One of my absolute favourite parts of Spain, Galicia is a verdant land of roaring rivers and fragrant eucalyptus forests, of noble palaces and pristine beaches that look like they’ve drifted straight out of the Caribbean.
Forget flamenco and paella, this distinctive region is coloured by its rich Celtic heritage, by kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing locals who speak a unique language called Gallego (guy-eh-go).
Then there’s the renowned seafood and wine. Meals that will stay with you for all of your days. And the famously proud and inviting people who will do anything they can to ensure you enjoy your time in their little corner of the world.
Galicia is everything you could ever wish for from an authentic Spanish sojourn, a place that is sure to thrill and surprise you at every turn.
So, mi amigo, it’s with great pleasure that I share with you my favourite things to do in Galicia, from tips on exploring Santiago de Compostela (the capital city) to hunting out the region’s best vineyards, palaces and seafood restaurants.
Note: I’ve written this guide after visiting Galicia five or six times over the last few years (including a 125 km hike along the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrim route), but I still haven’t seen it all. I’ll be sure to update it as and when I discover more. Let me know if there’s anything I should include!
Uncork Galicia’s Crispy Albariño Wines
Utter the word ‘Galicia’ to any Spanish wine lover and the first thing they’ll think of is the region’s zesty white albariño (alba-reen-yo) wines. I’ve been a red wine drinker for much of my life, but things changed dramatically for me after my first visit to Galicia.
Home to the revered Rías Baixas Denominación de Origen, this verdant landscape capitalises on its blustery weather conditions by producing what I, and many others, believe to be among the world’s finest white wines.
With its refreshing refreshing acidic kick, albariño (alba-reen-yo) is absolutely perfect for quaffing with fish and seafood, which is convenient seeing as Galicia is famous throughout Spain for producing the country’s finest sea-born fare.
Tip: Vines grow literally everywhere in Galicia. In people’s gardens, in tiny vineyards at the side of the road, on hills by the sea. But some of the oldest and most respected vines are housed within the grounds of Galicia’s famous pazos (palaces) – much more on these below.
Immerse Yourself in Galicia’s Capital City of Santiago de Compostela
“Do you know what Santiago de Compostela means?” asked Marian, our local guide. “It means ‘Saint James of the field of stars’.”
Galicia’s capital city has an almost mythical status around the world. As well as boasting one of the world’s oldest universities (it dates back to 1495), it is also the final destination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims hike their way here every year (I was one of them in 2017). Their arrival marks the end of what will have been weeks or even months of intense introspection, breathtaking scenery and more than a few of aches and pains.
I can tell you from experience that it is a magical city to arrive at, regardless of whether you walk or fly here.
Things to Do and See in Santiago de Compostela
Get Lost in the Casco Viejo (Old Town)
Santiago is one of those cities you can wander aimlessly around for days and still keep stumbling upon hidden corners. It’s all white-washed walls and exposed stone, russet red roof tiles and plucky palms. Little shops, bars and restaurants line the cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, where the locals pass the time of day and delight hungry pilgrims with giant platters of seafood and endless jugs of vino.
Peruse the Ancient Mercado de Abastos de Santiago
Santiago’s market is a local affair, a proper market run by locals for locals. Giant butchers and fishmongers with walrus moustaches man the busy stalls.
Aproned ladies with raisin skin and gummy grins perch on stools and upturned buckets in the street, freeing peas from their pods and bagging up fistfuls of whatever happens to be in season. Probably my favourite place in Santiago de Compostela.
Tip: Open Monday to Saturday, 8am to 2pm.
Find Peace in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral’s gothic bell towers and imposing facade are iconic and reassuringly familiar. The interior is equally impressive, lavished with shiny frescoes and gilded furnishings. It is, after all, the (alleged) final resting place of Saint James the Great, one of Jesus Christ’s 12 apostles.
It is possible to take a tour of the cathedral and its upper floors and terraces, which grant spectacular views over the city, as well as the museum. I also recommend the daily Pilgrim Mass, held daily at 12 noon (there’s another at 7.30pm).
Tip: A highlight of the Pilgrim Mass is the ‘Botafumeiro’, a huge thurible which has been swung under the vast naves since the Middle Age as a way of cleaning and purifying the air after the arrival of the pilgrims (read: to mask the pong of a thousand stinky hikers).
Eat Your Way Around the City
If like me you believe gastronomy is the key to understanding a new culture, you may be quite happy to spend a day nibbling your way through the local dishes. There are countless tapas bars ands restaurants to explore, so you shouldn’t struggle. But a fun option is to join a food tour of Santiago de Compostela’s local hotspots and explore the city with like-minded foodies.
Meet and Greet the Pilgrims in Praza do Obradoiro
Praza do Obradoiro is the city’s main square and where the pilgrims congregate upon arriving. It’s a joyful and incredibly human experience to witness these humbled hikers hobbling to the finish line. Some will have loved ones waiting to meet them, others will arrive quietly and alone, unsure whether they really want it all to end as much as they had recently thought.
I met a Korean gentleman named Hye who had just walked over 800 km of the Camino for the second time in his life. I congratulated him and suggested that maybe he should do it again next year, but he wasn’t overly inspired by the idea. “No more Camino! No more!” he laughed.
Hike the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Route
Walking the Camino de Santiago was one of the great highlights of my life. I really got into the social aspect of the trip, the camaraderie of hiking shoulder-to-shoulder with people from all over the world. But I also valued having the space and time to be alone, to have five or even eight hours a day to think and reflect, to tune into the spectacular nature through which the trails carve.
There are many different ways to do the Camino de Santiago, with the longest route taking around 35 days. However, if you complete the last 100 km or so of the route, you qualify for your “Compostela” certificate and will be able to officially say that you’ve ‘done the Camino’.
Because of this, the most popular route is the ‘Camino Francés‘ (this is the route I did), from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. This route is around 115 km and took me a solid five days of walking for between five and eight hours a day.
How difficult is it? The Camino is not the most hardcore of hikes (relatively speaking), but by no means is it easy. I had a great deal of pain in my feet and knees, and both of my big toenails fell off as soon as I got home! But to put it in context, there was a 74-year-old Polish lady in my group who seemed to be in much less pain than I was at the finishing line. Preparation is key, she told me.
The second most popular starting point for the Camino, and the non-official official starting point, is in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a quaint little French village situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This route is considered the ‘full Camino’ and can easily take up to 40 days – I would definitely do it if I had the time!
Make it happen: If you’d like to hike the ‘French Way’ from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela with a group like I did then check out this 8-day tour. If you’d like to go all in and hike the full Camino then check out this 40-day tour. You can also cycle the Camino de Santiago! If I did it again I’d probably do it this way and try to do a longer route.
Hike alone or with a tour company? The benefit of hiking the Camino with a tour company is that you will have someone experienced to make sure you secure a quality place to sleep every night, as well as arrange all of your meals and shuttle your luggage between stop-off points. This essential if you’d rather not hike with a huge backpack.
However, the Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s most established hiking routes, so you can easily do it independently. All you need to do is get yourself to a starting point and start walking. There are hundreds of great albergues (hostels set up specifically to cater to Camino hikers) along the way, though you’ll want to arrive as early as possible at your stopping point to secure a bed for the night (I’ve heard lots of horror stories about people sleeping in bed-bug-ridden places or, worse, being unable to find a place to stay at all because they arrived late).
Enjoy Local Wine and Fables at the Fascinating Pazo de Galegos
Galicia is famous for its many pazos (palaces) and I recommend visiting as many as possible. But if you only have time to visit one ten you may as well visit one that has its own vineyard.
Located roughly 15 km outside of Santiago de Compostela (you’ll probably want to rent a car to get around Galicia), this country mansion is home to one of the oldest vineyards in Galicia and boasts a spectacularly colourful history.
It once belonged to a famous writer Antonio Lopez Ferreiro, who also happened to be the canon of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and a founding member of the Royal Academy of the Galician Language. This fine gentleman was even responsible for the discovery of Saint James’ tomb.
Today, Pazo de Galegos is home to Manuel Garcia and his son Pablo. With the help of their fluffy ginger cat, Señor Freski, the father and son duo produce Galicia’s famous albariño (white) and Mencia (red) wines.
With his wood-framed sunglasses, hipster skinny jeans and technicolour shoes, Pablo was nothing like I imagined a Galician winemaker would look.
“I do things a little bit differently to other wine producers in the region,” Pablo explained as we wandered among the vines. “But as I always say: my wine, my way!”
His father Manuel also breaks the mould. A dashing, authoritarian gentleman with the economic demeanour of a sergeant. “This vine is over 100 years,” he explained to my delight. “Many believe it is the oldest vine in Galicia.”
The vines at Pazo de Galegos, like most of the vines in Galicia, are traipsed over elevated trellises. The aim is to ensure the plants do not rot to death in the puddles of rain that form during the region’s infamously heavy down pours – there’s a reason northern Spain is known as ‘Green Spain’. The Costa del Sol this is not.
Tip: Manuel and Pablo offer this vineyard tour and wine tasting experience along with a hearty lunch, which I highly recommend. Find out more about their tours here. You can also check availability and book a room here.
Dive into Galicia’s Famous Seafood in Vigo
Daily life in the charming port city of Vigo revolves almost entirely around the sea. Famed for its thriving fishing industry, this is the place to go to see (and taste) why Galicia is so highly regarded for its seafood.
The exceptional quality of the fish and shellfish is a result of coastal upwelling phenomenon, which makes the waters extremely rich in nutrients. Throw in a few bottles of Galicia’s albariño wine and you’ve got the makings of the ultimate foodie escape…
Where to Eat and Drink in Vigo
Warm up with Free Tapas in the Old Town
Vigo’s old town smells like the sea and is the perfect place to ease yourself into the local way of life. Find a terrace in the sun and order a drink. Each drink will come with a little free tapa – a bowl of olives, a few slivers of cheese or a wedge of tortilla. The perfect way to work up your appetite before lunch or dinner! Follow the rumble of happy loungers or head to Plaza de la Constitución.
Dive into Fresh Oysters on ‘Oyster Street’
Rúa da Pescadería, or “Oyster Street” as it’s better known, is a must for foodies in Vigo. The idea is that you order a few drinks from the bar owners and then order your oysters from the oyster ladies in the street. Drizzle them with lemon and wash them down with a few glasses of plonk. This is pure happiness!
Eat like a Sailor in Bouzas, Vigo’s Old Fishermen’s Quarter
Located within spitting distance of the historic shipbuilding yards and trundling fishing trawlers, Bouzas is Vigo’s fishermen’s quarter. This is where the locals go to eat fresh and affordable seafood in Vigo, unquestionably one of the best paces to eat in all of Spain.
I highly recommend Bar Nisio, a cosy restaurant housed in what is basically an old fisherman’s house. The walls are plastered in vintage Vigo football paraphernalia and faded photos that prove just how little the decor has changed over the years.
Order traditional dishes like calamares en su tinta (calamari served in its ink) and the classic Galician dish of pulpo a la gallega (Galician octopus with paprika). Also be sure to treat yourself to the house special arroz con bogavante (lobster rice) and plenty of the vino de la casa (house wine), which is served in giant clay jugs.
Explore Contemporary Galician Flavours
For younger vibes, boutique wines and Galician dishes with a modern touch, I highly recommend the trendy Taberna Baiuca. Owner Cesar epitomises the Gallegos’ generous and inviting nature, offering exciting set menus that change with the season and allow his kitchen team to show off a little. Very cool indeed.
If you can’t get a table at Baiuca (it’s small and immensely popular), try the like-minded Patouro Bar & Grill.
Foodie tip: If you’re short on time and want to make sure you eat all the right things in all the right places in Vigo then consider joining a local food tour. If you have a little more time to play with then consider joining this fantastic 8-day tour from Vigo, which includes a visit to several of Galicia’s best vineyards and prettiest local villages, as well as a private boat-trip to the spectacular Cies Islands and all accommodation.
Castaway to the Cies Islands – ‘Spain’s Caribbean Islands’
Located just off the coast of Vigo, the Cíes archipelago is made up of three islands: Illa de Monteaguo, Illa do Faro and Illa de San Martiño.
Illa de Monteaguo and Illa do Faro are joined by a sandbar known as Praia de Rodas (Rodas Beach), which was named ‘Best Beach in the World’ by The Guardian.
As well as being spectacularly beautiful, the islands harbour a fascinating history. Acting as a sort of gateway between the Atlantic Ocean and the estuary of Vigo, they were highly attractive to Barbary and English pirates, who used them to hide their loot. They even ‘encouraged’ the monks who originally inhabited the islands to move elsewhere so they could have the islands to themselves.
Tip: You can actually stay on one of the islands! Camping Islas Cíes is open Easter week and June-September – find out more about the islands and the campsite here.
Fun fact: Parts of Jules Verne’s classic novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are said to have been inspired by the Battle of Vigo Bay, which saw Spanish treasure ships sinking in the waters surrounding the islands. many believe that the treasure is still there, waiting to be found.
Live Like a Royal in the Charming Coastal Town of Cambados
This little jewel of a town is located in Galicia’s stunning Pontevedra province and is a distillation of all that makes this part of Spain so special: natural beauty, historic buildings, an imposing palace, local wines and great people.
The protagonist is the 16th century Pazo de Fefiñanes, which was built by King Felipe II’s advisor Don Juan Sarmiento Valladares. It was passed on to the Marquises of Figueroa, whose descendants still live on the property today.
It has been kept as it pretty much always has been, with sprawling bedrooms and dining rooms that look like they haven’t been touched for hundreds of years. There’s also a breathtakingly impressive rooftop terrace atop the fortress-like tower, which provides spectacular views over the town and sea.
The palace’s private garden was the highlight for me – more like a forest than a garden. Nothing about it was manicured or landscaped.
“It has always been here. Always like this,” explained Maria, one of the family members who has inherited it all. “We try to leave it natural. What is the word… wa… we… wild. Yes, we try to leave it wild.”
I imagined her as a child, running free under the canopies, climbing trees and rustling through the caramel leaves with her toys.
At one of the out buildings in the garden, Maria’s mother poured us glasses of the famous albariño wine they produce on the property. It struck me that this was the first time I had ever been served by nobility. I’m fairly confident it will be the last, too.
Maria and her mother proving themselves to be perfect hosts, their dogs bounding around them in bliss. It was one of those afternoons I will never forget.
Tip: If you’re in Cambados for lunch or dinner, head to Pandemonium for Galician fare with a modern touch.
Stroll the Secret Gardens of Pazo de Oca – ‘The Versailles of Galicia’
Of all of Galicia’s palaces, Pazo de Oca is arguably the most famous. Dating back to the 12th century, it was originally used as a fortress. Many moons later, however, Fernando Gayoso, the Marquis of Camarasa, decided he’d like to make it home and turned it into the imposing residence it is today.
The storybook baroque gardens will transport you back through time to an age of melancholic romanticism. Expect to discover boating lakes, hidden cosy corners for romantic interludes, intricate mazes, thriving vegetable patches and glorious sculptures. An entire universe in its own right.
“You have to think that the noble family who owned this lived through many difficult political times. They were hated by the people and they were scared that they would be killed if they left the property, so they lived their entire lives here in these gardens and in the palace,” Marian explained when I ignorantly suggested that it was all a little excessive.
Make it happen: You can book a tour of the gardens and/or palace here. Apparently they also do dramatised tours with actors in full costume.
Travel Back to the Iron Age at the Castro de Santa Trega Archeological Site
On my first visit to Galicia, I visited the tiny fishing port town of A Guarda. Rosana and I stayed in a little B&B and ate our body weight in the region’s famous pulpo (octopus). I couldn’t have asked more from my introduction to the north.
The highlight was hiking up the Santa Trega mountain, through forests of pine and eucalyptus, to the unfathomably ancient Castro de Santa Trega archeological site. It was inhabited between 100 BC and 100 AD and remains in surprisingly good nick.
Its elevated position also affords visitors dramatic views over the Miño estuary to Portugal. How wonderful to be standing in Spain and at the same time be able to see in great detail an entirely different country!
Discover Galicia’s Diverse Flora at Pazo de Rubianes
The 12th century Pazo de Rubianes in Vilagarcía de Arousa is another real-life palace, complete with royal owner and resident (who literally hides in her private quarters during visiting hours).
Not only does the mansion itself make for a fascinating visit, but it also boasts its own 21-hectare vineyard. The fruits of which can be sipped and purchased at the end of your tour.
But the star attraction is the 40-hectare botanical gardens, bursting with mature evergreen magnolias, palms and plants from every corner of the world.
It’s also (allegedly) home to the oldest eucalyptus tree in Galicia. There are so many eucalyptus trees in Galicia that I assumed they were native. How could anyone physically manage to plant so many trees, after all? Apparently, eucalyptus was introduced from Australia to the rest of the world following the Cook expedition in 1770, arriving in Galicia in the late 10th century. They grow extremely quickly, which made them perfect for the wood and paper industries. The problem is that they have pushed out native plant species and are extremely flammable.
Make it Happen
How to get to Galicia: If you’re flying to Galicia then you’ll most likely fly into Santiago de Compostela. There are also airports in Vigo and A Coruña. Spain’s rail network is fantastic and you can easily get to Galicia from other parts of Spain/Europe.
How to get around: As with the rest of ‘Green Spain’, I’d recommend renting a car to get around (simply pick one up at the airport or train station. It’s a relatively rural expanse of land and many of the places I’ve recommended in this post are a little way out the way. I recommend Discover Car Hire for finding the best deals from local and ‘big brand’ car rental companies such as Avis and Europcar.
Rather not drive? A good alternative if you’d rather not drive (which is fair enough when visiting one of the world’s finest wine regions), you can also join one of the many day-trip tours leaving Santiago de Compostela. This Rias Baixas tour includes a boat-trip, seafood, wine tasting and stops at several gorgeous little towns, including Cambados. Or you could even go the whole hog and take a 5-day trip around Galicia, stopping off at pretty much all of the main spots, with accommodation and meals all taken care of.
Where to Stay in Galicia
Depending on how much time you’ve got, I’d suggest either setting up base in one place (Santiago de Compostela would probably make the most sense) and taking day-trips from there, or moving around and spending a night or two in each place.
In terms of accommodation, I would highly recommend making the most of Galicia’s many independently-run rural hotels and guesthouses. Not only will you get more bang for your buck, but you’ll also be supporting the local economy in a more direct and responsible way. Same applies in the cities, where you’ll find plenty of smaller boutique options to choose from.
A few recommendations based on places I’ve stayed myself and/or been recommended by locals:
Rural Hotels in Galicia
I stayed at the stunning Hotel Spa Relais & Chateaux a Quinta da Agua, a sublimely comfortable and romantic 4-star boutique with first-class dining and leisure facilities. My room was huge and full of character and I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent restaurant, spa facilities and leafy gardens. A fantastic option if you’re really looking to treat yourself.
I would also highly recommend staying with Manuel and Pablo (as mentioned above) at the Pazo de Galegos, especially if you’re interested in learning about (and tasting!) Galicia’s famous wines.
Budget Accommodation in Santiago de Compostela
As the capital city of Galicia and the final destination of the Camino hiking route, Santiago de Compostela is particularly well-equipped for budget travellers. The ‘pensions’ are your best bet, which are cosy guest houses often run by families. Expect cosy private rooms and bathrooms, and simple-but-practical facilities.
Albergues are the cheapest places to stay in and around Santiago de Compostela. These are basically hostels that cater to Camino pilgrims/hikers, so be prepared to share your dorm room with lots of well-worn boots and socks.
Pensión Residencia Fonseca is pristinely-kept by owner Lucia and her team, with modern private rooms. The location is pretty much perfect.
Pensión O Códice is located right in the centre of Santiago and offers modern private rooms with modern facilities – some with views of the cathedral! Great prices and ideal for couples or solo travellers.
Albergue Linares is a proper pilgrim’s hostel with clean dorms and communal areas. The central location is just a 5-minute walk form the cathedral. A fantastic budget option for solo travellers, couples and groups.
KM0 is another great hostel located right in the centre. The property’s garden and terrace areas make it great for meeting other travellers.
Mid-Range Accommodation in Santiago de Compostela
Hotel Praza Quintana is a period property with a bright and modern decor. A faultless 3-star hotel situated right in the heart of Santiago de Compostela’s old town.
Hotel Rua Villar is a beautiful 3-star property located within a charming 18th century house. Perfect for a boutique stay in the old town.
Hotel Altaïr is one of those impressive 3-star boutique hotels that looks more like a 4 or 5 star property. Tons of character and original features, great staff and an impressive breakfast.
The Roompedra Apartamentos offer outstanding value for money and are located within stumbling distance from the cathedral (useful for hikers). Perfect if you’d like your own apartment, whether travelling alone, as a couple, group or family. The Blanco Tourist Apartamentos are also fantastic.
Luxury Hotels in Santiago de Compostela
The San Francisco Monumento is a seriously charming 4-star hotel housed in an old monastery. It boasts a swimming pool and hot tubs, while its central location, just 150m from the cathedral, makes it an ideal luxury base from which to explore Santiago de Compostela.
The Parador de Santiago is an impressive 5-star hotel housed in a 15th century building originally built for pilgrims. The rooms are huge, while the property’s vaulted ceilings, hulking stone archways and intricate tapestries are nothing short of spectacular.
The Eurostars Araguaney is a modern 5-star property located about a mile out of the city centre (easily walkable). It has a gym, sauna, swimming and fantastic dining options, making it good choice for those craving a little indulgence. The same can be said of the stunning 5-star NH Collection Santiago de Compostela.
I just want to finish this post by saying how much more there is to see and do in Galicia. I haven’t been to A Coruña or Lugo, for example, and a very good friend of mine is from Orensa (see her local’s guide to the city here), which is also supposed to be beautiful.
I’d also like to thank Ryanair, Spain Tourism Board, the local Galicia tourist board, Vigo Tourism and the Vigo Convention Bureau, who all helped me get to know this beautiful region of Spain. Many of my experiences were also organised by The Travel Mob as part of the #InGreenSpain campaign. Opinions are my own and based on personal experiences over the last few years.
I plan to spend a lot more time in Galicia in the near future and will be sure to update this post as and when I do. In the mean time, I’d love to hear about your experiences in travelling in Galicia – what were your highlights? What have I missed out?