A Guide to Santiago de Compostela for Pilgrims

I finished the Camino de Santiago almost two years ago, arriving in Santiago de Compostela a weary, dazed pilgrim who couldn’t get his bearings straight in the monumental old town. The skies were overcast, the cold weather chilled my shorts-clad legs, and all the plazas in this very gray city seemed to blend together; safe to say, it wasn’t the best of introductions to what would become my favorite place in Spain.

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.

Getting oriented

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
An overview map of town

Santiago revolves around the cathedral, so if you can find the church, you can get anywhere—don’t worry! You can walk from one end of the tiny old town to the other in around ten minutes but the rest of the city sprawls to the southwest and the northeast. Zona vieja, the “old zone,” is bounded by the tree-lined Alameda Park on one side and the sunny, picnic-friendly Belvís on the other. The French Way of the Camino enters the old town at its northeast corner via the historic Rúa de San Pedro.

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 plazas

No 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.”

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
Obradoiro façade

Start at the Praza do Obradoiro, the largest and grandest square in Santiago, just west of the cathedral. It’s called the “Workshop Square” because it was here, 800 years ago, that the stonemasons’ workshop was set up as they worked on the construction of the cathedral. Today it looks very different from the original Romanesque cathedral because Baroque façades were put up to beautify the church 300 years ago.

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.

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
Praza da Quintana

Go up the stairs and stroll into the Praza da Quintana. For centuries, this plaza held the city’s main cemetery, but it was later moved outside the old town for health reasons. That huge, austere wall with iron-grated windows belongs to the San Paio de Antealtares convent, whose nuns make amazing baked goods—ask for tarta de Santiago (almond cake) or pastas de té (shortbread cookies) at the revolving window on the other side of the convent.

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

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
Yours truly with the compostela

After lying down in exhaustion at the Praza do Obradoiro and then paying your respects to St. James in the cathedral, the first order of business for any recently-arrived pilgrim is to stop by the Pilgrim’s Office on Rúa das Carretas, Nº 33. Northwest of the main plaza, the oficina de acogida al peregrino is where you go to register with the church that you have, indeed, walked the Camino de Santiago.

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

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
Camino marker

Certificate in hand, it’s worth stopping by Santiago’s two tourist offices before you begin exploring. The regional tourist office (i.e., for Galicia) is located on Rúa do Vilar, Nº 30, and can give you information about daytrips in the area, maps of nearby cities, and tips on hiking the Camino to Fisterra. The municipal tourist office (i.e., for Santiago) is a bit further down the road at Nº 63, and the folks there will be able to answer all of your questions about the city.

Now what? Things to see and do

If 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!

Restaurant recommendations

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
Octopus at Bodegón Os Concheiros Pulpería

As a general rule, avoid the swarm of touristy restaurants along Rúa do Franco just south of the cathedral that peddle photo-heavy menus in five languages and offer overpriced, mediocre daily set menus. Your best bet is to look around centrally-located Praza de Cervantes or even Rúa de San Pedro back along the Camino.

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 stores

The 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.

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
View of the transept from the tribuna

The Pilgrim House

Something 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 office

In 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 airport

Empresa 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

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
Tarta de Santiago

Santiago’s estación de autobuses is a 20-minute walk northeast of the city center. Simply head due north out of the old town along Rúa de San Roque, and follow this street until you get to the sprawling administrative complex occupied by the Xunta de Galicia. Turn right at the roundabout and you’ll be there in two minutes. City buses 5, C2, C4, P1, and P2 all go to the bus station, but only routes 5, P1, and P2 pass by the Virxe da Cerca bus stop near the market.

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!

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