It’s fair to say that culture and history are not the top draw for travelers to Tenerife, the Canary Island that many consider the jewel of Spain’s resort archipelago.
But just a 15-minute drive through verdant forests from the beaches of Tenerife’s main city, Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal de la Laguna — commonly known as simply La Laguna — is a city that may challenge your notions of a Canary Islands vacation.
La Laguna has no beach (it does, however, have the main Tenerife airport). Its historic center, with hundreds of architecturally distinguished buildings from the 16th through 18th centuries, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Perhaps most appealingly, La Laguna, a university town of about 150,000 residents, has very few tourists.
As pine forest gives way to eucalyptus and La Laguna comes into view, its setting, in a valley nestled amid green mountains, is reminiscent of South American cities. The comparison sharpens as you approach its center — a flat, largely pedestrian zone of low-slung façades in bright hues of daffodil and persimmon.
This resemblance, it turns out, is not coincidental. When the Spaniards, enriched and emboldened by their New World conquest, were constructing the urban Canaries in the 15th and 16th centuries, they used La Laguna as a kind of prototype for the modern cities they would build in the Americas.
So the main square, the Plaza del Adelantado (literally: advanced or forward-looking plaza), is classic European public space, with an imposing fountain at its center and shady trees offering a green break from the stucco.
But the city itself is laid out on the kind of sprawling grid plan that is a signature of cities from Mexico to Argentina (and, yes, New York). Coupled with architecture that, by virtue of both its brilliant colors and vintage, feels colonial rather than Old World, La Laguna is an exotic yet familiar relic of the Age of Exploration.
Another vestige of that era is the heavy overlay of Catholicism. It is evident in place-names and architecture throughout San Cristóbal, as well as the near-total absence of a Jewish presence, except in the whispered tales of “converso” families (tiny Jewish communities are scattered elsewhere throughout the Canaries; the islands are also popular with vacationing mainland Jews).
In Hispanic societies, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabela are known as “los reyes católicos,” the Catholic monarchs, who — in addition to sending Columbus off to the New World — imposed their faith as a culturally unifying force not only at home, but also throughout Spanish territories, from these previously uninhabited islands to the continents overseas.
Hence the founder of La Laguna, Alonso Fernández de Lugo, is buried within the city’s cathedral, whose neoclassical façade and soaring dome make it one of the most prominent of the city’s UNESCO-designated buildings. Lugo also established the Church of the Conception in the 1490s; today, you can climb the bell tower for a breathtaking view over the city and mountains.
The tension and interplay between church and state is rendered tangible on many a Spanish plaza, where grand churches stand alongside secular city halls. Off the Plaza del Adelantado, both kinds of buildings share space with the Palacio de Nava, La Laguna’s signature landmark and a 16th-century monument to Canarian wealth.
The battleship-gray façade is not what I’d call pretty, but it’s an essential visual history of the aesthetic currents that swept through these strategic isles.
Nearby, the soft white roses and curlicues of the Art Nouveau Teatro Leal have a frosting-like elegance. The fin-de-siècle theater has been La Laguna’s cultural hub for a century; in its red-and-gold auditorium, you can catch a performance of flamenco, an orchestra concert, or, later this month, the Canaries International Music Festival.
Several museums are also worth a look, as much for their distinctive architecture as for the exhibits within. Chariots and weapons from the Spanish Golden Age are among the pieces on view, alongside period furnishings and vintage globes, at the Museum of History and Anthropology of Tenerife. As with many smaller, provincial-city museums, most signage is in Spanish within this converted terracotta palace, but audio apps are available in English.
A breath of modernity makes the Fundación Cristino de Vera perhaps the most enjoyable museum in La Laguna. Bold, modern shapes are juxtaposed against whitewashed stucco walls and polished mahogany beams at this gallery dedicated to the art of de Vera — a Tenerife painter in his 80s — as well as other Canarian and Spanish contemporary artists.
De Vera’s signature is his way with light, inspired by the strong Canarian sunshine. La Laguna may no longer be a draw for the urban-planning vanguard — but with year-round highs in the mid-60s and soft palm breezes, it may yet draw a new generation of explorers.