If you’re a Guiri visiting Andalusia, you’d be forgiven (and probably even thanked) by the local people for not knowing where Barbate was.
Formerly Barbate de Franco (a favourite holiday spot of the former dictator), Barbate is more or less equidistant between the cities of Cadiz and Tarfia and is an eclectic mix of people, sights and pastimes.
When it comes to the coastline’s natural beauty, the views are jaw-dropping.
Situated outside the Strait of Gibraltar, Barbate’s sprawling golden sand beaches and sheer cliff coastline face the open South European Atlantic, part of the South European Atlantic Marine ecoregion, at the confluence of the tropical and temperate Eastern Atlantic and the Alboran Sea within the Mediterranean.
From gorgeous, untrammelled beaches with sweeping views of North Africa to pine forest, cactus and scrub trails that stretch for kilometres along the Camino Sendero Arco Atlantico, Barbate is well worth going out of your way to visit if you plan on spending any time in Andalucia.
Here are nine reasons to visit Barbate, Spain.
Table of Contents
Number 1: hiking and mountain biking
Spain is one of those countries (particularly Andalucia) where you’re confronted by breathtaking scenery everywhere you look.
It is also a country with an admirable number of national parks and wilderness areas, especially in Andalucia, and Barbate is no exception.
I spent a lot of my time in Barbate running and hiking the gorgeous La Breña y Marismas National Park, which starts just the western edge of the town.
What starts out as a trail that takes you along a series of empty, gorgeous beaches and sand dunes:
Climbs up into the hills and cliffs and becomes this beautiful pine and arid scrub-lined hiking, running and mountain biking trail with non-stop vistas of Morocco’s Rif Mountains and the open Atlantic.
The people of Barbate and the surrounding areas are lucky to have such gorgeous natural areas at their front door, and it was nice to see so many people taking advantage of it.
Number 2: the watersports
Barbate and its environs–places like Caños de Meca, Faro de Trafalgar, Tarfia and, of course, the world-famous El Palamr–are the premier surfing destinations in Spain.
In fact, if any demographic of foreigners already knows about how wonderful Barbate is, it would be the European surfing community. Even during November and December, there were people out (in wetsuits, of course) all day, every day.
The water wasn’t even that cold while I was there (averaged around 17-18 Celsius), with an air temperature of about the same.
There are also a lot of surf schools in the area–both local and those coming from further afield places like Tarifa.
I’m not a surfer, so I wouldn’t know how to rate the waves here, but the consensus from the local surfers and surf schools after a cursory Google search seems to be that Barbate is good for all levels.
I’ve never really been tempted to learn to surf (I’d way rather be under the waves than riding them), but the scenery alone off the coast of Barbate is enough to make you want to get in the water.
Barbate seems like a great place for watersports in general. I saw people kayaking, paddleboarding and bodysurfing, as well as plenty of vans advertising windsurfing, wind-foiling and kite surfing.
Barbate would have been a fantastic place for a standup paddle board, especially one kitted out for fishing.
There is also scuba diving to be done in the area–although the one dive shop in the town of Barbate appeared to be either permanently or seasonally closed. You might have to look at dive shops out of the surrounding towns if you’re interested in checking out underwater.
Number 3: fantastic seafood
Barbate, like all of coastal Andalucia, is also a phenomenal place if you love seafood. I’m always torn when I’m somewhere like Barbate because there is nothing better (or healthier) than fresh seafood, but I know how big of a problem overfishing and illegal fishing is (especially of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna).
Thanks to some serious reforms over the last couple of decades, however, Atlantic Bluefin Tuna stocks have largely rebounded, with the population “continuing to trend upward”, in the words of the WWF, so I indulged.
Pretty much every place that sells food in Barbate, from the more upscale beachfront bistros to the hole-in-the-wall bars, sells tuna in at least one form–whether it’s a full-on steak, tataki style or smoked in a montadito.
If you’re looking to buy fresh-caught seafood in Barbate, then you’ll want to visit the Mercado de Abastos.
If you want to get delicious homemade preserved fish–smoked sardines in olive oil, boquerones in vinegar, etc.–you’ll want to visit the Delicias de Barbate shop adjacent to the marina.
Number 4: the fishing
The waters off Barbate are rich, and the town is built around the fishing industry. Between May and June, when the mighty Atlantic Bluefin Tuna migrates from the open Atlantic into the Mediterranean through the straight of Gibraltar, Barbate is the first part of the gauntlet through which they must pass.
This, of course, has made Barbate Spain’s official capital of Tuna–fished in the traditional almadraba style. The below video is worth a watch, even if you don’t speak Spanish:
One of my favourite things about Barbate was how ingrained fishing was in the culture. Old and young men fished everywhere.
You would see 20-year-olds with trap star haircuts riding around on eScooters, fishing rods strapped to their backs, and old me along men clustered along the sides of the Barbate River in plastic chairs, smoking and chatting while they waited for the bream to bite.
I wasn’t interested in going out fishing while I was there, but there are plenty of opportunities for chartered fishing if you’re interested. I also saw many guys shore fishing with giant surf fishing rods.
Number 5: van/caravan living
As a Canadian and someone who is so used to the idea of people living in vehicles being constantly harassed by law enforcement, I have never seen somewhere so friendly to people living in vans, campers and caravans as Barbate.
There appeared to be several designated parking spots in and outside of the city and they looked like a lot of fun.
Pretty much anywhere you look along the Costa de Luz is stunning, and it made sense that there were so many vans from all over Europe in the town.
Number 6: a lot of grocery shopping options
For a town of just over 20,000 people, I was really surprised by the number of grocery shopping options in Barbate. It had a Mercadona, a Lidl and an Aldi, as well as the big main market and the standard neighbourhood fruit and vegetable stores.
This made living in Barbate for the month we were there very convenient. The local Mercadona also, for whatever reason, had a fantastic wine selection. Both the Fidencio Tempranillo (La Mancha) and the Mar de Uvas Syrah were great little sub-3 EUR bottles.
It is very easy to stay in Barbate for a month or two at a time.
Number 7: affordable Airbnb options
Outside of the Costa de Sol (Fuengirola, Marbella, Torremolinos, etc.), Airbnb prices along Andalucia’s coast are not that outrageous. Of course, you’re going to be paying above market, and it’s season-dependent, but you can still rent gorgeous little seaside homes in places like Barbate for under 1000 EUR a month.
Your options are limited because there simply isn’t the demand to justify a large Airbnb economy somewhere like Barbate (thankfully), but there are plenty of options both on the beach and further into the town and they are affordable.
Number 8: live music
The number of live music options around Barbate is another big plus, especially the flamenco. I stayed at an Airbnb that was a stone’s throw from the most famous peña flamenca in town and they had wonderful live flamenco every Friday evening.
The bar was full of local people clapping along and shouting the occasional ole.
It also has very good and affordable food, wine and tapas.
Number 9: the weather
The weather in Barbate is fantastic. Even during November and December, it rarely dipped below 15-16 degrees during the day.
While more exposed to Atlantic Ocean weather systems than holiday spots further east (i.e., the Costa del Sol), Barbate is pleasant all year round.
What I didn’t like about Barbate
Now, the things that I didn’t like so much about Barbate.
Exceptional gross streets
First up, the gross streets. Streets in Spain tend to be disgusting places in general, but Barbate was a whole new level for me. I’ve never seen so much dog shit on a European street before.
In fact, the only other place in the world with a similar abundance of dog faeces was Egypt.
The Spanish don’t pick up dog shit, and in Barbate, it really shows. You really have to be looking at the ground all the time to avoid stepping in it (along with the gum and spit).
I’m Canadian, and I’m used to a certain level of largely insincere, though nonetheless omnipresent politeness.
Canadians have this reputation (undeserved) for being particularly pleasant people. They’re not. In fact, Canadians are probably the most passive-aggressive people you will meet anywhere.
The pathological politeness you find everywhere in Canada is a conflict-avoidance tactic.
I’m telling you this because I often find that Canadians easily get their feelings hurt when they travel outside of their safe space for the first time. “Why wasn’t the waiter pretending to be my best friend?” “Why did the person I asked for directions in the street not smile warmly at me?” “Nobody is saying please or thank you to me, boohoo.”
Even accounting for annoying Canadian neediness, I found people in Barbate impolite. At first, I thought they might not have liked foreigners in their town, or maybe assumed I was from the UK and had had bad experiences with the very often boorish Brits that visit Andalucia.
But after a while, I noticed it wasn’t just me. People were just abrupt, curt and standoffish with everyone, even amongst themselves.
Chalk it up to a cultural difference, I guess, but it’s kind of jarring when your default setting is middle-class British/Canadian politeness.
Hard to get to without a vehicle
I quite liked this about Barbate because it meant a much more authentic Andalucian Spanish experience. Most of my time in Spain has been spent along the Costa del Sol, and I was deliberately trying to avoid that tackiness.
The tradeoff is that Barbate is hard to get to if you don’t have a vehicle. I drove here, but it would be at least two buses from Malaga or Sevilla to get here (maybe more).
Getting to Barbate
There are basically three ways to get to Barbate:
There are busses (a series of them) that will get you to Barbate from Malaga, Cadiz and Tarifa.
This is the best option, of course. If you drive to Barbate from Malaga, you can take the detour through the beautiful Alcornocales National Park (instead of the more direct route via Algeciras).
The road is not great if you get motion sick, though.
The closest airports to Barbate are Jerez and Gibraltar (both around 90km and an hour’s drive). Malaga is around 2.5 hours, and Sevilla is about 2 hours.
Barbate, Cadiz has something for everyone
I thoroughly enjoyed my month in Barbate. Having picked it, in large part, at random off the map –we were looking for a town that was close enough to Gibraltar and Fuengirola that my girlfriend’s friends and family could visit but far enough from the bullshit of the Costa del Sol that we felt secluded)–it turned out to be quite a find.
If you want beautiful nature and coastal scenery, it’s got that. If you want great food, it definitely has that (as does all of Spain, to be fair). If you want nightlife, it’s got that. If you are looking for a convenient and affordable short-term stay, there are plenty of options for that. If you’re a surfer or watersports enthusiast, you could spend all day, every day on the ocean here.
There isn’t much written about Barbate online, and most of what exists is in Spanish, so hopefully, this works as a decent preliminary report on the town, the surrounding area and what it has to offer.
Any questions, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email.