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Behind Santander’s sweep of bay lies a grid of streets dotted with bars that offer a fusion of Basque-style pintxos with versatile tapas, or pinchos as they’re called here. And unlike those of San Sebastián, a couple of hours east, they are not heaving with tourists. Yet this tiny region of Spain punches well above its weight in attractions: think the rugged Sierra Cantabrica, blissful sandy beaches close to the centre, and the cave paintings of Altamira half an hour away. Among the specialities, preserved anchovy fillets (anchoas del Cantábrico) are the local favourite, but the covered Mercado de la Esperanza also flaunts a tantalisingly varied catch. Add in Renzo Piano’s striking waterfront Centro Botín art centre and there’s no shortage of reasons to visit.
Arguably Santander’s most elegant pincho bar, this airy space lures the well-heeled to snack at a long marble bar or at side tables. At the back, an open kitchen prepares ultra-fresh seafood. The pinchos (€1.80-€2.80) are complex little food sculptures, perhaps aubergine with tomato and salmorejo, or a toast precariously topped with gulas (elvers), fried egg and anchovy. Don’t miss the Cañadío tortilla, as gooey and perfect as they come, with a copa of smooth Ribera del Duero.
Bodega del Riojano
This popular tavern started life in the 1930s as a bodega before morphing into a vast restaurant and bar, and gradually added dozens of wine barrels, each one handpainted by a 20th-century artist. You pay for the setting, friendly service and generous portions, as in Russian salad spiked with trout eggs, olives and anchovies (€6.50 a half ración) or Juan Marí Arzak’s creamy scorpionfish pudding with tartare sauce (€10). Pinchos are limited to a spicy sardine “sputnik” and a riojanito (chorizo cooked in wine) to accompany a glass of rioja,
Ribera del Duero or albariño. The bar area with seats, rafters and flagstone floor is packed at peak times, so time your visit carefully.
The first bar to open on this street, in 1941, set a trend by serving basic winkles, mussels and squid, but today’s offerings have blossomed into imaginative pinchos such as seaweed bread with thyme jelly and anchovy, or battered prawns with mango mayonnaise (both €2.50). The original tiled and marble bar is perfect for sipping one of many Cantabrian vermouths (from €2.20), perhaps ending with its killer creamy cheesecake with red fruits (€5). Visually unassuming Solórzano is actually incredibly sophisticated.
Round the corner from central Plaza Pombo, this bar and restaurant is a local favourite, so get there early to bag a table. Enjoy its slick interior, efficient service, a generous menú del día lunch (€15), classic pinchos (numerous types of tortilla, goat’s cheese, jamón, all €2.50) and a choice of wines by the glass (from €2).
This wine-lover’s heaven near Puerto Chico offers 150 tipples by the glass from €1.50 – soaring to €179 for a bottle of Vega Sicilia Único. Young, eco-oriented and chilled, with an intimate restaurant, it specialises in tortillas (€2) and uncomplicated though satisfying pinchos like a toasted bun with aioli, mushrooms and jamón, and a daily stew in winter. There’s welcome generosity in the mini tortilla pinchos on the counter, and the beakers of soup circulated by a waiter – both free.
Enter and inhale the musty fragrance of top vintages emanating from the thousands of old wine bottles blanketing this 1949 bar. Now run by the third generation of the Conde family, it’s dubbed a wine museum, though you can dine and drink extremely well in the old-fashioned restaurant. Unusual wines by the glass are €1.50–€3.30, sipped in this eccentric setting of bottles, barrels and stag heads and served by cheerful bartenders at the small bar. Pinchos always include gildas (skewers of olive, anchovy and pickled chilli), croquetas, or black pudding (€1.50-€3) and there’s a good choice of raciónes. Beware of their closing days: Tuesday and Wednesday.
Behind the former market building, La Cátedra claims to be the oldest bar in Santander, dating from 1866. Today, bare stone walls, shelves of wine bottles and tiled floors combine with designer lamps and jazz, and at tables outside the action continues till late. A list of 25 wines includes Rioja crianza (€1.70) or Rueda (€1.40) to go with tapas of Iberian ham and blue cheese croquetas (€4), Cantabrian anchovies (€6.50) or a filling half-ración of jamón ibérico with potatoes and eggs (€6). Or simply order grilled sardines.
This small industrial-chic bar was opened by a young couple keen to ring the changes. Exposed brick walls are a backdrop for mountains of oysters from Ireland, France, the Netherlands and of course Cantabria, alongside charcuterie, cheese, canned fish, foie gras and sturgeon caviar (€18 for 10g). Meaty local oysters start at €1.50; top-of-the-range Pousse en Claire ones from Oléron in France are €3. They will be shucked by owner Jaret Arias, twice champion shucker of Spain and third in the world. Wash them down with a glass of Behetria albariño (€2.20).
This friendly gastro-bar on a pedestrianised side street is a favourite with Santander youth for its big breakfasts, daily specials (often with an Asian twist), salads, pinchos and raciónes at reasonable prices. A long bar ends at seating at the back and on warm nights punters spill outside. Have a mini-hamburger with caramelised onion and tomato (€2.80) or toast with garlic prawns and alioli (€3), before a portion of grilled octopus and potatoes (€15.50) or bluefin tuna tartare with wasabi ice-cream (€16). A glass of Rioja crianza is €1.90.
Down at Puerto Chico, looking across the spectacular bay, this old-timers’ favourite trots out a succession of freshly made, bread-based pinchos (€2.70) from lunchtime onwards. As alternatives, try the mushroom quiche, crab and langoustine tartlet or mountain cheeses. The U-shaped counter has ample room for stool perching; booths and pavement tables cater for longer sojourns. As the chef boasts a Michelin star, pinchos are elaborate, but simpler raciónes are also available. Wines from €1.90 a glass.
Britanny Ferries sails overnight to Santander from £289 one-way for 2 adults on foot with en suite cabin from Portsmouth or £260 from Plymouth; 2 adults with car and cabin from £346 one-way from Portsmouth or £324 from Plymouth
Fiona Dunlop is the author of Andaluz: A Food Journey Through Southern Spain (Interlink Books, £24.99)