Really three separate weekends because after this last weekend I have now been to Santander three separate times. I finally decided to write down all the cool stuff I have done there so that I won’t start to forget. It is a shame that just after the second time I visited Santander, my phone was stolen back in Madrid and I didn’t have a chance to backup any of the pictures I took from that trip, so this post is lacking some photos unfortunately.
A really good friend of mine and Alex was living up in Santander this whole year, his dad’s side of the family is from there so he has been visiting since he was a little kid but this was his first time living in Spain. Each time we went up to visit him was so awesome and it was a great excuse to visit an underrated northern Spanish city. If Santander is not yet on your list of Spanish cities, it most certainly should be.
You can definitely notice the difference in customer service between Santander and Madrid. In my experience, the servers and bartenders are all much more talkative and nice there. Maybe it is because it is a smaller city than Madrid or maybe because Santander has the reputation of being a bit more high-class than a lot of Spain. There is a good amount of money there, the quality of food is excellent and people dress noticeably well. If you haven’t been to the north of Spain before, the weather is also much more unpredictable. It’s more humid and you may start your day off in the sun at one of the city’s beaches and a few hours later find yourself running for cover from a rainstorm. Going there this last time was such a welcome escape from Madrid’s 40 degree summer heat. I even had to wear a sweater at night there. The best part was that we unintentionally timed our visit with Santander’s city festival which meant concert venues set up around the city, food stands and at night plazas so full of people you could barely move.
Below I list some of my favorite things about Santander. A three-day weekend is the perfect amount of time to go to the beach (weather permitting), enjoy the nightlife and take in the city.
Where to Eat
We ate here on our second visit to Santander and this last time I desperately wanted to go back but we hadn’t made a reservation and they were completely booked when I called the minute they opened. The restaurant is small and decorated in a cute and modern fashion, would be a perfect date spot. I still think about the red curry seafood dish I had there! Two of the other people I was with ordered a famous Spanish dish-rabo de toro (oxtail) and they said it was amazing, tender, rich and served on a bed of mashed potatoes. Let this be the meal you splurge on. The prices are very fair considering the quality of the food and the service, but it’s a bit pricey for your average meal. Fortunately they do offer 1/2 orders of the food for a bit less so that is a good option to save on the cost and still get to try some incredible dishes. I got a half order of the red curry seafood dish and it was a perfect amount of food for me, it could also be because I ate so much of their amazing homemade bread beforehand.
This was a great lunch spot to go to for Spain’s famous menú del día. As you have likely seen around the country, you pay a fixed price during lunchtime (roughly 2pm-4pm) and the cost is usually around 9-15 Euros depending on where you go. Here if I remember, the menú was about 11 or 12 Euros and very good quality. Wherever you go the menú almost always includes a starter, main dish, dessert and a drink and it ends up usually being too much food. Casa Ajero was no exception. I had a delicious and simple salad for my starter, a mushroom risotto for my main and for dessert some cheese with membrillo. I would definitely love to go back here!
It’s a big, busy and traditional Santander restaurant with a lively atmosphere and good for groups. Friendly people working and there may even be live music while you’re there. The prices were a bit above average but not crazy expensive. I ordered eggplant stuffed with seafood and one of my friends ordered a steak and the other huevos rotos with chorizo which consists of a fried egg over fried potatoes and chorizo on the side. It sounds really basic and it is, but it’s one of Spain’s most famous dishes and it’s so good.
No trip to Santander is complete without going to get cheap pintxos at least once at one of their two locations. It’s an informal restaurant so don’t expect impressive service or particularly cheerful staff. Take one of their paper menus and a pencil and put a number next to all the montadito or raciones (portion of food) that you would like. I usually get about three montaditos for myself and split a ración with several people. Each montadito is served between two slices of bread for a sort of tiny sandwich. I recommend the rabas-strips of fried squid montadito and the patatas bravas ración-fried potatoes with a red smokey/sweet sauce on top.
I was so reluctant to go with my friends to a Mexican restaurant in the north of Spain. I’m going back to the U.S. next month, I don’t need to eat Mexican food in a small town in Spain. Even though I tried to fight it, I am really glad we went in the end. The service was too good. Everyone working was astonishingly nice and it was much fancier than the sign out front would lead you to believe. The preparation for the food was really nice and the prices are fair. It may seem quite cheap on the menu but the portion sizes are small even though the quality is good. We learned that a burrito just means three tacos with flour rather than corn tortillas so do be warned about that. The free shots of a fancy liqueur we received at the end were delicious.
You absolutely have to get an ice cream cone (or three) from Regma while you’re in Santander. The company was started in 1933 and there are a few locations around Santander. It is under 3 Euros for two good size scoops with your choice of two of their flavors. I recommend the strawberry and the jaspeado (swirled) mocha. Who has a better Regma photo?
Your go-to kebab place for late-night drunchies food. They have falafel and the guys working there are really chill. Alex says it’s by far the best (meat) kebab he’s had in Spain, maybe Europe. The falafel was good, nothing so special although they actually made it spicy when I told them I could handle the heat so that was nice. I think it is more enjoyable if you are a meat-eater though based on hearsay. Also the place is not currently listed on Google, but the link I provide is its correct location.
Where to Drink and Party
You should definitely go to this great bar with cheap wine and mixed drinks with friendly old man bartenders that flirt with you and give you a heart-shaped lollipop with every drink you buy. Even better than the bar though is that everyone takes their glasses out into the Plaza del Cañadío and on weekends late at night you are bound to find students and other party people hanging out. Northern Spaniards aren’t known for their openness toward strangers, but as is true of many university cities, the students are all quite friendly and in my experience it is easy to end up finding a group of people to talk to.
A short walk from Santander’s Plaza del Cañadío is La Cala which turns overwhelmingly into an Erasmus bar late at night. The drinks are cheap and there is a small dance floor. A good place to meet random drunk people if that’s your angle. Everyone is friendly and there is usually a huge crowd of people outside talking, drinking and smoking.
Not so sure it is comparable to paradise, but it’s a big place with tons of people dancing, a huge bar, it’s open late and there is free entry. Be prepared to dance to Reggaetón all night. It is really just your basic Spanish discoteca but the price is right and it’s a good option to continue your drunk night if you so choose to go down that path.
What to do
I highly recommend taking the quick ferry trip across the bay from Santander to the city of Somo. It definitely has beach town vibes and a massive beach just a walk from where the ferry drops you off. The waves on the beach were quite big when I was there, a lot of people taking surfing lessons and not the most relaxing water to swim in. The round-trip ticket from Santander is just under 5 Euros and the boat leaves about every half hour from the center of Santander. Not a big fancy ferry, the boat is rather small but it’s a pleasant ride. From Santander you want the second stop on the ferry to get to Somo. It had been at least a year since I was on a boat so it was so nice to get on top of the water again.
It’s not the free ride that’s impressive, it’s basically just an outdoor elevator to the top of a large hill, but the view from the top is amazing! You can really get a feel for the city and its layout and there are some great views of the bay.
If you walk away from the water after reaching the top of the funicular, you will soon reach the Universidad de Cantabria. Right behind the university is this awesome park with trails and bridges over water, plenty of grass and you can forget for a second that you are in the middle of the city. The University isn’t the prettiest campus I have ever seen but the park is really nice and worth walking to and around.
This free public zoo is kind of sad. The penguins are overcrowded in a small exhibit, and the amount of water in the seal’s enclosure is entirely dependent on the level of the tide so once when I went to see the animals I was disturbed and saddened by the seal’s puddle of water it was anxiously trying and failing to submerge itself in. You can walk here from the center of Santander in a bit over 30 minutes or take a public bus for no more than a couple Euros.
It’s the hotel in the drama series Gran Hotel. Alright you probably don’t know that Spanish show, I couldn’t actually finish it after the storyline just kept repeating itself. But even if you aren’t familiar with the show, you can’t leave Santander without seeing its famous royal palace situated right on a cliff overlooking the sea. After you see Santander’s strange public zoo, you should walk along the paths and head towards the palace grounds. I haven’t been inside the building myself, just walked around the grounds twice. The outside is beautiful though and the views of the sea make me miss living near any body of water.
After you have seen the pitiful zoo and the nice palace, on a nice day I recommend checking out Santander’s longest and most popular city beach. If you follow the promenade from the Magdalena it will take you right above the beach. There is a lot going on around this city beach. You can find restaurants, bars, grocery stores etc. just a short distance away. The waves are moderate and enjoyable for swimming. Weather permitting you can definitely spend the day on the beach.