There exists a place in Spain where flamenco chords are swapped for the shrill call of a bagpipe, where dark hair and eyes are lightened and accompanied by ruddy cheeks. In these parts, they’re called Santiago and not Jaime, Mar rather than María. Fishing is a way of life, witches are said to roam the misty countryside and hundreds of thousands descend on Spain’s own version of Mecca. Cat Gaa takes us to this overlooked part of Spain.
Galicia is one of the most ignored regions in Spain, due to its remote location in the northwest corner of Iberia. Thanks to a plan to connect its capital city, La Coruña, to Madrid via high-speed train, this area will likely experience a boom in tourism. Still, the community’s charm – humble fishing villages, fresh seafood and quaint cities – make it a must-see in Spain.
A Coruña, as it’s known in local gallego dialect, is a metropolis built on an isthmus, which means the sea is always close by. Dubbed the Crystal City because of the afternoon light hitting the floor-to-ceiling windows, this little-known capital is a personal favorite in Northern Spain.
What to See
The symbol of the coastal city is undoubtedly its lighthouse, visible on the city crest and from many points of the city. La Torre de Hércules is the oldest lighthouse still in use, and Coruña’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can climb the tower, as well as visit its sculpture garden, every day of the year. Mondays are free days, or else you’ll have to cough up 3€. There is no elevator, but the 360 views of the ocean and the city are worth the climb.
On the far west side of the city, the Cerro de San Pedro rises above the bay. Following the trails (or escalator!) up, the labyrinth and playground up top make a perfect picnic place for families.
Coruña was believed to have been settled by the Celts over 2,000 years ago. From the peninsula where the lighthouse stands, the city spread and a sandy isthmus was formed. The highlight of the stone-laid historic center is Plaza Maria Pita, so named for the city’s heroine. This open space is lined with arcades and home to annual festivals, concerts and the feeding ground for seagulls.
Coruña’s privileged location on an isthmus also means that beaches and water sports abound. The Riazor and Orzán playas form the crescent strip of pebbly beach in the city center, whereas Matadero and some of the smaller coves just under the lighthouse have clean stretches with fewer crowds.
What to Eat and Drink
The lifeblood of La Coruña is its port, and seafood is at its best here. There are loads of restaurants and tapas bars on Calle Galera and surrounding streets, and no trip to Coruña would be complete without indulging in a mariscada – a seafood feast full of cockles, crabs, shrimp and goose barnacles – and washing it down with al Albariño or Ribeira white wine (usually about 36-45€, so grab some friends!). Pulpo, or octopus, is a staple in the coruñés diet as well, served with olive oil, paprika and potatoes. You also can’t miss pimientos del Padrón, small green peppers that are flash-fried and served with coarse sea salt. But be careful – as a local saying warns, some are spicy, some are not.
There are several great tapas bars serving up cheap eats, such as O Renucho de Maite (Portico San Andrés, in front of the church of the same name) or La Bombilla (Calle de Torreiro, 6). Prices for eating in La Coruña are far cheaper than in Barcelona, Madrid or Seville, and you can expect to spend 5-7€ per person.
Bars abound along Calle Panadeiras and Calle Sol. Try O Feudo (Panadeiras, 53) for a laid-back drink, or Milk for great pre-party prices and indie music (Juan Canalejo, 20).
How to Get There
Coruña is served by several airlines into its Alvedro Airport. There are dozens of domestic destinations and a few international destinations.
The city is also serviced by national and local bus lines, cruise ships, ferries and even by foot – Coruña forms part of the Camino Inglés pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela! Spain’s national rail company will also be building a high-speed train line to Madrid in the coming years.
Local bus lines also serve the greater metropolitan area, though the city is small and easy to explore on foot.
Where to Sleep
Since the sea and the sights are all so close, no matter where you are in this city of 250,000 coruñenses, any downtown hotel pick will do.
There is just one five-star hotel in the urban area, but plenty of small bed and breakfasts along the city’s main shopping and dining streets – Calles Galera, Real and San Andrés. Expect to pay less during off-peak travel times; July and August are host to a number of festivals, beach concerts and surf camps, so book ahead if you’re planning on being there during the summer.
Getting Out of the City
If you’re looking to venture out of Coruña, both the bus and train stations are accessible from the city center. Within the province, Betanzos’s stone city center is worth a visit, and the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and its city center is a must from those interested in religious sites.
Cat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Southern Spain five years ago with the idea of never experiencing winter cold. After sweating through one July in Seville, she looked for summer work in the North and travels each year to La Coruña, where she runs an English-language summer camp. Follow her blog, Sunshine and Siestas, or catch up with her on twitter and instagram at @sunshinesiestas.