Still-Secret Spain: 9 Fairy-Tale Towns Off the Tourist Track
For unspoiled nature, centuries-old architecture, and guaranteed tranquility, hole up in one of these postcard-perfect villages.
If you’ve been to Spain, chances are you’ve spent a few days in Madrid or Barcelona. Maybe you’ve shouted ¡Olé! at a flamenco show in Seville, feasted on paella in Valencia, or embarked on a pintxo crawl in San Sebastian. But there’s far more to Spain than its bustling metropolises: These nine villages—whether tucked between mountains, teetering on cliff sides, or perched at the ocean’s edge—offer unhurried, intimate visions of the Iberian Peninsula that their urban counterparts simply can’t.
A bucolic Basque fishing village may be the last place you’d expect to find a temple of haute couture, but lest we forget, these are Cristóbal Balenciaga’s stomping grounds: He was born in Getaria in 1895. But this town, located a half an hour drive from San Sebastian, isn’t just for fashionistas’ bucket lists—it’s for gourmands’, too: there’s a centuries-old anchovy industry here, and locals will tell you that Getarian conservas can’t be beat. (Tins from Salanort make great souvenirs.) Flame-grilled turbot is a specialty in Getaria, too, and the ethereal version served at Elkano has become something of a cult classic ever since Anthony Bourdain raved about it on Parts Unknown.
Where to Stay: Time stands still at Hotel Iturregi, a luxury lodge situated among txakoli vineyards that sprawl out toward the Bay of Biscay. When you’re not at the beach in Getaria (an eight-minute drive away), take advantage of the expansive sun-drenched terraces and a serene outdoor pool.
Most travelers to Lanzarote, the easternmost Canary Island, flock to the cookie-cutter resorts of Playa Blanca—and they’re missing out. To truly experience Canarian culture, avoid the tourist bubble and instead hole up in El Golfo, a picturesque fishing village with a population of under 200. Beyond the town’s exceptional seafood restaurants (Mar Azul edges out the competition) and amiable inhabitants (expect the occasional ¡hola! from complete strangers), its main draw is its moonlike volcanic landscapes. There’s a neon-green lake, black-sand beaches, and wispy red dunes, and in the distance, the dormant volcanoes of Timanfaya National Park loom on the horizon.
Where to Stay: Fall asleep to the lull of the surf at El Hotelito del Golfo, a pleasant little hotel with a pool and outdoor showers. Be sure to request a room with ocean views.
If you’ve ever fantasized about stepping into a Spanish Golden Age novel, consider spending a day or two in Consuegra, a town 85 miles south of Madrid in Castilla–La Mancha hemmed in by 16th-century windmills—or “hulking giants,” as Don Quixote called them. One of the windmills is open to the public and acts as a small museum. When you’ve finished strolling (or jousting) along the ridge, tour the Castillo de La Muela, the region’s best-preserved castle. Of course, you can’t leave La Mancha without stocking up on manchego cheese and the world’s best saffron (sold at La Bodeguita Gourmet).
Where to Stay: La Vida de Antes loosely translates to “the good old days,” and true to its name, there’s no shortage of nostalgia at this tiny hotel. Tile-floored rooms, outfitted with vintage furniture and paintings of local landscapes, are organized around a traditional Manchegan courtyard.
Everyone finishes their vegetables in Tudela, a little-known food mecca in Navarra with artichokes so outrageously good they have their own IGP (an EU-backed geographical certification). Try them, along with other vegetable-driven dishes—like green rice, sweet romaine hearts, and mayonnaise-cloaked white asparagus—at Restaurante Treintaitrés. But food isn’t Tudela’s only allure: The town lies just south of one of Spain’s most dramatic landscapes, the Bárdenas Reales, a semiarid national park midway between Madrid and Barcelona that resembles the American West with steep plateaus and otherworldly rock formations.
Where to Stay: Hotel Aire de Bárdenas is a collection of luxury “cubes” and “bubbles” plopped in a wheatfield in the Navarran badlands. You’re only four miles from Tudela here, but you may as well be on Mars, thanks to the avant-garde designs of Barcelona architects Emiliano López and Mónica Rivera.
Arcos de la Frontera
Arcos de la Frontera is the gateway to Cádiz’s famed Pueblos Blancos, a series of blindingly white villages perched on steep ridges that make for scenic (and often white-knuckle) road trips. The town brims with Moorish monuments (Castillo de Arcos, Iglesia de San Miguel, and Iglesia de San Pedro, to name a few), remnants of when Arcos was a formidable taifa, or independent Muslim-governed municipality, in the 11th century. As you explore the one-car-wide cobblestone streets, see if you can spy Arcos’s signature ventanas cotillas (“gossip windows”) with openings along the sides for easy peeping onto the street.
Where to Stay: El Parador de Arcos de la Frontera, which occupies the mansion of a formal local magistrate, towers over the main square and the Guadalete River below.
To the untrained eye, Cudillero could pass as one of Italy’s Cinque Terre fishing villages with its colorful houses, craggy cliffs, and sleepy port. Snag an outdoor table at any of the harborside restaurants, kick back with a book and a café con hielo, and ya está: you’re living your best small-town-European vacation life. Ask in town if the Faro de Cudillero (Cudillero Lighthouse) is open for business; the 19th-century lighthouse, which has been defunct and closed to the public for years, is finally being renovated as of March, 2018.
Where to Stay: Situated in what was once a fish-curing factory, La Casona de Pío is a family-run inn with simple, snug rooms and thoughtfully prepared breakfasts (think homemade crêpes, from-scratch cakes, and freshly made tortilla española).
When Catalans talk about Cadaqués, they use superlatives: “It’s the most beautiful village of the Costa Brava”; “It boasts the most scenic viewpoint in all of Spain”; “It’s where the best Spanish minds found inspiration”—and so on. Indeed, the whitewashed town once lured such luminaries as Federico García Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Luis Buñuel, and Pablo Picasso. Dalí, who drew on the area’s scrubby Mediterranean landscape in paintings like The Persistence of Memory and Port of Cadaqués, lived in neighboring Portlligat with his wife, Gala, for 40 years. Today the residence is a museum where you can marvel at such oddities as a taxidermied polar bear strewn with jewels and a mirror system Dalí devised to see the sunrise from his bed.
Where to Stay: Awash with mellow earth tones and dappled with sunlight, rooms at Tramuntana Hotel evoke a spa-like calm. And you couldn’t ask for a better location: The Old Town is right outside, and the beach is a two-minute walk away.
To get to Sóller, Mallorca, you can hop aboard a wooden tram (built in 1912) in La Palma that judders and clacks through pastel-pink almond groves and rolling green pastures. The fairy-tale journey is a fitting prelude to Sóller’s splendid charms including Sant Bartomeu, a 16th-century church redeveloped by a Gaudí disciple; Can Prunera, a Modernisme museum housing works by the likes of Fernand Léger and Paul Klee; and Sala Picasso & Sala Miró, a permanent exhibition of ceramics and prints by the eponymous artists displayed on the ground floor of the train station.
Where to Stay: Pamper yourself at Jumeirah Port Sóller Hotel & Spa, a five-star property with ocean views, an infinity pool, and a cliff-top spa in Puerto de Sóller (two miles from Sóller proper).
A sea of terracotta roofs that culminates in a 11th-century Moorish fortress, Alquézar—set in the foothills of the Pyrenees—appeals not only for its medieval atmosphere but also for its distinctive geology. Go canyoning with Buenaventura, a local tour company, and spend a morning sliding down chutes, squeezing under rocks, and cannonballing into cobalt-blue pools. After all that physical exertion, reward yourself with a leisurely wine tasting at Viñas del Vero, a bodega located 20 minutes outside town that epitomizes the experimental verve of the Somontano wine region: After a Segway tour through the vineyards, savor a glass of gewürztraminer, a lychee-scented German grape that’s a rarity in Spain.
Where to Stay: With beamed ceilings, unpolished stone floors, and cheerily patterned linens, rooms at Alodia hit the sweet spot between rusticity and coziness. Ask for a room with unencumbered views of the old town.