Cantabria, the region with the most beautiful beaches in Northern Spain

Cantabria has a coast with beautiful sandy beaches surrounded by rocks. This beautiful coast is home to picturesque seaside resorts such as Laredo and Castro Urdiales. The capital Santander is also a seaside resort, but also a lively port city with many sights. Inland you can explore many unspoilt towns, especially the historic town of Santillana del Mar. Cantabria has examples of very ancient art. In Altamira you can see petroglyphs that are among the oldest in Europe.

Cantabria

  • General
  • History
  • Top locations
  • Top hotel in Cantabria
  • Food and drink
  • Party and event
  • Sports activities
  • Travel to Cantabria
  • Traveling in Cantabria

Cantabria, Northern Spain / Source: Mutxamel, Wikimedia Commons (GFDL)

General

Cantabria is one of the seventeen autonomous regions of Spain and is located in the north of the country. The region has an area of 5,289 km² and has more than 594,000 inhabitants (2016). The capital is Santander with almost 173,000 inhabitants (2016). Cantabria is bordered in the south by the region of Castile-León. The east borders the Basque Country region and the west the Asturias region. The north borders the Atlantic Ocean.
The Cantabrian coast has attractive seaside resorts with sandy beaches where you can sunbathe and swim. The capital Santander is a port city and a lively seaside resort. The city has a few beautiful beaches, but also a historic center with a cathedral, churches and museums. The main seaside resorts are San Vicente de la Barquera, Laredo and Castro Urdiales. These fishing towns are picturesquely situated on a harbor and have beautiful beaches. Santillana del Mar is located inland. In this historic town you will find churches, palaces and mansions. Near Santillana del Mar is Altamira, where you can admire the most famous rock paintings in Spain.

History

The earliest period

Prehistoric cave paintings show that people have lived in Cantabria for at least 36,000 years. From about 1200 B.C. the Celts settled in Cantabria. The Celts, also called Cantabrians, mixed with the Iberian (prehistoric) tribes over the centuries. In 19 B.C. Cantabria was conquered by the Romans and the Cantabrians were defeated. In the early 5th century AD. weakened the Roman Empire and the region was occupied by the Visigoths.
In 711, almost the entire Iberian Peninsula was conquered by the Moors. Asturias, located west of Cantabria, was the only part of Spain not conquered by the Moors. Here a Moorish army was defeated by Christians in 722 and the reconquista of Spain began. Asturias then stretched from eastern Galicia to the western Pyrenees. Cantabria was therefore also part of the Asturian empire and would only become a separate region much later.
In the 10th century, Cantabria became part of Castile, which was united with León in the 11th century. This kingdom, Castile-León, would go down in history as the predecessor of the Spanish kingdom.

Modern times

For centuries, Cantabria lived in the shadow of Castile-León, on which it depended for its development. After all, Cantabria had no mines and a steel industry, as was the case in Asturias. The region could also not compete with the economic power of the Basque Country. When tourism started at the end of the 19th century, things were going in the right direction economically.
From 1979 onwards, various regions were given autonomy and could form their own government. In 1981 this also applied to Cantabria. The region was given autonomy, separate from the new region of Castile-León.
Cantabria’s economy today is focused on tourism, agriculture, fishing and merchant shipping. But the banking sector is especially important. With Banco Santander, Cantabria has (as of 2017) the largest bank in Spain. The bank is also in the top ten of the largest banks in Europe.

Top locations

Santander

The capital of Cantabria is a port city and an elegant seaside resort. The old center was rebuilt after a major fire in 1941. Nevertheless, Santander has a lot to offer, such as a historic center with some sights, good restaurants and a few good beaches.
The Museo de Prehistorica y Arqueología / Source: Viatorimperi, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) In the center is the Catedral , which was built on the remains of an earlier Roman building. The Romanesque-Gothic crypt of the cathedral was built in the 12th century. The upper part of the cathedral and its monastery date from the 14th century. After the great fire of 1941, it took more than ten years before the cathedral was rebuilt in its original style. In the crypt you will find the relics of San Emeterio, the saint from which Santander takes its name. Near the cathedral is the Museo de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo . The collection of this museum consists mainly of modern and contemporary art. The museum also has some important older works. Of these, the highlight is a portrait of Fernando II by Goya. On the other side of the center is the Museo de Prehistorica y Arqueología . In this museum you will find finds from various Cantabrian caves and Roman settlements. The most important objects include Neolithic ax blades and Roman coins, pots and statues. East of the center is the peninsula of La Magdalena , a headland with a park. The Palacio de la Magdalena , a summer residence of Alfonso XIII from 1911 , is also located here . South of the peninsula is the Playa de los Peligros . This beautiful beach is closest to the center. Even more beautiful is Playa el Sardinero , north of the peninsula. This long beach is bordered by gardens, cafes, restaurants, hotels and a casino.

Santillana del Mar

Despite its name, Santillana del Mar is not located on the coast, but a few kilometers inland. The beautiful historic city is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. Santillana del Mar is well preserved and has many impressive buildings. You will find religious buildings, the oldest of which date from the 12th century. The beautiful mansions were built in the 15th-18th century.
The beautiful mansions of Santillana del Mar / Source: Sedoglia, Flickr (CC BY-2.0) The main streets are Calle de Santo Domingo and Calle Carrera , near the Plaza Mayor . The 15th-18th century mansions in these streets refer to the city’s aristocratic heritage. Many houses were built by noblemen, and coats of arms on the facades refer to the families who lived there for generations. A number of mansions have now been converted into farms, restaurants or hotels. In the north of the center is the Colegiata de Santa Juliana . This Romanesque monastery, built in the 12th century, is an important place of pilgrimage. It is loved by believers and art lovers alike. Inside are the tomb of Saint Juliana and a 17th-century painted altarpiece. Lively Bible scenes are depicted on the capitals of the Romanesque cloister . In the south of the center is the Museo Diocesano . This museum is located in the Convento de Regina Coeli monastery (1592). The collection mainly consists of painted wooden statues of saints. There are also other religious artefacts on display, such as church silver.

Cuevas de Altamira

A few kilometers south of Santillana del Mar are the famous Cuevas de Altamira. These caves contain prehistoric art that is among the most beautiful in the world. In 1985, the caves, discovered in 1868, were placed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO. The magnificent paintings, the oldest of which are 36,000 years old, depict bison, horses, deer and human figures. To protect the works, the cave is no longer open, but in the Museo de Altamira there is a replica of part of the caves and the paintings.
The ‘Cave with paintings’ / Source: National Museum and Research Center of Altamira, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0) The most important part of the museum is the New Cave section . Here you can see the ‘Cave with paintings’. A herd of bison is painted on the ceiling of this cave. In the ‘Galería Final’ you will see another part of the original cave. Here you can admire the lesser-known paintings. In the ‘Archaeological excavations’ you will see parts of objects used by Paleolithic hunters. Another important part of the museum is the Daily Life department . Here you can see an exhibition about the daily life of people in the Paleolithic. The exhibition shows where and how people lived, and what food they ate. You will also be introduced to fishing and hunting techniques and methods of tanning hides.

San Vicente de la Barquera

San Vicente de la Barquera is located partly on a rock in the wide estuary of a small river. This picturesque fishing town has been a busy port since Roman times. Most sights are located in the upper town. The upper town is surrounded by ramparts and an associated 12th-century fortress. The arcaded streets take you past mansions from the 16th century. For centuries, San Vicente was a stop for pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrim routes were marked by cathedrals and churches. One of these churches is the Iglesia de Santa María de los Ángeles . This Gothic church was built between the 13th and 16th centuries. The ribbed vaults are supported by thin pillars. Below the vaults is a Baroque altarpiece, surmounted by a statue of the crucified Christ. One of the chapels contains the beautiful tomb of inquisitor Antonio del Corro (1564). He is depicted here lying down, engrossed and holding a book. San Vicente also has beautiful beaches. A few kilometers east of the city are the beautiful, unspoilt beaches of Playa de Tostadero , Playa de Merón and Playa de Oyambre .

Laredo

The port city of Laredo is the largest seaside resort in Cantabria. The city is best known for its beaches, which are among the most beautiful in northern Spain. Laredo also has a historic center, with remains of a medieval wall and gates. In this center is the 16th-century ayuntamiento (town hall) with its beautiful columns. The 16th-century Convento de San Francisco is also interesting . This monastery, built in Herrera style, has a museum and a Renaissance cloister. Laredo’s main attraction is the Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción . This 13th-century church has a beautiful 15th-century Flemish altarpiece depicting the Blessed Virgin of Bethlehem . Thanks to its sandy beaches, Laredo is one of the most popular seaside resorts in Cantabria. The beaches are good, quite wide and slope gradually. Near the center, west of the port, is the Playa de la Salve . This 5 km long sandy beach is one of the most beautiful along the Spanish Atlantic coast. West of this beach, on the other side of the pier (El Puntal), is the Playa de Regatón . This beach is a bit quieter, with fewer buildings in a green environment.

Castro Urdiales

The port town of Castro Urdiales used to be a Roman settlement. After an attack by pirates in the 5th century, it had to be completely rebuilt and the name Castro Urdiales dates from that period. The castro (fortress) has been rebuilt numerous times and still dominates the harbor as a ruin converted into a lighthouse. The port is also dominated by the Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción . This colossal Gothic church was built in the 13th century. Inside is a 13th-century Gothic sculpture of Mary with the baby Jesus on her lap. Also interesting is a painting of The Dying Christ , attributed to Francisco de Zurbarán. At the end of the 19th century, Castro Urdiales grew into one of the most fashionable seaside resorts in Northern Spain. This is still the case today, there are beautiful villas along the coast and good beaches. The beaches near the center and the harbor are often very full, but in the south there are larger and more beautiful beaches. A beautiful boulevard runs from the harbor towards Playa de Brazomar . This beautiful beach is located about 1 km south of the port. A little closer is the beautiful beach Playa Ostende , accessible via a beautiful path along the cliffs.
The beautiful, unspoilt beaches of San Vicente de la Barquera / Source: Nacho y Adriana, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) The long, beautiful sandy beach of Playa de la Salve in Laredo / Source: Freebird 71, Flickr (CC BY -SA-2.0)Playa de Brazomar in Castro Urdiales / Source: Andrew Parnell, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0)
Gran Hotel Sardinero / Source: Paellaking, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Top hotel in Cantabria

A top hotel in Cantabria is Gran Hotel Sardinero in Santander . Gran Hotel Sardinero is a comfortable 4-star hotel. This modern hotel was built in 2012, in traditional style. The large rooms (as of 2017) have a beautiful avant-garde design. They also have free WiFi and a flat-screen satellite TV. The hotel’s two restaurants serve traditional Cantabrian cuisine made with seasonal products. But it is especially the location that makes a stay in this hotel special. From the rooms you have a beautiful view of the sea and the peninsula of La Magdalena. Gran Hotel Sardinero is located in the heart of the tourist center of Santander. It is located 2.5 km from the old center and within walking distance of the beach, the Gran Casino and La Magdalena. The hotel is easily accessible by car. Buses and taxis, to and from the center, also pass close to the hotel.

Food and drink

Cantabrian cuisine is based on fish, meat and agricultural products. Along the coast the emphasis is on fish and seafood. Cantabria is not known for traditional seafood dishes, but it does have a tradition of preserving fish. The fresh and canned anchovies are among the best in Spain. But the most typical dishes come from the mountainous interior. Here dishes are made with potatoes, beans, chickpeas, vegetables and meat. One of these dishes is cocido Montañés , a mountain stew with white beans, cabbage and pork.
The quesucos de Liébana / Source: Pampuco, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-4.0) The green meadows and the fertile farmland are the basis for various delicious cheeses. The most famous cheese is the queso de Cantabria . This cream cheese is made from whole pasteurized milk from the Frisian cow. The cheese has a yellowish color, buttery in structure and has a characteristic taste. Another well-known cheese is quesucos de Liébana . This cheese is produced in the Picos de Europa, a mountain range in western Cantabria. It is made from cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk. Characteristic are the buttery structure, the yellowish/whitish color and the soft taste. The queso Picón Bejes- Tresviso comes from the towns of Bejes and Tresviso . This blue cheese is made from a mixture of raw milk from cows, sheep and goats. The ripening of this cheese takes place in the caves of the Picos de Europa, which gives the cheese a characteristic, slightly spicy taste.
Cantabria also has a tradition of desserts. A classic dessert is quesada pasiego . This flan is made from fresh cheese mixed with eggs, sugar, butter, flour and lemon. Another popular dessert is sobao pasiego . This is a cake made from eggs, sugar, butter, cake flour, baking powder, lemon zest and rum or aniseed liquor.

Party and event

The people of Cantabria love tradition and celebration. This results in a rich cultural life, which is reflected in the numerous fiestas (parties). Cantabria has various types of fiestas, such as religious and folkloric. Religious fiestas are often accompanied by the veneration of a patron saint of a city or village. Fiestas are celebrated with music, parades, processions and fireworks.

La Folia

La Folía is held in San Vicente de la Barquera, on the second Sunday after Easter. According to legend, the statue of the Virgin arrived in San Vicente in a boat without sails, oars or crew. The colorful and popular festival La Folía commemorates this apparition. Since the apparition, the Virgin of Barquera has been the patron saint of fishermen. On Saturdays the image of the Blessed Virgin is brought in a procession from her shrine, which is located near the harbour, to the parish church. The real party starts on Sunday. On Sunday afternoon there are musical performances, presentations and parades. In the evening there is another procession. The statue of the Virgin is brought from the parish church (Chapel of the Religious Christ the King) to the church of Santa María de los Ángeles. After this, the Maritime Procession begins. The statue of the Virgin is returned across the sea to her sanctuary in a decorated fishing boat. Young girls, called picayos , stand on the shore and sing traditional songs in honor of the Virgin. After the procession across the sea, parties continue until the early morning hours.
The parade of floats at the Batalla de Flores / Source: M. Martin Vicente, Flickr (CC BY-SA) Batalla de Flores
The Batalla de Flores (Battle of the Flowers) is held in Laredo. It takes place every year on the last Friday of August and marks the end of the tourist season. This carnival-like celebration has both a playful and artistic dimension. The celebration consists of a parade of floats decorated with flowers. The floats are accompanied by music and dance groups, while the audience throws flowers and confetti. The event ends with the award ceremony to the person with the most beautiful float. Flea markets and musical events are organized throughout the day. The party ends at midnight with fireworks on Laredo Beach.

Sports activities

From hiking to water sports, golf and even winter sports: anyone who wants to do some sport, Cantabria is the right place.
The winter sports resort of Alto Campoo / Source: Dondado, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) The beautiful weather and beautiful landscape make the region very suitable for walking. The most beautiful hiking trails can be found in the Picos de Europa. This mountain range, in western Cantabria, is an ideal hiking area because of its fascinating flora and fauna. Cantabria also offers excellent opportunities for water sports, especially on rivers. Special centers organize canoeing and rafting excursions (white water rafting) in the mountains of Cantabria. The best location for this activity is the Ebro River. You can go whitewater rafting along this river under the guidance of an instructor. Golf is also a popular sport in Cantabria, the region has (as of 2017) at least 13 golf courses. The most beautiful course is that of Golf Santa Marina at San Vicente de la Barquera. This modern golf course (18 holes, par 72) is beautifully situated on an estate in the mountains. The Cantabrian mountains are an excellent location for winter sports. In the south lies the small winter sports resort of Alto Campoo. You will find (as of 2017) 22 slopes with a total of 27 km of descent. There are 12 lifts (5 chair lifts and 7 ski lifts) and the highest point accessible by ski lift is 1668 m. A chair lift takes you to the top of the highest mountain, the Pico de Tres Mares (2175 m).

Travel to Cantabria

The international airport of Cantabria is Santander Airport. The airport is located 5 km east of Santander city center. Various airlines operate daily flights from Schiphol to Santander Airport. (as of 2017) there are no direct flights from Schiphol to Santander Airport. There are stops/transfers in Madrid, Barcelona, London, Paris or Munich. The flight time is a minimum of approximately 4.5 hours and a maximum of approximately 28 hours.

Traveling in Cantabria

Shuttle buses run from the airport to central Santander. You can also travel further by taxi or rental car.
The narrow gauge train at Santander, between Bilbao and Santander / Source: Tony Rotondas, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-3.0) There is a railway line between Santander and Madrid, without intermediate stations in Cantabria. However, there are touristically attractive narrow-gauge trains. These narrow-gauge trains run both along the coast and inland. There is a narrow gauge line from Bilbao to Santander. There is also a line from Santander to Oviedo (Asturias), which also stops in San Vicente de la Barquera.
The bus is a good alternative to the train. There are good bus services to all major towns in the region. The following places have (as of 2017) a bus station: Santander, Santillana del Mar, Altamira, San Vicente de la Barquera, Laredo and Castro Urdiales.
To reach more remote areas, renting a car is the best option. Car rental companies are present at the airport, in Santander and the major seaside resorts. The A8 motorway and the N634 main road run along the entire Cantabrian coast. All major towns on the coast and Altamira can be reached by these roads. Santillana del Mar can be reached by the A8/N634 and a short stretch of secondary road. The A67 motorway runs from north to south. This highway also runs towards the winter sports resort of Alto Campoo, which can be reached by a secondary road from the highway.

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