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Santiago is the largest island of Cape Verde and at the same time the main island. Praia is the capital of Santiago and also the capital city of all Cape Verde. Santiago offers culture, shopping opportunities, history, colorful architecture, green mountain landscapes and beautiful black sand beaches. Here’s a mini guide to Santiago, Cape Verde’s main island!
The size of Santiago is 991km² and the population is about 240,000. Santiago is located between Fogo and Maio, belonging to the Sotavento island group. In addition to the capital Praia, cities worth visiting are the old town Cidade Velha, the beach town Tarrafal and the mountain town Assomada.
Despite its name, this versatile main island has been spared from mass tourism, and therefore you can’t find all-inclusive hotel vacations here. On the other hand, the local way of life and lively culture will take sweep you away.
You can travel to Santiago from other islands either by plane or by ferry. We took a local flight from our home island Sal, because a long ferry ride in heavy waves was not that appealing after the experience we had in Sao Vicente. From Europe, especially Portugal, there are direct or one-stop flights to Santiago, depending on your country of origin.
PRAIA – THE CAPITAL OF CAPE VERDE
Praia is the capital of the entire Cape Verde. In Praia, there are plenty of interesting walking tours and excursions with a local guide to make the most of this historic city. In Praia, a good guide is a key choice, also because the city’s crime rate is higher than anywhere else and caution is more than recommended here.
In Praia you should visit the Sucupira market place, where you can get a true African market atmosphere. Sucupira sells everything from clothes, accessories, fruit, vegetables and other food products to livestock.
Plateau is Praia’s oldest residential area right in the city center. Here you can shop nice clothes and other things easily. It is also safe to go from one boutique to another along the main street. On the pedestrian street, Kaza Katxupa turned out to be an excellent place for lunch, where you should try of course nothing else than the local Cachupa.
Quebra Canela beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in Praia, and the area also has several good restaurants with sea views. There are no tourists with sunbeds on this beach, and the sand on the beach is fine dark volcanic sand. Restaurants worth recommending near Quebra Canela beach are, for example, Seven, Nice Kriola, Osteria N3 and Poeta. Just to name a few. Each of these provides an excellent setting for any meal of the day.
Praia offers a wide range of accommodation from budget hostels to holiday apartments and hotels where you can take a dip in seawater pools. All-inclusive package holidays are not known here, but a similar atmosphere can be found in larger hotels such as Oasis Praiamar or Pestana Tropico. Especially the last mentioned was our favorite because of the wonderful staff, the delicious breakfast and the sea water pool. We spent part of our time pampering ourselves at Pestana Tropico, and part of our trip in our own good, budget-friendly rental apartment Apartamentos Timas with a pool.
Check out the accommodation in Praia on Booking.com*.
CIDADE VELHA – THE OLD TOWN AND UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Cidade Velha is the oldest and first capital of the whole island nation of Cape Verde. This charming old town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, and the city is full of history dating back more than 500 years. Cidade Velha has also once been one of the most important centers of the slave trade.
Check out the guided tours and activities in Praia and Cidade Velha:
FORTRESS OF SAO FELIPE
Sao Felipe Fortress is a 16th century fortress above Cidade Velha. The fortress functioned as part of the city’s larger defense system. The fortress was built from stone imported from Portugal, during the reign of Philip I of Portugal in 1587-1593. You can visit the fortress for only two euros, the visit is worth every cent and the staff is also very knowledgeable, if you have additional questions after the short introduction video.
TARRAFAL – THE BEAUTIFUL BEACH TOWN IN THE NORTH
Next our journey continued with a local aluguer, or minibus, to the north of the island to the beach town of Tarrafal. Aluguer costs only 6e/person and the trip takes about 1.5 hours. The highlight of Tarrafal is its beautiful beach with golden sand, which offers an excellent setting for a sunny beach day and snorkeling.
In addition to the golden sandy beach, the Tarrafal region has wonderful natural swimming pools, the most popular of which is definitely the Cuba Natural pools. However, Santiago’s beaches are mostly dark volcanic sand, and among these beaches, in addition to Quebra Canela in Praia, Ribeira de Prata near Tarrafal, where you can find the beautiful Silverbeach, is definitely worth experiencing.
Accommodation in Tarrafal is mostly small hotels, bed & breakfast accommodation and apartments. We stayed at the wonderfully idyllic Villa Alegria Bed & Breakfast, which I can warmly recommend. For a slightly more elegant taste, I recommend the King Fisher Village hotel, the only luxury accommodation in Tarrafal, with an infinity pool and delicious food. The hotel also has its own pier, where it is easy to take a dip in the sea to swim or snorkel in your own peace and quiet. We went to test the pier for swimming and snorkeling only at the “price” of drinks and food in the restaurant, so this option also exists if the accommodation does not fit into the plans for one reason or another.
Check out the accommodation in Tarrafal on Booking.com*.
TARRAFAL CONCENTRATION CAMP
Tarrafal concentration camp was established in 1936 during the restructuring process of the Portuguese Estado Novo prison system. Its aim was to imprison political and social prisoners. The location was strategically chosen due to its remoteness and unhealthy climate, which contributed to the occurrence of diseases. The main goal of the place was to destroy the Portuguese and African opponents of the Salazar dictatorship, isolating them from the rest of the world in inhumane conditions. The prison facilities were barren, the treatment of the prisoners was miserable, hygiene was non-existent, the food was spoiled and the water was undrinkable. The scorching hot sun and sweaty wet rainy season made the conditions even more difficult.
The concentration camp was in operation until 1974. Today, the place serves as a museum and a barren reminder of how cruel one person can be to another.
SERRA MALAGUETA NATURAL PARK
Serra Malagueta is a beautiful green mountain located in the northern part of the island of Santiago, the highest point of which is 1064m. Serra Malagueta is a protected natural park area and a popular hiking destination. There are several different routes in Serra Malagueta and you should get to know them under the guidance of an expert guide. The scenery is worth every step!
Check out the guided tours of Serra Malagueta:
THE BEST TOURS AND ACTIVITIES IN SANTIAGO AND CAPE VERDE:
ONLY A SHORT TRIP AHEAD? TAKE A FULL DAY ISLAND TOUR AND SEE THE HIGHLIGHTS IN ONE DAY!
HAVE YOU VISITED SANTIAGO? WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE ISLAND? SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE COMMENTS BELOW! 🙂
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