Santiago is one of the ten islands that comprise the archipelago of Cape Verde (together with the islanders). It is located in the Atlantic Ocean, near the African coast, almost 1000 km away from Senegal.

The island of Santiago is part of a group called Sotavento (to where the wind goes), as well as Maio, Fogo and Brava. This is the island where the city of Praia is located, the most populous of the entire country and also its capital. 40% of the population lives here, according to the last census.

I had already been on the island of Sal and Boavista, so when I arrived in Praia by taxi, coming from the airport, I realized that it had nothing to do with what I had seen before. It is a huge city, apparently disorganized and chaotic. Sal and Boavista are super quiet and quite geared towards tourism (particularly Sal).

How is the island?

Praia is the most populous city in the country (with 300.000 inhabitants) and Santiago is the archipelago’s largest island. It extends itself 75 km from north to south and 35 km from east to west and conceals a magnificent green landscape, with towering mountains, lush valleys with plenty of water and a vast cultural and historical richness.

Due to all this, I spent eight days just on this island. I had enough time to explore Santiago quite well and even repeat some places that I had enjoyed. For me, the best thing is not the towns per se, but the landscape that exists between them. Driving a Hiace is well worth it (I’ll soon write about this) or rent a car and then travel across the island.

What you can not miss

At the end of this article you can see the map with the identification of the places that I recommend. You can save it;)

Old Town, where Cape Verde started

The island of Santiago was the first to be discovered and populated by the Portuguese. Approximately 15 km away from the city of Praia, we find what is today known as Cidade Velha (Old Town). This is precisely the place where the navigators arrived when they discovered Cape Verde.

Cidade Velha, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Cidade Velha (Old Town)

It is considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2009. I spent two whole days in what was my favorite place of Santiago.

If we get there coming from Praia, first we see the Old Town on the horizon, on a lower level, next to the water, where the Portuguese ships arrived centuries ago. We pass by the old Cathedral (recovered by the well-known Siza Vieira) and we start to go down, stopping at Largo Pelourinho. This structure, which lends its name to the square, was the place where slaves got punished. The peace and platitude there clash with the things that may have happened…

Ruins of the Cathedral, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Ruins of the Cathedral
Largo do Pelourinho, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Largo do Pelourinho

Very close to the Pelourinho is Rua Banana, the first street urbanized by the Portuguese in sub-Saharan Africa. From this spot, we can access Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary), Cape Verde’s oldest. It was closed but a nice lady opened the door to me and I was fortunate enough to have the chance to visit it.

Banana Street, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Banana Street
Nossa Senhora do Rosário Church, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Nossa Senhora do Rosário Church

If it’s lunchtime, go to the sea and sit near the water to eat a freshly caught fish. In one occasion, I even saw my fish being caught… it does not get any fresher than that.

Forte Real de São Filipe (a royal fort) is located on a much higher level of Old Town. The view is superb, it totally justifies the ascent. This fort had the intent to protect the city from corsairs like Francis Drake and Cassard. You can get there by car or taxi, but it is not as fun.

Fort of São Filipe, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Fort of São Filipe


The landscape is dominated by the highest part, the oldest quarter of the city, the Plateau. There, we have this feeling of being in some other country, because the streets are clean and super tidy. The quarter has a deeply colonial trait. The heart is Praça Alexandre Albuquerque, a traffic intersection between the commercial, institutional and religious buildings.

Close to the beach in Praia, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Close to the beach in Praia
Alexandre Albuquerque Square, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Alexandre Albuquerque Square

Several other quarters have emerged recently in the city of Praia, such as Palmarejo, Achada de Santo António or Achada de S. Filipe, where there is a lot of trade and consequently a lot of people.

A mandatory point that allows you to feel the city is the Sucupira market. This is a strategic spot where you can join the hectic movement of people and vehicles. You can buy food, toys, animals, clothing, a bit of everything.

Sucupira market, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Sucupira market

Collective taxis go from there to any place on the island, and, in my opinion, this is the best way to explore Santiago. But you have to go with time… The van only departs from Praia if it happens to be sold out and, during its route, it may take different paths and stops requested by some of the passengers.

In one of the times I used this transport, I asked them to take me to the quarter where I was lodged and the driver was not bothered at all for having to make a two or three-kilometer detour…

In the lower part of the town, near the sea, we find the Lighthouse Maria Pia, in an isolated tip, from where we have an interesting view of the coast line.


Approximately 40 km away from the city of Praia, a route that takes an hour, lies the city of Assomada, the 2nd most populous city on the island. In my opinion the main interest is the market, which is the largest of the island. I visited all the markets of the places I walked by, but this was my favorite. The people there are much friendlier and less aggressive when it comes to selling than the ones of Sucupira market, at the capital.

In Assomada, the market has two floors, with fruit, vegetables, bread and meat being sold on the lower one, and clothing and footwear on the top one. Even if you are not interested in anything that is being sold on the 1st floor, you must check it. From up there, we have a splendid view of the magnificent color and bustle of the main area. We can feel Africa from here.

Assomada market, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Assomada market


Tarrafal is an isolated village, located in the north of the island of Santiago, 1:30H away (66 km). For those who visit this island with the intent of enjoying the beach, this is a mandatory spot, because it is one of the few white sand beaches around.

When I arrived here, I somehow sensed a desolated feeling, I was indeed left with the impression that it is a place of exile. This feeling was certainly one experienced by all those imprisoned in the Concentration Camp. The field is located three kilometers from the town, in a place (ironically) known as Chão Bom (Good Ground). Visiting it is absolutely mandatory. As a Portuguese citizen, I was particularly interested in it, since the Concentration Camp is part of my country’s history. From a dark period, when dictatorship reigned.

Also known as Slow Death Camp, it started to host the opponents of Salazar’s dictatorial regime in 1936. 32 prisoners died there and many others certainly endured episodes that scarred them for life. When I visited it, there was nobody else there, so I had the opportunity to experience the heavy and desolating ambiance attached to its past. The different halls are totally stripped bare, there is only the identification of what would have been its purpose. The rest was left to my imagination…

Tarrafal camp, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Tarrafal camp
Entrance of Tarrafal camp, Santiago Island, Cape Verde
Entrance of Tarrafal camp