La Coruna, Spain: Rio in disguise?
- Recommended for:
- Beach, Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
It may be remote, but La Coruna in northern Spain is well worth a weekend visit for beaches, bars, sumptuous seafood and multitudinous museums. Enjoy, or 'disfruta', as the locals might say
Arrive in La Coruna on a summer’s day, stroll along the beaches, and you may think that you’ve arrived in a shrunk-down Rio de Janeiro. Admittedly, there are no ‘dental floss’ bikinis or young men betting on beach volleyball matches, but this northern Spanish city’s perfect location on a curving beachfront is very special.
Apart from the beaches, La Coruna has a compact Old Town and more museums – free or reasonably-priced – than a modestly-sized city deserves. Its location exposes it to the sometimes wild Atlantic Ocean, but even in poor weather, watching the waves batter the rocks is hypnotic. Add in enough excellent restaurants and bars to give you indecision and a weight problem, plus the world’s oldest working lighthouse and a glass circular lift from which to view it all, and you have enough reasons to spend a couple of days in this pleasant corner of northwest Spain.
The city has historically attracted the interest of traders and invaders – the welcome and unwelcome. Celts, Romans, Phoenicians, French and British: their traces can be found throughout the city.
Old Town houses are adorned with the famous ‘gallery’ windows, which allow sun onto the inhabitants’ balconies while defying the wind. As you may discover, sun and wind are often simultaneous. The windows are responsible for the city's two nicknames: ‘The Glass City,’ and ‘Balcony onto the Atlantic.’
Recent investment has funded projects such as museums, an aquarium and the longest maritime promenade in Europe, allowing pedestrians, joggers and cyclists to circle the city centre while wave-watching.
Where to stay
Places to stay stretch across the price range. Finding a bed is not a problem - except during high season (June to mid-October), Semana Santa (Easter Week) and other festival days, when advanced booking is needed.
Prices plummet outside the above times, making the better hotels very affordable. With a flexible budget, you might splash out on Hesperia Finisterre, the only five-star hotel within the city centre. It is located on the seafront, but the bonus comes from guests’ access to a sports centre, with gym, seawater swimming pools etc.
Hotel Riazor is unbeatable for location. A seafront three-star, it offers tremendous views over the action on Riazor beach. Make sure you get a room with a sea view.
How to get around
Most places of interest are situated within an area compact enough to favour walking. Traffic volumes are low, particularly in the Old Town, where the pedestrian is boss.
The excellent tourist office (Plaza de Maria Pita, 6) will arm you with brochures to visit all major sights. The following route can be crammed into one day, or lingered over leisurely in two.
From the Plaza Maria Pita end of the Avenida de la Marina, marvel at the glass galleries facing the marina, then return to Plaza Maria Pita with its imposing ‘Modernist’ Town Hall and outdoor cafés.
Next, you’re into the peace of the Old Town. Wander around, certain that you’ll stumble across points of interest, antique shops and cafés. You should stroll through the Plaza del General Azcarrega and the Jardines de San Carlos (San Carlos Gardens). It’s a short walk to the San Anton Castle and Museum, once a prison but now a history and archaeology museum.
Step outside the Old Town onto the Paseo Maritimo, and catch the tram along the promenade, getting off at the city’s landmark structure, the Torre Hercules -the world’s oldest working lighthouse. Impressive and impressively-named, this truly represents the city’s long history of outward-facing, seafaring traditions. Every night, the beam from its light is visible 25 miles away. Close your hotel room curtains, if you’ve chosen the seafront option!
From the top, look at the deadly rocks below you, remember that this is the Costa del Muerte (The Coast of Death) and ponder the often violent weather; lighthouses are important around here.
Next along the Paseo is the Casa de los Peces (House of the Fish) aquarium, then you’ll reach Domus, Casa del Hombre (The Mankind Museum), full of interactive modules. The museum’s proud motto is: ‘It’s forbidden not to touch.’
Then hit those beaches. Surf or swim – conditions permitting. Dry off, hop on a bus at Praza do Pontevedra, get off again for the Ascensor Panaramico. This lift takes you to the top of Mount San Pedro, where you get a tremendous view of La Coruna’s privileged location.
Let your eyes sweep across the bay, then head back to town. It's tapas time.
Where to eat
A tapas crawl in La Coruna is fun, though the tapas are not handed out free with the drinks. Delicious baby squid and caramelised mackerel are available, in amongst more standard tortillas or ham croquettes. Try the many bars along Calle Barreira. Interestingly, there is an annual tapas competition, and you can pick up a guide to the winners' signature dishes from the Tourist Office. O Tizon (Arenal 9), is worth a detour for its award-winning stuffed mussels.
And La Coruna abounds with restaurants. Seafood features strongly, but there are plenty of other options. To compare a number of decent menus in one street, Rua Capitan Troncoso plays host to a number eateries. Elsewhere, Coral (Callejon de la Estacada, 9) is an establishment with a deserved reputation, specialising in seafood cooked with invention. Try the cigalas (prawns) - delicious. Mirador de San Pedro (on Monte San Pedro) offers spectacular views over sea and city. It contains a fine restaurant and massive wine list.
Fast food is poorly catered for but with so much tapas why do you need it? You can find pizza, hamburgers or kebabs if necessary. Gasthof (www.gasthof.es), distinctly un-Spanish sounding, has eight city outlets, offering a wide range of reasonably-priced food from salads and hamburgers to more substantial meals - a good choice for price-conscious families.
There are plenty of basic bars where the locals drink, and more smartly-furnished café-bars. Both have their charms. Dublin 50 (Panaderas, 50), is an Irish bar should you need a pint of Guinness, but unusually for its genre it’s a quiet haven with a tasteful interior. Occasionally, live music is played - Latino rather than Irish folk. Tortoni, (Rua San Nicolas, opposite the San Nicolas church) has nicely-styled décor, relaxed atmosphere and good coffee.
For shopping, there are interesting boutiques on three streets: pedestrianised Calles Real, Riego de Auga and Bailen. They also host designer fashion shops and souvenir outlets, with decorative shop fronts as intriguing as their contents. In the Old Town, you’ll find antique stores, selling General Franco clocks and other indispensables.
If you can go in August, La Coruna erupts into festival mode with music, crafts, book fairs and dancing.
This city may not have been on your radar so far. Perhaps it's time to visit.
How to get there
Most flights to the city’s Alvedro Airport are domestic, but there are some from London (www.vueling.com).