Spain is a popular tourist destination throughout the year and while the South may generally be more popular there is plenty that Northern Spain has to offer. From cosmopolitan Barcelona to industrial Bilbao, and the wild coast of Galicia in the North-West it all belongs in the ideal Spain tour. However, there is another northern destination in the gorgeous Basque country that is worth your time – Santander. Travellers fall in love with the delicious pintxos and tapas bars, beaches, nature, museums, cathedrals and all the things to do in Santander, Spain.
Situated on the North coast of the Cantabria region, Santander is a relatively small city but with a lot to offer. Having lived there for a year and a half I can say I know it well. More so in fact than my own hometown. Good food, beautiful scenery, incredible beaches and lots of opportunity to explore nature. Santander and the surrounding community of Cantabria have many reasons to visit.
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How to Get to Santander, Spain
There are several options for how to reach Santander. The UK has twice weekly flights from both London Stanstead and Edinburgh, plus ferries from Plymouth and Portsmouth (although this does take around 24 hours). You’ll also find flights from major European capitals such as Rome, Dublin, Bucharest, Vienna, Budapest as well as Marrakech in Morocco. Additionally, there are several destinations within Spain itself (including Madrid, Valencia, Malaga, Barcelona, Sevilla, Tenerife and others).
Santander airport is small, so don’t expect much in the way of facilities. However, there are a few restaurants on the airside of the terminal, and you can generally arrive later to pass through security quickly.
Getting from the airport to the city is one of the easiest things to do in Santander. The bus costs €2.90 and leaves every 30 minutes (on the hour and half hour), taking around 10-15 minutes to reach the center. Return buses depart at quarter past and quarter to each hour. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, although this is much more expensive at around €20.
If you’re traveling from elsewhere in Spain buses and trains are another option. From Madrid the train is typically four hours whilst the bus takes six. Much closer is Bilbao at just one and a half hours away by bus. Not only is it easier and cheaper to reach Santander (less than €7 per ticket) but Bilbao also has many more options for international flights.
Santander, Spain Weather and When to Visit Santander
The north of Spain is not always known for its spectacular weather. Due to being located on the coast, with the Cantabrian sea for company, it can be temperamental for much of the year. Having said that the summers are glorious. The beaches are always packed full of people, meaning you need to arrive early to secure a good spot. Santander is also very humid, especially in the summer. The humidity can be as high as 90 or even 100% some days.
The shoulder seasons are generally good. Santander in September has especially great weather without the crowds you’ll experience over the summer months. Later in the year you’ll find more rainy days (usually from early November) and the winter months can be very cold. The weather changes regularly, you’ll often see locals carrying an umbrella even on sunny days. The advantage of this is no matter the weather at the moment, there’s always a chance it will improve later.
The Top Things to Do in Santander
Visit Santander Spain Beaches
Santander sightseeing has plenty to offer. The city itself may be smaller than most but it has everything you need. You won’t have to worry about what to do in Santander, it’s full of options including, for me, the best city beach in Spain. Sardinero beach is a glorious long stretch of sand. The perfect place to spend several hours, whether it’s soaking up the sunshine, enjoying a game of palas with friends, cooling off in the sea or learning how to surf. You can even stop by El Piquío gardens high up between the two halves of the beach or buy an ice cream. Local company Regma sell enormous scoops for just €2.50 (the cheesecake flavour is highly recommended).
Surfing conditions are perfect all along the north coast and to find the best spot in Santander you just need to take a ferry across the bay to the town of Somo. You can catch the ferry from the city center (return tickets cost €5) and it takes around 30 minutes to cross. Somo has a completely different feel compared to Santander. It’s more of a chilled-out surfer town and a great place to spend a day or even the weekend. There are many bars and restaurants, with seafood a speciality. Just make sure to check the time of the last ferry back to Santander.
Other Santander Things to Do
Away from the beaches Santander’s top attraction is Magdalena Palace. Formerly the home for the royal family, the large mansion has enjoyed an interesting history. Entrance costs €3 and there are between three and six visits per day depending on the day of the week (less on a weekend). On Magdalena Peninsula you can enjoy great views towards Somo and the lighthouse on Mouro island. The grounds of the palace also offer a perfect spot to enjoy a picnic with friends and family. Make sure to stop by and see the seals and penguins before you leave.
In the city centre you’ll find Centro Botín. A large building next to the ferry stop which was paid for by the local Botín family (the same family who own Santander bank). The building certainly stands out and its appearance divides opinion (personally I think it’s ugly). Inside you’ll find an art gallery (entrance is €8 for visitors), which features changing exhibitions throughout the year, as well as a café. Alternatively, you can take the steps (or the ‘singing’ elevator) to the roof for free and enjoy the views across the bay towards Somo and back to the city. You’ll find a more impressive viewpoint by taking the funicular (which is also free) from Calle Río de la Pila in the center.
Exploring Santander on Foot
One of the best things to do in Santander is enjoy a nice seaside stroll, and the city has two very nice coastal walks. Both take between one and two hours depending on how long you stop to enjoy the scenery. The first is from the city center towards Magdalena Palace and starts by the bay following the coast past the boating clubs and taking in several beaches along the way.
The second leads towards the lighthouse at Cabo Mayor. Starting from the opposite end of Sardinero beach to the palace, follow the coast around the golf course until you reach Cabo Mayor. You can appreciate the power of the waves as they crash against the rocks beneath your feet and stare out into the vast sea beyond. A good stopping point is Playa de Mataleñas. A small cove with steps leading down to the protected beach, which is ideal for either a swim or just spending a few hours relaxing. Once at the lighthouse you’ll find a restaurant where you can regain some energy before heading back to town.
Day Trips From Santander
The community of Cantabria has many beautiful towns worth visiting. The picturesque (if touristy) Santillana del Mar, the coastal town of Comillas with its Gaudi house or San Vicente de la Barquera to name just a few. Cantabria also has Cabárceno Natural Park; a type of zoo with over a hundred different animal species from all over the world living in what is described as semi-free conditions. The park is spread over almost 2,000 acres with all the animals living in large enclosures. Entrance to the park costs between €17 and €32 for an adult (depending on the time of year) and €9 to €18 for children (aged 4 to 12).
The other big attraction in the region is Altamira Caves. Located close to Santillana, the caves feature prehistoric drawings. Access is limited to just five people each week and the lucky few are decided on the day of entrance. There is a replica of the caves and a museum on the same site. Entrance costs just €3 or is free on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.
One of the most beautiful areas of not only Cantabria but the whole of Spain is the Picos de Europa mountain range. Located between Cantabria and neighbouring Asturias, this mountain range offers plenty of hiking routes and spectacular scenery. Whilst it’s possible to visit as a day trip from Santander, you need to wake up early and have your own transportation to make the most if it. Buses run between Santander and the village of Potes twice a day in each direction and take around two and a half hours. A better option is to book an overnight stay in Potes so you can enjoy more of what the Picos has to offer and experience a night surrounded by the picturesque mountains. The most popular trails begin around Fuente Dé, which has a cable car leading up to the top with several other routes from there. Just remember to be prepared for all weather, including snow from as early as September.
How to Get Around Santander, Spain
As the city isn’t very large, walking is the best way to make your way around Santander. The main issue is the city is very hilly and from the bay there are steep hills to conquer. Fortunately, Santander does have outdoor escalators to help deal with the hills (one of only two cities in Spain to have them). Traveling from the center to the beach requires a long walk. There is a tunnel, however I wouldn’t recommend using it. Not that it’s dangerous (nowhere in Santander really is), but with the cars it doesn’t feel too healthy.
If you’re planning to see more of the surrounding area, then renting a car is a worthwhile option. You can pick one up either at the airport when you arrive or by the bus station. You won’t need it in the center (parking close to the beach will be an issue on a good day), but it gives you more freedom when traveling further afield and seeing more of what Cantabria has to offer.
Public transport is very effective in Santander. You’ll find plenty of local taxis either in the center or around Sardinero beach. The city also has Cabify, an Uber type company where you can book a taxi through the app on your mobile. The bus network is apparently the city’s answer to a metro system. All journeys are just €1.30 and the bus stops have a clear metro style map so you can see which number you need and where to get off. You’ll find many bicycle stations scattered throughout the city, similar to many other Spanish cities and elsewhere in Europe. You pay a fee for a few days, weeks, months, however long you’re in the city for, and have access to a bike for up to 30 minutes before you have to leave it at another station.
Where to Stay in Santander, Spain
Best Neighborhoods in Santander
Where to stay depends largely on what you want to do during your time in the city. The two main options are either in the center or by the beach. As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to travel between the two and both have plenty of options when it comes to restaurants, supermarkets, etc. If you decide to stay in the center, try to avoid anywhere too close to Calle Río de la Pila or Plaza de Cañadío. Both are popular evening spots with plenty of bars that are active well into the early hours of the morning. If you’re hoping to get an early night then staying a little further from these places is recommended. However, anywhere much further west than the bus station is probably too far and not worth the extra time needed to travel each day.
As a compromise, Puerto Chico is located between the center and the beach. This neighbourhood is typically a little more affluent so prices could be higher. However, there are plenty of bars and places to eat and it’s an easy walk to either destination from there.
Santander Hotels and Hostels
Santander is not short of options when it comes to accommodation. Either in the center, where you’ll find many Airbnbs, or by the beach with hotels dotted along the coast.
Santander Central Hostel
The city has a few options when it comes to budget places to sleep with a hostel (Santander Central Hostel) located across the street from the bus station and another (Bcool Santander) close to the tunnel in Puerto Chico. The second, whilst a little more expensive, is in a better location and the rooms look nicer. There is also a third option (Hostel Santander) opposite the bay which is similarly priced to Bcool.
Close to Sardinero beach is Hotel Sandemar. It may not be the most attractive building, but that doesn’t matter when you’re enjoying the views out to sea from inside. The beach is literally on the doorstep of this four-star hotel and a double room will likely set you back a little over €100 for two nights. Bus stops and taxi ranks are just outside, as well as plenty of options for dining.
For something more upmarket, Hotel Bahía in the center is a four-star hotel with (as you might imagine) spectacular views across the bay. It’s within easy walking distance of all the main areas of the center, as well as the bus station. You’ll also find bus stops and taxi ranks almost on your doorstep. Two nights in a double room will generally cost upwards of €200 and breakfast is extra.
Gran Hotel Sardinero
Santander Restaurants and Cuisine
If you’re looking for good food then the north of Spain is the place to visit. As with neighbouring Bilbao, pinchos (as opposed to the Basque “Pintxos”) are what everyone wants to try. Around Plaza de Cañadío there are many bars serving a whole host of pinchos. The best options are in the bar with the same name as the square or nearby Mesón Rampalay, just the other side of the church. Casa Lita on Paseo de Pereda in front of the bay is the most popular spot. Pinchos typically start at around €2 and this place gets very busy from around 8 or 9pm. They have a huge variety of options (both with meat and without) with more appearing almost as quickly as people can order them.
Bodega Fuente De
Sardines are popular throughout Santander, as you might expect from a coastal city, as are Rabas (similar to calamares). For cheap prices try Bodega Fuente de on Calle Peña Herbosa. Even if fish isn’t your thing, you can buy a pincho of blue cheese (ask for the “picón”) and a glass of red wine for around €2.50. For lunch on a cooler day, try Cocido Montañés. A hearty stew made from beans and various types of pig meat, such as chorizo and black pudding. <<< Click for directions
Calle Peña Herbosa has many options when it comes to restaurants, so even if you don’t want to spend several hours chatting and eating at Fuente de (as I have done on many occasions), then you’ll find something suitable somewhere on this street. Seafood, pasta, steak and the best pizza in Santander (La Tasca) are all on offer in the restaurants lining Peña Herbosa.
For dessert, the local specialities are Sobao, a type of sponge cake, and Quesada, a sort of cheesecake (although maybe not exactly the type of cheesecake you’re thinking of, think more cheese and less cake).
Things to do in Santander, Spain After Dark
When you’ve had your fill of pinchos it’s time to see what the evening has to offer. The city center has many options in this regard. Any of the streets around the aforementioned Plaza de Cañadío are bars where you can stand around chatting.
For live music there are occasionally performances at Black Bird (Calle Vista Alegre), Little Bobby’s or Niágara (both on Calle del Sol). Black Bird is a little out of the center and shows start earlier (around 8:30pm). It’s more focused on rock music, but check ahead to see what’s on. Tickets for all these locations usually start at €10.
If you’re interested in trying local beverages then Orujo, a northern Spanish brandy type liquor, has many local brands. The locally brewed beer is Dougall’s and you’ll find plenty of it and other craft style beers in La Lunada on Calle San Simón. La Lunada always has a board with the beers on tap that day and you can choose from eight options with the price of a pint starting at around €3.50.
Post-midnight head to Calle Río de la Pila where you’ll find bars lining each side of the street. Generally the crowd purchase a drink inside before returning to the street to socialise. It usually quietens after 3am, by which time you should head to Calle Santa Lucía, close to Plaza de Cañadío, where you’ll find Cambalache and Malaspina. Down the hill on your right is Coppola or Rose. These four are the most popular clubs in Santander and each have a mix of music. The clubs are all free to enter, with the exception of Malaspina which is €6.50 but this includes a drink. If you prefer R&B or Hip Hop then try Roots on Calle Gándara. For the local gay club head to Queen (formally dragon), which is a little way from the center in Puerto Chico and takes about ten minutes to walk. Santander clubs usually close from 4:30am to 5am, at which time your best option is either to head home or try Kudeta (again paying admission on the door) depending on how much you enjoy reggaeton (I’d go for the first option).
What to do in Santander That You Won't Find in Other Guides?
Something Santander isn’t well-known for, and something you’ll find plenty of, is street art. Local artist Okuda is very much world-renowned, but there is more than just his unique style to be seen. Most of it can be seen in the center and it’s a matter of strolling around the city as you come across the various works of art.
Let Us Know About Your Trip to Santander!
When it comes to things to do in Santander, you’ve now got a wide list to form your itinerary. This should help you plan a trip with everything you need for where to eat, stay, what to see and do in Santander. From the beaches to Santander old town – you won’t be bored. You can even use these tips to explore the surrounding region of Cantabria. Once you have, be sure to leave a note and let us know what you think of Santander!
Stuart has been traveling for almost ten years and has visited six continents. He has been living in Spain for over two years working as an English teacher, with the majority of that time spent in Santander. He has plans to visit new countries, always trying to add to the never-ending list of destinations.
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