Galician port city, that combines a comfortable city break with access to some of Spain’s best beaches, all in a cooler climate.
Spain is a country of overwhelming choices. Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Majorca, the list goes on. You’re never going to run out of places to visit. But if you’re already passed through all the highlights, where next? Well it’s likely you’ve missed Galicia, the region of Spain that sits north of Portugal, and the city of Vigo.
The City of Vigo
Now Galicia is probably best known for the city of Santiago de Compostela, the end point of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. But it’s certainly not the only viable destination the region has to offer tourists. The port city of Vigo, while it may come across as unassuming and uninterested in dazzling visitors, has some surprising charms. Actually, if you have just completed the Camino de Santiago, Vigo may be a perfect spot to unwind and rest those aching soles.
On the face of it, visiting Vigo may seem like an unlikely choice for a Galician getaway. The coastal city is the region’s economical hub with its massive port, manufacturing and fishing industries. Those factors hardly scream “tourism!”. But look beyond that and you will find that Vigo is a modern city with everything you’d need for a city break, with the added option of some remarkable nearby beaches.
Before I start on beaches, sightseeing and other fun stuff, I have to mention the weather. While Spain is often seen as a hot and dry country in summer, Galicia seems to have missed the memo. In fact while the rest of the country suffers scorching heat, Galicia experiences very temperate and mild weather. This means that it can be quite comfortable visiting in summer, while still having frequent enough sun to go to the beach. During my stay in Vigo, the weather was mostly either cloudy or foggy, but there were still plenty of moments of unbridled sunshine.
Ok, so Vigo. A small fishing city for most of its lifetime, it wasn’t until the industrial era that it saw a massive boom in economy, population and size. It is for this reason that the port area is very much the heart and centre of the town. It also explains why the city has such a small historical old town, compared to the rest of the modern urban sprawl.
Certainly the most interesting part of town to walk through is Casco Vello, the city’s old town down near the port. Here in the city’s traditional heart you’ll find older buildings ripe with character and some elegant churches. It’s also where you’ll find all of the tourists visiting Vigo, as it’s a short dash from where the cruise ships pull in. Yes, in Vigo its excruciatingly clear when a cruise ship is in, because the waterfront and Casco Vello are suddenly buzzing with people. Go there on a non-cruise day and it’s mighty quiet.
There’s another reason why you will only find tourists in Casco Vello. Compared to other cities in Spain, it would be fair to say the city of Vigo is a little light on sights and attractions. It’s also not a particularly colourful or pretty city either, mostly full of grey tones and a function-over-style approach to architecture. This was very much in line with the other places I saw in Galicia, but at least it gives you an appreciation for how different cities in Spain can be.
Castelo do Castro
One noteworthy sight is the Castelo do Castro, a small fort home to some quiet gardens with great views of the city and over the ocean. Entrance to the fortress is free of charge, the effort to climb up the hill the only thing required of you. The fort is the only surviving remnant of the city defences after the city walls were sadly demolished. Inside the fortress are some manicured gardens that appeared popular with locals looking for some respite from the wider city.
Now I know I haven’t really sold Vigo very well as a tourist destination yet, but hear me out. I haven’t gotten to all the beaches scattered around nearby. On the western edges of the city past the main port, in the neighbourhood of Alcabre, long beaches stretch along the coastline. Playa de Samil is the most popular beach of Vigo, taking up many kilometres of coastline. To reach Alcabre, you’ll need to drive or take a bus as it is quite the distance from the city centre. Now unfortunately I fell ill with food poisoning before heading to Playa de Samil so I never made it there myself, but I did head good things about it.
As for beaches I did see with my own eyes, across the Bay of Vigo is the small seaside town of Cangas. Compared to the city life of Vigo, Cangas feels so laid-back and like a small town. A short ferry ride over from Vigo brings you into Cangas’ tiny harbour and with a 5 minute walk you’ve reached the park at the town centre. Near the park you’ll find some small cafes, restaurants and a bar or two.
Not much further brings you to probably Cangas’ star attraction, the beach of Praia de Rodeira. The beach here seemed quiet the day I visited with few people around and plenty of space. The waters were extremely calm, so I think it would be really suitable for the whole family. Further round to the east are more beaches, smaller and much more secluded, giving you even more choices.
While the beaches at Cangas are nice, they aren’t nearly as impressive as those on Islas Cies, a collection of islands off the coast of Vigo. I’ve previously written about Islas Cies here, as a place that combines nature hikes with beaches and spectacular views.
On the Islas Cies you’ll find what the Guardian once dubbed the best beach in the world, in Praia de Rodas. While that exalted honour is debatable, it is an exceptionally beautiful beach and very popular with the residents from the mainland. During my visit the beaches were teaming with people, soaking in the sun along the sands of the huge sweeping beach. There’s also smaller, more sheltered beaches up from Praia de Rodas that all seemed nice, especially Praia de Figureiras.
Far fewer people were interested in hiking through the forest and experiencing the stunning views from above but I guess I could understand why they may chose to stay at the beach. Islas Cies are quite mountainous islands, so for those that do chose to walk up to viewpoints like the Alto del Principe, they will be rewarded with incredible vistas and a healthy sense of accomplishment for making it up there. Also, for me the walk through the eucalyptus trees jolted me back to Australia momentarily, which was dearly welcomed after six months away from my home country.
To get to Islas Cies, you’ll again need to take a ferry from Vigo and with several different ferry companies running at different hours, you’ve got plenty of choice, but note that Praia de Rodas is on the northern island of Illa do Faro.
Where to Eat and Where to Stay
Back to Vigo, when it came to dining and drinking, there was plenty of value for money to be found. I think since the region sees fewer international visitors, it caters to locals in a more affordable manner. I mean, in a cafe down the road from where I was staying I ordered a black coffee which came with extra hot water, a churro, a cake, a biscuit and a glass of water; all for 1€!
While there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in Casco Vello, both touristy and local, I found a lot of options much closer to where I was staying. By the way, I stayed at the Hotel Celta, an affordable 2 star hotel with friendly staff and comfortable rooms. So as I said, there were a lot of options nearby from really good tapas bars like Ruxe Ruxe and Restaurante Da-Vid (both which I heartily recommend), to Italian, Mexian and Sushi restaurants. Essentially, if you head anywhere uphill off Gran Via, you’re bound to find countless cafes, restaurants and bars that will welcome tourists but generally cater to locals.
Likely another popular activity for visitors in Vigo will be shopping. No matter what you’re looking for, you’re bound to find it in the city, off the large central road of Gran Via or the straight-as-an-arrow pedestrian area of Rua do Principe. There’s also the Centro Comercial Plaza Elíptica off near the Castelo do Castro and the Centro Comercial A Laxe right by the waterfront for more of the usual fare. No shortage of options there.
When it comes to getting around Vigo, its public transport is made up of a large bus fleet, with buses going in every direction. However, I never had need to take one as I found everything I was after was within walking distance. If you do choose to walk around Vigo, it’s worth noting that it is quite a hilly city, all sloping down towards the port. The city also has two main train stations Vigo Guixar and the brand new Vigo Urzaiz, but unless you are after a nearby town it’s likely you’ll only need Vigo Guixar at this stage.
Vigo may not be the flashiest destination. It may not rival Barcelona, Madrid or many other spots in Spain, as the country’s best tourist hotspot. What it does offer is a glimpse into the region of Galicia, an affordable inner city experience and some of the country’s best beaches, with few other tourists competing for its attention.
So, have you been to Galicia or Vigo? What was your experience like? Or maybe you’re now interested travelling there? Please let me know if you have any comments or questions below.
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