Updated October 14, 2022
Published December 22, 2019
They might all be part of the same archipelago, but the Canary Islands have their own distinctive qualities and attractions. Strung out off Africa’s western coast, the seven main islands offer much more than just beaches and all-inclusive resorts.
Their personalities are wildly different – from Lanzarote’s lunar-like landscapes to the lushness of La Palma – and between them you’ll find an intoxicating mix of North African, Portuguese and Spanish legacies created over the centuries.
So which Canary Island is the best one for your holiday? It all depends on what you fancy: beaches, watersports, nightlife – they’re all there. And, if you plan carefully, you can even do a bit of island-hopping while you’re at it.
Sparsely populated Fuerteventura has more beaches than any of its neighbours – at least 150 are spread around this desert-like island. Head to the north-eastern end to Parque Natural de las Dunas, where you really get a sense that Saharan Africa isn’t that far away. Most of the 10 square miles (27 square km) of the park is seemingly endless sand dunes, including the vast beaches that make up Corralejo Grandes Playas. Even in the height of the season, you won’t feel remotely crowded.
It’s also surfing central in Fuerteventura, particularly in this north-eastern part. Here you’ll find excellent beaches including Flag Beach, El Cotillo and Playa del Moro. And while you’re at this end of the island, you can paddle or get a speedboat across to the uninhabited Isla de los Lobos and relax on its peaceful sands.
At Fuerteventura’s south-western tip is the barren, windswept Parque Natural Jandía. Your goal here is the huge, beautiful expanse of white sand that makes up Cofete – it’s worth the effort to reach this out-of-the-way place.
Tenerife – the biggest and most popular of the Canary Islands – is like two islands in one. The towering Pico del Teide (the highest mountain in Spain) effectively splits the island into two very different climate zones.
Go north for tropical forests, vineyards and one of the loveliest beaches on the island, Playa de las Teresitas. Go south and it’s a dry, rocky landscape that includes the island’s hottest beach, Playa de las Americas. It’s here that you’ll find a long promenade that stretches for several miles and is lined with countless bars, restaurants and shops. In the middle of Tenerife is the dramatic volcanic peak of Mount Teide, which you can explore by a cable car that takes you within 656ft (200m) of the summit.
In contrast to some of the other islands, Lanzarote is dramatically volcanic, with more than 300 volcanic peaks and solidified lava covering the island. It’s a strange sight at first, but its starkness has a beauty of its own. Take a tour of the moon-like Timanfaya National Park and watch food being grilled purely from the power of the volcano. Even the vineyards here are bizarre things – half-moons of low stone walls set on black lava.
Playa Blanca is one of Lanzarote's most popular resorts, but manages to keep a nicely laidback atmosphere. Hop on a boat for a trip to Playas de Papagayo, a string of beautiful sandy beaches tucked into coves. If you have a hire car, you can also drive here.
Thanks to the late architect and artist César Manrique, you won’t find the high-rise developments that blight so many other resorts. Instead, you’ll see his low-rise white villages, the Jameos del Agua lava cave complex, quirky artworks and his visionary house in Tahiche that’s now a museum.
Like Tenerife, Gran Canaria has a mountain range that splits the island in two, giving it a more humid northern half and a dry southern half. It’s in the south where you’ll find the captivating sight of the Maspalomas sand dunes. They really are quite extraordinary, as if the Sahara desert took a wrong turn and ended up in Gran Canaria.
Along with the beaches that line the southern coast, including the magnet that’s Playa del Inglés, you’ll find some of the liveliest nightlife in the Canary Islands – clubs, bars, luxury hotels and casinos keep things buzzing till the early hours.
For a change in scenery, head north to the island’s capital and largest city in the archipelago, Las Palmas. Wander round the historic streets of the old town past Spanish colonial houses before finishing at the bars of Playa de las Canteras.
They call La Palma “la isla bonita” (beautiful island) and they’re not exaggerating. Like the other Canary Islands, La Palma is volcanic and has vivid volcanic and terracotta-coloured sands along with the tropical forests of Los Tilos.
You’ll also find attractive fishing villages and vineyards that produce La Palma’s renowned wine. If you’re into hiking, follow the Ruta de los Volcanes. This 12-mile (19km) route takes you along the ridges and craters of the island’s most breathtaking volcanoes.
The smallest of the main Canary Islands, El Hierro is also the least touristy. If you want a chilled-out holiday in a small fishing village, with wild empty beaches that harbour some superb diving, then this is the place.
Check out the rocky pools of Charco Manso or enjoy the peace of the dark volcanic sands of Tamaduste and Las Playas beaches near the island capital, Valverde. Slip into the relaxed pace of this rugged island, which also happens to produce some of the best wines in the Canary Islands.
They’ll be your reward after spending the day hiking in the ancient woodland trails of Garajonay National Park. You’ll walk through laurel forests that fill much of the park and its deep ravines. Some of the summits you reach will give you fabulous views of Tenerife.