Imagine a fairly flat island in the Atlantic, covered in dark volcanic soil, dotted with white villages and large patches of cactuses. This is Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands. Add giant mobile sculptures adorning roundabouts, no advertising billboards, and a sweet white wine called malvasia, and you’ll understand that Lanzarote is a pretty unique place.
Many tourists from Northern Europe visit Lanzarote in winter in search of sun and beaches, and never venture away from the southern resorts with their bars, English breakfasts, and total lack of Canarian atmosphere. For the culturally inquisitive visitor however, the North is much more interesting.
The island is so small that everything can be visited as a day trip from Arrecife, the low-key capital. You could also base yourself in one of the northern villages for a more rural feel. I stayed in Guatiza for three nights in this cool AirBnB studio, and in Arrecife for four nights.
The capital itself can be quite pleasant for a day or two, especially if it’s sunny and you hang out near the sea. A long waterside promenade, a lagoon (Charco de San Ginés) lined with bars and restaurants with terraces, a marina with an upscale feel, and a couple of old castles turned into museums should keep you occupied.
Other than a few shopping streets near the lagoon, the backstreets of the town are not really attractive. Because they’re so quiet at night, and rather dark, they can feel a bit iffy to the first-time visitor. I was reassured that this town of 57000 is perfectly safe though.
Attractions of North Lanzarote
Here are some suggestions of villages and attractions to visit in the northern half of the island in order of increasing distance from Arrecife:
Fundación César Manrique (Tahiche)
You can’t visit Lanzarote without hearing about César Manrique, the island’s most famous native son. Originally a contemporary painter, Manrique moved back to this homeland in the mid 1960s and successfully lobbied to prevent the unchecked urban development of the island for tourism. This included keeping traditional architecture, limiting the height of buildings, banning advertisement billboards, and protecting the environment.
The César Manrique Foundation was set up in his former house which includes some of his art work, a swimming pool, a garden, and furnished underground rooms built in existing air bubbles left by lava flow!
Admission is somewhat pricey at 8 Euros, but your ticket gives you a discount at Casa Museo César Manrique in Haría, the other Manrique house. (A frequent visitor told me that this is the better of the two though.)
Lagomar is a whimsical site that bears the mark of César Manrique, who designed it in collaboration with local architect Jesús Soto. An urban legend recounts that Omar Sharif bought the house and then proceeded to lose it to a developer in a game of bridge. Whether this is true or not, the site is worth the 15-minute walk from the bus stop in the sleepy village of Nazaret.
Less known than the other Manrique projects, this site showcases nook and crannies built into the volcanic rock, cave rooms, a pool, a restaurant, a wine bar, and of course the “Omar Sharif house” where an audio recording in three languages recounts the story.
The admission to Lagomar is 6 Euros, but if you’re dining or drinking, you shouldn’t need to pay admission. Like everywhere in Spain, the restaurant and bar are not open all day, so check hours if you want to eat or drink here.
As one of the bigger villages, with 1800 inhabitants, Teguise has a nice vibe and can get quite busy around lunch time, even in winter. It served as the island capital until 1852.
There are a few museums here, including the Pirate Museum in the old castle on the hill, which you’ll have to hike up if you don’t have a car. However, the best thing to do (unless you’re really into museums) is to just wander around the cobblestone pedestrian streets, hemmed by low-rise whitewashed buildings. The central plaza, Plaza de la Constitución, is also the nicest I saw on Lanzarote, surrounded by the church, a fountain, benches, and several sculptures.
I recommend having a coffee and croissant (both excellent) at Ven Páca, and lunch at Cantina, just down the street from the tourist office and Timple Museum.
Unless you like touristy markets with burger stalls and human statues, you may want to avoid visiting on Sunday.
Jardín de Cactus (Guatiza)
Part botanical garden and part work of art, this is another one of César Manrique’s projects. Featuring 1500 varieties of cactus from all over the world, the Cactus Garden occupies a sunken outdoor space that used to be a quarry. A windmill, which you can see as you’re driving by, marks the spot and affords views over the entire garden and surrounding countryside.
Even though I have seen my share of cactuses, some of these specimens were impressive by either their size or their odd shape. Stone paths, rock sculptures and a café complete the site. Admission is 5.5 Euros and buses #7 stops right at the entrance.
(Tip: if you’re in Guatiza for lunch, check out La Tasca de Lita for good pizza, pasta, and salads, and friendly service.)
Arrieta is a small seaside village of white houses with green or blue trim. The restaurants that line the shore offer freshly caught seafood. There is also a beach which could be decent in warm weather, but was cold, empty, and windswept when I visited in January.
Calle La Garita houses several seafood restaurants within a few blocks. I had fresh fish and papas arrugadas (wrinkly boiled potatoes with salt and dipping sauces) at El Pasito while sitting on their small terrace with open views of the sea. With the sun shining, it was glorious.
At 270 metres altitude, Haría is a few degrees cooler than most of this flat island. Another characteristic is the large quantity of palm trees that grace the town. Along with the cubic white buildings, they make Haría look like something out of North Africa.
Most people come here on Saturday morning for the handicraft market which also includes a few food stalls (sweets mostly). This is also where you will find the Casa Museo César Manrique, the artist’s last home, preserved as it was the day of his death in 1992. Admission is a stiff 10 Euros, but if you plan to visit the César Manrique Foundation in Tahiche as well, keep your ticket to get a discount on the latter.
If you don’t want to spend money but just enjoy the fresh air with views, follow Calle de la Cruz eastbound towards the edge of town, and take the street on the right at the junction. The road goes up until you catch a view of the village of Máguez in the distance below some low hills.
Jameos del Agua and Cueva de los Verdes
These are probably the two most popular attractions on Lanzarote, built at the site of an ancient lava flow into the ocean. Bus #9 stops at Jameos de Algua and from there it’s a one-kilometre walk to Cueva de los Verdes. (Watch out as the road is not designed for pedestrians and has barely any shoulder.)
Jameos del Agua was built by César Manrique around a volcanic cavern filled with sea water which contains a rare species of tiny white crabs. The site also includes a turquoise pool, a restaurant, a coffee bar, and a concert hall. The pool and the way of using the natural rock topology and recesses to build features such as seats and bars is typically Manrique!
Cueva de los Verdes runs along one kilometre of a 5000 years old lava tube and contains two chambers on top of each other. The caves are lit and guided tours in English take place every 30 minutes or so. There is also a concert hall. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit those caves due to a bus scheduling issue.
Admission to each of the sites is 9 Euros. As a side note, if you’re planning to visit three attractions or more on Lanzarote, you may want to buy one of the combination tickets offered at participating locations. It will save you a few Euros.
How to get around
Of course, the best is to rent a car and explore at your leisure. Traffic was rather light when I was there in January.
However if, like me, you’re not a confident driver, there are buses connecting Arrecife to most villages, as well as some of the villages to each other. Buses are called “guaguas” (pronounced “wawas”) in the Canaries! You can get a printed schedule at the Arrecife bus station (Estacion de Guaguas), or online. Each bus stop also has a panel showing the schedule for that particular stop.
Unfortunately, buses don’t come around very often (every two hours or less in most cases) so you have to time your travels very carefully. Given this and the attractions’ limited opening hours, don’t plan on visiting more than two places on a given day. Buses are especially scarce on week-ends.
Buses #22 and #23 also connect the airport with Arrecife. Some of the most useful bus lines for the northern villages are #7 and #9.
The fare varies with the distance. From Arrecife to all the places listed above, it ranges from 1.40 Euros to 3.15 Euros. The Intercity Bus Lanzarote website gives you the exact fare when you enter your origin and destination.
If you are going to be using the bus regularly for at least 4-5 days, it may be worth buying a Bono Bus Card at the Arrecife Bus Station. The card costs 2 Euros and saves you 10% off the fares, so you would need to spend at least 20 Euros to make it pay for itself. Drivers will give change, but not on bills larger than 10 Euros.
Volcanoes or wine anyone?
There is much more to Lanzarote of course. At the northern tip of Lanzarote are locations I didn’t have time to visit, such as the Mirador del Rio (another César Manrique project), the village of Órzola, and Isla Graciosa.
If it’s volcanoes you’re after, check out my post about walking among volcanoes on Lanzarote.
There is also a wine region called La Geria, but touring the wineries requires a car, unless you sign up for a tour, such as the one offered by Eco-Insider. You can still taste the local malvasia wine (fruity white wine) in most restaurants however.
As you can see, I spent a busy week on Lanzarote without hitting a single beach or resort. In mid-January, I know I would have found the water of the Atlantic too cold to swim anyway!