Some say that Malaga’s Costa del Sol has all the fame, and the Costa de la Luz in Cadiz has all the beauty. I couldn’t possibly comment – suffice to say my summer weekends are spent on the beaches of Cadiz.
From Sanlucar de Barrameda in the northwest to San Roque in the Southeast, the coastline passes through cities of palaces, fishing villages, shambolic clusters of holiday chalets, surfer camps, party towns, Roman ruins and the enclaves of millionaires.
The beaches – totalling around 170 km in all – range from wild to full-serviced. Here, from one end to the other, is where to find the best, whatever your mood.
Sanlucar de Barrameda
UNSURPRISINGLY, Spain’s 2022 Capital of Gastronomy is considered more a foodie destination than a beach one, but Sanlucar is both.
Bajo de Guia is really a river beach along the Guadalquivir estuary, facing the wilds of Doñana, and best enjoyed from a table at one of the many restaurants serving fish on the promenade above it. But a short walk takes you to La Calzada, a wide and seemingly endless stretch of sand with boats bobbing offshore, gulls and shells. If you like paddling in the shallows, this is your place – made only better by a friendly, inexpensive chiringuito; a couple of top restaurants; and a paseo maritimo. This is also the scene for the famous August horse races across the sand. At the far end, you’ll find La Jara, a quieter, wilder beach, accessed through desirable residential areas.
A CHEAP and cheerful town with seven beaches, this Cadiz seaside favourite is baffling to navigate. But for a classic beach experience, head to Playa de Regla, extending from the lighthouse along the entire promenade. The old Sanatorio de Santa Clara was built here to allow the sick to take advantage of the high iodine content of the water. Now the big draw is the soft sand, range of services and infinite choice of beachfront restaurants.
For ‘interesting’ visit Las Canteras, a short strip of sand bordered by the walls of a 13th century castle at one end and a breakwater at the foot of a 69-metre lighthouse (the highest in Spain) at the other. You can visit an exhibition about Spain and the new world inside the castle, admire ancient fishing corrals among the rocks at low tide, and eat well at the nearby restaurants.
THE fact Rota has a major naval base is nothing new: in the 17th century, Playa del Rompidillo was home to the Spanish fleet. Stretching from the marina and backed by buildings, it’s now a popular and easy beach to enjoy, with excellent restaurants, and boats to rent, and – time it right – entertainment.
Nearby Rota beaches have a managed wildness that’s appealing. La Ballena, for example, has tufty dunes and a manmade lagoon popular with egrets, ducks, coots, and visitors alike. While at Playa del Puntalillo, there are pine trees, a botanical garden, a wooden walkway and a recreational centre, although the sea is frisky enough to attract windsurfers, kitesurfers, and surfer surfers, along with dinghy sailors.
THE gem of a city is on a peninsula so it’s wrapped around by sea, and the beaches are like a shared garden for local residents. The obvious choice for visitors to the historic centre is La Caleta, sheltered – rather spectacularly – between two castles: the Castillo de San Sebastian and the Castillo de Santa Catalina. Sitting on the sea wall, drinking beer and eating fried fish while watching the crowds below is a quintessential Cadiz experience. The newer business and residential area is edged by the long, long Playa de la Victoria blessed by excellent chiringuitos at regular intervals.
Chiclana de la Frontera
A BUSY, sprawling beach town, Chiclana’s coast is dominated by Playa de la Barrosa, often – rightly – featured in lists of Spain’s best beaches. Fine, calm, and gently sloping, it’s the perfect family beach, and lined along the entire length by bars and restaurants. From the north end there’s a fine view of the 12th century Sancti Petri castle – boat trips are available out to it, and up the estuary, through fishing boats and moored yachts.
At the southern end, there’s the swanky Novo Sancti Petri residential area, full of desirable houses in lush gardens, a golf club, and hotels. If feeling peckish, step inside the Gran Melia for lunch at Michelin-starred Alevante Restaurant, directed by Angel Leon.
Vejer de la Frontera and Playa El Palmar
THE upmarket touristy town of Vejer does have a beach– albeit a 13 km drive away. While hilltop Vejer is full of artists and foreigners in white dresses sipping wine, Playa El Palmar is a bit more raw, the choppy water popular with surfers and windsurfers, and the laid back vibe of a surfers’ paradise. Both locations are excellent places for food-lovers: In Vejer, El Jardin de Califa is the classic choice, while the sandy road parallel to the Palmar beach is lined with small owner-operated restaurants, most with colourful faded wood terraces (and good cake). The beach is a good place for a long bracing walk (with dogs, out of season), and has a 16th century tower as a landmark with a 20th century bunker beside it.
Zahora, Los Caños de Meca, Zahara de los Atunes
THE three spectacular beaches belong to the town of Barbate (famous for tuna), and each offers something different. If you navigate your way through a labyrinth of holiday chalets you’ll end up at the north end of Zahora, where you can bask in sandy rock pools, get your hair braided, buy sunglasses, or enjoy cold beer in the chiringuitos. Pad south and you’ll reach the Cabo de Trafalgar, a headland with a lighthouse close to the site of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Los Caños de Meca, on the other side, is a party beach popular with surfers with bars and restaurants along the low cliffs, and budget accommodation and camping in the pines.
To see how the other half live, stroll along Zahara de los Atunes, and ogle the designer homes above the beach. The white sands have long attracted a wealthy clientele: The dukes of Medina Sidonia used to visit during the tuna season – look around and you’ll find the ruins of the family palace.
THERE’S a whole lot of life packed inside the walls of the old town, and 35 km of white sand beaches to enjoy beside it. Of them all, Playa de Bolonia shouldn’t be missed: not only does it have 30-metre-high protected dunes, but the ruins of the Roman city of Baelo Claudia right on the sand, and its excellent (cool) museum. There are natural pools below the cliffs in the south, and a few basic chiringuitos.
Tarifa is world-famous as a kitesurfing destination, and there are shops, schools and beach clubs offering courses and kit for hire at the edge of town and clustered around the best and windiest beaches. Watch kitesurfers in action along Valdevaqueros, or go further and explore the powdery dunes at Punta de Paloma.
BUILT as a playground for the rich and powerful in the 1960s, Sotogrande isn’t short of good bars, restaurants, and things to watch, like luxury yachts and polo (especially in August when players gather for El Torneo Internacional). It’s an effortless place in which to lounge about by the sea, with two one-stop beach clubs for passing the entire day – El Octogono and El Cucurucho – both with play areas for children and watersports. The whole place is made more picturesque by the Rock of Gibraltar looming just beyond it.