Facing the Cantabrian Sea, is Santander, the capital of Cantabria. This modern coastal city attracts many Spaniards in the summer, but it’s often missed by tourists. Amid the vast sandy beaches, are 19th-century buildings, art museums and lively food markets, where seafood takes centre stage.
El Sardinero is the city’s main beach, but there are more to be discovered on the outskirts, along with plenty of surfing spots.
You can explore Santander in one day and visit most of its attractions, including the cathedral, the Centro Botín and the Palacio de la Magdalena. Our itinerary below includes these sights and other things you shouldn’t miss during your visit, along with restaurant and hotel recommendations.
With a privileged location by the coast, Santander is renowned for its beaches. In the centre of the city, is Playa del Sardinero, the ideal place for a morning stroll. If the weather allows, stop here for a swim or book a surf lesson at the Escuela de Surf, which offers private and group classes. Lining the beach are a series of bars where you can grab a drink.
Continue walking south, and you’ll find the Playa Del Camello, famous for its camel-shaped rock.
There are more beaches worth exploring including the Playa de los Peligros, Playa de Mataleñas, Playa de la Magdalena and, further out, the Playa El Puntal and Playa de Somo.
Amidst the seaside promenade are the Jardines de Piquío, a green oasis stretching for 13,000m2. Take a walk under the tamarind trees and enjoy the views of the sea and the Magdalena peninsula. Nearby is the Gran Casino with its imposing white façade that lights up at night.
From the gardens, head over to the Magdalena Peninsula. Jutting out into the Bay of Biscay, this lush promontory is full of trees and meadows. There are many attractions here, including a mini zoo and a lighthouse, but the highlight is the Palacio de la Magdalena. Established between 1908 and 1912, this English-style palace was once the summer residence for the Spanish royals, King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia. Today, visitors are welcome to explore its grounds. On the south of the peninsula are also two beaches worth visiting: Playa de los Bikinis and Playa de la Magdalena.
After wandering around the peninsula, follow the Avenida Reina Victoria
until you reach the gardens at Paseo de Pereda. Along the way, you’ll
stumble upon a series of attractions including the Museo Marítimo del
Cantábrico, the Gamazo Dock and the Palacio de Festivales. Look out for
Los Raqueros, a bronze sculpture of children jumping into the water.
Grab a seat along the promenade and enjoy the sea views, before continuing to Plaza Alfonso XIII to admire the historical buildings of the Bank of Spain and the Post Office.
Take a short pintxo break at the Mercado del Este. Built in 1842, this local market features a series of shops and bars. Set between Plaza Pombo and Plaza Porticada, Mercado del Este gets its name from its location, east from the main city market, Mercado de la Esperanza (see below).
Next stop is the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria. Step inside and you’ll discover historical items from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age. Exhibits include interactive multimedia displays in English and Spanish. Look out for the bear skeletons and the giant stone discs. The museum also has a few Roman objects found in the nearby town of Castro Urdiales.
This elegant neoclassical square was erected in 1950 after a fire devastated Santander in 1941. Its real name is Plaza Velarde, but most locals call it Plaza Porticada. At the entrance of the square is a statue of Pedro Velarde, an important figure of the Spanish War of Independence. In 2006, while remodelling the square, they discovered remains of the old medieval wall. You can find more about it at the Interpretation Center of the Wall.
Centro Botín is one of the city’s most recent landmarks. Set along the waterfront, this flashy cultural centre opened its doors in 2017. Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed Centre Pompidou in Paris, created this futuristic building featuring 280,000 ceramic discs. It includes a gallery area for contemporary art, a cafe and a rooftop viewpoint. The permanent exhibit has a variety of works by international artists such as Joan Jonas, Carlos Garaicoa, Julie Mehretu, among others.
Continue your tour of Santander with a visit to the city’s cathedral. The Catedral de la Asunción is made up of two Gothic churches, built on top of the other. The bottom part is the Iglesia del Santíssimo Cristo which dates from the 13th century. Here you can see two silver heads with the skulls of Santander’s patron saints. The upper church is originally from the 14th century but was rebuilt after the 1941 fire. Here is the tomb of Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, a local writer and historian.
Close to the cathedral in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the Santander town hall. Established in 1907, it occupies the site of a former Franciscan convent. The building was expanded in the 60s gaining the structure that you see today. Until 2008, there was a statue of the dictator Francisco Franco on the square. These days, the square is a popular meeting point and hosts many of the city’s events.
Behind the town hall is the Mercado de la Esperanza, the city’s bustling food market. Open since 1904, it has around 80 stalls selling seafood, meat, cheese, and delicious baked goods. This is the best place to learn more about Cantabrian cuisine and sample local treats such as the orujo firewater from Liébana. The building itself also stands out with its mix of materials, combining stone, iron and glass.
As the sun begins to set, head over to Calle Río de la Pila and hop on the funicular-style elevator. The journey is free and takes about three minutes. At the top, there’s a small lookout point where you can enjoy incredible views of Santander and the bay down below.
End the night at Plaza de Cañadío, the city’s culinary hotspot and a popular meeting point for locals. The square and the surrounding streets are packed with bars and clubs that are open until late. Hop between pintxo bars and try local seafood dishes, paired with a glass of wine or beer. Start at Cañadío and then continue to El Sol for patatas bravas and croquetes at Bodega Fuente De. Oyster fans should also pay a visit to La Mar.
Other attractions include the Romanesque Santa Juliana Collegiate Church and the Cave of Altamira.
Enjoy sweets and hearty stews in Noja, relax by the beach in Laredo and then go for a hike along the Ruta del Monte Buciero (hiking circuit with forests, sea views and an abandoned lighthouse, that you can be reached by cliffside steps) in Santoña.
There are several ways to get to Santander. Depending on where you’re flying from, you might have to change in Madrid. If you’re coming from the UK there are direct ferries to Santander. The journey takes about 24 hours with departures from Plymouth and Portsmouth.
Santander is the perfect family destination. Kids will love playing by the sea on one of the city’s beaches. There are also many parks with playgrounds such as the Parque Atlántico de Las Llamas, the Jardines de Pereda with its carousel or the one at the Magdalena Peninsula.
There’s even a tourist train here that takes you around the headland for a small fee.
The city is not too big, making it easy to explore on foot. It’s worth visiting the Museo Maritimo del Cantabrico, where kids can marvel at whale skeletons and the aquarium.
Further out there are more attractions including the Tirolinas Go with its fun zip lines and the Cabarceno Natural Park, a large nature reserve home to more than a hundred animal species.
Being close to the sea, Santander is the ideal place to try seafood. Goose barnacles, clams, anchovies and squid are a few things you’ll find on the Cantabrian coast. Traditional meals include the sorropotún, a tuna casserole and hake in green sauce. There are also meat dishes such as the cocido montañes, a hearty stew made with pork, beans and black pudding. For desserts, the quesada pasiega (traditional cheesecake) is the local favourite. Below are some of the best places to eat in Santander where you can sample some of these dishes and more:
The best time to visit Santander is between June and September. During these months, the average temperature is around 25 degrees, making it ideal for a beach holiday. It's also a great opportunity to catch one of the city's annual festivals held in July and August, with plenty of music and after-dark entertainment. If you prefer a calmer season, visit in autumn or winter when the accommodation prices are lower and there are fewer tourists around. If you go to the mountains around Liébana in December you might catch some snow.
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