Santiago de Compostela dates back to 813, when a visionary hermit discovered St James the Apostle's remains on the site of what is now the city's magnificent cathedral.
Santiago de Compostela dates back to 813, when a visionary hermit discovered St James the Apostle's remains on the site of what is now the city's magnificent cathedral. A beautiful hilltop town grew up to accommodate those who have flocked there since, traditionally along a well-beaten track across northern Spain. There's plenty in the historic centre of what is now the capital of Galicia to make the journey worth the effort, from wonderful medieval, Renaissance and Baroque architecture to some of the best food and wine in Spain. The weather might not be the most clement, but this is a city famed to look even better in the rain - and there are plenty of bars, restaurants and galleries in which to shelter from the frequent showers. Nowadays, you don't need to walk all the way there; Santiago boasts a small but busy airport.
In the shadow of the Baroque cathedral, the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, Plaza do Obradoiro (00 34 981 582200; www.parador.es), claims to be the oldest hotel in the world, having been a refuge for pilgrims since its foundation in 1499. Its low-level plateresque facade is one of the reasons for visiting Santiago, its interiors are stunning (boasting four early-Renaissance cloisters) and they serve a fine cocktail in the restaurant bar. A double room costs €240 per night including breakfast. Hotel Costa Vella, Puerta de la Peña, 17 (00 34 981 569530; www.costavella.com) offers double rooms from €70, with breakfast an extra €5.50. A friendly central option in a recently restored mansion, it has a wonderful interior courtyard flanked by the medieval city wall.
The intimate Michelin-starred Toñi Vicente, Calle Rosalia de Castro, 24 (00 34 981 594100) offers the city's most innovative haute-cuisine take on local Galician specialities, especially seafood such as octopus, monkfish and sea bass. Price from €60 per head for three courses without wine. For more surprises try visiting Casa Marcelo, Rua Hortas, 1 (00 34 981 558580), where the chef, Marcelo Tejedor, doesn't like menus, instead offering fixed degustations of whatever delicacies emerge from his fanciful imagination that night, costing €38.50. Sweet leek soup with goose barnacles, anyone?
Best cultural attraction
Alvaro Siza's breezeblock of a building on the edge of the old city houses Santiago's contemporary art gallery and eases the city into the 21st century. Spring highlights include exhibitions by Christian Jankowski and Arturo Herrera.
For centuries, Santiago's jewellers have been fashioning necklaces and rings made out of locally hewn azabache (jet) set in silver. The stones are said to have magical properties and can be bought in numerous jewellers in the streets around the cathedral. For a contemporary take on this traditional craft, try Noroeste, Ruela de Xerusalen, 10 (00 34 981 577130). If you're after a less durable souvenir, take home a tarta de Santiago, a sweet moist almond cake with an icing-sugar St James cross on the top, available from most bars, bakeries and souvenir shops. Be careful to buy the genuine article sin harina (without flour).
The cathedral in Plaza del Obradoiro is traditionally the pilgrims' final destination: inside the overpowering Baroque façade is an older, largely 12th-century interior. On the splendidly crafted Portico de la Gloria a handprint in the marble has been hollowed out over centuries by millions of pilgrims. Placing your hand in the same spot is a spiritual experience. A midday pilgrims' service is held daily: if you're lucky, you'll catch the botafumeiro, a bulky silver incense-burner, which is swung, smoke billowing, from side to side of the cathedral on special occasions by a huddle of burly monks.
Many of the city's 30,000 university students enjoy the Paris-Dakar bar crawl from Bar Paris on Rua do Franco to Bar Dakar on Rua da Raina, taking in 48 bars en route, knocking back orujo (Galician grappa) or the local wines Albariño and Ribeiro. For a more leisurely drink with the locals, try the Casa das Crechas, in Via Sacra, 3, where they play live Galician folk music and serve queimada, a hot punch set aflame before pouring.
How to get there
From 11 April, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) will fly daily from Stansted, while Iberia (0845 601 2845, www.iberia.com) flies from Heathrow. Lavacolla airport is 12km east of town, a 20-minute bus ride. Buses cost €1.55 and leave hourly, dropping you on Rua do Xeneral Pardiñas in the modern part of town. A taxi ride takes about 15 minutes and costs about €15.The main tourist office is at Rua do Vilar, 63 (00 34 981 555129; www.santiagoturismo.com).