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Santander in northern Spain is not a holiday destination that many tourists think of when they consider going to Spain. That is to say: Foreign tourists, because the Spanish themselves love to go there, treading in the footsteps of the members of their Royal Family. Granted, it does rain every now and then in this northern coastal strip, but if you want to escape the summer heat in Madrid, it can be very refreshing. And so Madrilenians flock to Santander.
Santander is an elongated city: The distance from the port to the Magdalena Peninsula is five kilometers, after which the Sardinero Beach begins, which is about two kilometers long.
The old city center was almost completely swept away during a large fire in 1941, which raged for no less than two days, stirred up by strong winds. So Santander does not have an historic center, although you will find some old buildings in the vicinity. The city center is formed by the Plaza Porticada. During the month of August, this is the epicenter of the International Summer Festival, with performances by groups from around the world. Further down, the Calle de Somorrostro leads to a hill of the same name, on which the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Santander is built. The current cathedral is built on top of a crypt from the twelfth century in a mainly Gothic style.
The Palacio de la Diputación is the seat of Cantabria's provincial government. This doesn't sound like an exciting place to visit, but that's where you are wrong. The building's basement houses the Archeological Museum. It contains a large collection of objects that were found during excavations in the region. The oldest pieces date from the Iron Age. We also recommend the Cantabrian Maritime Museum, which exhibits a number of antique ships, as well as nautical charts and ships' log books.
The Avenida de la Reina Victoria is one of Santander's most beautiful avenues. It forms the gateway to the district near the Magdalena Peninsula where Santander's reputation as a seaside resort began. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, King Alfonso XIII considered it an ideal spot for a royal holiday destination. He had a fairytale palace built on the peninsula. They have recently started giving guided tours again on some days in the palace. You can get more information through Santander's Tourist Office. The park surrounding the palace – including a mini zoo with for example seals and penguins – is always accessible.
Luxury hotels, expensive restaurants and posh beach pavilions appeared in the peninsula's vicinity. In those days, the Royal Family, including of course the royal household, visited Santander every year. That annual royal invasion put Santander in the spotlight and nowadays it is also a popular destination for the average Spaniard. On the promenade along the golden Sardinero Beach you'll find dozens of cafés, bars, restaurants and tapas bars, all with outdoor terraces. Here you'll also find Santander's Baroque casino.
Food constitutes a serious business in Spain and Santander is no exception. The Tourist Office issues a free booklet containing an (almost) complete overview of the city's eateries, for every budget. For the best fish dishes you should go to the barrio pesquero, near the fishing port.
Not far from Santander lies the Cave of Altamira, famous for its cave paintings, which are said to date back 15,000 years. They don't represent human beings, only animals: Bison, deer, horses and wild boars. As the paintings began to dry out and therefore faded, the cave was closed for the public. Nowadays only few people are allowed inside the real cave; a copy of the cave paintings can be seen in the nearby museum.
Santander's hinterland, the region of Cantabria has much more to offer. Ancient towns, impressive mountains and gorges, wild nature in national parks and stunning lakes, some of which are storage reservoirs.
Santander's center houses various parking garages and parking lots where you can park your rental car. It may not be easy to find a parking space nearby the most popular beaches. There are also good road connections with the rest of Spain: The N634 coastal road runs from La Coruña via Santander to Bilbao; the N611 runs to Valladolid and the N623 takes you to Burgos.
Santander Airport is located in Camargo, 5 kilometers from the city center. This airport is mainly served by budget airlines and can be easily reached by rental car.