I sit on a beach towel so new it has that new towel smell in the shade of Cadiz’s pier about 30 feet from the ocean water and build a sandcastle with my boys. Thanks to the shade and calm waters due to the sheltered harbor, it’s the first time I can remember building a sand castle without getting sunburned and smacked by waves, and I actually find it enjoyable. When an elderly sun-weathered local man wanders by selling ice cold cans of beer for a Euro, I know I’ve discovered my ideal beach and potentially the best vacation spot I’ve ever stumbled upon in Cadiz.
While the Costa del Sol on Spain’s southern coast gets all the attention through massive condos and resorts and millions of tourists, Cadiz sits higher up in Andalucía and manages to stay a bit quieter. The beaches are more popular with locals on break than with tourists from around Europe. Thanks to this, there’s a more local vibe and things just feel friendlier. It’s not only the individuals selling beer at one euro versus huge bars selling for eight elsewhere, it’s the local teenagers who take over the beach at sunset, the aerobics classes populated by the locals on the beach in the morning, and a beach that has prime real estate not taken over by massive hotel resorts.
Cadiz lays just off the beaten path for Southern Spain visitors, but it’s the local charm that makes it special. The beaches are just as sunny and relaxing. The prices are even more affordable, and the numerous traditional local eateries and bars stick around because they are excellent. Thanks to Spain’s excellent high speed rail network, it’s also easy to get to from many of Spain’s popular cities. Cadiz makes for the perfect spot to relax on vacation, especially with a family.
Cadiz is well connected via Spain’s AVE high speed rail network and is easy to get to via car. Like many cities in Spain, navigating around the historic city center is not recommended with a car as numerous pedestrian only and one way streets make it painful. Instead, head for one of the parking garages and hoof it. The city is small enough to get around on foot, even when pushing a stroller. Some of the best parts are only possible to experience on foot as well.
Where to stay:
We stayed at the Casa Palacio Cadiz with our two boys because we needed some extra space. It turned out to be one of the largest rooms / apartments I’ve ever had. We ended up with a spacious two bedroom apartment with a separate living area and kitchen which was great for us to make some breakfast in the morning and relax to get out of the scorching sun in the middle of the day. The boys even had a room decorated with a New York City theme which they loved. The location was fantastic for getting around town and having plenty to do in the immediate area during the day and at night.
What to see:
As with any city in Europe, especially Spain, the Cathedral and Central Market are the main historic sites and most worth the visit. The Cathedral lacks the huge overwhelming impression of size that those in Seville and Valencia impact, and doesn’t have the same historical significance like the tomb of Columbus that those have, but it’s still impressive and can be seen over much of the town. The market is a great place to grab a bite and possibly stock up on provisions or anything left at home before heading to the beach.
The best beach in Cadiz has to be the popular Playa La Caleta. While there are plenty of other beaches along the neck of land that connects the mainland, La Caleta sits right at the end and is smack in the middle of town. It’s a bit smaller, but it’s such a great beach for a facility to get to easily and to enjoy the best aspects of a beach day without sacrificing convenience. There are nearby beach bars, convenient restrooms, and a good part of the beach gets some shade throughout the day thanks to the pier and buildings.
Situated out in the water right near La Caleta is the imposing fortress of Castilo de San Sebastian. It may not guard the harbor from pirates these days, but the long walkway out there and the ramparts make for a nice walk right along the water and some great views of the town. Though the castle itself closes at night, the walkway is still open and makes for a nice evening stroll.
There’s one more stroll that absolutely can’t be missed in Cadiz, the waterfront walk along the Avenida Campo del Sur. Even if it were possible to drive around the rest of the town, I’d still suggest leaving the car behind and walking just for this stretch. Perched high up above the ocean, the esplanade here overlooks a long stretch of the coast and the dynamic waves crashing up against the boulders of the cliffs. A walk through town is nice, but take a slight detour when walking between the beach and town for this walkway.
Where to eat:
Locals know to head to Churreria la Guapa at a stall right in the central market first thing in the morning to get a healthy serving of fresh crispy churros wrapped in nothing more than some brown paper. These churros were so cheap that I thought I had made a mistake with my change at first. Though maybe not the healthiest food to start the day with, they’re a great special treat that everyone in the family will enjoy and actually work great as beach food.
Once the day begins with fried food, it’s hard not to continue it. Since this is a huge fishing town, it’d be foolish not to overindulge on fried seafood. Freidura Marisqueria Las Flores serves the best in town with a huge selection. It can be a bit daunting, but just grab a number and wait for a while with everyone else until called. Forget about the menu, just point at whatever comes out from the kitchen or otherwise looks good from the counter and go with it. The spicy dogfish bites were my absolute favorite, but the squid was also good and even the fried roe which I didn’t have high hopes for was tasty.
For something a bit fresher, Sondemar is perfect for a bit more atmosphere and some fresh caught seafood. The outside seating is also quite nice for families with rambunctious kids after a long day in the sun. Not only was the catch of the day cooked beautifully and skillfully with simple ingredients, the wine selection went perfectly with it and helped put the cap on a special day.
La Taberna del Anteojo is another good option for fresh fish and thanks to the large outdoor patio that actually overlooks the water, it’s good with kids as well. The catch of the day here was some of the best fresh seafood I’ve ever had, even with just a simple preparation and a side of potatoes. The boys loved the paella and ended up hooked on it for the rest of the trip.
One of my favorite parts of a beach day is heading off the beach for sundowner drinks. At Quilla, right on the beach, the view can’t be beat and the drinks are top notch. A sangria made with fresh fruit and some local house red wine is perfect as the sun sets. While we sipped it and the sun set over the water, the boys enjoyed reading books and playing with dinosaurs.
It’s really only on vacation that we eat ice cream, but there’s something special about a cone of helado in Spain, especially after a long day in the Spanish sun. Salon Italiano Heladeria has a huge selection and is conveniently located right along the main pedestrian area, making it perfect for a scoop to take on the way back to the hotel. The fruit flavors highlight some of the bounty of Spain’s tropical fruits while more artificial flavors like Nutella or Kinder chocolate are just what I crave.
For a large city right on the water along Spain’s coast, Cadiz is still a bit of a hidden gem. Unlike the rest of the Costa del Sol, Cadiz isn’t inundated with tourists from Germany, France, and the UK. It’s still possible to experience what the city must have been like traditionally and to find little slices of local life unlike at the big resort towns. With a perfect beach and some truly epic food, especially that sourced right from the sea, it’s an ideal vacation spot. While you won’t find Range Rovers and Ferraris, you will find one euro beer and fresh fish right off the boat. Don’t miss out.