Play a game of word association with any British person, and chances are that the minute you say “Benidorm”, the responses won’t be very flattering. High-rise buildings, mobility scooters, fry-ups, bingo halls, happy-hour pints: the stereotypical images of this Spanish package holiday paradise go on and on.
When you get to Benidorm, the aforementioned clichés are alive and well, keeping this sun-drenched Costa Blanca resort ticking along beneath its soaring skyline. But there is more to the city than the Benidorm of British legend. After all, this place is a favourite weekend escape for Madrid residents seeking the beach and sunshine – and, let’s be honest, madrileños aren't here to tuck into fish and chips or play for a full house. They’re drawn by Benidorm’s charming old town, wide, sandy beaches, fine cuisine and stunning scenery that are all too often overlooked outside Spain.
For almost any visitor, Benidorm’s standout attraction is its two vast city beaches, Levante and Poniente. Levante is always busy, but if you go to Benidorm early or late in season (when the weather is still a knockout) and head as far west as you can be bothered along Poniente, you’ll be rewarded with far fewer crowds. The view is all gold sand and impossibly blue sea with Benidorm Island a shadowy triangle on the horizon; there’s a relaxed vibe, bags of space, and a delicious breeze. The seafront is lined with simple restaurants where you can while lunchtime away over tasty Spanish fare – try Ulia (facebook.com/Restaurante-Ulia) for a sizzling paella in which chicken, chickpeas, cauliflower, pepper and fat wedges of lime all vie for attention.
Old town stroll
The loveliest part of Benidorm is its old town, occupying an enviable spot on a hill between the two beaches. It’s particularly pleasant in the evening – take in the sunset from the Mirador where the castle once stood, while street vendors and musicians get ready for another night’s activity in the squares nearby. The old town’s narrow streets and charming buildings make for a pleasant meander, the flagship sight being the white walls and blue domes of the 18th-century Iglesia de San Jaime.
If you don’t want to stay in a resort or a high-rise hotel, this is the best place in Benidorm to sleep. Treat yourself to a room at five-star boutique hotel Villa Venecia (hotelvillavenecia.com) if you’re feeling flush; otherwise, try one of several welcoming little hotels like Hostal Irati (booking.com/hostal-irati), or investigate the range of decent Airbnb options.
As you’d expect, the old town is also home to some of Benidorm’s best eating and drinking. Calle Santo Domingo and the area around is packed with first-rate tapas joints like La Cava Aragonesa, making for a perfect gastronomic bar crawl. If your budget didn't stretch to staying at Villa Venecia, then consider dinner there instead: the food’s as good as you’d imagine, with a menu that might include winners like turbot with Romesco sauce or Iberian pork cheek with pumpkin cream.
Love or loathe Benidorm’s lofty architecture, few could disagree that the city is surrounded by gorgeous scenery on all sides. Benidorm is a compact city that was designed to sprawl upwards rather than outwards, making it quick and easy to escape the high-rises and immerse yourself in the natural beauty that characterises this part of Spain. Walk up to the Sierra Helada Natural Park to the east of the city – the rewards are fabulous views, plus the chance to nip down to the lovely, secluded coves at Cala Almadrada and Cala Tio Ximo for a peaceful dip. A fun alternative is to rent an electric bike from cute little shop Tao Bike (taobike.es) near Playa de Levante and let your wheels do the work for you. Even further up (though still walkable), the Cross of Benidorm stands guard over the city and provides hypnotic views over coast, mountains and skyline. At sunset in particular the vista feels more like Rio than Benidorm.
To the north of the city unfolds the rugged scenery of the Sierra Cortina mountains, and the Spanish money-shot image of towns like Polop, perched dramatically on hilltops. Get bikes or a car and explore at your leisure, or make the journey even more thrilling on a jeep safari with a local operator like Marco Polo Expediciones (marcopolo-exp.es). They’ll drive you right up to the Leon Dormido mountain (so called because it’s said to resemble a sleeping lion) that once captivated Gabriel Miró. If you’re lucky, you might get the view to yourself, affording a sense of solitude just a few kilometres from the Benidorm buzz.
Food and wine
Sure, in Benidorm you can probably get the best fry-up or cod and chips this side of the English Channel. But it's easy to lose the caffs and takeaways and get tasting this corner of Spain’s flavoursome cuisine.
For a culinary experience that brims with Spanish authenticity, try a cooking course at the Benidorm Cooking Experience (benidormcookingexperience.com), run by the frankly adorable couple Jesús and Miriam. The pair ply you with wine (the white from northern Spain is particularly palatable), charcuterie and cheese while you work together to make tapas dishes such as a staggeringly good patatas bravas, and garlic prawns that are straight-from-the-sea fresh. The experience strikes a satisfying balance between sharpening your cooking skills and letting someone else do the hard work, as you can rest easy that under Jesús and Miriam's watchful eyes you're in no danger of ruining the dinner. Once the dishes are cooked, serve your own and sit with the rest of the group to savour your creations.
For a similarly authentic wine experience a few kilometres outside Benidorm, a tour of the Enrique Mendozas bodega (bodegasmendoza.com) in L'Alfàs del Pi hits the spot. After a tour of the winery, beguiling staff serve you seven different tipples in the lovely grounds, with tasty snacks to line the stomach along the way. The wines on offer can vary from visit to visit, but you might be handed a glass of floral Merlot or a Chardonnay with tropical notes.
Tom travelled to Benidorm with support from VisitBenidorm.es and cheapflights.co.uk. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.