If you’ve never visited the north of Tenerife, you’re missing a big chunk of the culture and history of this magical island. In this blog we hope to whet your appetite to learn more about your favourite holiday destination, by highlighting 20 of the best things to see and do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the island’s capital and largest city.
Located in the northeast of the island, getting to Santa Cruz is simplicity itself. The island’s main motorway runs from the rear of the southern resorts, past the island’s biggest airport (Reina Sofía) and through into Santa Cruz.
On the motorway, you will notice the landscape changing from the barren, dry and desert-like terrain of the south to the lush, greener scenery of pine, palms and tropical foliage as you head further north.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife is an affluent port city and home to around half the island’s population.
The large docks and multiple cruise-line berths are some of the busiest in the world, and provide a major hub for sea freight and cruise liners between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Founded over 500 years ago, there are plenty of things to see and do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Old churches, historic colonial architecture, an old town area, cobbled streets, twisting alleys and traditional markets.
Fabulous Spanish bars, local and international restaurants and modern attractions by some of Spain’s most well-known architects are all waiting to be discovered.
If your stay is a short city break, you’ll have time to visit Playa de Las Teresitas, one of the most attractive beaches in Tenerife.
Do a little window shopping for some of Spain’s most well-known brands. Browse designer labels from around the world, or relax with a coffee on one of the city’s beautiful squares.
Read on, for 20 of the best things to do and see in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
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20 Best Things to do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife
READ ALSO: Best Things to do in Tenerife
1. Stroll the old town area of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
If you’ve parked the car or left the bus opposite the port area, stroll across the colourfully planted Plaza de España (opposite the port), and you are at the beginning of the old town. Plaza de Candelaria, Plaza de Weyler and Calle La Noria Street make up the boundaries of this atmospheric old town quarter.
Not as obvious as some old town districts in other European cities, old Santa Cruz is full of historical buildings, narrow flagstone streets and plazas that entice you to linger a little and soak up the atmosphere.
You will find shops and boutiques offering everything from the latest fashion to homeware and must-have electronic gadgets. And café-bars and restaurants serving the best of Spanish and Canarian cuisine.
Best of all, most of the best things to do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife are just a pleasant stroll from the old town district.
2. Learn the history of the Guanches at the Museum of Nature and Archaeology
Located at C. Fuente Morales, s/n, 38003 Santa Cruz, the neoclassical building housing this interesting collection was once a hospital.
The collection, one of the best to see in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, comprises fossils, preserved plants, algae, insects and various land and marine vertebrates.
It combines with the Natural Sciences of Tenerife Museum and the Museum of Nature and Man – a history of the original Aboriginal population, and houses several Guanche mummies.
3. Explore the Plaza de España
You walked across this square heading to the old town area, but it is best visited towards the end of your day, when you could do with resting those weary legs.
It is the main plaza in the city. Constructed in 1929 and recently refurbished by the renowned Swiss architects of Herzog & de Meuron.
The square has a large artificial lake with fountains, and is bordered by the Palacio del Cabildo de Tenerife, the Palacio de la Carta and the Plaza de la Candelaria.
There are several sculptures around the park, seating, and a street food stall where you can feed the hunger pangs.
If you enjoy romantic strolls when the sun sets, after your evening meal head back to the Plaza de España. As dusk falls, hundreds of lights, many of them shaped like water drops, illuminate the square and the whole provides a picturesque, intimate area where you can sit and gaze across the water to the port.
4. How many varieties can you find at the Santa Cruz Palmetum
Located on a one-time rubbish tip at Avenida Marítima, 5 38003 Santa Cruz, the beautiful Santa Cruz Palmetum is a large park dedicated to the palm tree.
The garden has over 2,000 species of tropical and sub-tropical palms and their related families, all grouped in their geographical areas. Walking through the park, you could be passing palm species from Australia, Africa, the Caribbean or Madagascar.
Work began on the conversion in 1995, and it wasn’t until 2014 that it was finally opened to the public.
In the years since it opened, it has attracted increasing numbers of birds, and is a favourite destination with local bird watchers searching for new species to see in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
The top of the park also provides excellent views across the city and out to sea.
You can buy your entry ticket here.
5. Soak up the atmosphere at the Cooperativa Mercado Nuestra Señora De África
Translated to Our Lady of Africa Market Cooperative, it is located at Av. de San Sebastián, 51, 38003 Santa Cruz. You may be wondering why anyone looking for things to do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife would want to visit a food market, but it’s the atmosphere.
As you walk through the old colonial arch into the market area, you can feel the pulse rising and adrenal starting to flow.
Much like typical markets and bazaars in many African countries, the market is a bustling, throbbing mass of stallholders shouting out their wares and hundreds of residents and hoteliers bartering over the cost of the fruit, veg, meat, fish and other goods.
With food stalls dotted around the market, you can stop and sample some of the many local delicacies.
On Sunday, it becomes a well-known local antiques market.The market is closed on Mondays and open from 9.00am to 14.30pm the rest of the week.
6. Marvel at the modern architecture of the Auditorio de Tenerife Adán Martín
On your journey into the capital, you probably noticed this modern building sitting on the cliff top on the Avenue of the Constitution between Marine Park and the port.
Designed by Santiago Calatrava, it is an 1800-seat auditorium with a 400-seat chamber music hall. Construction of this futuristic building began in 1997 and was completed and opened in September 2003.
Considered one of the finest contemporary structures in the Canaries and mainland Spain, it has featured on Spanish postal stamps and a limited edition release of commemorative 5-euro coins.
It is also one of the top attractions with visitors looking for things to do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Besides numerous conferences, the auditorium runs various cultural activities throughout the year, is one of the venues for the Canary Islands Music Festival, held annually, and is home to the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra.
7. Relax in García Sanabria Park
Located at Calle Méndez Núñez, 38004 Santa Cruz, García Sanabria is the largest urban park in the Canaries. Created in 1926, it is over 67-thousand square metres of pristinely manicured lawns, borders, flower beds, water features, statues and colourful archways.
The name comes from the mayor of the time, who approved and overlooked its construction. It is a park listed as a site of cultural interest by the Tenerife Cabildo (council).
More than just a park, it is the venue of many cultural presentations, exhibitions and food fairs. And one of the favourite meeting points for local singles, couples, friends and families during their free time. The park is open all day, every day.
8. Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. The city’s foremost church
The original Catholic Church of our Lady of the Conception was built in 1498, shortly after Spanish Conquistadors conquered the island. The building you see today, on the same site, was constructed during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Inside the church is a silver altar, a portrait of Don Matías Carta, a wealthy benefactor of the church and painted after his death, and the Holy Cross of the Conquest circa 1494, from where the Santa Cruz name came from. The church organ was sourced in London and fitted in the church in 1862.
It is the only church in the Canaries that has five naves. Although considered the main church to see in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, it is not a cathedral. That honour goes to the Cathedral of La Laguna.
9. The Historical Military Museum of the Canary Islands
For anyone interested in museums, especially military museums, this one should fly to the top of your things to see and do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife list.
The museum is located in a rough triangle between Rambla General Franco and Avenida Francisco La Roche, with the entrance found on Calle San Isidro.
A coastal military fort from 1854 it was known at the time as Almeyda Fort. For many years including through the Spanish Civil War, it was the main barracks of the Tenerife Artillery Regiment before becoming a museum in 1940.
Outside exhibits include American tanks, field artillery pieces, helicopters and other military vehicles. Different rooms within the museum house collections of small arms, rifles, lances, swords, cutlasses and much more.
Another room is given over to the Battle of Santa Cruz against the British, with a couple of authentic flags captured from the Brits and the cannon said to have fired the fateful shot that took Nelson’s arm.
If models and modelling are your interest, one room holds a scale model of the city and port as it was in 1797, with the British fleet positions around the port and the positions of those defending it.
It also contains a flag room. A room with models of all the forts built to defend the city. And a space dedicated to the indigenous Guanches.
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10. Demolished, buried and found again – the Castillo de San Cristobal
Two years in the building, in 1577, the castle of San Cristobal stood proud at the entrance to Santa Cruz harbour, guarding the port and city against all comers right up to 1928.
Its partial demolition in that year was to allow the construction of the Plaza de España, and the remains of the castle were buried under soil, sand, gravel and flagstones.
Some 70 years later, in 2006, major works to refurbish the square were in progress when parts of the castle were (re)discovered. The plaza refurb was halted while further exploration was carried out underground, with the outcome of sections of the old castle’s walls being uncovered.
Today there is an entrance to a tunnel on the seaward side of Plaza de España, where you can walk underground to a small military museum in the castle’s walls and view some of the recovered artefacts.
11. Parroquia de San Francisco de Asís – Church of St. Francis of Assisi
Located at Plaza San Francisco, 13, 38002 Santa Cruz, the Parroquia de San Francisco is the second most important Catholic church in Santa Cruz.
Originally built as a Franciscan convent, the current building was built in 1680, in the Canary Island’s popular Baroque style, with the interior housing three knaves and various artefacts from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The church came to prominence during a Cholera episode in 1893, when a small image representing Jesus Christ was carried at the head of a procession through the city streets. Miraculously, shortly after the procession, the outbreak stopped.
Since then, the image became known as Señor de Santa Cruz, protector of the city, and the church is a highly regarded place of worship by the faithful.
12. Re-enact the Battle of Santa Cruz at the Castle of St John the Baptist
For those who prefer castles over churches, the Castle of St John the Baptist sits on the clifftop near the César Manrique Maritime Park and just behind the Auditorium.
Known as the Black Castle due to the colour of its stone, it was one of the principal forts for the defence of the port and city of Santa Cruz. The castle was built between 1641 and 1644, but was severely damaged through the decades and rebuilt in 1765, with a circular turret added to improve defence capabilities.
It remained a defensive fort until 1924, when the garrison moved out. Empty for 24 years, it was opened as a military museum in 1948 and is a popular attraction with visitors looking for things to see in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Every year in the castle grounds, on the 25th of July, the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife is re-enacted. On this date in 1797, the British fleet, under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson, tried unsuccessfully to invade Santa Cruz, and the enactment is carried out using full historical costumes and equipment.
13. Tenerife Espacio de las Artes – The Museum of Modern Art
Known as Tenerife Arts Space, or TEA, and dedicated to the arts and local culture, it is located on the Avenida San Sebastian. It is located in a large building of over 20,000 square metres..
The permanent collection is primarily from the Canarian surrealist painter Óscar Domínguez. With other acquisitions from the Tenerife Cabildo and public and private collectors.
Since its inauguration, TEA has also held temporary exhibitions from numerous modern artists, including Roland Penrose, Juan Hidalgo, Juan Hidalgo, Angèle Etoundi Essamba, Thomas Ruff, Pablo Picasso, Fernando Álamo, Clemente Bernad and many more too numerous to mention here.
It also has an exhibition of work by Canarian artists through the 20th century, and works post-1975 by local artists that have made an impression on the international art world.
The Photographic Centre includes works from international photographers, although much focuses on the landscape and topography of Tenerife and the Canary Isles. An extensive library is open to all, and the complex has a large square where you will find seating and a pleasant café/bar.
14. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – National Museum of Fine Arts
Constructed in 1929 by architect Eladio Laredo, the building was first used to store historical artefacts in 1840. In the 1930s, it was converted to hold art exhibitions, and became The National Museum of Fine Arts.
Located at C. José Murphy, 12, 38002 Santa Cruz, the museum has fourteen rooms dedicated to exhibiting fine art from the 16th to the 20th century.
The exterior is decorated with ten busts of prominent Tenerifian writers, poets, musicians, composers, playwrights, historians, engineers and painters.
Today, the museum exhibits works by leading European artists of their time and numerous pieces by well-known Canarian artists. The museum also holds book signings, lectures and recitals.
Opening times are Tuesday through Friday, 10.00 to 20.00 and Saturday and Sunday, 10.00 to 15.00.
15. Let the kids get wet at Parque Marítimo César Manrique
Not every visitor looking for things to see and do in Tenerife wants to pass their time in museums and churches. Many just want to soak up the atmosphere, stroll the city streets, do a little shopping, stop at a pavement café – and find things to keep the kids happy.
Parque Marítimo, designed by lauded Canarian architect César Manrique before his untimely death, was opened in 1995. This magnificent saltwater park covers over 60,000 square metres.
Close to the auditorium, well sign-posted and with a large car park, it will allow the whole family to cool off and give the kids a welcome break.
Decorated with palm trees and local flora, you won’t find any flumes or water slides here. Just plenty of space to lay your towels, three swimming pools, terraces, solariums, restaurants and changing rooms.
Open seven days a week, the park is highly popular with residents and can get very busy on weekends and bank holidays.
16. Break out the plastic at some of the best shopping areas in Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Forget the souvenir shops and cut-price look-alike electronic stores of the south. Here is where the residents do their serious shopping.
Whether it’s just a little window shopping or some serious bend-the-plastic shopping, Santa Cruz has some excellent stores and malls, where you can get an idea of what the locals are queueing up for.
El Corte Ingles – Spain’s equivalent to the UK’s John Lewis or Debenhams.
With stores across the mainland and the islands, El Corte Ingles is one of Spain’s most prominent department chains.
Stepping off the bus at the main terminal, you can see the store as you look up the hill. El Corte Ingles sells everything from foodstuffs to DIY items, homeware to cosmetics and electronics to clothing.
A few of the major brands available in El Corte Ingles include Armani, Adolfo Domínguez, Calvin Klein, Diesel, DKYN, Hugo Boss, Karen Millen, Fred Perry, Lacoste, Reebok, Guess and many others. The chain also offers discounted items, which you can benefit from by producing your passport.
Tres de Mayo Shopping Mall – Next door to Corte Ingles, Tres de Mayo is numerous retail outlets under one roof, including Puruficación García and Adolfo Domínguez, both high-rollers in luxury goods such as clothing, shoes, bags and accessories.
If you’re interested in the latest high-quality electronics, there is also a Media Market on site.
Calle Castillo – for those who prefer to walk and browse. Calle Castillo is a popular street with a good mix of normal Spanish high-street brands and a selection of international designer stores.
You will also find plenty of cafes and bars where you can stop, grab a bite, and take in the scenery.
17. Spend some time at picture-perfect Playa de Las Teresitas
If you thought pristinely clean beaches of fine golden sand and swaying palm trees were only in the realm of the island’s south, think again.
Just outside the city boundary lies the small village of San Andrés and the picturesque Las Teresitas Beach. Considered by many beach-loving locals to be the prettiest beach anywhere on the island, Las Teresitas stretches for a mile along the coast.
With palm trees growing on the sand, shops, bars and restaurants running along the rear of the beach and in the village, you can spend a whole day just relaxing and recharging the batteries.
You will find plenty of space through the weekdays, but beware, at weekends and bank holidays, the place gets very busy with locals arriving from all over the island.
18. Rambla de Santa Cruz – Santa Cruz Avenue
Probably one of the most serenely attractive city walks you will find to do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Rambla de Santa Cruz, formally Rambla de Tenerife, is nearly two kilometres of wide avenue stretching from the Plaza de la Paz to the Avenida de Anaga.
Constructed in 1661, it remains to this day one of the major streets in the city. Grand 18th and 19th-century townhouses, mansions and villas stand alongside big chain stores, independent shops, bars, hotels and restaurants.
You will find numerous statues along the way, gloriously colourful raised borders and tall trees. There are benches to rest awhile, kiosks selling magazines and prepacked snacks, and street food vendors for those wanting a little more.
19. Plaza el Príncipe de Asturias – a beautiful city centre park
Right in the heart of the city, at Villalba Hervás, 19, 27, 38002 Santa Cruz, this pretty park was constructed on the grounds of an old Franciscan Convent during the late 1800s.
Designed by architects Manuel de Oraá and Arcocha, in honour of Alfonso XII, it has two statues at the entrance depicting Spring and Summer, and a third statue by sculptor Hanneke Beaumont in the park called Courage.
The cooling sound of water can be heard from the nearby fountain, and there is a pleasant rotunda built in 1929 and surrounded by birch figs, where you can relax and discuss the day’s events.
20. Carnival time in Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Surpassed only by the Rio de Janeiro carnival in Brazil, Carnival Santa Cruz de Tenerife is a spectacular costume, dancing, and musical extravaganza, that normally begins in the last week of January, and rocks through until the end of the first week in March.
If there is only one day that you can get up to Santa Cruz, make it the day of the opening parade and street carnival. Get the first bus from the south to Santa Cruz (leave the car at home), and you’re ready to party.
One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, join the thousands of others from around the world and party. Everywhere will be closed (except for the bars and eateries).
People will be lining the carnival route, or strolling the streets eating, drinking, taking photographs and listening to the street musicians and buskers. All will be having a great time.