Despite an enviable Bay of Biscay location, some of Spain’s best surfing beaches and a thriving culinary scene, Santander has still stayed under the tourist radar.
As the capital of the autonomous region of Cantabria on the north coast of Spain, the city of 200,000 has an atmospheric old town – although many of its medieval buildings were destroyed in a major fire in 1941.
A beautiful bay overlooking rolling green hills and mountains lies on the opposite side of the shore. Unlike the honeypots of Madrid and Barcelona, the city center is compact enough to walk around and gets a cool breeze from Bahía de Santander in the summer months.
On a mild visit in early March, a friend and I seemed to be the only tourists in town and didn’t hear another non-Spanish voice all week.
Where can you get tapas on tap
Santander is famous for its tapas, or pinchos as they’re known locally (sometimes spelled pintxo or pinchu) – meat, fish, goat’s cheese and other ingredients skewered onto a piece of crusty bread with a skewer or toothpick.
You’ll find pincho bars and bodegas all over the city. A good pit stop for lunch is Casa Lita, a modest looking cafe bar overlooking the bay, with indoor stands and an outdoor terrace. It serves a delicious range of bread-based snacks, raciones (plates to share) and tasty house wines for around €2.50 a glass.
Plaza Cañadio is the place to start the evening considering that nightlife in Spain doesn’t get going until around 9pm. The central public square is flanked by bars and restaurants, including Cañadio, a local pincho institution that gets consistently good reviews in most guidebooks.
However, our meal here was a little disappointing and if you only speak beginner’s Spanish you will struggle with the monolingual menu despite the waiters’ gallant attempts at translation. We were a bit disappointed when our succulent gambas turned out to be tiny prawns buried in an omelet.
A better choice for out-of-towners is La Bodega Riojano, an atmospheric tavern with flagstone floors, crisp white tablecloths, and mahogany wine casks hanging from the walls.
There’s a full menu of meat, fish and Cantabrian cheeses: a tuna tataki starter that melted in your mouth and Iberian pork with homemade chimichurri and roasted eggplant was as soft and fluffy as a marshmallow. Main courses start at around €14, wines from €3.
What are the best museums to visit?
Opened to great fanfare in 2014, Centro Botin was designed by award-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano and is Santander’s premier arts and culture hub.
The high-tech venue overlooking the bay hosts exhibitions, screenings and concerts by artists from Spain and around the world throughout the year. Also on the coast, the Museo Marítimo del Cantábrico is a great place to while away a few hours.
Showcasing the region’s maritime history over four floors, the museum includes intricate ship models and reconstructions of cabin quarters, as well as an aquarium with stingrays, small sharks and moray eels. The skeleton of a 24 meter long and 60 ton fin whale hanging from the ceiling is the main attraction.
Find a secluded home away from home
If you want bars, restaurants, and shops on your doorstep, choose a hotel in the heart of town rather than on El Sardinero Beach, which is a good 30-minute walk east.
The NH Cuidad on Menéndez Pelayo has chic, modern rooms (fourth-floor rooms have balconies) with doubles starting at €60.
Tucked away on one of Santander’s narrow side streets, the family-run Jardín Secreto is a characterful 19th-century town house converted into a boutique hotel. As the name suggests, it also has a garden. Double room from €70.
For beach bliss, the Gran Hotel Sardinero overlooks the golden sands of Primera Playa del Sardinero, a five-minute bus ride from the center. The early 1900s palatial exterior gives way to chic, modern interiors and neutrally decorated rooms.
From €85. Prices for most hotels increase significantly in high season.
A day in nature
Nature and animal lovers will love the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno.
The only park of its kind in Spain, the state-run 750-hectare nature reserve is located 17 km south of Santander in an old open-air iron mine that has been converted into 100 species of animals.
You can see everything from rhinos, wallabies and gorillas to the endangered Cantabrian brown bear – as well as canyons, lakes and rock formations.
There is also a 6km cable car ride, educational areas, landscaped gardens and lovely little picnic spots to relax.