There’s a cool legend about how Alicante, Spain got its name. Once upon a Moorish time, there was a pair of star-crossed lovers named Ali and Cántara. They were madly in love, but Ali was poor – and Cántara’s father, the wealthy caliph who ruled the city, refused to give her hand in marriage. Rather than live without each other, they threw themselves off the castle atop Mount Benacantil. The caliph died of grief over the loss of his beautiful daughter, and to this day you can see his somber profile etched into the cliff – La Cara del Moro. There’s “moro” to the story, but you get the Shakespearean gist.
The truth is a little less glamorous, but still totally descriptive of this luminous city: Alicante is derived from an Arabic word that means “city of light.”
From Valencia, Alicante was the second stop on our month-long journey down Spain’s Costa Blanca region on the Mediterranean coast. And this city captured our hearts – so much so that Alicante is our likely next home base once we relocate to Spain, sometime within the next couple of years.
Here are 8 reasons we are in love with Alicante, Spain – with a few visitor tips thrown in. As usual, many of the photos are in galleries – just click through to see larger versions.
1. Alicante is approachable, compact, and walkable – with scores of “pocket parks.”
As a smaller city with only 350,000 people, Alicante felt immediately comfortable to us. From our centrally located apartment, we had an easy walk to the train station, waterfront, beaches, fantastic restaurants, museums, and the historic neighborhoods. The city seems tailored to pedestrians, and motorized traffic is never too heavy.
One of the things we loved the most about walking around in Alicante is its numerous small parks, each with its own interesting array of bars, shops and restaurants. One of the largest is Plaza Luceros, encircled by a huge traffic roundabout and located a mere two blocks from the train station. it’s a great place to sit, have a glass of wine and a couple of tapas, and people-watch. The broad Avenida Federico Soto spokes off from Plaza Luceros and offers a leafy pedestrian thoroughfare down to the waterfront.
2. El Castillo de Santa Barbara
It’s hard to miss Santa Barbara Castle, looming over Alicante from its 166-meter perch on Mount Benacantil. The castle’s origins date back to Ali and Cántara’s time, when the Moors began their reign in the 8th century. The fortress remained a Muslim stronghold well into the 13th century and even after the Christian conquest in 1248. In the ensuing centuries, Santa Barbara Castle was continually expanded and fortified – and it played an important military role into the 1800s. The 360-degree view from the top is not only breathtaking, but shows how strategic this location was for defending Alicante from the enemies of every era – Visigoths, Moors, Christians, Berber pirates, Turks, and various European invaders during the War of Spanish Succession.
TIP: The walk up to the castle is easy and incredibly scenic. There are several different approaches, but we chose to walk through the Casco Antiguo neighborhood to the switchbacking path on the southeast side of the mountain. It’s a good idea to start your walk early in the morning to avoid the crowds. And if you’re not up for the walk, there’s a high-speed lift located on the beach side of the hill. The castle opens at 10 a.m. and offers guided tours and an interesting museum.
3. The Casco Antiguo-Santa Cruz District
Alicante’s historic center starts with the Santa Cruz barrio on the slopes of Mount Benacantil and reaches down to the waterfront. We loved wandering the narrow streets of Santa Cruz, an old fishermen’s quarter that is the city’s most traditional and authentic neighborhood. As you head further down the hill, you’ll encounter numerous museums, bars, pubs, and restaurants alongside some of Alicante’s oldest landmarks – such as the baroque town hall and Alicante’s oldest active church, the Basilica of Santa Maria.
4. The Central Market
Alicante’s beautiful Mercado Central, completed in 1911, is a must-visit for foodies. The compact market offers more than 200 stalls on two levels, most of which have been owned and operated by the same families for generations. It’s the place frequented by locals for the best prices and freshest produce, meats, cheeses, and gourmet items.
TIP: Go early – the market closes at 2:30 p.m. most days and is closed on Sunday.
5. The Alicante Waterfront
One of Alicante’s signature attractions is its stunning waterfront promenade. Bordered by rows of tall palms, the promenade is paved with more than 6 million marble tiles to create a wave mosaic. The promenade fronts some of Alicante’s prettiest buildings and is lined with scores of restaurants and cafes.
Just across from the promenade is the Marina Deportiva del Puerto de Alicante, the city’s enormous marina. As former cruising sailors, we saw lots of floating eye candy in that marina and got to thinking, “Hmmm – maybe another boat is in our future!” The marina is bordered by a long pier of seafood restaurants and the Ocean Race Museum, celebrating one of the world’s longest and most challenging around-the-world races.
6. Las Playas
Another large plus for Alicante is its proximity to two gorgeous beaches. Just up from the promenade in the heart of the city is Playa del Postiguet, a beautiful white sand beach in the shadow of Santa Barbara Castle. A little further up the coast is Playa de San Juan, a stunning stretch of sand that goes on for 7 kilometers. Playa de San Juan is about 13 kilometers from the Alicante historic district, but is easily reachable on the TRAM light rail system. We were especially taken with Playa de San Juan, which is a recognized Blue Flag beach for its top water quality and high beach standards.
7. The Gastro Scene
Food and wine lovers that we are, we were in culinary heaven in Alicante. Here were our favorite dining experiences:
- Plaza Canalla, on the Plaza Gabriel Miró. Their creative take on tapas is worth a visit.
- Infragrante Pizza Bar, also near the Plaza Gabriel Miró. Fantastic wood-fired pies and yummy sangria.
- La Casa de Leo, a charming little place run by a French couple and billed as “French-Spanish fusion.” Memorable food and cocktails. We went twice!
- Thai Corner. On our last night in Alicante, we were hungry for something different, and Thai Corner fit the bill. Great Thai food and hip atmosphere.
- El Cantó, a small but highly popular tapas bar where we had a memorable lunch with our new Alicante friend, Andres. This is a truly local place that we never would have found on our own. Thank you, Andres!
8. Getting There by Train
Our new motto: Why fly when you can take the train?? We fell in love with train travel on our 2018 visit to Peru, when we treated ourselves to a fantastic PeruRail ride to Lake Titicaca after our trek on the Inca Trail. On this trip to Spain, rather than flying round-trip from Madrid to Valencia, we took the RENFE high-speed train – zooming along at speeds that sometimes topped 300 km/hour. From Valencia to Alicante and back, we took RENFE’s Euromed line, somewhat slower but no less scenic and relaxing.
Train travel is just so darn easy: Turn up at the station a half hour before your departure, go through a quick x-ray of your belongings, and get on your car with all your luggage at hand. Contrast that with the stressed-out cattle call that air travel has become. And it’s inexpensive – the round trip on the Euromed was only about €80 for both of us.
TIPS: The RENFE website wasn’t working while we were in Spain, so we ended up buying our tickets at the train stations. The further in advance you buy your tickets, the cheaper they are. The basic tourist-class ticket doesn’t allow you to make changes, so spend a few more Euros and get a Flexible ticket (we learned this the hard way!).
- ALICANTE TOURIST INFO: Here’s a nice site for visitors.
- BIKE TOUR: We took an enjoyable tour with BlueBike, which also offers bike rentals. Over the 2.5-hour tour, we learned plenty of tidbits about Alicante’s vibrant history and got some exercise in the bargain!
- PUBLIC TRANSIT: Alicante has a fantastic light rail system, the Alicante Metropolitan TRAM. The TRAM offers both a partially underground, modern tramway through the center and a train route to Benidorm, a luxury resort area north of Alicante. We enjoyed taking the TRAM out to visit our new friends Andres, Teresa, and baby Mario – it was fast and easy.
- OUR LODGING. We loved our roomy apartment at Alicante Center Apart so much that we stayed there twice: on our first visit to Alicante and for two more nights after our car travels along the coast. The apartment is huge, with a well-appointed kitchen, a separate sleeping alcove in addition to the master bedroom, and two bathrooms. We even asked if it could be rented longer-term, as it would make a perfect landing pad once we move to Alicante (sadly, no).
Summary: Alicante, Spain ticks all of our boxes!
Alicante has everything (and then some) that we look for in a home city: Affordability, walkability, abundant sunshine and great weather, great public transportation, an international airport that links to every major city in Europe, outstanding train connections, a 2,000-year-old culture, a hot culinary scene, easy beach access, a huge marina and sailing scene, and stunning beauty at every turn. Alicante fits us like a glove. Guess we’ll be apartment-hunting before too long!
Have you been to Alicante? What are your favorites?