A first-timer’s guide to the Canary Islands

written by Joanne Owen
updated 8/27/2021
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The Canary Islands are home to the world’s second biggest Carnival and the highest mountain in Spain as well as world-class wines and beaches. The seven most visited of the archipelago's islands - Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro - all have a lot to offer travellers.

And from awe-inspiring environments, to epic history - Christopher Columbus stopped here while sailing in search of the New World - these island oases off the coast of Africa are nothing if not diverse.

Find out which island is best for you in our guide to the Canary Islands. The information in this article is taken from The Rough Guide to Spain, your essential travel guide for Spain.

Which of the Canary Islands is best?

The diversity of landscapes on the Canary Islands really is staggering, spanning dramatic deserts and snow-capped mountains, verdant valleys and towering cliffs. Then there’s the seemingly infinite number of beaches - of both the black and white sand variety - take a look at our guide to finding the best beaches in Gran Canaria as proof

What’s more, the Canaries are volcanic (hence that black sand), and volcanic islands are never dull. For example, La Palma’s Teneguia erupted as recently as 1971 - if you find that thought exciting take a look at our guide to the top 20 volcanoes around the world.

All that diversity considered, it’s not a question of which island is best - rather, it’s a case of which is best for you. And the good thing is, no matter what your travel style, there’s an island to suits your needs.

Pining for back-to-nature adventures? Seeking a secluded beach spot? Want to sample world-class water-sports? All this (and a whole lot more) is covered in our Canary Islands overview - written with first-timers in mind.

The caldera of Tenerife's Mount Teide © Shutterstock

Tenerife - best for infinite variety

The largest of the Canary Islands in size - and in terms of tourist numbers - Tenerife is especially suited to families and couples whose interests diverge - say one of you is a confirmed beach bum while the other likes to hike, it's also one of our best places to visit in winter for sun.

While Tenerife’s dry southern strip is its tourist epicentre - a string of resorts, restaurants, water parks and bars beloved by Brits - most of the island’s attractions lie beyond this entertainment enclave.

On the north coast, picturesque Puerto de la Cruz has been attracting northern Europeans for over a century, with much of its colonial grandeur remaining intact, despite the commercialisation of its seafront promenade.

Fans of Spanish food and old-time charm would do well to visit La Orotava, an unspoiled town perched on a steep hill above Puerto de la Cruz. Blessed with stately mansions, ancient churches and cobbled streets, it’s also home to an abundance of beautiful local restaurants.

Meandering La Orotava is unquestionably one of the best ways to explore the Canary Islands against an elegant backdrop. And, if you’re not set on staying right on the beach, the town also has a host of charming places to stay.

To experience Tenerife’s jaw-dropping crowning glory, head inland through cool pine forests to Teide National Park, home to the eponymous iconic volcano, and Spain’s highest peak. The epic lunar landscape around Mount Teide is best seen from a cable car in the company of a local guide as part of a wider island tour.

View Of Roque Nublo And El Teide, Gran Canaria © StockWithMe/Shutterstock

Tenerife is also home to Spain’s biggest (and craziest) carnival. Taking over the capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, for three weeks in February and its floats and costumes rival the style of show no restraint at Rio Carnival, Brazil.

All things considered, Tenerife does nothing by half - resort-life, old town charm, mountains or fiestas, find out more in our Rough Guide Tenerife & La Gomera.

Where to stay in Tenerife

For La Orotava stays: Riad style Hotel Alhambra is a elegant, classic mansion in La Orotava designed around a central courtyard and featuring a beautiful, exotic garden.

For beach stays:

For luxury stays: Ritz Carlton Abama on the southwest coast overlooks the ocean, it has seven pools, spa, golf course, tennis academy and a private golden-sand beach.

Find more accommodation options in Tenerife

Fuerteventura – best for wind-sports and beaches

Next up in our guide to the Canary Islands is Fuerteventura. The second largest island, Fuerteventura lies less than a hundred kilometres away from the African coast and is one of the least developed islands.

Wind-swept, sandy and barren, it boasts the best beaches of the archipelago - an estimated 152 of them, most of which are blessed with fine golden sand. For more stunning Spanish sands take a look at our guide to the 20 best beaches in Spain.

Once a sleepy fishing port, unpretentious Corralejo is now a lively seaside resort town with a mix of Brits, Germans and locals contributing to its vibe. This tapas-bar-rich town is also close to some of the island’s top natural attractions.

But the main highlight is Corralejo National Park, a swathe of protected sand dunes best explored (in bone-shaking style) on a buggy or quad bike trip. Alternatively try a 4x4 fix with a juddering jeep tour which takes in Cofete Natural Park - think cacti and incredible coves.

Fuerteventura windmill against a typical beautiful, blue sky backdrop © Shutterstock

If you’re seeking a beautiful beach experience, look no further than the soft sand of Playa del Moro. Its epic, windy setting gives it an appealing wildness, and it’s also one of the area’s best places to surf.

World renowned for wind-sports, Fuerteventura’s Glass Beach (also known as El Burro and Playa del Moro) is another excellent option for surfing and kiting. The island is also a hotspot for snorkelling and dolphin-watching.

The fine sand and turquoise waters of Fuerteventura's Jandia Beach © Shutterstock

Lastly, no visit to Fuerteventura would be complete without heading to idyllic Isla de Lobos. Travelling to, and exploring, this largely uninhabited nature reserve is rewarding for nature-lovers and families alike.

Take the fifteen-minute ferry from town which you can book in advance, alternatively you can cruise there on a catamaran or even opt for a sailing tour which takes in La Caldera - a half-submerged volcanic mountain - as well as Faro Martiño lighthouse, El Puertito and La Concha beach.  

Where to stay in Fuerteventura

For Corralejo stays: Riad style Hotel Alhambra is a elegant, classic mansion in La Orotava designed around a central courtyard and featuring a beautiful, exotic garden.

For beach stays:

For family stays:

Find more accommodation options in Fuerteventura

Gran Canaria – best for diverse landscapes

The third largest of the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria comes a close second to Tenerife in terms of having all-round appeal - dramatic scenery, perfect beaches, lively resorts, cultural sites aplenty, and restaurants worth writing home about.

Gran Canaria’s dramatic landscape comes courtesy of its classic volcanic cone profile and if you're up for an adventure take a look at our guide to exploring the rugged heart of Gran Canaria on foot.

The island's mountainous nature also causes huge climate variations. So you might leave Las Palmas in damp and cloudy conditions and an hour later be enjoying blazing hot sun on the spectacular Maspalomas Dunes, vast swathes of sand designated a nature reserve in 1994, and one of the island’s must-see sites.  

Sunset on Gran Canaria, Canary Islands © Shutterstock

As for Las Palmas itself? At once a major commercial hub, historical centre, cosmopolitan resort, and essential seaport, this is arguably the most beguiling of Canarian capitals. 

Adorned with attractive museums and galleries, it’s a stunning place to amble of an afternoon with an informed Canary Islands travel guide taking you on an Old Town walking tour. Gran Canaria overall is a popular walking destination, with a network of well-marked trails you can tackle solo, or with a guide.

For an easy hike to an epic sight the entire family can enjoy, head to Roque Nublo. Given that this mighty rock (it’s one of the largest natural crags in the world) was once worshiped by the island’s indigenous population, this is sure to satisfy culture vultures and outdoorsy types alike.

Elsewhere, Gran Canaria’s mountainous centre offers excellent panoramas, pine forests, almond groves, gnarled mountains, sheer cliffs and cloudy peaks.

Where to stay in Gran Canaria

For rural stays: Hotel Rural El Refugio is a charming nineteenth-century Canarian country house overlooks the picturesque Tejeda countryside.

For beach stays:

For family stays:

Find more accommodation options in Gran Canaria

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Lanzarote - best for elegant ambience

The youngest of the seven main islands, stylish Lanzarote is also the most aesthetically pleasing - largely thanks to the work of one man. César Manrique was a visionary architect who stamped his creative architectural style (not a million miles from Gaudi's Modernista movement) on lots of local projects.

Lanzarote-born Manrique spent most of his life on the island and created a legacy that visitors can learn about at his former studio home, which now houses the César Manrique Foundation. If you’re looking to absorb Canary Islands’ tourist information with an arty angle (and in elegant surroundings), it doesn’t get better than this.

To see the magical side of Manrique’s vision in situ, head to Jameos del Agua. The first visitor attraction Manrique designed, this mood-music accompanied fantasy journey through a gorgeous volcanic grotto and underground lagoon really is out-of-this-world. You’ll emerge into a tropical paradise thinking you’ve been transported to the South Seas.

Lanzarote's weird and wonderful wine production landscape in La Geria © Shutterstock

Alongside Manrique’s unique architectural vision, Lanzarote is also known for its idiosyncratic viticulture that sees Malvasia wine grapes grown in the island's craters.

Seeing as the island’s wine is made distinct by its volcanic terrain, it makes good sense to combine wine-tasting with a visit to the island’s geological highlight, volcanic Timanfaya National Park. A tour which adds La Geria wine-growing region to Timanfaya National Park is a perfect 2-for-1 treat Lanzarote style.

Alternatively, combine a tour of Timanfaya National Park with a visit to Manrique’s Jameos del Agua and the Cueva de los Verdes, one of the world’s longest lava tubes.

La Graciosa © Shutterstock

For family-friendly resort life, plus golden beaches and a bustling marina that’s perfect for people watching, Playa Blanca comes up trumps. It’s also where you catch the forty-minute ferry to Fuerteventura.

Speaking of ferries, for a more remote (and incredibly beautiful) beach experience, head to tiny La Graciosa - a picture-perfect place to get away from it all for the day. And if you're in the mood for even more idyllic shores take a look at the 20 best beaches in Italy.

Where to stay in Lanzarote

For boutique stays: Hotel Rural El Refugio is a charming nineteenth-century Canarian country house overlooks the picturesque Tejeda countryside.

For beach stays:

For family stays:

Find more accommodation options in Lanzarote

La Palma - best for jaw-dropping scenery

Given that entire island of La Palma has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve for its remarkable scenery - some parts dramatically volcanic, others lushly forested - it’s no wonder that the most north-westerly of the Canary Islands is known as both La Isla Bonita (The Beautiful Island) and La Isla Verde (The Green Island).

The capital, Santa Cruz de la Palma, is an attractive history-rich town that’s well worth a day (or two) of exploration. Clean and bright with a mix of traditional and modern architecture, back in the day (namely, the Renaissance era), it was the third most important port of the Spanish Empire, after Seville and Antwerp.

A cool way to uncover La Palma’s volcanic origins (in both senses of the word "cool" - these caves are chilly) is to take a guided tour of the unique 500-metre-long, 3-metre-wide lava tunnel.

Moving now from subterranean exploration to peak adventuring, the pinnacle of La Palma’s scenic highlights is the Caldera de Taburiente National Park, where the finest views of the archipelago can be seen from Roque de los Muchachos.

You can drive most of the way up and then ramble around the volcanic mound on foot. Blanketed in dense Canarian pine woods, and zigzagged with deep ravines, the park is a picture-perfect paradise for ramblers.

For more cave-based action, but this time observed from the water, visiting the volcanic Cueva Bonita sea cave comes highly recommended.

A guided kayaking trip lets you visit the surreal fisherman's village of Proís de Candelaria (a small cove in which locals have built homes in the sea caves), before paddling along the coast and entering breath-taking Cueva Bonita.

Where to stay in La Palma

For town stays: Hotel Rural El Refugio is a charming nineteenth-century Canarian country house overlooks the picturesque Tejeda countryside.

For beach stays:

For country stays:

Find more accommodation options in La Palma

View Of Roque Nublo And El Teide, Gran Canaria © StockWithMe/Shutterstock

La Gomera - best for heavenly hiking

Columbian history, rugged terrain, and honey rum - more on that later - La Gomera is cheese to Tenerife’s chalk. It’s a mountainous island, criss-crossed by long, winding roads, with a coastline dominated by dramatic cliffs - and few beaches. 

All of which means, even though the island is easily reached from Tenerife’s popular southern resorts (you can also catch ferries from La Palma and El Hierro), La Gomera feels a world away. 

San Sebastián de La Gomera, the island’s main town, is petit, pretty, and where Columbus stocked up on supplies before leaving the known world in September 1492 (a pavement mosaic on the Plaza de las Américas shows the route of his voyage).

For stunning views overlooking San Sebastián and over to Tenerife, you might want to investigate booking a stay at Parador Conde de la Gomera. If you're keen on paradors, you might also like 9 of the best pousadas in Portugal.

But the real jewel in La Gomera’s crown is its interior - lots of vertiginous (and mostly) verdant valleys that are often capped by clouds, with the Parque Nacional de Garajonay at its heart.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 (fascinating fact: a third of this little island has been divided into 17 UNESCO-designated protected areas), this park has a well-marked circular trail and contains rare laurel forests, subtropical plant species and archaeological sites - all the while serving up sweeping views.

Though small in size, La Gomera is big on delivering food and drink specialties, such as almogrote, a spicy (and addictive) cheese paste.

To wash it down, there’s lots of local wine to choose from, or ronmiel liqueur (literally, rum honey). While Canarian rum is popular on all the islands, this is a La Gomera speciality, as is guarapo - a honey-like syrup made from the heated sap of Canarian palm trees.

Local specialities on La Gomera © Shutterstock

To uncover La Gomera’s history - from pre-Spanish days to the present - in stunning surroundings, a visit to the Ethnographic Museum is a must. Or, to enjoy more typical tourist experiences (seaside dining and drinking, a black-sand beach, and diving facilities), head to the little town of Valle Gran Rey.

Where to stay in La Gomera

For luxury stays: Parador Conde de la Gomera features a clifftop location, tropical gardens, and blend of Castilian and Elizabethan décor and is one of the best places to stay on La Gomera.

For coast stays:

For town stays:

Find more accommodation options in La Gomera

El Hierro - best for utter escape

Last (but not least) in our guide to the Canary Islands comes rustic El Hierro - the smallest and most south-westerly island in the archipelago is also the hardest to get to, and the least set-up for tourists.

This is where Columbus said goodbye to Europe, where nature still feels raw and unspoiled, where the landscape is dominated by sheer cliffs and rugged hills - due in no small part to the fact that the island has the archipelago’s highest density of volcanoes.

So, if you’re looking for bouncing bars in the company of 24-hour party people, this isn’t the island for you. And, as with La Gomera, if you’re looking for picture-perfect beaches, this isn’t your nirvana either. El Hierro is a sanctuary from tourist trappings - a haven for divers, hikers, and get-away-from-it-all-ers.

El Hierro - a haven for hikers © Shutterstock

Valverde, the only Canarian capital located inland (it was built 2300ft above sea level to protect it from pirate raids) is small, with a cluster of friendly bars and restaurants. The town’s Casa de las Quinteras is worth visiting to pick-up local crafts.

Other impressive inland sights include the Tubo Volcánico, a 295-foot volcanic cave, and El Sabinal, a forest of juniper trees (sabinosas) that have been twisted, gnarled and bent by the wind. If you’re desperate for a bit of beach time, Playa del Verodal is El Hierro’s best. 

For fine dining and diving, you’ll want to head to La Restinga, a laidback fishing village with a black sand beach, diving centre, and bunch of good fish restaurants. Neighbouring Bahía de Naos is a marine nature reserve.

Where to stay in El Hierro

For luxury stays:  Balneario Pozo de la Salud offers style with spa-pampering and every room features sea or mountain view, there's also an ocean terrace for guests to enjoy. 

For coast stays:

For town stays:

Find more accommodation options in El Hierro

Ready for a trip to Spain? Check out the Rough Guide to Spain. If you travel further in Spain read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit. For inspiration use our Spain itineraries or speak to our local experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there. And don't forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

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written by Joanne Owen
updated 8/27/2021
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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