Things to do in Santander – Spain

Explore the rocky Magdalena Peninsula with its beaches and historic buildings. Afterward, head to the town center to see Catedral de Santander’s octagonal cupola and Gothic cloister.

For a different view, hop on the Rio de la Pila funicular, which provides spectacular views of Santander and the bay below. For a little bit more culture, check out the Centro Botin Museum.

History of Santander

Nestled on the northern coast of Spain, Santander is a vibrant city with a rich history that stretches back thousands of years. From its ancient origins to its current status as a bustling port and cultural hub, the story of Santander is one of resilience, growth, and cultural evolution. Let’s take a journey through time with a timeline of the history of Santander.

Prehistoric Times:

  • Upper Paleolithic Period: Santander’s history can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic era, around 15,000 years ago, when the area was inhabited by prehistoric humans. Evidence of their existence can be found in nearby caves, such as the renowned Altamira Cave.

Roman Era:

  • 1st Century BC: The Romans arrived in the region, establishing a settlement known as Portus Victoriae Iuliobrigensium (Port of Victoria of the Julius Brigantii). This outpost was a strategic harbor for trade and military operations.

Medieval Times:

  • 9th Century: During the early medieval period, Santander came under the rule of the Moors, who controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula. The city was known as “Santa Ender,” which means “Saint Emeterius.”
  • 11th Century: The Christian Reconquista reached Santander, and the city was recaptured by Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon. It became a part of the expanding Christian kingdoms in the north.

Late Middle Ages:

  • 13th Century: Santander received its city charter in 1187, granted by King Alfonso VIII of Castile, marking an important milestone in its history. The city began to grow in importance as a commercial and maritime center.

Modern Era:

  • 15th Century: Santander continued to flourish during the late Middle Ages, becoming an essential port for trade with the New World. It played a significant role in the discovery and exploration of the Americas.
  • 1755: The city was severely damaged by a devastating earthquake that struck Lisbon, Portugal. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused widespread destruction along the northern coast of Spain, including Santander.

19th Century:

  • 1808: During the Peninsular War, Santander was occupied by French troops under Napoleon’s command. The city witnessed several battles as Spanish forces fought for independence.
  • 1857: Santander was officially designated as the capital of the province of Cantabria, further solidifying its regional importance.

20th Century:

  • 1941: Tragedy struck when the Spanish cruiser “Baleares” sank off the coast of Santander after being torpedoed during the Spanish Civil War, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives.
  • 20th Century: Throughout the 20th century, Santander continued to develop as an industrial and commercial center. Its port played a vital role in the region’s economy and trade.

21st Century:

  • 2013: Santander was named the European City of Culture, highlighting its significance as a cultural and artistic destination.
  • 21st Century: Today, Santander is a thriving city that attracts tourists with its beautiful beaches, rich history, and vibrant cultural scene. It continues to evolve and embrace its maritime heritage while looking toward a promising future.

From its ancient roots as a Roman settlement to its modern-day status as a bustling coastal city, Santander’s history is an intricate tapestry woven with tales of conquest, trade, and cultural exchange. As the city continues to grow and adapt, it remains a captivating destination where the echoes of the past intertwine with the spirit of the present.

Palacio Real de La Magdalena

The Palacio Real de La Magdalena is one of the highlights of Santander. This palace was a summer residence of the Spanish royal family and now houses a hotel and several other attractions, including a park and a small zoo. You can follow a guided tour of the palace or visit it on your own.

If you’re looking for a place to buy fresh fish in the city, you should visit Mercado de la Esperanza (Market of Hope). The many stalls in this peculiar market are full of fish and seafood that you can eat at some of Santander’s best restaurants.

Another of the best things to do in Santander is taking a 30-minute cruise around the port. This is a great way to see the city’s most impressive buildings, such as the Palacio Real de la Magdalena, from a different perspective.

Located in the city centre, Plaza Porticada is a square built after the fire of 1941. It is surrounded by two imposing buildings built in neo-Herrerian style. Among the monuments on this square, you can see the sculptural composition called “Los Raqueros” that portrays children who in the past were paid to retrieve items that fell into the sea.

Parque de Cabo Mayor

There are many activities to discover at the Parque de Cabo Mayor. You can admire animals at the Cabarceno Natural Park which has an area of 750 hectares, far more than what you would find in a regular zoo. You can walk around the entire peninsula or take a train ride to explore different areas of the park.

You can also visit the Santander Maritime Museum which offers an interesting insight into the city’s maritime history and the fishermen who still make their living from the sea. You can learn about the natural history of the Cantabrian Sea and see an aquarium filled with fish, rays, and sharks!

The neighborhood of El Sardinero is a favorite walking spot for locals due to its beautiful beach and the promenade that runs through it. You will notice several architectural highlights in the neighborhood, such as the Centro Botin which often divides opinions due to its futuristic spaceship-like appearance. Another interesting building is Plaza Porticada, a classic square plan that is a highlight of the historic center.

Peninsula of Magdalena

The rocky peninsula of Magdalena overlooks the city center, and offers several attractions to see. The main point of interest is the Palacio de Magdalena, which was once a summer palace of the Spanish Royal Family. It now houses the Maritime Museum, as well as a small zoo and stunning gardens. On the other side of the peninsula is a beach, where many locals come to take a stroll.

This area is also a great spot to try the local seafood dishes. A popular creation is rabas, or fried squid. You can find plenty of restaurants in the Barrio Pesquero, where you will see fishing boats coming in to sell their catch.

Another popular activity is visiting Cabo Mayor Lighthouse, which offers a different perspective of the city. At 91 meters high, it’s the highest point in Santander and boasts beautiful vistas over the city, beach and bay. The tower is open to visitors to climb up and enjoy the views. It also hosts art work, memorabilia and a cafe.

Playa Primera de El Sardinero

One of the top things to do in Santander is to visit the Palace of Magdalena. This opulent palace is located on the peninsula and is surrounded by impressive rock formations and the sea. The palace is beautiful and has a variety of different styles. It looks like a fairytale castle and is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Santander.

Next, head to Playa Primera de El Sardinero, a stunning beach that is perfect for swimming and sunbathing. The sand here is pristine and the waters are crystal clear. The beach is also popular with surfers and is known for its wild waves. During the months of November through March, the surfers can often be seen surfing on the dangerous waves in the area.

While you are at the beach, make sure to stop by a local restaurant and try some of the city’s delicious seafood dishes. Some of the most popular seafood creations in Santander include rabas or fried squid and bocartes rebozados, breaded, deep-fried anchovies. You can also try some of the local wines, like the Somosito, which is a light and refreshing red wine.

Prehistory and Archaeology Museum of Cantabria

The city of Santander boasts some fantastic architecture to explore. Palaces like the Palacio de Magdalena are a real treat and there’s also the incredibly beautiful Cathedral.

The Cathedral is one of the top things to do in Santander and it’s free to enter. However, it’s worth noting that the cathedral has been damaged by fire in the past.

Another must-visit is the Centro Botin, a modern art center that opened in 2017 and is known for its incredible architectural style that resembles a spaceship. This center hosts a range of contemporary art pieces and there are also rotating exhibitions throughout the year. It’s also possible to take the stairs or the ’singing’ elevator to the roof for spectacular views over Santander.

Seafood is a big part of the local cuisine in Santander and it’s well worth trying the delicious creations like rabas or fried squid or bocartes rebozados or breaded and deep-fried anchovies. Local desserts include leche frita, flan, and natillas. The city of Santander is also famous for its tudanca cow and it’s worth trying some of the meat from this local breed, particularly the steak or asado.

Mercado de la Esperanza

The Mercado de la Esperanza, or “Market of Hope” is one of the best things to do in Santander. It has been a central point of the city since it opened in 1904. A great place to wander around and explore, this market offers up seafood from the sea and land as well as all your other typical market items.

It also offers up a great variety of cafes and restaurants, and the top floor makes for a spectacular viewing deck! This is a great place to take in the scenery of this wonderful part of the city.

A little further afield, you can visit the spectacular Cabarceno Natural Park, which is basically a giant zoo. Located on a former iron mine, it features a wide range of animal species, including wild boars and Cantabrian brown bears in enclosures that are more like their natural habitat.

This is a massive natural park, and you will need more than one day to take in all it has to offer. The easiest way to enjoy the area is by taking one of the many walking tours on offer in the city.

Playa de El Puntal

A city that seems straight out of a storybook with a stunning bay, elegant mansions and palatial architecture. This is the cosmopolitan heart of Cantabria with an unmistakeable echo of its seafaring past and gorgeous white sand beaches.

One of the best things to do in Santander is to stroll around Paseo de Pereda and admire its beautiful 19th-century buildings. This waterfront walk takes you past Jardines de Pereda, Botin Centre, and two lookout points with incredible views over Santander’s bay, picture-perfect mountains, and the city itself.

Another must-do activity in Santander is to watch a football match at the El Sardinero stadium. Although Santander’s team isn’t what it used to be, locals are passionate about their football and you’ll find some great atmosphere at a game.

If you’re staying in the city, stop by Mercado de la Esperanza to shop at this huge central market. It’s a listed historic monument and it’s a feast for the eyes as well as the senses with fresh fruit, vegetables, and ocean-fresh fish on display.

Playa de Mataleñas

A visit to Santander wouldn’t be complete without spending time at this gorgeous beach. It’s a popular choice among water sports enthusiasts due to its ideal conditions, and the combination of sea and green is simply mesmerizing. The best part is that you can get here via ferry, which runs all year round and costs around 5 euros return.

Located on the Magdalena peninsula, this palace looks like a fairytale castle and is an incredible sight to admire from both inside and out. It’s one of the most stunning buildings in the city and it’s worth taking a stroll here during the day or at night to soak up the scenery.

Another highlight is Cabo Mayor, which offers a different perspective on the Atlantic and the city itself. This headland is a popular spot for hikers and it’s also home to an elegant lighthouse. You can also visit the prehistory and archaeology museum here, which is an excellent way to learn about Cantabria’s rich history.

10 interesting facts about Santander Spain

  1. Seaside Gem: Santander is a coastal city known for its beautiful beaches and stunning views of the Bay of Biscay. The picturesque coastline and crystal-clear waters make it a popular destination for beach lovers.
  2. Royalty Retreat: Santander was a favored summer retreat for Spanish royalty during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The royal family’s presence contributed to the city’s popularity as a fashionable resort destination.
  3. Botín Restaurant: Santander is home to the world’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, El Restaurante Botín, which first opened its doors in 1725. This historic eatery is renowned for its traditional Castilian cuisine.
  4. Caves of Altamira: The famous Altamira Cave, located near Santander, contains some of the most important prehistoric cave paintings in the world. While the original cave is closed to the public to preserve the artwork, a replica is open for visitors.
  5. Palacio de la Magdalena: This magnificent palace, built in the early 20th century, served as the summer residence for the Spanish royal family. Today, it is open to the public, and its elegant architecture and lush gardens make it a must-visit attraction.
  6. Festival Internacional de Santander: Santander hosts an annual international arts festival, featuring music, dance, theater, and other cultural performances. The festival attracts artists and spectators from around the world.
  7. Maritime Heritage: As a port city, Santander has a strong maritime heritage. Visitors can explore the Maritime Museum, which showcases the city’s nautical history and fishing traditions.
  8. Piquío Gardens: The Piquío Gardens offer breathtaking views of the coastline and the Bay of Santander. The gardens are perched on cliffs, providing a scenic spot for relaxation and contemplation.
  9. Santander Bank: Santander is the headquarters of Banco Santander, one of the largest and most influential banks in the world. The bank’s origins can be traced back to the city in the 19th century.
  10. Los Raqueros: Santander is known for the tradition of the “raqueros,” who were children and young adults who used to dive into the sea to retrieve coins thrown by passengers on departing ships. The practice has now evolved into a symbolic representation of the city’s maritime culture.