18 December 2018.
Santander may be the capital of Cantabria, but for me, it acted as the gateway for a fantastic spring road trip through the lush neighbouring province of Asturias.
But before answering the call of the spectacular Picos de Europa and setting off to explore the enchanting coastal villages that dot the Spanish coastline, I spent two wonderful days in this small port town, caught between the mountains and the Bay of Biscay, falling even more in love with my favourite country in Europe.
My time was spent wandering the wide boulevards of the old town, watching the fishermen along the waterfront and strolling around the verdant Magdalena Peninsula before padding across the warm sandy shore for my first taste of the ocean in months. After a winter replete with dreary grey and frigid cold that felt like it would never end, being warmed by the soft spring sunshine and with the familiar smell of salty spray thick in the air, this place was just what I had been craving. That, and copious amounts of pintxos that this region just so happens to do superbly.
Santander is not a place for sightseeing and ticking off lists, it’s a place for lazy afternoon strolls beside the sea, indulging in fantastic food and wine and enjoying the laidback vibe that exudes from the city streets.
This is my short guide to the best things to do in Santander, whether you’re here for a weekend getaway or to kick off your very own road trip across the beautiful north coast of Spain.
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My first morning in Santander, I set off without much of a plan and found myself some hours later with a grumbling belly having unexpectedly walked some 11km along the glorious waterfront. As it turns out, the beaches, parks and fabulous views were more than enough to encourage me to go just that little bit further.
Start with a delectably creamy ice-cream from Helado Regma on Paseo de Pereda before climbing the stairs to the roof of Centro Botin to enjoy the free views over the bay and looking back towards the old town. From there, stroll along the waterfront toward the green parks and palace of Peninsula Magdalena and onwards across the powdery sand of Sardinero and a well-deserved dip if you’re lucky with the weather.
With a growing appetite, I stopped in here for a 3-course menu del dia at, I think, Cormoran which is reasonably priced and has a lovely setting overlooking the beach. The interior feels a little like a high-school canteen but the food and wine were both generous and delicious for just €15 with a view.
Continue along the promenade, ducking beneath the wisteria hung archways that line the waterfront and across Parque de Mataleñas towards the lighthouse and mirador of Cabo Mayor before making your way back to Sardinero.
It took me most of the day to complete this walk at a leisurely pace before taking the bus back to Santander. To speed things up, it’s also possible to cycle with bike paths almost the entire way along the coast except for the final stretch leading toward the lighthouse where it’s probably a good idea to lock the bike up instead. You’ll find an automated bike rental station beside the waterfront in Santander payable by the hour or full day along with a sizeable deposit.
Something I haven’t spoken about nearly enough, or even at all, on The Sandy Feet is my deep, unwavering love for Spanish cuisine and its penchant for bite-sized portions. In my mind, devouring numerous tiny morsels of flavour-packed food instead of one big meal just makes good sense and is certainly the perfect way to experience a new destination. And as every region of Spain boasts a new array of specialities, there are always endless possibilities of exciting dishes to try.
While in Asturias I would be introduced to the delights of its famous high-pouring cidra and queso de cabrales, Santander was all about pintxos rich with seafood and pork with nowhere better to try that first bite than perennially popular Casa Lita.
Set across from the waterfront, it was immediately clear why so many people were squeezed into this tiny, fast-paced and dimly-lit tapas bar – the food was completely delicious and the prices surprisingly affordable.
Head chef Joseba Guijarro who once earned a Michelin Star personally visits the markets daily to select the freshest ingredients and craft these tiny flavour-filled plates of food into something special. Think cured cod with black olives and slow roasted pork drizzled in a sweet fruity glaze. Prices for wine start from just €1.60 a glass while pintxos start at €2.60.
Nestled between the rolling hills and verdant farmlands beyond Santander lies the impossibly pretty medieval town of Santillana del Mar.
Sure it’s a little touristy, but this tiny maze of cobbled streets and sandstone facades brimming with colourful flower boxes and draped with the scent of baking tarts provides an excellent introduction to the Spanish countryside and is a delightful place to wander for an hour or two.
While Santillana del Mar was the first stop on my road trip across northern Spain, at just 30-minutes from Santander it makes an easy half day trip as well. Best is to drive and leave your car at the large parking lot outside the village, otherwise, there are daily buses between Santillana del Mar and Santander with Autobuses La Cantabrica.
Sadly, I have a terrible habit of visiting the Spanish coast when it’s much too cold for swimming and my arrival in Santander in early April was no exception. Still, the beaches that wrap around Santander are lovely at any time of year with a mixture of long arching bay and secluded coves dressed in powdery blonde sand and small inviting waves that call you for a swim.
Sardinero, the city’s biggest and most popular beach, is easily accessible by local bus or on a long, leisurely walk around the headland, while those looking to stay closer to town will find a handful of smaller bays scattered around the Magdalena Peninsular.
Santander’s old town is a wonderful mix of beautiful pastels, grand architecture and wide sandstone boulevards, alongside unkempt plazas and gritty backstreets that beg to be explored.
The old town itself is compact and laid out in a neat grid that hugs the lively waterfront area. Whether you’re after a dimly-lit tapas bar, a tasty treat or a glimpse at one of the city’s historic churches, you’ll find it all within walking distance between the historic city streets.
Enjoy Santander’s many plazas and pretty streets on your way to Mercado de la Esperanza, and while you’re on your feet, you can stroll even further to Barrio Pesquero, the fishing district beyond the old town that wraps around the marina and where you’ll find the fish market and a cluster of restaurants. Unfortunately, I left this too late in the day and everything was closed up when I arrived, but this quiet neighbourhood is rumoured to serve some of the city’s best seafood.
Santander Central Hostel | A great option for budget-travellers, this colourful and friendly hostel is in an excellent location right opposite the bus and trains stations and just a short walk from the old town centre. Breakfast and all day tea are included, there’s a large chillout area, plenty of lockers and a guest kitchen. Check rates and availability here.
Santander also boasts plenty of family-run guesthouses and lovely hotels opening up onto the city’s many plazas. Check rates and availability here.
Plane | Wedged between Cantabria, Asturias and the stunning Picos de Europa, Santander is not just an excellent stop for a city break, it makes a perfect jumping off point for exploring the north of Spain as well. As a result, it’s well serviced by many of Europe’s low-cost carriers from destinations across Europe and the UK.
Ferry | Arriving from the UK? It’s also possible to reach Santander by ferry from both Plymouth and Portsmouth and bring your vehicle with you.
Rental Car | While Santander itself is easily navigable on foot, bicycle or public bus, once you begin to look beyond the city, having your own vehicle is really the best way to get around. I arrived in Santander to kick off my road trip through Asturias and, after spending two days in the city, picked up my car at the airport and made a beeline for the coast.
Bus + Train | If you’re not renting a car, the region outside of Santander is well serviced by both long-distance buses and trains, especially during summer, though reaching some smaller towns can be tricky. The terminals are right next to each other on the edge of Santander’s old town.
Airport Bus | ALSA runs a convenient bus service between the airport and Santander every half hour. The trip takes just 15 minutes and costs €2.90 from the driver.