You can traverse this green-clad region next to Asturias from north to south in an hour. But don’t. For modern travellers, Cantabria offers a bit of everything. The coastline is a sequence of soft cliffs, beautiful beaches and colourful fishing ports; summer seaside days are perfectly possible (unreliable weather permitting). The inland mountains – sliced up by deep, multibranched valleys connected only by steep passes – are sprinkled with sleepy villages and prove a feast for the eyes, whether you drive the country roads or walk the trails.
Lively capital Santander provides a slice of urban life, with buzzing beaches and bodegas. Santillana del Mar and Comillas entice with their medieval and Modernista trappings. The prehistoric art of Altamira, El Castillo and Covalanas caves is some of the oldest and finest in the world, and Cantabria’s rugged ranges culminate in the abrupt mountain walls of the Picos de Europa in the west.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cantabria.
The museum’s highlight is the Neocueva, a dazzling, full-sized re-creation of the real Cueva de Altamira’s most interesting chamber, the Sala de Polícromos (Polychrome Hall), with its exquisite, 15,000-year-old ochre-and-black bison paintings created using the natural rock relief. The museum's interesting other displays cover prehistoric humanity and cave art worldwide, from Altamira to Australia. The museum is incredibly popular (277,000 visitors in 2019), so it’s advisable to book well ahead online, especially from Easter to September.
With this marvellous 1888 building, the Marqués de Comillas’ summer palace, Modernista architect Joan Martorell truly managed to out-Gothic real Gothic. The interior can only be seen on 30-minute guided tours (in Spanish), run five to eight times a day: you’ll see the the grand central hall with sweeping carved-stone staircases; a reception/billiard room featuring an ornate wood-carved fireplace with dragons by the young Gaudí; beautiful stained-glass windows; and vibrant original murals detailing the marquis’ story.
Santander's newest and splashiest landmark, this ambitious waterfront arts and cultural centre opened to great fanfare in 2017. The futuristic two-block building, designed by Italian Renzo Piano (architect of Paris' Centre Pompidou and London's Shard), is covered in 280,000 ceramic discs. It encompasses 2500 sq metres of gallery space for exhibitions of international contemporary art, along with open-air stairways, a rooftop viewing platform and a bright cafe that's an excellent place to stop for a drink or bite.
Discovered in 1903 (second only to Altamira among Cantabrian caves with prehistoric artwork), the World Heritage–listed Covalanas cave is home to several breathtakingly beautiful red-hued paintings of deer and other creatures in an unusual dot-painting technique, executed around 20,000 BCE. With tour groups limited to eight people, visiting Covalanas is an especially profound and intimate experience. It's 2km south along the N629 from Ramales de la Victoria, then 650m up a steep, scenic footpath. Tours last 45 minutes; book ahead online.
Dating back to the 10th century or earlier, Santa María de Valverde is the Ebro Valley's largest iglesia rupestre (rock-cut church). The church retains a magical, rustic beauty, with irregular stone arches and rough-cut stone floors suffused in ghostly subterranean light. Visits are in conjunction with visits to interpretation centre next door, which gives an excellent introduction to this and the other rock-cut churches of the Ebro Valley.
About 14km east of Laredo, small, wild Playa de Sonabia is tucked into a rock-lined inlet beneath high crags, above which rare griffon vultures circle the sky. Drive through tiny Sonabia village and turn left directly after the church; you’ll have to park up above the beach and walk down. It is accessed by the same minor road used to reach Playa de Oriñón.
Of these four World Heritage–listed caves 30km southwest of Santander, two – El Castillo and Las Monedas – are open for 45-minute guided visits (in Spanish). Booking ahead online is highly recommended, especially for the more spectacular El Castillo. As you explore 300m into the cave, you’ll see art almost as breathtaking as that of Cantabria’s famous Cueva de Altamira – and unlike at Altamira, this is the genuine article, not a replica.
Antoni Gaudí left few reminders of his genius beyond Catalonia, but of them the 1885 Capricho is easily the most flamboyant. This brick building, one of Gaudí’s earliest works and originally a summer playpad for the Marqués de Comillas’ sister-in-law’s brother, is striped all over the outside with ceramic bands of alternating sunflowers and green leaves. The elegant interior is comparatively restrained, with quirky touches including artesonado ceilings (interlaced beams with decorative insertions), stained-glass windows and slim spiral staircases.
The 2km-long, soft-blonde Playa Oyambre, 5km west of Comillas, is a sandy dream protected by the Parque Natural Oyambre. It has frequently surfable waves, a couple of campgrounds and a dash of intriguing history as the emergency landing spot of the first ever USA–Spain flight (1929). Waves and wind can be strong: swim only when the green flags fly.