Want to see the real Spain? Or at least an authentic part of it? Then head to Cantabria in the northern part of the country!
Nestled between Asturias and the Basque Country, it is one of Spain’s smallest regions. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in natural beauty.
Cantabria comprises an impressive mix of rugged coastline, incredible beaches, flowing rivers and mountainous peaks. But that’s not all. It also has beautiful cities, quaint small towns, fascinating archaeological sites, and many vineyards.
Best of all, it is an area yet to affect mass tourism, which means you’ll have much of it to yourself when you visit.
As this could change anytime, now is the perfect time to check out the best things to do in Calabria and explore this beautiful region in Spain.
In this post, we'll cover:
Comillas is a picturesque town located on a peninsula that juts dramatically out to sea.
Surrounded by beautiful natural scenery, including rugged coastlines, rolling hills, and lush forests, the town boasts a spectacular crescent beach, perfect for sunbathing.
It is also renowned for its cobbled streets, Modernista-inspired buildings and historic architecture, which captivate with their grace and beauty.
One of the town’s most notable landmarks is the El Capricho de Gaudí, a unique building designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudí. The building features a mix of architectural styles and is adorned with colorful tiles and intricate ironwork.
Other popular attractions in Comillas include the Sobrellano Palace, a grand Neo-Gothic building with beautiful gardens, and the Pontifical University, a significant center of learning since the 19th century.
The town is also home to several excellent restaurants and bars, where visitors can sample traditional Cantabrian cuisine and locally produced wines.
11. Santo Toribio Monastery
Nestled in the Cantabrian Mountains, the Santo Toribio Monastery is a hugely revered religious site near the town of Potes.
Dating back to the 6th century, this Roman Catholic Monastery is one of Spain’s most important pilgrimage sites. It is believed to house a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
The site also features stunning Gothic and Renaissance architecture and beautiful artwork, including a famous 16th-century altarpiece.
Visitors can explore the monastery’s ornate chapels and cloisters and take spectacular views of the surrounding countryside from its hilltop location.
In addition to its religious significance, the Santo Toribio Monastery is located in the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park. It offers various outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, and viewing wildlife.
For those unable to spend a few days in the area, the Santo Toribio Monastery can be visited on a day trip from Santander.
10. El Soplao Cave
El Soplao Cave is one of our favorite places in the Cantabria region of northern Spain. A spectacular geological formation carved out by millions of years of water erosion, it features unique formations of stalactites, stalagmites, and other mineral deposits. Over time, they have taken on unusual shapes and colors, which are mesmerizing.
For those interested in geology, natural history, and the wonders of the natural world, a guided tour of the cave is a must. It takes you through a series of narrow passageways and caverns which offer stunning up-close views of these natural wonders.
In addition to its geological features, El Soplao Cave is also home to a unique ecosystem of underground fauna, including spiders, beetles, and crustaceans. The cave is also a research site for scientists attempting to uncover new insights into the history of the cave and its geological and biological features.
Laredo should be on the itinerary of every visitor to Cantabria. A charming and vibrant destination, it offers visitors a wonderful mix of history, culture, and natural beauty within a picturesque coastal town setting.
The town boasts a long history dating back to the Middle Ages, with several notable landmarks and monuments that showcase its rich heritage.
One of the town’s most iconic structures is the Church of Santa María de la Asunción. Built in the 13th century, it is a gorgeous Gothic-style church that boasts a striking bell tower and impressive stained glass windows.
Other noteworthy landmarks include the 16th-century Convent of San Francisco and the impressive Santoña Fortress, built in the 17th century to defend the town against pirate attacks.
When not sightseeing, you can also enjoy a range of water sports and outdoor activities on its beautiful beaches, which stretch gloriously for several miles along the coast.
8. Fuente De Cable Car
You might want to miss the Fuente Dé Cable Car if you have acrophobia. But if you have a head for heights, this popular attraction in the Picos de Europa National Park is a must-visit.
The cable car has been operating since 1966 and takes visitors on a 4-minute ride from the village of Fuente Dé to an altitude of 1.8 km.
It operates year-round and enables you to experience the beauty of the Picos de Europa without too much physical effort.
As you ascend, the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are magnificent. On a clear day, you can see well into the distance.
Once you arrive at the top, visitors can take various hiking trails, from easy to challenging, offering more stunning mountain range views.
The cable car is also the starting point for several mountaineering routes. One of which is the ascent of Picu Urriellu, also known as the Naranjo de Bulnes, considered one of the most challenging climbs in Spain.
7. Cabárceno Natural Park
Located in Penagos, Cabárceno Natural Park is one of Cantabria’s most popular tourist attractions.
Home to more than 120 species of animals, the park was created in 1989 in a former open-cast iron mine. It now comprises a converted natural space where animals live in large enclosures that simulate their natural habitats.
The park is divided into different areas, each representing a unique ecosystem, such as the African Savannah, the Australian Outback, and the European forest.
You can explore it on foot, by car, or by a special safari-style bus that takes you through the different areas of the park. Some of the animals you can see include elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, and bears.
As well as showcasing these magnificent creatures, the park also runs educational workshops about their conservation and the importance of protecting their habitats.
Potes is a charming town nestled in the heart of the Cantabria region in northern Spain. Known for its rich history and stunning natural surroundings, it is a lovely place of medieval streets, traditional stone houses, and breathtaking mountain views.
Situated at the foothills of the Picos de Europa mountain range, it is an ideal base for climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore the surrounding natural beauty.
Potes is also famous for its gastronomy. Traditional Cantabrian dishes such as cocido lebaniego (a hearty meat and chickpea stew) and orujo (a local liquor) are signature offerings.
Visitors can enjoy these meals at the town’s main square, Plaza Mayor. There you will find a lively hub filled with cafes, restaurants, and shops, which makes it an excellent base for people-watching.
Additionally, the town is home to historical landmarks like the Torre del Infantado, a medieval tower that now houses a museum showcasing the town’s history and culture.
5. San Vicente de la Barquera
In the heart of Oyambre Natural Park, San Vicente de la Barquera is a beautiful fishing village. Built around the mouth of River Escudo, it enjoys a stunning location surrounded by hills that offer a fantastic view of the town and sea.
Its old town boasts fascinating historic buildings and monuments. They include the 13th-century Gothic church of Santa Maria de los Angeles and the castle of San Vicente, which dates back to the 10th century.
The stone bridge of La Maza, built by order of the Catholic kings in the 16th century, is also an impressive monument. Its 28 arches offer a stunning view of San Vicente, perfectly showcasing the snow-capped peaks of the Picos de Europa and the mouth of the Bay of Biscay.
Foodies will also want to come to San Vicente as it is well known for its exceptional seafood cuisine, especially fish and shellfish, caught daily by local fishermen.
4. Altamira Cave & Museum
The Altamira Cave is a world-famous site known for its remarkable prehistoric art. The cave was discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and is thought to have been occupied by humans as far back as 35,000 years ago.
Its interior walls are adorned with vivid and intricate paintings featuring animals such as bison, horses, deer, geometric patterns and human handprints. The art is remarkable for its detail and sophistication and is considered one of the finest examples of paleolithic art.
The original cave is closed to the public to preserve the delicate art within. However, visitors can still view a replica of the cave and its artwork at the Altamira Museum, which is located nearby. The museum features a fascinating range of exhibits on the region’s prehistory, interactive displays and educational programs for visitors of all ages.
Santander is the capital city of the Cantabria region. It is a vibrant and picturesque coastal destination known for its beautiful beaches, historic sites, and cultural attractions.
Its crown jewel is the stunning Sardinero Beach, a long stretch of golden sand that offers plenty of opportunity for swimming, sunbathing and relaxation.
However, the city is also home to the Palacio de la Magdalena, a majestic palace set on a peninsula overlooking the Bay of Santander. The palace, originally built as a summer residence for the Spanish royal family, now serves as a conference center and cultural venue.
It features an impressive facade, of which you’ll undoubtedly take plenty of photos (we certainly did!).
Additionally, Santander boasts a rich cultural scene with numerous museums, art galleries, and theaters. One of them, The Centro Botín, was designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano. It is now a contemporary arts center with regular exhibitions and performances.
2. Castro Urdiales
Located on the Bay of Biscay, Castro Urdiales is an enchanting coastal town renowned for its picturesque streets, beautiful beaches, and historic landmarks.
The town’s most iconic landmark is the Gothic-style church of Santa María de la Asunción, which dates back to the thirteenth century and boasts beautiful stained glass windows.
Visitors can also explore the remains of the medieval castle, which sits imperiously atop a hill overlooking the sea.
For those who love the outdoors, several scenic walking trails along the coastline will take you through the nearby mountains. One of the most popular is the Camino de Santiago, which passes through the town on its way to Santiago de Compostela.
During the summer months, the beaches of Ostende and Brazomar are also popular spots for swimming and sunbathing.
1. Santillana del Mar
Santillana del Mar offers a unique glimpse into the region’s medieval past. It is a charming village that captivates visitors with its well-preserved historic architecture and rich cultural heritage.
Known as the ‘Town of Three Lies’ (since it is neither a saint, flat, nor by the sea!), it has been described as a living museum. Its cobblestone streets are lined with beautiful stone houses adorned with flower-filled balconies, with a heartwarming appeal to them.
The town’s most iconic landmark is the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, a Romanesque church dating back to the 12th century. Its intricate facade and impressive cloister convey more of the town’s historical significance.
Nearby is the Altamira Museum, which showcases replicas of the famous Altamira Cave paintings. Additionally, Santillana del Mar is known for its artisan crafts, including ceramics and woodwork, which you can buy in its local shops.