Best known for its elegant capital city of Santander, the region of Cantabria in northern Spain is a verdant land of rambling mountains, butterscotch beaches and medieval villages.
Get ready for warm welcomes, larger-than-life characters and some of the best food and vino in Spain!
One of the things that makes Cantabria so special is that it’s bordered by the Spanish regions of Castile and León, Asturias, and the Basque Country, making it an ideal base from which to explore the best of “Green Spain”, as this luscious nook of the country is known.
This is my travel guide to the best things to do and see in Cantabria, with essential tips on where to eat, drink and sleep – in the capital city of Santander and beyond.
Find Your Bearings in Santander, the Region’s Capital City
Santander is a handsome beachfront city with a stoic sensibility and regal history. Its elegant frontline overlooks the sea and is brought to life with the curves and colours of the belle-époque. Cantabrians exude a natural grace and cool sophistication – seemingly always dressed for business or important social engagements.
There’s none of the beach-bum frivolities of Spain’s more infamous beach towns farther south. In fact, Santander (and Cantabria as a whole for that matter) is nothing like the Spain most of us picture when we dream of sun, sangria and siestas. Santander is no Sevilla, Marbella or Barcelona.
My girlfriend Rosana, who comes from Asturias, just a few miles away, says that the people in Santander are known for being “pijos” – posh and wealthy. And it’s immediate to see: the refined couture, the fur coats and excessive cologne.
We walked the boutique-bedazzled streets and strolled the Paseo de Pereda promenade down to the manicured Jardines de Pereda, and it reminded me more of Brighton, England than Benidorm, Spain.
Tip: Santander is an important port city and is famous for its ferry routes between Spain and Plymouth/Portsmouth in England. This makes it the perfect for Brits who want to get to Spain without flying, or for those who want to take their own car and explore the the best of northern Spain in the comfort of their own vehicle.
Things to Do in Santander City
Take a stroll along the sprawling stretch of sand at Playa Sardinero, Santander’s main beach
Apparently it receives a pretty decent swell on a good day (like much of Spain’s “Green Coast” Cantabria has world-class surfing conditions).
The beach is made even more impressive by its imposing Gran Casino del Sardinero, just in case you fancy dropping a few yo-yos (euros).
Head to the Faro Cabo Mayor (Lighthouse)
Like a toothpick in the Bay of Santander’s mouth, this suitably pretty lighthouse offers sweeping views across land and sea. I loved how it gave me a sense of perspective – of the city, coast and countryside.
It’s not far out of the city centre but it’s far enough away to warrant driving.
Eat Like a Local at Bodega El Riojano
I highly recommended enjoying your first meal in Cantabria at Santander’s historic, wood-on-wood coachhouse-style Bodega El Riojano. It dates back to 1940 and is something of a local institution, with traditional Cantabrian dishes that draw on the region’s rugged mountains, pasturelands, rivers and the Cantabrian Sea.
Expect hearty platters of barbecued meat, fish (don’t miss the house special salt cod with tomato sauce and Cantabrian style hake), as well as plenty of Spanish wine.
Discover Santander’s Magdalena Palace and its History of Greed and Exile
Plonked on a headland overlooking the Bay of Santander, Magdalena Palace is the most-visited tourist attraction in Santander. It was originally built for King Alfonso XIII and his English wife Queen Victoria Eugenia (hence the somewhat Anglicised design).
The construction costs were footed by the government of Santander, who believed the presence of the royal family would attract other high status families and businesses. The plan worked perfectly and the royals spent all of their summer holidays at the palace up until 1930, when they were exiled to France and Italy as a result of the Second Spanish Republic.
The palace was inherited by the king’s son Don Juan de Borbón, who had the gumption to sell it back to the city of Santander for 150 million pesetas. The poor get poorer, the rich… See the full story here.
Electrify Your Tastebuds with Cantabria’s World-Famous Anchovies
Whether you’re a fan of these salty little slivers or not, it’s likely you’ve heard about how good Cantabria’s famous anchovies are. They’re fresh, firm and meaty, with just the right balance of salt. They’re treated very much as an artisanal product, so don’t let the fact that they come in a tin put you off – tinned fish and shellfish is something of an art form in Spain.
You’ll find anchovies, or ‘anchoas del Cantábrico’, on almost every menu at every bar and restaurant in Cantabria. Remember that, like salt, anchovies are natural flavour enhancers and best enjoyed with a few other tapas dishes and a good bottle of dry white wine. There are tons of great tapas bars and restaurants in Santander, along streets just behind the front line, like Calle Peña Herbosa and Calle Daoiz y Velarde. I recommend the cool but casual little spot of Toñin Y Bruma.
Go Slow in the Medieval Village of Santillana del Mar (AKA “The Town of Three Lies”)
The north of Spain is like an oil painting of rolling green countryside dotted with colourful little villages left untouched by the sands of time. Santillana del Mar is one of them and is known affectionately as the “Town of Three Lies”. Its name – Santi (holy), llana (flat), del mar (of the sea) – is neither holy nor flat and is located nowhere near the sea.
This perfectly preserved medieval time-warp is a warren of cobble-stoned streets and flower-drooping Juliet balconies.
There’s not an awful lot to do other than peruse the little gift shops and amble through the historic streets, stopping in the square to for a glass of vino or an ice cream.
Don’t miss the the Museum of Inquisition (Museo de la Inquisicion), aka “The Torture Museum”, for an eye-watering insight into the way things used to be done in these parts.
Discover 36,000-Year-Old Graffiti at the Altamira Cave
Cantabria is famous for its ancient caves, but the one you really need to visit is the cave of Altamira in Santillana del Mar.
Though it’s difficult to fathom or, at times, believe, this cave’s undulating stone ceilings are covered in hand-drawn renderings created by our ancestors over thousands of years – 36,000 years to be precise. And, no, that’s not a mistake.
Scrawled with little more than fragments of charcoal, ochre and haematite, these ancient sketches depict the most desirable local animals of the time: horses, goats, wild boar, deer and the now extinct steppe bison.
What amazed me even more was that we could see where the artists had incorporated the natural contours of the rock to give their drawings a more lifelike, three-dimensional appearance. And who said 3D printing was a new invention?
It goes without saying that the original cave is invaluable in terms of science, history and archeology, and somewhat delicate, so the cave that’s now open to the public is actually a replica (located just a few hundred metres from the cave proper). But honestly, you wouldn’t know – I didn’t even realise it was a replica until our guide mentioned it as we were leaving. Apparently I hadn’t been listening carefully enough. Quite embarrassing, really.
Sip Your Way Through Cantabria’s Blossoming Local Vineyards
The neighbouring wine regions of Galicia and Rioja are far better known for their wine culture, but Cantabria is also home to a burgeoning wine scene, typically driven by small families and groups of friends.
One of my all-time favourite vino experiences (and god knows I’ve had my fair share) in Spain was had at Bodegas Vidular. This small boutique winery is run by brothers Jon and Mikel Durán, with a little help from their white-whiskered father (whom I assume still owns the land).
“I work in the office and Jon works in the vines,” Mikel joked as he introduced us to his brother. “His hands are softer than mine.”
It was early, ten or eleven am, and I felt groggy from all the travel and the over indulgence that goes along with it. But my spirits lifted as they ushered us into an agricultural space filled with steel vats the size of spaceships.
Mikel held court, handing out glasses that Jon filled with a cloudy white wine that tasted like sparkling grape juice. After my second glass, I noticed that my grogginess had miraculously shifted. From here, Mikel and Jon led us into their little rural hotel to try a bottle of the final product.
They’d put on a good spread of chorizo, jamón, slices of cheese, fresh bread and Cantabrian anchovies drizzled in olive oil – “The best in the world!”.
Made with a blend of albariño, treixadura and chardonnay grapes, which are more commonly associated with wines from nearby Galicia and Pais Vasco, the wines were fresh and zesty, with bursts of citrus and eucalyptus. I revelled in the way the acidity cleansed our mouths and balanced out the saltiness of the little tinned treats.
The brothers loosened up as they saw us enjoying ourselves (and having enjoyed a few slurps themselves) and continued to entertain with a bottle of their take on French champagne, popping the cork across the room and pouring it generously into vintage flutes like it was New Year’s Eve.
“We make it the same way as Cava in Catalonia, or Champagne in France. But we can’t call it Cava or Champagne, so we just call it sparkling wine,” Jon explained humbly.
Address: Barrio Rio Lastras 264, 39761, Junta de Voto, Cantabria
Traverse the Hillside Vines of Bodega Miradorio de Ruiloba
Owned and operated by a group of five friends, all of whom have full-time “proper” jobs, Bodega Miradorio de Ruiloba is a passion project that had made a big splash among the Cantabrian wine scene.
“There aren’t many people producing wines like this, and we’ve had amazing feedback already. Restaurants across Spain, in Madrid and Barcelona, are asking us for thousands and thousands of bottles, but we only produce a very small amount every year so we have to tell them no.”
In an rattly old 4×4, we bounced our way up a dusty dirt track to a hillside overlooking the sea and verdant fields peppered with terracotta-roofed houses.
The vines dropped heavily, weighed down by bulging bunches of ripe grapes, which a team of sun-struck men and women removed by the stalk and gently placed in huge crates.
It had always been a dream of mine to find myself among the vines during a harvest, and I wasn’t disappointed.
We sipped wine and talked like old friends with the owners. “I love that snappy apple bite,” I said, “it’s something I only get from wines from northern Spain.”
“Yes, and can you taste the subtle saltiness at the end? It’s because our vines are so close to the sea.”
Address: Ctra. Liandres al Bº La Iglesia, 39527 Ruilobuca, Cantabria
Move with the Sun at Antoni Gaudi’s Colourful El Capricho
You probably associate Antoni Gaudí with Barcelona, and rightly so, but you can also find a few of his bizarrely beautiful architectural designs in other parts of Spain. And one of his most interesting is located in the tiny Cantabrian town of Comillas.
El Capricho – which can be translated as “The Caprice”, or perhaps more fitting, “The Whim” – was designed and built between 1883 and 1885 as a summer residence for wealthy lawyer and music lover Máximo Díaz de Quijano, who, like many of the “Indianos” from northern Spain, made his fortune in Cuba.
The concept of the design was to inspire the house’s inhabitants to follow the sun from room to room, in the same way that sunflowers turn in pursuit of the sun throughout the day. The facade is adorned with hundreds of ceramic tiles bearing beautiful yellow sunflowers.
The style of the house is eclectic to say the very least, with Gaudi taking inspiration from neo-Mudejar, neo-Gothic, Persian and Japanese Oriental design – whatever the whimsical young architect desired, hence the name.
And as with almost all of Gaudi’s house designs there are many personalised elements that celebrate the owner’s personal interests.
As well as the sunflower theme, El Capricho celebrates Máximo Díaz de Quijano’s passion for music, with sinuous wrought iron balconies that flow like musical staves and notes, and dedicated music rooms with windows that “sing” when opened or closed.
Sadly, Quijano died at the age of 44, having lived in the house for just one week. And, apparently, though I can’t find any evidence to back this up, Gaudi never visited El Capricho.
This was one of the highlights for me in Cantabria and I highly recommend making a visit.
Feel Small and Insignificant at the Palacio de Sobrellano
Within strolling distance of El Capricho you will find the imposing Palacio de Sobrellano, another ‘Casa Indiano’ that reminded me of Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City manor.
It was built for the noble Marquis of Comillas Antonio López López, who became disgustingly wealthy by establishing the Compañía Transatlántica Española (transatlantic shipping company) and also, less commendably, by trading slaves, which was how many ‘Indianos’ grew so incredibly rich in such incredibly short periods of time.
This colossal property does not overlook the the nearby Comillas beach as you might naturally expect it to, but instead faces toward the Pontificia Comillas University. As many Indianos did upon returning to their home town with all of their money, Antonio López López became a benefactor to his home town and paid for the construction of the university.
Apparently he wanted to be able to watch over it from his home. I think of it as guilt money – coming home with great wealth and knowing exactly how you made it, and wanting to somehow buy respect or forgiveness.
Take Day Trips to the Surrounding Regions of Asturias, Galicia and Pais Vasco
Don’t miss Asturias’ famous cider and hearty cuisine. The elegant capital city of Oviedo and its surfy beach city of Gijon. The cutesy seaside towns of Llanes and Cudillero are guaranteed to steal your heart.
In the Basque Country you simply can’t miss a visit to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and wine tasting in the Rioja Alavesa. Be sure to explore the local txakoli wine and take part in a day of pintxo (tapas) bar hopping in San Sebastian.
And in beautiful Galicia, be sure to indulge in the best seafood you’ll ever try, along with the region’s renowned Albariño wines. Hike the Camino de Santiago or take it easy on “the most beautiful beach in the world” in the Cies Islands.
Sleep Like a King at One of Cantabria’s Regal “Palace Hotels”
Like much of ‘Green Spain’, Cantabria is famous for its palace hotels, which are basically converted mansions that were built by ‘Indianos’ returning home after making their fortunes in the ‘New World’.
Palacio de la Peña is a 16th century palace that has been sensitively transformed into a five-star hotel by owner Manuel, a seemingly talented architect and natural raconteur.
“How did you end up owning a palace?” we inquired.
“One day, when I was very hungover,” he started, “I went to the shop to buy some tobacco. I saw a property magazine that listed this place for sale. It was a ruin, nothing like it is now, but I bought it immediately. I didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my friends or family, for a whole year.”
Manuel began the renovation project and filling the property with period furnishings. The huge rooms are bedecked with historic writing bureaus decorated with mahogany and ivory, and gilt vestiges sourced from old churches.
“It’s difficult to decorate a place like this,” Manuel explained. “Not only because it’s very expensive, but also because it’s so difficult to find this amount of quality antiques.”
And how does one go about furnishing a property like this, anyway?
“I used to be an antique dealer,” Manuel shrugged casually. But of course he was!
The eight princely bedrooms are more like private apartments, with each offering views over the landscaped gardens and/or the Cantabrian Sea.
Other Recommended “Palace Hotels” in Cantabria
Make it Happen
Get there: As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cantabria is special in that you can reach it from the UK by ferry, making it the perfect gateway to Spain for those who dislike flying, or if you want to explore the country in your own vehicle. Brittany Ferries operate regular routes between Plymouth and Portsmouth to Santander.
Of course you can always fly to Santander too, or travel there by train from any other part of Spain – check out Renfe for rail routes.
Getting around: Northern Spain is a vast and sprawling land and I recommend exploring it by car. The roads are relatively quiet and easy to navigate, unlike the busier resorts and cities of Spain further south.
Where to stay in Cantabria: I highly recommend the beautiful palace hotels mentioned above if you want to stay in more rural locations.
If however you’d like to stay in Santander itself, then I recommend the 4* Silken Coliseum, which is centrally located and really well priced for budget travellers – I think we paid something like €50 a night. Though I should say the quality is more 3* than 4*.
More Travel Tips and Inspiration for Northern Spain