Alicante (known as "Alacant" in Valenciano) is the sparkling jewel of Spain’s Costa Blanc, thanks to the blinding white sand of its beaches (for which the area is named); the fireworks of the most important festival, San Juan; the crystalline waters; and the thriving nightlife. Inhabited for more than 7,000 years, Alicante has been under the rule of the Phoenicians, Carthaginian, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and finally, the Christians, all of whom battled over this strategically-placed settlement. Today, Alicante offers a great many historical sites and museums to teach you all about the ups and downs of the city’s long history.
Pack your glad rags, walking shoes, and sunhat and you are ready to explore Alicante by day and night.
Climb to the Castle of Santa Barbara
Alicante’s skyline is dominated by the massive fortress of Santa Barbara, which sits atop Mount Benacantil. The compound is divided into three levels, each dating from a different period. Although excavations have shown that there was a fortress here for centuries, the oldest and highest part, La Toreta, dates from the Islamic occupation during the Middle Ages. Below lies the second level called Balnarte de los Ingleses, dating from the 11th to 13th century, followed by the newest part, Revellin de Bon Repos, which was built during the 18th century.
The name derives from the date of the conquest of the city from the Arabs on Dec. 4, 1248, which happened to be the name day of Saint Barbara. A statue of her still sits in a niche on the second level. Apart from walking around the various ramparts, involving steep inclines and many steps, there are several exhibitions within the castle itself, like a dungeon and torture chamber, the documentation of the discovery of a massive gold treasure in a nearby field or an interactive exhibit that explains the history for children.
Reserve several hours for a visit. There are three ways to access the castle: the most trying and only for those who are reasonably fit is via paths and stairs from various parts in the Old Town, all clearly indicated, while the easiest is via an elevator. Cross Avd. De Jovellanos opposite Postiguet Beach, walk through a short tunnel and take the lift. You can also drive up to the 2nd level and walk the rest.
Going downhill is obviously easier, so you might want to opt for a stroll through the La Ereta Park which covers the flank of the hill. Bring water and a sunhat. There is no shade and only a refreshment kiosk and café near the niche of Santa Barbara which, due to the multitude of visitors can be very crowded.
Get Lost in Alicante's Old Town
Sprawled beneath the castle is a warren of small cobblestoned streets and alleys, interspersed with small squares full of trees and flowers, which forms Alicante’s Old Town. Be prepared for many stairs and rather steeps climbs, but you are rewarded with a view of pretty whitewashed houses, the doors and shutters of which are painted in every imaginable shade of green and blue. You’ll also find small shops to buy maybe a much needed painted fan, as well as cafes and restaurants to rest your feet and have a drink or tapas, the ever-present Spanish snack.
You can’t really get lost—just head down and you’ll eventually end up at the next beautiful (and luckily, totally level!) site.
Stroll Along the Esplanada de España
This elegant promenade begins at the central bus station and ends at the Plaza Puerta del Mar. Look down because that’s where the main attraction of this promenade is: 6.5 million tiny blue, grey, and white marble tiles have been laid in a wave pattern. The promenade runs parallel to the shore and port and leads past some of the most elegant art deco buildings of the city. Benches allow you to rest in the shade of palm trees which line the entire lengths. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants too and this is the street where the locals come to see and be seen. On weekends, market stalls are erected along the promenade, selling clothes and trinkets rather than fruit or vegetables.
Be Amazed by the Museum of Fugueres
The festival of San Juan in June is the most important event on Alicante’s calendar. For a week the city erupts in festivities, culminating in fireworks, parades of massive papier-mache figures called ninots, and bonfires. A year of work by special artists goes into the creation of the ninots, and some are "pardoned" from the bonfire and kept in this small museum off Ramblas Mendez Nuñez. You have to look closely to find the entrance, but once inside, you'll be amazed. The history is explained and many photographs showcase the lavish local costumes, rich in lace and gold embroidery. If you can’t make it for the festival itself, this is a much less noisy and crowded way of experiencing San Juan.
Shop at the Mercado Central
Whether you self cater or not, Spain’s covered markets are a shrine to food and always worth a visit. The same is true for the Central Market of Alicante at the upper end of Calle Alfonso el Sabio. If you are a fan of fish and seafood, you won’t know where to look first. The stalls are overflowing with the goods of the sea. The same is true for fruit and vegetables and some enticing sweets and of course, the local wines. You may want to buy a bottle of wine or some cured ham to nibble along the way. Even the building itself, with its cupola and modernist façade, is a delight.
Nibble on Montaditos
As you can see, a lot of walking is involved while exploring Alicante, which of course, makes one hungry and thirsty. A good opportunity to sample some of Alicante’s specialties: montaditos. Whereas tapas are served on a selection of small plates, montaditos are much more elaborate. You can choose from a number of ingredients which are then piled atop on bite-sized slices of baguette, stuck together with a toothpick and devoured. The amount depends on your appetite. Accompanied by a draft beer, it’s a cheap way to restore your strength. On your way to the Fogueres Museum, you'll pass one of several 100 Montaditos in Alicante, which specializes in this treat.
Sunbathe on Postiguet Beach
Located on the Mediterranean, Alicante features several beaches, but the widest, whitest, and most urban is Postiguet Beach. It’s located at the foot of Mount Benacatil so you might plan a beach break and swim before you visit the castle or the Old Town. Not only is the sand exceptionally fine, but access to the water is also very gradual which makes it ideal and safe for kids. Parts of the beach are dedicated to sports, others feature sunbeds and plenty of cafes and restaurants are there for refreshments.
Stroll Through the Contemporary Art Museum
Throughout Alicante, several statues by Joan Miro adorn streets and squares. If you like modern art, you will want to visit this museum known as MACA, which started as the home to the private collection of local sculptor Eusebio Sempere in 1976. Meanwhile, there are over 800 works of art by Miró, Picasso, and other masters of 20th-century art on rotation, so every visit you are likely to see something else. A bonus: the museum is housed in Alicante’s oldest nonreligious building in the baroque style, an old grain storage building that dates back to 1687.
Relax Like a Local in El Palmeral Park
Nothing protects better from the summer heat than a palm grove. The Alcantinos know this very well and love to spend a morning or afternoon in El Palmeral Park. Outside Alicante, on the road to Elche, the vast palm grove faces the sea (which gives an additional cool breeze) and features an artificial lake and rivers which can be crossed by wooden bridges as well as playgrounds and other entertainment, very suitable to bring your kids too. If you have the time, you may want to continue on to Elche which is famous for its palm grove featuring more than 200,000 palm trees; it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Dance the Night Away in the Port of Alicante
Alicante is a very big and important port town and a stopping point for many cruise ships. Elegant private yachts are moored in the yacht port, which comes to life at night with clubs, live music, and even a casino. Along the waterfront, opposite the Hotel Melia, there is even a replica pirate ship that is also a restaurant and nightclub. At the end of the pier, you'll find the casino. Another favorite place to dance the night away is in the Old Town, known as the barrio. You can even go on a guided tour.
Learn About Alicante's History in the Archaeology Museum
If you like a modern approach to archaeology, a visit to MARQ is a must. Exhibits from prehistoric times to treasures found on the site of the former Roman city of Lutentum close by, to riveting examples of Islamic art and the Middle Ages, MARQ guides you through 7,000 years of history visually and interactively, which makes it also popular for kids. The museum, which opened in the present form in 2000, is housed in the former San Juan de Dios provincial hospital.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth at Turron Factory
Turron, which best translates as nougat, is a quintessential Spanish Christmas sweet. It comes in two forms, hard and soft, and is only produced in two places of Spain, one of which is the El Lobo factory in Jijona, around 10 miles north of Alicante. The main ingredients of turron are almonds, sugar, and egg white. (As the hills and valleys around Alicante are full of almond trees, it’s no wonder that the main production site is here.)
El Lobo is not only a factory but also a museum that documents how turron was made by hand in times gone by, where it originally comes from, and many more interesting details. Of course, you can also buy turron in its various forms. Don’t worry—it keeps many months so even if you buy in the summer it will be fine at Christmas. You can make your own way to Jijona but need to join a guided tour at El Lobo.
Sail Away to Isla Tabarca
Sailing to the pirate island of Tabarca is a fabulous day trip from Alicante. The crossing takes about an hour, but beware—the sea can be quite choppy. You spend the day on the island which has a very interesting landscape insofar as one half is nearly desert-like whereas the other is lush. Tabarca, a former pirate hidey-hole, features a seawall, bordered by a church and castle remains which can already be seen from the sea. The town is dotted with tiny whitewashed houses with colorful shutters, some squares, and a lonely lighthouse. The coast is rocky but there are two pebble beaches where you can rent a sun lounger if you want, as well as plenty of restaurants—most with a pirate theme—selling a local specialty, fish soup. If you are really interested in the history, an info center runs films and videos. The waters around the island are a maritime nature reserve and if you go with a glass-bottom boat, you can watch the fish below.
Light a Candle at the Basilica of Santa Maria
At least one church should be included in a list of best things to do and see in Alicante, so why not the city's oldest, the Basilica of Santa Maria. Like many churches in Spain, it was built on the site of the former largest mosque of Alicante after the Arabs were conquered in the 13th century and expelled from Spain. Originally constructed in the Gothic style, the church had to be rebuilt after a fire and now has a beautifully carved baroque façade and rococo decorations in the interior. The two stern square towers which flank the entrance seem to be identical, but they are not—the L-shaped on the right dates from the 14th century, whereas the tower on the left is from 1713. The church isn’t big but contains several beautiful works of art in its interior and is a pleasant place for a moment of rest, cool and contemplation.
Venture to Guadalest
If you have several days to spend in Alicante you should venture into the picturesque hinterland. About an hour drive from Alicante via Benidorm lies the tiny mountain village of Guadalest, on top of a valley between the Sierra d’Aixorta and the Sierra de Serella. Small it may be, but it’s amazing what you can see. First, there the ruins of the castle of San Jose with an intact separate bell tower perched on top of a rock. Next is the reservoir, which is formed by the river Guadalest and finally, no less than seven quirky museums—an amazing amount of art and culture for such a small village. Among them, you'll find a museum of pepper and salt cellars, a miniature museum, a dollhouse museum, a torture chamber museum, and an exhibition of modern art sculptures in a lovely garden. Climb up and down the narrow streets, admire the balconies overflowing with colorful flowers, and pop into tiny shops which offer really nice souvenirs like ceramic tiles.