A first-timer’s guide to the best Canary Islands

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 05.06.2024

The Canary Islands are home to the world’s second largest Carnival and the highest mountain in Spain. It is also home to world-class wines and beaches. Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro - all have a lot to offer travellers. But what is the best Canary Island? Read our guide and choose for yourself.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Spain, your essential guide for visiting Spain.

What is the best Canary Island?

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.

Given all this diversity, there's no question about which is the best Canary Island - 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 suit your needs.

If you're planning a trip to Spain, don't miss our Spain itineraries and information on how to get there


The caldera of Tenerife's Mount Teide © Shutterstock

1. Tenerife - best for an infinite variety

The largest of the Canary Islands in size - 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.

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.

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.

Ready to escape the winter gloom? See our guide to the best places to visit in winter for sun.

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

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

2. Fuerteventura – best for wind sports and beaches

Next up in our guide to the best 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, 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 main highlight is Corralejo National Park, a swathe of protected sand dunes best explored 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 windmills

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.

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.

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

3. 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-around 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 the blazing hot sun on the spectacular Maspalomas Dunes.

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 an afternoon with an informed Canary Islands travel guide taking you on an Old Town walking tour.

For an easy hike to an epic sight that the entire family can enjoy, head to Roque Nublo. Given that this mighty rock was once worshipped by the island’s indigenous population, this is sure to satisfy culture vultures and outdoorsy types alike.

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Mountains on Gran Canaria © itsmejust/Shutterstock

Sunset on Gran Canaria - one of the best Canary Islands © Shutterstock

4. Lanzarote - best for an elegant ambience

The youngest of the seven main islands, the 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 on lots of local projects.

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.

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 Timanfaya National Park.

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.

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

5. La Graciosa - best for secluded getaways

At the northern tip of the Lanzarote is the small fishing port of Orzola. This is the embarkation point for a ferry service to the tiny Isla Graciosa, run by Líneas Maritimas Romero. With superb beaches, this is the place to get away from it all for the day and is also a great place for a family holiday.

For an unforgettable view of Isla Graciosa drive up to the Mirador del Río an observation gallery built into the cliffside – yet another of César Manrique’s unmissable creations. This is probably the most spectacular mirador in the Canaries. Great cliffs curve down to the beach, with Graciosa just across the strip of water called simply El Río (The River), and two smaller islands, Montaña Clara and Alegranza, in the background.

Combined with a small section of the northwest coast of Lanzarote, the islands form the Parque Nacional del Archipiélago Chinijo. The only sound here is the wind gently whistling through El Río.

Spain is well known for its amazing wines and this tailor-made trip to The Lands of Wine allows you to explore two famous regions: Ribera del Duero and La Rioja. Four different wineries, from traditional to modern, and many restaurants on the way await your visit.

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La Graciosa © Shutterstock

6. La Palma - best for jaw-dropping scenery

The entire island of La Palma has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve for its remarkable scenery - some parts are dramatically volcanic, and others are 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.

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Cathedral of Santa Ana in the neighborhood of Vegueta on Las Palmas de Gran Canaria © ErnestoSantanaFoto/Shutterstock

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

7. 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. 

But the real jewel in La Gomera’s crown is its interior - lots of vertiginous verdant valleys that are often capped by clouds, with the Parque Nacional de Garajonay at its heart. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 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 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.

Ready to explore the food of Spain? Don't miss our guide to the best Spanish food.

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Local specialities on La Gomera © Shutterstock

8. El Hierro - best for utter escape

Last (but not least) in our guide to the best 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.

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.

Valverde, the only Canarian capital located inland is small, with a cluster of friendly bars and restaurants. 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.

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El Hierro, Canary Islands

El Hierro - a haven for hikers © Shutterstock

How to get to the Canary Islands:

There are numerous airline flights from all UK airports to the Canary Islands. Some flights involve a stop-over in Madrid or Barcelona. You can also fly to Gran Canaria or Tenerife and get a connecting flight. Note that many people go to the Canaries on all-in package holidays, which can be the cheapest way to do it.

At present there are several flights to the Canary islands from the US operated by British Airways, Air Europa and Iberia, that usually go via Madrid or via London airports.

You can also travel to the Canary Islands by ship. The most popular operators are:

  • The Trasmediterránea ferry company. Runs a weekly service from Cádiz to Arrecife, Las Palmas, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Santa Cruz de la Palma.
  • The Fred Olsen Shipping Line runs ferries between Gran Canaria and Tenerife and between Tenerife and El Hierro.
  • Naviera Armas has services from Gran Canaria to Tenerife, Fuerteventura, La Gomera and Lanzarote, and Tenerife to El Hierro and La Palma.

Do you want to explore the highlights in Spain while staying in nature at the same time? Look no further. Start your tailor-made Spanish adventure in Barcelona before heading off to the mountains - drive your rental car to Andorra and further on to Basque Country. Decide between driving yourself or guided tours.

Ready for a trip to the Canary Islands? Check out The Rough Guide to Spain. If you travel further in Spain, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in Spain. For inspiration use our Spain itineraries from our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Spain without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

We may earn commission from some of the external websites linked in this article, but this does not influence our editorial standards - we only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 05.06.2024

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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