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Though often passed over in favour of more famous Andalusian destinations, Tarifa should be on every traveller’s bucket list. Read on to find out why you should visit this vibrant Spanish town, from enjoying the monster surf to whale-spotting in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Thanks to the two strong winds that shape the climate in this part of Spain (the Levante from the east and the Poniente from the west), Tarifa has become the kitesurfing capital of Europe. Dozens of schools offer classes and you buy or rent your gear from the surfing emporiums along Batalla del Salado, the main drag.
For an unforgettable morning or afternoon, book yourself on a whale watching trip in the Strait of Gibraltar (prices hover around the €30 (USD$34.70)-per-adult mark). Separating Tarifa from north Africa, this narrow stretch of water is home to large populations of fin, pilot, sperm and killer (orca) whales.
Tarifa’s sturdy Castillo de Guzman dates from the 10th century, when it was built on the orders of the Caliph of Córdoba to protect the town from invaders. It’s named after Alonso Perez de Guzman, the commander who defended Tarifa from a Moorish siege in 1294, sacrificing his own son in the process.
If kitesurfing sounds like way too much hard work, you can simply lie on Tarifa’s stunning beaches instead. The two most popular are Playa de Los Lances, a largely unspoilt stretch of sand that’s free of kitesurfers during the summer months and, a little further north, Playa de Valdevaqueros, where you’ll find some amazing sand dunes.
There aren’t many European destinations from which you can take a day trip to another continent; but Tarifa occupies the southernmost point of Continental Europe and is just a 35-minute ferry ride from Tangier. Packed with artists and spies from all over the world throughout the early 20th century, this fascinating city is well worth spending a day or two in.
Walk through the Puerta de Jerez – the only one of four medieval entrances remaining – and you’ll find yourself in the densely packed maze of whitewashed houses and pretty squares that is Tarifa’s old town. Its central square is Plaza de Santa Maria, informally called Plaza de la Ranita (Little Frog Square). You’ll soon see why.
Tarifa’s proximity to two natural parks, the Parque Natural del Estrecho and the Parque Natural Alcornocales, means there’s wonderful hiking to be enjoyed here all year round (ocean winds keep the temperatures at bearable levels). For some fantastic views of the north African coast, walk the Colada de la Costa towards the port city of Algeciras.
The two natural parks near Tarifa also provide ample opportunity for horse riding, with many schools and hotels in and around the town offering classes and guides for all levels (try the Hurricane Hotel, which has its own stables). You can also ride along Tarifa’s stunning beaches or the beautiful cork forests they back onto.
Some 23 km (14.3 miles) north of Tarifa, near the coastal town of Bolonia, are some of southern Spain’s most important Roman ruins. Baeolo Claudia dates back to the end of the second century BC and lasted until the 6th century AD, surviving multiple demolitions and earthquakes along the way. Impressively conserved are the temple, baths, aqueduct and fish-salting facilities.
Because of its reputation as one of Europe’s top surfing destinations, Tarifa has a chilled, bohemian vibe that at once separates from other Andalusian cities (Cádiz is kind of the same, but still very different). This style characterises all aspects of the town, from the grungy beach bars to the shabby-chic charm of the old quarter.
Every September, as high season draws to a close, Tarifa celebrates its annual feria (this year it runs from September 2 – 9). Although much less famous than the annual blowouts in nearby cities such as Cádiz and Seville, this week-long extravaganza is every bit as fun, with locals abandoning everything for the eating, drinking, dancing and religious festivities. Join them for a party you won’t forget in a hurry.