Santiago Island, Cape Verde

Santiago is the largest island of Cape Verde. The African heart of the archipelago beats in the lush green plateaus in the centre of Santiago, the oldest settlement in Cape Verde lies on the south coast and the Cape Verdean capital can also be found here.  

Santiago is the largest island in Cape Verde and is home to just over half the inhabitants of the entire archipelago. Its capital, Praia, is the economic and political centre of Cape Verde and is one of our top 10 places to visit in Cape Verde.


PICTURES: 20 Top Shots from Santiago, Cape Verde

Photo gallery: Santiago - 20 Top Shots

Covering an area of just under 1,000 square kilometres, Santiago has the most scenic things to discover, from imposing mountain ranges with emerald-green rocky outcrops to impressive gorges and fertile valleys to fine sandy beaches and picturesque bays.

As a former centre of the slave trade, Santiago is also considered the most "African" island in the archipelago. Many dark-skinned locals are descended from the so-called "rebelados", slaves who once fled from their masters into the inaccessible heart of the island.

Ribeiras and Achadas

The hinterland of Santiago is a wonderland of green mountainous regions, Cape Verde - © Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock
© Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock

Santiago is dominated by two volcanic mountain ranges, which are responsible for Santiago's fertility. In the centre of the island rises the Pico d'Anónia, at almost 1,400 metres the highest mountain on the island. In the north, the Serra Maiagueta stretches from the east to the west coast, reaching an altitude of 1,064 metres and crossed by the rather dry "Ribeiras" valleys.

In between, the so-called "Achadas", plateaus, spread out, which have produced a lush vegetation with acacias and fig trees on comparatively moist ground. They make Santiago the most productive island of Cape Verde in terms of landscape. Sugar cane, bananas, coffee, vegetables and fruit as well as beans and maize thrive in Santiago's humid climate far better than on other islands in the archipelago.

Cidade Velha - oldest settlement in Cape Verde

Cidade da Ribeira Grande de Santiago is still guarded today by the mighty fortress Fortaleza Real de São Felipe, built by the Portuguese in 1590, Cape Verde - © AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock
© AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock

Cidade da Ribeira Grande de Santiago, also known simply as Cidade Velha ("old town") was founded in 1462 as the very first settlement in Cape Verde. It was also the first European colonial city in the tropics.

Both Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama stopped here on their way to the American continent. In 2009, the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we also have it on our list of the top 10 sights in Cape Verde.


Cidade da Ribeira Grande de Santiago is located on the south coast of Santiago about 10 kilometres west of the present capital Praia. In its heyday, the town was called Ribeira Grande (not to be confused with Vila da Ribeira Grande, the capital of Santo Antão), is also called Cidade Velha ("old town") and was once the capital of the island.

Sights of the Cidade Velha on Santiago

A city walk through Cidade da Ribeira Grande de Santiago is best started in the centre of town. Here visitors are greeted by the "Pelourinho", the pillory built in 1520. Today's monument, with its octagonal base and spiral column, is a reminder of the past centuries when Ribeira Grande was the Cape Verdean centre of the slave trade. Here, slaves were sold or whipped if their owners were not satisfied.

Rua Banana

From Pelourinho, Rua Banana branches off, clearly reminiscent of Portugal. The houses that line this pretty street bear witness to the simplest Portuguese colonial architecture. With the help of UNESCO, they have been faithfully restored and rebuilt with great attention to detail. The houses consist of one corridor and two rooms; cooking and working was done in the street.

Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário

In the north, Rua Banana is dominated by the impressive Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário. It was built as early as 1495 and is thus the oldest colonial church in the world. Due to its furnishings, it is also one of the most historically valuable architectural monuments in Cape Verde.

The baptismal font made of precious alabaster and the baptistery are particularly worth seeing. The floral motifs in the vault of the chapel bear witness to both Portuguese and Moorish influences and are similar to those in the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. Also known from Portugal are the numerous azulejos, the ornate painted tiles of the church.

Convento de São Francisco

Uphill, signs point the way to the Convento de São Francisco. Passing a distillery for the traditional Cape Verdean grogue, including a verdigris copper bonnet and an ox-driven sugar press, you reach the remains of the time-honoured building.

The monastery was built in 1642 to train priests. They were to ask for God's protection against malaria, pirates and other dangers and to convert the sinful white men who became involved with black slave women.

Catedral da Sé

Back in the village, you can visit the second important church in Cidade da Ribeira Grande de Santiago. The Catedral da Sé is clearly elevated directly on the coast. Due to frequent changes in the building plans, its construction lasted from 1555 to 1693. The magnificent cathedral was intended to prove the godliness of Ribeira Grande, which was still prosperous at the time.


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But there were not enough funds to complete and maintain it, and even then there was not enough money for the interior decoration. Many city dwellers used the Catedral da Sé as a quarry, as the light, hewn limestones in many of the city's buildings testify. Today, the cathedral remains in a ruinous state, but is used as an open-air stage with a view of the sea.

Fortaleza Real de São Felipe

Cidade da Ribeira Grande de Santiago is still clearly guarded by the mighty Fortaleza Real de São Felipe, which was built by the Portuguese in 1590. The fort was intended to protect Santiago's capital from pirates who could easily reach the island via Praia and then attack Ribeira Grande from the hinterland. At that time, the notorious Francis Drake in particular was up to his mischief off the African coast.

In 1712, Ribeira Grande was finally conquered and destroyed by the pirate Jaques Cassart. This attack also heralded the demise of the once flourishing city, as the capital was subsequently moved to Praia.

In 1960, the Fortaleza Real de São Felipe was rebuilt by the Portuguese government, but not completely historically correct. A small information centre on the plateau in the entrance area provides refreshments. The bastion to the south, equipped with historic cannons, offers impressive views out to sea.

Praia - Capital of Cape Verde

The old lighthouse at the port of Praia on Santiago Island could do with a new coat of paint, Cape Verde - © Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock
© Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock

Santiago's island capital Praia is reminiscent of a typical European city with its hustle and bustle and noise. Only at the weekend does Praia show its quiet, relaxed side.

Praia is located in the south of Santiago on a plateau about 40m above the sea. Since 1770, after the demise of the former capital Cidade da Riebeira Grande de Santiago, it has functioned as the political and economic centre of Cape Verde. Praia is the seat of the government of Cape Verde, the largest hospital of the archipelago, most of the banks and the main post office including a special stamp office.

Tour of Praia

The city of a good 100,000 inhabitants is constantly growing and fits the image of a typical big city. Praia is hectic and noisy, villa districts and slums reminiscent of Brazilian favelas exist side by side. Businessmen, government officials and diplomats hurry back and forth between sky-high concrete blocks, reinforced every day by tens of thousands of commuters.


Although Praia is not a classic tourist destination, the city has one or two sights to offer its guests.

Tip: If you don't feel comfortable in the noisy hustle and bustle of a big city, you should explore Praia on a Sunday. Without business people, the capital of Cape Verde is almost deserted.

Old Town Quarter (Plato)

The old town quarter of Praia lies somewhat elevated on a plateau and delights the visitor with its magnificent colonial buildings. The central square is the impressive Praça de Albuquerque, which is lined by the Church of Nossa Senhora da Graça, the Palace of Justice and a historic bank building.

Towards the north, a lively food market can be discovered, as well as the ethnographic museum in a parallel street. Towards the sea, the street ends at the fortified outskirts of the old town, where the cannons of the historic Bateira fortress still tower over the sparkling blue sea. From the parapet there is a fantastic panoramic view of the Santiago coast.

South of the Bateira is the presidential palace of Cape Verde. It was the seat of the Portuguese governors in the 19th century and with its flags and the Portuguese obelisk is still reminiscent of a fort today.

Cha d'Areia district

Southwest of the old town plateau, you enter the Cha d'Areia district via a ramp. Although it is not possible to swim at the nearby beach, Praia da Gamboa, due to pollution, it is the venue for the largest music festival on the island every year.

The view across the sea falls on the Ilhéu de Santa Maria, better known as the "Lazareto", where sailors from quarantined ships were housed. Only after 40 days ("quarenta dias" - hence the term "quarantine") were they allowed to set foot on the mainland again.

The parliament building in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, on the island of Santiago - © Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock
© Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock

Prainha district

The Prainha district is dominated by a lighthouse that can be seen from afar and shines with beautiful villas of foreign embassies and well-heeled locals.


The beach of the same name, Praia Prainha, can be used for swimming and leads up to the Maria Pia lighthouse. If you continue your walk along the beach, you will reach Quebra Canela ("Bone Crusher"), the city beach where the locals meet after work or at the weekend.

Achada de Santo António district

The parliament building towers unmistakably in the Achada de Santo António district in the west of Praia. The large steel and glass building was once a gift from the Chinese, who also secured trade at the same time.

After visiting it, a short culinary detour is a good idea, as Achada de Santo António has the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Várzea district

The Várzea district is most famous for its labyrinthine Mercado de Sucupira, where there is nothing you can't buy. From typical Cape Verdean music and African fabrics and handicrafts to pottery, basketry, food and electrical appliances, pretty much everything is sold here.

Food stalls from all over the world offer their menus, which, however, you should only enjoy with a robust digestion to be on the safe side.

From Praia to Assomada - into the heart of Santiago

The hinterland of Santiago is a wonderland of green mountainous regions, Cape Verde - © Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock
© Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock

Santiago can be easily explored by car via the well-developed road network. An absolute must is the route from Praia on Santiago's south coast via Assomada to Tarrafal in the north.

Leaving Praia in a northerly direction, the first village you reach is São Domingos, one of the oldest settlements on the island. After São Domingos, a dead-end road continues through steep cliffs and bean and maize fields to Rui Vaz and the Serra do Pico d'Antónia Nature Park.


The nearby Quinta da Montanha offers accommodation and meals as well as guided tours of the nature park. The road ends at 1,050 metres above sea level at Monte Xota, from where the view extends to the almost 1,400m high Pico d'Antónia, the highest peak on the island.

Back in São Domingos, the road continues north. Before reaching São Teves, it is worth making a detour to São Jorge dos Orgãos. The village lies in a valley with high cliffs that reach for the sky like organ pipes ("orgãos").

The village is home to an agricultural research institute that maintains the small botanical garden of São Jorge dos Orgãos. Their office is right next to the church and offers information on the flora and fauna of Cape Verde.

Back at São Teves, the route continues through Picos, where mighty church spires rise against dark volcanic rock, to Assomada.

Assomada - the African soul of Cape Verde

Assomada is a picturesque mountain village set amid lush green slopes on Santiago, Cape Verde - © Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock
© Alexander Manykin / Shutterstock

Assomada is the largest settlement in Santiago's interior and lies about halfway from Praia in the south towards Tarrafal on the north coast. Amidst the table mountains in the heart of Santiago, Assomada nestles into its achada (plateau) as if in a moss-green hammock.

At the colourful market, you can experience the African soul of Cape Verde at first hand with all your senses. In the maze of the dark bazaar, cows, goats, fruits, vegetables, fish, pottery, baskets, fabrics, furniture, shoes and Chinese textiles are offered.

To the south of the market is the historic town centre of Assomada. Here you will find partly renovated colonial-style houses, the Catholic church and the town hall. Historical objects and handicrafts can be seen in the Museu Tabanca.

Nowhere else can the African roots of the Cape Verdean inhabitants be felt as much as in Assomada. The batuk, a traditional lament, is still alive here, with which the African women in particular sing the sorrow of oppression and slavery from their souls.

They are accompanied by drum rhythms beaten on plastic bags filled with scraps of cloth. Exuberant dances to the batuk make them forget the hardships of their lives.

From Assomada, the main route to Tarrafal continues north - a ride that is also highly recommended for its scenic appeal!

Tarrafal - Most beautiful beach in Santiago

The sheltered bay near Tarrafal in the north of Santiago is one of the most beautiful spots on the island, Cape Verde - © Axel Lauer / Shutterstock
© Axel Lauer / Shutterstock

Tarrafal gets busy on summer weekends, with even guests from Praia at the other end of the island making a pilgrimage to the north of the island to enjoy the clear calm waters. The picturesque village is one of our top 10 places of interest in Cape Verde.

The dreamlike mountain landscape around Tarrafal is criss-crossed with a network of inviting hiking trails. The 650m high Monte Graciosa looks down on Tarrafal from above. On its western flank, high up, there are surf caves to be discovered today. They were formed when Santiago was still much lower than sea level.

Journey to Tarrafal

Tarrafal beach in the bay of the same name on Santiago Island is considered the most beautiful beach in Cape Verde - © AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock
© AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock

From Assomada in the centre of Santiago, the main route heads north to Tarrafal. After a short stretch, you reach the Chapel of Santa Catarina with a pretty view into the Ribeira de Boa Entrada.

Further down in the valley, at Poilão de Boa Entrada, grows the oldest and largest tree in all of Cape Verde. The gigantic kapok tree is about 500 years old and reaches a height of 40 metres. It can be reached on foot from the chapel.

Shortly before Fundura, a detour leads to the small fishing village of Ribeira da Barca on the coast. Those who take the 6km will be rewarded with a nice beach and some small restaurants. Another 6km long track to the south leads to Achada Leite, where the Grota d'Aguas Belas, a picturesque rock cave with a beach and a sun hole in the ceiling, is worth seeing.

Back on the main road, the route continues through Fundura and on wild switchbacks through the mountains of the Serra da Malagueta. There are wonderfully idyllic hiking trails in this area that lead to Figueira das Naus and on to Ribeira da Prata on Santiago's northwest coast. The next town on the main route is Chão Bom, from where a straight road leads directly to Tarrafal church square.

About halfway between Chão Bom and Tarrafal is a former concentration camp where Portuguese, Angolans and Cape Verdeans who spoke out for the freedom of Cape Verde were imprisoned under the most adverse conditions in the 1930s.

Tip: The way back from Tarrafal to Praia along the east coast is extremely attractive with its pretty villages, fertile valleys and rugged mountains, but you have to reckon with 2.5 hours of pure driving time for about 80km.

Tarrafal Bay and Beach

The bay of Tarrafal is a wonderful place to relax while watching the colourful hustle and bustle of the boats in the small fishing harbour, Cape Verde - © AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock
© AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock

The sheltered bay near Tarrafal in the north of Santiago is one of the most beautiful spots on the island. The white, fine-sand beach is considered the most beautiful on the island and is definitely worth a trip to the north of Santiago. It is also lined with palm trees that provide pleasant shade - a rather rare phenomenon on Cape Verdean beaches.

The cute little village is grouped around a central square with an enchanting baroque church. This is where the weekly market takes place, selling local produce.

Port of Tarrafal

Tarrafal Bay on Santiago Island, Cape Verde - © AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock
© AlexanderManykin/Shutterstock

On the beautiful beach of Tarrafal you can swim wonderfully or simply relax while watching the colourful hustle and bustle of the boats in the small fishing harbour. When the fishermen arrive with their catch, the harbour of Tarrafal comes to life.

Traders and private individuals buy the most beautiful perch, mackerel, moray eels and lobsters directly from the boat and all together they tow the boats to the beach. Most of the fresh fish is exported to the capital Praia, where the prices are much higher. By the way, the numerous species of fish in Tarrafal Bay do not only please the local fishermen, divers and deep-sea fishermen also get their money's worth.