Much the largest city in Cantabria, with a population approaching 200,000, SANTANDER is an elegant, refined resort with excellent transport connections. While its setting on the narrow Bahía de Santander is beautiful – from the heart of the city, you can enjoy clear views across the bay to rolling green hills and high mountains that seem to glow at sunset, and superb sandy beaches line much of the shorefront – many of the city centre's finest buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1941.
Santander focuses on two very distinct areas: the old town, a compact grid of streets that stretches along the shoreline of the bay, and abounds in atmospheric bars and restaurants, and the resort district that lines long, sandy El Sardinero beach, facing the open sea. As the crow flies, the two stand a couple of kilometres apart, but the coastal route between them is more than twice as long, as it leads around the wooded headland of La Magdalena.
The first of Santander's beaches, Playa de la Magdalena, lies on the southern side of the headland. A beautiful yellow strand, sheltered by cliffs and flanked by a summer windsurfing school, it is deservedly popular. Around the headland to the north, two smaller and often slightly quieter beaches, Camello and La Concha, precede the main event, El Sardinero, which stretches for two magnificent kilometres, and is itself divided at high tide into two separate sections, Primera to the south and Segunda to the north.
If you find all the city beaches too crowded, catch a taxi-ferry across the bay (departs Puerto Chico every 20min; 4 return) to the long stretches of dunes at Somo – a major surfing destination where you'll find boards to rent and a summer campsite – and Pedreña.
Santander may have a much more bourgeois identity than many of its earthier northern neighbours – and away from the beaches there's not all that much actually to see or do – but it's not a bad place to while away a day or two.
In the summer, the city holds an international university, augmented by a music and cultural festival throughout August (www.festivalsantander.com).
Although Santander is not a particularly large city, it has a peculiar geography that has fascinated tourists for many years. The region's mountains directed the city's development to conform to an odd shape: running west-to-east and hugging the northern rim of the bay.
There are two distinct and equally-important parts of the city: the center and El Sardinero.
The center is where you will find most of the shops, businesses, and services, as well as the greater portion of monuments and tourist attractions. This is where the main streets San Fernando, Burgos, Jesús de Monasterio, Calvo Sotelo Avenue, and Paseo de Pereda all meet.
The city starts at Somorrostro Hill, where the cathedral stands and where the old walled city with its castle once stood. Here you will find some of Santander's most famous buildings, such as Edificio del Banco de España , Correos (the post office building), Banco Santander , Plaza Porticada , Iglesia de la Anunciación (Church of the Annunciation) and the Ayuntamiento (city hall). Also nearby are the famous Jardines de Pereda (Pereda Gardens), presided over by a sculpture of the Cantabrian novelist himself. The cluster made up by Paseo de Pereda and Calle Castelar, completed by the Paseo Marítimo (promenade) that runs parallel to the sea, which is something no visitor to Santander should miss.
This district is characterized by its commercial infrastructure. Along the busy streets, some of which are pedestrianized and lined with shops on the ground floor, you can buy nearly anything or simply indulge in window-shopping.
A little further east, near Plaza de Cañadío, there is a group of streets where most of the nightlife is concentrated. Streets such as General Mola, Hernán Cortes, Daoíz, Velarde, Peña Herbosa, Santa Lucía, and Sol, are full of bars and cafes where you can stop for a drink or some tapas, as well as numerous nightclubs where you can dance through the night.
Between the center and El "Sardi" (as locals call it) there is a transitional area, marked by Avenida Reina Victoria . This classy residential area is sprinkled with luxurious buildings like Casa Pardo and Hotel Real .
El Sardinero is the summer holiday area par excellence, where there are endless accommodation options (apparent to those who notice the avenue named “Hoteles”). Magdalena Peninsula is at one end, with its park and Palacio Real (Royal Palace), and Cabo Menor forms the northern border, with Mataleñas Park at the top of the cape. Between the two is El Sardinero cove, with four beaches called Camello , Concha , Primera and Segunda . These are ideal for sunbathing, swimming in the Cantabrian Sea, and enjoying the beautiful and unbeatable views of the coast. Other trips to be enjoyed while in town are visits to Jardines de Piquío (Piquío Gardens) and Mesones Park , a stop in at the Casino , and strolling along the endless strips of sand running out to the sea.
Food is an important part of every culture, Santander is no different. Here in Santander, the mountain-style cuisine is full of age-old recipes, creatively adapted to new culinary trends, though without losing a single iota of its homely and rich flavour. Although it's true that Cantabrian cuisine has been influenced by neighbouring Basque and Asturian traditions, it is clearly differentiated from these and has its own personality. Due to Cantabria's privileged geographical condition, with mountains, rivers and the sea all at hand, the food on offer is top-quality and made from the freshest ingredients around, literally.
The hills are covered in rich green pastures, giving the locally-produced beef its fine texture and unbeatable flavour. You''ll find great meat options at most restaurants in Santander, Bombi and Posada del Mar are famous for their quality dishes.
The deep rivers are another of the prime sources of food in Cantabria. The king of all river fish, the salmon, is caught here. Trout is also abundant and another popular fish option in the area.
Cantabria also has an important sea-faring tradition. The Barrio Pesquero (Fishing Quarter) is proof of this. Here, the mountain fishermen bring the fresh fish caught off the coast to the fishing wharf, providing the city with popular fish, such as sea-bass, sole, hake, jargo, cabracho, gilthead and sardines, day in and day out. There are great restaurants all along the coast for fish and in the Fishing Quarter or Puerto Chico (Small Port), the most famous restaurants being Las Peñucas and Rhin . Another great option is Del Puerto , one of Santander's most highly-rated restaurants.
Seafood plays an important part in Cantabrian cuisine as well: clams from Pedreña, mussels, giant crabs, goose barnacles, and lobsters. These are just some of the succulent options to be enjoyed at restaurants, such as Mulata , Flor de Miranda and Cúpula del Rhin .
Before you actually sit down to lunch or dinner, however, tapas are a must. When in Rome... A stroll around Plaza del Cañadío is more than recommended for a glass of wine or beer accompanied by your choice of tapas. Recommended tapas bars in this district include Hijas de Florencio , Bodega Cigaleña and Cañía . In the Río de la Pila district, the most famous tapas bar is Del Riojano , really a wine bar with great food. If you''re in the Perines district, be sure to order the surf and turf platters at Los Jamones ; you won't regret it.
Pastries of all kinds are other local specialities, and Cantabria is renowned throughout Spain for its long-standing tradition in this area. The creaminess and quality of local milk give traditional items, such as quesada pasiega and sobaos, their incredibly rich texture. Cantabrian puff-pastry is also quite famous. It comes in many shapes and sizes, the most popular desserts being the corbatas de Unqueta, pantortillas de Reinosa, polkas de Torrelavega and sacristanes de Lierganes. Other typical treats are palucos de Cabezón de la Sal and canónigos de Liebana. Any of the above mentioned desserts, or the rice pudding and leche frita (literally, fried milk), are the final and delicious cherry to top off your meal.
The wines on offer in Santander are generally from prestigious La Rioja, given that the climate in Cantabria is not suited to growing grapes for wine. However, in the Liebana region, there is a microclimate, perfect for producing the fruit needed to make orujo de Potes. The sweet flavour and refined aroma of this strong spirit makes it an excellent digestive liqueur to savour after your meal. You'll find it in any of the restaurants mentioned above, as well as most restaurants in the city.
After this brief tour of Santander's rich gastronomy, you'll have no option but to come and try it for yourself. You're sure to find out why people in Spain always say that folks up north certainly know how to eat well!
Walking Tours of Santander
Tour 1: Monumental Santander (from City Hall to Puerto Chico)
This first tour of Santander starts at Plaza del Generalísimo , just opposite the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), in the heart of the city's shopping and financial district. Behind City Hall you'll find busy Esperanza Market , where it's easy to spend hours looking through everything for sale. From Plaza de la Esperanza on the north side of the market you can see San Francisco Church . Heading down Cervantes Street, you come to the Fine Arts Museum and the Biblioteca y Casa-Museo Menendez Pelayo (former home and now museum and library of the renowned writer, Marcelino Menendez Pelayo) on Rubio Street. From here, and by way of Jesús de Monasterio Street and Avenida de Calvo Sotelo, you will start making your way towards the cathedral containing la Cripta del Cristo (Christ's Crypt). Before that, the Central Post Office and the Banco de España buildings are worth noting. These are found next to Plaza de Alfonso XIII . Nearby, other places you can visit include the Pereda gardens and the Paseo Marítimo boardwalk which runs parallel to the docks.
To the north you'll find Paseo de Pereda , lined with beautiful buildings, such as Anunciación Church , dating from the 17th century, or Banco Santander's headquarters (both in Plaza Porticada ). If you walk under the arch joining Banco Santander's two towers, you come to Calle Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and the Ensanche district of Santander, where the city first grew beyond the old walls. Here you can visit Plaza de Jose Antonio , containing Casa Pombo or the building familiarly known as Botín's Arches . Another interesting landmark is Santa Lucía Church , just next to Plaza de Cañadío.
If you return to Paseo de Pereda, head east. From here you can take in all the new buildings, with the bay as the backdrop. You'll come to Plaza de Matías Montero, which is close to the Regional Historical and Archaeological Museum . Crossing back over to the dock side, you come to Castelar Street, one of the prettiest in Santander, lined with spectacular buildings, such as Banco Vitalicio or Siboney . You'll finally reach Puerto Chico (literally, Small Port), with its dock and the Real Club Marítimo (Royal Yachting Club), where the tour ends.
Tour 2: The Beaches of Santander (from Palacio de Festivales to Cabo Mayor)
This tour starts at Dique de Gamazo (Gamazo Jetty), to the east of the city center. From here you can visit one of the most spectacular buildings in Santander, the Palacio de Festivales de Cantabria , a cultural center. Attached to the side is the Escuela Superior de la Marina Civil, site of the Planetarium ; nearby you'll also find the Centro de Alto Rendimiento de Vela (Sailing School). If you continue down Calle Gamazo, you'll soon reach the Maritime Museum .
Continuing with this sea-faring tour, take Avenida Reina Victoria , one of the most beautiful boardwalks in all of Spain. To your left is perhaps the most posh residential district in Santander, with famous buildings, such as Casa Pardo or Hotel Real. To your right, you can take in fantastic views of the bay and the city's many beaches, in particular Peligros , La Magdalena and Bikinis . On the other side of the bay you can make out the towns of Pedreña, Somo and the huge beach known as Puntal . This entire stretch can be done little by little, so as to enjoy fully the beautiful land and seascapes. Eventually, you'll reach Magdalena Peninsula, where you can visit the park of the same name and the Royal Palace .
If you continue heading towards El Sardinero district, you'll see Camello and La Concha beaches off to your right. Upon reaching Plaza de Italia, you'll find yourself in the heart of El Sardinero, with the Gran Casino and some of the city''s best hotels as well as swanky blocks of flats.
The next stop is at Piquío Gardens and Sardinero's two beaches, Primera and Segunda (literally, First and Second beaches). If you still have some energy left, head north towards Cabo Menor (Smaller Cape) to visit Mataleñas Park and two nearby beaches: Molinucos , which is small and peaceful, or Mataleñas beach, a beautiful cove surrounded by spectacular cliffs. If you continue along Avenida del Faro, you'll reach Parque de Cabo Mayor (Greater Cape Park), with a 19th-century lighthouse and impressive views of the cliffs overlooking the Cantabrian Sea.
Tour 3: Little-known Santander (from Calle Burgos to Calle Alta)
This route is a good way to get to know the western part of Santander, an area not often visited by tourists, though one that has a lot of interesting spots. The tour starts on busy Calle Burgos , a pedestrian street in the heart of the shopping district. Heading uphill towards the west, you reach Plaza de Numancia and the Volunteer Firefighters' Park Building .
Continuing uphill, you soon come to Alameda de Oviedo , with San Fernando and Vargas streets off to the sides. Still continuing along this street, you come to Cuatro Caminos roundabout. From here, take Avenida de Pedro San Martín until you reach Glorieta de los Osos (Bear Roundabout), in the Ciudad Jardín district. Here you can admire the ruins of the 16th-century Pronillo Palace , one of the oldest buildings still standing in all of Cantabria.
Heading back to Cuatro Caminos, you'll find Plaza de Mexico and the bullring , the latter also housing the Bullfighting Museum . If you take Calle Jerónimo Sainz de la Maza and cross the train tracks, you reach Parque de la Marga . Once on Calle Marques de la Hermida, you can stop by the Lonja de Pescado (Fishing Wharf) and the old fishermen's quarter, Barrio Pesquero . On Maliaño Dock, you can stop for a bite to eat at any of the numerous restaurants found here and sample some of the delicious fish and seafood caught fresh just off the coast.
Heading back towards Cuatro Camino, a little slower this time as it's uphill, take Calle Alta, where you can visit Santa Cruz Convent -although it no longer houses nuns but a tobacco factory-, the Regional Parliament (located in what was once the San Rafael Hospital, dating from the late 18th century) and Nuestra Señora de la Consolación Church , also from the 18th century.