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When most people plan a trip to Spain, they gravitate toward the big cities of Madrid and Barcelona, or the sandy beaches of the south—and overlook the treasure trove of natural beauty and majestic mountains in the north. Cantabria is typically ignored by tourists, which is what makes this small, relatively underdeveloped region in northern Spain a true gem and amazing getaway.

Cantabria is known as Green Spain—the northern region of the country is all stunning cliffs, beautiful white sand beaches, and lush, verdant hills. The breathtaking landscape, dotted with deep valleys and seaside towns, remains a gorgeous green all year round. Both mountainous and coastal, tourists get the best of both worlds. Though slightly chillier than the southern cities (and especially sweltering Madrid!), the glorious coastal breeze is a definite perk if you prefer to explore the impressive Gothic Cathedrals and endless historic riches without roasting in the heat.

First stop in Cantabria is the capital city of Santander. With charming 19th century buildings situated against the sparkling Santander Bay, this elegant city is a must-see. Santander is chockfull of beaches, irresistible tapas bars, and authentic Cantabrian food (read: amazing cheese). The capital city is also home to the stunning Peninsula de Magdalena, which contains the former summer home of the royal family, and plenty of amazing museums and historical buildings.

While there’s plenty to do in Santander, it’s a great option for a “home base” because of the abundance of day trips you can take out of the city. The RENFE and FEVE trains combined with the ALSA buses are the most affordable and easy-to-navigate in Spain, which is a big plus if your idea of a vacation isn’t spending half the day lost.

My favorite destination for day trips is Santillana del Mar, an adorable medieval town that is regarded as “the prettiest village” in Spain. Pictured above, the cobbled streets, rustic shops, and overhanging terraces make a walk through the village feel like a stroll through history. San Vincente is another nearby destination, a picturesque coastal town that’s home to the Castle of the King. Laredo, Somo, Santona, and Reinosa are all other great options within an hour or so of Santander.

For a getaway full of spectacular landscapes, perfectly preserved architecture, white sand beaches, and no shortage of easy day trips, consider the Cantabria experience.

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