In this month’s featured destination, we will travel to Santander on Spain’s wild northern coast and review why it should be high on your list for a city trip.
With Spanish hotspots like Barcelona being overrun by tourists and secondary cities like Valencia and Seville also gaining in popularity, many travellers are looking for an alternative destination in Spain where they can get their fill of culture and tapas.
Although Santander might not be the first city that would jump to your mind, it is actually a lovely little city with great transportation links, a lively local restaurant and pub scene as well as plenty of sights to keep even the most jaded of travellers entertained.
Situated on Spain’s northern coast, Santander and the wider province of Cantabria is unlike anything else in the country. On arrival you will instantly notice some architectural differences as well as a different climate than the arid landscapes which are typical for so many other areas of the Iberian peninsula.
Historically, Celtic tribes inhabited these lands – and looking at the green coastline, pints of cider and even bagpipes you might well think you landed in Ireland. Make no mistake however, despite the strong Celtic influences Santander remains quintessential Spanish in daily life.
Even though I arrived late in the evening I had no problems at all finding a good tapas bar in the old town for a first meal on my weekend break, having some crispy calamari and spicy patatas bravas washed away with an excellent white from neighbouring Galicia.
Exploring the town
Having woken up early the next morning I stopped at the hotel restaurant for a quick coffee and sandwich before heading out into town to explore the sights of Santander.
There is no better place to start your Santander city trip than taking the funicular (Ascensor Río de la Pila) to the top of a hill for sweeping views over the town and the Bay of Santander. Unfortunately the funicular was temporarily out of use due to high winds when I visited, although you can still easily reach the viewing platform by a series of escalators and stairs.
Walking down again into the old town I couldn’t help but feel how Santander felt like a smaller, seaside version of Madrid.
The Plaza Porticada square resembled a bit of the historic Plaza Mayor of Madrid, while some of Santander’s main arteries such as the Calle Calvo Sotelo and Paseo de Pereda reminded me of the grandeur of some of the boulevards of the Spanish capital being flanked with some iconic buildings.
Unlike Madrid, it all felt delightfully calm, with hardly any tourist visible and the handful of locals all minding their own business.
As a maritime city, there is a lot of life going on at the seafront of Santander. Start at the lovely Jardines de Pereda park and walk towards the seaside, where the modernist Centro Botin, which almost resembles a beached spacecraft, dominates the view.
Inaugurated in 2017, the relatively new museum designed by famous architect Renzo Piano is home to an arts center and symbol of modern-day Santander.
From the Centro Botin it is a lovely walk along the seaside promenade to Playa Los Peligros, the first of Santander’s city beaches, passing by a small seaside palace (Palacete del Embarcadero) which was used for exhibitions as well as a number of unusual statues.
Another unusual landmark is the Palacio de Festivales de Cantabria, a stage venue which in bad weather looks like a scene straight out of a horror movie akin to Sauron’s Barad-dûr tower in the Lord of the Rings.
To many, a Spanish city trip is not complete without a stop at the beach. Santander has many great beaches – although they are probably not what you might expect from beach in Spain.
Santander’s climate is relatively cold and wet – the city sees about as much sunshine as London – and the beaches therefore almost feel like the ones you can see in Ireland or Scotland. Even though swimming in the cold waters in spring doesn’t seem like a great idea (summer should be fine though!) the beaches are excellent for a long beach walk admiring the sweeping views over the bay.
This is especially true for the beaches facing south over the bay such as Playa de los Peligros, Playa de la Magdalena and Playa de los Bikinis.
The far end of the peninsula on which Santander is located is arguably home to Santander’s most famous sight: the Magdalena Palace (Palacio de la Magdalena) which is a former royal summer residence from the early 20th century.
Around the palace is a beautiful park land full of flowers, forests and steep cliffs, making for some more great walks. Look out for tiny Mouro island and its lighthouse in the distance!
Perhaps the best known beach of Santander is the Playa del Sardinero, which faces the open sea. This area is home to some historical seaside hotels as well as some fancy apartment buildings.
The area is also home to many restaurants and bars, making it a great place for a lunch break. Looking at the architecture of some of the buildings and the beach I couldn’t help but think that I could have as well stood somewhere on the British isles!
A Spanish city trip is of course not complete without a proper tapas crawl – and Santander does not disappoint when it comes to this. Calle Arrabal is a great starting point for a tapas crawl.
Although the old town is fairly small (Santander proper only has around 170,000 inhabitants) there are enough tapas bars to keep you occupied. Service is friendly, prices are good and the atmosphere is jolly. I certainly had a fun night eating and drinking around town, stopping by multiple places and sampling their specialties.
With the end of the tapas crawl also came an end to my short city trip to Santander – as I would head onward to Bilbao the next day. Even though staying one day in town (like I did) is enough to see the main sights, you can easily spend two days or more as well if you want to take some downtime at the beach or visit some of the museums.
What I liked most of Santander was the vibe in the town. Not only did Santander had some unique Celtic touch which you will not find in Spain’s more touristy corners, it also has a lively drinking and eating scene. It does really make for a fun city trip no matter if you stay only a single day or a whole weekend.
The fresh sea air and calm atmosphere makes for some relaxed sightseeing and walking through town, taking in all the sights while making several breaks for some good food and drinks. With not many other tourists around and cheaper than average prices compared to most other Spanish cities, it is an excellent destination – and I would love to return.
Where to stay in Santander
Most of the cities hotels are clustered around the area of the old town, port and railway station – and this is by far the most central part of Santander to stay. There are also some hotels, as well as many rental apartments, in the Sardinero area – which might be a good option in summer if the beach is your main goal.
I stayed at the Hotel Bahía, paying 70 EUR/night for a single room without breakfast. It is a solid 4* star mid-range hotel located right at the main port where ferries depart to England, which makes it a beloved place to stay among the British. Even if you did not add breakfast to your booking, you can easily grab a cheap coffee and sandwich in the hotel bar, which is a popular place among British and Spanish alike for a coffee or an evening drink.
Even though I stayed in one of the older rooms (most of the rooms have been recently refurbished and now look a lot brighter and more modern!) I still had a good stay, having a solid night sleep and receiving friendly, helpful service by hotel employees at the reception and bar.
How to reach Santander
Santander Airport (SDR) sees quite some service on low-cost airlines to several cities throughout Europe. Ryanair currently connects the airport to Bergamo, Bologna, Brussels-Charleroi, Dublin, Edinborough, London (Stansted) and Rome (Ciampino).
Wizz Air flies from Santander to Bucharest, Budapest, Katowice and Warsaw, while Lauda flies to Vienna. Ryanair, Volotea, Binter Canarias, Vueling and Iberia operate domestic flights within Spain to several destinations across the country, including the Balearic and Canary Islands. If you don’t have a direct flight available to Santander your best bet is to search for a one-stop itinerary on Vueling (with a change of planes in Barcelona) or Iberia (through Madrid).
Of course, you can also reach Santander by train. RENFE operates fast trains towards Valladolid and Madrid, while narrow gauge railway operator FEVE runs rickety, slow trains along the coast towards Oviedo and Bilbao. Both railway stations are located next to each other in the centre of town. Buy high-speed RENFE train tickets to Madrid in advance for the cheapest prices. Fixed-price tickets on FEVE can only be bought at the station.
The invaluable railway website Seat61 has more details on how to travel from Santander to the most popular Spanish destinations.
Even though I hugely prefer trains (more fun and scenic!), buses are often the way to travel in Spain between cities. Santander to Bilbao only takes one-and-a-half hour by bus, while the FEVE train takes double the amount of time. For bus timetables and ticket prices, go to the website of bus operator ALSA.
Lastly, British and Irish travellers will love the opportunity to hop on a ferry directly into Santander, which surely must be the most spectacular way to arrive slowly sailing into Santander Bay. Currently, Brittany Ferries operates sailings to Plymouth and Portsmouth in the UK, as well as to Cork in the Republic of Ireland, although the latter will be replaced by a new Rosslare to Bilbao route somewher in 2020.
For more details on the actual experience on board a ferry to Spain, check out the first-hand review of the Man in Seat 61 travelling on the flagship ‘Pont Aven’ from Santander to Portsmouth.
Getting around Santander
Santander is a small enough town to walk to pretty much all the sights in town. The city does however have an excellent bus network, which is a good option to cover the longer distances such as from the old town to the Sardinero beaches. Tickets can be bought in the bus.
Read about other destinations!
In our trip report section, we have written multiple diary accounts of holidays across the world which can serve as an inspiration for your next trip. These trip reports are full of destination guides such as this article, as well as reviews of hotels, airlines and other modes of transport.