Santiago de Compostela's highlight is undoubtedly its storied cathedral, and you should take at least 2 hours to see it. Afterward, take a stroll through this enchanting town, which has a number of other interesting monuments as well as many stately mansions along Rúa del Villar and Rúa Nueva.
Catedralicio de Santiago de Compostela, Plaza del Obradoiro (tel. 98-156-05-27), begun in the 11th century, is the crowning achievement of Spanish Romanesque architecture, even though it actually reflects a number of styles. Maestro Mateo's Pórtico de la Gloria, carved in 1188, ranks among the finest produced in Europe at that time. The three arches of the portico are carved with biblical figures from the Last Judgment. In the center, Christ is flanked by apostles and the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse. Below the Christ figure is a depiction of St. James himself. He crowns a carved column that includes a portrayal of Mateo at the bottom. If you observe this column, you will see that five deep indentations have been worn into it by pilgrims since the Middle Ages. Even today, pilgrims line up here to lean forward, place their hands on the pillar, and touch foreheads with Mateo.
The cathedral has three naves in cruciform shape and several chapels and cloisters. The altar, with its blend of Gothic simplicity and baroque decor, is extraordinary. In the crypt, a silver urn contains what are believed to be the remains of the Apostle St. James. A cathedral museum, Museo Catedralicio, displays tapestries and archaeological fragments. Next door, Palacio de Gelmírez (tel. 98-157-23-00), an archbishop's palace built during the 12th century, is an outstanding example of Romanesque architecture.
Admission to the cathedral and to the Palacio de Gelmírez is free. Hours for the cathedral are daily 7am to 9pm. For the cloisters and the Palacio de Gelmírez, hours are from June to September, Monday to Saturday 10am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm, Sunday 10am to 2pm; from October to May, Monday to Saturday 10am to 1:30pm and 4 to 6:30pm, Sunday 10am to 1:30pm. Admission to the Museo Catedralicio costs 5€; hours are June to September daily 10am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm; October to May daily 10am to 2pm and 4 to 8pm.
Most of the other impressive buildings are on Plaza del Obradoiro, also called Plaza de España. Next to the cathedral is Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, now a parador, formerly a royal hospice and, in the 15th century, a pilgrims' hospice. It was designed by Enrique de Egas, Isabella and Ferdinand's favorite architect. Tourists may visit the cloistered courtyard with its beautiful 16th- to 18th-century fountains and the main chapel; however, you must have a guide from the cathedral in attendance (tel. 98-158-22-00 for information). Hours are daily from 10am to 1pm and 4 to 7pm.
One of the most important squares in the Old Town is Plaza de la Quintana, to the left of the cathedral's Goldsmith's Doorway. This is a favorite square with students, who often perch on the flight of broad steps that connect the rear of the cathedral to the walls of a convent. The square is dominated by Casa de la Canónica, the former residence of the canon.
South of the square is the Renaissance-style Plaza de las Platerías (Silversmiths' Square), which has an elaborate fountain.
Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo, Rúa Valle-Inclán s/n (tel. 98-154-66-19; www.cgac.org), is the Galician Center of Contemporary Art, highlighting artworks from regional, national, and international artists. The center's changing exhibits feature contemporary artists, and it hosts retrospectives. Until the opening of this center, contemporary art had virtually no place on the city's agenda, which emphasized the ancient or the antique. Among the several exhibition rooms is a terrace for open-air exhibits, affording a panoramic view of Santiago's Old Town. The admission-free museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 8pm.
Farther afield, visit the Romanesque Santa María del Sar, on Calle Castron d'Ouro, .8km (1/2 mile) down Calle de Sar, which starts at the Patio de Madre. This collegiate church is one of the architectural gems of the Romanesque style in Galicia. Its walls and columns are on a 15-degree slant thought to be attributable to either a fragile foundation or an architect's fancy. Visit the charming cloister with its slender columns. The church is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 1pm and 4 to 7pm. Admission is 1€.
Cap off your day with a walk along Paseo de la Herradura, the gardens southwest of the Old Town, from where you have an all-encompassing view of the cathedral and the Old City.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.