Reasons Why You Should Visit Gran Canaria, Canary Islands

Las Palmas, the largest city in the Canary Islands, is an energetic and exciting place
Las Palmas, the largest city in the Canary Islands, is an energetic and exciting place | © Ernesto Santana Vega / EyeEm

The third-largest of the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria is an eclectic mini-continent. A territory of Spain off the coast of Africa, its landscape transforms from desert and mountains to beaches and forest.

The outdated image of Gran Canaria as little more than a fly-and-flop sun-trap is thankfully long gone, as the wider world has now realised that the island’s cultural happenings are as varied as its wild, volcanic terrain. Adventure your way through deep forests and up mountains to be rewarded with views through the clouds. Feast on produce flavoured by the landscape, bar-hop your way to a buzzing club and soak up experimental art at slick gallery spaces, all while smiling to yourself about the glorious weather. Here’s our pick of Gran Canaria’s very best activities.

It’s (almost) always beach weather

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a view of guigui wild beach in Gran Canaria
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Let’s not pretend that sunshine doesn’t make everything better. And with 2,800 hours of it each year, Gran Canaria seems destined to warm your troubles away. But what to do with all that deliciously sunny time on your hands? Hit the beach, of course. There are numerous sandy stretches to choose from, such as the perennially popular Puerto Rico if you want a glossy brochure-style beach and plenty of life. For the polar opposite, try Güigüí on the west coast. It’s something of an adventure to get there – a two hour-ish trek from the town of Tasartico, over hefty peaks and rocky terrain – but worth it once you realise you’ve got this untamed and dramatic spot, and its rugged ravines, all to yourself.

The capital Las Palmas is cosmopolitan and lively

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Colourful houses in Las Palmas Gran Canaria Spain
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As you’d expect from the Canary Islands’ largest city, Las Palmas is an energetic and exciting place. Don’t be tempted to miss the beach just because you’re in the urban sprawl, as the handsome Playa de Las Canteras – stretching out over 2mi (3km) – is one of the finest city beaches around. But don’t get too hung up on beach life, or you’ll miss Las Palmas’s other best bits. For an aesthetic and architectural fix, wander down cobbled streets and past brightly coloured, colonial-style houses in Vegueta, the Old Town, before unashamedly losing yourself in a blur of shopping, snacking and sipping around the city’s bars, restaurants and cafes. Come nightfall, Las Palmas has a thriving nightlife scene. The Paper Club is a vibey spot, offering late live music from ’80s party jams to blues and jazz. Or you can pump up the volume at sleek and sexy Bravia, complete with DJ sets, industrial decor and fancy cocktails.

You can pretend you’re in the Sahara at the Maspalomas dunes

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Dunes of Maspalomas Nature Reserve, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, Atlantic, Europe
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These 400ha (990 acres) of sand dunes are quite a sight, especially as they’re on the edge of one of Gran Canaria’s busier and built-up areas, Maspalomas. The rippled sands and perfect peaks really do make you feel you’re trawling through the Sahara, though you’ll have to explore this desert oasis through a marked route, rightly created to preserve the delicate ecosystem. However, certain sections are still allowed to host short camel riding trips, if you want an elevated, albeit bumpier, view of the dunes.

Gran Canaria has a unique cuisine

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Padron Peppers Served as Tapas, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, Atlantic Ocean, Europe
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Canarian cuisine is a varied affair, influenced by Latin America and Africa alongside traditional Spanish classics and Mediterranean flavours. Unsurprisingly for an island, seafood features heavily in many specialities (such as sancocho canario: boiled and salted fish with sweet potatoes), but two of its most ubiquitous offerings are made using just a few basic vegetables and plants. Papas arrugadas (“wrinkled potatoes” – local potatoes traditionally boiled in seawater, with a unique flavour from the volcanic soil and climate) are everywhere and often topped with another other signature flavour, mojo: a spicy sauce with garlic, olive oil, cumin, pepper and vinegar. Try both of these at Abrasa, which specialises in grilled Canarian produce and has options for everyone from vegans to carnivores. Try the Canarian padrón peppers for a local take on a Spanish favourite.

You’ll find all different landscapes here

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Pico de Las Nieves, 1949m, highest point in Gran Canaria, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, Atlantic, Europe
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Around 43% of Gran Canaria has been designated a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco, which should give you an idea of how ecologically diverse the island is, spanning mountains, canyons, craters, beaches and woodland. It’s all here and ready to be explored, hence Gran Canaria’s status as a hiking and biking haven. Whether on foot or in the saddle, make sure your exploratory quests lead you to Pico de las Nieves, the highest point on the island. At 1,949m (6,394ft) above sea level you’ll quite literally be in the clouds and able to see neighbouring Lanzarote and Tenerife on a clear day. If you’re cycling, smooth roads, hills aplenty and a shifting landscape will ensure you never get bored.

It has beautiful, whitewashed mountain villages

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White painted houses with wooden balconies, Tejada, Gran Canaria
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Greek islands don’t have a monopoly on ultra-photogenic whitewashed villages. Set high up in the centre of the island and surrounded by jagged cliffs, Tejeda is a quintessential, picturesque mountain village and offers a base for hiking out to the Roque Nublo, a huge monolith of volcanic rock towering above its surroundings. Tucked away within an area nicknamed Valley of the Thousand Palms (the name doesn’t lie), Fataga is another example of serene village life, despite being a short drive from one of the island’s major hubs, Maspalomas. Apart from a few restaurants and shops, there’s blissfully little to do in Fataga, allowing you to fully appreciate the setting and the fact you’re in the middle of a gargantuan ravine.

Gran Canaria is a watersports mecca

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View along beach of Playa del Ingles to the Maspalomas sand dunes
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Fulfilling your watersporting dreams isn’t hard on Gran Canaria. Jet-skiing, windsurfing, sailing and parasailing are readily available at many beaches – particularly on the south of the island, where bigger, more popular beaches like Playa del Inglés and Puerto Rico are found. El Cabrón, on the east of the island, is a renowned scuba site. But if you’re after a real adventure in the form of a shipwreck dive, head to Puerto de Mogán, where you can easily arrange to sail out and dive down to the spooky remains of the Cermona II.

You can experience ancient life at the Artenara cave dwellings

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Landscape of Artenara village of Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain.
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Standing at 1,270m (4,167ft) above sea level, Artenara is the highest village in Gran Canaria. But it offers far more than just high-altitude thrills on the winding road that leads you there. The village is known for its cave homes, carved into the rock face by Berber communities who are thought to have occupied the site for over 1,000 years before the Spanish. The best way to understand the caves is through the Museum of Cave Houses, which demonstrates how the caves were set up to help with different parts of everyday life over the centuries. One of them still functions as a church (La Ermita de la Cuevita). Afterwards, enjoy the views from your hilltop position or drive down to the pine forest in nearby Tamadaba Natural Park.

The wildlife is unique to the island

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Gran Canaria giant lizard / Gallotia stehlini
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An island as biodiverse as Gran Canaria has plenty of fauna to match all that exotic flora. The Gran Canaria Giant Lizard, measuring up to 80cm (31 inches), roams the island freely, but other visitors like loggerhead turtles are far harder to see, given their occasional timetable. Dolphins and whales, however, aren’t quite as shy and can be spotted on boat tours at most times of year. Up in the air or the trees, keep an eye out for woodpeckers or even the striking blue stripes of the Abyssinian roller.

You can learn the island’s history in Gran Canaria’s museums

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El Museo Canario, Canarian Museum in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain
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It’s no crime to step out of the sun and into a museum on Gran Canaria, especially considering the range of topics you can delve into. Learning the historical context of your locale is always a good place to start, which you can do at Cueva Pintada Museum’s archaeological remains and the ethnographic artefacts of the Canarian Museum. Modern culture is covered at the Néstor Álamo Museum, which explores the life and work of the respected Spanish composer, and the Atlantic Center of Modern Arts, featuring anything from early 20th-century local sculpture to contemporary photo essays from Latin American artists.
These recommendations were updated on August 31, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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