Your Guide to Santander, Cantabria, Spain

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

Admittedly, I didn’t spend nearly as much time in Santander as I should have. My original plan was to visit San Sebastian and Bilbao for the 4 day weekend, but my host family insisted that Santander was worth seeing. They told me it was only a short drive past Bilbao, but it ended up being about 1.5 hours past Bilbao. Plan accordingly!

When I researched Santander, not much came up online. That worried me a little, because this would actually be my first trip ever alone (besides moving to Spain in the first place, that is). There weren’t many hostels available in the area either, so if you’re planning to take that route as well, be sure to take that into account.

When I told people I would be going to Santander, most people asked “But… why? What’s there?” It’s true, it isn’t the biggest tourist destination, especially for Americans and Brits. But what I’ve discovered is that it is a pretty popular destination for Spaniards.

Getting There

Santander is about a 1.5 hour bus ride away from Bilbao. There are some lovely views along the way! There is also a train, I suppose it would take about the same time or perhaps a little less. However, be sure to plan ahead and buy your tickets in advance, especially on weekends. When I tried to leave on Sunday to return to Bilbao, I couldn’t leave in the morning like I had planned because both the train and bus were sold out! Luckily I wasn’t in a rush, but that could definitely ruin your trip.

Where to Stay

I stayed at a “hostel” in the Puerto Chico region of Santander, only because during that time it was the only (cheap) thing available. The hostel actually turned out to be a spare room in someone’s apartment, but my stay was nice nonetheless. Since it was my first time travelling alone, I was hoping to meet people at the hostel, so it was a bit disappointing. But I had a nice and pleasant stay with them, the family was very nice (but spoke no English, so be prepared with a little Spanish). If you’re interested, you can book it here on the hostelworld website.

There are also many hotels in the area if you’re not on a budget, and many of them are located more centrally near the peninsula. Airbnb is always good to check, too!

Puerto Chico (Port Area)

If you’re coming to Santander by bus or train, you’ll be dropped off in this area. However, this is not the central part of Santander. At least, not where most of the touristy things to see are located. There is the port, which is quite nice to walk along, and there are many delicious pinchos restaurants to choose from. And, since it isn’t a huge tourist city, you can find some amazing deals on food!

I had a lovely walk along the coast enjoying the view of the villages on the other side of the bay, the views are pretty spectacular (even though the weather wasn’t fantastic). There are also a few parks along this route, with some nice sculptures to admire. Nearby, there is also a sailing school, so you’ll probably see some amateur sailors taking advantage of the day.

The Arch of Banco Santander

In this area, there is also the original Santander Bank (if you don’t know why this should be important, don’t worry – it’s just a very popular bank in Spain). It is nice to check out, especially if you’re into architecture. It was built in the early 1920’s by architect Javier González de Riancho.

The Courtyard of Banco Santander

As you wander along the streets nearby, you’ll find lots of cool street art- if you’re into that kind of thing. I walked around this city alone at night, and while I don’t recommend doing the same, it is a safe and beautiful city to explore if you have the time.

If you wander back towards the coast, you’ll find some lovely parks and statues. Grab a gelato, take the hand of a loved one, observe the sailors… take advantage of the beautiful walk.

I noticed that there were many lovely buildings throughout the city of Santander. Just keep your eyes open, you never know what you’ll find 🙂

If you keep walking north along the coast, heading towards the peninsula, you will pass by the sailing school and also the strangest government building I’ve ever set my eyes upon:

It takes about 20 minutes to walk from the main downtown area of Puerto Chico to this region, and then perhaps 10-15 more minutes to reach the beach and peninsula region. There are buses that you could take, but as of May 2015, google maps did not have them listed in my phone. But I assure you, the walk is worth it!

Peninsula de la Magdelena

After walking along the coast, you’ll find yourself at a nice beach. There is a path that goes along the cliff, or you can slip off your shoes and enjoy walking across the sand. At the end of this beach, there will be another path that’ll lead you towards the main entrance of the park on the Peninsula.

Not a shabby place to live, eh?

The Peninsula is definitely worth a visit, and many tourist sites recommend at least three hours to fully explore it. There is a huge park, a small zoo, and even a palace! The views from this peninsula are breathtaking, even on a cloudy day. And the best part? It is completely free! I guess there are tours inside of the palace, which you can pay extra for. There’s also a little shuttle that you can pay for to take you around the peninsula, but I highly recommend just walking it.

If you follow the path to the left first, you’ll find yourself at their small zoo. They don’t have much, but it is still pretty cool! There are penguins (a funny sight to see with the beach in the background) and seals. If you continue following the path, you’ll come across a mermaid with 3 ships – a very typical photo moment in Santander!

Continue further and up the hill, stopping to admire the views off of the cliffs. After a few minutes, you will see the palace. It isn’t anything super impressive, but it is pretty. You can walk all along it, and then continue on the path back down the hill, on the other side of the peninsula. There are a couple of different paths that lead more inland or closer to the cliffs.

Just imagine having a picnic here. Either on the grassy knoll, or surrounded by beautiful trees with a distant view of the mountains or horizon. Think: jamon serrano, a tasty yet inexpensive wine, some olives, a handsome Spanish man by your side…

Playa de los Peligros

Peña Vieja and the Beaches

When you loop back around the peninsula toward the entrance, if you continue through the gate and to the right, you will find yourself at another lovely beach called Primera Playa (or First Beach). The first thing you’re sure to notice is Peña Vieja (or Old Rock), with lovely views of the other main area of Santander behind it. I’m sure this beach would be lovely during the summer! I went during the Spring, and what with the weather being wetter in the North, the weather varies quite a bit from day to day.

From there, walk further along the coast and you’ll find Parque de PiquĂ­o, a small break in between the two main beaches of Santander. They have some lovely gardens and benches and of course a magnificent view of the beach in both directions.

The City near the Main Beaches

After you’ve had enough of the beach (if you can ever have enough of the beach), you can head inland to explore the city area on this side of the peninsula. I noticed lots of unique buildings and enjoyed just strolling through the city. In fact, since my phone wasn’t allowing me to find a bus route home, I just walked straight through the city to the other side and back to Puerto Chico (see above). This was quite a long walk, however, and if you could find an alternative route, that’d probably be for the better.

Another popular tourist location on this side of Santander is the Gran Casino Sardinero. When I was there, there was a big formal event going on, so I couldn’t go inside. But other travel websites say it’s definitely worth a look, even if you don’t gamble!

Food and Drinks

So, you’re in Spain. Of course you’re going to expect the best of the best when it comes to food and drinks. You’re in luck, because Santander has some amazing restaurants, both for a midday “menu del dia” and for some lighter pinchos in the evening with delicious wine. Some of the places I went to I had researched beforehand, and others I just happened to be hungry and went to the first place I could find. All of them were delicious, I think it’s hard to go wrong.

My first night, after walking all through the city, I was exhausted. But I can never be too exhausted for a drink. I stopped in a themed bar named “Little Bobby Speakeasy.” It was still a little early in the evening, so when I entered, there weren’t too many other patrons. However, the place itself is quite lovely and well decorated in the 1920’s style. All of their drinks are inspired by old movies and TV shows. I highly recommend stopping by!

I realized I was a bit hungry, so I decided to go to a place that I had found recommended online: Dias Desur. I only planned on having one or two pinchos and some wine, but that turned into 4 pinchos and 2 glasses of wine. It was amazing, even after having such ridiculously decadent pinchos as I had in San Sebastian. This is a must stop for anyone visiting Santander! It can get quite busy, but it is worth the wait. Something even as simple looking as the teeny weeny mini burger they recommended just had the perfect flavor combination to make my eyes roll back in delight.

On my second day, I walked into a random restaurant along Calle Castelar near Puerto Chico. I ordered the menu del dia (if you’re unaware, it’s amazing – each restaurant puts together a couple of possibilities for a 2-3 course meal, generally with wine and dessert included, for a low, fixed price. I’m not talking about small dishes, either. I’m talking massive plates that’ll make you walk away wishing you had your big Thanksgiving pants) and was blown away by the food. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name now, but I am pretty confident that you wouldn’t be disappointed with any options here.

Don’t be afraid to be a stereotypical tourist… order the paella!

I forget what the name of this was, but it was an unusual name for pork… and it melted in my mouth.

Before catching my bus, I decided to stop at one last place in the Port area for some pinchos. This place was called Casa Lita, and it had a great variety of pinchos, although admittedly not as amazing as Dias Desur (it is hard to beat perfect)… but still quite good.

List of What to See

  • Peninsula of Magdalena – Beautiful views of the bay and nearby beaches, with free entrance to the park and zoo.You can go by foot (recommended) or pay extra for a little trolley to take you around. There is also a palace at the tip of the Peninsula, you can pay extra to go in.
  • Playa Primera de El Sardinero
  • PiquĂ­o Park – A lovely park separating two beaches, with great views on both sides.
  • Parque de Cabo Mayor – Panoramic views
  • Puerto Chico – Lots of restaurants and bars, a nice area to walk around near the port.
  • Edificio del Banco Santander – A nice archway and courtyard in honor of Santander banks in Puerto Chico.
  • MenĂ©ndez Pelayo Library: Calle de Rubio, 6 – Beautiful library inside and out, with lots of stained glass and old wooden shelves stuffed to the brim with books.
  • Gran Casino Sardinero: Plaza de Italia, s/n, 1 – Worth seeing, even if you don’t gamble.
  • Barrio Pesquero – A run down area, but worth it for the seafood restaurants.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • CafĂ© Pub La Rana: Calle de DaoĂ­z y Velarde, 30 – lively joint that is popular with its young clientele who want to line their stomachs before a night out; famous for its patatas bravas, but also serves hamburgers and sandwiches.
  • **Little Bobby Speakeasy**: Calle Sol, 20 – A fun, well decorated 1920’s style bar with great cocktails.
  • La Conveniente: Calle de GĂłmez Oreña, 9
  • Asubio Gastrobar: Calle Daoiz y Velarde, 23
  • ***DĂ­as Desur***: Calle Hernán CortĂ©s, 47 – Absolutely amazing pinchos and delicious wine
  • Casa Lita: Paseo de la Pereda, 37
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Delicious Eatery: Restaurant la Donzella de la Costa

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Gorgeous, right? This was our view as we were eating. I was in heaven!

A colleague and I decided to make a change and have a nice lunch out somewhere during our 2 hour break. We always eat the food the school provides, which is sometimes very good (for school food) and other times… meh. Someone recommended that we check out Restaurant la Donzella de la Costa, right on the beach and overlooking the water. We decided to try it out.

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It’s nothing too terribly fancy on the inside, but the view more than makes up for it. You’re surrounded by the gorgeous teal blue water, who needs fancy decorations? And a major bonus was that, for lunch, it was very reasonably priced. We paid about €13 each for a 3 course meal of the day, which was delicious and very filling. It also included wine! And not just a glass… they brought me a jug!

They started us off with a complementary bite-sized treat with cod fish and romanesco sauce, which was tasty. The crust was perfectly baked so it melted in your mouth.

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For our first course, we ordered the vegetables in Romanesco sauce. They were delicious! It was topped with a perfectly crunchy noodle that complimented the flavors and textures perfectly.

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For our main course, we ordered the seafood rice. The rice was very flavorful, and seafood is always a winner in my book. The crab was more for looks, I think… there wasn’t really any meat to be had. But the green sauce along the sides was very delicious!

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And lastly, I ended with Tiramisu… a favorite dessert of mine. It was delicious, but not the best I’ve ever had. But hey… for €13, I’m not complaining! I left feeling completely satisfied, it was an amazing lunch and I will definitely be back.2015-03-05 14.32.33

Carnaval in Sitges: Day 1

img_12488659_1A couple of months back, my tutor at the school had mentioned Carnaval to me and how much I’d enjoy it. I asked her more about it and she mentioned in passing that there was a great Carnaval in Sitges that everyone should see at least once in their lives. From that point on, I had my heart set on going… who knows if I’d ever get the chance again?

I looked more into it and apparently there are three places around Spain famous for their Carnaval festivals: Tenerife, Cadiz, and Sitges. Tenerife appears to be the biggest and most popular, but it is also very far away… same with Cadiz. Sitges, on the other hand, is only about a 45 minute train ride from where I am living… so it seemed perfect.

After celebrating Carnaval with my students at the school all week, I was definitely ready to see how the adults celebrated. My friends and I set out Saturday morning on the train, extremely eager but also very nervous because we really didn’t know what to expect. When we arrived, we heard the sound of fireworks and music in the distance. As we found our way to the hostel, we walked past a few streets that were completely blocked off with people, loud music and confetti in the air. Our excitement grew.

Jessica 094IMG_29641718860931After leaving our stuff at the hostel, we decided to walk around and explore Sitges a bit. The event we had heard as we arrived had ended, and there wasn’t another event planned until that evening. Which was perfect for us, really, because we had heard how beautiful Sitges was and we wanted to take a look around. Sitges is a gorgeous beach town, small and quaint with winding roads and cute little patios. It is also famous for it’s gay crowds, especially around Carnaval.

One of the eclectic shops in Sitges.

One of the many eclectic shops in Sitges.

The Sitges mermaid, in front of the church.

The Sitges mermaid, in front of the church.

As we walked around enjoying the views, we noticed more and more people dressed in various costumes. I immediately regretted not planning out my costume more! I had almost bought a costume the week before but finally decided that paying €30-€40 euros for a one time thing wouldn’t be worth it. I wish I was as crafty as the Catalan teachers at my school!

Jessica 105When you walk to the waterfront and turn to your left, you will see a beautiful church on a hill called the Eglesia de Sant Bartolomé i Santa Tecla. It is so unbelievably picturesque and European looking, I could definitely tell why Sitges is such a popular place to visit. As you walk around the church, there are beautiful archways and views of the ocean and city from the top. People sell their wares on small sheets laid out on the ground, and one guy up further even can take your picture using an old-fashioned camera.

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Beautiful views from the church.

Jessica 114 Jessica 115 Jessica 118After wandering through the cobble-stoned paths around the church, we ended up on the other, smaller side of Sitges that lies just beyond. It is equally beautiful and also has a lot of nice restaurants right on the beach, albeit they were a little bit pricey. There are some lovely winding streets right beyond the main road, and this is where we stopped for a Menu del Dia, or meal of the day which includes 2 courses, wine, and bread. I love the Menu del Dia in Spain!

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Jessica 132A small, adorable little restaurant in one of the back alleys.

After wandering around a bit more, a small parade began in the middle of town. Basically, a bunch of groups of percussionists went through the streets all dressed up and dancing. It was quite fun to see! Luckily we got their at the perfect time and had a great view of all of them.
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The big parade was going to be Sunday, so we just wandered around on Saturday night looking at everyone’s costumes. It was really cool to see everyone (grown adults and children alike) dressed up in themed costumes and having a great time. It put Halloween to shame! You name it, someone was dressed up as it. There were appearances by British royalty, minions from Despicable Me, cutlery, clowns, cowboys, tribal men, insects… everything!
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As it got later and later, things got crazier and crazier. More and more people arrived in over-the-top costumes, including many transexuals (it was amazing, some of them looked prettier than actual women!) in tutus, fishnets and high heels. At one point we saw some people dancing in their apartment on the second floor in corsets and underwear, and when they saw us looking they got even more into it.

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At the very center of town, all of the clubs were so crowded that instead of actually going inside, many people just stood in the streets and danced. It was such a fun time! My favorite costume of all time had to be the group who was dressed as a giant penis and sperm… I unfortunately didn’t get the best photo of it, but I am sure you can picture it. They pulled out water guns and started shooting them into the air… it was amazing.

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We met up with lots of our friends that night and just enjoyed the party atmosphere that Carnaval had to offer us. The best part was that we knew this wasn’t even the crazy day… The following day, Sunday, promised to be even better.

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Christmas in Barcelona (Yeah, I know… this is way late)

So this was my first Christmas out of the US, and I had so much fun! I was extremely lucky my mother flew over to visit me, though, because it just wouldn’t have been the same without her. One thing that was strange for us is that Christmas really isn’t a big deal here in Spain. They do have it as a holiday, but not many gifts are exchanged and it isn’t necessary to meet up with family in large gatherings like they do in the states. Instead, they trade all of that out for the Dia de Los Reyes Magos, or Magic Kings Day on January 6th.

Christmas morning, I went out to grab a coffee and some pastries for my  mother and I and I was in such a happy mood that I smiled at everyone I passed on the way and threw out some “Bon Nadal”‘s (Merry Christmas in Catalan). However, no one else seemed to be in as good of a mood as me… I got a lot of strange looks. Hmmph. I think that reinforced for me that Christmas, for them, was really just a day like any other… except that they didn’t have to work. No matter…

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After our coffee, I decided to show my mother the pier and beautiful beaches in my city. It was such a perfect day! Many people were out with their kids, enjoying the sun and company of family. I absolutely love this area, and I feel so blessed to have been placed so close to the beach. Every day I go to school I get to see the beautiful ocean, and now that I get to school even earlier I catch the beautiful sunrise every morning!

The monkey statue is in honor of the liqueur Anis del Mono, very popular in this area. The factory is just out of view to the right on this picture. The face, supposedly, was modelled after Darwin's face.

The monkey statue is in honor of the liqueur Anis del Mono, very popular in this area. The factory is just out of view to the right on this picture. The face, supposedly, was modelled after Darwin’s face.

We walked along the beach and went to the pier. The water around there was so clear that day… at one point we looked down and could see a big group of fish below! We even saw a jellyfish (eek!) but it was such a cool experience to see that. I’ve been in many beautiful places around the world with clear water, but I’ve never seen such a huge crowd of fish so close to the shore and so visible!

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Nonetheless, my host family knew how important Christmas was to us and invited us over to their house for lunch. It was a small and intimate get together, just the host family, the grandmother, my mother and I. It was so sweet though, they decorated the table with our names and bought a bunch of special food and cava for us. I felt so blessed to have such a kind and loving host family! They served pava, which I guess is female turkey. I never realized that supposedly when we have turkey, it is generally the male turkey…? Who knows! But it was tasty, and according to the family it is a little bit sweeter than the male turkey (it’s got that female tenderness haha).

2014-12-25 14.58.12 2014-12-25 15.39.53After enjoying the meal and chatting a bit, we drove over to the host mother’s brother’s house for a family get together. It was so much fun! Even though my mom spoke absolutely no Spanish, the family was so welcoming and made conversation and included us in everything. The host, my host mother’s brother, also made it his goal to make sure that our drinks were never empty. It was insane! He made us mojitos (the best mojito we’ve ever had), rum and coke, gin tonic, and then he had me try some expensive cavas and wines from the region. I have no idea how much I had to drink, but dang we had a lot of fun!

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We played games, danced… I was so happy to spend Christmas with all of these amazing people.

Blanes, Catalonia: 10-5-14

So I’ve mentioned a thousand times how awesome my first host family was. Here we go again. Mind you, this is a late post and definitely not chronological but oh well. In the first month or so that I was in Barcelona, my host family decided to take me for a day trip to the beach city of Blanes, which is near the beautiful Costa Brava in Northern Catalonia. It just so happens that they have a house there that they wanted to check up on and also a boat, so lucky me!

2014-10-05 13.09.01It turned out to be an absolutely beautiful day (the weather report had said otherwise). We walked around along the boardwalk and took in all of the beautiful sites that the city had to offer.

The big rock in the middle of the water reminds me of Morro Bay, California... except on a smaller scale, of course.

The big rock in the middle of the water reminds me of Morro Bay, California… except on a smaller scale, of course.

A statue of the popular Sevillanas dance.

A statue of the popular Sevillanas dance.

2014-10-05 13.45.25After we walked around a bit, we went to a restaurant that the family apparently frequents whenever they go up to Blanes. The restaurant was called “Buggy,” such a strange name that I remember it even now, months later. It is in a really nice location because their outdoor part is right on the boardwalk overlooking the beach, and they also have an indoor part not too far away, either.

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For starters, my host family ordered fried fish and squid… Okay, not so unusual, right? But when it came to the table it wasn’t what I expected at all. The 8 year old girl had ordered one big plate of fried small fish… whole. Head, tail, eyes and all. They were the size and shape of french fries, and she ate them as if they were french fries, too! I have never seen anything like it. The host mom and dad ordered fried baby squid, and they came out whole as well. I, of course, had to try both of them but I myself ordered something a little more close to home: Avocado and shrimp. You can see the baby squid they gave me on the plate, though. I could kick myself for not taking a picture of those little fish.

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For the second dish, we ordered paella… but of course! This was my first taste of paella since my last trip to Barcelona the year before. My host family explained to me that the original paella does not have any seafood, and came from Valencia. However, Catalonia and the Costa Brava put their own spin on paella and decided to add seafood. In their opinion, this was one of the best examples of seafood paella in Catalonia. I must say I agreed. Paella is my weakness… I can shovel it down without a second thought. That saffron, all of those flavors, paired with seafood…?! Heaven.

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After that delicious and filling meal, we walked around a bit more. Unfortunately, since it was just a short day trip, I probably didn’t even see half of the greatness that Blanes has to offer. But hey, I plan to come back!