The capital of the most southerly province in the region of Valencia, Alicante is a little overshadowed by its more boisterous neighbour, Benidorm. To the visitor, it is an elegant city, a little shabby in places, but with an unmistakeable elán. It became sadly neglected and run down in the seventies and eighties, but significant investment has been made over the last decade or so, and it once again has a nice Mediterranean bustle to it.
Alicante has long been a prosperous town, both for the rich fishing grounds reached from its harbours and the market gardens of the fertile plain inland of it. Its beaches are superb, with fine, pale sand, in some cases extending literally as far as the eye can see, and its climate is excellent, the Costa Blanca having the longest summer season in Spain, and mild winters only spoilt by occasional torrential rainstorms.
What to See
The slopes of Alicante’s pavements, the layout of its streets, the salty smell breezing in from the south, all push or pull the visitor down towards the seafront, the undeniable star of the city. Its beaches, its lovely palm-tree-shaded promenade, its marina; these are the essence of Alicante. And it is still a serious working port, though less than in the past and most visitors do not see anything more seaworthy than the Tabarca ferry in the marina.
The Seafront. Alicante’s promenade, the Explanada de España, is one of the most appealing you will see anywhere, with its palm trees and carefully gardened flower beds, its wavy tiles in three colours (representing the sea), its stalls, tourists drinking at pavement cafés, and locals taking the air from their park benches. It is as if a romantically minded town planner had wanted to make an area to illustrate the Spanish custom of the paseo, evening stroll. At the west end of the Explanada, crossing over the road to the waterside, there is a bar ( I imagine it is a pub, late-night bar, as the drinks are a little expensive and no food is served), which is built out on planks over the waters of the marina and you can watch the fish under your feet as you have your drink.
To get to the marina itself, you need to head for the estación marítima on the quay which begins at the east end (on the left as you look towards the sea) of the promenade, behind the Hotel Melia. It is difficult not to swagger nautically as you follow the quay round, gawking at the boats, some of which are larger than local ferries. A great deal of money has been spent here in recent years as well, and you have plenty of choice of restaurants, bars, pubs… And on the other side of the marina, there is an indoor leisure area, with cinemas and a shopping centre.
Just on the other side of the Hotel Melía begins the beach, and a fine beach it is too, overlooked by the castle. The Playa del Postiguet is sometimes criticised as being a little grubby, which is normally unjustified except to the extent that it is, after all, an urban beach, and a popular one. It is, in fact a European Blue Flag beach, running east to and beyond the FGV railway station.
The Old Quarter. The casco antiguo or Barrio Santa Cruz nestles at the foot of Monte Benacantil, behind the Avenida Juan Bautista, and is enjoyable to explore, though it has no great sights. The Ayuntamiento, city hall, has a handsome façade, the Ermita (hermitage) de San Roque contains a gypsy Christ which the tourist board’s website calls “poignant,” but it is the mediaeval feel to the streets that gives el barrio its appeal. Try and see it in the daylight, though you are quite likely to spend some time here at night.
The City Centre. Alicante has a feel to it, something that tells you where you are even when you are looking at the local El Corte Inglés, the department store found throughout the country which is identical everywhere. It may be something about the light, or the city’s broad avenues and squares, fine, tree-shaded affairs, designed for a leisurely stroll or a brisk shopping spree alike. While you are in the centre, try to see the huge Mercado Central, central market. And down towards the sea, the Plaza Gabriel Miró is worth making a detour for, with its extraordinary, dreamlike combination of the curves of the Art Deco (I think) sculptures; the water from the fountains; exposed, twisted tree roots; and creepers on the trees.
What to see and when to go
The Castle. Alicante has only one sight as such, the imposing Santa Barbara Castle, one of the largest in the Spanish Mediterranean. Looking thoroughly impressive, high on Mount Benacantil, a hill overlooking the town, it is slightly disappointing for castle buffs to actually visit, having been prettified inside so that much of it looks more like a park than a serious fortification (in fact, it contains the CAPA collection of Spanish modern sculpture). But the views from it are tremendous, and castle enthusiasts will be able to identify the three different areas representing its history. The present fortress (there were others before) was originally built by the Moors in the 9th century, though the oldest visible remains are those at the highest part of the castle and date from the 11th-13th centuries. You can approach the castle by road, winding up the hill from the old quarter; if you are on foot, it is quicker to take the lift from the road behind the Playa del Postiguet, the lift shaft seemingly being right in the middle of the hill.
Museums. Alicante is constantly renovating its museum scene, and if your guide book is more than a couple of years old, you will think it is describing a different city — a number of museums are currently closed, and others have just been opened. The provincial archeological museum, the MARQ, is well worth at least a couple of hours (don’t walk from the centre, get a bus). It is a modern museum in terms of conception, with three rooms dedicated to the art of excavation, including underwater archaeology. The most important exhibits are in the Iberian (pre-Roman) room.
The castle contains the CAPA collection of Spanish contemporary sculpture museum, which the tourist board says “is the most complete collection of contemporary Spanish sculpture on exhibition in the world,” with “works, dating from the 19th and 20th century and by artists of the calibre of Benlliure, Macho, Inurria, Oteiza, Dalí, etc.,” to which I have nothing to add, except that I prefer castles to be castles, myself.
The Gravina Fine Arts Museum in c/ Gravina in the Barrio Santa Cruz is new, and looks most attractive, though I have not yet seen it. The old fish market, the Lonja de Pescado, has been converted into an exhibition centre, and the Museo Taurino, bullfighting museum, specialising in local bullfighters, is also new. The University Museum is dedicated exclusively to contemporary art and is probably too far away for most visitors to bother with.
When to Go/Fiestas
Being a working city, Alicante does not get that ghost-town look out of season, and its climate also makes it attractive for a winter break. Remember that the Levante can suffer tremendous rainstorms, including flooding, in spring and, especially, autumn. Alicante is brilliant in the summer, though it can be oppressively crowded during school holidays.
Fiestas. Alicante’s most important festival is San Juan, celebrated from the 20th to 29th June, with bonfires and fireworks, especially on the Playa de San Juan. Alicante’s various quarters celebrate different events throughout the year. In July, the Saint’s Day of the Virgen del Carmen, patron saint of sailors, is celebrated on the Island of Tabarca.
Eating and Drinking
Eating. Alicante’s cuisine is exemplarily Mediterranean, its finest fare being rice dishes, seafood, fish, and salads. Visitors will also want to try the turrón, the almond-based sweet which is typical of the city. As both a resort and a working city, Alicante has a large number of eateries of all kinds and price ranges scattered all around the city. Its top Michelin-rated restaurant is Valencia 11 (so named for its address: 11 Valencia, tel. 96 521 13 09) which the guide also recommends as good value for money, picking out Puerto (51 Dr. Sapena, tel. 96 521 95 74) for the same reason. The marina complex has a large number of catering establishments of all kinds. For tapas and other budget forms of eating, the area around the Ayuntamiento is recommendable (the tourist board claims that montaditos, a canapé-type tapa, were invented in Alicante).
Drinks. Alicante D.O. wine is generally red (described as “sturdy and dark”), though rosés and whites are made as well. Also try wine from the nearby Jumilla D.O., between Albacete and Murcia, or from Yecla, in the north of Murcia. On the non-alcoholic front, try horchata, a drink made from chufas (tiger nuts), typical of the region of Valencia.
You are spoilt for choice for evening diversion in Alicante. The Barrio Santa Cruz is a centre for young people and full of pubs, late-night bars with music, but can be a little rowdy for others. C/ San Fernando is the place to go for discotheques. The Explanada de España is lively, and the marina has a large number of different kinds of bars and pubs, and being slightly pricier than the barrio tends to be a little more subdued (though not always, by any means). In the summer, the nightlife centre of gravity shifts to the Playa San Juan.
Much more than the Playa del Postiguet, discussed under “What to See,” and the Albufereta, practically a continuation of it, the most important beach in Alicante, indeed one of the best in Spain, is la Playa de San Juan, a bus ride away from the city centre. It seems to go on for ever, which is not surprising as it is around 7 km long, and its nearly 90 m average width means there is always room, even in August. It is an urban beach, but low-rise urban except at the southernmost end, and many of its bars and restaurants serve great raciones. A lunchtime paella here is really recommendable.
Nudists, particularly, should head for the coves of Cabo de las Huertas, which separates the south-facing Postiguet and Albufereta beaches from the east-facing Playa San Juan. Another possibility is the Saladares-Urbanova beach south of Alicante in what was once an area of salt marshes, now residential but still considered environmentally important. And the Island of Tabarca (see Around Alicante) is a must-see if you have time.
The most appealing excursion from Alicante is to the tiny, inhabited island of Tabarca, 11 nautical miles south of the city and reached by ferry from Alicante’s marina. When I say tiny, I mean tiny: it cannot be much more than a kilometre long and in places is about 20 metres across. The village has a charming colonial kind of feel to it, and in fact the most important place to stay is called the Casa del Gobernador. The main beach, the Playa Levante, is around 250 m long, but many of the most interesting spots are on the other, landward side of the island. For Tabarca is a marine reserve, popular with divers and, more visibly, snorkellers, and this is where you will see them splashing around, masks down, snorkels up.
Flights. Alicante is extremely well served for air connections; in fact, of the 50 million tourists who now visit Spain every year, nearly ten per cent pass through Alicante airport (don’t worry, relatively few of them stop in the city itself). Notably, from the UK, easyJet now offers flights at simply laughable prices. From the US, Iberia runs a number of routes, mostly in combination with American Airlines.
Railways. Alicante has three train stations, irritatingly far apart from each other. The main, RENFE station is found towards the north-west of the centre, and is where Alicante’s north- and westbound connections arrive and leave from. Coastal trains up to Benidorm and Denia leave from the FGV station at the end of the Playa del Postiguet. And, presumably, the Estación de Murcia to the west of the port is where to go to catch trains to Murcia.
Buses. Alicante’s bus station is old and sordid, but reasonably central, at c/Portugal, 7. From Madrid: (or Enatcar, same company) runs five or six buses a day to Alicante from the Estación Sur, Méndez Álvaro, 83, tel. (+34) 91 468 42 00. The single ticket price is €21-32. From Barcelona: Enatcar runs eleven buses a day from the Estació Barcelona-Nord, single ticket price €32.46. From the rest of Europe and beyond: Eurolines.