Is Santander worth visiting?

Is Santander worth visiting Spain

Last year, we passed through Santander when we brought our dog to Portugal! We took the Portsmouth to Santander ferry. But the plan was for my husband to drive us straight to Braganca. So, previously I only had a fleeting sight of the port! I was left wondering ‘Is Santander worth visiting?’

This week I took a trip to the north of Spain to attend TBEX (the travel bloggers exchange conference) and I travelled from Donostia-San Sebastián to Santander via Bilbao. I made sure this time that I had a spare day in Santander before my flight home so that I could check it out.

I’ve heard a lot of people say bad things about Santander – it’s smelly, it’s dirty and there is nothing there! Now Santander is a port city so it’s certainly not as clean and beautiful as San Sebastián. But still, in my opinion it is a pleasant city and worth the visit.

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How long should I spend in Santander?

You don’t need to spend more than one or two days there to see everything. This makes Santander an ideal stop off for travellers passing through Santander airport or port.

You might like to stay for 3 or 4 days if you plan on doing tours to surrounding areas. There are some interesting things on the Cantabria coast and the buses connect other main cities such as Bilbao and Oviedo.

2 days in Santander Spain
Plaza Asuncion near Santander Cathedral

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How to get to Santander

Many people arrive by ferry or plane. The ferry port is a popular connection to the UK with Brittany ferries. Santander airport is served by Ryanair with the connecting flights to Manchester and so it is very accessible for Brits looking to visit Spain.

For those of you already in Spain, you will be pleased to know that the Alsa bus network connects Santander to other cities including Bilbao and San Sebastián. You can see the website and download the app here.

Statue of king Alfonso XIII outisde Santander central post office
Statue of king Alfonso XIII outisde Santander central post office

What did I get up to in Santander?!

Well Santander was a great destination for me – I was very well received at Santander central hostel which is friendly and relaxing with great common areas. I drank a bottle of Rioja while I blogged in the reception area, and the next morning people thought I worked there and I had 2 hikers wanting there Camino passport stamped and a group of guys wanting to know where they could store their bikes!

I spent a day in Santander exploring the city with my new French friend Sylvain. We went in the cathedral, went up in a singing lift and ate tapas in the Mercado del Este.

Mercado del Este Santander
Mercado del Este, Santander

Is Santander worth visiting?

Santander definitely is worth visiting for a day or two. Although a lot of the old town was destroyed by the great fire of 1941, there are still some nicely preserved parts of the old town. Santander has a beautiful cathedral, great shopping and a lovely harbour. If you venture a bit further out of the city centre you will discover some great beaches. So all in all, Santander is worth a visit, and makes a nice stop off if you are passing through the port or on the way to a flight at Santander Airport. Remember, if you don’t mind a bit of additional travel, you can add some additional destinations such as Bilbao to your itinerary.

Statue of Pedro Velarde in la Plaza Porticada Santander
The statue of Pedro Velarde in la Plaza Porticada, Santander

(this statue remembers Pedro Velarde y Santillán, a Cantabrian artillery captain and hero of the Peninsular War who was killed during the uprising in 1808 (Dos de Mayo) in Madrid against the French occupation).

More Pros of Santander

Santander is very accessible with plenty of great restaurants and a gorgeous cathedral as it’s on the Camino route. Santander has some interesting monuments and beautiful beaches. There are lots of pros to Santander.


Santander is a very accessible city, with many flat streets and dipped pavement curbs for wheelchair accessibility. There are some slightly higher areas to the city and you can find outdoor travelators and escalators to help you to get to these, so you spend less energy walking uphill.

The Singing Lift!

One of my favourite surprises of Santander was the ‘singing lift’ which takes you to the top platform on the waterfront by the Botin centre and gives a fantastic view of the sea and the city itself. Going up, the lift will sing ‘Si, si, si, si, si, si’ getting higher each time and on the way down it will sing ‘no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!’ getting lower and lower!

Botin centre and singing lift Santander
The Botin centre and the singing lift Santander

Gorgeous Gothic Cathedral

The cathedral of Santander was originally constructed in the 13th century and further side chapels were added in the 16th century. It is built in gothic style with baroque decoration inside on the altar and other chapels, although it has been renovated and adapted over the years. The cathedral is important as it is on the Camino de Santiago (the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela). It costs just €2 to go inside the Cathedral and is well worth it as you will see the Baroque alterpiece, the ambulatory with two other altars (Saint Fernando III of Castile and to Saint Matthias), several interesting tombs and the beautiful cloisters.

Inside Santander Cathedral

Also, don’t miss the Church of Parroquia Santisimo Christo, which is the old Church in the crypt with a low ceiling. It also has some glass panels in the floor so that you can see through to some of the old Roman ruins. This part is attached to the Cathedral (look for the smaller side entrance) and is free to get in, so if you don’t want to pay for a Cathedral entrance ticket you can still go inside here.

Church of Santisimo Cristo Santander

History and Museums

Santander is surprisingly good for museums – my favourite is the Pre-history and Archaeology museum, but there are other good ones as well including the Maritime museum and the Botin. You could easily add a second or even third day in Santander if you wanted to explore all of these.

  • Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria – My favourite museum in Santander, which contains many caves full of art and pottery from pre-historic times right through to the Middle Ages and then the 20th Century. It also contains some of archeological remains of the towns original medieval walls. Entrance is €4 per person and free for under 4’s.
  • Museo Marítimo del Cantábrico – The Maritime Museum explores how Santanders fishing industry and the Spanish Navy have evolved and changed over time.
  • Centro Botin – A cultural centre and art gallery housed in a very modern building on the waterfront of Santander. It also has fantastic views of the sea and the city panorama from the top. Entry is €8 per person.
  • Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes – It is free entry but sadly was closed for renovation during my visit.

Santander is a city of Art and Sculpture

If you haven’t already figured it out, Santander is a great place for art and sculpture. As well as enjoying the art in the Botin centre, there sculptures in the Parede gardens and all along the waterfront. Here are a few for you to look out for…

  • Monumento al Incendio de Santander – The monument to the great fire of 1941 which is found in Jardin de Parede . The monument includes a stone sculpture on a pedestal of contorted bodies representing the tortuous effect of the fire and also seven life-size bronze figures of destitute individuals representing the loss of material property during the fire.
  • Monumento a Los Raqueros – These statues of diving children appear to be celebrating youth, but has a darker history. It is actually remembering a time when beachcombers such as the poor and orphaned children survived by diving into the sea to retrieve coins that would be thrown into the sea from passengers of passing boats.
  • Mermaid Statue – Sirena Magdalena is a sculpture located created by artist Eduardo Chillida and represents the region’s strong connection to the sea.

If you are prepared to travel out of the city to Comillas you can visit El Capricho which is a villa by Gaudi, which is very similar to the art nouveau of Barcelona.

Fabulous Street Art

Santander is also a great city for street art. My favourites are ‘Alejar a la Muerte’ which you can find looking back down Calle Río de la Pila from the funicular and the city coat of arms on a government building on Calle Peña Herbosa. There is apparently a mural of someone hugging their dog on Calle Valliciergo, but sadly I never found this one! Find out more about the street art of Santander here.

Santander Street Art


Santander has some beautiful gardens for you to relax and enjoy. I’ve already mentioned the Jardines de parede where you can see a lot of street art and a beautiful band stand. Travel further out of the city though, and find Jardines de Piquío which is my favourite gardens in Santander. It’s by Primera Playa del Sardinero and has great views of the beach.

Nice Beaches

Santander has several gorgeous beaches including Playa Los Peligros, Playa de la Magdalena, Bikini Beach and El Sardinero. The general rule is that the further out from the city you go, the better the beaches get.

You can walk to the Magdalena palace and Bikini Beach in about an hour from the city centre. If your legs are not up to such a long walk then you can jump on the number 4 bus or grab a taxi.

There are some even nicer beaches to the north of Santander including Playa El Sardinero (where you can find Jardines de Piquío). If you feel alright taking a boat, then you can consider heading out to Playa del Puntal, a calmer and more beautiful peninsular beach.

The ‘Fire’ Trail

This is an interesting one, but did you know that Santander has a ‘fire’ trail? There was a great fire in Santander in 1941. It started on the 15th February and within just a few hours the flames had engulfed the majority of the old town. You will see signs for the route of ‘El Incendio’ or the fire trail which is an interesting part of Santanders history. There are also statues commemorating the fire around the city.

Amazing food

And finally, as with anywhere in Northern Spain, the food is absolutely amazing. If you like pintxos, go to Mercado del Este. There are also some great cafes and restaurants in Santander.

Bocarte restaurant Santander Spain

Cons to Santander

Santander can easily be seen in one day, so if you are looking for more excitement and culture to fill 4-5 days you would do better going someone like Bilbao or Barcelona. There are a few drawback to Santander including smoking and bull fighting that you should be aware of.


There are a lot of smokers in Santander which may be more than you are used to in the
uk or USA. They sit on the outside tables in cafes so if you want to avoid them ask to be seated inside.

Bull Fighting

For me, this is a big downside to Santander – the Santander Bullring, also known as the Cuatro Caminos Bullring is one of the largest in Spain and is still used regularly in the bullfighting season (March to October). Once someone who had spent a lot of time in Spain and South America told me that if I really wanted to get to know Spanish culture that I should go to a bullfight at least once in my life. I took this advice and did go (In Mojacar in the South of Spain when I was much younger).

It was, in short, an absolutely horrendous display of butchery of a life animal with stabbing and torture. I was so horrified I was crying my eyes out, and it was so busy that I almost had a panic attack trying to get out. I couldn’t get out during the show, so had to endure seeing a bull get tormented and stabbed to death in front of a massive crowd in blazing hot sun. It’s one ‘sport’ that I feel strongly against and never want to see again or support. If you are an animal lover be sure to avoid this barbaric display in Santander.

Language barrier

Santander is Spanish speaking and so without any Spanish you may find a bit of a language barrier. I would recommend downloading Duolingo to learn some basic Spanish before you go. Saying that, there were English speakers in the hotels and some restaurants. The cafes by the cathedral had a list of recommendations in English. I love learning Spanish and feel that it is more of a pro than a con to be honest (I don’t want to go somewhere with too much English speaking!) I can understand why some people think it’s a con though if languages are a struggle for them.

Is Santander worth visiting?

I hope that you can see that Santander is definitely worth visiting, even just for a day or two. It’s an interesting port city full of art, culture, great food and a fantastic cathedral. If you are a sun seeker looking for beaches then you will find many here. It’s close proximity to the UK and there are plenty of cheap flight and ferry options, which make it a great weekend getaway or a travel stop for those wanting to explore the rest of Spain or head to Portugal.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed reading my blog about ‘Is Santander worth visiting?’ then you might also like to read more articles about Spain….