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Santiago de Compostela is the ultimate destination of pilgrims on the Way of Saint James: the cathedral is the reputed burial-place of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims head to the city every year, following different routes:
Camino Frances (the most popular, from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela, very busy in summer);
The Camino Portuguese (second popular itinerary, from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela, over 600 km);
The Northern route (coastal route from Irun on the French border to Santiago de Compostela, over 825 km);
The Via de la Plata (from Seville to Santiago de Compostela, over 1000 km).
Pilgrims make up a significant part of the Cathedral’s visitors, creating long queues during busy periods.
Winter period is the best time to visit the Cathedral, when pilgrims are very rare: they are mostly on route between April and mid-October. That means you’ll be in a half-empty church at almost any time of the day. January and February are the calmest months.
If you arrive in the city between April and mid-October - remember that there’s a special mass for pilgrims held at noon. This Mass is highly attended and if you wish to have a seat - you should arrive early.
The busiest months are July and August (particularly August), that’s when the Pilgrim Office can receive up to 1500 pilgrims a day! The crowds of visitors all around the cathedral can spoil your visit, so head to it either early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, avoiding the busiest time of the day - midday.
If it is a Holy Year, you will have the chance to see the famous botafumeiro (ceremonial incense burner in action) during every pilgrim mass at noon. This event attracts bigger crowds, and if you decide to attend it, you should arrive early to guarantee a good view. Well, worth saying that the Holy Year for the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is when the 25th of July (the Feast of Saint James the Apostle) falls on a Sunday - so the next Holy Year will only be in 2021! The number of pilgrims doubles on a Holy Year compared to other years.
During other years the botafumeiro can be seen in action every Friday evening during the pilgrim mass at 19.30pm. It is also used on particular dates for important liturgical celebrations (like Epiphany, Easter Sunday, Ascension of the Lord, Pentecost, Assumption Day, All Saints Day, Christmas Day, Saint James Day and some other days, see them here).
Expect more visitors if you arrive at the Cathedral during religious holidays.
Spanish school holidays also bring more visitors, try to avoid these periods.
Photo credits to compostelavirtual.com via Flickr
Photo credits to Yellow.Cat via Flickr