A first-timer’s guide to the Canary Islands

written by Joanne Owen
updated 5/14/2021
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Home to the world’s second biggest Carnival, Spain's highest mountain, and world-class wines and beaches, the seven visitable landmasses of the Canary Islands archipelago (Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro) have a whole lot to offer travellers. 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. Read on to find out which island best suits your needs in our guide to the Canary Islands.

Iconic Mount Teide at sunset, Tenerife © Shutterstock

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. 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.

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.

Tenerife - best for infinite variety

The largest of the Canary Islands in size - and in terms of tourist numbers - Tenerife is your best bet if you’re looking for a broad blend of holiday experiences. This makes it especially suited for families, and couples whose interests diverge - say one of you is a confirmed beach bum while the other likes to hike.

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 intact despite the commercialisation of its seafront promenade.

The caldera of Tenerife's Mount Teide © Shutterstock

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, among them Hotel Alhambra - classically-styled and located in a mansion, no less.

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 viewed from a cable car, which you could take in the company of an expert Canary Islands tourist guide and combine with a tour of the wider area.

The lunar landscape of Teide National Park © 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, this rivals Brazil’s flamboyant Rio Carnival when it comes to extravagant floats and costumes.

All things considered, Tenerife does nothing by half - resort-life, old town charm, mountains or fiestas. For further Canary Islands tourist information with a focus on Tenerife, check-out this Rough Guide.

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.

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, the highlight of which is Corralejo National Park, a swathe of protected sand dunes best explored (in bone-shaking style) on a buggy or quad bike trip. For an alternate 4x4 adrenaline fix that takes in Cofete Natural Park (think cacti and incredible coves), you could try this juddering jeep tour.

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 - whether you take the fifteen-minute ferry from town (bookable in advance here), cruise there on a catamaran, or opt to take a sailing tour that also takes-in La Caldera (a half-submerged volcanic mountain), Faro Martiño lighthouse, charming El Puertito and La Concha beach.  

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, while its mountainous nature causes huge climate variations - you might leave Las Palmas in damp and cloudy conditions and an hour later be enjoying blazing hot sun on the spectacular sands of Maspalomas, a stretch of dunes that was designated a nature reserve in 1994, and one of the island’s must-see sites.  

Sunset on Gran Canaria © 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, perhaps with an informed Canary Islands travel guide taking you on an Old Town walking tour.

Gran Canaria is also a popular hiking 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, book a trip 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.

Gran Canaria's grand Roque Nublo © Shutterstock

Elsewhere, Gran Canaria’s mountainous centre offers excellent panoramas, pine forests, almond groves, gnarled mountains, sheer cliffs and cloudy peaks. For a room with a view, Hotel Rural El Refugio is well worth a look - this charming nineteenth-century Canarian country house overlooks the picturesque Tejeda countryside.

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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, he 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 unique 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 - the volcanic Timanfaya National Park. Take this tour of the La Geria wine-growing region and the Timanfaya National Park to do just that - a 2-for-1 treat (Lanzarote style).

Alternatively, you could combine exploring Timanfaya National Park with visiting 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.

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 venture into the island’s unique 500-metre-long, 3-metre-wide lava tunnel on this guided tour.

Up in the clouds above La Palma © Shutterstock

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

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. With a superb clifftop location, tropical gardens, and blend of Castilian and Elizabethan décor, this country manor is one of the best places to stay on La Gomera.

Garajonay National Park, La Gomera © Shutterstock

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.

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In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Tasty tapas - best washed-down with ronmiel 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.

For more Canary Islands tourist information with a focus on La Gomera, take a look at this Rough Guide

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 of the archipelago, 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.

La Restinga's otherworldly lava fields © Shutterstock

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.

To blend your back-to-nature experience with a spot of style and spa-pampering, you could stay at Balneario Pozo de la Salud - every room offers a sea or mountain view, while all guests can enjoy the ocean terrace. Oh, and, if you’re desperate for a bit of beach time, Playa del Verodal is El Hierro’s best. 

At Rough Guides we’ve always taken pride in telling it like it is - whether we’re updating details in our guide books, or researching emerging destinations. With that in mind, we want you to know that when you click on links that lead to our affiliate partners’ sites, we can earn a small commission (at no cost to you). This is one of the ways we’re able to keep doing what we do best - provide you with travel advice and inspiration you can trust. Speaking of which, you can trust what we link to - our travel writer experts are exactly that (experts) and have highlighted them to share ideas that might make your trips all the more satisfying.

Header image: tropical views in Gran Canaria © Shutterstock

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written by Joanne Owen
updated 5/14/2021
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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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