El Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno is located in an old mining area, which covers over 750 hectares, and is now protected. It can be reached via a half hour drive south of Santander. Today it’s home to around 150 species of semi-wild animals, including bears, rhinos, leopards, elephants and lynx, which are either free to roam the park or housed in huge enclosures. The park is dotted with serene lakes, craggy rock formations, children’s play areas, cafes, and spectacular view points.
Around a one hour’s journey west along the coast is the charming medieval village of Santillana del Mar. A visit here is like stepping back in time, where the roads are still all made from cobbles and cars are not allowed. The town is renowned throughout the country for both its historic and artistic value. Head first to the collegiate church of Santa Juliana, one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Cantabria, then make your way to the Altamira Caves, known as the Sistine Chapel of ancient rock art, and dating back over 14,000 years.
Approximately a 45-minute drive west of Santander, you’ll find the small coastal town of Comillas. It may not be very big, but the cobbled streets and atmospheric squares are filled with magnificent buildings and historic architecture. One of the top sights is Antoni Gaudí’s El Capricho – a fantastical design, covered in the architect’s signature colourful tiles and quirky structures. Also worth a look are the Sobrellano Palace and the Pontifical University. In summer, Comillas is also a great spot for enjoying the beach and a range of water sports.
Located in between Santander and Bilbao, Castro-Urdailes is a beautiful medieval seafaring town. Behind its colourful marina you’ll find a web of narrow streets, lined with historic houses and original wooden balconies. Two of the main sights are the church of Santa María, dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and the castle-lighthouse. The town also has three beaches, making it a particularly great option for a day trip during summer.
Laredo is one of the most popular beach resort towns on the Cantabrian coast, and lies around a 40-minute drive east of Santander. This day trip is best for beach lovers, home to one of the best beaches in the region – the huge five-kilometre crescent of sandy La Salvé. It also has a lovely historic old town, surrounded by parts of the old city wall, and filled with elegant houses from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
A 45-minute drive east of Santander in between limestone mountains, beaches and natural parks, you’ll find Santoña, a must-visit for fish and seafood lovers. Santoña was in fact one of the first fish canning ports on the Bay of Biscay, and today is famous for its bonito fish and tinned anchovies. As well as eating, travellers can visit the Baroque 13th-century Monastery of Santa María del Puerto, with its 15th century Flemish altarpiece paintings, and the many forts and batteries which once protected the town from military invasions.
The arty city of Bilbao lies just an hour and 15 minute drive east of Santander, making it ideal for a day trip. You’ll probably need more than a day to explore it, but it will give you enough time to see its main sights. Your first stop should be the famous Guggenheim contemporary art museum, where you can see works by the likes of Jeff Koons, Anslem Kiefer, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor. Besides all the contemporary architecture and style, the city has a lovely Old Town and the largest undercover market in Europe – La Ribera.