Tenerife is the largest of the seven Canary Islands and also the most visited by tourists. With its stunning black and golden beaches, an active volcano, its unique ecological diversity (plants from all over the world can live and thrive in Tenerife’s multiple climate zones), and its charming cliffside towns, it’s no surprise that it’s the most popular island of the group. Those beautiful features, plus the myriad of things you can do in Tenerife, make this island a destination worthy of a spot on your bucket list.
The Canaries are located off the coast of Morocco, but the easiest way to reach Tenerife is usually a two-hour flight from Madrid. If you're headed to Spain, consider adding a visit to the island before or after exploring the mainland. Or if Tenerife is your main destination, tack on a few days in Madrid in Barcelona.
Use this list of things to do in Tenerife as a guide to plan your time there or to inspire a future island vacation.
Hit the Beaches
It’s probably no surprise that Tenerife is an ideal beach destination with beaches of both black and gold sand lining the island. To marvel at black sand, head to Playa Jardín on the north side of the island in Puerto de la Cruz. There are several bars and restaurants nearby, and on a clear day, you can get a view of the tip of the volcano. Popular golden sand beaches include Playa de las Americas (also popular for its nightlife scene) on the south side of the island, and Playa de las Teresitas in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. On most beaches, you can sprawl out on the sand or rent chairs for several hours for only a few euros.
Eat the Local Cuisine
You'll find traditional Spanish food on Tenerife, such as tortilla española (Spanish tortilla, an omelet with potatoes and onions) and paella (a rice dish usually loaded with seafood), but there are a few unique, local dishes you should try.
Papas arrugadas (literally meaning “wrinkled potatoes”) are small boiled and salted potatoes, usually served with red and green mojo sauces as either a side dish or alone as a tapa. And for dessert, order some churros. You’re likely familiar with the sweet treat, but these are made fresh, they’re not overly doused in cinnamon, and they’re served with a side of hot chocolate sauce for dipping.
Other foods that are typical and common in the Canary Islands are gofio (a type of flour made from wheat or corn that is used in a variety of dishes), papayas, bananas, and wine. Food and drink in Tenerife is typically inexpensive. For example, a good-sized, sit-down breakfast at a restaurant likely won't cost more than 5 to 10 euros, and a liter of good, local wine can cost as little as 10 euros.
Take a Drive
Tenerife boasts many scenic drives through its mountains and along its coastline. While there is public transportation and there are guided tour buses, renting your own car will allow you to explore all corners of the island on your own schedule.
Here are a few tips about the terrain before you hit the road. Roads can be very narrow and windy, especially up in the mountains, and there are not always strong guard rails. The roads are also very steep, which explains the several bruised and dented front bumpers you’ll see, caused by cars merging from a steep grade onto a level road, skimming the front of the car in the process. Because of the steep grades, also take it easy on the brakes when going downhill, or shift to a lower gear so that you don’t burn out your brakes.
That said, when you do get behind the wheel, consider some of the following places, a mixture of beaches, mountains, and historic towns, as destinations or stopping points for your drive.
Summit Mt. Teide
The highest point of elevation in Spain, Mount Teide is an active volcano that tops out at 12,198 feet. Plan at least half a day to visit Teide National Park, where you can ascend to the top of the volcano via cable car. The Mount Teide Cable Car is a five-minute ride that offers scenic views of the volcano and the surrounding national park, and it will take you up to about 11,500 feet. (You can also hike the whole way up if you’re physically prepared to do so, but beware the altitude increase.) If you want to reach the summit of Mount Teide, which is about 650 feet higher than where the cable car drops you off, you’ll need a permit to climb that last stretch. Those are available in limited supply, so you’ll need to apply for one several months in advance, even in the off seasons (March through May and October and November). However, you can typically get tickets for the cable car ride a few days in advance.
Once you get off the cable car, there are a couple brief trails around the top to provide different viewpoints. While a clear day will offer the best views, at 11,500 feet, you’re above the clouds, so you can still enjoy the view on an overcast day.
See the Dragon Tree
While this tree is found in other places around the world, such as the Azores and Morocco, the one located in the town of Icod de los Vinos in Tenerife (the “Drago Milenario”) is supposedly the oldest of its kind, estimated to be about 1,000 years old. It’s also noted for its size at 60 feet tall.
The tree is instantly recognizable because it’s unlike any other tree you’ve likely seen before — its base looks like several thick, intertwining tree roots that branch out into a broad, overarching canopy. When the bark or the leaves are cut, they produce a red-colored sap known as dragon’s blood, giving the tree its name.
Experience Local Life in Garachico
Located on the northern coast, this quaint little town is often not a go-to spot for tourists, so it’s retained more of an authentic culture. Spend at least a couple hours here grabbing a bite to eat and walking around the town. You can learn more about the town’s history by going to the Convento de San Francisco, a former convent that’s now a museum. Then, spend some time walking around the volcanic coves, natural pools that were formed from lava after a volcanic eruption. If you’re up for a brief hike, head back into town, walk through the Plaza de Libertad, and look for a pathway heading up a hill — this path leads up to an overlook where you can get great views of the town’s colorful buildings and the coastline.
Explore the Historic Town of La Orotava
La Orotava is one of the oldest towns in Tenerife, and it was once the home of some of the island’s wealthiest residents, which is evident from the beautiful architecture and mansions. One example is the famous Casa de los Balcones (house of the balconies), which as its name implies, is a mansion with gorgeous balconies overlooking the cobblestone streets below. Another scenic site to visit in the town is the Jardines del Marquesado de la Quinta Roja, an area of walkways through lush, beautiful gardens. There’s also a botanic garden where you can see a Dragon Tree.
Escape to the Mountain Village of Masca
Tenerife offers so much natural beauty, but the town of Masca on the west side of the island might be the most incredible. The drive to get there is half the reason to go — winding up through the narrow mountain pass offers amazing views, and you’ll probably see other tourists pulling over on the few shoulders available to stop and take some photos.
Once you get to Masca, the views don’t stop. From the souvenir shop and restaurant perched on the side of the mountain, you can stop and enjoy a drink while taking in the gorgeous scenery. There are also a few trails to walk further down into the village and get a little closer to some of the unique vegetation in the area.
Find Adventure in Los Cristianos
If you head to this town on the southern side of Tenerife, you’ll probably notice immediately that the climate here is drier and more desert-like than the lush, tropical north side of the island. The warmer temps and sunnier days make this destination popular for water sports and activities. Along Playa de los Cristianos, you’ll find several companies and opportunities to go scuba diving, snorkeling, dolphin and whale watching, fishing, and more. Head to the nearby El Médano for windsurfing.