Nestled amidst the azure waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Santiago, the largest and most populated island of Cape Verde, beckons travelers with its captivating blend of volcanic landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and infectious rhythms.
From its bustling and historic capital city, Praia, to its serene beaches in Tarrafal, to the historic and charming Cidade Velha and fantastic hiking in it’s verdant valleys of Serra Malagueta Natural Park, Santiago offers an unforgettable journey into the heart of Cape Verdean life.
Join us as we share our adventure on this island and why we think you should make the island of Santiago one of your next travel destinations.
Map of Top Sights in Santiago, Cape Verde
Santiago is the largest and most populous island of Cabo Verde (the other name for the country). It is in the Atlantic Ocean, about 640 km off the West African coast.
When to Go
Cabo Verde is ideal to visit at any time as the weather is warm year round. The average temperature ranges from 23º C (January/February) – 27º C (August/September/October). Rainfalls are minimal with September having the highest amount of rain (77 mm) when you will see 7 days of rain in the month.
Sea temperatures range similarly to the average temperatures with the coolest month being January (23º C) and the warmest months being August through October at 27º C.
The official currency is the Cape Verdean Escudo. However, it’s a ‘non-convertible’ currency, meaning you can only purchase it within the country and cannot bring it in or out. Our recommendation: carry euros, as they are widely accepted in tourist areas.
International credit and debit cards are used in a few grocery stores and restaurants in Praia. There are ATMs however, they frequently run out of money. One day in the very touristy Plateau I went to 5 ATMs before finding one that was working (there was a huge line). However, in the touristy small towns we were lucky with the ATMs as few restaurants accepted credit cards.
Traveler’s cheques are not recommended either. Therefore, cash is undoubtedly the preferred mode of payment in Cabo Verde.
Car Rental Recommendation
It was difficult for us to book a rental car online. Even through the regular channels, cars seemed to be unavailable. However, once here in Cabo Verde we found multiple options. Our recommendation is: Nelson Monteiro, who rents cars and doubles as an English speaking guide. He is a lovely and reliable man. What’s App: +238 954 45 44, Instagram: @monteiro073
Rob was not feeling well when we were in Praia, and so I did a lot of long walks on my own. Some were through sketchy barrios with dead end streets and huge staircases. However, I felt quite safe everywhere I ventured. And that is in a capital city where one must always have their wits about them.
Following common sense, having your wits about you and not walking around at night (although I did), are our recommendations to stay safe on the island of Santiago.
5 Reasons to Visit Santiago Island
As you explore this island, you’ll be struck by its uncanny resemblance to the idyllic Greek Islands. Both destinations boast sun-kissed shores, charming villages, and a rich cultural heritage. However, unlike the Greek Islands, this one offers year round sunshine and warmth. In addition, the costs on this island are much lower compared to it’s European counterpart.
There are many reasons to visit this lovely island. Here are just a few of them:
1. Weather and Time Zone
As we mentioned before, the weather in this country is fantastic! Plenty of warmth and sunshine year round. To top it off, for Europeans, the time zone is GMT-1, meaning that it is the same time zone as Portugal and just 1 hour behind England.
Tarrafal, in the North West of the island, beckons travelers with its captivating blend of historical charm, serene beaches, an amazing hike and vibrant cultural traditions. Once a sleepy fishing village, this town has transformed into a captivating destination, offering a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
This is a true getaway place where locals come to unwind and breathe in the fresh air, enjoy the sandy beach, go for a hike and/or have a great meal.
Top Attractions in Tarrafal
- Tarrafal Beach is a wide crescent white sandy beach which is flanked by palm trees and views of Monte Grasiosa. The see your toes water reminded us of beaches in Antigua or even, dare I say St. Maarten. Granted, this is one of the only beaches on the island of Santiago that has sand (the others are all rocky).
- Campo de Concentracao is a poignant reminder of Cabo Verde’s past. It was built in 1936 as a political prison to jail and torture any people who were against the then regime. These ruins now serve as a powerful symbol of resilience and a unique opportunity to delve into the island’s history. Wander through the remains of cells, the punishment block, and the administration area, and let the echoes of the past whisper tales of struggle and triumph.
- Monte Graciosa is a small mountain (635 meters) behind the beach. On a clear day, the Monte Graciosa peak offers terrific views of the island below and even the volcano of Fogo. You will be walking on the coastline from town to the lighthouse where you can see some rare birds. Then the route starts to go up. It is a 9.36 km loop which will take you more or less 5 hours to complete.
- Street Art in this small town is abundant. You can spend a few hours wondering the streets and finding more and more beautiful and provocative art. Jacqueline de Montaigne has a few pieces there as well.
3. Cidade Velha
Cidade Velha (meaning Old City) was founded in 1462 and is the oldest settlement in the country. It was once the capital and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Step back in time as you wander through the labyrinthine streets of Cidade Velha, a place where the past lingers in every corner. Admire the imposing Sé Catedral, the oldest church in Cape Verde, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. Explore the ruins of the Royal Fort, once the seat of Portuguese colonial power, and imagine the grandeur of its heyday. Immerse yourself in the history of the transatlantic slave trade at the Ribeira da Ribeira Grande, a poignant reminder of the island’s complex past.
Top Attractions in Cidade Velha
- Nossa Senhora do Rosario church (Our Lady of the Rosary) was built in 1495 and is one of the oldest churches in the country. It is a beautiful and quiet place to visit. There is a small door on the inside of the church that you can wander up the stairs to see a gorgeous view of the city.
- From the town square you can climb up the stairs to the Sao Filipe Royal Fortress. This is a 16th century Portuguese fort which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can also go inside by paying the entry fee (about $5 USD). There isn’t that much to see inside the fort, but the views are breathtaking.
- Sé Catedral is the oldest church in the country, but at present only has a few walls remaining. However, 3 times a week there is a free musical concert within it’s ruins at 18:00.
- Make sure to get some fresh juice or something amazing to eat in the Restaurant Batuku on the Rua Banana. To get to this restaurant you will be walking on the Banana Road, which is a beautiful attraction in itself. The Restaurant Batuku offers great food in a lovely garden setting. Rob had the octopus and said that it was the best that he has ever had. The ratings for this eatery definitely support Rob’s review. The prices are on the higher side for the country, but the food and ambiance are definitely worth the splurge.
4. Hiking in Serra Malagueta Natural Park
Driving up from Praia in the direction of the Serra Malagueta Natural Park is a testament to Santiago’s volcanic origins. The dramatic peaks and craters which start to appear out of nowhere create a striking backdrop for hiking adventures. As we got closer to Serra Malagueta Natural Park we started to feel that cool crisp air and alpine vibe, watching various groups of hikers making their way towards the various trail heads on offer.
There are a variety of different levels of hikes here. You can embark on the challenging yet rewarding loop hike called Aussichtspunkt Weitblick – Aussichtspunkt which takes over 6 hours to complete while witnessing breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Or for a more leisurely hike, follow the well-maintained trails that wind through the valleys, offering glimpses into the park’s diverse flora and fauna. There is something for everyone here.
The Serra Malagueta Natural Park is also home to a rich tapestry of flora and fauna, making it a haven for nature lovers. Observe the diverse birdlife, including the endemic Cape Verdean warbler and the colorful Cape Verdean hoopoe. Keep an eye out for the elusive green-tailed gecko, a lizard unique to Cape Verde. And marvel at the vibrant array of wildflowers that carpet the park’s slopes, adding a splash of color to the landscape.
5. Plateau, Praia
Perched atop a plateau overlooking the harbor of Praia, Cape Verde’s bustling capital city, lies the historic district of Plateau. Once the seat of Portuguese colonial rule, Plateau today serves as the cultural and administrative hub of Praia, offering a captivating blend of historical charm, vibrant energy, and stunning views.
Make sure to walk Rua 5 de Julho, a lively cobblestone walking street in the Plateau. It is peppered with restaurants and cafe’s as well as a lovely Farmers Market – Mercado de Municipal de Praia.
As many of you know, we love finding and experiencing new and exotic islands. The island nation of Cabo Verde really surprised and delighted us! There is so much stunning nature here, for hiking, swimming and snorkeling as well as verdant scenery! In addition, the history, the culture and the charm of the small towns and cities truly amazed us.
This is an island that is also warm year round and doesn’t have the huge rainfalls of other island nations. Therefore it is a destination that is open and welcoming all year round. No wonder so many Europeans have relocated here!
Have you been to Santiago or maybe to Sal or some of the other islands of Cabo Verde? We would love to hear from you in the comments and find out what you loved the most, or the least.