The next morning, I ended up getting the hell outta Dodge by starting the Camino de Fisterra, the extension hike that takes you to Spain’s Lands End on the Atlantic Ocean. Santiago had left a bad taste in my mouth, and I even regretted my decision to transfer up to Galicia for the coming school year.
I feel if I had had a better first impression of Santiago I wouldn’t have left the endpoint of the Way of St. James’ as disappointed and confused as I was. So I’m writing this post today to give future pilgrims something to use when they finish their Camino, so they don’t end up lost, grumpy, and exhausted like I was.
|An overview map of town|
Praza de Galicia is the true center of modern Santiago, a busy square at the southern edge of the old town and the very top of the new town. Called zona nueva or el ensanche, this 70s-era development of admittedly-ugly apartment blocks spreads out down the hillside toward the train station. Santiago’s university is split between Campus Sur, which begins to the west of the Alameda, and Campus Norte, based in the far north of the city.
A mini tour of the four plazasNo fewer than four monumental squares surround Santiago’s cathedral, so it’s easy to understand if you get all turned around. I’ve written an extensive introduction to the cathedral and its plazas, but here’s a condensed version of that “guided tour.”
Going counter-clockwise, you can see the Pazo de Xelmírez, the archbishop’s palace; the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, Santiago’s Parador or fancy state-run hotel housed in a 500-year-old pilgrim hostel/hospital; the town hall; and the Colexio de San Xerome, the office of the university’s vice-rector.
Head to the right and then take a left at the corner of the cathedral’s cloisters. It won’t be long before you arrive at Praza das Praterías, named for the silversmith’s guild that operated out of this square in the Middle Ages. Today you can still purchase artisan silver jewelry from shops here. The cathedral’s Praterías façade is the last remaining Romanesque façade from the original church; while all the other entrances have been modified or covered up with later Baroque additions, this one appears as it would have to pilgrims 800 years ago. The colossal bell tower rises up here, finished in the Baroque era over medieval foundations.
|Praza da Quintana|
It’s in this square that pilgrims finish their Camino in Holy Years (whenever St. James’ feast day, July 25, falls on a Sunday). The cathedral’s Holy Doors open up here and offer direct access to the crypt, where the saint’s supposed remains are held.
Go up another set of stairs and wind your way through a passageway to the left. You’ll end up at the Praza da Inmaculada, where pilgrims on the French Way traditionally enter the cathedral. Facing the church is the imposing façade of the San Martiño monastery, Spain’s second-largest monastic complex but today a hotel and seminary. If you head down the hill, you’ll pass through a small tunnel underneath the archbishop’s palace. In this small chamber with good acoustics, bagpipe players and opera singers alike busk as the hordes of tourists and pilgrims pass by on their way to the Praza do Obradoiro.
Where to get your compostela
|Yours truly with the compostela|
Once you present your pilgrim passport (credencial), you’ll receive a compostela certificate if you did it for any kind of religious reasons, or a certificado if you walked without any religious motivations.
How to get to the tourist offices
Now what? Things to see and doIf you haven’t already, explore the cathedral. Stroll around all four plazas that surround the church and take in the different architectural styles, then step inside and feel the connection to the past. If you have some free time, arrange a guided tour of the cathedral rooftop—it’s an amazing experience that gives you great views of the city and an up-close-and-personal look at the church itself.
In the morning, have your camera ready so you can enjoy fresh fish, cheese, fruit, and vegetables at the mercado de abastos, the town market. There’s always somebody boiling octopus for you to try, and it’s super easy to put together a picnic of bread, ham, cheese, fruit, and almond cake. The Alameda or Belvís Park are great places to sit back and let your feet rest while you snack.
Santiago is home to a plethora of monumental churches and tiny museums of religious art—just stroll into any open doors and you’re bound to end up in a glorious Baroque sanctuary. If you’re more interested in getting a panoramic shot of the city, hike up Monte Pedroso for some stunning views.
If you’re feeling up to it, you can always simply keep on walking west, and do the Camino de Fisterra that goes to the End of the World on the coast!
|Octopus at Bodegón Os Concheiros Pulpería|
For breakfast, warm up over a smooth café con leche at the classy but unassuming Café Venecia, just south of Praza de Galicia. For lunch, look for a 10€ menú del día at any of the restaurants on Rúa de San Pedro. Get an afternoon pick-me-up at the cozy Café La Flor, facing the Camino just inside the old town. For dinner, you can’t go wrong with Bodegón Os Concheiros Pulpería, a restaurant that serves quality traditional Galician fare (octopus, fried peppers, etc.) at rock-bottom prices; find it near the bus station. Finish off the night in Modus Vivendi, a bar de copas inside a converted horse stable.
Grocery storesThe market aside, there are a handful of closet-sized, family-owned supermercados in the old town, as well as a claustrophobic Froiz in Praza do Toural. I recommend venturing into the new town for a better selection. From Praza de Galicia, head south down Rúa do Doutor Teixeiro for a large Gadis supermarket (a Galician brand). Or, you can follow Rúa de Montero Ríos to the west to find the Carrefour Express, a two-floor French version of Walmart.
|View of the transept from the tribuna|
The Pilgrim HouseSomething I wish had been open when I did the Camino two years ago is the Pilgrim House. This cozy home that recently opened up on Rúa Nova, Nº 19 functions as a welcome center for weary pilgrims who’ve just arrived in Santiago. Not only does it offer fresh, clean spaces for meeting fellow pilgrims or for quiet contemplation, it also has free wifi and a kitchenette with tea and coffee. Here you can store your backpack, do your laundry, and print your boarding pass—something you can’t always do in bare-bones pilgrim hostels. Closed on Wednesdays and Sundays, it’s open from 11am to 8pm the rest of the week.
How to get to the post officeIn our day and age of effortless, instant email, it’s always a nice gesture to send your friends and family a postcard announcing you’ve finished the Camino. The post office can be found along Rúa do Franco, just south of the cathedral; it’s a big granite palace with a covered porch that runs around two sides of it and has the word “Correos” plastered on the front.
How to get to the airportEmpresa Freire manages a speedy, 3€ bus service that runs every half hour and stops at the bus station, Praza de Galicia, Rúa da Rosa, the train station, and the Lavacolla Airport (SCQ). As a handy reference, the orange-and-white buses stop at Praza de Galicia in front of Banco Santander (the one that is NOT by the hotel that looks like a castle) at :00 and :30.
How to get to the bus station
|Tarta de Santiago|
Monbus goes all over the region, from big-city Coruña and Vigo to fishing villages like Noia and Fisterra. Freire links up Santiago and Lugo, while Alsa is your best bet for cross-country hauls to Asturias, Portugal, or Madrid.
How to get to the train station
Santiago’s estación de tren is conveniently located 10 minutes south of the old town. From Praza de Galicia, take Rúa do Hórreo south all the way to the bottom of the hill—you can’t miss it. For train tickets and schedules, check out Renfe’s website. Inside the station there are purple-and-white machines where you can buy tickets without having to speak Spanish.
Have you ever walked the Camino de Santiago before? Were you as disoriented as I was when you first arrived into town? Share any tips you have below in the comments!