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6 Things You’ll Find in the ‘Jerusalem of the West’

28 May 2021
If asked to name three holy Christian cities, then you might think of Rome and Jerusalem straight away, but perhaps the third would take a little longer.

Santiago de Compostela is the least famous of this ‘Holy Trinity’ but it still holds a special place in the religion’s folklore. The supposed burial place of one of Jesus’s disciples (hence the name: Santiago is St James in Spanish) has attracted millions of pilgrims over the years. They arrive along the Camino de Santiago, a series of hiking routes that criss-cross the continent but which all lead to the same point - Santiago Cathedral.
But Santigo doesn’t just have religious artefacts. If you decide to visit, you’ll see a beautiful old city bursting with nightlife, delicious food, and scenic parks. Read on to delve further into what the ‘Jerusalem of the West’ has to offer. 
Santiago de Compostela © Siggy Nowak from Pixabay
Santiago de Compostela © Siggy Nowak, Pixabay

The historic old town

Crowded around the cathedral in the city centre are the narrow, crooked streets of the Casco Vello, or the ‘old town’. A mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles, it’s one of the most beautiful urban areas in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site

Hewn out of Galician stone, the buildings, streets and squares take the visitor back in time, offering views of the city that remain unchanged since the Middle Ages. Central to this is the Praza de Cervantes, which apart from the kiosk selling tickets for the Spanish lottery on one side, could be a scene from Medieval times with its antique fountain and ornate archways. 

Wandering to the north from there will lead you to the Igrexa de San Martiño Pinario, a 17th century church and monastery whose incredible façade often makes passers-by stop and stare in wonder. A little further on is the Costa Vella café, a perfect coffee stop with its leafy garden and pretty fountain. 
Santiago de Compostela © Museo do pobo galego elcarito
Staircase of the Museo do Pobo Galego © Elcarito, Unsplash
Santiago is also famous for being a university town, and students get the opportunity to study history, philosophy and geography in historic faculty buildings dotted around the centre, as well as other subjects outside the city walls. 

From the Faculty of Philosophy, you can walk along one of the three parallel streets that dissect the old town, including the Rua Franco, whose name derives from the Franks. The string of bars and restaurants along here serve as final stopping points for the Camino’s pilgrims before reaching the sacred Praza de Obradoiro, with the jewel of the city’s crown, the cathedral, situated there.

A smorgasbord of great food

Galicia is one of the most underrated places for seafood in the world, with over 1,500 kilometres of coastline conjuring up some delicious delicacies. Santiago is smack bang in the centre of the region, and chefs here take great pride in showing off specialities such as vieiras á galega (breaded scallops) and pulpo á feira (boiled octopus).
Santiago de Compostela © bule from Pixabay
Vegans can also enjoy tapas time in Santiago de Compostela © Bule, Pixabay
It’s a cooking tradition that has been fine-tuned over centuries and explains why the city has two Michelin-Star restaurants. Casa Marcelo is perhaps the most famous, holding a beautiful dining room with views of an open kitchen where chefs conjure up a unique fusion of Galician, Japanese and Peruvian cooking. A Tafona is a more recent addition, but no less intriguing, as young chef Lucía Freitas offers modern cooking that features an experimental selection of flavours and ingredients.

If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to Michelin levels, then there are a host of excellent alternatives. Abastos 2.0 is listed in the Michelin guide, but offers a more casual experience with its location in the historic market of the same name. Order an Albariño wine, the region’s best white variety, and get a delicious tapa of the day, which could be mejillones (mussels) or seafood empanada, a type of Spanish patty. 
antiago de Compostela © iphotoclick from Pixabay
Don't forget a glass or two of local red to go with your tapas © iphotoclick, Pixabay
Of course, a guide to any Spanish city wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the free tapas, and it’s possible to take a tapas tour of the centre, picking up various helpings of tortilla, jamón, and maybe even a juicy spare rib or two. The best bet is to start at Rúa San Clemente at the foot of the Alameda park, follow the ramp up to Travessa Fonseca and then turn left down Rúa Franco as you hit the old town. This route will have at least 12 options to choose from, and will also take you to Obradoiro, the cathedral square, to finish.

Parks and recreation

Santiago gets pretty rainy, particularly during the winter months, but it does have its rewards. The city is home to several leafy parks that all have their own character and scenic spots.

Parque Bonaval is the hardest to get to, but perhaps the most beautiful. Located on what feels like the city’s rooftop, it looks out over the Convento de San Domingos and the Cathedral’s spires - not to mention a stunning sunset - and has a winding pathway that takes you through centuries-old trees and derelict ruins.
A quick skip over Rúa San Pedro, the final stretch of the Camino for many pilgrims, takes you down to Parque Belvis, which basks at the foot of the Convento de Belvis, and has its own mazes and grassy areas secluded by ancient walls.
Santiago de Compostela © acqueline macou from Pixabay
These boots are not made for walking, but will gladly sit for a photo © Acqueline Macou, Pixabay
A short hike up to the Old Town will take you close to the Alameda, with its shaded walkways, views of the cathedral and university, and pretty Santa Susana chapel perched on top of a small hill in the centre.
A lie in the park might be what you need after taking in Santiago’s other famous feature: its social scene.

A buzzing nightlife

Going out in Santiago as the dusk sets over the city reveals a unique blend of people out on the streets. First, the Compostelanos, the locals who embody the Spanish love of socialising and can be heard conversing in Galego, one of Galicia’s two official languages.

Next, the students, who make sure of a party atmosphere even on a rainy Tuesday night, and finally, the pilgrims - the hikers and cyclists who have streamed in from all over Europe along the holy routes that stretch as far as Hungary and Scandinavia. 
Santiago de Compostela © ailabrocker0 from Pixabay
You'll meet plenty of other pilgrims along the way © Santiago de Compostela © Ailabrocker0, Pixabay
After weeks, or even months, of travelling, it’s common to see jubilant scenes across the city as they reach the final leg of the journey, which always ends at the Cathedral of Santiago. After paying their respects there, the old town is on hand to throw the party, offering up historic bars such as the Modus Vivendi, and late-night spots that don’t close until well into the next morning.

While the pandemic has dampened spirits, Santiago is looking ahead with renewed optimism thanks to Spain’s vaccination drive. With 2021 being the city’s holy year, there’s plenty to look forward to in the ‘Jerusalem of the West’. 

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