Airport Rating N/A
Reception of locals ****
Santander is the capital city of Cantabria, but with a population of around half a million, it's a mid-sized city by European standards and unlike some of its more illustrious cousins in the regions either side, Asturias and the Basque Country, Santander's history is largely pretty quiet - although it does give its name to the famous high street bank!
Its excellent natural harbour meant that it made for a good port city and that allowed it to trade extensively with countries in Northern Europe and North America, making it an important trading post for the Spanish Empire, although not quite as important as other port cities on the northern coast. Today, the port largely supports tourists from the UK who board the ferry in southern England and make the near one-day journey by sea.
Other than the ferries from England, the city feels a little small, a little sleepy, and little run down. But that's not to say there aren't things to see and do.
Palaces and Peninsulas
Geographically, a small peninsula jutting out to the east of the city on the northern Spanish coast is the most interesting feature of Santander. The Magdalena Peninsula cuts into the shimmering waters of the Cantabrian Sea and is perhaps best known for the Palacio de la Magdalena, a palace that serves as an emblematic symbol of the region's heritage.
Built at the turn of the 20th century, it has a blend of various styles, including Gothic, English, and French influences. Originally, it was intended as a royal residence for the Spanish royal family but it is now a cultural centre.
I'll be honest, I have no idea why it is so popular. It is neither particularly old, nor is it particularly Spanish or Cantabrian. It looks more like a mid-market English hotel than a palace. It was my first impression of the city, and unfortunately left a less than high mark that carried over during the next several days.
One of the main attractions on the peninsula is the expansive and well-kept park surrounding the palace. Here you get views of the beautiful coastline and randomly a small zoo-like area where seals are kept captive, their feeding times attracting many local families and tourists. The loud whirring of machinery nearby is a large filtration system between the seawater and the area housing the seals. It all seems quite random and disjointed.
Nearby is the Playa de El Sardinero, the most famous beach in Santander and a legitimately nice city beach that is quieter than its cousins in Catalunya, Valencia and the south of Spain.
At slightly over a kilometre long, Playa de El Sardinero boasts a wide expanse of soft, golden sands that extend gently into the Cantabrian Sea. The beach's name, "El Sardinero," is derived from the traditional sardine fishing activities that once took place in the area, showcasing its historical ties to the sea.
The beach itself is large, well kept, and has all the things you'd expect from a large city beach, from aqua sports to more relaxing deck chairs, towels, and umbrellas. Along the promenade there are quite a few bars, restaurants, and ice cream shops to pop into while walking along the glistening coastline. One of these, Restaurante El Serbal, is located right at the top of the beach with large windows that look over the sand and into the sea.
Beyond its natural beauty, Playa de El Sardinero is steeped in history. The Casino de El Sardinero, an elegant building that graces the beachfront, serves as a reminder of the city's Belle Époque era when Santander was a favourite retreat for Spanish royalty and aristocracy. Closeby is the Estadio El Sardinero, the home of Racing Clube de Santander, one of the founding members of La Liga, however the stadium, much like the club, has seen better days.
The main city core is a short drive away, or about a 40 minute walk from the beach and peninsula area. It's a nice walk and you can do most of the journey along the coastline.
In the city centre, one of the main attractions is Santander Cathedral, or the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Santander. This magnificent cathedral is a testament to the city's rich history, spiritual significance, and architectural grandeur, and is definitely one of the more striking landmarks in the city.
Construction of the cathedral began in the 12th century, during the Romanesque period, and continued over several centuries, incorporating various architectural styles, including Gothic and Baroque elements. This amalgamation of styles has resulted in a visually captivating structure that tells the story of Santander's evolution through the ages.
Santander suffered two huge catastrophes over a year 50-year period, both impacting the cathedral. In 1893, a steamship exploded, killing hundreds of onlookers and severely damaging buildings close to the harbour, including the cathedral. After escaping serious damage during the Spanish Civil War, the Santander great fire in 1941 severely damaged the cathedral which required extensive reconstruction during the 1950s.
The cathedral's exterior is notable for its impressive façade adorned with intricate stone carvings and sculptures. The main entrance, flanked by towering columns, leads visitors into a world of religious and artistic art and relics. A rose window above the entrance bathes the interior in a soft, ethereal light. It looks quite brutal from the front, but in a good, imposing, kind of way.
Inside, the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción features a breathtaking nave with soaring Gothic arches, vaulted ceilings, and an atmosphere of serene grandeur. One of the most cherished treasures within the cathedral is the relic of the Christ of the Agony, an exquisite sculpture carved by Manuel Alvarez in the 18th century.
The cathedral's altarpieces, chapels, and religious artwork are pretty special, and the Capilla de San Emeterio, dedicated to the city's patron saint, is a place of special significance, often visited by worshippers. The cloisters and the crypt (for which you have to pay extra) are definitely worth visiting and still contains some stones from the Roman period - I'd recommend paying the little extra to see it.
Behind the cathedral is nice little area by the water's edge which had a small arts and crafts market when I was there. The water's edge is home to Centro Botin, an arts centre that really stands out in the city with its bold white facade and modern design. It looks a little like a spaceship landing in the middle of a sleepy city and despite its impressive design feels a bit out of place.
Fiestas and Festivals
Heading further into the old town is Puerto Chico, a historic port in the heart of Santander. This area has been a focal point of maritime activity for centuries, serving as a hub for fishing and trade. Today, Puerto Chico remains a testament to the city's maritime heritage, with a collection of quaint fishing boats bobbing gently in the waters, creating a postcard-perfect scene.
One of the defining features of Puerto Chico is its stunning waterfront promenade. The Paseo de Pereda, named after the renowned 19th-century novelist José María de Pereda, stretches along the port's edge and offers captivating views of the bay.
Along the promenade, you'll find a mix of grand 19th-century buildings, many of which house charming cafes and restaurants. The iconic Palacete del Embarcadero, a neoclassical building that once served as a customs house, is a prime example of this architectural heritage.
Puerto Chico is also home to the Real Club Marítimo de Santander, a prestigious yacht club with a long history. Its elegant clubhouse and marina are a nod to Santander's status as a popular sailing destination. During regatta season, the marina comes alive with the vibrant colours of sails billowing in the wind, creating a dynamic and exhilarating atmosphere.
The area gives its name to a little plaza that gets quite busy during the evening with people flowing outside of bars and restaurants. It's a nice and lively part of the city that's worth walking through.
It leads into one of many public squares (or plazas) deeper in the historical core. Plazas like Plaza de Pombo, Plaza Porticada, and Plaza del Ayuntamiento are quiet during the hot days but get very lively during the cooler evenings and nights. During my first pass in the middle of the day it felt like an absolute ghost town. During the evening, it was a completely different experience.
I visited during Santander Big Week which meant there were pop up concerts, bands playing, and even parades during the few days I was in town. It was a fascinating experience as there seemed to be a community feel that you don't quite get in larger cities, and particularly in northern Europe,
As part of the "Day of Cantabria" a huge parade celebrated the different communities that constitute the autonomous region, with floats, dancers, and different groups in their traditional dress. It was something I really enjoyed and it's an event I would absolutely recommend. The only issue is, it's pretty tough to find a table to eat in the evenings.
There are several markets in the city, but I really enjoyed Mercado del Este. This lively market, also known as the East Market, stands as a testament to the city's rich culinary traditions and cultural heritage.
Housed in a striking building that dates back to the early 20th century, Mercado del Este boasts an architectural blend of modernism and neo-Mudejar styles, creating an inviting and visually appealing atmosphere. Inside you have fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, and prepared foods.
It was this beautiful architecture, with a wooden and classy construction, that really made a mark on me. I'd visited a whole bunch of markets during my trip to northern Spain, but the decor and architecture meant that even though this wasn't the biggest or most famous, it was the one that I remember the most..
The market is in the middle of a couple of busy squares during the evening, and it's a nice way of avoiding the heat of the day as it is all indoors. Big thumbs up from me.
Santander didn't quite live up to the hype that it sometimes gets, so I decided to check out some towns and villages nearby. Not to say Llanes is nearby, it's about an hour east by car and is actually in the region of Asturias rather than Cantabria, but it's definitely worth the detour if you have the time.
Sometimes I wonder - if Spain is the favoured holiday destination for Brits and Germans - where do the Spanish prefer? Well, many of them head to the cooler north of country and particularly to the towns of Llanes and Ribadesella - and with Llanes it's not hard to see why.
The beaches of Llanes are among its most captivating features. The town is blessed with a string of beautiful sandy shores that cater to various tastes. Playa de Toro, with its dramatic cliffs and powerful waves, is a favourite among surfers and adventure seekers. For those seeking a more tranquil sunbathing experience, Playa de Sablón offers golden sands, calm waters, and a pleasant promenade dotted with cafes where you can enjoy refreshments with a view of the sea. The beaches were packed on my trip to the town, but luckily, I got there early enough to get a nice parking spot next to the beach.
A short walk inland, and you head into the old town. The historic centre enclosed by medieval walls, exudes a timeless charm. The narrow, cobbled streets wind their way past centuries-old stone buildings adorned with colourful balconies filled with flowers. Plazas and squares provide pleasant spots to relax and soak up the atmosphere. The Basilica of Santa Maria, an impressive example of Gothic architecture, stands as a majestic centerpiece of the old town.
You know those places where you visit and you begin to daydream what it would be like to live there? This is definitely one of those places. Wandering further, you'll come across the picturesque port area, where fishing boats sway gently in the tide. The charming fishing village atmosphere remains intact, and it's not uncommon to see locals going about their daily routines as they have for generations. A word of warning - food here isn't cheap and it's significantly more than the larger cities of Gijon and Santander on either side.
Walk a little further out still, and you come across Paseo de San Pedro, an absolutely gorgeous coastal walk high above the beach area. The views across to the sea in the north are stunning, with beautiful cliffs jutting into the sea. It's a really spectacular part of the town, and surprisingly quiet.
And even further is the beautiful Playa de Cue, an almost magical beach surrounded by greenery and multiple islands - it's one of those places as you walk towards it you have to do a bit of a double take because it just seems so... different.
The thing about Llanes is that it is more than just the town centre, there is a sea to swim in, caves to explore, and hills to hike - if you have a couple of days, this should definitely be the place to stop off and unwind a little bit.
Another 30 minutes' drive east of Llanes is the town of Ribadesella another coastal town popular with Spaniards, although, for me, not quite as nice as Llanes.
First, I got here a little later in the day and I then spent the best part of an hour finding a parking space. The narrow streets making driving difficult at the best of times, but when every street is packed with cars, things get a little tricky.
Ribadesella is famous for its old town, beaches, mountains, and caves slightly outside the main town. The most famous cave is the Tito Bustillo Cave which has prehistoric wall paintings from almost 30,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the town forms part of the Picos de Europa, a line of mountains across northern Spain. Close to the town is Playa de Santa Marina, a decent beach, while slightly further out is Vega beach.
Within the town itself there is a nice little old town with colourful buildings and small bars and restaurants. The Plaza de Abastos, a central market square, is a bustling hub where locals and tourists come together to sample regional delicacies, including fresh seafood and artisanal cheeses.
Within the old town are the Coloured Steps, locally known as the "Escaleras de Colores," a vibrant and whimsical feature that adds a splash of colour to the town's picturesque harbour. These steps, which lead up from the waterfront to the old town, are painted in bright hues that contrasts beautifully with the traditional stone buildings that line the streets. The Coloured Steps have become an iconic symbol of Ribadesella, making them a popular spot for visitors to take photographs. They are nice, but quite understated and nowhere near the scale of the Lapa Steps in Rio (which you can read about here).
Much like Llanes, things are a little more expensive here, but for some reason, I just didn't enjoy this town as much as its sister city to the west. I want to keep open minded, during my visit it was a little overcast and this probably took away from the experience a little bit, but even then, I thought the layout - with a busy road cutting through the middle of the town - just wasn't as nice (from a tourist perspective) as Llanes.
Is Santander worth visiting?
It wasn't my favourite city, and although I know it is favoured by many tourists and Spaniards alike, I thought Bilbao was considerably more interesting, and I actually even preferred Gijon to Santander.
I'm not sure why. There was nothing offensively bad about Santander, but compared to some of its illustrious neighbours, it just seemed like it had less to offer. Perhaps it is unfair to compare it to others and consider it on its own. The plazas and beaches were nice enough and the cost is reasonable. You won't find any Sikhs here, but the people were generally friendly enough.
If you're in the north of Spain, it's definitely worth passing through, but I found the towns and villages around the city more interesting than the city itself.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.