I'm planning a Europe trip next summer that will hopefully involve two nice long weeks on the Spanish coast. The only problem is I have no idea where to start looking for places to stay. Can anyone recommend some cute towns that aren't too touristy but have enough going on to be interesting?
Spain has three coasts: north, south and east -- which are you thinking of driving along? If it's the south, consider Axarquía, a quieter Costa del Sol alternative to Nerja, which is lovely...but overrun with sunburned Brits. Also check out Málaga, which is a big city but full of romantic Belle Epoque architecture and sidewalk cafes. (About 45 minutes north/inland from here, there's a national park called El Torcal that has the most bizarre limestone formations I've ever seen.)
At the junction of the south and east coasts, visit Almeria, a unique coastal desert town that's been used as a backdrop for spaghetti westerns. Andrew McCarthy wrote a cool article about this town in National Geographic Traveler a few years back.
If you're heading up the east coast, definitely explore Valencia -- it's got this cool futuristic art museum on a renovated waterfront. And heading north on the east coast, about an hour's drive north of Barcelona, tiny Cadaques was one of Salvador Dali's favorite places to paint and relax; he lived in nearby Figueres, a beach town full of Art Nouveau buildings.
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I definitely recommend Sitges! Best beach city I have been to. There is a direct train from Barcelona lasting about 30 mins that will drop you off right in front of the city. Walk through the gorgeous cobblestone streets towards the beach, maybe stop for a cafe along the way! The beach can get crowed mid-afternoon so I recommend heading up to the beach city on the early side. Enjoy!
The drive down the coast from Barcelona to Alicante is beautiful. At Barcelona and Valencia you can enjoy city life and great beaches. Further south from Valencia, in Denia you can enjoy the local red prawns, which are a real delicacy although expensive, as well as many paella dishes in beautiful restaurants by the sea. Javea has one of the best beaches in Spain.
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Two weeks isn't enough time to relax and enjoy all of Spain's coastline, so you'll want to narrow down your stay to one or two regions and go from there. Though some maps show nine different coastlines, the three largest and most popular are the Costa Brava which includes Barcelona, the Costa Azahar that surrounds Valencia, and the Costa Tropical south of Granada.
Though they are all stunning, I'm most fond of the Costa Azahar.
Start north at Peniscola. This town can get busy in the summer, but the white sand beaches are vast and beautiful with warm turquoise waters. The highlight of this town is the small hill that juts out from the beaches with an medieval castle and church. From there, you can explore the white buildings towering above tiny threadlike streets. There is one short street crammed with tacky tourist shops, but the bakery on the end is amazing and worth a stop.
If you have time, go to Oropesa del Mar on your way south. It's smaller and less touristy than Peñiscola, but has nice beaches and the old town with its castle ruin is nice to wander through.
There is a lot to see in Castellon de la Plana as well. It's just one hour north of Valencia, and though it's a larger city, it has a small historical center that is fun to explore.
Next, go to Sagunto It isn't directly on the beach, but it's unknown to most tourists and worth a stop. Start at the church. That is where the old center begins where you'll find several chapels, and a winding road up the hill to the castle ruin. The Castillo De Sagunto is free to enter. These ruins cover the entire hilltop and provide 360 degree views of the area including the Mediterranean sea. You could easily spend 3 hours here exploring what was a Carthaginian city. Bring water as it can be hot.
Valencia is the largest city here and the most central, so it's easy to stay here and do daytrips. Though it's Spain's largest city, it doesn't feel big. Start at the Estació del Nord train station at the heart of the city and walk towards the Ayuntamiento de Valencia where the post office sits opposite. Continue to the Mercat Central, the weave through the tiny streets towards the Plaça de la Reina and the Plaza de la Virgen. You'll see Valencia's Catedral here and the Basilica de la Virgen as well. Modern Valencia lies along the Túria gardens at one end. You can walk through here and find the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias where Calatrava designed a bridge and several enormous white structures that house the science museums, an opera house, and the Oceanogràfic aquarium. (Fantastic place for kids!)
Cullera is another beautiful town south of Valencia with an interesting history.
If you're willing to go inland just a little, go to Callosa d'en Sarriá. There are often festivals here. Their Moros y Cristianos festival celebrates their 152nd anniversary this year. Just outside of this town are the Fuentes del Algar, beautiful waterfalls where you can walk and swim. In this small village, eat at the El Algar de Don Joan. It's a family-owned, family-friendly restaurant with a large swimming pool, so you can eat while the kids swim.
Just 30 minutes from here up in the mountains is Guadalest known for the amazing views, tiny town, and old castle ruin with a resevoir below.
Honestly, nearly every village in this area has something special. You just need to rent a car and go. Bring a GPS so you can allow yourself to just get lost and follow where your interests take you.
Have fun, and good luck!
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