The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela has been an important place for Catholic pilgrimages in Europe since the Middle Ages. Located in Galicia, the city of Santiago de Compostela welcomed more than 300,000 pilgrims in 2017, attracted as much by the religious as by the cultural appeal of the site.
History of the cathedral
The legend of Santiago
In the 9th century, while Spain was under Muslim rule, the monk Pelagus discovered the tomb of Santiago (or St James) on the hill overlooking the city of Compostela. After seeing disturbing light events in the sky for several nights, he went to see with Théodomir, the bishop of Iria Flavia, where these lights came from. They found the tomb of Saint James and those of two of his disciples. Saint James is one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ and is known as the one who evangelized Spain.
It was actually impossible to identify the person who was in this tomb, but the discovery served the ambitions of Catholics in the fight against Muslims.
It was the king of Asturias Alfonso II, who had himself visited the site to observe the discovery, who built the 1st church in honor of Saint James at the beginning of the 9th century.
Quickly, more and more pilgrims came to the site. Alfonso III therefore ordered the construction of a larger church, endowed with three naves.
Unfortunately, it was destroyed by Al-Manzor in 997 during the sacking of the city.
The Cathedral of Santiago de CompostelaConstruction of the cathedral began in 1075 during the reign of Alphonse VI. It is a Romanesque carved granite building with a classic Latin cross plan. Its construction officially ended in 1211.
Portico of Glory
This three arches portico was made by master Mateo, a very famous architect-sculptor in the 12th century. It is located on the western facade of the cathedral. It is a true masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture, which is full of details and will have taken almost 40 years to be completed. You can see a Christ in glory in the center, with angels on the left carrying the instruments of passion and the tetramorphs (the 4 apostles), and on the right the Last Judgment. This portal is full of details and I advise you to go see it if you can because it’s really remarkable.
The cloister of the cathedral
Built from 1521, the cloister is now part of the cathedral museum. It is built in the Plateresque style, and therefore mixes Gothic and Renaissance elements. The cloister is a calm and serene space in the heart of this very touristic cathedral.
A baroque addition: the facade of the Obradoiro
The facade of the Obradoiro was created in 1740 by the architect Fernando de Casas.
The word obradoiro means “workshop” in Galician, and this facade inherited the name of the square in front of it, where the workshops of stonecutters were located. It is very finely carved and shows an incredible profusion of ornaments that make one think of a work of goldsmithery. The two towers that frame the facade were originally Romanesque but have been redesigned to unify the style with the new Baroque facade. Praza do Obradorio is the place where pilgrims gather when they arrive in Santiago de Compostela.
A neoclassical facade: the Azabachería
In 1758, the facade of Paradise was demolished after being the victim of a fire. To replace it, the architect Lucas Ferro de Caaveiro and later his disciple Domingo Lois Monteagudo undertook the construction of a Neoclassical style facade. The new facade of the Azabachería was intended to unify the architectural styles of the different buildings in Plaza de la Inmaculada.
Visit the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
First, take the time to discover the exterior of the cathedral, in particular the facades of the Azabachería and the Obradoiro. If you’re around at night, you can see the shadow of the pilgrim in the Quintana square. This shadow that forms at night on the wall located under the Baroque clock has the appearance of a pilgrim dressed in the traditional way for the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella. This strange silhouette on the facade of the cathedral is actually formed by an intentional play of light.
The Romanesque portico of Glory can only be seen when you buy a ticket to visit the museum. Its visit is really worth it, for the portico of Glory but also to see the cloister, the magnificent collection of liturgical objects and the library which stores books and documents of inestimable value, including some dated from the Middle Age. Among them, the Codex Calixtinus which is a collection in honor of St James, or the Historia Compostelana which is a precious document to better understand the history of Galicia.
If you took a combined ticket, you can visit the cathedral’s roof, with its stairs. I recommend this option for a beautiful view of the city of Compostela.
In the cathedral, you can walk in the huge nave and go to the Major Chapel. Its baroque style contrasts with the Romanesque austerity of the rest of the building. The main altar is surmounted by a statue of Santiago dating from the 13th century. Pilgrims line up to touch the saint’s coat or kiss him. Walk around the aisles to discover the many side chapels of the cathedral. Also take a look at the botafumeiro, the cathedral’s huge brass censer that is swung from side to side during some masses. To see it in action, you can go to the Friday Mass at 7:30 p.m.
Finally, you can access the crypt of Santiago. The saint’s remains are in a very beautiful silver reliquary dating from the 19th century.
Galicia’s tourism website proposes a virtual visit of the Santiago de Compostella cathedral.
Buy tickets to visit the cathedral
You can book your tickets online on the cathedral’s website.
The museum ticket includes an entry time, please stick to it so you don’t have any problems to enter the cathedral.
For the combined visit to the cathedral, the roofs and the museum:
- Adult ticket: € 15
- Reduced rate for accredited pilgrims, unemployed people, students, disabled people and people over 65: 12 €
- Free entry for children under 12
I recommend this ticket which allows the complete visit of the building. If you’ve been there before, you can of course take an entrance only to the museum or the roofs, or simply visit the interior of the cathedral, which is free to access.
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is open every day from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
The museum is open:
- From April to October from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- From November to March from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- Special hours on December 24 and 31 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- The museum is closed on January 1 and 6, as well as on July 25 and December 25.
The schedules for the guided tours are:
- Morning: 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 1 p.m.
- Afternoon: 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m. except from October 20 to March 31, where visits from 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. do not take place.