The 8 Canary Islands: which is the best one?

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One of my resolutions for 2020 was to visit all “seven” Canary Islands. With a four-year delay, I finally managed to complete the tour of the Spanish archipelago, discovering in the meantime that there are actually eight islands! Today, I will try to help you choose the “best” amongst these islands for a perfect vacation in the Canaries.

Despite all being volcanic islands, fairly close to each other and sharing a common history, these islands in the Atlantic Ocean are incredibly diverse. From the lush La Palma to the desert-like Fuerteventura. Or from the rural Gomera to the urban capital of Gran Canaria. From the tiny Graciosa to the largest and highest Tenerife. And from the lesser-known El Hierro to the highly touristy Lanzarote. While all of them deserve to be visited, each offers something unique and special.

If you’re considering the Canary Islands for an upcoming vacation, here’s a brief introduction to each of them to help you choose the best one, or rather the one that suits you and your travel style best.

Canary Islands: how to choose the best and the most suitable for your own vacation style. In the picture: Lanzarote outline seen from the coast of Fuerteventura

Canary Islands: choosing the most suitable for your vacation style

Unable to decide between alphabetical and size order, the criterion in which I present the 8 Canary Islands will be the chronological order in which I visited them:

Tenerife: the island with Spain’s highest peak

Tenerife surprises especially for the variety of landscapes you encounter. The north coast is lush, with vineyards and old rural villages. The south is arid and desert-like, with steep cliffs alternating with long golden or completely black sandy beaches. The centre of the island is dominated by the towering Teide volcano and its National Park. The lunar weirdly-colored landscape is truly impressive. The northeast area of Tenerife is home to both the thick Anaga forest and the largest cities, including international ports and UNESCO heritage sites.

Choosing the best of the Canary Islands: the peak of Vlcano Teide is surrounded by the pine forest of the National Park
The summit of Teide surrounded by the pine forest of the National Park

What to do in Tenerife

Let’s start with the beaches, even though I don’t consider them the most beautiful in the Canaries. The ones in the south of the island are the most well-known and frequented by foreign tourists. This is mostly because they are (almost) always sunny. Los Cristianos and Costa Adeje have the most popular sandy strips. But despite being very wide, they manage to be consistently crowded. Moving along the coast to the east, El Medano, Abades, and El Puertito are valid and much less touristy alternatives. The capital’s beach, Las Teresitas, is a kilometre of Sahara sand protected by a breakwater. It may not be a natural beach, but it’s perfect for children, and there’s room for everyone. On the north coast, there are the natural pools of Bajamar and Garrachico, and the beautiful black beach of Puerto de la Cruz.

In the centre of Tenerife, visible even from the other Canary Islands, rises the Teide Volcano, with its spectacular 3715 meters of altitude. Teide National Park is impressive. It feels like being on an alien planet, with colours and shapes that leave you in awe. Those who visit Tenerife and don’t see Teide National Park are missing out on the best of the island!

If you like visiting villages and cultural cities, start with the ancient capital, San Cristobal de la Laguna. It’s a fantastic example of Canarian architecture, as well as a UNESCO site. The north coast of the island hosts some of Tenerife’s prettiest towns: La Orotava, Icod de los Vinos, Garrachico, and the historic centre of Puerto de la Cruz. The capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, is not exactly beautiful. Nevertheless, it’s worth visiting for some interesting architecture and, at the very least, to check out the mummies of local indigenous people displayed at the Natural History and Archaeology Museum.

If you enjoy mountain hiking, the Anaga Rural Park is your place. It has an endless network of trails for any leg level and taste: from the forest to the coast, from rocky peaks to ancient villages. For more ideas and insights, I refer you to a more specific post on trekking in Tenerife.

To conclude, I would like to mention the highly interesting volcanic tunnel Cueva del Viento and, for the little ones, the Loro Parque animal park.

Why choose Tenerife

I must admit that I have a soft spot for this island that hosted me for a long time, and I might not be entirely objective. I believe that with a bit of everything to offer, choosing Tenerife leaves several doors open for those who want to spend a vacation in the Canary Islands trying different things. One day at the beach and another in a UNESCO town, a boat trip and another at 3000 meters altitude, the discovery of volcanoes or Canary mummies. Families will have more options than days to fill. And those who want to relax can always stay on the beach or by the pool.

View of the strip of sea that separates Tenerife from Gran Canaria
View of the strip of sea that separates Tenerife from Gran Canaria

La Gomera: between trekking and hippy vibes

La Gomera is one of the most rural islands in the archipelago. Its inhabitants are somewhat teased for this reason, much like Italians for their hand gestures or French for being posh. It is also very green and hosts one of the most interesting national parks in the Canaries.

How to choose the best Canary Island: Roque de Agando, one of the many volcan rocky formations in La Gomera
Roque de Agando, one of the many volcanic rocky formations in La Gomera

What to do in La Gomera

This island is a well-known destination for hiking enthusiasts and those who love tranquillity. The Garajonay National Park has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers an incredible biodiversity of flora and fauna. For example, the El Cedro Forest and Alto de Garajonay could not be more different. The first is a dense ancient forest, the second an arid peak surrounded by pine trees, but both still bear the scars of a devastating fire that in 2012 destroyed 20% of the park. Just outside the national park, clearly visible from afar, the Fortaleza de Chipude was considered a sacred mountain by the indigenous people.

The inland villages are small but charming. El Cercado, for example, is full of adorable local craft shops. La Puntilla is the only town, besides the capital San Sebastian de la Gomera, to have some life and tourism. There’s nothing to see other than the beaches, but it’s peaceful and full of old retired hippies. San Sebastian is a nice small city, with a pedestrian centre, a museum dedicated to Columbus’s passage on his way to America, and an ancient defensive tower.

The roads of La Gomera are mostly narrow and winding, offering glimpses of the remarkable landscape. One of the many viewpoints is the Mirador de Abrante, famous for its glass walkway overlooking the valley and the sea.

Why choose La Gomera

One of the reasons to choose La Gomera is that, unlike most of the other islands, this one is not overrun by mass tourism. Furthermore, its nature and still rural appearance make it attractive to those who love peace and nature. Choosing this island means opting for a rather quiet vacation in the Canary Islands, surrounded by nature, relaxing between the sea, the forests, and the beautiful landscapes.

Typical mountain landscape of La Gomer
Typical mountain landscape of La Gomera

La Palma: the Isla Bonita

If they call it isla bonita (“pretty island”), there must be a reason! And indeed, La Palma doesn’t disappoint: it is beautiful! It’s very green, filled with banana plantations and forests covering a large part of the ancient volcanoes. It may not offer the most beautiful beaches in the Canary Islands, but it is a true natural charm for hikers and lovers of archaeology and geology.

Choosing the best of the Canary Islands: the Caldera of the Taburiente National Park
The Caldera of the Taburiente National Park

What to do in La Palma

The centre of the island is occupied by the Caldera de Taburiente National Park, an ancient volcano. Today it is considered one of the hikers’ favourite destinations in the Canary Islands. The caldera is beautiful, green and lush with breathtaking views. Roque de los Muchachos is the highest point on the island, as well as an important international astronomical study area, with a dozen observatories.

Talking about volcanoes, the southern tip of La Palma is characterised by very black land formed during the eruption of Teneguia in 1971. A trail climbs to the top of the recently born volcano. And not far away, you can also visit the San Antonio volcano and peer into its caldera. Lastly, in terms of time, in the Cumbre Vieja Natural Park, a volcanic eruption in 2021 completely transformed the appearance of the area. Reconstruction is still ongoing, so I cannot provide precise information. However, guided tours of the brand-new volcano are already being organised where possible.

The coasts of this island are rugged and sandy in only a few places, making it less interesting than other Canary Islands from a beach perspective. I would still mention the beaches of Puerto de Naos and Charco Verde, Playa de Nogales, and Tazacorte Beach.

For archaeology enthusiasts, La Palma has a couple of areas with interesting indigenous remains. The most interesting is Parque Cultural La Zarza, with a pleasant walk in the nature discovering ancient rock carvings.

The capital of the island, Santa Cruz de la Palma, is a beautiful seaside city. Visiting the historic centre, you can see various Canary-style buildings, including a row of colourful houses overlooking the sea.

The Southwest coast of La Palma was devastated in 2021 by a volcanic eruption lasting three months. As I mentioned before, the island still reopening roads and isolated villages, as well as enabling tourism to the “new” volcano that formed.

Why choose La Palma

Green forests and black volcanic soil, banana plantations, and towering cliffs overlooking the sea, soft valleys and rocky peaks: the landscape of La Palma is beautiful and violent at the same time. If you like exploring nature and seeing different landscapes, you can choose this island with the assurance of having a fantastic vacation in the Canary Islands. I also believe that La Palma is aesthetically the most beautiful island of all!

Mountain Landscape in La Palma: mountain top with scarse vegetation under a blue sky
Mountain Landscape of La Palma

Lanzarote: the black desert

Lanzarote stands out for its aridity, vast expanses covered in black rock, and life adapted to this volcanic land. Tourism in Lanzarote is based precisely on these characteristics, highlighting the incredible creativity that the inhabitants had to show to survive on this island after devastating eruptions.

Choose the best of the Canary Islands: Lanzarote is famous for Malvasia wine, cultivated in holes digged in the volcanic ground, and surrounde d by small rocky walls
Typical vineyards of Lanzarote

What to do in Lanzarote

In my opinion, the most spectacular attraction of Lanzarote is the Timanfaya National Park, with its still very active volcano. The tour takes you to an environment that doesn’t even look like Earth, where shrubs catch fire spontaneously, food is cooked on the grill of a well, and the landscape could be from another planet.

The two volcanic tunnels Jameos del Agua and Cueva de los Verdes are both must-visit attractions. The latter was designed by César Manrique, a local architect who also signed many other buildings and art pieces on the island.

Moving on to the beaches, my favourite was the small cove of Playa Papagayo. Crystal-clear waters, partially protected from the force of the ocean. For wide beach lovers or surf enthusiasts, Playa de Famara is certainly the right place. And for a day trip, take a boat to reach La Graciosa, the island I will talk about next.

For those who enjoy wine, I also suggest a tour of the local wineries. They cultivate Malvasia vineyards in curious pits dug into the black soil. It’s a small trick to protect the grapes from the wind and let the roots reach the good soil.

Why choose Lanzarote

If you are looking for a beach vacation but would like to spend time visiting natural attractions, Lanzarote is an excellent option. You can alternate between sea days and various volcanic (and non-volcanic) themed attractions scattered throughout the island. Perhaps you might miss a few trees, but you certainly won’t be bored.

Coosing the best of the Canary Islands: 
the black sand beach of Charco Verde in Lanzarote
The black sand beach of Charco Verde in Lanzarote

La Graciosa: the “new” island without asphalt

This small islet, located 7 km off the coast of Lanzarote, was officially declared the eighth Canary Island in 2018. Approximately 700 people live here and the capital, Caleta del Sebo, is one of the only two villages on the island. The few shops are almost entirely dedicated to tourism: bars, restaurants, and rental equipment shops for quads, bicycles and everything for water sports. Interestingly (or perhaps not, given its size), the streets are not paved. None of them. This makes visiting the island a bit challenging but also adventurous!

La Graciosa can be reached by ferry from Lanzarote in less than half an hour, and it’s worth spending a whole day exploring.

La Isla de Montaña Clara seen from the beach of La Graciosa
La Isla de Montaña Clara seen from the beach of La Graciosa

What to do in La Graciosa

A day trip from Lanzarote is the best way to visit La Graciosa. The main attractions on La Graciosa are quite limited to one single theme: beach life. You can get around by bike, but be careful: cycling on the sand is not easy at all! Alternatively, you can rely on quads and taxis.

The beaches of La Graciosa vary greatly, despite the island’s small size. Choosing the most beautiful one is challenging, much like determining which Canary Island is the best! Amongst the many, I suggest three that I have visited. Playa del Salado is the closest to Caleta del Sebo but so long that you’ll hardly find it crowded. Just beyond, you reach Playa de La Francesa, a secluded stretch of sand usually very peaceful. On the opposite side of the island from Caleta del Sebo, there is the beautiful Playa de las Conchas. The waves can be dangerous here, and the wind is always strong, but the view of the islet Montaña Clara is truly special. I strongly recommend wearing water shoes when entering the water.

Why choose La Graciosa

La Graciosa is enjoyable for a day visit. Those who stay longer in one of the few rental apartments are seeking peace, solitude, and total relaxation. In my opinion, spending an extended vacation there doesn’t make much sense, but I would certainly recommend a visit for those staying in Lanzarote.

Volcanic landscape in La Graciosa: black rocks, volcanos and arid ground with no human contamination
Volcanic landscape in La Graciosa

El Hierro: diving and renewable energy

Born just over a million years ago, El Hierro is the youngest and second smallest of the Canary Islands, as well as the southernmost point of Spain. Due to the absence of recent terrestrial eruptions, the island’s surface is particularly soft and green. With a bit of evening mist, the flowered hills in the north resemble those in England!

The population of El Hierro doesn’t reach 12.000 inhabitants. For this reason, and due to its favourable location, the island is the subject of an intense transition plan towards the exclusive use of renewable energies. To date, in fact, fossil fuels are consumed only for 20% of the island’s total energy needs!

Choose the best of the Canary Islands: green and misty valleys in the hinterland of El Hierro
Green and misty valleys in the hinterland of El Hierro

What to do in El Hierro

A series of submarine eruptions in the south of the island, in 2011-2012, gave rise to a new and extremely rich ecosystem. It is called La Restinga Marine Reserve and attracts many scuba diving enthusiasts each year, making El Hierro the diving paradise of the Canary Islands.

Besides diving, the attractions of this small island are not too many. In the south, you can visit the southernmost point of Spain and the Parque Cultural de El Julan, an archaeological park with numerous aboriginal findings. At the western tip, a tree bent by the consistently strong wind has become so famous that it appeared on the cover of Brian May’s album Another World. Or maybe it’s the other way around… To the north, there is the curious Pozo de la Salud with waters considered medicinal, but apparently also a bit toxic. The villages of El Hierro are full of small churches and old buildings. But maybe the most beautiful things to enjoy are the vast landscape seen from viewpoints such as the Mirador de Tanajara or the mirador overlooking Roque de Bonanza.

Why choose El Hierro

People go to the Canaries for many reasons, but they choose El Hierro for diving. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the only island where you can dive. However, according to enthusiasts, it is the richest in marine life and perfect even for beginners.

Pictures taken during a first diving lesson in El Hierro: fish, rocks and a lot of sea life
Even during dives for beginners, you encounter a lot of marine life!

Gran Canaria: the dunes and the city

Certainly not the island with the most beautiful beaches in the Canaries, Gran Canaria offers a varied choice of entertainment and contrasts. The capital is full of life, culture and traffic, while the interior is decidedly more rural. The south is arid and desert-like, while the north is lush and green. An excellent destination for a few days of cultural tourism alternated with relaxation, this island offers various options for diverse tastes.

Streets in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the capital of the island
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

What to do in Gran Canaria

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the most populous city in the Canaries. And probably it’s also the only one that has a “big city” look. It’s worth stopping for a couple of days to visit, relaxing on its beautiful beach and strolling around the neighbourhoods of Vegueta and Triana. Here, in addition to the largest cathedral in the Canary Islands, there are some interesting museums in buildings of typically Canary architecture, such as the Museo Canario, with mummies and aboriginal findings, the Museo Perez Galdos, the famous local writer and journalist of the 19th century, and the Casa de Colon, dedicated to Columbus and his famous journey to America. The Canary Islands were the last known territory Columbus stopped at before crossing the ocean.

The most famous attraction on the island is undoubtedly the Maspalomas Dunes, a sort of miniature desert on the south coast of Gran Canaria. It would be beautiful if not for the uninterrupted row of huge hotels built all around the dunes. You literally have to go through one to reach them. A bit sad. But if you overcome the urbanistic horror and the waves of tourists, the beaches in the area are worth a stop. Or even a couple of relaxing days.

For a bit of archaeological tourism, I suggest Cenobio de Valeron, partially natural caves used by the aborigines to hide food from pirate attacks.

Gran Canaria is full of beautiful viewpoints. The highest, reachable with a short walk, is Roque Nublo, right in the centre of the island.

Why Choose Gran Canaria

I admit that Gran Canaria did not impress me much. Amongst all the Canary Islands, choosing this one means having a bit of everything but the best of nothing. Gran Canaria is a good place for a vacation that includes both the beach and the city, museums and a mountain walk, some mass tourism and lost villages of the interior.

Choosing the best of the Canary Islands: the dunes of Las Palomas in Gran Canaria
The dunes of Las Palomas

Fuerteventura: the sea and the solitude

It is said that Fuerteventura has more goats than inhabitants. I don’t know how many goats there are, but certainly, the inhabitants are few! Once you leave the only highway, you don’t encounter anyone. Entire villages pass by without crossing a soul; they look like film sets after the end of shooting. The only lively places are the tourist towns such as Corralejo and El Cotillo, and the capital Puerto del Rosario.

Aside from the demographic issue, Fuerteventura is certainly famous for the sea. Also because there is literally little else to visit. It’s a kind of rocky desert-like Lanzarote but with fewer attractions. If you want to explore it, be careful with the dirt roads. They are everywhere and pop up suddenly where you least expect it, like in the middle of a village. I recommend renting a high car or a 4×4 and giving it a good wash at the gas station before returning it!

Typical dirt road in Fuerteventura
Typical dirt road in Fuerteventura

What to do in Fuerteventura

Fuerteventura offers some of the most beautiful beaches in the Canary Islands. Long and wide strips of sand, so vast that you never have to feel too close to anyone else. They are almost all quite wild, without installations or bars. So don’t forget water, something to eat, and, highly recommended, a parasol.

Amongst the most beautiful beaches, in the north, I suggest more or less any point overlooking the sea from the Dunas de Corralejo, in the homonymous Natural Park. To the south, there are the beaches Risco del Paso and, being aware that there is an hour of dirt road to face, the beautiful Playa de Cofete. On the west coast, there is the small Playa de Ajuí, famous for the big caves reachable on foot. And just for a souvenir photo, you could pass by the now unfortunately looted Playa de las Cotufas, known as PopCorn Beach because of the curious fossilised algae that look like popcorn.

Isla de Lobos is an uninhabited islet north of Fuerteventura that is worth a day trip. You have to book a permit in advance because it is a protected Natural Park, and daily visits are limited in number. Many boats and catamarans shuttle between the port of Corralejo and Isla de Lobos. Go to the harbour and choose yours, or take the regular ferry.

If you’re tired of the seaside life, there isn’t much choice to keep you busy. But you can find some activities, between an aboriginal village and a camel farm.

Why Choose Fuerteventura

The answer is simple: for the sea and the beaches. If you want a relaxing vacation in the Canary Islands, sunbathe and swim in crystal-clear waters, Fuerteventura is definitely the island to choose.

How to choose the best of the Canary Islands: the crystal clear seawater of Isla de Los Lobos
The sea of Isla de Los Lobos

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