Here at Totally Spain, we’ve lived and worked from Cantabria for many years and always take pleasure in showcasing this beautiful Northern coastal region in Spain. We’ve been planning custom itineraries around Spain and Portugal since the year 2000 and more and more of these trips include a few days here in our home region. Have a look at what we consider to be the essential Cantabria and let us know which locations are of most interest to you when you come to visit.
Cantabria on Camera – 21 Images to Capture While On Holiday
Cantabria is very proud of its pre-historic heritage with a dazzling 6,500 caves in the region. 41 of these contain cave paintings and six of these are open to the public. Altamira is the best known of these and is described by the World Heritage Convention as offering “masterpieces of creative genius and humanity’s earliest accomplished art”. For conservation purposes, an exact replica of the cave was built beside the cave in 2001 and this is what most visitors see. However, five of those people waiting to see the replica are pulled from the queue once a week thanks to a lottery system (currently in operation on Friday mornings) and are offered the opportunity to visit the original cave. Read more about Altamira and the other amazing caves in Cantabria here. NB You won’t be able to take your camera into the original but you can take your camera into the replica.
2 Centro Botin
Designed by Renzo Piano, the architect responsible for the Shard in London and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, this is his first building in Spain and one your camera will be very keen to capture. The 270,000 ceramic tiles that cloak the exterior make it look effortlessly elegant and light but also reflects and diffuses the light that bounces off the picturesque bay of Santander. But it is the walkways and the roof terrace that will really inspire you and your photos. While you are here, have a drink and a bite to eat in El Muelle restaurant run by Michelin-star chef Jesus Sanchez.
3 Santillana del Mar
It’s hard to describe why Santillana is so special. Yes, it’s a touristy town with the usual gift shops and tourist menus hanging outside bars. But scratch a little under the surface and you’ll realise why this place has been wooing visitors since the 12th century. We enjoy its colegiata, the charming taverns with handsome gardens, the cobblestoned streets, the sculptures by Jesus Otero, and the wafer museum (Museo del Barquillo) is also good fun. You and your camera will be enchanted! If you want to stay over, we’ve included the Gil Blas Parador here in our guide to the Most Impressive Paradors in Spain.
Santander offers so much to its visitors (and their cameras) – including its wonderful and 100% authentic food market, dozens of museums, a charming cathedral and atmospheric bars and restaurants. Our clients really enjoy the belle-époque feel and the excellent city beaches and charming port which became a favourite with the Spanish royals over a century ago. Enjoy its beauty from the waterside by taking one of the many tours of the bay or sailing in here directly. You’ll be amongst good company as the national sailing team train here in the Centre for Sailing Excellent (CEAR) right on the bay!
5 Rugged Coastline
This is Northern Spain and the powerful Cantabrico sea produces some pretty amazing cliffs and coves to explore. For some of the most dramatic images, you should go to the Costa Quebrada coastline by Liencres where you’ll find some spectacular sunrises and sunsets as well as intriguing cliffs and rock formations.
The first surf boards in Spain were made in Ribamontan al Mar which is also the first officially designated Spanish Surf Reserve. You’ll find dozens of surf schools in this area where you can book a course or simply hire a board and a wetsuit. If you don’t want to participate but want to watch and enjoy the surfing vibe, at Somo or Loredo you’ll be able to capture some brilliant pics of kids and families enjoying the waves! But if it’s just the crazy waves you are after, check out La Vaca Gigante event near La Maruca for the big names and swells.
7 Picos de Europa
Not many people know that after Switzerland, Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe. A re-make of Heidi was even filmed here in Cantabria and if that seems surprising, then you probably don’t know that Cantabria is traditionally called ‘La Montana’ meaning the Mountain. It’s most famous range is the dramatic and beautiful Picos de Europa (Spain’s first National Park) which is reached by driving through an impressive 20km long gorge known as the Desfiladero de la Hermida. Stay in one of the many mountain villages near the market town of Potes (we always rave about the Hotel del Oso) and take a few hikes along the many jaw-droppingly beautiful walking routes which are very well signposted. Don’t forget Monday is market day in Potes – perfect for picking up some artisan food produce including great wines, spirits and cheeses. And don’t forget to take a few great photos of the strings of onions, garlic and cured sausages at the food stalls too!
This pioneering wildlife reserve makes for a perfect day out for families (and their cameras). We’ve loved tracking the births of the baby gorillas over the past few years and the recent birth of a baby elephant. If you want an extra special treat, go on the ‘Visita Salvaje‘ or Wild Visit which is a 7 hour safari (with lunch) where you join one of the park’s rangers in their jeep and spend time up close with the animals, learning about their personalities, their habitat and conservation programme. You’ll be able to pet and touch some of the friendlier animals, take photos of the less friendly ones and bring back some very special memories of the day. If you are doing a standard visit, make sure to bring your zoom lens to capture the really poignant facial expressions of the gorillas, and the elegance of the giraffes, the cheeky ostriches and the ever entertaining young tigers. The new cable cars make the park even more accessible for families with buggies and prams – again the zoom lens is your friend here as you glide over the elephant and hippo enclosure from up above. Try to get the cable car with the transparent flooring for the best views!
9 The Caminos (Not One but Two!)
Cantabria is one of the few regions in Spain to have not one but two Caminos. The Northern Way passes along the Cantabrian coastline and there is the additional Lebaniego Way to Santo Toribio in the Picos de Europa National Park. It’s a deviation taken by a large number of the Camino pilgrims over the years including Francis of Assisi 800 years ago. You can walk this Camino (or drive it) to explore the many charming churches and villages along its route. 2017 is a huge year for this route – for more see our post on this Camino. Bring along a Go-Pro or just take a few pics on your smartphone to remember this journey of journeys!
Tricky to photograph but oh so wonderful to eat! These tasty little mites are not everybody’s cup of tea but if you’ve struggled with them in the past, Cantabria is certainly the place to try them. Santona is the home to dozens of anchovy filleting houses and we recommend visiting the facilities to purchase direct if you are a big fan. But even if you just try them on a platter with some top class olive oil and crunchy bread – you are in for a treat! We’ve included the Cantabrian anchovies in our post about the art in gastronomy which you can read here.
Rabas is the local term for calamares or squid. Always prepared to order in a batter wherever you see the sign ‘hay rabas’ – the best time of the day to enjoy them is for the aperitivo from 1:30 – 3pm. Wash them down with a local vermouth or a glass of mosto or alcohol-free beer if you are driving. They are easy to photograph although you risk half the plate being eaten by the time you get the right shot – they are so tasty! If you really want to up your photography game, try to get a shot of these with the beach or port in the background! Other seafood musts include razor clams, mussels, cuttlefish, crab and periwinkles. To read more about the local cuisine, check out What to Eat in Cantabria.
12 El Capricho de Gaudi
Designed by none other than Gaudi in 1883, it’s not only an icon for Comillas but for real fans of Gaudi, you can learn a lot about the man as a young designer as this was one of his first major projects (and one of the few built outside Catalonia). It’s hard to resist its charms when you learn how personalised this building is to the owner’s interests. Your camera is going to love these details – especially the sunflower tiles which help explain the layout of this singular building. Don’t forget that Comillas is on the coast so after your visit to this museum, take a walk or a swim on the great beach here.
13 Magdalena Palace
If you enjoy both history, large gardens and architecture, there are many great palaces to visit in Cantabria. Its best known isn’t its oldest – in fact Magdalena Palace is little more than a century old but it is one of the most recognised palaces throughout Spain because it features in many series including Gran Hotel. Another palace that has been frequently photographed is Los Hornillos Palace in Las Fraguas where Nicole Kidman was filmed in The Others. We also recommend Sobrellano Palace in Comillas and Palacio Sonanes in Villacarriedo which operates as a hotel and opens its restaurant to the public.
14 The Sequoia Forest
You probably didn’t expect Cantabria to look like this. The forest located near Cabezon de la Sal dates from the 1940s when 800 redwoods were planted for their fast growth but were never cut as had been planned. Today, many of the trees soar up to 36m in height. It’s not a long walk but it is a unique one. Combine it with a visit to nearby Santillana or Comillas which are a few minutes drive from here. Read about more great places to visit in Autumn here.
15 Barcena Mayor
If you’re looking for somewhere very rustic, Barcelona Mayor is a stunning hamlet that takes you back to a place that seems cut off from the rest of the world yet somehow serves up the best slow cooked game stews we’ve ever tasted. Make sure to go for a ramble before or after and pick some berries for your own dessert if you are visiting after the Summer. It’s quite a drive from the coast but you’re very close to the Saja Nansa Valley which is home to a number of similarly charming villages and stunning valleys with oak and beech forests that your camera will enjoy!
There are nine lighthouses along the Cantabrian coastline and all are seriously photogenic but if you want to exercise a little to get your definitive lighthouse shot, it has to be Santona’s Faro del Caballo or the Horse Lighthouse which you can see below. Another serious contender would be the Mouro Lighthouse in the bay of Santander which is pretty dramatic especially on a stormy day. Even on a calm one, it’s quite impressive and you can see it best by taking a boat trip around the bay of Santander. If you really enjoy lighthouses, you can take a driving route along the nine ‘faros’ in Cantabria which will take you from San Vicente de la Barquera in the West to Santona in the East.
Easily accessible by the FEVE light rail network from Santander, Lierganes makes for a great day trip on the train. Explore the artisan food market (on Sundays), its charming streets, look at the Roman bridge, find the Hombre Pez statue which relates the fable of the man who turned into a fish, eat a menu-del-dia at one of the many taverns, and leave some space for chocolate and churros or the local Sancristanes pastries. If you’re a fan of good beer, check whether the nearby craft beer brewery, Dougalls, is open to visitors. The tours usually take place at weekends but check before travelling.
18 Fine Dining with a View
Although Cantabrian gastronomy isn’t as famous as its Basque counterpart, you’ll find plenty of Michelin star restaurants to check out here in the most appealing surroundings. We’ll start with Annua restaurant in San Vicente de la Barquera with chef Oscar Calleja at the helm who gained his first star back in 2012 and his second in 2017. Local oysters feature amongst the beautifully presented dishes in a modern location that embraces the sea. If you’d like to dine finely again, chef Ignacio Solana at Solana Restaurant, La Bien Aparecida, Ampuero is the third-generation of his family at this restaurant surrounded by green fields and dairy herds. Ignacio was awarded a Michelin star in 2011. And taste the handiwork of Javier Ruiz at Sambal Restaurant, Noja which is located inside the grounds of the golf course. Back closer to Santander, go to Javier Sanchez’ sumptuous Cenador de Amos in the small village of Villaverde de Pontones – Jesus was awarded his second star in 2017. You might also want to dine at his new restaurant, El Muelle, in the Centro Botin across the bay in Santander.
19 Home Baking
Cantabria is a region that really celebrates the quality of its ingredients and this dairy stronghold is very proud of its cheeses which you will want to taste and bring back home. But along with the anchovies and the cheese, you will probably see packets of what look like sponges for sale everywhere. These ‘sobaos’ are eaten at breakfast or as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack and are a very typical gift when travelling from here to anywhere. If you like them, it’s well worth heading to one of the bakeries to buy them fresh – we picked up a few packets recently from El Macho in Selaya in the Vega de Pas and they made a lovely gift for visiting friends. Kids will enjoy them with a Cola Cao but if you want to get a bit chefy, you can toast some thinly sliced sobao and serve with some country pâté! Delicious!
Cantabria is home to many excellent museums and one of its most famous is the Maritime Museum in Santander near the brand new Gamazo promontory and the beach. The highlight of the Museum for younger visitors is the feeding of the fish in the aquarium so don’t miss that at midday but you’ll find lots more of interest including the many intricate models and maps and the 40m long skeleton of the blue whale. It’s not so well signposted so remember to ask to go out onto the roof terrace (beside the café and restaurant) where you can take some excellent photos of the Bay of Santander.
We have so many great beaches and strands to choose from in Cantabria, it’s hard to know where to start! Urbanites always love the Sardinero and the Matalenas beaches in Santander. If you are in the city but want to go a bit further why not take a boat trip to the Puntal which has amazing views of the bat and the city. If accessibility is a concern for you, did you know that Arena Beach near Isla in Cantabria won an award for the most accessible beach in Spain? And what about a beach inside a natural park – Oyambre is amazing! We also enjoy Noja’s Trengandin beach but we are going to leave you with a snap of Ris beach – our final photo in this series of images that define Cantabria. Of course, it’s not always so busy – if you travel to Cantabria outside peak season which is July and August, you often find yourself alone in many of these amazing locations!
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