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.
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:
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.
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.
Hotels are reasonably priced, and the decent Spanish chains (Hesperia, Melia) 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.
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).
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.
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.