When you think of Tenerife, you probably see a pristine yellow-sand beach or a nightclub echoing with house music. While those certainly are facets of life here, the largest and most populous of the Canary Islands—a Spanish archipelago just off the coast of Morocco—has far more to offer. Among those attractions are the capital city, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, with its marvelous parks, restaurants, and architecture, best exemplified by the jaw-dropping Auditorio de Tenerife Adán Martín; El Teide, the tallest mountain in Spain, which is surrounded by an otherworldly national park that draws 3 million visitors a year; and San Cristóbal de La Laguna, a UNESCO-designated city overflowing with historical landmarks. So, sure, go to the beach—but remember that, much as with the volcanoes that created this island millions of years ago, the true power of the place lies beneath the surface.
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Contemporary culture and classic cuisine in Santa Cruz
Looking out of the window of my fifth-floor room at the AC Hotel Tenerife, I see two chronologically disparate landmarks: In the foreground rises the stucco and stone bell tower of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, which was built in the 17th and 18th centuries on the site of the first chapel the conquistadors established on the Canary Islands, in 1500, after defeating the indigenous Guanche people. Slightly farther in the distance, peeking over the top of a row of downtown hotels, is the scythe-blade roof of the 2003 Auditorio de Tenerife Adán Martín. I definitely need to get a closer look at that.
Following a quick breakfast of berries, yogurt, and croissants in the hotel lobby, I set out on foot. Tenerife is best known for the beach resorts on the island’s south side, but I’ve elected to start my trip in the north side city of Santa Cruz, the capital of the Canary Islands, which is home to just over 200,000 people, as well as an underexplored trove of lovely parks and contemporary architecture and arts institutions.
From the hotel, it’s just a few steps to the Plaza de España. As with my view from above, the city’s main square combines old and new: While it was built on the site of the 1577 Castillo de San Cristóbal fort, today its main feature is a circular fountain pool that Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron installed in 2006. Banked arcades of colorful flowers flank the pool, but even more lush are the green mountains encircling the city, reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro.
Across the plaza I run abruptly into the port, where a mammoth cruise ship is doing its best to blot out the sun. I make my way south along the waterfront, sharing the palm-lined promenade with joggers, bikers, and teenagers practicing dance moves. The Auditorio dominates the horizon. Designed by world-renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the concrete structure often draws comparisons to the Sydney Opera House, but for my money it’s even more eye-catching. Circling around the front of the building, I feel as if I’m about to be sucked into the gaping jaws of a giant white sea monster.
Fleeing the leviathan, I turn away from the water and make tracks back to the historic city center. I pass through the arched gateway and below the clock tower of the yellow-walled Mercado de Nuestra Señora de África, skimming colorful flower and fruit stalls before exiting and crossing the roundabout to the Tenerife Espacio de las Artes. The island’s premier contemporary art museum, the TEA is a three-level concrete-and-glass building that looks like an Imperial Star Destroyer diving down into the Barranco de Santos, the mostly dry riverbed that cuts through town. I wander through the galleries, taking in tropical-Pop-Japanese fusion wall panels by Tenerife artist Juana Fortuny, images of a local funeral by photographer Francisco Lora, and an early René Magritte painting. As much as I enjoy the art, I think my favorite thing is the bottom-floor public library, which is lit by dozens of hanging, globule-like lamps.
“This is a museum that puts its works in a context as part of a very particular culture, the Canary Islands,” TEA artistic director Gilberto González tells me. “When tourists come, they have a great chance to understand the museum as a new agora, to think about the contemporary world from this unique place—one of the first colonized territories, before the Americas, in the modern age.”
Personally, I think the best way to understand a place is through its food, so I head a few blocks over to Bodeguita Canaria, which has served classic Canarian cuisine for more than 20 years. A patch of clouds has rolled in, bringing with it an unexpected drizzle, so I take a seat inside, at a table underneath a hanging lantern and a string of garlic cloves. I make like a Spaniard and order a feast for lunch: a board of Canarian charcuterie and cheese; tiny black potatoes with mojo, the green (cilantro) and red (chili) dipping sauces that are ubiquitous on these islands; and a rich ropa vieja stew with shredded beef, chickpeas, and big chunks of carrot. I wash it down with a locally brewed Dorada beer and, to my surprise, a shot of ron miel, a sweet liqueur that is apparently served gratis as a digestif around these parts.
The brief storm has blown over, giving me the chance to walk off my meal. I head north a few blocks to the Plaza del Príncipe de Asturias, surrounded by stone walls topped with baskets of pink and purple flowers and centered on a stone gazebo. Continuing uphill, I soon reach the 17-acre Parque García Sanabria. The park is a veritable botanical garden, with all manner of cacti, jacarandas, and, of course, palms, including a Madagascar redneck palm with a sign instructing me to touch the fuzzy feature that gives the tree its name. (Does Jeff Foxworthy know about this?) There’s even a palm among the many sculpture works in the park, in the form of a giant handprint by Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs.
As I meander along the paths, listening to the birds chirp in the trees (canaries, perhaps?), I pass a German tour group, locals walking their dogs, a couple snapping a kissing selfie below a green archway, and a group of old people taking a ballroom dance class on a wooden boardwalk. I also spot a pleasant outdoor café, Strasse Park; I have a bit of time to kill before dinner, so I snag a shaded table and sip a sangria while I watch the lights come on and the sky begin to dim.
Speaking of dinner, that’s around the corner, at Etéreo by Pedro Nel. One of the city’s best-rated restaurants (it has one “sol” from the Guía Repsol, Spain’s answer to the Michelin Guide), Etéreo doesn’t look like much from the outside, but upon entering and seeing the huge cuts of meat in the dry-aging case, I know I’m in for a treat. I start with a bottle of red from Bodegas Ferrera, a winery just a few miles south of Santa Cruz; fresh ceviche; and a bowl of crispy pork and guacamole topped with a halo of banana chips. (Chef Nel was born in Colombia, and the influence shows.) For my entrée, I get wild sea bass with smoked-fish rice, a decision I momentarily regret when the table behind me is delivered a giant plate of sizzling, ambrosial steak. I walked right by the meat locker! What was I thinking? But then my fish arrives, and I remember, I’m on an island, and of course it’s flaky and buttery and delicious.
As I’m settling my check, the lights suddenly shut off. “Feliz cumple—” a waiter begins to sing, ad-libbing. The whole dining room laughs, and a few moments later the power comes back on. Truthfully, though, today was so pleasant I feel it should have been my birthday.
Walking the slopes of Mount Teide and the streets of La Laguna
I have a big day ahead of me, so I start by carb-loading at Churrería La Tradicional. There’s no more traditional Spanish breakfast than churros, and the hole-in-the-wall spot is packed with locals, so I sit at an alfresco table and watch commuters head to work while I fuel up on café con leche and fried dough dipped in chocolate.
I’m going to need every one of those calories, because today I intend to scale the tallest mountain in Spain, 12,188-foot Mount Teide. Not that I’ll be doing it all on foot. To start my journey, I’m setting out from Santa Cruz in my inexplicably large rental car, a Citroën Berlingo that shall from here on out be known as Belinda. She’s going to need all the energy she can get, too: Heading northwest on the TF-5 highway out of town, surrounded by tiny European compact cars, I can’t help but notice that I’m going up, and up, and… up some more.
After a few minutes, I pull off onto TF-24, the winding road to Parque Nacional del Teide. This is where I begin to worry: As I cruise through villages, climbing higher and higher, the road becomes enshrouded in fog. The palm trees give way to pines. Rain spatters my windshield. Civilization falls away—it’s just me and Belinda and the elements. It’s all I can do to keep the car on the road, and I can’t help but think this was a bad idea.
Then, all of a sudden, I come around a bend, and it’s nothing but blue sky and the snow-capped peak of the volcano before me. The thick blanket of clouds that I’ve just driven through rolls away to my right. I pull off at a scenic viewpoint to snap some photos, then continue on, passing the Observatorio del Teide, which looks like an alien space station, and a scrubby, jagged landscape that makes me feel as if I’m piloting not Belinda but a Mars rover.
To my dismay, the cable car to the mountaintop isn’t running today, but fortunately the park is loaded with other hiking options. I choose a trail that’s supposed to be easy, the Sendero Roques de García, a loop around a collection of imposing volcanic rock formations. Of course, the trail immediately dives down a steep hillside, past a wall known as La Catedral, and then climbs slowly back up. As I huff and puff my way aloft, I can see the peak of El Teide framed between smaller rock towers that reach out as if exulting their creator. I’d need a lot of churros to get all the way to the top of that.
Behind the wheel again, I steer Belinda back toward the coast, following a (frankly, insane) cyclist down through the curves and clouds. I could use a beverage after that hike, and in the town of El Sauzal I find just the place. Bodegas Monje is one of the oldest wineries in the Canaries— the Monje family has been making wine for more than 250 years—as well as one of the most scenic. I sit on the terrace and sip a listán negro, the varietal most associated with Tenerife, while I look out over the vineyards cascading down the foothills of El Teide and, beyond, the shining sea.
“If you think about it, we are making wine in a place we shouldn’t be making wine,” says Noelia García, who explains what makes Canarian wine unique while leading me and a few other customers on a tour of the facility. “We are right next to the Sahara; this should be a desert, but it’s not, because of the trade winds. The trade winds, together with the altitude, create a lot of micro-climates, and also the volcanic soil and the proximity to the ocean—it’s a lot of factors.”
The soreness in my legs has disappeared, but it appears I’ve finally burned off those churros, because my stomach is rumbling. I get Belinda back on the highway, to San Cristóbal de La Laguna (simply La Laguna to the locals), a present-day college town that was founded in 1496 and served as the island’s first capital. The historic center is a wonderland of colonial architecture, but before I explore, lunch. I poke my head into El Guaydil, a traditional house with an interior broken up into several disparate spaces. I pass one room lit with an ’80s-MTV-style neon sign by artist Lauro Samblás and enter another decorated with wicker baskets. The food is similarly eclectic: I chow down on bao buns stuffed with pork-cheek pibil and then a slow-cooked codfish fillet served atop mashed sweet potatoes and roasted almonds. The fusion is fantastic.
Revived, I go for a stroll through the old town. Calle San Agustín, in particular, is a riot of colorful walls, ancient wooden doorways, wrought-iron detailing, and tile roofs sprouting rogue succulents. I stop at the Museo de Historia y Antropología de Tenerife, set in a 1593 house, where I see 600-year-old handwritten documents, 19th-century women’s walking dresses, a conquistador musket, and even a travel guide to the island created for the King of Spain’s 1906 visit.
I continue on to a couple of historic churches. First, there’s the under-construction 1506 Iglesia y Ex Convento de San Agustín, whose soaring stone arches are visible from the street thanks to a devastating 1964 fire. (The building is “awaiting completion of restoration work,” according to a sign.) Next, there’s the 1502 Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción—but it’s in the plaza on the other side of this church that I find the salvation I’m really looking for. Bar Benidorm, a handsome turquoise building with a white, green, and gold interior that gives off a Casablanca vibe, has been serving drinks to locals since 1957. My throat’s dry and my feet hurt, so I grab a seat at the bar and order a draft Dorada. Here’s looking at you, kid.
It only takes Belinda 15 minutes to glide back down the hill into Santa Cruz. After securing her in an entirely too narrow parking space, I grab a late dinner at La Hierbita. Right around the corner from Bodeguita Canaria, this place is, if anything, even more traditional—it’s been open since 1893—and people are still filing into the humble dining room well after 10 p.m. On the waiter’s recommendation, I get a plate of grilled Canarian cheese topped with mojo and a bowl of pungent garlic prawns. I wash it down with a glass of listán negro… and here comes that shot of ron miel. ¡Buenas noches!
Brunch, beaches, and bittersweet goodbyes in Tenerife Sur
It’s time to hit the beach. Tenerife’s famed playas are on the far side of the island from Santa Cruz, but it’s just an hour’s drive on the TF-1 before Belinda and I are rolling past resort towers.
British tourists love Tenerife, and their hours-long brunches are notorious. Never in need of convincing when it comes time to eat, I head to the seaside town of La Caleta and Bloom Bar & Brunch, a new place from Venture Group Tenerife, which has 15 restaurants in the Canaries. In the flower-filled space, I enjoy poached eggs with smoked salmon and chat with Anna Marie Lacey, the group’s commercial manager, who was born in Ireland but has lived here for more than 30 years.
“It’s just experiences you don’t get in a lot of places, all within an hour and a half,” she says of the island. “You start here, and you’re in summer, and then as you go higher up the mountain things get greener, the flowers are out; then you drive up through the forest, and you can smell the pine, and then you get to Teide and you have this amazing volcano.” She has also seen the island grow up as a destination: “It used to just be youngsters, but it has changed dramatically. There’s an excitement in the air, an anticipation—it’s going to get better and better.”
Feeling some anticipation myself, I cruise down the coast road and into the town of Playa de Las Américas, the beachhead of Tenerife’s British invasion. I park Belinda and walk along the shore, passing an oceanfront pool fed by crashing waves and a large iron sculpture by artist Juan López Salvador that looks like a seaview window with a corkscrewing pig tail attached, where I snap a few photos of tourists snapping photos of tourists. When I reach the Hard Rock Hotel, I hop off the boardwalk and dig my toes into the yellow sands of Playa del Camisón. At the far side of the beach, I reach a seawall of black rocks. If that difference in tint seems odd, there’s a reason: The yellow sand is imported from the Sahara Desert.
I keep on to the next beach, Playa de las Vistas, although the view that I find most stunning here isn’t of the ocean but of the sunbathing tourists. It’s not just that they’re sunburned; it’s that they seem to be reveling in boiling themselves like lobsters. I apply a second layer of sunblock and take a break on the breezy deck at Chiringo Atlanticus, a beachside fish shack where I snack on some olives and knock back a Dorada.
I’m not beached out yet, but I think I’d prefer a place that’s slightly less invaded, so Belinda and I get back on the TF-1 and zoom north. Lacey told me earlier that I had to check out Los Gigantes, and as I snake down from the highway toward the town, I can see why: Opposite a curving bay are the Acantilados de Los Gigantes, sheer basalt cliffs that exceed 1,600 feet in some places and remind me of the glacier-carved walls of the Montana Rockies. The best place to take in the view is from Playa de los Guíos, a refreshingly natural black-sand beach.
Walking back toward Belinda, who I’ve parked at the Puerto de Los Gigantes marina, I’m stopped in my tracks by the smell of simmering garlic. A couple sitting at a table outside KV Bar Gourmet has just been served a plate of intoxicating sauteéd prawns, and I need to be eating those right now. I also get an order of crunchy-melty vegetable croquettes and a plate of red tuna tataki. Those gambas, though? Out of this world.
The afternoon is getting on, so I retreat a few miles south to check into my hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, Abama, a pink jigsaw puzzle of a property that looks like a palace M.C. Escher would have built if he were a Moroccan sultan. After a dip in the infinity pool, I head to El Mirador, one of the resort’s restaurants, where I sit on the patio and sip a glass of Rioja while watching the sun sink behind La Gomera, Tenerife’s neighbor to the west.
I’m staying on-property for dinner, because the Ritz is home to the island’s lone Michelin-two-starred restaurant, M.B., where chef Erlantz Gorostiza realizes the vision of Basque culinary superstar Martín Berasategui. I opt for the restaurant’s signature Great Classics Menu, which takes me on a trip through a series of wildly creative courses—egg yolk in a liquid herb salad with beets, a caramelized mille-feuille of smoked eel and foie gras, a seared Galician beef fillet with truffled gnocchi and cheese foam—paired with wines from the Canaries and the mainland. I’m usually not a dessert guy, but this place’s take on apple pie, a tart with sorbet and Chantilly cinnamon liqueur cream served inside a ceramic green apple that comes apart like a Russian doll, ends up being my favorite part of the meal.
A younger me would hail a taxi right now to check out the party scene at Papagayo Beach Club or one of the other famous discos in Playa de las Américas, but I don’t think my 40-year-old ears are quite up for deep house right now. Instead, I opt for a nightcap at the lobby bar. As the bartender hands me a glass of Rioja, a beautiful young woman sitting on the other side of the bar waves me over to the empty seat next to her. This can’t be real.
If I’m taken aback by the invite, I’m even more amazed by the woman’s story. Her name is Yana, she’s 25, and she’s Ukrainian; she and her mother have been staying at a family friend’s villa for the past few weeks, after fleeing from the Russian assault on Kyiv. She shows me pictures of her mother and her dog, tells me that she’s learning to play golf while she’s here. She’s waiting on a visa to go to Italy. “This war is so horrible,” she says. “I don’t understand why this war is happening. Do you?” I can’t say that I do.
When I tell her why I’m in Tenerife, her eyes get wide. “I’m sitting here with a person who’s writing an article for a magazine!” she exclaims. “I can’t believe it!” Again, I don’t know what to say; she can’t believe that she’s sitting here with me?
After a while, Yana’s mother texts her—it’s time to call it a night. I give her a hug, wish her good luck, tell her everything will be OK. I don’t know if I believe that, but what I do know is that I’ve been reminded that days like today, trips like this one, are not to be taken for granted.
Island Time: Direct flights between New York/Newark and Tenerife, the gem of the Canary Islands, depart three times weekly starting this month.