When you think of the Canary Islands, you might think of sunburnt Brits, Irish bars and all day breakfast cafes. This group of Spanish owned islands just off the coast of Africa may have been dealt an unjust blow thanks to low-fare flights, package holidays and the allure of a sub-tropical climate but there is an alternative side to the sun-drenched archipelago. Explore a little further from holiday resorts and you’ll find chic towns, traditional villages, peaceful national parks and unique natural landscapes. Here is my choice for 20 of the most beautiful places to visit in the Canary Islands…
La Laguna, Tenerife
La Laguna is a city in the northern part of the island of Tenerife and was once the ancient capital of the Canaries. Today it’s a little known gem filled with palaces, cathedrals, monuments and traditional houses spanning the gothic, renaissance and Belle Époque eras. All this coupled with the glistening, sublime sea views and handsome haciendas makes it a worthy addition to your alternative Tenerife trip.
Anaga Mountains, Tenerife
The Anaga mountain range (located on the north east corner of Tenerife) completely juxtaposes everything you already know about Tenerife. It’s a beautiful, unspoilt place full of plunging ravines, rocky pinnacles and mist filled forests that are older than the ice-age. It’s a veritable hikers heaven and a view-finders nirvana, and those brave enough to enter into this ancient, rugged landscape will find good walking shoes and fleece jackets more useful than a factor-50 and flipflops.
La Orotava, Tenerife
The historic old town sits in a valley surrounded by picturesque banana plantations on the north coast of Tenerife. As well as having some of the best examples of baroque architecture of the islands (including Ermita del Calvario hermitage, Casa Molina and Iglesia de la Conception Church), its also home to beautiful tropical gardens and the surrounding mountains provide excellent walking and hiking opportunities.
Teide National Park, Tenerife
Arguably the most famous natural site in the Canaries is Mount Teide. A world heritage site, you’ll find it nestled within the boundaries of the national park in the centre of the island. At 3,718-metres it’s the highest peak on Spanish soil and the third highest volcano in the world. Mount Teide is surrounded by a spectacular, lunar-esque landscape which is constantly changing in texture and tone, so much so that intrepid walkers and hikers are often given the impression of walking amid a ‘sea of clouds’. Please note, due to its popularity booking in advance is essential.
Icod de los Vinos, Tenerife
This little town has its fair share of symbolic and artistic value, including (and perhaps most famously) the Dragon Tree – reputed to be a thousand years old (although this has not been scientifically proven). It has long been the symbol of Icod and the local council are pushing to get the tree listed as a world heritage site. In the shadow of the Dragon Tree canopy lies the Church of San Marcos where you’ll find iconic images, statues of St Mark the Evangelist and other paintings in the gothic style.
Gui Gui Beach, Gran Canaria
A world away from the packed holiday resorts, this playa is completely unspoilt and almost always empty. Hidden away under the Grand Ravine on the west coast of the island, it is quite a trek to get there (about two hours from the nearest town) so only most determined beach goers reach its pristine sands. There are no facilities available on the beach itself but it’s still popular with both campers and nudists alike.
Teror, Gran Canaria
Teror is a charming, little town located in the North of the island. A picturesque suburb of Las Palmas city it’s home to some of the best examples of colonial-style architecture. The centre is dominated by the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pino and nearby the Casa Museo de los Patrones de la Virgen displays paintings, weapons, old photographs and 17th century antiques. The pretty courtyard is the ideal spot to sit back, people-watch and enjoy the surroundings.
The West Coast Road, Gran Canaria
The ‘Route 66’ of the Canary Islands begins in pretty Agaete and the road winds on through steep barrancos, along the cliff edge before dropping into the Barranco del Risco. To your right, Tenerife lies on the horizon but remember, Del Risco is the last rest stop before the road snakes upwards again alongside sweeping sea views 1500m above sea level. As you trail towards La Aldea you will come across rare plants, mist soaked rocks and some bird species that are native only to this sheer cliff.
La Catedral, Gran Canaria
Local opinion seems to be united that La Catedral is the most striking and important of all its religious buildings on the island, if not the Canaries. Work started on the building in the early 15th century, but took 350 years to complete. The neoclassical facade contrasts with the interior, which is a fine example of what some art historians have described as Atlantic Gothic.
Famara Beach, Lanzarote
This beach has developed a reputation over the past few years for being a ‘European Hawaii’ with some of the best surf schools and waves around. At present there are a number of different nationalities living at Famara, giving the area a laid back, backpacker atmosphere. For the adrenaline junkies the nearby cliff face and strong Atlantic wind provide the ideal conditions for hang gliding. There is something here for everyone, regardless of your ability level.
Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote
To experience the full extent and power of the volcanic undercurrent of the island, visit the Timanfaya National Park where you can hold hot rocks straight from the ground, watch bushes burst into flames and see geysers fire water into the air. Covering over 51 square kilometres, this national park is located in southwestern Lanzarote and is known for its unique Martian-esque landscapes, making it an unmissable part of your trip. All visitors have to take the official park bus to the lava field and it is recommended to go on the all-inclusive tour to fully understand the ‘real’ Lanzarote.
Los Hervideros, Lanzarote
Los Hervideros literally means boiling pots and are a series of cave blow holes which, have been eroded into a former lava flow. To experience the boiling waters at their absolute best, time your visit with the full moon or a high tide. Watching the waves crashing into the rocks, gives onlookers the true feeling of being dwarfed by the immense power of nature.
Teguise Old Town, Lanzarote
The former capital of Lanzarote nestles in an incredible volcanic landscape surrounded by old craters and rivers of solidified lava. The history of the island is reflected in every part of the town from the white-washed houses to the noble architecture and gardens. Visitors peruse the town square under the watchful gaze of two stone lions and every Sunday this sleepy square is transformed into a bustling market selling everything from courgettes to crafts.
El Cofete Beach, Fuerteventura
This is a 1.5km stretch of stunning isolated sandy beach. It is relatively unspoilt and lies in the shadows of the mysterious Villa Winter, which, can be toured during peak season – keep an open mind as to the villa’s true story! It is notorious for its big waves and sunbeds can be hired. Be warned, it can be popular with nudists!
Cuchillos de Vigan, Fuerteventura
These dagger-like mountains stand parallel to each other and perpendicular to the coastline and are one of the most spectacular natural attractions on the island of Furteventura as well as being home to a significant amount of flora and fauna that are indigenous to the island. A hike among the several wide valleys created as a result of millions of years of erosion is the perfect antidote for a few days roasting by the sea.
Nature Reserve of Lobos, near Fuerteventura
Easily one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Canary Islands is the islet of Lobos located about 2km off the coast of the main island. The reserve itself is home to valuable specimens of plant and animal species that are protected and in magnificent condition. It’s a popular tourist day trip destination and there are regular departures from Corralejo harbour during daylight hours. To protect the area from human intervention there are specific trails for visitors to follow but it is possible to request permission to camp in the reserve overnight but whether you stay for an hour or a night, make sure to take a dip in the sheltered lagoon – Playa de la Concha.
The spectacular Santa Maria de Betancuria dominates the old capital town – for the best experience of Betancurias folklore and traditions time your visit for the festival of the Pilgrimage of Pena in September, in honour of the island’s patron saint. It is also worth visiting the Hermitage of San Diego and the Museum of Religious Art, and for a truly unique experience sit under the fine Mudejar coffered ceiling of the church, listening to the renowned choir sing Spanish hymns. After exploring what the ‘Big Four’ of the Canary Islands have to offer, it is worth spending some time in the lesser known and smaller three islands.
Located in the middle of the Atlantic with impenetrable cliff lined shores, it was historically considered to be the end of the world until Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and dispelled the myth. On your approach by either air or boat you will instantly be taken by the coastal villages and cottages compressed beneath the cliffs as well as the petroglyphs engraved into the cliffside by the original residents. However, one of the most intriguing attractions of the peaceful island of El Hierro are the turquoise coastal bathing pools; you definitely won’t feel like you’re in the Atlantic Ocean.
Shoe Designer Manolo Blahnik is one of La Palma’s most famous natives and the charm of the island is recreated in his designs. Life on La Palma is colourful, vibrant and effervescent just like the shoes he designs. As well as experiencing the pulsating life on the island, it is essential to embark on a spot star gazing and the clear sky above the island makes it one of the best places in the world to see the Milky Way. In fact, La Palma was recently made the first Starlight Reserve in the world and astral viewing points are dotted around the island.
It’s true that good things come in small packages – La Gomera is the second smallest of the Canary Islands. The island is unspoilt and forgotten by mass tourism, visitors arrive by turbo prop or ferry and stay in the town of Santiago with its smattering of souvenir shops, authentic Spanish restaurants and family run hotels. Despite its small size, it possesses the microclimates of a vast continent, with luxuriant green forest in the centre, while along the coast, you can hike along deep canyons and stroll through a sandy desert.
Just a short hop, skip and jump outside of the traditional, well-trodden tourist trail lies a world a million miles away from chip shops, raucous bars and all the usual trappings of an episode of ‘Banged Up Abroad’. A world of tranquil beaches, cloud-skimming forests and glistening waters as well as exceptional, traditional food and an opportunity to embrace traditional customs. In our search for an escape away from the cacophony of the tourist traps, the balance is well and truly tipping in favour of the local lifestyle.