Santander, Spain: A Sweet, Surprising Destination


When people talk about the north of Spain, usually it's the jewel, San Sebastian, which gets the most visits and attention - and for good reason. However, just a couple of hours west lies another wonderful city, Santander, the capital of the Cantabria region. I was awestruck by Cantabria's lush green mountains and lovely coastline on the bus ride into the city but had no idea what to expect from Santander itself. I knew it was a port town and that the passenger ferries from England arrive there. I also know that port towns come with a certain grit, so if I'm honest, I wasn't expecting too much. To me, this was just a quick stop on the way to Bilbao to visit the Guggenheim, which is what I was most excited to see on this trip.
Taking advantage of the beautiful evening to get my bearings, I followed the noise to lively Plaza Canadio, behind the magnificent Iglesia Santa Lucia, which was jam packed with a row of restaurants and their patios. It had a convivial energy in a gorgeous setting, and I could feel the fresh sea air. After months of a full lockdown, this was everything I needed. I could have sat in that plaza forever.
Santander is a place that truly has something for everyone. For those who love to soak up the sun, the city has wonderful beaches that don't seem to be as crowded as those popular destinations elsewhere in Spain. You can grab a spot on the sand or snag a wooden lawn chair just off the promenade. Another option for a beachy day out is to hop on one of the small ferries which take passengers over to the Playa del Puntal where you can enjoy pinchos and a drink at the Chiringuito El Puntal and take in sweeping views of the city.
I love knowing that the beach is there. I love the fresh air and sitting down for a meal overlooking the water. However, I have no interest in spending all day sitting on a beach. For those like me, who love exploring a city, taking photographs, visiting museums, and practicing Spanish with locals at a bar, Santander also offers lots of options.
Santander's old town is also full of the things we love about Spanish city centers. There are churches to be found on every corner and, at its heart, stands the imposing Cathedral, a stopping-off point for pilgrims walking the Camino del Norte. If you have had enough of touring churches, simply walking around and admiring the unique architecture is time well spent. Be sure to check out the majestic Santander Bank building and the Palacio de la Magdalena. Or spend the day learning about Santander's history at the Archaeology and Maritime museums.
I can’t think of a better add-on to a Northern Spain itinerary than Santander. It’s got the touch of glamour we love San Sebastian for, but with a more down-to-earth vibe and price tag. It’s well-served by local transportation (I love the Alsa bus service) which easily connects Santander to other major cities around Spain. It is an easy place to visit – small, compact and comfortable – and makes for a fantastic destination for new solo travelers as well as seasoned ones looking for somewhere that is less obvious on a trip to Spain.