Galicia, a unique region with its own language and distinctive culture, is home to Santiago de Compostela, the destination of more than quarter of a million souls who travel each year along the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trails. Santiago is one of Spain's most beautiful and magical cities, an exceptionally good reason for any traveller to make their way to Spain's northwestern corner.
But Galicia is much more than Santiago. The wild coastline is frayed up and down its 1200km length by majestic rías (coastal inlets), and strung with cliffs, beaches, islands and fishing ports – which bring in arguably the best seafood in Europe. Inland is a labyrinth of deep-green valleys, speckled with stone villages, medieval monasteries and age-old vineyards. And as you travel you'll repeatedly run into reminders of Galicia's unique cultural identity: the sound of bagpipes, the wayside cruceiros (carved-stone crosses), the castro fort-villages of Galicians' Celtic ancestors.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Galicia.
The grand heart of Santiago, the cathedral soars above the city in a splendid jumble of spires and sculpture. Built piecemeal over several centuries, its beauty is a mix of an original Romanesque structure (constructed between 1075 and 1211) and later Gothic and baroque flourishes. The tomb of Santiago beneath the main altar is a magnet for all who come here. The cathedral's artistic high point is the Pórtico de la Gloria inside the west entrance, featuring 200 masterly Romanesque sculptures.
Panoramic Cabo Fisterra is a 3.5km drive or walk south of Fisterra town. It's crowned by a lighthouse, the Faro de Fisterra. Camino de Santiago pilgrims ending their journeys here ritually burn smelly socks, T-shirts and the like on the rocks just past the lighthouse. Many people come for sunset but it's a magnificent spot at any time (unless shrouded in fog or rain). The former lighthouse-keepers' residence is now a comfortable modern hotel, with a good cafe-bar and restaurant.
The grand square in front of the cathedral's western facade earned its name (Workshop Sq) from the stonemasons' workshops set up here while the cathedral was being built. It's free of both traffic and cafes, and has a unique, magical atmosphere.
The path running right round the top of the World Heritage–listed Roman walls is to Lugo what a maritime promenade is to a seaside resort: a place to jog, take an evening stroll, see and be seen. The walls, erected in the 3rd century CE, make a 2.2km loop around the old town, rise 15m high and are studded with 85 stout towers. They failed, however, to save Lugo from being taken by the Suevi in 460 and the Muslims three centuries later.
Four kilometres north of the workaday fishing town of Cariño looms the mother of Spanish capes, Cabo Ortegal, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Bay of Biscay. Great stone shafts drop sheer into the ocean from such a height that the waves crashing on the rocks below seem pitifully benign. Os Tres Aguillóns, three jagged rocky islets, provide a home to hundreds of marine birds.
It was actually the Romans who originally built this lighthouse at the windy northern tip of the city, in the 1st century CE – a beacon on the furthest edge of the civilised world. The outer facing of the 59m-high tower was added in 1788–90, but the inside is mostly original Roman. Climb the 200-plus steps for great panoramas over the headland and its outdoor sculpture park. Buses 3 and 5 run here from Porta Real near Plaza de María Pita.
From San Andrés de Teixido the DP2205 winds up and across the Serra da Capelada towards Cariño. Six kilometres from San Andrés is the must-see Garita de Herbeira, a naval lookout built in 1805, 615m above sea level and the best place to be awed by southern Europe's highest ocean cliffs.
From the lighthouse near the tip pf the Bares peninsula, a 500m trail follows the spine of a rock outcrop to the Punta da Estaca de Bares, Spain's most northerly point, with awe-inspiring cliffs and fabulous panoramas.
This spectacular 1.5km sandy stretch is strung with awesome Gothic-looking rock towers, arches and chambers, sculpted by aeons of sea-water action. Avoid the hour or two either side of high tide when the beach is under water. Such is its popularity that during Semana Santa, July, August, September and some holiday weekends, permits (free from http://ascatedrais.xunta.gal) are required to go down on to the beach. Tickets or receipts from taxis, trains or buses to the beach are also valid for access.