The Charm of Cantabria: Santander

Capital of the autonomous community and historical region of Cantabria situated on the north coast of Spain, Santander is an elegant city which extends over a wide bay with spectacular views of the Cantabrian Sea.

Its historic quarter includes a group of majestic buildings which are situated against an incredible natural backdrop of sea and mountains. Its marine and commercial tradition is linked to a century old history of tourism, which has its main attractions in the famous El Sardinero beach, the promenade and the La Magdalena peninsula. The cultural wealth of the Cantabrian capital is enriched with the passage of the Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago de Compostela and the neighbouring Altamira Caves, both of which have been declared World Heritage.

A huge fire raged through the centre back in 1941, leaving little that’s old or quaint. Still, Cantabria’s capital is an engaging place, making the most of its setting along the northern side of the handsome Bahía de Santander, and the city’s forward-facing outlook is epitomised in the vanguard Centro Botín, which opened on the waterfront in mid-2017.

By Angel de los Rios from Valladolid, Spain: Centro Botín, via Wikimedia Commons
By Angel de los Rios from Valladolid, Spain: Centro Botín, via Wikimedia Commons

The city’s origin is related to the Portus Victoriae founded by the Romans. However, the capital’s urban development was not to come about until the 11th century when the town began to grow around the San Emeterio abbey. From its Latin name, Sancti Emeterii, comes the current name of Santander. During the 18th and 19th centuries the city became a key trading port for the maritime routes between Castile and the American colonies. From around the middle of the 19th century, Santander became one of the most exclusive summer tourist destinations on the northern coast of the Iberian peninsula.

City Centre

The Paseo de Pereda, with its typical houses with miradors, and its gardens constitutes a lively boulevard which separates the coastal strip from the historic quarter of Santander. The nearby Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in the capital, its earliest construction dating from the 13th century. Opposite the cathedral is the Plaza Porticada surrounded by several public buildings from where lively commercial streets lead to the plaza del Generalísimo, site of the Town Hall, next to the popular market of la Esperanza, in the modernist style.

The Port and El Sardinero

El Embarcadero in the port is a building with excellent views over the bay and the area boasts several cultural buildings including the Festival Palace, the current site of the prestigious Santander International Festival, the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology, one of the most valuable in Europe, or the Cantabrian Maritime Museum, one of the most complete museums in Spain dedicated to the sea. From this point Santander display the beautiful beaches of los Peligros, la Magdalena and Biquinis, with calm waters protected from the wind by the bay.

El Sardinero is the most famous beach of the city, accessible via one of the most beautiful promenades in Spain, with magnificent buildings such as the Gran Casino, which evokes the architecture of the Belle Époque. The Plaza de Italia, with its elegant, lively summer terraces, and the Piquío Gardens, which are situated on a rocky inlet marking the separation between the two beaches of El Sardinero, complete the picture.

El Sardinero Beach, photo vy Pedro Lopez via Wikimedia Commons
El Sardinero Beach, photo vy Pedro Lopez via Wikimedia Commons

Between the historic quarter and El Sardinero is the peninsula on which the la Magdalena Park and the royal palace are sited, the latter being inaugurated in 1913 as the summer residence of King Alfonso XIII. The English-style residence has excellent stables and is surrounded by extensive gardens and wooded areas. This privileged area for relaxation becomes during the summer months the nerve centre for the famous summer courses of the International Menéndez Pelayo University, a forum which brings together both students and the most outstanding figures in the most varied fields of knowledge.


Situated halfway between the sea and the mountains, Santander has a particular mixture of ingredients in its gastronomy. From the sea come the characteristic rabas – fried squid, bocartes rebozados – breaded whitebait, and fresh shellfish. The interior provides excellent beef and a dish which is emblematic of the entire region, cocido montañés – a stew made of beans, meat and cabbage. Desserts includes quesada – cheesecake and sobaos pasiegos – sponge cakes made with butter, flour and eggs.

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