10 Top Tourist Attractions in Santander & Easy Day Trips
The image of golden sand beaches with sunbathers lounging under colorful parasols best describes Santander in northern Spain's Cantabria region. The beautiful coastline, turquoise waters, and sunshine draw many fun-loving visitors, especially during summertime. The city also has several excellent museums to keep holiday goers busy. The Museum of Prehistory offers a fascinating insight into the world of Paleolithic times; many of the archaeological finds were discovered at caves in the region. For a taste of more recent culture, visit the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art to see highlights of Spanish art of the 19th and 20th centuries. Santander's most impressive historic monument is the medieval Gothic cathedral, although it was mostly renovated after the fire of 1941 that destroyed much of the city. Since then, Santander has been rebuilt in elegant modern style with broad streets ideal for leisurely strolls.
See also: Where to Stay in Santander
1 Playa del Sardinero
El Sardinero Beach has preserved the atmosphere of the Belle Epoque era with its seafront terraces, numerous elegant hotels, and fine restaurants. This gorgeous and expansive beach is a popular seaside destination in Santander, for sunbathing, surfing, strolling, and seaside dining. The beach's scenic promenades are perfect for coastal strolls. El Sardinero Beach is north of the Peninsula of La Magdalena, facing the Atlantic Ocean where the breaking surf can be dramatic. Experienced surfers glide along the wild Atlantic waves, that are especially challenging November through March. In summer, the wide sandy shores of Playa del Sardinero are packed with sun-worshippers and colorful beach umbrellas. During the vacation season, the beach is a lovely spectacle of lounge chairs and vibrant sun parasols in orderly rows. Even the sand is groomed regularly. Swimming is possible, but the waters are less suitable for bathing here than other more protected beaches in Santander. The Real Club Marítimo (boat club) is also in this area.
About three kilometers north of El Sardinero Beach is the Cabo Mayor (cape) with a lighthouse at the end and the Puente Forado, an interesting formation shaped like a bridge that was carved by nature from the limestone rocks.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Santander
2 Playa del Magdalena
The Playa del Magdalena is a long, golden beach in a beautiful area of the city, beside the Peninsula of La Magdalena. Listed as a "Blue Flag" beach, the waters of Playa del Magdalena are calm enough for swimming; the swimming area is cordoned off by buoys for safety. Signposts indicate safety hazards on a daily basis. Platforms in the water are designed for swimmers to rest and sunbathe. Magdalena Beach also has a marina filled with docked boats and a yacht club/sailing school with water sports rentals. An open-air snack stand offers refreshments. The sandy shores of Playa del Magdalena extend for almost one kilometer. The beach is well equipped with public toilets and showers, sun parasols, and lounge chairs for rent. A children's play area is popular with young kids. The Peninsula of La Magdalena is the location of Santander's International University, housed in the former summer palace of King Alfonso XIII built in the early 1900s.
3 Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology
This exceptional museum allows visitors to discover the prehistoric world of the Paleolithic era and Iron Age. The extensive collection displays around 1,200 objects, and many of the items were found in the prehistoric caves of the Cantabria region. A highlight is the ''bâtons de commandement,'' an artistically rendered piece made from stags' antlers. The collection also includes Roman-era antiquities from ancient cities (now archaeological sites) of Julióbriga and Castro Urdiale. Other interesting artifacts are the pre-Roman Celtic funerary monuments. The medieval exhibit features a rare belt buckle made of ivory found at the Santa María de Hito archaeology site. For a better understanding of the collection and the history, visitors can opt for a guided tour.
Address: 4 Calle Hernán Cortés, Santander
4 Museo Marítimo del Cantábrico
A tribute to the seafaring culture of the Cantabria region, the Maritime Museum in Santander Bay offers museum exhibits as well as an impressive aquarium. In its dazzling 3,000 square meters of display space, the museum reveals fascinating insights into the underwater and maritime world. The exhibits feature seafaring objects, ship models, and documents about the life of fishermen. Visitors gain an in-depth understanding of the relationship between humans and the sea throughout history. The museum covers the disciplines of marine biology, maritime history, and fishing technology. Ideally designed for tourists, this popular attraction has a café and gift shop. Guided tours are available.
Address: Calle San Martín de Bajamar, Santander
5 Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
The original cathedral was constructed in the 13th to 14th centuries in an austere Gothic style. However, much of the building was renovated after the fire. The splendid 15th-century cloister (also restored) features serene rows of vaulted arcades and contains the mausoleum of Santander author and scholar Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo. Built on an impressive scale, the cathedral has an inspiring sanctuary. Three spacious naves are divided into four sections. Delicate vaulting with pillar columns add to the beauty. The cloister is square with pointed arcades. In July and August, the cathedral offers free guided tours every 30 minutes.
In the crypt of the cathedral is the Iglesia del Santisimo Cristo, a small austere church of the 13th century - the oldest in Santander. The floor is covered with glass panels that display archaeological remains of the ancient Roman era. The Iglesia del Santisimo Cristo houses the tombs of two early Christian martyred saints, Celedonius and Emeterius. Entrance is at Calle Somorrostro.
Address: Plaza del Obispo José E. Eguino, Santander
6 Quiet Beaches in Puerto Chico
In the Puerto Chico (Little Harbor) district, about a kilometer from the city center, are several excellent beaches. The Playa del Bocal is a small, sheltered, relatively undiscovered beach; its isolated setting offers a wonderful escape to nature. El Bocal Beach boasts fine golden sand and moderate waves. Signposts indicate safety hazards. The Playa Molinucos (next to the Playa del Sardinero) is another small sandy beach with mild waves near Santander's Municipal Golf Course. Tourists should keep in mind that El Bocal and Molinucos beaches do not have public toilet facilities or other amenities.
7 Ermita de la Virgen del Mar
Part of the joy of visiting this hermitage is the journey through the spectacular coastal landscape to get here. The small seaside chapel stands on an island now joined to the mainland by a bridge. Built in the 14th century, the ancient shrine honors the Virgen del Mar (Virgin of the Sea), the patron saint of Santander. Because the chapel lies so close to the sea, the building has been partially destroyed on several occasions by fierce storms. The sanctuary has three altars; the largest features an image of the Virgin. An important local festival is held at the hermitage on the Monday of Pentecost in May or June. The Virgin del Mar Fiesta culminates with a procession of pilgrims carrying a figure of La Virgen del Mar to the chapel. Following the procession, a Mass is held, which features parts sung in the seafaring tradition. Then the lively festival continues with food and entertainment that attract thousands of people.
Location: Isla de la Virgen del Mar (San Román de la Llanilla)
8 Museo de Artes Moderno y Contemporáneo de Santander y Cantabria
The Santander and Cantabria Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art has a rich collection of art from the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection offers a broad representation of works by hundreds of artists, primarily of the Cantabrian region and other areas of Spain. Most notably the museum displays the art works of famous Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. Other artists featured include Alexandra Aguiar of Portugal, Jorge Abot of Buenos Aires, Aldo Iacobelli of Naples, and Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz of Rome. Throughout the year, the museum hosts interesting temporary expositions.
Address: 6 Calle Rubio, Santander
9 Biblioteca Menéndez y Pelayo
The same building that houses the Municipal Museum of Art also contains the Menéndez y Pelayo Library. This beautiful library is filled with 40,000 volumes assembled by the scholar Menéndez y Pelayo along with his study in its original condition. Across from the building's garden is the house (now a museum) where Menéndez y Pelayo lived and worked.
Address: 6 Calle Rubio, Santander
Tourists can discover the fascinating world of astronomy at Santander's Planetarium. The impressive building is found at the Santander Nautic University. Exhibits about the galaxies, solar systems, and constellations offer interesting scientific insights about everything that's seen in the night sky and beyond.
Address: Calle de Gamazo, Santander
Where to Stay in Santander for Sightseeing
We recommend these great Santander hotels with easy access to the beach or other top attractions:
- Gran Hotel Sardinero: luxury beachfront hotel, sea views, stylish decor, spacious rooms.
- Jardin Secreto: mid-range pricing, friendly owner, secluded garden, great location, comfortable beds, free coffee.
- Le Petit Boutique Hotel: affordable boutique hotel, short walk to the beach, warm welcome, stylish decor, themed rooms.
- Hospedajes Magallanes: budget hotel, friendly staff, central location, clean rooms.
Day Trips from Santander
About 35 kilometers from Santander and two kilometers from Santillana del Mar are the famous Altamira Caves, with 15,000-year-old Stone Age rock paintings. These prehistoric works of art are without parallel for their representational skill, vivid coloring, and excellent state of preservation. Most of them are dated to the late Magdalenian period (circa 15,000 BC - 10,000 BC) though some more primitive paintings are about 10,000 years older. One part of the cave, the Sala de Pinturas, is called the "Sistine Chapel of cave art" because of its beauty and vivid colors, predominantly red, ochre, and brown from natural minerals. The ceiling of the chamber is covered with paintings of animals, including several bison, a red wild horse, and a wild boar. The Stone Age artists used the structure of the rock and the areas of shadow to achieve spatial effect and movement.
Santillana del Mar
This charming medieval town lies less than 30 kilometers from Santander. Despite its name, Santillana del Mar is not by the sea and instead is a few kilometers away from the coast. The town is full of Old World charm, with cobblestone streets, medieval defense towers, and elegant Renaissance palaces. During the Middle Ages, Santillana was an important stop on the Way of Saint James pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims would pay their respects at the town's Collegiate Church of Santa María.