The Maine of Spain

You’ve never heard of my favorite place in Spain. It’s not stylish Barcelona, foodie San Sebastian, or picturesque Mallorca. But La Coruña is just as unique.

I’ve been returning to the small capital city of Galicia — the northwestern corner of Spain that sits atop Portugal like a cap — for 12 years now. I first came here for the traditional post-graduation tour of Europe’s best bars and cheapest hostels with my boyfriend (now husband), one of La Coruña’s adoptive sons (he grew up in Bilbao).

The city became our home-away-from-home stopover, where his family fed us well, did our laundry, and let us camp out on the floor of their apartment by the port. The plan was to recharge, save some money, and push on to more exciting locales, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with La Coruña. Little did I know that just a few years later, I’d be introducing our children to its sandy beaches and lush, green interiors.

Plaza de Maria Pita is abuzz with activity in the summer. (Photograph by Victor Morell Perez, Flickr)

Plaza Maria Pita is the city’s cultural heartbeat. (Photograph by Victor Morell Perez, Flickr)

Perhaps one of the reasons tourists overlook Galicia is because it doesn’t feel all that Spanish. Its misty mornings, rolling hills, and fishing villages remind me more of Ireland. Its people do, too. Thanks to an early settling by the Celts, Galegos have lighter hair and complexions than most Spaniards, and their festivities involve bagpipes, not flamenco. But the region also calls to mind Maine. Mostly rural Galicia is never very warm, has lots of coastline and seafood, and — the best part — isn’t swarming with tourists.

If you’re traveling to Spain, book a few days in La Coruña and see what’s kept me coming back for so long. Here are a few highlights to spark your wanderlust:

Getting Oriented

La Coruña is on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic, with an active fishing port on one side and the beach on the other. The old city is between, pushing up the hill toward land’s end, where the Tower of Hercules (a UNESCO World Heritage site) has served as a beacon for sailors since the first century.

Stop by Bonilla a la Vista for churros. (Photograph by Henley Vazquez)

Stop by Bonilla a la Vista for churros. (Photograph by Henley Vazquez)

A long promenade hugs the coast, offering spectacular views of the sea and city (and an ideal running route). Orzán beach is wide and golden, and despite the chilly water, hearty Galegos swim and surf daily. And the wonderful Casa de los Peces, an aquarium built into the cliffs, shouldn’t be missed — especially if you have children.

In the old city, home in on Plaza Maria Pita (a smaller version of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor), a hub for cultural activities — from puppet shows to open-air symphonies — in the summer. On a cloudy day, my kids love nothing better than paying a visit to the local fish market (a short walk from the plaza) and gawking at the daily catch.

Resting Easy

Hotels are reasonably priced, and the decent Spanish chains (HesperiaMelia) have an outpost here. What they lack in charm, they make up for in price and location. If you simply must have an ocean view, try the family-friendly Melia Maria Pita.

Eating Well

If you’re looking for cutting-edge culinary experiences, you won’t find them in La Coruña. What you will find is some of the best seafood in the world.

I could spend hours at Mesón Agustín, my go-to spot for shellfish. Be sure to try the percebes, a local delicacy that looks a bit like a goose foot (hence its name in English, goose barnacle), but tastes like heaven. Across the Plaza Maria Pita, La Penela may be known for traditional Galician meats, but its insanely rich baked potatoes will leave you reeling (in the best way possible).

The expansive (and gorgeous) Playa de Frouxeira. (Photograph by Jrobles, Flickr)

The expansive (and gorgeous) Playa de Frouxeira (Photograph by Jrobles, Flickr)

For breakfast or a sweet break in the afternoon, stop by Bonilla a la Vista on Calle Real for the best churros (fried bread served with a side of melted chocolate for dipping) in town.

If you’re in the mood for a real treat, head to Gallo de Oro, an upscale but unpretentious restaurant in the countryside. My husband and I held our wedding reception here, and my family still raves about it. Parents, don’t let the white tablecloths fool you. Kids are very welcome (even in gourmet restaurants) in Spain. Don’t be surprised if they end up handling live lobsters or hanging out with the cook in the kitchen.

Going Afield

La Coruña makes the perfect home base for exploring Galicia’s extensive (and largely undeveloped) coastline. Santa Cruz is just a 15-minute drive and comes complete with a bay-protected beach and a crumbling castle that’s tailor-made for young explorers.

If you head up the coast, you’ll find two-mile-long Playa de Frouxeira, a hot spot for surfing and kiteboarding. South of the city you can visit the Cíes Islands (accessible by boat only), the famous cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the vineyards of the Rías Baixas, home to the crisp Albariño wines.

New York-based travel writer Henley Vazquez has lived on three continents, but she’s happiest when hitting the road with her husband and two kids. Follow her story on Twitter @HenleyVQ

Comments

  1. Gus Sención
    A Coruña
    June 14, 2013, 6:13 am

    Wow!!!…nice article of my hometown. I’m a filmmaker and I have my business and home at Plaza de María Pita 4, feel free to visit us next time you´re in town to eat pulpo and tortilla at La Penela ;)
    Gus Sención

    • Henley Vazquez
      June 14, 2013, 11:06 am

      Thanks for the nice comment! It’s truly a special place, and I’m looking forward to packing on the kilos over pulpo and tortilla this summer.

  2. 0limpia
    SANTA CRUZ DE OLEIROS (CORUÑA)
    June 14, 2013, 10:30 am

    Gracias. Es bueno que alguien deje plasmada la impresión tan maravillosa que le ha causado nuestra ciudad.

  3. Francisco
    Corunna (Spain)
    June 14, 2013, 3:02 pm

    Henley, thank you so much for such an awesome article about our home. Just one thing… Let me tell you an advice for your next returning: Try “chocolate con churros” at EL TIMON (on Ramon y Cajal St.) in my opinion they’re better than Bonilla’s. You are always welcome! Kind regards

    • Henley Vazquez
      June 17, 2013, 11:45 am

      I’m adding El Timon to my summer list! Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. María
    New York
    June 14, 2013, 5:56 pm

    Nice Job!!! I cannot wait to get there!

    • Henley Vazquez
      June 17, 2013, 11:44 am

      It’s much easier than you would think from New York – a short, direct flight to Madrid then a quick, 1-hour connect into La Coruna’s small and super convenient airport. I’m always surprised how simple the trip is, even with two kids in tow.

  5. vedat şafak yamı
    Turkey
    June 15, 2013, 12:16 pm

    La Coruña is a beautiful place with friendly people.. I hope to go and settle there after I got my retirement.. in the near future hopefully..

    • Henley Vazquez
      June 17, 2013, 11:43 am

      It’s true, a great place to retire. I want to grow up to live the life of my in-laws.

  6. Andrea
    June 15, 2013, 6:53 pm

    I loved this.
    Seeing how people from outside my city feels about it is so great.
    But I think there is some mistake… when you say “If you’re looking for cutting-edge culinary experiences, you won’t find them in La Coruña”. I highly recommend you the restaurant Adega O Bebedeiro. You will ABSOLUTELY love it! It’s traditional, but yet new. And the place is so rural-like. I went there with my boyfriend to celebrate our anniversary, and went some times with my father before.
    Take care :)

    • Henley Vazquez
      June 17, 2013, 11:42 am

      Great suggestion. I look forward to trying it this summer.

  7. www.travelwithkevinandruth.com
    Saskatchewan, Canada
    June 16, 2013, 10:00 pm

    We’ve found that the better cities to visit are the smaller ones. Leeds instead of London, Olomouc instead of Prague…that sort of thing.

  8. Fernando de Santiago
    España
    June 17, 2013, 5:58 am

    Thank you for this article,I usually play kitesurf and enjoy in Playa de Frouxeira ,it,s a wonderful spot.

  9. Breixo
    June 19, 2013, 5:30 am

    Brilliant! I would lile to jot down that the name of the city is A Coruña, thats the only valid and offcial name. Please change it. In that city we also speak another language, the proper from Galicia, galego. And the lae law clearly says A Coruña as the official name.
    Thanks and keep enjoy this beautiful and charming city

  10. Lauren Harris
    New York
    June 24, 2013, 9:05 am

    This article is really severe towards Barcelona! For me it will always be one of the most amazing city of the World
    Partly because last time I went there, I joined a walking tour with a native guide, he knew so many secret stories and hidden places close by the most well-known landmarks
    If you want to fall in love with this city it would be the solution N°1
    I warmly recommend it to you : http://www.discoverwalks.com

  11. Maria
    Madrid
    June 25, 2013, 5:22 pm

    When I go back to visit my hometown, I feel freedom. I love to disappear around the lighthouse and see the boats. I need to listen the sound of seagulls. I always felt it seems an Ireland town.

    I look forward to come back. Yesterday I was sad. I needed to jump bonfires… :-(

    I love you Coruña!! You are magic!