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The interesting history of Santander’s Magdalena Palace

Standing on the Magdalena Peninsula in Santander, looking across the bay towards Somo and the spectacular mountains beyond as waves crash below your feet, you feel like you’re on an island surrounded by the sea. Behind you is a grand building and one of the top attractions in Santander – the Magdalena Palace.

From Versailles to Buckingham Palace to Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Europe has so many famous palaces that draw crowds from around the world. Spain too has the Royal Palace in Madrid, home to the royal family for over 500 years. But that’s not the only palace in the country. Andalucía is filled with Moorish architecture and cities like Cordoba and Granada are famous for the palaces that once housed the ruling monarchs. The north of Spain has its own rich history and unmissable highlights.

There are many reasons why people choose to visit Santander in the north of Spain. The beautiful golden sandy beaches are some of the best in the country and with its location so close to the picturesque Picos de Europa mountain range you can easily enjoy the best of both worlds. However, it’s the Magdalena Palace, Santander’s most famous site, that everyone wants to see.

How to get to Santander

View of coast in Santander
Santander has a very impressive coastline with lots of great beaches to while away the day

Santander is in the north of Spain just an hour and a half from Bilbao. Travelling from Madrid takes around four hours by train and six by bus. The city has its own airport with regular flights from Stanstead and Edinburgh in the UK as well as other major cities in Europe and elsewhere in Spain. There is also the option to arrive by ferry with boats travelling from the south of England and Cork in Ireland throughout the week.

Architecture of Magdalena Palace

Situated on a peninsula of the same name, Magdalena Palace is around 3.5km from the centre of Santander. The building is an interesting mix of styles with influences taken from English, French and local designs. There are two main entrances; the grand front entrance facing across the Bay of Santander towards the surfing town of Somo and the South entrance that now operates as the entry point for all visitors.

History of Magdalena Palace

The palace has enjoyed a long and interesting history throughout its existence right up to the present day. It was originally built as a home for the Spanish Royal Family, as a place to spend their vacations away from the hustle and bustle of Madrid. The palace was built between 1909 and 1911 and used by the royal family. However, after the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when King Alfonso XIII went into hiding, the site became used more to house prisoners of war. The caballerizas horse stables were turned into a POW camp. A far cry from today where they have been converted into bedrooms and used by students attending the local university. (Although they might disagree)

Side view of Magdalena Palace
This view of the side of Magdalena Palace may be familiar to viewers of Gran Hotel TV series. The outside of the building was used for exterior shots.

The palace was later sold back to the city of Santander at a cost of 150 million pesetas (almost £800,000), despite originally being gifted to the Royal Family for nothing. This means the people of Santander actually paid for the Magdalena Palace twice! Once during its original construction and again when they purchased it from the Spanish Royal Family.

Magdalena Palace today

In recent times the exterior of the palace has been used for the filming of a TV series; El Gran Hotel. The series was shown on Spanish TV from 2011 to 2013 and all three seasons are currently available on Netflix. It’s Spain’s answer to the UK’s Downton Abbey and the storylines follow the dramas between the hotel’s owners, clients and staff as they unfold.

The palace is also used by the local university, Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo, with courses taking place there since 1932. Some students attend classes at the palace while the annual immersive English course uses the former horse stables as accommodation. There are more rooms inside Magdalena Palace where people sleep. And you don’t need to be a King or Queen to do so.

Views from the Magdalena Peninsula

Looking across the Bay of Santander towards the beach in Somo
The opposite side of the Bay of Santander is the surfer town of Somo with a long beach. Beyond that is the green Cantabrian countryside

There’s more to the Magdalena Peninsula than just the palace. The surrounding area is incredibly stunning and from the peninsula you can enjoy breath-taking views across the Bay of Santander. Directly opposite is Somo, a small town with a beautiful long stretch of golden sand and huge waves. In front of the beach is the entrance to the bay, guarded by the lighthouse on the small and rocky Mouro island. On gusty days you’ll see waves reaching high up against the rocks and washing over the lighthouse.

Cruise ships pass close by as they enter Santander late in the afternoon, bringing passengers from England and Ireland. On the opposite side you can look back to Santander’s main beach, Sardinero, picking out Piquío Gardens in the centre and tracing it all along the coast.

The grounds of the palace offer many more distractions too. With lots of open grassy spaces, it’s a perfect spot to enjoy a picnic with friends and family. There’s also a restaurant by the Caballerizas residence and a recently renovated children’s play area overlooking the bay with the mountains in the distance mixed with the vivid green Cantabrian countryside. A final feature of the peninsula is the outdoor museum with ships from past times.

Entrance to Magdalena Palace

Looking out from the Magdalena Palace gardens to the distant green hills
Overlooking the palace’s gardens you can see the green clifftops across the bay. A picturesque one day hike exploring small bays with more great views

It costs just €3 per person to visit Magdalena Palace, which includes a tour exploring each of the rooms. During the winter there are six possible times slots to enter the palace in the week (11am, 12pm, 1pm, 4pm, 5pm and 6pm) and three slots at the weekend (10am, 11am and 12pm). In the summer the palace is only open for visitors at the weekend.

How to get to Magdalena Palace

Bus numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 13 and 15 all stop outside Magdalena Palace. All of these travel to or from the city centre and Sardinero Beach, making it very easy to get where you need to be. Buses generally stop on the main road, so you’ll have to walk past the tennis club to enter the Magdalena Palace grounds through the large gates.

Alternatively, rent a city bike and enjoy a nice picturesque ride along the coast, taking in the views across the Bay of Santander towards the distant mountains and green Cantabrian countryside. Or better yet, walk from the city centre and stop off at the beaches, Playa de los Peligros and Playa de los Bikinis, on your way. The walk should take a little over 30 minutes from Centro Botín in the centre. Or a bit longer if you spent a lot of time admiring the view on the way.

Other things to do in Santander

Street art by Okuda San Miguel in Santander
Okuda’s unique style of art is instantly recognisable and just one of many around Santander
  • Walk around the city centre admiring the local street art including some by world-renowned local artist Okuda San Miguel
  • Walk to the lighthouse at Cabo Mayor, passing over craggy cliff tops as huge waves crash beneath your feet
  • Ride the free funicular at the top of Calle Río de la Pila to the observation deck overlooking the city with the Bay of Santander ahead and a great view of the countryside beyond
  • Support the local football team and go watch Racing Santander play in Estadio El Sardinero
  • Relax, swim, surf or play palas on Sardinero Beach, one of the prettiest beaches in Spain with views along the rocky coastline and Piquío Gardens in the middle
  • Eat sardines, rabas and sobao at the restaurants around Calle Peña Herbosa or Casa Lita on Paseo de Pereda for the best pinchos
  • Enjoy a night out bar hopping on Calle Río de la Pila or sit in Plaza Cañadío with friends

Best day trips from Santander

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum is one of its star attractions and features many brilliant exhibits
  • Somo – popular with surfers and a very chilled out vibe, just a short ferry ride from Santander
  • Santillana del Mar – a medieval village with narrow cobblestone streets
  • Comillas – seaside town with its own Gaudí designed house; El Capricho
  • San Vicente de la Barquera – quiet, beautiful town with great beaches for surfing and relaxing
  • Potes – high up in the surrounding Picos de Europa mountain range
  • Cabárceno – spacious nature park with over 100 different animals
  • Laredo – fantastic beaches with rocky bays and beautiful medieval centre
  • Bilbao – the largest city in the nearby Basque Country, full of incredible restaurants and world-famous Guggenheim Museum

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Tilly Horseman

    Looks stunning! I love visiting places like this. After a fabulous trip to Bilbao last year, I kept hearing about Santander and figured that would be my next Spanish venture. This palace looks stunning and amazing it’s only 3€ to tour.

    1. Stuart Fahy

      The north coast is well worth exploring and often gets missed in favour of Mediterranean beaches. If you head back that way I’d recommend a few days to explore Santander and the surrounding region of Cantabria.

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