Located in Spain’s largely unexplored Cantabria region, Santander isn’t a somewhere that immediately springs to mind when you think of Spanish cities worthy of a weekend visit.
Probably because a lot of people don’t really know much about the place.
Prior to booking my flights, the sum of my knowledge about Santander was that it was well known for being the port at which ferries from the UK dock when arriving on Spanish shores, and for being the birthplace of the bank of the same name.
Good friends, Kath, Gloria and I ended up visiting simply because it was one of the cheapest cities to fly to on our Skyscanner ‘Birmingham to everywhere’ search, and none of us had been there before.
Whilst Santander may lack the major attractions and historical beauty of it’s counterparts (a huge fire destroyed much of the centre back in 1941), it boasts a beautiful natural setting on the northern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, and is home to some excellent urban beaches, extensive parks and impressive palatial architecture. Add to that some notable museums and exhibition spaces, and a delectable array of culinary options (seafood lovers rejoice!) and you have somewhere that sounds very much like a destination worth visiting.
But before we dive into all the reasons why you should consider a weekend in Santander, here is a bit of practical information for you about when to visit, getting to the city and where to stay when you arrive.
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A Weekend in Santander | When to Visit
Santander is located on Spain’s northern coastline, in the Cantabria region. For this reason, it doesn’t benefit from weather quite as warm as parts of Spain that are located further south. July and August are the warmest months, but are also the busiest as a result of it being the city’s festival season. So, it all depends on what kind of city break you enjoy. If you’d prefer your weekend in Santander to be a bit more relaxed but still warm, you’ll want to try and visit in either June or September.
We spent our weekend in Santander in May, and we experienced a bit of a mixed bag in terms of weather. For the most part, it stayed dry, and on the two afternoons we walked up to the lighthouse and explored the Peninsula de la Magdalena, it was positively balmy. However, it was quite windy too and the mornings generally started off pretty overcast. On the day we left, we didn’t see the sun at all. Overall, though, the weather was much better than the forecast indicated it might be.
A Weekend in Santander | Getting to Santander
If you’re travelling from the UK, flights to Santander are available from London, Manchester, Birmingham (where we flew from), Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds airports. My spacious Cabin Zero 28-litre backpack is accepted by most budget airlines as a free under-the-seat carry-on bag, and easily fits more than enough inside than I need for a long weekend away.
When you arrive in Santander, the cheapest way of making the five-kilometre journey to the city centre is to hop on the airport shuttle bus. They run every 30 minutes between the airport and Santander’s main bus station, and a one-way ticket will cost €2.90 (correct at time of writing).
It is also possible to take a taxi, but you’ll be paying more than 10 times that amount. So, I would only really recommend that option if you are arriving very late at night and would not feel safe walking the streets of a big city in order to get from the bus station to your accommodation. That said, Santander did feel like a very safe city. We were staying just outside of the historic centre, but we didn’t feel at all uneasy making the 15-minute walk back to our apartment after dark.
A Weekend in Santander | Where to Stay
Although Santander is not a touristy city, accommodation prices are not cheap. My friends and I are always on a reasonably strict budget when we go away together, and we could not afford any of the hotels or apartments in Santander’s historic centre. Instead, we opted for an apartment to the west of the centre, 1.3 kilometres from the city’s cathedral.
Although, this involved a short walk (around 15 minutes) home at the end of each day, we didn’t really notice the distance because the main road back to our apartment (Calle San Fernando) was lined with shops, cafés and restaurants, including two mini markets where we could pick up essentials like bread, milk and….wine 😉
We also felt like we benefitted from a better quality of accommodation by being located slightly further away from the centre. Our apartment was really nicely decorated, spacious and spotlessly clean, and the kitchen was really well equipped (it was only missing a kettle, but we were able to boil water for cups of tea in a pan). We also really appreciated that a second bed was made up for us when we arrived rather than us having to make the sofa bed up ourselves.
We had a wonderful stay at Suite Haus and I would 100% recommend the place to anyone looking for accommodation in Santander. However, if you’d rather be a bit more central, these are the other places we bookmarked for our stay:
- Soho Boutique Palacio de Pombo. Stunning building, double/twin/triple rooms available. Newly opened in March 2022.
- Apartmentos Art Suite Santander. Beautifully decorated apartments, each inspired by a different continent. Less than 50 metres from Plaza de Pombo.
- Hotel Sol Boutique. Super stylish hotel with lots of charm and character. Double/twin/family rooms available.
Alternatively, El Rincon del Indiano is just over the road from Suite Haus and was actually our first choice, but was sold out for the dates we required. If it’s free when you plan to visit, it looks stunning and is amazing value for money!
And now I’ll move on to 10 reasons why this Spanish city should be on your radar. If you hadn’t considered spending a weekend in Santander before reading this post, hopefully you’ll feel much better informed about what there is to see and do here after doing so.
1 | Touring the city in a classic car is so much fun!
Gloria actually bought this experience for Kath and I as early birthday presents, because she thought it would be a fun way of orientating ourselves with the city. And it absolutely was!
Touring Santander in a classic Seat 600, while listening to music from the same era as the car was manufactured, and learning about the history of the city through a recorded commentary played through the car’s speakers was the perfect introduction to our weekend in Santander.
Whilst this tour may not be the most comfortable experience for taller people (Gloria and I were fine, at 5’3 and 5’1 respectively, but Kath felt a bit restricted!), it’s only for an hour and a half and our driver did make a few stops along the way, so that we could get out, stretch our legs and snap a few photos. We also loved the novelty of the fact that plenty of people were photographing us (or rather, the car we were in) as we tootled our way around the city.
The tour culminates at the Cabo Mayor lighthouse, located in the most north-easterly part of the city. The lighthouse has presided over the entrance to the Bay of Santander since 1839. In 2001, it became completely automated and parts of the tower have now been transformed into a rather wonderful art gallery.
2 | The wonderfully bizarre collection of artwork at the Centro Botín will confuse and amaze in equal measures
Designed by the same renowned Italian architect as Paris’s Centre Pompidou, Santander’s Centro Botín boasts a bold and futuristic design that divides opinion like Marmite.
When it opened in 2017, locals were sceptical about the project and somewhat concerned that its appearance may have a detrimental affect on the surrounding landscape. However, much like the Guggenheim museum in nearby Bilbao, Santander’s Centro Botín has since helped to put the city on the map as one of Spain’s major art destinations. It’s definitely somewhere you should add to your itinerary of things to do on a weekend in Santander.
Whilst I’m not a huge fan of traditional paintings, I love modern and abstract artwork, and will always seek out an art gallery or museum whenever I travel. I was even lucky enough to visit the studio of a local artist in Cuba and now have three of his paintings hanging on my wall at home.
You’ll find Santander’s Centro Botín in a prime location right on the water’s edge, directly in front of the city’s historic Pereda Gardens. Its floor to ceiling windows provide a bright and airy exhibition space as well as offering some spectacular views of the bay.
When we visited, there were three exhibitions on display. Our favourite piece from these exhibitions was part of a collection entitled ‘Entanglements’ by Barcelona-born artist, Eva Fàbregas.
‘Oozing’ is described as:
“an assemblage of large-scale inflatable sculptures, in the presence of which we become minute.”
It’s an installation that starts life in one room of the Centro Botín and ‘oozes’ through every single wall it encounters before finally arriving, in all its knobbly, wobbly glory, at the destination below.
And, absolutely do not leave the Centro Botín without travelling both up and down in its fantastic ‘Singing Lift’ (courtesy of artist, Martin Creed).
For opening hours and to book tickets, head over to the Centro Botín website.
3 | There are markets galore!
There are several markets in Santander, but historic Mercado de la Esperanza (meaning ‘Market of Hope’) is the most atmospheric and also the largest and most central.
This particular market was designed in 1897 by two architects from Madrid, Eduardo Reynals y Toledo and Juan Moya Idígoras, using glass and steel — modern materials that had been successfully put to good use in the creation of Les Halles Centrales market in Paris in 1866.
For a lively slice of Cantabrian life, make sure you visit in the morning, when the market is at its busiest, with traders loudly and proudly promoting their wares, and locals catching up on the weekly news and gossip while purchasing a fillet or two of some of the freshest fish for dinner that evening.
Although seafood is the main order of the day here, you’ll also find meats, fruit, vegetables, cheese, olives, and flowers from various parts of the Cantabria region.
It’s important to note that Mercado de la Esperanza is closed on Sundays, and if you want to buy fish, avoid Mondays.
4 | Wandering around the stunning Peninsula de la Magdalena makes you feel like you’re a million miles from the city
If you’re someone who loves the buzz of a city at night, but prefers to get away from it all during the day then you should definitely spend a weekend in Santander! More specifically, you should incorporate a leisurely stroll around the Peninsula de la Magdalena into your Santander itinerary.
You’ll find the Peninsula de la Magdalena approximately three kilometres from the centre of the city. It’s a pleasant 40-minute walk or a short eight-minute bus journey. Buses leave every 10 minutes from the Pereda Gardens.
As well as being home to the historic Palacio de la Magdalena (built between 1908 and 1913, to be the summer home of the King of Spain), this beautiful 70-acre peninsula is home to an extensive public park, sculpture gardens, three replicas of Cantabrian galleons which sailed in Columbus’s wake, two beaches, a lighthouse, and even a small marine zoo. Although, I’m not too sure about how ethical it is to keep the seals and penguins here when they can almost touch the freedom of the ocean next door.
Visits to the palace are by guided tour only for a fee of €3, but you can wander around the rest of the peninsula completely free of charge.
5 | You can enjoy beautiful coastal walks and refreshing swims
What Santander lacks in notable historic sights, it makes up for in vast natural scenery. And, one of the best ways to experience this is to head for a walk out along the coast.
As you continue on from the Peninsula de la Magdalena, you will soon arrive at El Sardinero — Santander’s longest and most popular beach, divided into two sections by a rocky headland.
From here, you can follow a scenic cliff-top path to the Cabo Mayor lighthouse. It’s around two miles one-way, but there are plenty more beaches along the way, where you can stop for a swim to break up the walk.
Our favourite was Playa de Mataleñas (above), located at the base of a cliff at around the half-way point between El Sardinero and Faro Cabo Mayor.
If you’re not a water-baby like Kath, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a nice vantage point above Playa de Mataleñas, where you can sit down and relax, admire the scenery, soak up the sunshine, and enjoy an ice cream from the little refreshments van nearby.
6| You won’t be rubbing shoulders with hoards of other tourists
Whilst Santander is a popular destination for Spanish locals, it still remains largely under the radar for everyone else. It was both surprising and refreshing to be able to wander the streets during our weekend in Santander and not be surrounded by English-speaking tourists everywhere we went. It’s not an experience you’d be able to replicate in many other Spanish coastal cities.
Of course, what this also means is that English is not as widely spoken as it in, say, Barcelona, Valencia, Almería or Bilbao.
On many Spanish city breaks, you won’t actually need to speak any Spanish. Many of the locals would prefer that you did (although a lot of younger Spaniards appreciate the opportunity to practice their English) and you’ll have a much more rewarding experience if you try, but it’s not usually necessary.
Santander is an exception.
A basic level of Spanish was required to understand the solely-Spanish menus in the majority of restaurants we dined at, and we found that most of the serving staff in Santander’s cafés and bars spoke very limited English, too.
Although I didn’t get the opportunity to study Spanish at school, a significant number of Spanish lessons (including studying for a Spanish GCSE back in 2012) and Duolingo practice in my adult life, along with six months spent travelling through Peru and Bolivia, has meant that I can now, thankfully, ‘get by’ in Spanish-speaking countries. So, rather than feeling completely like a fish out of water, the fact that not a great deal of English is spoken in the city made for a more authentic Spanish experience for me — which I loved!
7 | You’ll be spoilt for choice with quality dining options
For a city that not really ‘on the map’ regarding its culinary offerings, you’ll be pleased to hear that you’ll eat very well here — particularly if you’re a fan of seafood. You might also be surprised to learn that Santander is actually home to 23 Michelin-star restaurants.
Being the budget traveller that I am, I cannot comment on any of those 23 restaurants, unfortunately, but I can give you a few other recommendations on what to eat and where to eat in Santander.
If you’d like to try some local specialities, keep an eye out for Marmita de Bonito (a fish stew made with tuna), cocido montañés (a hearty bean stew), and either rabas or chipirones (calamari/small calamari).
Tapas/pinchos bars are aplenty in Santander, offering a selection of meat, seafood, cheese, olives, and the trusty Spanish tortilla. On our first night in the city, we made our way into Santander’s historic centre, along Calle San Fernando, ducking down every side alley we passed, in order to seek out a few off-the-beaten path tapas joints that were frequented primarily by locals.
The following evening, we headed downtown to what is reportedly the epicentre of Santander’s culinary scene — Plaza Cañadío. The streets surrounding this attractive square are where you’ll find the highest concentration of bars and restaurants.
Alternatively, for the best fish restaurants, head to Barrio Pesquero (west of central Santander, close to the ferry port).
We dined at Salvaje Santander one evening and, after finding Bodega del Riojano (a highly-rated rustic restaurant serving traditional Cantabrian cuisine) closed on a Sunday evening, we ate at Bar la Catedra on our final night in the city. I can 100% recommend both of these.
And, whilst I loved the abundance of quality dining options in the city, I think it’s also important to note that my vegetarian friend, Gloria struggled to find food she could eat in Santander. The Spanish (in particular, those in less touristy parts of Spain) don’t really understand the concept of vegetarianism in the same way that we do in the UK. My friend Trinny (who lives in Spain) has re-introduced meat back into her diet since moving out there in 2019, because of how difficult she found it to maintain a vegetarian diet when she ate out. Even meat-substitute products from the supermarket are more expensive and not as readily available as they are in the UK.
We all got rather excited when we discovered that Santander does actually have a solely vegetarian restaurant, and subsequently went out of our way to plan a visit there. However, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you avoid La Parada de San Martin at all costs. Our meals were pre-cooked and heated up in a microwave (we heard the ping just before each of our dishes were brought out) and our drinks (served in their bottles) were months past their best before date!
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t spend a weekend in Santander if you’re vegetarian; just make sure that you brush up on a few Spanish phrases before you go (I am vegetarian = Soy vegetariano/a (m/f) and I don’t eat meat or fish = no como carne o pescado) and be prepared for a few more challenges than you would normally encounter when visiting a more touristy city.
8 | You can visit the city’s museums free of charge on a Sunday afternoon
If you’re spending the weekend in Santander, make sure you save up all the museums you want to visit for the Sunday, because entry to Santander’s museums is free of charge every Sunday.
We only made it to the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria (a compact, modern and informative museum located in the basement of one of the buildings on a little side street between Plaza Porticada and Plaza de Pombo), but below are a couple of others that you may want to add to your Santander itinerary.
Maritime Museum. A great option for families as it contains some impressive ship models, a 60-tonne whale skeleton and an aquarium. It’s located around 800 metres east of the Puerto Chico neighbourhood, overlooking the bay.
- Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Although we chose to get our art fix at the Centro Botín, I’ve heard that this museum is also well worth visiting. It contains over 1500 works of art (primarily by Spanish artists), including paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, prints, video creations, and sound art. It’s located close to the city’s public library.
9 | There are some fantastic pieces of street art to be found
I love finding quality street art in a new city. I was going to say ‘seeking out’ instead of ‘finding,’ but it never quite works out that way: all the best street art discoveries are usually completely serendipitous encounters, and Santander was no exception. This is why two of the photographs below were taken at night, when the only things on our minds were food and drink, and the only camera I had with me was my mobile phone.
10 | You can walk part of the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is a network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe, all meeting at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and one of these routes actually passes through Santander. The Camino del Norte is a a 835-kilometre trail that starts in Irun and follows the Atlantic coast past the cities of San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, and Gijón, before heading inland at Ribadeo and continuing on to Santiago de Compostela.
It’s possible to walk one of the sections of this trail by catching a bus to Güemes (the journey is around 50 minutes; timetables can be found here) and then following the shells for 12 kilometres back to Santander. Allow approximately three hours to complete this part of the trail. You’ll pass some stunning scenery on the way to Somo, including the beautiful beach of Playa de Loredo. From Somo, you can enjoy a relaxing ferry ride back to Santander.