Santiago de Compostela – All You Need to Know Before You Go

Located in northwest Spain, Santiago de Compostela is the final stop for pilgrims coming from all directions of the Camino de Santiago way and those who want to visit the tomb of the Apostle James.

A man drawing the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

This 2021 post includes valuable tips and answers to frequently asked questions that will help not only pilgrims but any travelers who arrive in Santiago.

Why visit Santiago de Compostela?

It is said that the apostle St. James is buried here and you can go in and see where his remains are buried.

Street signs of the pilgrimage route to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Scallop shell on the sidewalk
Scallop Shell – a symbol of pilgrimage

A bit of history

After being completely destroyed by Muslims at the end of the 10th century, Santiago de Compostela was rebuilt in the following century. Now, you can find there buildings built in Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic styles but the pilgrimage is the main reason for many to visit this place.

Capela de Animas Church
Capela de Animas

Holy Year in Santiago de Compostela

The year 2021 is the Holy Year in Santiago but due to the world situation, it has been extended to the year 2022 as well.

During the Holy Year, the Holy Door to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is open. When pilgrims pass through this door and meet other conditions, all their sins will be forgiven.

Good to know: Holy Years are those in which the celebration of Santiago (25th July) falls on a Sunday. They usually occur every 5 or 6 years but sometimes the gap can stretch up to 11 years. In Spain, they are known as Xacobeo or Año Santo Jacobeo.

Busy street of Santiago de Compostela

How to plan my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela?

An easy way is to have a look at the official website of Camino which includes a ton of information from routes, itineraries, and options you have.

You can choose between various ways (The French Way, The English Way, The Northern Way,…) and see the itinerary or you can create your own by choosing the number of days you can walk as well as how much you want to walk per day.

If you are interested in walking or cycling The Way of James road, this is the place to get the best information.

Seafood restaurant window at Santiago de Comostela
Restaurant window dispay with fresh seafood and meat

Good to know before you go:

The Tomb of the Apostle James is open every day from 7 in the morning until 9 in the evening. There is no break (siesta) during the afternoon and you can also visit while the mass is on.

The access to the tomb is from the Puerta Santa (Holy Door) on the east side of the cathedral (on the Praza da Quintana de Vivos square) and it is also there where you will more likely see another queue for the cathedral that is on the south side (Praza de Praterias Square).

There are 4 masses during the day in the cathedral: 7:30 am, 9:30 am, 12:00 pm, and 7:30 pm.

Note that during these times the place gets extremely busy and you will more likely need to queue to get in. Due to the situation in the world at the moment, the places are limited to seating only with large gaps between each person. This means, only a fraction of people will be able to attend the mass. If you want to attend the noon mass, you might need to queue as early as 10 am if not earlier.

The Holy Year is extended to 2022 and the Holy Door of Santiago Cathedral will close on 31 December 2022. Please note that during this time Santiago gets extra busy so plan your journey accordingly!
We saw signs for confessions in Spanish and English in the
Cathedral. They also take place in the chapels of Santa Catalina, San Antonio, Virgen de la Soledad and Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

Pilgrims who arrive at Santiago de Compostela after finishing the St James’ Way should make their way to Rúa Carretas, 33 where the “Pilgrim’s Office” the Oficina de Acogida de Pelegrino is. There, the final seal of Camino is stamped. It is also the place where you get the official certificate of the pilgrimage known as Compostela.

Note: During very busy times you might not get the certificate on the same day. When you get there, you need to take a ticket with a QR code which allows you to check the queue in real-time so you will know how much time you will be waiting.

A scallop shell is the official sign of the pilgrimage together with a yellow arrow so you will see a lot of these on your way to Compostela.

Fountain at the Alameda park
Alameda Park
Pilar Chapel at the Alameda park
Capela do Pilar

Arriving to Santiago de Compostela as a traveler/tourist

Parking in the morning hours will more likely be limited as there will be hundreds if not thousands of others wanting to visit the Cathedral at the same time as you (especially during the Holy Year). Your best chance to find free parking is on Rua de Roma street near Santiago’s shopping center. From there, it takes about 25-30 minutes to get to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral by walk.

N.B.: It’s a 5½-hour drive from Madrid so if you are not planning on walking one of the Camino ways, perhaps divide the road trip into sections and visit other places on the way like Segovia or Salamanca.

View to Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela from Alameda park

What to do in Compostela?

  • Make your way to the Cathedral
  • Attend the mass (during the Holy Year)
  • Visit the Apostle James’ tomb
  • Buy a few souvenirs
  • Have lunch at one of the local restaurants
  • Have a picnic in the Alameda park
  • Visit the Pilgrims Museum or the Cathedral Museum
Praterias square and tower of the cathedral

What you should know before you arrive?

Many establishments (souvenir shops, restaurants) close for siesta (between 2-4 pm). This means that the streets are not so overcrowded and it might be a better time to visit the tomb (we were told that 3 pm is the best time to do so).

During lunchtime, the streets are packed with pilgrims and travelers either looking for a place to eat, buying souvenirs, or just strolling and perhaps finding their way to the Alameda park where you can also spend the siesta. If you packed your own lunch or snack, this is the place to enjoy it. There, you will find the best views to take photos of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral from a distance.

Holy Door to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Holy Door
People queueing at the Praza da Quintana de Vivos Plaza

How to get to the Cathedral?

Follow the scallop shell signs and yellow arrows – the official signs of the Santiago the Compostela pilgrimage and they will bring you right to the heart of the city where you can easily find the church.

Also, many other pilgrims and travelers will go there so following them can save you time (if not sure, ask them or check google maps).

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral interior
Tomb of Saint James the Great, the apostle of Jesus Christ

What souvenirs to buy in Santiago de Compostela?

The scallop shells or jewelry in the shape of a scallop, T-shirts, a figurine of St. James, silver earrings or pendants, or Almond Cake known as Tarta de Santiago are the perfect gifts from your travels or pilgrimage. But, it all depends on your personal preference so pick anything you like.

Obradoiro Square and the Cathedral
Towers of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Town hall and the square

Our experience:

We visited this city on our trip across Spain. It was a Tuesday shortly after 10:30 am when we arrived and we barely found an empty spot to park our car. We then walked to the old town without having any plan, just to see the cathedral.

By the time we arrived, there must have been at least 300 people in a queue to go inside. After talking to one of the workers we learned that we won’t be able to make it to the mass (we had no knowledge about it until he told us) so we visited the tomb only. Due to the number of people there the visit was limited to only a few seconds barely a minute.

Like I have mentioned the streets were packed around noon and so were the restaurants. For the mass, I believe you have to queue for hours to get in so be prepared for that and come early.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and Town Square
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Resources:

Hope you enjoyed this post!

Safe travels!

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