Read on for our pick of the top experiences in Tarifa’s beautiful old town, from eating in its best tapas bars to admiring its most notable buildings.
To make a grand entrance into Tarifa’s oldest quarter, stroll in through the chunky Puerta de Jerez. The only one of four medieval gateways remaining (some say it was built in the 9th century, others in the 13th), it once opened onto the road to Jerez de la Frontera, a beautiful city 110 km (68 miles) to the north. The plaque on top remembers the date in 1292 when Tarifa was taken from the Moors by King Sancho IV (a statue of whom is found outside the castle walls).
The best way to explore Tarifa’s maze-like old quarter is to put away all your navigational equipment (smart phones, maps, GPS etc) and get lost. Wandering its cobbled lanes as they weave between whitewashed walls is a pleasure in itself; but exploring like this will also enable you to discover the funky cafés and tapas bars that give Tarifa its bohemian ambience. There are also several abandoned buildings whose beauty has only been enhanced by neglect and decay.
Eventually, your wandering will take you to the old town’s main square. It has two official names: Plaza Santa Maria, after the church on one side; and Plaza Alfonso XII, after the 19th-century Spanish king. But the locals refer to it with yet another appellation – Plaza de la Ranita (Little Frog Square). A close inspection of the fountain at its centre will reveal why. The square’s most striking building is the Colegio Cervantes, built in a neo-Mudejar style in the early 20th century.
Often referred to as the “soul” of the old town, cosy tapas bar El Lola is one of the best places to eat and drink in Tarifa. The intimate interior and spacious terrace are always packed with locals (a good sign in itself), so blend in amongst them and soak up the lively ambience. Lola’s star dishes are the langoustine salad and huevos rotos con bacalao (fried – literally “broken” – eggs with chunks of cod), but don’t leave without trying one of the funky tuna tapas, either.
The 10th century Castillo de Guzmán El Bueno is Tarifa’s key architectural attraction. It was built to defend the town from invaders and successfully did so until 1292, when the Moors were kicked out by a marauding Christian army. The castle takes its name from Alfonso Perez el Guzmán, who fought off an attempted Moorish siege in 1294; legend has it that when the Moors threatened to kill the soldier’s kidnapped son unless he surrendered, Guzmán offered them his own knife for the task.
The Iglesia San Mateo Apóstol is Tarifa’s principal church and is found on the eastern edge of the old town. It was built at the beginning of the 16th century, on a site previously occupied by the town’s mosque, but the striking Baroque exterior was only added in the late 1770s. Among the treasures awaiting visitors inside are a tombstone from the town’s Visigothic (pre-Moorish) era and cedarwood sculptures by a master 17th century sculptor nicknamed “The God of Wood”.
You haven’t really “done” Tarifa until you’ve experienced the old town’s nightlife. Owing to the town’s status as a surfer’s mecca, this area is packed with trendy cocktail bars and clubs that stay open until sunrise, giving you plenty of choice on a night out. Bar El Francés is a popular spot for tapas (it’s packed from about 9pm), from where people move onto slick copa joints like Surf Bar Tomatito and Taco Way. After that, dance at Mombassa until it’s time for breakfast on the beach.