Known for its sunny package holidays, the subtropical island of Tenerife hides its unusual things to do in plain sight.
With two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and food, landscape and culture aplenty, Tenerife offers so much more than simply lying on the beach.
And hardly anyone’s even noticed!
So, make the best of both worlds. Snap up the cheap and easy flights before ditching the crowds and exploring these authentic and unique things to do in Tenerife.
The fan stirs slowly overhead, while shadows move across the peeling wall of powder blue.It’s early. But not too early and the sighing morning sun warms up the workers on the flagstones as they finish their commute.
I sip my coffee, served short, thick and strong, and watch the Canary Island date palms ruffle their leaves like clucking hens. They, too, are short and strong, unlike their Caribbean counterparts.
We are both in La Laguna. And while the name may suggest fluorescent blue theme park, the reality is something else.
La Laguna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of the territory of Tenerife.
While the lagoon itself is long since gone (drained to prevent it from spreading disease) the life and soul remains. It’s a living, breathing, modern UNESCO city, with 933, 419 inhabitants and even more stand up coffee kiosks serving the drink piping hot across town.
Lorries deliver early morning goods and children hurry past, on their way to school.
Not showing?! Bah! Click here for the Unusual Tenerife video and then I will hunt down the tech team and confiscate their chocolate.
A few evenings ago, I chatted with friends in the sexy gloom of a small bar here, all whimsical dark wood and shadows. It was built around the open courtyard design passed down from the Romans to the Moors to the conquistadores who stopped off here in Tenerife as an important staging post to the Americas.
La Laguna has over 600 public and private classified protected buildings in a wealth of different styles. Latticed gates that lead to fountains, like the gardens of Andalusia. Blue basalt columns, white washed cathedrals and brightly painted buildings housing homes, shops and restaurants.
And they’re arranged in a grid like structure found across the Americas and beyond.
And while La Laguna is beautiful, with lush green peaks rising up behind the buildings, it’s this rather more mundane fact that brings Laguna its current fame.
For this is no ordinary grid structure: it’s the first of its kind in the world.
When the Spanish founded the city in 1496 medieval towns grew organically, by accident almost, with winding, swerving, curving outlines.La Laguna was the first unfortified city to be designed as a grid intentionally. Now, like contactless payments, everyone’s at it.
Recommended reading: Tenerife Food Guide: Authentic Canarian Food In Tenerife
Rent a car from either airport and drive to La Laguna. It’s a city so entry is free and there’s always something going on. Many of the protected buildings are closed on a Sunday so bear that in mind. They also have a fantastic light and sound Christmas display on this year!
You can also stay within La Laguna at one of the city’s hotels. I stayed at the beautifully green La Laguna Gran Hotel with lush foliage all around the repurposed open courtyard structure. It also has a Michelin starred restaurant (which I didn’t manage to test) and serves a ridiculously amount of high quality jamon over breakfast.
Suite 241 is beautiful but be prepared to hear the comings and goings from the tropical bar-lounge below.
Recommended reading: How to Make Papas Arrugadas and Find Your Mojo in Tenerife Spain
Step back into the world of dreamy green film sets by following one of the trails into the Anaga Natural Park. Located in the north of the island, not far from La Laguna, these twisting trees and green canopies carry some of the most primitive forestry there is. From a numbers point of view, this is the most densely populated part of Europe yet when you walk here, you feel alone.
That’s because so much of the wildlife is too small to see. Over 1900 species have been recorded here, and the volcanic rock dates back between 7 and 9 million years.
Which is rather a lot, when you stop and think about it.
Hiking trails are well signposted from the car park and Cruz el Carmen Visitor Center. You can walk for as little as 600m through the laurisilva forest or tackle some more ambitious hikes.
There is also an exhibition and video that explains more about the inhabitants of the area.
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Cave houses. Sound a little grim, right?
Well, not these ones.
The Caseiros of Chinamada are set among the most spectacular ridged green scenery that makes it seem from another world. Think the terraces of the Great Wall of China, of Morocco, of the Asian tea plantations or more.
Then bundle them all together into something more unique.
Views here are spectacular and the cave houses are more like, well, houses, with the rear portions built into caves. Residents have TVs, wifi, the lot and to be honest, the concept of the Caseiros steals attention away from the real draw: the jaw dropping, gut punching, stereotype-inducing scenery.
Book a tour or hire a car and drive to Chinamada. Be warned, though, that the turns are very tight and the roads are very steep.The hiking is phenomenal at the top and the fresh air will blow away most morning sickness.But, seriously. This isn’t for the faint of heart.
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Follow yet more crazy turns in the road to reach Taganana. Seriously, this route makes hairpins look relaxed and laid back like a journalist after a liquid lunch.Pretty little Taganana marks the end point for a number of significant hikes and the whitewashed walls and tumbling flowers give a restful, Mediterranean vibe.
Want to know a secret? Black volcano rock leads to black volcanic sand. Seems obvious, when you put it like that, but it took me surprise, for sure.Everything else about the beach is the same. Sun. Waves. Sweet and salty beach food.But the sand. Well, it’s black! What more can I say?
Black sandy beaches are dotted all around Tenerife, but if you’re not sure where to start then drive down from Taganana to the beach outside local landmark Casa Africa.
Hang on, that’s the usual way to do things isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Las Teresitas is the only golden sand beach in the north. With sand shipped in from the Sahara and a rocky beach barricade built in the water to stop it from making a run from it.
Now that is pretty weird.
Travel to Las Teresitas, unroll a beach towel and have it.
Recommended reading: Whale Watching in Tenerife
Not in Tenerife in time to catch its world-famous carnival? Take all the fun and fiesta out of it by visiting the museum instead!
No, only joking. If you don’t like crowds and portaloos this may be the better option anyway. The newly opened museum in Tenerife’s capital Santa Cruz manages to pack a hefty punch of pizazz and panache into its retelling of the carnival story.
Still the proud holders of the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people in an outdoor plaza to attend a concert, Santa Cruz is justifiably proud of its carnival legacy.
The razzle dazzle of the costumes make Elton John look tame, the size of them make grown women look like Barbie dolls. Video footage plays alongside the glittery, feathered carnival clothes to make you realise that, against all the odds, it is possible to dance in, quite literally, a gilded cage.
But the cultural legacy of the carnival runs deep. Banned during the military Franco era, Tenerife simply rebranded as a Winter Festival and continued to party on.
And if the idea of the museum sounds a little too dry, it’s practically compulsory to dress up yourself and dance at the end.
In the name of research, I tell you. The name of research.
Catch an art installation, visit the library or just sip coffee surrounded by cool at the landmark new TEA in capital Santa Cruz. TEA stands for Tenerife Espacio de las Artes (Tenerife Space for Arts) but it also describes the expensive hardwood found across the island.
Just the words “ancient Drago tree” make this activity belong on a list of unusual things to do. In reality, the visit to these tranquil gardens just outside the Icod de los Vinos town centre is quite straightforward: the mystery lies in the story of the tree.
This beautiful creature reaches its tendrils into the sky like a poetically majestic not-quite-cooked pot noodle.
Once believed to be well over 1000 years old, the tree reaches 22 metres into the sky with a diameter of ten metres and weight of over 70 tonnes. Scientists have taken turns at estimating the age of the tree, resulting in more confusion than clarity and a legend that grows and grows.
Drive to Icod de los Vinos and visit the gardens there. Don’t miss the walk onto the ledge opposite the tree to catch a different view and see across the sea.
Some tourists have heard about the finely crafted wooden balconies in this town, but not many. Arrive at the right time of day and you can still have the place to yourself.
Look out for Los Molino de la Orotava, an old mill site where local delicacy gofio used to be ground. Wisely, they sell it mixed in with nuts and honey to give it a little more flavour ;-)
Watch out for my upcoming article on Tenerife food to learn more.
Every year in late November, schools in Icod de los Vinos arrange for a special excursion: for children to hurl themselves down the steep cobbled streets on a greased wooden board. Who knows quite where or how the tradition began but this festival marks the arrival of the new wine for the season and is celebrated by adults and children alike.
Hot roast chestnuts arrive in plastic baskets on red and white chequered tablecloths and the music – and wine – start in the late morning and keep going from there.
Be in the right place at the right time! Entrance is free and only 3 euros will buy you a taste of the wine (red, white and rose) and a basket of chestnuts.
Greased plank sliding entirely optional.
Now here is a mystery. Are these stony pyramids in Chacona a by-product of local farmers or an important link to the past? Adventurer and publisher Thor Heyerdahl believed they represented some kind of link between the ancient pyramids of Egypt and those found in Central and South America.
He hypothesised that a raft crossing took place before the Columbus-era voyages and built one in order to prove his point.
The latest archaeological work seems to support the less glamorous interpretation but visit for yourself to visit these lava stone works and to muse upon the connections between our ancestors.
And you’re virtually guaranteed to see pilot whales, with maybe some dolphins too. I’ve already written about whale watching in Tenerife over here so check it out for more details.
Ah, El Teide. With over 4 million visitors each year, it’s hard to describe a visit here as an unusual thing to do, but since several million more never make it, I think I am still justified.
Most importantly, though, even if you do go, you can easily have the place to yourself.
And, of course, it’s beautiful. Eye opening, lung gaspingly, heart thuddingly beautiful.
And I wouldn’t be able to blog at ease if I missed it out because of some self-imposed “unusual things to do” etiquette.
Teide contains enough different landscapes to mesmerise for a full day. If you’re organised and book your ticket online in advance, you can take the cable car to the 3718 metre summit.
If not, never mind!
There’s still plenty to see.
Recommended reading: Driving on Teide, The World’s Third Largest Volcano
Check out Los Roques de Garcia where Raquel Welch famously posed in the movie poster that later featured in the Shawshank Redemption.
Look out for black lava fields, green chemical crystal deposits, red, arid moonscapes and more.
Dine on traditional Tenerife food at the Parador near the summit and then glide back down to the pine and then the palms.
Tenerife has over 11 different microclimates and many of them, it would seem, can be found here.
But the best for me, by far, is the view when you’ve just passed through the clouds.It’s one of the unusual things to do in Tenerife of which I’ll never tire.
Disclosure – I have visited Tenerife many times, sometimes funded by myself, sometimes in partnership with Visit Tenerife and Captivate. As ever, as always, I choose what to write and what to feature in this list of unusual things to do. There’s just no point otherwise!
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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