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The inside guide to Alicante, Spain's underrated coastal city

Head to the colourful coastal city for art galleries full of Spanish masterpieces, quirky cocktail bars and revered local rice dishes.

By Jessica Vincent
Published 1 Mar 2022, 06:00 GMT
View of Santa Bárbara Castle from the Santa Cruz neighbourhood.

View of Santa Bárbara Castle from the Santa Cruz neighbourhood.

Photograph by Alamy

In recent years, Alicante has been busy recasting itself as a food and drink hotspot. Pioneering chefs are breathing new life into age-old ingredients, while a fascinating wine route and chic inner-city bars are helping to promote the award-winning local wine industry. Add to this a medieval old town, beautiful waterfront and sweeping beach, and Alicante is rightfully taking its place as one of Spain’s most exciting coastal cities. 

Any trip should start in Santa Cruz, Alicante’s oldest and most beautiful neighbourhood. It’s a labyrinth of steep steps and intricately tiled homes hidden in the cliffs of Mount Benacantil. Scale the narrow, flower-scented streets until you reach the Mirador de Santa Cruz, a viewpoint that takes in the 16th-century fortress Castillo de Santa Barbara and the blue-domed Concatedral de San Nicolas. The neighbourhood is also home to MACA (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Alicante), filled with 20th-century Spanish masterpieces by the likes of Dalí and Picasso. Nearby is the Museo de Hogueras, where exhibits celebrate the Bonfires of San Juan, Alicante’s biggest street fiesta, which takes place each summer.  

A 10-minute walk north takes you to the Mercado Central, where more than 300 stalls sell everything from enormous olives and cured legs of ham to giant wheels of manchego cheese. El Pale, located on the lower floor, serves the best home-smoked fish and cold meat platters in the city, including rosemary-smoked sardines and oak-smoked duck. On Saturday afternoons, locals flock to the market’s surrounding streets (make a beeline for Plaza 25 de Mayo and Calle Poeta Quintana) for a tapas crawl that, if you pace yourself, can see you through to the early hours.

Horchata, a drink made from tiger nuts.

Photograph by Stock Food

If you’d rather settle in for dinner, make a reservation at Cesar Anca, a gastro bar focusing on creative sharing plates such as squid filled with mushroom ragout, and grilled liver, served with peach and dark chocolate. 

Save room for dessert at nearby ice cream shop Borgonesse, which sells an exquisite turrón ice cream made with origin-protected nougat from nearby Jijona. Afterwards, sip mint-stuffed mojitos from a teapot at El Coscorron, a jazz bar on Calle Tarifa, wall to wall with graffiti.  

One of Alicante’s newest boutique hotels, the adults-only Casa Alberola is housed inside a beautifully restored neoclassical building. Its minimalist suites include deep freestanding bathtubs and magnificent views of the marina. Here, you can roll out of bed onto the city’s Explanada de Espana, a 600-metre-long waterfront promenade lined with artisan stalls and al fresco cocktail bars such as Soho Mar. Be sure to swing by Peret, a kiosk that’s been serving horchata (a sweet drink made with tiger nuts) for almost a century. 

Shoppers browse the stalls along Explanada de España.

Photograph by Alamy

The marina is also where you’ll find family-owned Darsena. All the rice dishes here are excellent, but the arroz con gambeta y calamar, served with a prawn head emulsion and fresh-off-the-boat squid, steals the show. From there, sample some of Alicante’s most exciting wines at Urban Wine Shop and Bar, a relaxed cafe-style hangout where you can try before you buy, over platters of locally sourced cheese and meats. If you’re keen to discover more of the local vineyards and bodegas, follow the Ruta del Vino on a self-guided tour through the Alicante province, or join an organised wine-tasting trip.     

But it would be remiss to visit Alicante and not enjoy its most prized asset: the coast. Hop on the hour-long ferry from the city centre to Tabarca, a mile-long island that once served as a refuge for Berber pirates. Alicantinos flock here in the summer to snorkel or paddleboard the pristine coves before heading to Mar Azul for its legendary caldero — a dish of garlicky rockfish stew and rice. 

Ornate tiling around a doorway in Santa Cruz.

Photograph by Alamy

Like a local: César Anca’s favourite local dishes 

The chef moved from Madrid to Alicante in 1997 to open his award-winning restaurant, La Barra de César Anca. He shares his favourite local plates. 

Olleta de trigo: This is a meat stew originating from the interior villages of the Alicante province. It contains pork ribs, pulses, vegetables and wheat. Bar Guillermo, a family-owned restaurant behind the central market, serves the city’s best version. 

Coca amb tonyina: I love this dish because it reminds me of the city’s Hogueras festival, where it’s a popular snack. It’s a type of empanada made with tuna, onions, pine nuts and dried anise. My favourite is from Horno Rafelet, a bakery that uses a recipe dating back to 1932. 

Arroz con pata y morro: This is my favourite local rice dish. The moist pig’s trotter and snout combined with the firm grains of rice give it a great texture and flavour. Racó del Pla has mastered it. 

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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