Spanish Surprises: 3 Destinations Off The Beaten Track

Off the beaten track in Spain

Outside of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville, Spain is a country brimming full of wonderful sights, sounds and experiences for the traveller willing to head off the tourist trails. Exploring some of the less well-known cities and regions can be an intensely rewarding experience. Here we’ve assembled three of our favourite regions for your next Iberian getaway.

1. Tarragona

Just over an hour south of Barcelona, the port city of Tarragona is unkindly overshadowed by its larger cousin. Yet those willing to take a detour will be amply rewarded by what Tarragona has to offer, both within the city and in the surrounding region.

Start your explorations within the ‘Parta Alta’, the city’s ‘Old Town’. This area has been continually inhabited since pre-Roman times and has a wonderful, timeless atmosphere. Saved from demolition and rebuilding, it remains a warren of winding streets and alleyways, filled with boutiques and art galleries. We recommend Galeria Tarraco (Carrer de la Mare de Déu del Claustre, Ph +34 647 69 95 11), a contemporary art space established within a medieval vault – every piece is for sale and staff are extremely knowledgeable.

For an entirely different experience, catch a cab or drive a few minutes out of town to the Punta de la Mora. This is a beautiful stretch of wild coast, crisscrossed by walking trails. Relatively undisturbed by tourists, you can simply admire the stunning scenery, or forage for the wild asparagus, herbs and mushrooms that grow in great numbers beside the paths. Heaven for foragers!

A little bit further out of the city, you will find yourself in wine country. Cava is the local favourite here, the unique Spanish (or Catalan) answer to Champagne. An hour north by car is the Cava Interpretation Centre (L’Hospital 23, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, €6 entry, Tues-Sun, 10 am – 2 pm, Ph +34 938 913 188), where visitors are taken through the process of making and cellaring the wine, before a generous tasting session. Closer to the city is Celler de Capçanes (C/Llaberia, 4, 43776, +34 977 17 83 19) where a large variety of Spanish wines are made, with tastings on offer.

While there are many great beaches along the Tarragona coast, surfers may want to head up to the village of Torrebank, 15km north of the city. There, wonderful breaks can be found suitable for all ability levels. It’s also a lovely spot for sunbathing on a less crowded, quieter stretch of beach.

If you visit Tarragona between July and October you can experience the truly unique ‘human towers’. In a 300-year-old tradition, teams of men and women come together in squares throughout the city to clamber on each other’s shoulders and create towering structures up to 25 metres in height.

Where to stay in Tarragona

Best place to stay in Tarragona

For a luxury stay in the Tarragona region, the Gran Hotel Claustre, in the pretty medieval seaside town of Altafulla is a must. Right in the city of the town and located in a gorgeous 18th-century building, the hotel offers gorgeous suites, extensive spa facilities for rest and rejuvenation and the acclaimed ‘Bruixes de Burriac’ restaurant, headed up by Chef Jaume Druidis. Altafulla is a wonderful town for evening walks.

The nearest airport to Tarragona is in Reus, just under twenty minutes by taxi or car. Ryanair flies to Reus directly from London – check with airlines for frequency of flights.

2. Menorca

Somehow, amongst the Balearic Islands, Menorca has managed to escape the tourist crowds that descend upon Majorca and Ibiza. Thus, it manages to preserve more of a distinct local flavour than the others in the archipelago. Better yet, the pace is slower here.

The island’s largest community is the capital, Mahon. The point of arrival for various waves of migrants, it is now a jumble of architecture, from medieval to colonial British (the Royal Navy once conquered and sailed from the island). The Museum of Menorca (Pla des Monestir, Maó, Ph +34 971 35 09 55) gives a great overview of the island’s culture and history, but the real pleasure of the city is browsing the many food & decorative ware markets. These are mostly held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, with the largest at the Placa de s’Esplanada. You can find anything here from artisanal foods, to fashion, to distinct Menorcan handicrafts. Another popular shopping destination is the Xoriguer shop on the harbour, selling one of the island’s most famous and distinct varieties of gin.

Menorca is, away from the beaches, a foodie’s paradise. To sample some of the island’s distinctive cheeses, head to Hort Sant Patrici (Camí Sant Patrici, s/n, Ferreries, Ph +34 971 37 37 02). Clustered around a picturesque 18th-century mansion, visitors learn how the distinct flavours are captured in the dairy and cellars, before sampling the range of cheeses. There is also a delightful restaurant on the premises.

One distinct Menorcan sight that you’ll often come across as your crisscross the island, are the strange, beehive-like structures left by the Iron Age Talayotic peoples. These tomb structures, known as talaiots and can be explored by budding archaeologists – great for kids and the young at heart!

Sunseekers will be delighted with Menorca, as it is ringed with wide open beaches (though be sure to get there by 10am). If you’re looking for something much less crowded and are willing to hike a bit, try the Pregonda beach, a scenic cove shielded from large waves and winds by small islets stretching out to sea. Perfect for swimmers. As it is a little remote, ask your hotel for specific directions.

Visit Menorca between July and August. Then you will have the best chance of catching one of the island’s very distinct fiestas, honouring locally-beloved saints. These festivals are terrific excuses for dancing, parading and drinking and getting to know one another – highly recommended!

Where to stay in Menorca

Best place to stay in Menorca

For your luxury stay in Menorca, we highly recommend the Hotel Biniarroca, a lush retreat catering to an adult, professional crowd. A lovingly restored farmhouse, it is decorated with stylish antiques. The surrounding gardens have been designed to create a wonderful, fragrant air of peace and tranquillity. Two pools, lit by candlelight at night, offer a wonderful place to soak and the Biniarroca Restaurant is acclaimed across the island.

Monarch flies direct from London to Mahon daily during the summer months.

3. Malaga

While Malaga itself is familiar to many British travellers as a gateway to sunny beaches and the Costa del Sol, the city and surrounding region don’t get as much love as they deserve. In truth, this is a wonderful place to take a holiday, with a little something for everyone.

To begin, the region is a paradise for outdoor types. If you’re up for some hiking, drive out to the Torcal de Antequera (Calle el Torcal de Antequera, 70-75), near the town of Antequera. Here you will find a landscape quite unlike anywhere else – a prehistoric seabed, carved by time and erosion into amazing, teetering shapes. Be sure to take your camera for some amazing photos. Similarly, thrillseeker hikers may wish to try El Caminito del Rey, (Ardales, Málaga, Ph +34 902 78 73 25), a high pathway through the spectacular El Churro gorge.

In Malaga itself there are some treasures you won’t find in tourist guides, most that can be discovered on foot by wandering from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Try the fishing district of El Espeto for its famous grilled sardines that can be purchased at many small shops, cafes and restaurants dotting the district. Shoppers will love what they find at Calle Marqués de Lario, home of shoe shops and fashionable boutiques and the side-streets off it, that host young up and coming Spanish designers.

For foodie fun just outside of Malaga, head over to the charming village of Mijas to find Mayan Monkey Mijas (Plaza Virgen de la Peña 15, Ph +34 951 05 27 72), the world’s smallest chocolate factory. You can have a go at making your own chocolate bars!

Wine lovers will be happy here, as the Malaga region has much to offer. The area is famous for Malaga wine, a sweet, fortified dessert drop that is rapidly gaining popularity. Make the drive to the nearby towns of Frigiliana and Vélez, surrounded by wineries for you to explore. For a stellar cellar door experience, we recommend Bodega Bentomiz (Finca El Almendro, Pago Cuesta Robano, +34 951 38 67 06) for wonderful wines, spectacular scenery and friendly folk.

While the Costa del Sol is close by Malaga, you may wish to catch the bus half an hour to Chilches, where you’ll find a quiet beach with gentle offshore winds that make it perfect for windsurfing. The nearby village retains a traditional, relaxed air, that distinguishes it from many beaches along the same coast.

August and September are terrific times to visit Malaga as festivals run during this time that commemorates the ‘Reconquista’, or re-taking of this part of Spain from the Moors. Almost 600 years on, this is still an excuse for magical nighttime processions, riotous street parties and dancing late into the night.

Where to stay in Malaga

Best place to stay in Malaga

A hotel gem of the Malaga region is DDG Retreat, where outstanding natural scenery and a stunning spa combine to offer balm and bliss for mind, body and soul. This is the perfect choice for those seeking refresh, revitalise and reawaken, away from the fast-pace of modern life.

A number of airlines, including Ryanair and easyJet, fly to Malaga direct from London, daily.

See our full collection of boutique hotels in Spain here