The historic Cidade Velha in Santiago, Cape Verde

Santiago - Cidade Velha - Vista de cima

The Old City, classified as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, is as simple as it is fantastic.

Due to its geostrategic position, the city was disputed by several European navigators, between the XV and the XIII century, having been under different domains, Portuguese and Spanish, having also been attacked and looted by pirates from other European countries.

Once a bustling place in Ribeira Grande that functioned as a preparation and slave market, today Cidade Velha is a quiet place, full of history and important archaeological excavations, which aim to recover the existing heritage and allow a better understanding of the behavior of its inhabitants in past centuries.

Learn more about the Old Town and what you can visit there.

Cidade Velha – an important point in Cape Verde’s history

As we approach the Old City, it is easy to understand the importance of the dominance of this place during the period of the discoveries. A fortress, named São Filipe, which preserves artillery pointing to the sea, marks the beginning of the descent of the valley where Cidade Velha is located, formerly known as Ribeira Grande, due to its year-round stream. This fortress was built to protect the city from attacks by pirates, who over time were destroying and looting the city, such as the Englishman Francis Drake, or the Frenchman Jacques Cassard.

There we found a beach, which would be the destination, or at least point of call, for many of the ships that crossed the Atlantic, at first in search of new lands, and at a later stage, with a view to obtaining the riches that South America had to offer, to stock up on supplies, and to allow the sailors to set foot on dry land after months at sea. At the time it had a stream that allowed it to have fresh water all year round, important in a country where rainfall is quite limited. It was also an important point for the slave trade at the time, which was sent from Africa to America, and a place to experiment with plant crops and the adaptation of animals that migrated between the Europe-South America axis.

To control that strategic point, was to control an important maritime route, and gain an advantage over competitors. So our imagination automatically leads us to imagine the struggles for land ownership, the mixtures between different peoples, and how this influenced everything we are today.

Santiago - Old Town

The Old Town – the oldest monuments of Cape Verde

The Old City holds small treasures within itself. Among the various buildings and streets that were built there and destroyed with the aforementioned attacks and the abandonment of the city, we can highlight:

Church of Our Lady of the Rosary

The Gothic-style Church of Our Lady of the Rosary was enlarged from a Manueline-style chapel, giving rise to a beautiful building. This church managed to “survive” strong attacks, with construction work in between, remaining open to visitors today, and is the oldest church in Cape Verde.

Fortress of St. Philip

The fortress of St. Philip, with its traditional cannons, which still seem to protect the city, was built to resist attackers from the Old City. What was in other times a feared fortification, is now a place where we can observe details in its elements, namely the cannons, which allow us to travel back in time, through our imagination.

Banana Street

A Rua da Banana, a mais antiga de Cabo Verde, que mantém um aspeto rústico, ladeada pelas pequenas casas tradicionais, com telhados de vegetação e usando as pedras que outrora foram dos monumentos destruídos.

Cathedral Ruins

Ruins of the Ribeira Grande Cathedral of Santiago, an imposing building that is now destroyed. There are plans to rehabilitate this building, which may happen in the next few years.

Ruins of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Church

There are also the ruins of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, which was also destroyed over the centuries.


The Pillory is a stone structure, where those who did not comply with the rules in force at the time were punished. A symbol of punishment, this monument reflects part of Cape Verde’s darker history, much associated with public humiliation, essentially of slaves.

Santiago - Old Town Pelourinho

The Old Town also had other buildings in the past, such as hospitals and houses, which have since been abandoned and eventually collapsed. It was the repopulation of the area, where small houses were built, many of them under and with stones that once belonged to some of the aforementioned monuments, that revived the town.

Archeological excavations have made it possible to identify part of the historical heritage of Cidade Velha, and national and international investments have made it possible to recover part of these landmarks of historical interest on Santiago Island, which is the richest place in Cape Verde in this regard.

What else can be done in Old Town?

Taste a corn pastry

The corn pastry is one of Cape Verde’s delicacies. Sometimes in Old Town, there are people selling corn pastel, with some fish (usually mackerel), which gives a salty taste. The combination, although simple, is special and tasty. Enjoy.

Buy souvenirs

In this place it is also possible to find, with some frequency, vendors of handicrafts or other traditional products. If there are souvenirs or food for sale that you wish to purchase, don’t forget to carry local money (Cape Verde Escudos) during your visit.

How to get to the Old City?

You will need to travel to Santiago Island in Cape Verde. The main entry points to the island, airport and seaport, are located in the Cidade da Praia area. From the center of Cidade da Praia to Cidade Velha is a 10 min drive.

The site is easily noticed, at road level, by the imposing wall of the São Filipe Fort. Then just follow a small inclined road near it, which in addition to the fantastic view it allows over the Atlantic for part of the trip, leads to the Old Town.

There is also a restaurant at the entrance of the town, where you can have lunch or dinner while smelling the fresh sea air.

Enjoy Cidade Velha on Santiago Island in Cape Verde if you visit this island.

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