Scented pine forests, haunting volcanoes, lunar-like landscapes, secret sandy coves, miles of Sahara-style dunes, beach-hugging resorts – the beautiful, unique Canary Islands wear many tantalising hats.
Marvel at the pine-forested peaks of Gran Canaria’s mountainous interior, the tumbling waterfalls of La Palma or the subtropical greenery of La Gomera’s Parque Nacional de Garajonay. Then contrast all this lushness with the extraordinary bare flatlands flanking Tenerife’s El Teide, the surreal party of colours glittering across Lanzarote’s lava fields, the gentle flower-filled hillsides of El Hierro, and Fuerteventura’s endless cacti-sprinkled plains. The Canary Islands' near-perfect temperatures mean that, year-round, you can soak up fantastical, varied landscapes otherwise only found by crossing continents.
The Great Outdoors
It's this very diversity that makes outdoor pursuits such an easily accessible and key pleasure of the Canaries. Hike the many footpaths criss-crossing the islands, from meandering coastal trails to challenging mountain treks to tranquil forest walks; go diving or snorkelling in blissfully warm waters inhabited by more than 350 species of fish (and the odd shipwreck); or pump up the adrenaline by riding the wind and the waves – kitesurfing, windsurfing, surfing and paragliding are all big here. Then slow things down with horse rides, boat trips, kayaking and paddle-boarding jaunts or beachfront yoga.
Art & Architecture
Contrary to many expectations, the Canary Islands are immensely rich in both original art and architecture – sometimes you just need to know where to look. The spectacular surrealist canvases of world-acclaimed painter Óscar Domínguez grace his Tenerife homeland; the enormous abstract sculptures of Martín Chirino are impossible to miss on Gran Canaria; and César Manrique's inspired 'interventions' pop up all over Lanzarote (and beyond). Everywhere, seek out the emblematic wooden balconies, leafy internal patios and cheerily painted facades that typify vernacular Canarian architecture, and pop into charming palm-shaded churches, many of which date back several centuries.
Or Just Relax...
If your perfect trip is all about that enticing combo of R&R, the Canaries are the ultimate destination. The most obvious spot to kick back on is the beach, and you'll be spoilt for choice – from Fuerteventura's soft rolling dunes to Tenerife's sandy golden arcs to Isla Graciosa's wild blonde strands. Yoga, meditation, massages and a world of other self-care therapies abound across the archipelago, and thalassotherapy is something of a local speciality. Alternatively, nothing soothes the soul like relaxing over a tropical cocktail or a glass of local wine as the sun sinks into the Atlantic.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Canary Islands.
Discovered by a local farmer in the late 19th century, this is one of Gran Canaria's most important pre-Hispanic archaeological sites: a cave adorned with geometric shapes, possibly thought to relate to the lunar and solar calendars (though this is debated). It's also the most accessible of the island's archaeological sites, situated not halfway up a cliff but right in the heart of town (it is wheelchair-friendly also). The highlight is the cave itself, fully explained on the tour.
This fascinating museum documents Columbus’ voyages and features exhibits on the Canary Islands’ historical role as a staging post for transatlantic shipping. Don’t miss the large section of model galleons ('La Niña') on the ground floor, which particularly impresses children with its working detail. The crucifix is said to have come from Columbus' ship. In the next room are models of all three of Columbus' ships: La Niña, La Pinta and the Santa María.
The cable car provides the easiest way to get up to the peak of El Teide. The views are great – unless a big cloud is covering the peak, in which case you won’t see a thing. On clear days the volcanic valley spreads out majestically below, and you can see the islands of La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro peeking up from the Atlantic. It takes just eight minutes to zip up 1200m.
Upon returning definitively to Lanzarote, César Manrique built his spectacular house and creative centre, Taro de Tahíche, into the lava fields just outside Tahíche. It’s a real James Bond-style hideaway, with whitewashed walls, a sunken pool, bursts of bougainvillea and cacti, and white- and red-leather seats slotted into cavelike dens; upper levels are inspired by traditional Lanzarote architecture, while subterranean rooms are crafted from five huge air bubbles left by flowing lava. Manrique lived here from 1968 to 1988.
Lanzarote's most spectacular sight, the eerie 51-sq-km Parque Nacional de Timanfaya sprawls around the Montañas del Fuego (Mountains of Fire) formed by the calamitous six-year eruption that rocked the south of the island from 1730. Almost entirely bereft of life – apart from 200 species of lichen – this bare moonscape is an otherworldly vision in copper, black and grey, with thin soil trickling down volcanic cones to meet fields of frozen-in-time lava and a boiling magma chamber 4km beneath the surface.
For splendid views down the valley to Santa Cruz, put aside time to tackle the 4km uphill hike north of town to La Palma’s main object of pilgrimage, the 17th-century Santuario de la Virgen de las Nieves with its fabulously ornate interior. The wooden Mudéjar-carved ceiling, sculptures and sparkling crystal chandeliers are the precursor to the 82cm-tall Virgin Mary herself, surrounded by a glittering altar. The 14th-century sculpture is the oldest religious statue in the Canary Islands and the object of deep veneration.
This is the main beach in far-flung Cofete, near the southern tip of the island and the main draw on the island for many. It's huge, quite beautiful and entirely undeveloped, with fine honey-coloured sand and a rumbling backdrop of relentless Atlantic rollers and the turquoise ocean. Think twice about swimming here: the waves and currents are more formidable than the generally calmer waters on the other side of the island. If you know what you're doing and have your own gear, it's a good spot for surfers.
This impressive structure, with its castle-like turret, was built by German engineer Gustav Winter in the 1930s. Rumours linking Winter to the Nazi party have never been confirmed, but conspiracy theories regarding Villa Winter abound. You can drive your car up to the mansion and then walk the last 100m or so. A caretaker lives here and for a small tip he may show you around the house, though when we last visited there was just a donation box left out at the entrance.
The spiritual heart of the city, this brooding, grey cathedral was begun in the early 15th century, soon after the Spanish conquest, but took 350 years to complete. The neoclassical facade contrasts with the sunlight-through-stained-glass-dappled interior, which is a fine example of what some art historians have named Atlantic Gothic, with lofty columns that seem to mimic the palm trees outside. You can also admire several paintings by Juan de Miranda, the Canary Islands’ most-respected 18th-century artist.