I wasn’t entirely sure where the Canary Islands were, much less the many things to do in Gran Canaria, one of the main islands in the Canary Islands. The island of Gran Canaria was certainly a surprise. Here is a brief primer for the uninitiated, like I was.
Canary Islands Facts
The Canary Islands are a part of Spain and in the European Union. These islands are composed of two Spanish provinces Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
As a part of Spain, the currency is the Euro.
The weather in the Canary Islands is pleasant year round with an average temperature of mid 70s F (21 C) depending on what island you are visiting. It is hotter in the summer months of July and August. The Canary Islands are generally believed to have the most consistently pleasant year-round weather on earth.
The culture is entirely Spanish. That means the food is pretty much spectacular with awesome tapas bars and Michelin star restaurants in the bigger islands.
The islands boast spectacular beaches, varied topography, vibrant nightlife, world-class hiking, arts and culture.
But here is the clincher, guys; value-added tax (VAT) in Spain is an average of 20% but in the Canary Islands it is only 5%! For products and services considered “essential” like communications, there is no VAT at all. This makes the Canary Islands an economical and highly desirable vacation destination.
Where did the name Canary Islands come from? Let’s dispel one of the misconceptions about the Canary Islands. There are no canaries there.
There are two schools of thought as to where the name “Canary Islands” came from. The first legend is that when the Spaniards first landed there around 1483, they found huge dogs and named the island “canine island” which eventually morphed into Canary Islands. There are dog statues in the main square in honor of this legend.
Another theory tells us that the original inhabitants of the islands simply called themselves “canario,” so the Spaniards named the land the Isla de Canarios or Canary Islands–canario means canary in Spanish.
Officially, or at least on the internet, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands were called the Guanches, confirmed as a North African group genetically most similar to the African Berber people of today. This makes sense as the coast of Africa, populated by modern-day Berbers, is just a couple of hours from the Canaries.
So, I guess that the Canary Islands, like Spain and the rest of the world is a mixture of all our peoples, a beautiful mosaic.
Things to Do in Gran Canaria
Explore Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
Your first stop in Gran Canaria should be the capital city, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This is a good place to begin immersing yourself in the culture and getting information on the best things to do in Gran Canaria.
Do yourself a favor and book a local tour at the tourist information center on Plaza Mayor. You will save time and get a great overview of the area’s history and layout.
Must-Visit Sights Include:
Santa Ana Cathedral – Completed in 1570 this Gothic masterpiece and accompanying museum is a must. The unique interior is reminiscent of palm trees, the symbol of the island. Make sure to climb to the towers for breathtaking views of the city and the main square or Plaza Mayor.
Archeological Museo Canario – This comprehensive museum displays the area’s history from prehistoric times including data on the original inhabitants.
Plaza Cairasco – This beautiful square is home to the historical Hotel Madrid and the spectacular Ilustre Gabinete Literario, once a theater and now a literary and cultural center, is the most beautiful building in Gran Canaria both inside and out. Make sure to book the very reasonably priced tour and prepare to be amazed at the spacious and opulent salons…especially the gold room!
Stroll the Historic Center of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria with its narrow alleys and picturesque squares. Find a little tapas bar and have a late lunch or a coffee.
Casa de Colon – A colonial-style mansion, formerly the governor’s home, once visited by Columbus. Today the building houses a museum dedicated to all things Columbus. There are several salons each dedicated to a different aspect of the Columbus voyages. Highlights include a model of the Spanish galleons that sailed to the Americas and a replica of Columbus’ ship cabin. A visit to the Casa de Colon is one of the most interesting things to do in Gran Canaria.
There is a digital presentation of all four of Columbus’ voyages where you can follow the ships to all their destinations.
Of special interest to Hispanic-Americans is salon number 4 that displays the relationship between Canarias and the Americas. This room houses records of where the ships landed in the Americas and the subsequent emigration to these destinations including Cuba, Venezuela, Lousiana, Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico. Here you’ll see charts showing yearly emigrations records per settlement (P=people, F=families).
If you are interested in this topic you will find delightfully revealing tidbits of information like what cities were founded by Canarians like San Antonio, Texas, San Augustine, Florida and Matanzas, Cuba. Salon number 4 was under renovation when I was there but if you ask nicely they let you in with an employee.
Also of interest is the subterranean part of the building which houses prehistoric artifacts. You get a sense of the amazing history this house has seen throughout the centuries.
Once you get your culture fix in the capital city, head south for some fun-in-the-sun things to do in Gran Canaria. The southern coast is famous for its beautiful beaches. Here are a few that are close enough to each other that they can be visited in one or two days.
The best things to do in the beach areas of Gran Canaria include:
Climb the Maspalomas Dunes
Maspalomas is a resort area on the southern part of the island. The area is full of cute rental units, both cottages and condos. Local people also live in the area giving Maspalomas a neighborhoody feel other resort areas lack.
The real claim to fame in Maspalomas is the famous sand dunes that stretch out for miles. People have picnics on the dunes and ride all-terrain vehicles. It is an otherworldly experience reminiscent of visiting a real dessert.
Maspalomas is also the place where Columbus kicked off his last leg of the journey to the Americas on his final voyage. A plaque marks the spot.
Watch the Sunset in Meloneras
Meloneras Beach is the more upmarket section of the southern part of Gran Canarias. The condos are higher-end and the stores on the boardwalk remind one of a Rodeo-Drive-on-the-beach.
People come to Meloneras to experience the spas, stroll the boardwalk and dine at the surprisingly affordable restaurants.
One can’t miss activity is to watch the sunset over the horizon creating colors no man-made pallet ever imagined.
Party at Playa del Ingles Yumbo Center
This place is wild. It is a huge entertainment complex consisting of over 200 bars, restaurants, and shops on four stories in an open-air environment. It’s the place to go for an evening’s entertainment open late into the night.
Many establishments have their own drag or floor shows and piano and karaoke bars. There are so many entertainment options to choose from, there is something for everybody. We stopped at a club called Sparkles and saw a fun comedy review. Drinks were reasonable, service was prompt and attentive and the atmosphere was fun and inviting. You are encouraged to join in the revelry so don’t be shy.
Relax at Playa de Amadores
This beautiful beach is great for relaxing. There is a boardwalk with local restaurants serving drinks and traditional Spanish fare like octopus and paella.
Try Watersports at Puerto Rico Beach
Choose from paddleboard, kayaking, jet skiing, or just chill on the beach.
Take the Ferry to Puerto Mogan
Island hopping via the many ferries in the area is a great way to experience the islands. We took a half-hour ferry ride from Puerto Rico beach to the port of Mogan. It’s a beautiful ride with interesting scenery along the way.
Mogan is a relatively new community created to offer tourists accommodation alternatives to the standard hotel-condo. The town sits by the port, designed like a small Spanish fishing village with white-washed homes dripping bougainvillea in every hue. Little cafes, bars, and shops add to the picturesque ambiance.
The ferry costs 10 Euros round-trip and runs every hour until just before dusk.
Visiting the interior of the island is a delightful surprise. You expect to find sleepy villages and old men with berets walking their dogs on the town square. There’s plenty of that, but you don’t expect to find imposing Gothic cathedrals, elegant botanical gardens and liquor factories with world-wide markets.
Each little town has its own delight worth visiting. Here are some examples of interesting towns in Gran Canarias and some unique things to do in them.
This town in north-central Gran Canarias is full of surprising sights.
The most impressive of Arucas’s attractions is its Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. It’s actually a church but it is so big and impressive, it is referred to as a cathedral.
This beautiful, graceful Gothic building was completed in 1977 after almost 70 years of construction. The church’s spires can be seen from almost every spot in town.
Just a few blocks from the cathedral is Arucas’s botanical gardens, a collection of plants from various parts of the world presented in a beautifully landscaped area surrounded by sculptures.
Sample the Local Rum
Destilerias Arehucas is the local rum factory of Gran Canaria located in the town of Arucas. The distillery gives tours explaining the history of rum and the production process from the sugar cane harvest to the aging in the oak barrels. The heavy sweetish aroma of the rum in the cellars permeates the distillery.
Tours are given in many European languages. At 5 Euros per person, it is an excellent way to spend an hour or more learning something new in a beautiful facility. Did you know that all rum is clear? It is the barrels that give it it’s brown color.
The specialty of the house is a honey rum. At the end of the tour, the facility offers a self-serve tasting of about 20 different types or brands of rum. Can you imagine, self-serve! Despite people behaving properly by taking small samples, by the end of the tour one can be a bit tipsy. Suddenly total strangers on the tour who don’t even speak your language become your best friends taking each other’s photos while you sample rum. Once you return home you’ll look at your photos and ask…who ARE these people?
It’s a very interesting, fun tour.
See the Firgas Fountain
About twenty minutes from Arucas on a winding mountain road is the beautiful town of Firgas. Firgas is your typical Spanish mountain town with the local church nestled on a mountain top overlooking a breathtaking view of the countryside.
Little cafes, some with just one table, dot the narrow streets. Inside the counter displays overflow with home-made pastries that taste just as good as they look.
In the center of town is an unusual ceramic fountain celebrating the Canary Islands. The fountain is unusual because, as the town is high on a mountaintop, the water is pumped to its highest level then allowed to flow downward creating a cascade of rushing water. The effect is delightful.
Firgas is the perfect place to relax with a coffee, gooey pastry and watch the world go by with the tinkling fountain in the background. It’s one of those travel moments that are priceless.
Visit the Guayadeque Ravine
The area of Guayadaque is a valley on the east side of Gran Canaria. It is famous for the lush landscape so different from the rest of the island that it looks almost prehistoric. The valley is thick with almost 100 different species of vegetation including palm trees.
The valley is also home to the Canarian lizard, one of the world’s largest lizards, native to the area, that can grow to almost 3 feet. It is not unusual to see the lizards feeding within a few feet of the road.
The Guayadaque Ravine has always been dotted with caves some of which have been turned into restaurants serving traditional Spanish food. Both locals and tourists go to the Ravine for meals in the unique environment of the caves. The restaurants are usually packed so be prepared to wait for a table.
If you’re looking for an unusual vacation destination with history, culture, beach, great food and so much more, think of the many things to do in Gran Canaria and book your trip. You won’t be disappointed.
Make sure to check out one of these handy reference books before you go.
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