Travel & Adventure

Port of Victory

A guide to Santander, Spain’s best kept secret

Península de la Magdalena

Santander is the unknown beauty of Spain, the small fisherman’s city remaining (perhaps mercifully), somewhat of an insider’s secret. Recorded sources are scarce, but it’s widely considered to have begun life as a shelter for ancient settlers due to its proximity to the sea and hilly vantage point from potential danger. It is mentioned in writing for the first time in 1068 in a draft document made by King Sancho II, establishes itself as a crucial port for trade in the Middle Ages and Europe’s ‘Age of Discovery’, and officially attains city status in 1755. Nearly two hundred years later, much of its historical architecture – the Old Town Hall, Jesús de Monasterio, Vargas streets and Atarazanas square buildings – would be ravaged by a fire that burned for two days. Many of its Medieval small stone and wood structures, totalling over 800, were replaced by large blocks of modern flats. This seismic change, however, has done little to diminish its charm.

La Farola on the Palacete del Embarcadero breakwater

To reduce Santander to a quaint maritime spot would be doing it a great disservice. What other ports have a prestigious musical competition – the Paloma O’Shea International Piano Competition – that’s been running since 1972? It is a place that makes small but fundamental changes over time, and in the last decade, art and music has been embraced and championed by the council. Centro Botin, designed by Pritzker Prize-winner architect Renzo Piano, is a remarkable arts centre that opened its doors in 2017. Overhanging the bay through suspended pillars, the 8,739 m² building is seamlessly embedded in the historic Pereda Gardens and now frees up a previously private port area, illustrating its public access and vital place within the social and cultural fabric of the city.

Centro Botin

While the summertime has lively events such as the Fiestas de Santiago, a week of street celebrations tied to the Apostle Santiago, urban planners and cultural leaders are looking to expand its offering during the quieter autumn and winter seasons. Both the Reina Sofia Museum and Santander Foundation are under construction and will contribute to that effort significantly, and the fact that Santander is a pilot ‘Smart city’ (embedded with 12,000 sensors collecting data) further demonstrates it’s not content to stand still.

Playa de Mataleñas

That said, lounging on one of its many golden beaches (Sardinero, Los Peligros, Los Bikinis) is a perfectly good reason to visit. While the bay creates calm and placid conditions suited for swimmers, a short jaunt away, the La Maruca beach fosters brilliant waves for surfing. Its placement facing the open Cantabrian Sea generates waves so big, locals have dubbed the most enormous among them ‘the big cow’. Its most famous area of natural splendour, however, is the Península de la Magdalena. Stretching across 28 hectares it contains verdant woodland and gardens, as well as the royal palace of the same name, the former holiday home of King Alfonso XIII and his family. Not far from here, a wonderful place to stay is the Hotel Real, originally built for the royal family’s crew. Perched on the highest hill to give commanding views, it’s close in feeling to Chateau Marmont in LA. Or, if you’d like something more petite, two former palaces have been merged to create the stylish Hotel Sol Boutique. Rowboat racing in the surrounding sea is a common sight, while low tide will often bring gaggles of boys to play football on the sand, perhaps hoping to one day play for the local team – Real Racing Club de Santander – one of the oldest in Spain.

Palacio de la Magdalena

With the bounty of the ocean and Picos de Europa so close, Santander offers some of the freshest shellfish (and fish) around, as well as rich cheeses from the nearby mountain range. It is very much a city led by its stomach. Or, as our man on the ground puts it: “everyone thinks they are a food critic.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon for locals to continuously hunt for the best local dish of rabas (fried squid), and declare their preference as the absolute and ultimate. It may offer relatively simple fare – the humble and heart-warming stew of cocido montañes, almejas and navajas (clams), seabream, sardines, marmita de bonito (tuna stew), crabs, red mullet, double donuts – but it is all the more delicious for its down-to-earth sensibility. In particular, we would recommend Restaurante La Bombi (an undeniable classic in town), Bodega El Riojano (be transported back in time with exposed wood beams and painted beer barrels), Restaurante el Marucho (live spider crabs are brought tableside beforehand), Restaurante Daria (wholly centred on organic products, including vegetables from the Ontañón farm estate), Moondog (intimate club with great drinks and equally great live music once a week), Restaurante Fuente De (choose the punchy Queso Picon cheese), Panistas (for a quick, fresh pastry), and Restaurante Cadelo (a classy, modern affair using local produce in a savvy, elegant way).

Santander is affectionately known as the ‘bride of the sea’, and by some locals as a ‘private garden’. We would encourage any curious traveller to slowly wander its sloping streets and peerless beaches, watching the fisherman pull in their catches of the day, and decide for themselves what it means to them.