Alicante: The Most Underrated Spot in Spain?
It stretches out on a golden-sand beach next to the inviting shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s unassuming, unhyped, and so not bothered with the tourists. It dances in the streets well past midnight and ambles down a sun-drenched explanada early in the mornings. It’s almost always overshadowed by it’s heavy-hitting siblings in the north, but it doesn’t really care about that much. It’s Alicante, and it’s the coolest little city you’ve never heard of.
As I jetted down the East Coast of Spain on a Renfe train, I felt a little nervous. I hadn’t been to Alicante since I was a Sophomore in college, studying abroad in nearby Elche. Would it be the way I remembered? My heart held so many emotions from this place, and I feared that it’s current reality would dampen those golden-hued memories. Would the city be different? I was certainly different than the 19-year-old who last danced in it’s streets, drank sangria, and thought I had all the answers.
I got off the train, but the station looked a little different than I remembered. Cleaner. The shops were all new. I missed the tiny tug at the thinnest of heartstrings as I looked around at the golden afternoon light bathing the stone floor.
I walked out of the station, fiddling with the GPS on my phone. Where was the Airbnb we had booked? The walking directions finally populated, and I went to the intersection and pressed the button to cross. Zing! A bigger heartstring pulled at me. I remembered sitting on these stone steps just behind me with my college friends, waiting to get on the train to Elche.
I crossed the intersection and made my way down Avenida de la Estacion. Zing! Zing! Zing! Memories started flowing in thick and fast as I passed street signs, restaurants, and shops. That doner kebab place was where we would always stop after the nightclubs. I walked past that fountain dozens of times with my now-dear friends, our friendship still new and green (like us). The iconic Castillo de Santa Barbara loomed above me, but I was lost in the details of the city. Walking down that street on a lazy Spanish afternoon, all the people I’ve been since my feet last touched that pavement ten years before ran through my veins. The dramas, the joys, the crushing losses and soaring successes that fit into the years between 20 and 30 flowed through me in a rush. I bit my lip to try to stay the surge of nostalgic tears, but it was no use.
Alicante had remembered me, and it was welcoming me home.
Fast Facts: Alicante
If you’re not from Europe, you’ve probably never heard of Alicante. It sits a couple of hours south of Valencia on the southeastern coast of Spain in Costa Blanca. It’s a popular destination for tourists from the UK, but most Americans like to target tourism darlings like Barcelona, Sevilla, and Madrid. And they’re all wonderful cities, but none of them really roll all the best of Spain into one place the way Alicante does.
Alicante is also easy to access, with it’s own international airport and great train connections from all points in Spain. So now the only questions is, why haven’t you been?!
When to Go
If there’s one thing that Alicante does best, it’s partying (which might explain why it was the perfect place for a college student ten years ago). And the biggest party of the year is the Hogueras Festival on the 24th of June.
Hogueras is a huge fiesta to celebrate the feast of Sant Joan (Saint John). It takes place in cities all over Spain, but Alicante’s fiesta is the most famous. For days, giant floats are displayed on the plazas throughout the city. They are intricate, artistic, and they take thousands of hours to create. Then, at midnight on the 24th of June, they are doused in accelerant and set ablaze until they are nothing but ash.
I recommend visiting during this fiesta because it’s a chance to see Alicante doing what it does best: cranking up the music, dancing in the streets, and celebrating life. Streets will be shut down and filled with pop-up restaurants, the clubs will be open until the sun comes up, and all around you Spaniards are smiling. It’s a cultural event unlike any other, and I think it should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Why Visit Alicante?
If the Hogueras Festival isn’t enough reason for you, there are plenty more. Here are a few:
The Cultural Sites:
La Explanada de Espana: This is perhaps the most iconic walkway in all of Alicante. It’s a beautiful mosaic of marble that runs along the beaches, from the port to points north. The city side of the explanada is crowded with shops and restaurants, and the ocean side of lined with boats or beaches. It’s the perfect post-dinner stroll.
El Mercado Central: Every good town has a good market, and Alicante is no exception. Housed in a giant warehouse with a beautifully ornate domed entrance, it’s nearly impossible to miss if you’re traipsing through the center of town. Stroll through to check out the daily catch, watch some meat be freshly butchered, or see the latest in fresh produce.
Barrio de la Santa Cruz: You can’t miss this spot if you visit Alicante. It’s the ‘old city,’ a colorful little quarter of narrow streets and sidewalk cafes, and it’s where the best of the best nightlife is crowded (there are great restaurants too, if that helps).
The Historical Sites
Castillo de Santa Barbara: The most prominent of the historical sites is Castillo Santa Barabara, the iconic ancient structure that sits perched on a mountain overlooking the city. Oh how many sunrises I’ve watched come up behind that castle! They’ve installed a lift that will shuttle tourists to the top to explore the ancient castle, but you can power up the steps, can’t you? Back in 2005, we had no choice but to walk! Did I just have a ‘back in my day’ moment?
Photo: Michael Kranewitter [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Basilica de Santa Maria: You can’t come to a deeply Catholic country and not expect to find hundreds of beautiful old churches sprinkled around the cities. The Basilica de Santa Maria is a mosque-turned church that beautifully demonstrates Catalan Gothic architecture.
Lucentum: If you love ancient history, you’ll dig this excavation site of an ancient Roman community (see what I did there?). The city reached it’s peak as a Roman settlement over 2,000 years ago, which gives you an idea of the scale of time that Alicante has been around. If you like archaeology, this is the place for you.
Archaeological Museum of Alicante (MARQ): I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’m not a museum person. But the archaeological museum in Alicante might be enough to make even me a believer. It preserves and presents the life and times of ancient residents of the area in such a cool, high-tech way that you won’t want to leave.
Playa del Postiguet: This is the main beach in Alicante, just north of the port. It’s usually pretty packed, but the people-watching can be half the fun. Street vendors will wander around selling everything from ice cream to sangria, and the water is warm enough to stay in for hours. It’s proximity to the city means a visit is in order, but try to get in early to nab a prime spot for your beach towel.
Playa de San Juan: This is the quieter, bigger beach a little further away from town. You can access it via the tram that runs up the coast, and the extra space to stretch out will make the extra effort worth it. There are a couple of beachside cafes where you can grab a cerveza if you feel the need, and the swimming is excellent. This is the spot where my university friends and would lounge away the weekends, swapping ridiculous stories and cracking ourselves up. Some of us still can’t live down those tales!
The Bars & Clubs:
Desafinado: If you really want to get your dance on, this is the spot. It’s packed, the lights are flashing, there’s bar dancing, and there’s pulsing electronic music until the wee hours of the morning. You’re very likely to run into groups of guys on a bachelor party run from the U.K. here, which could be a good thing or a bad thing.
Baccus: In the heart of the Barrio, this place is nestled in a stone building with a brilliant neon sign (and quite possible a long line) announcing it’s presence. Inside it has all the markings of a good old nightclub. Just don’t confuse it with the restaurant by a similar name.
Barrio Havana: This was a haunt of ours back in university, and it looks like nothing has slowed it down since. It’s smack in the middle of the barrio, and it’s where all the beautiful people of Alicante come to play on the weekends.
What and Where to Eat
Dishes Not to Miss
Paella: Sure, all of Spain tries to lay claim to this dish. But in the Valencia region (where Alicante is located), it’s a truly sublime culinary experience. Paella Valenciana focuses on several different types of seafood, and it can but off-putting for anyone who isn’t a big fan of a slightly fishy taste. But paella alicantina strikes the perfect blend of land and sea, with a traditional paella dressed up with chicken and shellfish.
Coca de Sant Joan: Let’s start with coca. This is a pastry that is common in the Catalan region of Spain, and it has as many forms as there are villages. When I was further north, coca was a delicious breakfast bread with cinnamon and sugar crusted on top. Which is the complete opposite of coca de Sant Joan, a savory mini-pizza (basically) with a meaty red sauce on top. Sometimes this is laced with fish, which can give it a strong seafood taste.
Fondillion: Alicante sweet wine, which can only be found in Alicante. Personally, I don’t love this, but whenever I find something that’s very specific to an area I visit, I make a point to try it. Give it a taste and see if you don’t have more of an appetite for the sweetness than I do!
Restaurants to Try
Alicante has an astonishing number of incredible restaurants — it’s impossible to narrow down the best, because there are so many great ones. The Michelin Guide is a good place to start, but your best bet is to skip around trying a little bit from as many as you can fit in… The good thing? A lot of these places have excellent tapas, so you can get a little taste of several dishes without getting too full.
Nou Manolin: The atmosphere at this place will charm you from the moment you step into the busy bar on the ground floor, and it will continue as you climb the stairs to the white-washed brick and stuccoed arches of the dining room on the floor above. The food lives up to the decor — order your heart out, but skip the paella.
La Taberna del Gourmet: The is the tapas place in Alicante. The decor is modern, but the food is classic Spanish goodness — don’t miss their jamon, and have fun trying as many dishes as you can! The menu is utterly staggering, so you may need to fit in two visits to this one to cover off on everything you want to try. Ah, the beauty of tapas.
El Portal: This place is all about ambience. From the waitstaff to the decor to the food presentation, every little detail is thought through. It’s a great place to put on a nice dress, some heels, and fancy yourself once of the stylish alicantina locals. Though locals would call the $6 Euro cocktails and $3 Euro wines pricy, I felt it was great value for money.
I said farewell to Alicante wistfully, not quite ready to leave behind my good friends (we all met up for a ten-year reunion) or my memories, which kept popping at me every time I wandered down a different street. Nevertheless, I boarded the plane with my old memories mingling with the new, and a happy heart.