48 Hours in Santiago de Compostela: Food and Drink
There is an old joke in Santiago de Compostela that makes gentle fun of the visitors that have flocked here for more than a thousand years. It features a tourist asking how to find the cathedral, and the punch line translates loosely to: “Just look up, doofus!” Visit Santiago, and you’ll understand– the ancient stone building towers over the rest of the skyline, its tall towers and intricate arches visible from just about everywhere in town.
Santiago is a medium-sized city (population 95,000) in the northwestern province of Galicia, and as one of the most holy places in Christian Europe it has attracted visitors for centuries. It is packed with classic tourist activities, as well as hidden-away dives bars and local treats. If you’ve got 48 hours to spend, you can have a great experience that mixes rich Galician cuisine, traditional tourism, and local fun. Just remember to bring an umbrella and waterproof shoes, because Santiago rain is legendary!
As the joke suggests, every visit must start at the cathedral. Santiago’s cathedral has been its epicenter for centuries, ever since the shrine of St. James became a popular pilgrimage destination during the Middle Ages. Today, thousands walk the “Camino” every year, spending anywhere from a couple of days to several months hiking across Europe until they arrive at the steps of the Santiago cathedral.
Entrance is always free, though visitors are not permitted during masses. The cathedral’s main altar is a baroque masterpiece of dazzling gold and elaborate statues, and there are dozens of side altars to an array of saints, including the eponymous St. James’ shrine. During peak times, visitor line up almost out the door to see his brightly-polished silver sarcophagus. Look carefully, and you’ll also find the shrine to Santiago Matamoros (“Moor Killer”). The ancient sculpture of Santiago crushing Moors under his horse has been blocked by conveniently placed flowers due to its potential to offend.
If you attend a Pilgrim Mass (at 12:00 pm most days) you will be surrounded by footsore backpackers snapping pictures and enjoying the end of their long trek. If one of them donates a celebratory €200, you might also see the botafumeiro, a giant silver incense burner originally meant to dispel the odor of medieval pilgrims (who lacked access to regular showering facilities during their journey.) For an added bonus, take a tour of the roof. It costs 10€ and must be scheduled in advance, but you’ll get an up-close look at the cathedral’s architecture, as well as stunning views of the old city.
Lunch in Santiago (as in most parts of Spain) is from 2-4 pm, and many places offer cheap menus del dia (menus of the day.) Make a stop at La Flor for a particularly delicious one priced at 10€, or a simpler lunch for 7€. The bar/restaurant is small and eclectically decorated, depending on which holiday is the nearest. During Halloween, the place was covered in spider webs and gourds; for Carnival the staff hung brightly-colored fabric everywhere. Even between holidays, the place has an artsy vibe, and unlike many places in Santiago, a traveler with a laptop will not be out-of-place there. It is also an excellent place to return later in the day for coffee, tea or a glass of wine, as it stays open past midnight.
After lunch, a short walk through the remainder of the old city takes you past ancient University buildings and lovely, old stone churches. Santiago has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1980s, and as a result the old city is in excellent condition. As you walk down Rua do Franco, souvenir shops beckon. Most shops have a variety of Camino merchandise, including T-shirts, staffs, and white shells painted with the red Santiago cross. There are also several jewelry stores selling Galician pieces, which share many similarities with Celtic art.
You might also consider a stroll to the Semanario (seminary), which runs parallel to the old city. It was once one of the country’s most important schools for priests and is now the largest pilgrim hostel in Santiago, with rooms sleeping up to 50 people. It overlooks Park Belvis, a wide park with large lawns for picnicking and a small hedge maze, worth a walk during the quiet of siesta.
When your energy starts to lag, duck into Hostal Girasol café, a hidden nook on the north side of the old city at Rúa da Porta da Pena 4. It offers a quiet garden for good-weather coffee drinking, complete with fountains and old stonework. Despite its central location, the café still provides a quiet break from the city, assuming the rain has stopped.
After sunset, your mind may begin to wander toward dinner, and Santiago does dinner right. Octopus—or “pulpo” as it is otherwise known– is a Galician specialty, and most restaurants offer it. However one of the best places in Santiago is Concheiros Bodegon, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the bus station. The place is filled with old wine barrels and the windows are barred, an interesting leftover decorative touch. Nothing on the tiny menu is priced, or in a language besides Galician, but don’t be intimidated. The pulpo is excellent and tender, and the zorza or jamon asado (spicy pork in red sauce and roasted sliced ham) are excellent choices if you’re concerned that tentacley seafood isn’t going to sit well in your stomach.
Another popular option is Casa das Crechas, a great choice for beers and local music. Wednesday and some Saturday nights, the basement has a band playing for a cover charge of 3-5€, with styles ranging from traditional folk with bagpipes and tambourines to indie rock. Or else for a unique equine experience drop into Modus Vivendi, a former horse stable that made the surprising transition to a bar. The floor in the back room is still worn from the hooves of trotting horses, and the owners have left a stone feeding trough to be used as a drink table. The coffee liquor, a Galician staple, is definitely worth trying here.
On your second day in Santiago, use your morning to head to the local Mercado de Abastos, an outdoor farmer’s market on the edge of the old city. It is a wonderful place to shop for snacks, buy a simple lunch, or browse the local produce. It closes at 2 pm; get there early for a more extensive selection. Beyond the old Galician ladies selling homegrown herbs, vegetables, and live rabbits, there is also a restaurant that allows you to bring whatever fish or seafood you’ve bought from the market’s merchants and have it cooked to order.
After another day exploring the city—the Casa de Cultura is a worthy spot– the best sunset view is in Park Bonaval. To get there, start at the Puerta del Camino intersection and walk up the hill past the Galician Center of Contemporary Art and an old convent until you reach the highest point, a wide lawn overlooking the majority of the old city. Pilgrims and locals alike have been enjoying this view for more than a millennium (but make sure you leave before the park closes just after sunset.)
For a light dinner, head to O Filandon, a wine and cheese shop that doubles as a bar. The space is small, so unless you’re lucky, expect to balance your wine glass on the edge of the fireplace—don’t worry, it’s part of the charm! The wine selection is extensive, with mainly Galician wines such as Mencias or Ribieros, and the staff always provides a tapas plate of bread and meats, no matter the hour. The walls are covered with small paper napkins with the messages and doodles of past visitors. Traditionally, people write a message and then attach it to the string of napkins via a handy toothpick. Ask the bartender for a pen and leave your own message!
Pub Momo is also a great destination for evening drinks and snacks. It is one of the most unique and emblematic in Santiago, with its decorating style based on a famous German novel of the same name (spoiler: a little girl in a trenchcoat with a magic turtle saves the world from time-stealing monsters). This means random clocks and turtles everywhere, as well as a floor that still retains the asphalt and street markings of former days as part of the road. There’s also a great terrace with a view of the seminary and park. Momo has a 3-for-2 deal on both beers and cocktails, making it a popular place for students to start their nights. Just make sure you don’t lose your drink receipts while drinking toward your freebie!
If you’re feeling up to it, a true night out in Santiago is not complete without a visit to Tarasca, the best disco/bar in the center. The music is great for dancing, with the occasional random Ghostbusters theme song thrown in. Dress for poor ventilation, however: the heat gets worse as more and more sweaty people enter the bar. The old city closes down at 5 a.m. and at that point people move en masse to one of the popular late-night discos in new city; if you have the energy, just follow the crowd and be prepared for more sweaty locales and cover charges.
As you pack up and possibly recover from a coffee liquor hangover (a note for the uninitiated: these are rough), you may hear the sounds of bagpipes echoing across the city. Where are they coming from? Well, that’s a matter for another trip, another 48 hours. There’s always more to see in Santiago, but you’ll need to come back and seek out the city’s hidden secrets.