Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Having walked along a medieval trail from the French Pyrenees, over 100,000 pilgrims arrive annually at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, to pay their respects to both Saint James, "The Moorslayer," buried here in the eighth century, and the city itself. The capital of Galicia, Santiago, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is more than a mausoleum though. The streets are thick with Universidade de Santiago de Compostela (USC) students and stylish executives at Zara, which is headquartered in Galicia and has brought a measure of prosperity to the region. Sidewalk cafes offer every imaginable type of seafood all year long and, come the holiday season, put an emphasis on lobster.
But just because the city has a life outside of church doesn't mean the church isn't worth visiting. More Angkor Wat than St. Paul's, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela seems to grow out of the hill it sits on like a limestone spire embedded with fossilized shells. The scallop pattern, echoed across the city, is actually the symbol of St. James, who, according to legend, once rescued a knight covered in shells.
Santiago is home to what may be one of the finest hotels in Spain, the local Parador, which may be the oldest hotel on Earth and is built into a 15th-century royal hospital on the plaza across from the cathedral. But last-minute travelers are more likely to find themselves staying in one of the albergues, lodges set up for pilgrims resting after a long journey. We recommend compromising between the one- and five-star approaches by booking a room in one the hotels located in the fields beyond the city walls. The slightly corporate Sercotel Los Abetos is a great choice. It is close enough that you'll be able to walk to the city to watch the fireworks (and locals) on New Year's Eve. The party here may not rival the scene in Madrid, but there are a lot of very relieved hikers and agnostic travelers feeling a bit blessed.