the Boatfumeiro is used out side of Feast Days. Sometimes it is used three or four times at day. For the moment because the Hotleiers Association have paid for it is is booked for every Friday evening. I hope this helps.