Although Santander is not a particularly large city, it is peculiarly elongated. The region’s mountains forced the city’s development to conform to a slightly odd shape, running west-east and hugging the northern rim of the bay.
Aside from the outlying areas that have sprung up around the city (urban expansion has even affected areas like Camargo and the dockyard), there are two well-differentiated areas: the centre and El Sardinero.
The centre is where you will find most of the shops, businesses and services, as well as the greater portion of monuments and tourist attractions. This is where the streets San Fernando, Burgos, Jesús de Monasterio, Calvo Sotelo Avenue and Paseo de Pereda all meet; of course there are many other adjacent streets all forming part of the centre as well.
The city starts at Somorrostro Hill, where the cathedral stands and where the old walled city with its castle once was. Here you will find some of Santander’s most famous buildings, such as Banco de España, Correos (the post office building), Banco Santander, Plaza Porticada, Iglesia de la Anunciación (Church of the Annunciation) and the Ayuntamiento (city hall). Also nearby are the famous Jardines de Pereda (Pereda Gardens), presided over by a sculpture of the Cantabrian novelist himself. The cluster made up by Paseo de Pereda and Calle Castelar, completed by the Paseo Marítimo (promenade) that runs parallel to the sea is something no visitor to Santander should miss.
This district is also characterized by its commercial infrastructure. All along a series of streets, some of which are pedestrianized and lined with shops on the ground floor, you can buy nearly anything or simply indulge in window-shopping. Those streets already mentioned, along with some other parallel and perpendicular ones (Rualasal, Juan de Herrera, San Francisco, Cádiz, Isabel II o Lealtad) are jam-packed with people during the daytime.
A little further east, near Plaza de Cañadío, there is a group of streets where most of the nightlife is concentrated; in the summertime, El Sardinero also has lots of nightlife. Streets such as General Mola, Hernán Cortés, Daoíz, Velarde, Peña Herbosa, Santa Lucía and Sol, as well as the surrounding ones, are full of bars and cafés where you can stop for a drink or some tapas, as well as numerous options if you want to have a boogie until the wee hours.
Between the centre and El “Sardi” (as locals call it) there is a transitional area, marked by Avenida Reina Victoria. This classy residential area is sprinkled with luxurious buildings like Casa Pardo and Hotel Real.
El Sardinero is the summer holiday area par excellence, where there are endless accommodation options (not in vain is there an avenue called Hoteles) as well as an elite residential area. Magdalena Peninsula is on at one end, with its park and Palacio Real (Royal Palace), and Cabo Menor forms the northern border, with Mataleñas Park at the top of the cape. Between the two is El Sardinero cove, with four beaches called, from south to north, Camello, Concha, Primera and Segunda. These are ideal for sunbathing, swimming in the Cantabrian Sea and enjoying the beautiful and unbeatable views of the coast. Other trips to be enjoyed while in town are visits to Jardines de Piquío (Piquío Gardens) and Mesones Park, a stop in at the Casino and strolling along the endless strips of sand running out to the sea.
History of Santander
Although we can be fairly sure that man has inhabited the coastal areas around the Bay of Santander since prehistoric times, there was no physical evidence of this until the Roman era. Archaeological remains unearthed in the Península de la Magdalena (Magdalena Peninsula), San Martín and in the Catedral (Cathedral) point to the existence of a Roman settlement, traditionally known as Portus Victoriae Iuliobrigensium, and cited in several classical sources.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages the settlement was concentrated in the area surrounding the Cathedral. The San Emeterio and San Celedonio Monastery and the Castillo de San Felipe (San Felipe Castle) were also in the vicinity. According to legend, the heads of the martyrs Emeterio and Celedonio were brought to Santander from Calahorra in the third century. ‘Santander’ appears to have originated in the latinised form of Saint Emeterio, Sancti Emetherii, which passed through several versions before becoming the name we know today – Sant Em’ter / San Ender / Sant Ander. The settlement was a walled enclosure with seven gates providing access, and had various hermitages.
In 1187 King Alfonso VIII drew up a charter which made the Abbot of San Emeterio feudal lord of the hamlet. At that time the inhabitants lived clustered around the monastery and survived by fishing and cultivating cereals, vineyards and fruit trees. The houses were divided by a river into two parts, Puebla Vieja y Puebla Nueva (Old Town and New Town), linked by a stone bridge.
During the Reconquista (Reconquest) when Spain fought to recapture the country from the Moors, Santander was involved in numerous naval battles, together with San Vicente de la Barquera, Laredo and Castro Urdiales, the four towns making up the so called Cuatro Villas del Mar (Four Towns on the Sea). In 1248 during the reign of Fernando III el Santo (The Saint) Santander took part in the battle for Seville, fighting under the command of Admiral Boniface. In recognition of its contribution, the King granted Santander a coat of arms boasting a golden tower, a chain over the Guadalquivir river and a ship.
Later, Santander and Laredo became the principal ports of the Kings of Castille, especially important in the wool trade with Flanders. At the end of the XVI century, however, the town was decimated by the plague and entered a period of economic decline.
During the XVIII century, trade with America revitalised Santander’s fortunes. In 1754, the same year as the Camino de la Meseta (Route across the Plateau) opened up towards Reinosa, Pope Benedict XIV founded the bishopric of of Santander. What had until that time been a collegiate church became the Cathedral. In 1755 King Fernando VI conferred the title of ‘city’ on Santander.
Throughout the XIX century, heavy trading with America brought about important changes in the city. The population grew, the port and shipyards expanded and the whole business infrastructure of the city developed.
Tradgedy struck Santander at the end of the XIX century. In 1893 the freighter Cabo Machichaco exploded in the harbour, resulting in the loss of more than five hundred lives and severe structural damage.
Santander experienced a boom in architecture and expansion in the early twenbtieth century, after the city became the summer favourite of King Alfonso XIII. Elaborate buildings such as the del Palacio de la Magdalena (Magdalena Palace), the Gran Casino del Sardinero (Grand Casino in El Sardinero) and the Hotel Real (Royal Hotel) all date from this period.
Shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the city suffered another setback. In 1941 a terrible fire swept through Santander, whipped up by a prevailing south wind, and tragically destroyed much of the Old Quarter.
Nowadays, Santander is a well-restored, modern city, and one of the lovliest on the Spanish coast. Its cultural heritage, cosmopolitan air, and seaside elegance make it a highly popular destination for tourists.