Vigo is the main port for Spain's Galicia region, with Portugal to its south and the Spanish mainland to the east. Vigo's location between the mighty Atlantic and snow-topped mountains gives the region a cooler, damper climate than the rest of the country and has earned it the nickname of "The Green Spain."
This makes it a popular retreat for Spaniards keen to escape the searing summer heat, enjoy lush country scenery and tuck into some of the world's freshest seafood. And for cruise visitors, in Vigo you can experience "real" Spanish culture, meet the locals and enjoy a city and countryside still largely unadulterated by mass tourism.
Old Vigo rises in tiers to the 17th century hilltop citadel of El Castro, one of three that originally guarded the city. All were necessary to defend Galicia from successive hordes of invaders including Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, French and British, who regularly invaded between the 14th and 19th centuries. Sir Francis Drake famously took the city (for a while, at least) in 1589.
If you have a strong sense of history, you'll find the ghosts of these ancient and unwelcome guests still lingering in Vigo's gray walls and steep streets. The old Ribera del Berbes fishing quarter -- at the bottom of the hill opposite the port -- dates from the 17th century reign of Philip IV and is well preserved and particularly atmospheric.
Although there is plenty to see and do further afield, first-time visitors to Vigo could simply explore the old city, enjoying its world-class seafood and taking in some of the large sculptures that adorn its cobbled streets and squares. These include El Sireno(The Merman) in Puerta del Sol and Los Caballos (a monument to the horses that once roamed free in Castro Park) in Plaza de Espana.
This art-loving maritime gem of a city -- with its beautiful neoclassical cathedral -- has been proclaimed a Spanish national historical monument. Give it your time, and it will reward you with wonderful memories.
There is an information kiosk as you come off your ship and a tourist office just across the road from the port. Either will provide you with a map and information on local bus services, including tourist buses.
There's a large and interesting shopping mall right next to the cruise port which is worth browsing through on the way back to the ship after exploring Vigo's old quarter. It has some unusual jewelry and craft stores.
You'll find ancient and beautiful churches in Vigo's Old Town. These include Santa Maria de Castrelos, which dates from the 13th century, and the 16th century La Colegiata de la Santa Maria la Mayor -- famed for its lovely Renaissance facade -- which is sometimes used as a venue for daytime concerts.
Stroll along Calle de la Pescaderia, site of Mercado de Berbes, the city's main fish market, which is famous throughout Europe. There, you'll find iced slabs of granite laden with freshly caught turbot, monkfish, spider crabs, octopus and other goodies from the sea. And though the smell is heady, it's actually the aroma of ocean rather than fish -- so you know the goods are super fresh. The fishmongers are mainly female, because the men are out fishing.
If art is more your thing, stop into the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Vigo, which is housed in a former courthouse (complete with gaol) within walking distance of the port. It features multimedia work by Spain's hottest artistic talents. The museum also has a decent cafe and is fun if you're traveling with youngsters. (Principe 54; +34 986 113 900; open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, closed Mondays)
Talk with the animals at Vigo Zoo on Madroa Hill. Founded in 1970 and set in lovely countryside, the zoo is home to 400 animals of 1,250 different species; current inhabitants include bears, lions, llamas and wallabies. The zoo also has a cafe, craft shop and fine views across the Vigo estuary. (At Plaza de los Leones, Madroa-Teis, Vigo, 36316 -- about a 15-minute cab ride from the port; +34 986 26 77 83/84; summer hours 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. April 1 to September 30, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in February, March and October)
Make a pilgrimage to world famous Santiago de Compostela -- medieval Christendom's third most important shrine after Jerusalem and Rome -- which lies nearly 60 miles north of Vigo and should cost roughly 40 euros per person for a roundtrip group cab ride (check rates at the tourist office). Ship tours also go there (see Shore Excursions, below).
Explore the delightful medieval fishing village of Bayona La Real. News of Columbus' discovery of the New World was first heard there in 1493, and the quaint town is also famous for its 12th century church and 16th century castle (now a state-run hotel, known as a Parador). It has a lovely Old Quarter with some good tapas bars and is 12 miles from Vigo.
Play nine-hole golf, enjoy medicinal spring waters, stroll through dense forests or wallow on golden beaches at La Toja, a gorgeous island resort about 40 miles north of Vigo famed for its thermal springs and sea-mineral based spa treatments.
Take a ferry from Vigo port to the Cies Islands, a lovely nature reserve with good beaches and a variety of wildlife (see also Shore Excursions). Boats depart at 9:15 a.m., 10:15 a.m., 11 a.m. 12:15 p.m. and 1 p.m. and start their return journey at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. The trip takes 45 minutes each way. While it's possible to buy snacks on the islands, most locals take picnics.
On Foot: Given that Vigo is so hilly, if you're mobility-restricted, it is wise to take a taxi or bus up to El Castro citadel, which offers great sea views and a pleasant park area that includes the ruins of a pre-Roman settlement. After exploring the park's palm-lined sandy paths, you can enjoy a gentle downhill stroll back to your ship through the old city. The haul up to El Castro takes about 10 minutes by cab.
Don't want to go that far? Just head for old Vigo's historic main streets -- Calle Real and Triunfo -- or its four original squares; Plaza de Pedra, Plaza Almeida, Plaza Princesa or Plaza Constitucion. Lined with elegant buildings, these squares offer easy access to the maze of back alleys and steep stairways leading back to the marina. Princesa and Constitucion have many cafes with outside terraces, where you can take lunch or coffee al fresco and watch the city's life unfold.
By Bus: If time is at a premium, a hop-on, hop-off tourist bus tour of Vigo will show you the main sites, and you can explore on foot whenever you fancy (just leave time to get back to your ship). Buses leave from the tourist information center at the port and run roughly every two hours from 10 a.m. (Check current times inside.)
By Taxi: Taxis gather just outside the port gates, and all are metered (look for the green light, which signals they're free to pick up a fare).
By Car: The main railway station, Plaza de la Estacion, is a five-minute taxi ride away, and there is a Europcar outlet at the station -- though as a cruise visitor it's doubtful you'll have time to need it.
Vigo has more than 40 beaches, most of them to the west of the city (though Punta, a man-made beach to the east near Teis, is an exception).
Samil Beach (about seven kilometers and a 12-minute cab ride from the port) is one of the most popular because it stretches for nearly a mile, has Blue Flag status (given by the Foundation for Environmental Education to beaches that meet criteria for high water quality and safety) overlooks the Cies Islands nature reserve.
Samil Beach is also a thriving little resort in its own right, with swimming pools and basketball, tennis and paddle courts. It even has an interesting interactive museum called Verbum (Latin for word). The facility is devoted to language, symbols and communication and has four floors, each dedicated to a different theme: languages, sciences, literature and technology. (Closed Mondays)
There are also good beaches on the Cies Islands, and Vigo has two other Blue Flag beaches -- O Vao, a wide and long beach with nice facilities and a bridge to the small island of Toralla, and Canida Beach. Some beaches are clothing-optional.
Love seafood? You'll be spoiled for choice in Vigo; the Galicians like their food plucked straight from the ocean and serve it up in style. Most Vigoan restaurants are open from noon until 3 p.m., and the best way to choose is simply to stroll about and follow your nose.
If you're not that keen on fish, it's no problem; whistle up some crusty bread and a plate of jamon iberico (Iberian ham), a delicacy made from free-range Iberian pigs. Or try caldo gallego -- a rich Galician broth made with pork, beans, potatoes and cabbage.
For a light taste of Galician cuisine, try a small plate of pimientos de Padron (little peppers fried with olive oil and sea salt) as tapas. Vegetarians might also enjoy crujiente de verduras -- phyllo pasties filled with vegetables and goat's cheese.
And if you want something really hearty, follow in the footsteps of the pilgrims and order Tarta de Santiago (St. James' cake), a rich, almondy tart dusted with sugar. Most Spanish restaurants are open for lunch from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and then reopen from 6 p.m. to midnight for dinner.
Close to the Port: You'll find restaurants dishing up exquisite oysters all along Calle de Pescaderia -- look just behind the open air stalls where oyster sellers lay out their wares on granite slabs. Even if you're planning to have lunch on your ship, try a plate of freshly harvested oysters with crusty local bread as a starter -- they're Vigo's speciality and really too good to miss.
Plaza de Compostela: This place is another good hunting ground for the hungry, as it is home to many fine restaurants and food bars. Options include Meson Compostela, which is open from breakfast time and has outside tables on the square. Specialities include fish stew, and if that's not to your taste, there is a good selection of cheeses and hams. (+34 986 432 896)
In Old Town: Try Picadillo, which offers a set lunch menu including coffee and pudding. (10 Calle Fermin Penzol in Old Town, near the Garcia Barbon Theatre; open 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday)
For a Splurge: To celebrate a special occasion or just because you love great food try Maruja Limon, Vigo's one Michelin-starred restaurant. This offers a seven-course tasting menu and three-course menu degustacion corto. Prepare to be impressed with offbeat offerings like marinated scallop with cucumber and soybean, and green apple ice cream served with mandarin, pineapple and celery. (Edificio Siete Torres at 103 Avenida de Galicia; +34 986 473 406)
Ships dock at the Muelle de Transatlanticos. Just cross the palm tree-lined Avenida del Castillo waterfront promenade and you're in the city.
Traffic is heavy as you cross the Avenida del Castillo from the port.
The fish market features well-stocked but rather pungent stalls.
The town contains steep hills and cobblestones -- wear sensible shoes with a good grip and take a walking pole/stick if necessary.
Be wary of rain showers -- they are why this part of Spain is so green. Take a small umbrella along just in case.
The local currency is the euro. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
There are plenty of banks with ATMs in Vigo, and most shops and restaurants take credit or debit card payments. Be aware that the city's streets are steep and, although the town is very close to the port, you might not want to waste valuable time ashore hunting for an ATM. Think ahead and get cash in advance of your port stop if possible.
Spanish, obviously -- and in this remarkably un-touristy part of Spain you will need a good phrase book or language app because few people speak English. In an emergency, dial 112, a free call from any phone to summon police, ambulance or fire services.
In some rural villages, even a phrase book won't be enough because people speak both Gallego (the local dialect) and Castilian (mainstream Spanish), or a confusing mix of the two.
It's worth strolling along Calle de los Cesteros (Basketmakers Street) and checking out the woven wares -- way more than baskets -- that hang outside its shops.
Pick up a bottle or two of Ribeiro, a delicious local wine made from grapes grown in the valleys between the Mino, Arnoia, Avia and Barbantino Rivers (hence its name, which means riverbank). Galicians usually serve this crisp, fruity wine very chilled in porcelain cups, and it goes well with seafood.