Galicia is one of those places where people have a really good time but don’t really feel the need to shout about it – which may explain why, despite being a popular holiday destination for Spaniards, relatively few Britons make it.
In the northwest corner of the country, bordered on two sides by the Atlantic and separated from Portugal by the River Miño, it is roughly the size of Belgium – about 180 miles north to south. Galicia looks more like Cornwall, Wales or Ireland than other parts of Spain and shares a strong regional identity with them, with its own language and Celtic heritage.
The rugged coastline is marked by deep inlets, known as rías, and has some of the best beaches in Spain. Inland, the lush landscapes are the result of higher rainfall than other parts of the country, but sunshine is virtually guaranteed from June to September. It’s cooler than Andalusia and the Balearics though, pleasantly warm rather than stuffy.
This guide highlights just a few of the region’s many attractions. Galicia is a place you can come back to again and again, any time of year: for a city break, a foodie tour, a beach holiday or an outdoor adventure.
Cities and towns
Thousands of pilgrims cross Spain every year to reach Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia. Nowadays, many people take on the challenge for fitness or spiritual rather than religious reasons, but reaching the magnificent Baroque cathedral is a powerful experience for all. You can easily spend a day or two exploring the medieval core of the city with its granite arcades, small squares and boisterous tapas bars. Stay in the historic Parador (doubles from £135) or the charming Costa Vella (from £50).
A Coruña, 45 miles up the coast, has just about everything you could want for a city break, with a vibrant cultural scene, outstanding food, stunning urban beaches and a laid-back vibe. If you like San Sebastián, you’ll probably feel at home here. Eurostars Blue Coruña is a good option (from around £50).
The largest city in Galicia is Vigo, in the south of the region, with an imposing backdrop on the Ría de Vigo. The fish landed in its huge port is exported all over the world; locals eat octopus and oysters from stalls in the old town.
Also to the south, the provincial capital, Pontevedra, is a charming town with narrow streets lined with lively bars and enough churches and museums to keep you entertained for a day. Drastic traffic restrictions have been introduced in the last decade, making downtown nearly car-free and very pleasant to navigate.
Heading inland, 60 miles to the east is Ourense, the capital of the province of the same name. Although often overlooked by visitors, it is quite an extraordinary place with a series of natural thermal pools and hot springs on the banks of the Miño River.
Drive north from Ourense through the heart of Galicia for about an hour and a half and you arrive at the provincial capital of Lugo, which was an important Roman city. Its walls have earned it World Heritage status as the finest example of late Roman fortifications in Western Europe. Like Ourense, if the city weren’t so out of the way, it would be inundated with tourists.
Beaches and coast
Galicia has the longest coastline of any region in Spain – all those winding coves add up to the total distance – meaning there are plenty of beaches to choose from.
In the Rías Altas area of the north coast, the historic city of Viveiro is framed by bays and becomes a busy tourist resort in summer. Overlooking Area’s magnificent beach, the stylish Ego hotel is a decent option (from £60).
One of the most photographed beaches is Las Catedrales, at the eastern end of the north coast, where the rocks form a series of extraordinary arches that look like the vaults of a cathedral – or something created by Gaudí.
British newspapers first coined the term ‘Coast of Death’ – Costa da Morte – for the stretch of western coast from Malpica to Finisterre in the late 19th century, due to the high number of shipwrecks. The beaches are spectacular however, many backed by dunes and totally unspoilt. The family-run Puerto Arnela, near the harbor in the small fishing village of Camariñas, is a good base (from around £60).
Continue south along the coast and you arrive at the Rías Baixas, which is the most touristic part of the region, but still underdeveloped compared to other parts of Spain. The most resort-like place is Sanxenxo on the north side of Pontevedra’s inlet, where hotels line the waterfront on both sides of the marina. On the O Grove peninsula, lined with superb beaches, there is a good choice of hotels and self-catering accommodation, as well as campsites. A Lanzada is a glorious stretch of golden sand that stretches along the isthmus that joins the peninsula to the mainland. Stay in remarkable splendor at the Eurostars Gran Hotel La Toja (doubles from £125, but upgrading to a sea view room is worth it). For a more intimate experience, try Quinta de San Amaro, a short drive inland, which is one of the best boutique hotels in Spain (from £95).
The Cíes Islands, a short boat ride from Vigo, are a paradise for walkers and bird watchers, but most people come for Rodas Beach, a crescent of fine white sand framed by pine trees.
Food and wine
Galicia is one of the best gastronomic regions in Spain and for many visitors it is the main reason for their trip. Lunch in summer often means a shady table by the sea, with a bottle of Albariño and a vast platter of shellfish including spider crab, langoustine, scallops, clams and mussels. Percebes – goose barnacles – are harvested from the rocks as the waves roll back by agile foragers in wet suits – a rather dangerous and also dangerous skill, which explains the high price.
Even if you think you don’t like octopus, try it in Galicia, where it’s the signature dish, fresh and tender, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with pimentón. Also order some Padrón peppers, boiled and sprinkled with salt. In the Rías Baixas you can see hundreds of rafts used to grow mussels and oysters: the mix of fresh and salt water creates the ideal marine environment.
Galicia has five winegrowing zones, the best-known of which is Rías Baixas, where Albariño grapes are grown on trellises that extend over craggy fingers of land that jut out into the Atlantic. You can feel the aroma of sea spray in these white wines, which pair perfectly with shellfish. Make the pretty town of Cambados your base and follow one of the wine routes, taking in the cultural heritage, festivals and vineyards, many of which are on estates with grand granite mansions.
In addition to the options listed above, Galicia has a wide range of beach, town and rural hotels, some in pazo granite manor houses found only in this part of Spain and have beautiful gardens.
Paradors are a good option for a touring holiday in the region, with discounts for over 55s and under 30s. There are 13 in Galicia, among which the Parador de Baiona on the coast and the Parador de Santo Estevo on the spectacular Ribeira Sacra stand out wine area.
Rustical Travel (rustictravel.com) and Casas Cantabricas (casas.co.uk) have a good selection of quaint self-catering properties.
Check out our guide to the best hotels in Galicia.
You can fly to Santiago de Compostela with Ryanair from Stansted and from Gatwick with Vueling. You might also want to consider flying to Porto in Portugal, particularly if you’re staying in the Rías Baixas (it’s a 90-minute drive from Vigo), for a wider selection of flights.
Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.com) sail from Plymouth and Portsmouth to Santander and from Portsmouth to Bilbao. The drive along the coast to the Galician border at Ribadeo takes three hours from Santander and four from Bilbao.