Santiago (Portuguese for “Saint James”), or Santiagu in Cape Verdean Creole, is the largest island of Cape Verde. It is an important agricultural centre, home to half the nation’s population and to the capital city Praia. The interior of the island has rich vegetation; Acacia, euphorbias and figs are common since the soil is reasonably moist. In the south and east, the landscape is much more barren.
Praia is a bustling African town with a clear Mediterranean flavour. Old colonial buildings line the main square on the Plateau, where you will find the Presidential Palace and the Palace of Justice. Bustling markets, chic cafés and quality restaurants can also be enjoyed and are dotted around the town. The most attractive area is Plateau, a volcanic plug of rock that stands above the rest of the city. Here you will find lots of shops, restaurants and the central park (Praca Alexandre Albuquerque).
Praia doesn’t possess the sort of touristic sights that many other capital cities have, but it is a vibrant city with African style markets such as Mercado de Sucupira and a lively mixed-race population. The international Nelson Mandela Airport provides direct flights to various cities in Europe, Africa, the USA and Brazil and to the other islands that make up Cape Verde. The government of Cape Verde have grand plans to make Praia airport an international hub. This is primarily due to its ideal geographic location between America, Africa and Europe.
The beaches of Santiago are varied and include beautiful white sand such as Tarrafal in the north, the intriguing black beaches at places such as Ribeira da Prata, just 6km south of Tarrafal or the little pebbly cove at Cidade Velha. Many beaches are almost deserted and if you find a small café or restaurant on the beach, you may be enjoying fresh fish caught that morning with some locally grown veg and a glass grogue, (the local tipple made from sugar cane), cachupa – a stew with meat or fish (Cape Verde’s national dish), buzio – a type of giant barnacle.
A day trip to the old capital of Cidade Velha (a UNESCO world heritage site) and Forte Real de São Filipe, the main slave trading point between Europe, Africa and America, provides an interesting insight into the island’s past. Ornithologists will be in their element as most of the species endemic to Cape Verde can be found on this island.
Two jagged volcanic mountain ranges tower over the centre of the island. Driving from one end of the island to the other provides impressive scenery with plenty of photographic opportunities. At the northern tip of the island is the beautiful little town of Tarrafal with its unusual double cove of white sand (many beaches are black) and some lovely restaurants overlooking the water. The highest mountain peak is Pico d’Antónia, which reaches an impressive 1,394m (4,573ft) is situated in the Serra Malagueta National Park. Cobbled roads wind their way to hidden villages and tracks afford plenty of opportunities for hiking and mountain biking.
Pano Cloth is a traditional hand woven cloth that has great symbolic, historic and cultural value. It is traditionally made out of six long strips sewn together. The distinctive woven patterns make use of just two colours, often black or indigo and white; the more complex the pattern, the more expensive the cloth. Women used to use the cloth as wraps tied around the waist, sometimes to carry small items, or to hold their babies on their backs. Now Panos are more often family heirlooms and sadly it is now unusual to see them being worn.
Santiago displays a strongly influenced African culture, some of this being due to the fact that the island was a centre for the African slave trade for some considerable time. Music is a very important feature of Cape Verdean life and the African influence is exhibited in some of the popular music such as funaná (a music and dance genre characterised by variable tempo and a two-beat rhythm). Morna is a form of folk music usually sung in the Cape Verdean Creole, accompanied by clarinet, violin, guitar and cavaquinho that is is a national song-style, like Argentinian tango, beloved by Cape Verdeans across the many islands of the country.
If you want to take in the African heart of Cape Verde, Santiago should be on your list….
International flights: Cape Verde has four international airports with over 40 flights a week to the islands of; Sal, Boa Vista, Sao Vicente and Praia. You can fly to any of them and still use the local flights to connect however it’s better to go direct to the island of Santiago (unless you want to go island hopping). All the airlines on this page fly to Nelson Mendela airport in the city of Praia on the island of Santiago. If you need any help with your flights please contact us with your preferred city of departure and we will try to find the best route for you. A visa is required, this can be bought on arrival for €25.
Praia International Airport Santiago (Nelson Mandela) Live Arrivals and Departures
Latest News: For the latest travel news see the travel category of the news page
Airlines that fly to Praia International Airport
- TACV – Destinations
- TAP – Destinations
- RAM – Destinations
- TAAG – Destinations
- BINTER (Local)
- BINTER (International)
Drive through the mountains to Tarrafal
If you have a few days in Santiago we think top of your list should be a road trip through the mountains to Tarrafal. For this you will ideally require a reliable car (ideally 4 wheel drive), a mobile phone (in case you break down), some supplies such as food and water, a torch (you never know) and at least two days ideally three, so that you can go at a leisurely pace allowing time to take in the sights. When you get to Tarrafal you should stay at least two nights so that you really get to see it properly, its a lovely town.
Drive through the mountains – Botanical Gardens
As you depart the city of Praia its not long before you start to climb into the foot hills. The first town you will come to is Sao Domingos. Here you will find a few cafes and a lovely church at the top of Alto de S.Domingos. Just past that there are some strange rock formations including a rock perched on a cliff edge that looks like a man’s face and two towering pinnacles. About 1km more and you will see a turning to the botanical gardens. They are not big but they are free and the location is lovely.
Drive through the mountains – Picos and Assomada
The next noteworthy stop is Picos, a small village that is perched on a mountain ridge. The main street runs along to a little church and beyond that is a large craggy peak. Watch out for the local kids they are very inquisitive and will quite happily pile into your car looking for fun. Beyond Picos you will come to Santiago’s second biggest town Assomada. This is a busy market town in the heart of the agricultural area, with a large bustling market that is certainly worth a visit.
Drive through the mountains – Ribeira Da Prata and Tarrafal
As you drop down from the mountains towards the coast make sure you stop at Ribeira Da Prata. It is not easy to find but certainly worth the effort. It has a stunning black sand beach and a tiny cafe where you can buy freshly caught fish and unwind with a beer. The final destination of Tarrafal is only a few miles on from Ribeira Da Prata. Here you will find a good selection of restaurants, places to stay (we have some good recommendations) and the best beach on the island of Santiago!
Things to do in Praia
There are a number of things to do in the City of Praia. We think top of the list is to go to the area of Plateau. It is a large elevated volcanic plug of rock that sits much higher than the surrounding areas. Here you will find lots of cafes, shops and a nice pedestrianized zone. You can also see the central park (Praca Alexandre Albuquerque) and the central market (Mercado De Sucupira). Plateau is one of the nicest areas and is just a short walk from Jardim do Vinho, Bed and Breakfast (See ‘property’ above)
Visit the world heritage site of Cidade Velha
Cidade Velha (Portuguese for “old city) is a town in the south of the island. 10 km west of the capital Praia, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. The former capital of Cape Verde, it is the oldest settlement in Cape Verde. This town was the first European colonial settlement in the tropics. Some of the meticulously planned original design of the site is still intact, including a royal fortress, two towering churches and a 16th-century town square. It also has a lovely little cove where you can take a dip to cool off.
Accommodation in Praia (South)
Guest house in Praia (five double bedrooms)
Located in Achada de Santo Antonio, Jardim do Vinho is only 15 minutes from Nelson Mandela International Airport. It is ideally situated in a peaceful quarter just a short walking distance from shops, sea side and historical city center. The Cape Verde capital hosts numerous events (festivals, congress, sport contests, etc). At night, it is possible to eat while enjoying music next to the B&B at the plateau, or “Fogo d’Africa” at Tira Chapeu. Praia is also the most convenient starting point to travel to island of Santiago or to the other islands of the Archipelago. Jardim do Vinho opening period is from October, 1st to August, 31st..
The bed & breakfast comprises five comfortable bedrooms. Located in a popular and peaceful quarter, you will be in close contact with Cape Verde way of living. Surrounded by restaurants, you will be able to taste the traditional gastronomy. The quarter “Achada de Santo Antonio” is an interesting mix between ministries, shops and restaurants. Close to the B&B, there are plenty of places to hang out: “Ka Tcheka”, the Kafé Musik of Praia is owned by Tcheka, one of the most famous musician from Cape Verde; churasqueiras “Benfica” and “Dragoeiro”; “A Grelha”, Protugese specialised in grilled fish; and the ice-cream shop “Maravilhas”.
The jardim (patio) is the ideal place to find peace and serenity. A substantial traditional Cape Verde breakfast is served there in the morning. The afternoon and in the evening, the patio becomes a cozy place to have a drink, a coffee or a grog, and to rest after a busy day. If you need food at different times (such as an early departure) this can be arranged. In addition, for your convenience, a fridge is at the disposal of all the guests in the B&B. Jardim do Vinho say “Minha casa é sua casa” (My house is your house) and this is they way they like to live. As you can see from the reviews above, they have received many positive messages.
Accommodation in Tarrafal (North)
Guest house in Tarrafal with sea views (6 double rooms)
Tarrafal is a lovely little town on the north of Santiago and well worth a visit. The beaches are very lovely and the drive from Praia in the south to Tarrafal through the mountains is beautiful.
Casa Strela is a great place to stay close to one of the beaches. There are six rooms, tastefully decorated in local styles, but with the comfort expected by guests. They aim to make your stay an experience that you will remember, with comfortable beds, hot water and free WiFi. The roof terrace provides a very pleasant area to relax and enjoy the warm sunshine and the views of the sea and is where breakfast is served. Casa Strela is seeking to achieve sustainable tourism, and uses local shops and craftsmen whenever possible and pays good wages to the staff.
They arrange tours and excursions, when the guests are often given the opportunity to meet local people and experience the culture and natural environment of Cape Verde. Activities in the area include water sports such as snorkelling, diving, fishing, surfing etc. They can offer packed lunches and there is a vending machine for drinks at any time of the day. Santiago offers a diverse topography and environment and a visit to the north of this island will be a worthwhile experience.
Photos of Santiago island