Tarifa, Spain wasn’t supposed to be the destination…until it was. The plan was actually to take the ferry from this sleepy town across to Morocco. Except mother nature had different plans in the way of 100mph winds at sea. This translates into no sailing and a closed port.
Quickly changing course, I was left wondering about the things to do in Tarifa. I admit I hadn’t done much research. After all, the plan had been to dip a toe into Africa by going from Tarifa to Tangier.
So, whether you find yourself in town unexpectedly or not, this guide has what to do in Tarifa and how to make the best of your stay in town.
Where is Tarifa, Spain?
Before sharing what I discovered in the way of Tarifa things to do, it makes sense to take a geography break. Not only did it play a role in the wind on the day of my visit but it also puts the town’s long unstable history into context.
Tarifa is the most southern point in Spain and on the European continent. It sits along the Straits of Gibraltar, just 9 miles from the northern coast of Africa. (So close, yet so far!)
This strait is the only place where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea mix, which creates churning seas and typically windy conditions. (That’s where the Tarifa kitesurfing comes in.)
Given the position of this channel, it’s not hard to fathom why this port town was conquered and re-conquered over and over going back to the Roman Empire, the Moors, the Christians and everyone in between. Its strategic position was an asset for trade and military might. Even today, the strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes on the planet.
You can find a Tarifa hotel in every budget range. The closer you are to the water and the old town the better, especially if you have an early boat to catch for a Morocco adventure.
Keep in mind, hotels in Tarifa get booked during the warmer months, as northern Europeans take time off to enjoy the beaches of southern Spain. Be sure to book ahead if your Tarifa trip is in the summer.
I stayed at the Hotel Misiana and had a fantastic stay. The hotel is within a couple of minutes walk to the port of Tarifa, the castle, the Church of San Mateo, the beaches and more. There’s also a restaurant attached to the hotel, which serves delicious food throughout the day including a full hotel breakfast.
There’s a reason why it’s recognized as one of the best hotels in Tarifa. The beds were comfortable and the room was spotless. The staff went above and beyond to help me get the most from my stay in Tarifa.
10 Little-Known Things to Do in Tarifa Spain
Visitors come mostly to go from Tarifa to Morocco or to kitesurf and relax along Tarifa’s beaches.
With the ferry out and no kitesurfing in my future, that left the beach and exploring the old town. You can imagine 100mph winds at sea makes for a less than pleasant beach outing. With sand and wind blowing in all directions, a quick stop to see the beach was all I could manage before giving way to the threat of a capsizing faceplant.
1. Take the ferry from Tarifa to Tangier.
It makes sense to start this guide with the most popular reason many travelers come to Tarifa. Whether you’re interested in a Morocco day trip or plan to spend a few days, the ferry from Spain to Morocco is less than an hour-long ride.
And while nearby Algeciras is another port town with boats to Morocco, the Tarifa to Tangier route is the best for day-trippers. Not to mention, Tarifa offers more in the way of restaurants and a walkable old town.
A few things to keep in mind if you’re planning to take the ferry to Morocco. If you’ve driven to Tarifa, there’s parking available. However, in high season which starts in April and runs through October, it’s
wise to investigate all parking options before arriving in town. Reservations may be necessary.
I arranged a private tour for Tangier beforehand. The guide was taking care of logistics like ferry tickets and having our passports stamped without waiting in the line on the ship. There will also be guides for hire once you arrive in Tangier. Whichever you choose, it’s smart to go with a guide in Tangier.
Lastly, even though it can be hard to keep a level of flexibility in your travel itinerary, especially when you have a set time to travel and hotels require days notice to cancel without penalty, remember the ferry is at the mercy of the elements.
If you want to check the Tarifa weather for your visit, use Windguru Tarifa. This website shows the wind and water in Tarifa and so you know what the conditions are at sea and at the port before you arrive in town.
2. Enjoy a day at the beach.
The beach is accessible just steps away from Tarifa’s old town and near to the ship port. The unique feature of the Tarifa beach scene is once again due to its geography. Its beaches are situated along both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. There’s a land bridge dividing the two which leads out to a rocky outcropping with a lighthouse. You can walk along the road and onto either beach. The Mediterranean side has a wider beach and, even with my windy day, had calmer seas than the Atlantic side.
No matter when you visit, it’s worth a walk down to the sand. How many times will you be able to walk along, swim in, or kitesurf on both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on the same day?! You can even book a kitesurfing lesson if you’d like to try it out.
3. Go on a Tarifa whale watching excursion.
Boats leave from the port of Tarifa and explore the waters in the Strait of Gibraltar in search of the whales and dolphins who live in the waters off the coast of Spain. Several species live in the waters including pilot whales, orcas, and bottlenose dolphins. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see different types based on where they are in their migration.
I can’t speak from experience since I visited on such a windy day in early spring but the reception at the hotel where I stayed told me summer tours can book up so it’s best to reserve in advance.
4. Climb the towers of Castillo Guzman el Bueno.
Nowhere is the town’s historic past as a strategic port town more evident than from the top of the Castle Guzman el Bueno. Tarifa’s castle makes perfect logistical sense whether you’re a Moorish conqueror from long ago or a freight ship of today. Looking south and east from the towers, a castle guard would have spied an imposing threat from the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea with plenty of time to prepare for whatever was coming.
Inside the castle, there’s little left to see. An exhibit tells the story of the Christian General Guzman who sacrificed his son when given an ultimatum by an army of invading Moors to save his son or the castle.
5. Visit the Church of San Mateo.
Spain is undoubtedly a religious country and as such, each town has its own church or cathedral no matter its size. Tarifa’s is a reminder that every church need not be a grand cathedral to be historic.
While the outside face of the church is striking in appearance, the decor inside is subdued. The church peacefully welcomed worshippers and visitors, while a woman swept away sand from the entrance.
Like many places of worship in southern Spain, the Church of San Mateo was built atop a former mosque. A tombstone dating back to the Visigoths in the 600s even gives clues about Tarifa’s Christian past before the town was conquered by Arab Moors in the 700s.
6. Explore Tarifa’s old town.
Just outside the Church of San Mateo, you’ll find old town Tarifa’s main street lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels. From here, wander the maze-like side streets in search of cafes, trinket shops, and gelaterias.
Small, but certainly not lacking charm, Tarifa’s narrow alleyways reveal its Arab past. Notice the keyhole arches of Tarifa’s Islamic architecture and the historic walls surrounding the town, which are still
visible today. Don’t miss Puerta de Jerez, the last-standing Moorish gate dating back to the 13th century.
7. See a truly local market.
As you wander the old town, you’ll inevitably pass through the Islamic-style arch of Tarifa’s Mercado, or market. Inside, it has a small square layout with an open gathering place at the center.
Miles away from the people-filled Boqueria market in Barcelona or the glamourous Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, Tarifa’s market is lined with local vendors along the perimeter. This is where the local farmers bring their fresh produce or the fisherman sells the catch of the day.
Locals mingle with each other and exchange smiles, hugs, and greetings. As a visitor, it was more a place to see the local culture on display instead of a place to sit at a counter for tapas bites.
8. See the Roman Ruins at Playa de Bolonia.
About 14 miles northeast of Tarifa’s old town center, Playa del Bolonia has the ruins of a Roman town along its Atlantic Ocean beach. The ruins and Bolonia beach sit inside Estrecho Park, 1 of 2 natural protected areas around Tarifa where visitors can hike.
The Roman ruins are considered some of the best in all of Spain, while the beach is still an off-the-beaten-path gem for anyone looking for a restful day on one of Europe’s prettiest beaches.
9. Eat fresh seafood.
I didn’t eat tuna tartar until I did. (It actually started in Barcelona at Cal Pep.) So, when the waiter at Misiana Restaurant in Tarifa recommended the truffled local tuna tartar, a Tarifa specialty, I decided to give it a try.
Delicious doesn’t even do the dish justice, nevermind the perfect seasoning and presentation. And, if you’re not enthused by eating raw fish, try any of Tarifa’s seafood. You’re steps from the ocean and your meal couldn’t be any fresher.
10. Take a day trip from Tarifa.
If you’ve run into weather issues as I did or want to base yourself in Tarifa, plan a day trip to a nearby city. Cadiz to Tarifa is just 75 minutes away by car and offers some of the best beaches in Europe and a classic city center with historic walks and delicious food.
Tarifa to Seville is just over a 2-hour drive and has its spectacular Alcazar and Gothic Cathedral. Not to mention an out-of-this-world food scene and fantastic flamenco. La Linea de la Concepcion, the place where you cross the Spanish border into Gibraltar, is under an hour’s drive, as well.
The main draw to Tarifa is unquestionably its proximity to Morocco and its beaches. However, if you find yourself in town with time to spare, why not set off to discover Tarifa’s history and the local culture along this coastal Spanish town.
What things to do in Tarifa would you like to do?
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