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Santander and Cantabria are amongst Spain’s best-kept secrets: endless white-sand beaches mix with water-sports and world-class gastronomy in a region famous for its green fields, mountain peaks and modern art scene.
A combination of traditional, belle-epoque and bang-up to date architecture hugs the coastline of this beach city and charms the socks off everyone who visits.
Always popular with the Madrid crowd escaping the heat in July and August, Santander has always been a favourite bolthole for the capital with its striking blend of architectural styles, buzzing city beaches and vibrant nightlife. Yet Santander is much more than a party town, it’s also a place that always manages to impress and surprise – culturally and architecturally.
The city overlooks the bay of Santander – one of the most beautiful bays in the world and whether you sail, paddle surf, swim or walk alongside it – you’ll be charmed by the place – just as the royal family were and continue to be. And don’t get us started about the gastronomy. This is a city where seafood is revered. You’ll find every kind of crustacean here as well as great fish, meats and cheeses. Although it’s not a huge producer of wine – you will find a few very picturesque vineyards plus a keen knowledge of and appreciation for the nearby ‘denominaciones de origen’ such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero also everywhere you go.
The region of Cantabria is also home to many gems of its own including the UNESCO-listed Palaeolithic cave art at Altamira and the nearby caves. The Capricho de Gaudi is also a draw as are the hiking and walking routes plus the picturesque hamlets and mountain trails of the Picos de Europa National Park – the first national park in Spain. But you don’t have to travel far from Santander to enjoy natural beauty.
With direct flights into Santander airport from dozens of European cities (direct with Ryanair and via Madrid with Iberia) and the Brittany Ferries ferry arriving weekly from Portsmouth and Plymouth, it’s become very easy to access the region.
- Capture the beauty of the dozen or so city beaches as you walk along the coastline – each one is Instagram-gold.
- See the brand-new Centro Botín designed by starchitect Renzo Piano with its modern art collection and viewing platform over the bay
- Explore the Magdalena Palace and grounds – where the royals vacationed for decades
- Spend a few hours tapa-bar-hopping in the Puertochico neighbourhood
- Dine at one of the many top-notch restaurants in the city and region (where you’ll find seven Michelin stars)
Want to catch some waves on a surf-board, take a hike in the hills or simply paddle in the sea and explore the city? The list of what to do in Santander is practically endless…
Best known for its beaches, Santander and Cantabria are known for their surfing and sailing as well as hiking and walking trails. The city has hosted several international sailing events right inside the bay – including the ISAF World Sailing in 2013 and 2014. Surfing events are frequent during the summer months but it’s the number and standard of surfing schools that brings surfers of all ages to the bay of Santander year after year.
If you prefer terra firma, perhaps the history of the Camino del Norte might entice you to pack a day bag and give it a whirl? This pilgrimage walk goes through the region and the city of Santander. Not so sure? There are hundreds of other walking and trekking routes and ‘via ferrata’ climbs also. It’s also a place where the traditional, fixed-seat rowing is popular.
If all that sounds like hard work, do as the locals and opt for the morning or afternoon ‘paseo’ or stroll along the port, past the beaches and up to the lighthouse. Culture vultures will want to pop into the many museums in the city including the Maritime Museum, the Pre-history Museum, the Centro Botín, The Embarcadero, and many more.
From atmospheric family-run eateries to exclusive Michelin-star restaurants and the buzz of the spit and sawdust historic taverns where the wine flows freely, you’ll barely have time to scratch the surface of the city’s gastronomy. In the Puertochico neighbourhood, as you bar hop you’ll ask yourself whether anybody in the city actually eats in. For Michelin star dining, El Serbal is where you want to be – although you might be tempted by its more informal dining at Querida Margarita also.
For a more relaxed Santander restaurant (unless you’re in the kitchen that is) head for El Riojano on Rio de la Pila or the always fashionable Cañadío in the square of the same name – which has set up a number of sister restaurants in Madrid and is really blazing a trail in the capital. If you’d like to book a private dining experience or food tasting event, the idyllic setting of Deluz in the hills above the Sardinero beaches is hard to beat – this is where the Botín family (of Banco Santander) has some property so you know you’re in exclusive territory. You’ll also find a few places by Sardinero beach if you want to enjoy a relaxed meal on the beach.
You’ll need to sample the ‘aperitivo’ hour in the seafood restaurants: while there’s plenty of choice, our favourite is the Bar El Puerto at Puertochico – it’s where the well-heeled go to eat ‘prawns in gabardines’ and the ‘calamari’ known as ‘rabas’. Timing is everything when it comes to ‘aperitivo’ – you want to be around Puertochico from 1pm to 3pm with a vermouth in hand if you want to fit in. Head into the main El Puerto restaurant before 3pm for lunch or if you’ve already filled up on the shared seafood platters around town, head for the best ice-cream parlour run by Argentinian-Italians (through the rear exit of the restaurant).
Ice-cream is more than a childhood treat in Santander – it’s a way of life for young and old– with over 20 ice-cream parlours open from early til late. Sit in Plaza Pombo over a coffee or two until it’s time to start eating again and you can repeat the cycle all over again at 8pm. For all day food, head to Casa Lita’s on Paseo de Pereda and Dias del Sur on Hernan Cortes. Need a cocktail? It’s hard to beat the vibe and flavours at La Malinche and the food is excellent too. If you want to dine on the beach – the ‘chiringuito’ on El Puntal is where you need to be. Hire a boat or hop on the passenger ferry from Santander and Somo.
Whether you need a pair of vertigo-inducing heels, are re-stocking some of your beach essentials or simply require a spot of holiday pampering, you’ll find all you need when it comes to shopping in Santander.
Santander is a city with all the usual high street shops you expect in Spain but with a very healthy independent retail sector also. No matter what you want to purchase, start out at the food market behind the town hall. Whether you want to take an octopus or some pig’s trotters home in a bag or not, you’ll be charmed by the atmosphere. From here, head for downtown Puertochico and seek out the great shoe-stores such as Lucio Herrezuelo, cutting-edge fashion (try Percha and Luis Diaz), jewellery (enjoy the newly-opened Bannatyne) and great home wear (Domestico). Gil bookstore in the Plaza del Pombo (always winning accolades and prizes) and the Centro Botín gift shop are also great for reading material and gift shopping.
For sportswear, you’ll need to go to El Corte Ingles (near the airport) although you can pick up surf gear, swimwear and daywear at Black Ball Surf by the 2nd Sardinero beach. And if you’re having a bad hair day or need some facial or body treatments, there are literally hundreds of hairdressers and dozens of beauty spaces including the Thalasso spa at the 5-star Hotel Real that offers the old-school sea-water treatments in one of the city’s most scenic locations.