The capital of Cantabria in Atlantic northern Spain, Santander is a seaside city that still makes a living from fishing, but also has a fin de siècle grace and natural scenery that will blow your socks off.
The beaches are also top-notch, and are right up your alley if you find Spain’s Mediterranean too hot in summer.
This is what brought the Spanish royalty at the start of the 20th century, when King Alfonso XIII picked Santander and its more temperate climate for his summer residence.
Lets explore the best things to do in Santander:
1. Magdalena Park
For much of the city’s history this verdant peninsula at the entrance to Santander Bay was militarised.
In the Napoleonic Wars there was a heavy battle in 1812 between the British and the French for control of this point and the little island of Mouro, visible in the mouth of the bay to the east.
Later the entire peninsula was gifted by the city to King Alfonso XIII at the start of the 20th century pine groves replaced the gun positions and an exquisite park was laid out.
Now it holds big public events like the summer “Santander Music” festival in August, and there’s even a mini-zoo here with seals and penguins.
2. Palacio de la Magdalena
When King Alfonso chose the highest point of the Magdalena Peninsula as the location for his summer residence it transformed Santander overnight.
Not only did the city become a royal court for a time, it also started to attract the Spanish bourgeoisie and establish Santander as a tourist destination.
The palace is a melange of styles, resembling an English country estate.
The palace is now part of the University of Santander and guided tours are available on weekends, taking about 45 minutes.
The cliff-top setting and the ocean vistas are the headline here, but the mock-Tudor former stables are the best part of the tour.
3. El Sardinero
Withdrawn from the ocean, between the Magdalena Peninsula and Cabo Menor, El Sardinero is a pair of golden sandy beaches that add up to more than a kilometre in length.
The waves are moderate, never more than waist-height on calm days, and break quite a long way out so kids are safe if they stay in the shallows.
Next to the beach is a promenade with balustrades and a resort with a stately, turn-of-the-century air.
This is epitomised by the Gran Casino, which has been here since 1916 and joined by palatial hotels.
A neat way to take it all in is to hire a bicycle for a couple of hours, stopping by the pergolas at Parque De Mataleñas on the far northern end.
4. Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology
Cantabria is a part of Spain with a lot of prehistoric activity.
The world-famous cave paintings at Altamira are a short way from Santander, although the original cave is closed to the public for the sake of preservation.
But at this museum you can study the palaeolithic artefacts recovered from the region’s archaeological sites, including a ritualistic staff discovered in El Pendo Cave, as well as art utensils, stone tools and carved horns and bones.
There are also reproductions of the these incredible 15,000 year-old paintings of bison and horses.
The collections go up to medieval times, and the oldest are more than 100,000 years old.
5. Catedral de Santa María de la Asunción
Santander’s Gothic cathedral is much more understated than the most vaunted Spanish cathedrals, with a stark, almost austere gothic design that dates to between the 1100s and 1400s.
It needed some reconstruction in the 20th century after the Civil War and the 1893 Cabo Machichago disaster, when a steam ship laden with dynamite exploded in the harbour claiming 590 lives.
The cloister is one part that has change very little, keeping its trapezoidal layout from the 1300s.
The lower Iglésia del Cristo is also original, with solemn gothic vaulting and a glass floor through which you can see the remains of the Roman settlement Portus Victoriae.
6. Cantabrian Maritime Museum
In the 1880s Spain moved its royally-chartered maritime zoology and experimental botany institute to Santander, and this, together with a former attraction devoted to the royal dockyard at Guarnizo, was the forbear to the modern maritime museum.
You’ll learn about the natural and human history of the Cantabrian Sea, including the fishermen who continue to make their livelihood from these waters and see an aquarium with the fish, ray and shark species that live just off Santander’s coast.
One of the most exciting sections covers the various technological advances that continue to be made in underwater research and exploration.
7. Playa de El Puntal
El Puntal is an urban beach without equal: It’s a sandbar that protrudes into the Bay of Santander for 4.5 kilometres from Somo on the eastern lip.
In the summer there’s a boat service from the harbour to El Puntal, and after that you’re free to wander the dunes and relax by on the beach for the day.
If you’re with little ones then the south side of El Puntal has the more tranquil waters and will suit younger swimmers.
There are also far-ranging views down to the mountains behind the bay on this side.
The north side is more open to the ocean and attracts all kinds of watersports people, but especially surfers.
8. Jardines de Piquío
When the tide comes in, this park on the promontory between La Sardinera’s two beaches is almost stranded by the ocean, and is a favourite with families and couples to meet up and wander.
In the summer you can buy an ice cream on the promenade and unwind next to the palms and flowerbeds as the ocean rolls in below.
It’s also great at night, when the pergola on the rim of the headland is illuminated and you can look back at the plush resort buildings along the beachfront.
9. Cabo Mayor
To see the Atlantic in all its fury you need only travel to this headland just past Santander’s northern outskirts.
The cape’s lighthouse was built in 1839 and in 2001 it became completely automated, so the lighthouse keeper’s dwelling was turned into a public art gallery.
After parking at the lighthouse you can pick up the grassy cliff-top trail, with photogenic scenery in ever direction, like the golden cove at Playa de Mataleñas or across to the hills on the east side of the Bay of Santander.
10. Paseo y Jardines de Pereda
Away from the beaches Santander’s waterfront is very pedestrian-friendly, with a chain of wide walkways.
The Paseo de Pereda has two paths; one underneath rows of plane trees and lit at night by wrought iron lanterns, and the other on the edge of the water.
Next to the paths are handsome 19th-century apartment buildings with cafes that have outdoor seating on the pavement.
On the western end are the Jardines de Pereda, a wooded park on reclaimed land, where between September and March thousands of starlings make their nest.
The park and “paseo” commemorate José María de Pereda, Cantabria’s celebrated 19th-century author.
With the Atlantic Ocean on its doorstep you can bet that the city looks to the water for its diet.
Amble down to the Barrio Pesquero (Fishing District) to see this in action, where fishing boats bring in their catch to sell to Santander’s eager restaurants.
One of many typical creations in the city is “rabas”, fried squid.
It looks and tastes a bit like calamari, but with subtle differences, and each bar will have its own way of preparing it.
Also local are bocartes rebozados, whitebait breaded and deep-fried.
Both go great with a glass of Cantabrian vermouth with lemon and ice.
Next to the marina is this waterside district where Santander’s fishing community used to live before it moved to the Barrio Pesquero to the west.
In the last few years Puertochico has taken on a younger and livelier ambience.
On a few rows of narrow streets and staircases are a welcoming cluster of bars and restaurants, and you came down to the water to see where small fishing vessels mingle with more upscale pleasure yachts.
The landscape is a facto too, as you can settle back on a bench for a few moments and gaze across to the dark green hills behind Pedreña on the other side of the bay.
13. Boat Trip on Santander Bay
Next to Paseo Pereda you can board one of the Los Reginas ferries for a cruise around the Bay of Santander, which is astoundingly beautiful.
A return ticket costs less than €5 for an adult and, if you don’t get off at the stops at Somo or Pedreña, the voyage will last around 45 minutes.
If you’re a golfer you could disembark at Pedreña at the impossibly scenic Real Golf de Pedreña course, between the bay and the Cubas River.
In the summer the ferry is also the best way to get to El Puntal for a day at this superb beach.
14. Mercado de la Esperanza
Santander has the largest central market in Cantabria, and if you’re renting an apartment in the city look no further than the Mercado de la Esperanza for you grocery shop.
Even if you don’t plan to buy anything the market warrants a visit for its lovely Belle Époque architecture, with a large iron and glass hall completed in 1904 and listed as an “historic monument”. As with all the best Spanish food markets it’s a multi-sensory experience, with fruit, vegetables and ocean-fresh fish piled high on counters.
For a souvenir you could grab a can of authentic Cantabrian anchovies, which are famous throughout Spain.
15. Cabárceno Nature Park
In the verdant hills 20 minutes south of Santander is a zoo that almost defies definition.
It’s on the site of a humungous former pit mine, covering more than 1,900 acres in a heart-stoppingly beautiful environment of meadows and hardwood forest.
Navigating 20 miles of roads you’ll pass enclosures with a range of animal species, both native and exotic.
So you’ll see wild boars and Cantabrian brown bears in one part, and then lions, cheetahs , elephants and gorillas.
These animals all live in semi-captivity so you’ll be able to observe behaviour closer to what you’d witness in their natural habitats.