Great gin, great food, great scenery - why brave the crowded beaches of Ibiza or the jam-packed streets of Barcelona when you can blaze a trail all your own in beautiful Cantabria? Home of Siderit distillery, Spain's hidden gem truly is the perfect holiday destination.
Nestled in the northern curve of Spain, the region of Cantabria is just a two-hour flight from London, but it’s a world away from Madrid, Tenerife and the Canary Islands.
Situated squarely in ‘Green Spain’ – an uncommonly lush corner of this hot and dry country, where plush pastures and rich forests thrive – the landscape of Cantabria has more in common with Ireland than it does the more arid south. The Cantabrian Mountains, one of Spain’s primary ranges, tower over the region’s ancient towns, while ancient paintings hide in the amazing network of caves snaking beneath the soil.
To the north, meanwhile, hundreds of hidden beaches stretch out into the Atlantic Ocean. And there’s one particular boon: with good but slightly inconsistent weather, this region’s wonders are largely untrammelled by tourists.
The relaxed regional capital of Santander, once the haunt of Spain’s upper classes, is a perfect base to discover all of Cantabria’s treasures. So let’s go!
Hit the Beach
Cantabria may not have the blazing sunshine of some other Spanish regions, but its beaches are nothing to scoff at.
There are a dozen Blue Flag beaches to choose from here – which must meet exacting standards for quality, safety and environmental education – and even more still to be discovered.
If you’re looking to swim or surf, the waters sparkling off Cantabria’s shores are warm enough to enjoy during the summer months. Sunbathers might find the weather inconsistent, but the sun will shine here – though perhaps not all day.
Families should try the Playa de los Bikinis, where the shallow waters make fantastic playgrounds for children. The Playa de Carmello is more scenic, while the Playa del Sardinero’s white sands are simply irresistible. Fancy staying close to the city? There are a number of beaches just a stone’s throw from Santander.
Go For a Hike
One of Cantabria’s biggest draws is its proximity to both sea and mountains, and the Picos de Europa mountains are too stunning to ignore.
These ‘Peaks of Europe’ were said to be the first thing sailors arriving from America would see as they approached the continent, and they’re certainly worth travelling for. Cantabria’s unusual climate has given rise to rocky crags, lush valleys, shimmering lakes and a rich habitat for wildlife including eagles, brown bears and wolves.
A network of more than 30 walking paths snake through the Picos de Europa, allowing everyone to find a journey that suits their walking style and fitness level. Best of all? You can catch a regular bus to and from the mountains right from Santander.
Watch the World Go by in Central Santander
Santander’s history as a hideaway for the elite has given it a far different vibe from Madrid or Barcelona. This is a place where the pace of life is gentle and manners are genteel; its beautiful networks of squares and cafes are a perfect perch for people-watching.
During the day, head down to one of the bars and cafes by the waterfront to watch this city’s residents shuffle to and from work and shops. This area will empty out after the working day is done, so head to El Sardinero on the beach or Calle Vargas, a lovely area rich with young people, when banking hours are over.
The Ancient Cave Paintings of the Cantabrian Coast
The first written reference to Cantabria was way back in 195 BC, but Cantabrians started making history long before that: the region’s complex and spectacular network of caves hides the world’s most ancient cave art.
Called “The Sistine Chapel of the Quaternary” – a reference to the time period reaching from 2.5 million years ago to a comparatively recent 1,000 years ago – the walls of the Cave of Altamira are adorned with ancient depictions of deer, bison and horses. This cave, along with 16 others in the region, has been classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Cave of El Castillo in nearby Puente Viesgo contains the oldest known cave art in the world, dating back at least 40,800 years.
The Medieval Town of Santillana del Mar
When you’re heading home from the Cave of Altamira, stop by the town once called the prettiest in Spain by Jean Paul Sartre.
It’s said locally that Santillana del Mar is ‘the town of three lies’ being neither a saint (Santo), flat (Illana) or by the sea (Mar). Regardless, its incredible medieval architecture makes it one of the most visited places in Cantabria. The main attraction is the Church of the Colegiata, a Romanesque church and former Benedictine monastery.
The Modernista Marvels of Comillas
Architect Antoni Gaudí has become synonymous with his work in Barcelona, but Spain’s second city wasn’t the only place that benefited from his fantastical creativity.
The lovely seaside town of Comillas – just a 45-minute drive from the centre of Santander – boasts a number of modernist buildings, including a Gaudí construction all its own. El Capricho – ‘the Folly’ was built between 1883 and 1885 as a summer villa for a lawyer who made his fortune in Cuba. The resulting building – with its green tower, rounded edges and row upon row of sunflower tiles – is equal parts beautiful and bizarre.
Fans of modernist architecture should also visit the Sobrellano Palace Chapel and the Pantheon which, along with El Capricho, are some of the finest examples of this architectural style in Spain.
This hearty combination of white beans and collard greens – the name of which translates to Highlander Stew – is a warming dish created in the 17th century to stave off the cold and wet climate of the Cantabrian mountains. Most commonly eaten at lunch, the largest meal of the day, it also includes bacon, pig rib and chorizo.
This dish is a must-have if you’re travelling through Cantabria, but skip the touristy spots. The Cantabrian classic is best enjoyed at a truly local café like Bodega Fuente De in the Pena Herbosa.
Mercado de Esperanza
Santander’s market is a far cry from the tourist traps that other cities’ central food markets have become. Head here to find incredible displays of fish and seafood, but stay for the local atmosphere.