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Bucket list experience:

Last updated: 12 May, 2022
Expert travel writer: Dana Facaros

Decades ago Jean-Paul Sartre called Santillana del Mar ‘the most beautiful village in Spain’ and it’s hard to argue. At one point nearly every resident was a wealthy noble, and they left behind a time capsule of cobbled lanes, medieval towers, aristocratic Gothic and Renaissance palaces and a handsome Romanesque church amid lush green hills and dairy farms.

It’s only a 5-minute drive to the sea and Cantabria’s beautiful, cliff-lined coast and sandy beaches.

Although most people only stay for an hour or so, stopping for a drink before (or after) visiting the Cave of Altamira, it’s a lovely place to spend a night or two – after dark, when the coach parties go, Santillana is at its most evocative.

While you’re there

If you have time, make a 15-minute drive to the picturesque ruins of the Hermitage of Santa Justa, tucked in the coastal rock formations just above the waves, and reached via a walkway along the shore. There’s also a very scenic beach and bar.

Price: Free
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 18+
When: All year around

Getting there & doing it

It’s easiest to reach Santillana by car; there are two large car parks on the edges of the village, although they often fill up in high season. Buses go from Santander and Torrelavega, which has the nearest train station. It’s a 1.5-hour drive (120kms) from Bilbao.

Because Santillana gets so many tourists, restaurants often don’t try as hard as they might, but the Gran Duque and El Bisonte Rojo are reliable bets.

When to do it

Little Santillana del Mar can be chock a block with day-trippers from spring to autumn; try to stay overnight, when it regains its ageless tranquillity. A good strategy to avoid the crowds is to arrive at dinner time, stay overnight, visit the Cave of Altamira first thing in the morning, and spend the day at the beach or exploring the coast, and return in time for tapas.

Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay near this experience, closest first

Hotel Cuevas

Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain[0.2 miles]

Arty, adults-only boutique hotel with a pool, restaurant and parking in a peaceful rural setting outside Santillana del Mar.

Official star rating:

Hotel Casa del Marques

Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain[0.3 miles]

Charm and atmosphere galore await in this little five-star boutique hotel, in the famous Marques’s 15th-century abode.

Official star rating:

Our writer’s recommendations of other bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination, closest first

Cave of Altamira

Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain[1.6 miles]

A unique and fascinating 270m Paleolithic cave with some of the world’s greatest Paleolithic cave art – including 14,000-year-old paintings of horses, deer and bison. Pair it with a visit to the nearby historic town of Santillana del Mar, one of the prettiest villages in Spain.

Best for ages: 4+ | £2