The capital of northern Spain's Cantabria region, Santander is no great architectural beauty, as its Old Town was destroyed by fire in 1941, but the resort suburb of El Sardinero, a favourite haunt of Spanish royalty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has a charming air of refined civility.
If you are here in summer, you will find that, despite their broad expanse, the two beaches at El Sardinero are overcrowded in summer. Playa de Los Bikinis is more attractive and less windblown, as well as being a great location for rock pools. According to local legend, the two-piece bathing suit was first permitted in Spain at this beach.
See the world from the water with a boat trip . In summer you can take an hour-long tour of the bay or head across to the windswept El Puntal beach, which is backed by impressive dunes.
Santander’s museums would not be considered world-class, but the best of them is the Museo Marítimo del Cantábrico. Inside you will find a pretty good aquarium, whale skeletons, and jars containing strange pickled specimens.
Stroll around the Peninsula de la Magdalena, a scenic wooded park designed around a summer palace constructed for the Spanish king Alfonso XIII in 1912 and now part of a university.
Central Santander is made up of a grid of streets, teeming with tapas bars. Some of these are old bodegas, or wine warehouses, including Mazon on Calle Hernan Cortes, which is a good stop for snacks or more substantial fare. Pata Negra on Calle General Mola is the place to go for Iberian hams, and bustling Las Hijas de Florencia on the same street is full of locals gorging on hearty open sandwiches accompanied by canas (small glasses of beer). The noisy Los Penucas, in the Barrio Pesquero, is an excellent spot for a cheap seafood meal. You’ll have to go early to avoid the queue for its menu del dia. For an evening tipple, Plaza Canadio is full of late-night bars that overflow with revellers on warm evenings, but, for a more civilised nightcap, the tiny, atmospheric Bodega Cigalena is just around the corner.
The Day Trip
For an interesting day trip, drive your hire car 34 km southwest to the exquisite (if touristy) village of Santillana del Mar. Despite overdevelopment on the outskirts, the original heart of the medieval village survives intact, marked by beautiful winding streets, and grand sandstone buildings. The town’s best feature is the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, a delightful medieval church with a walled cloister. The Altamira Caves , renowned for their prehistoric paintings, are within easy reach.