Think of Spain and I bet your mind will never go to Cantabria. In fact, chances are you have no idea where – let alone what – Cantabria is. I don’t blame you. Most people outside of Spain have actually heard of it – that was the case for me too, to be honest. Until I ended up going, and realized this small region, right on the Bay of Biscay and part of Green Spain (the greenest region of the country, where the Picos de Europa and Cantabrian Mountains are located) is truly gorgeous.
But that’s not all. Cantabria, Spain, has incredible beaches; beautiful cities and quaint small towns; uber-interesting archeological sites and vineyards galore.
Top this off with the fact that this region has yet to be discovered by mass international tourism and that – should you finally visit – you’ll have it to yourself, and you’ll see why you really should visit Cantabria.
Curious to find out more? Continue reading to discover the best things to see and do in Cantabria, Spain.
The Best Places To Visit In Cantabria, Spain
Santander, the capital of Cantabria, is a beautiful, elegant city right by the sea, with some lovely golden beaches. So pretty it is, that it was the place where the Spanish aristocracy would spend the summer months in the early 20th century. The centre of the city was destroyed by a fire in 1941, so most of it had to be rebuilt. Nevertheless, the city is a very pleasant place to visit.
A bit outside of the city, Palacio de la Magdalena is one of the best places to visit in Cantabria. It was built between 1908 and 1912 and gifted by the city to the royal family (on the one condition that they’d spend their summers there) with the aim of attracting more aristocrats (who’d follow the royal family). Pretty much a form of tourism marketing!
The palace overlooks the ocean, and the view from there is splendid. It can be visited on a guided tour, though in the summer months it hosts the courses and the students of the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.
TIP: To make the most of Santander, you may wish to join a guided tour. I recommend this historic walking tour. A hop-on hop-off bus tour may be a good idea to hit all the main attractions in town. You can book it here.
The third largest city in Cantabria, Castro Urdiales is located in the Bay of Biscay. It’s a modern city with a lovely medieval center where the main sights are the gothic-style Church of Santa Maria de la Asunción and the Castle of Santa Ana, which has been used as a lighthouse.
Santillana del Mar
I believe this to be the most beautiful small city in Cantabria. Known as the “town of the three lies” as it is neither saint (santa), flat (llana) or by the sea (del mar), Santillana del Mar actually owes its name to Santa Juliana (or Santa Llana).
The most important building in Santillana is the Colegiata Romanesque Church, where the remains of Santa Juliana are kept. Other than that, the city is a maze of lovely medieval lanes, packed with shops, lovely cafés and small but interesting museums. It’s is also the perfect starting point to visit Altamira.
GOOD TO KNOW: You can easily visit Santillana del Mar on day trips from Santander that also stop at Altamira Caves. For more information, click here.
The Cave of Altamira is perhaps the most place to visit in Cantabria, Spain, and the main reason people visit the region. The cave, discovered by pure chance in 1879 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been completely closed to visitors in 2002 in order to preserve the microclimate that has protected its paintings.
Nowadays, only 5 persons are allowed to visit every Friday, and for no longer than 30 minutes: the lucky visitors are picked through a ruffle among the visitors of Altamira Museum, where you can admire a perfect replica of the cave, which has some of the most incredible examples of prehistoric art, with paintings that depict hunting scenes and represent bisons, horses and deers. There’s a good reason the Cave of Altamira is considered to be the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art.
Palacio de Sobrellano
Scattered around Cantabria there are some beautiful palaces built in different historical periods. Palacio de Sobrellano is unique in its gender, and a real gem. Built in 1888 by architect Martorell, it is a neo-gothic palace that used to belong to the Marqués de Comillas.
Marqués de Villa of Valdecilla
The palaces belonging to the Indianos are among the most interesting places to visit in Cantabria.
In the late 19th century and in the early 20th century, many men (and women) of Cantabria left in search of fortune. Most went to nowadays Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and other countries of Latin America, and made a fortune – often working in the ingenios, sugar cane plantations where African slaves were employed.
Those who went back to Cantabria (and who were called indianos – because they had been in the “West India”) usually made a show of their fortune by building beautiful mansions, and making generous donations to the local communities in the form of schools and clinics.
Some of these palaces can be visited, as they have been turned into interesting museums that provide insights into the way of life of the time, as well as into the history of the Indianos.
One of them is the Marqués de Villa of Valdecilla. The property is simply stunning: 3 gorgeous buildings, a beautiful garden, they are perfect for an afternoon visit. At the moment, tours are only offered in Spanish so most visitors are locals.
El Capricho de Gaudì
Comillas, a small village of Cantabria, is home to El Capricho, one of Gaudì’s masterpieces. They say you either love or hate Gaudì. Certainly a genius in his own ways, I have to say I am not a huge fan of his hyper-eclectic style. Nevertheless, visiting El Capricho is one of the things to do in Cantabria.
El Capricho was built between 1883 and 1885 with the purpose of being the summer residence of Màximo Dìaz De Quijano. Though he had said he wanted a small but comfortable home, Gaudì had something different in mind and came up with a building that had the obvious intention of capturing the attention of visitors. It is an incredibly unusual building – very colorful, with a tower that looks much like a minaret, and entirely built to capture the sunlight.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Guided tours of El Capricho are offered every day in a variety of languages. You can visit El Capricho on day trips to Comillas. For more information, click here.
Santo Toribio Monastery
Located in the Cantabrian Mountains, this This Roman Catholic Monastery dates back prior to the 6th century. Home to the relic of the left arm of the True Cross, it’s one of just five places of Christianity that still enjoys the privilege of indulgence – the others are Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, and Caravaca de la Cruz.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can visit Santo Toribio Monastery on day trips from Santander. For more information, click here.
Scattered around Cantabria you will find many vineyards and wineries. It may well remind you of Sardinia. Wine production is a long established tradition of Cantabria, and going on one (or more) wine tasting tours is one of the best things to do there. The following are some bodegas you may want to visit:
BODEGA VIDULAR – Owned by two friendly brothers who have taken wine tourism to a whole new level, this bodega is completely immersed in the countryside, and visitors are invited to try samples from the various stages of the production of wine. But there’s more: a beautiful rustic hotel, with 5 lovely, cozy rooms, offers accommodation to those who feel the urge to escape the city and breathe the clean air of Cantabrian mountains for a while.
BODEGA SENORIO DEL PAS – Señorío del Pas has fully embraced the concept of organic, vegan wine. Everything that is used in the production of wine is 100% natural, with outstanding results.
BODEGA MIRADORIO DE RUILOBA – Impressive vineyards overlooking at the same time the sea and the mountains and a festive and friendly atmosphere make this a special place.
The Camino Lebaniego is a long distance hike that is either part of or a detour of the Camino de Santiago. The trail is 66 km long and can be done in 3 stages, and goes through Picos de Europa National Park and lovely villages galore. The hike is moderate to difficult – one thing you have to take for granted is that no matter the season, it will rain quite a bit and it will be mostly cold. I walked bits of the Camino Lebaniego in June and it certainly rained and got cold.
Picos de Europa and Cantabrian Mountains
You may have never heard of it, but the Picos de Europa is one of the best places for hiking in Spain.
The park was founded in 1918 and is one of the oldest in the country, and is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The fauna variety in the park is incredible, with species such as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian wolf, the Pyrenean Chamois (a sort of antelope) and the bearded vulture. Scattered around the park there are several mountains with peaks over 2000 meters – the highest being Torre de Cerredo which reaches 2648 meters.
To get to the park you have to drive through the Garganta Divina, along the Cares River, and that is an experience in and of itself as itìs a really scenic drive. For the best views, hop on the Fuente Dé cable car, which reaches a peak located at 1800 meters. When I visited, the mountains were covered in clouds and we could hardly see beyond our noses – but it was a great experience nevertheless.
Make sure to also read my post Hiking The Picos De Europa: The Best Trails.
Useful Information To Plan Your Trip To Cantabria, Spain
GET THERE – Santander has its own international airport connected to the rest of Spain and Europe via budget flights, but you may have better luck finding cheap flights to Bilbao, in the Basque Country, which is at little over one hour drive.
MOVE AROUND – Cantabria is one of the best places in Spain to enjoy on a road trip so you may want to pick up your own car as soon as you land.
You can easily base yourself in one place and explore from there. The following are the best places to stay in the area:
PALACIO DE LA PENA – Located in the Cantabrian countryside, this is the perfect place to treat yourself. It is expensive, but worth it. The owner is a charming architect who enjoys sharing stories on how he came about the concept of the hotel, which is a fully renovated 16th century palace. There’s a wonderful restaurant on site.
ABBA PALACIO DE SONANES – Located in Villacarriedo, this is a splendid Baroque style palace with beautifully decorated rooms and a fabulous on site restaurant.
PALACIO DE GUEVARA – In Treceño, this is a lovely hotel located in a small yet charming village. The rooms are cozy, the personnel incredibly friendly and helpful, and there’s a good restaurant on the premises.
You won’t have troubles finding good food. For something a bit more special, these are all excellent restaurants:
BODEGA EL RIOJIANO – Fantastic and very popular restaurant in Santander where you can try some of the best local cuisine. Service is spot on and the environment sophisticated but friendly.
PALACIO DE MIJARES – Beautiful restaurant fully immersed in the countryside; perfect location for occasions. The food is delicious.
Have you ever been to Cantabria? What did you like the most about it?
Are you traveling to Spain? Make sure to read my other posts:
- The Best Places To Visit In Northern Spain
- 7 Great Reasons To Visit The Basque Country
- 11 Reasons To Visit Galicia
- 11 Gorgeous Places To Visit In Asturias, Spain
- 31 Awesome Things To Do In Madrid
Legal Disclaimer: This article is written in partnership with Spain Tourism Board and the local tourism board of Cantabria, and in cooperation with The Travel Mob, for the #InGreenSpain campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.