Without having got into my car and driving, I'd never have discovered so many great places in the UK, let alone anywhere else. Weymouth, Lynton, Lynmouth, Ilfracombe and lots of places in gorgeous Cornwall have suddenly appeared in the vision-splay of our car windscreen.

It's been the same in Portugal. Just by driving around, having stabbed a biro onto the open page of a road map, we discovered places such as Sintra, Ericeira, Zambujeira do Mar, Nazaré, Monchique - to name but a few.

And so it was, we discovered Peñiscola, a wonderfully picturesque coastal town in southern Spain (located on the Costa del Azahar). Frankly, I'd never even heard of it until we stumbled upon it during a road trip from the UK. Because I'm still (rather pathetically) partial to a spot of puerile humour, Peñiscola is not a name I'm likely to forget. Away from my silliness, the name means 'almost an island' and it references the location of the stunning Templar castle which overlooks the resort perched on a rocky 'tor' that's seemingly 'almost' surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea.

Located in the Valencia region, Peñiscola is an absolute gem. In addition to the beaches, there are plenty of things to see and do. Like many other European towns and cities, the heart of Peñiscola is its charming historic old town, complete with the afore-mentioned (obligatory) castle.

Stunning vistas

Take a stroll through the beautiful old coastal town and see its blue-detailed whitewashed houses. They seem to match the glorious cloud-free blue skies and stunning vistas of the shimmering turquoise Mediterranean Sea which nestles in the shallow bay below. The best time to visit Peniscola is from April to October. During these months you can count on some pleasant summer temperatures with hardly any rain. During our road trip, we arrived in mid April, way before the tourist hordes arrived.

Peñiscola has a population of around 8,000 but this grows enormously during peak season. An off-season visit comes highly recommended as the resort is at its most beautiful when you're not weaving your way through crowded streets. We enjoyed the relative peace and tranquility of this exceptionally picturesque seaside town.

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With around 300 days of sunshine each year, Peñiscola is known to be amidst the sunniest locations along the southern Spanish coast. It's simply a perfect location for those who enjoy combining sun, sea and sandy beaches with some occasional sightseeing. From Peñiscola you can book numerous excursions, such as visiting the natural park of Sierra de Irta or the marshlands of the Ebro Delta. The city of Valencia can also be visited on a day coach trip.

Interesting attractions

The old historic town of Peñiscola is located on a 64-meter-high rocky outcrop and is crowned by the mighty castle. The historic town offers many interesting attractions, not least of all the beautiful castle garden as well as the so-called Artillery Park. From the many lofty viewing areas, the beautiful long sandy beaches of the popular resort below can be fully admired. Another of Peñiscola's highlights is the whitewashed old town's labyrinth of hidden side streets and alleyways. They offer plenty of interesting cafés, tapas bars and quirky souvenir shops amidst some local artisan shops.

Without doubt, Castillo de Peñíscola forms the heart of the old town. Built in 1307 by the Knights Templar on a former Moorish fortress, it was later repurposed as a papal palace by Benedict XIII (known as Pope Papa Luna). A visit to the castle is an absolute must before, perhaps, indulging in a gentle sunset stroll along the town's delightful waterfront.

The snow-white old town is definitely unique for this region. It reminds me of pristine whitewashed Portuguese towns and villages. By gently meandering through the old town's picturesque alleyways, we experienced Peñiscola's most beautiful side. The whitewashed townhouses seemingly aglow in the strong Mediterranean sunshine with those rustic tapas bars, cafés and restaurants inviting weary legs to linger just a little longer. Calle San Roque is one of the most beautiful streets in the center of the old town. You'll not miss the great city wall which grants access to the old town via three impressive gates.

The El Faro lighthouse, with its eleven meter high octagonal tower is one of the most striking features of old town Peñiscola. The lighthouse was first put to use in 1899 and still operates to this day. The tower and lantern have retained their original appearance. If you do visit the castle, you can't really miss this unique attraction.


Playa del Norte (North Beach) is doubtlessly the most popular beach in Peñiscola. The all-important blue flag flies here, signaling that the water quality is suitably clean to invite people for a cooling Mediterranean dip. Playa del Norte is roughly 5-kms long and offers plenty of soft golden sand as well as a beautifully paved promenade which connects the town center with the somewhat more peaceful north of the resort.

Thanks to its length the bay has ample space for sunbathers and sandcastle-building kiddies alike. It's just a perfect spot for folks to generally relax in the glorious Spanish sunshine. Whilst splashing about in crystal clear waters, you can savour the picturesque backdrop of old town Peñiscola which provides this dreamy beachfront a surreal picture-postcard backdrop.

Back in the old town, a really quirky house awaits the clicking lenses of tourists' cameras. The unique House of Shells (Casa de las Conchas) isn't all that old. It was created just over 50 years ago by a local tourist guide. The original facade has been completely decorated with native sea shells and has subsequently become a popular photo opportunity.

Not too far from the shell encrusted dwelling, the winding cobbled pathways will lead you to The Bufador! This is a large hole (cave) that is located beneath the old town and is directly connected to the sea. As you walk past this natural chasm, you can hear the sound of the waves amplified by this eerie cave formation. When the sea is rough, the waves gush upwards through the Bufador like a fountain!

We're not done with beaches yet. Playa del Sur borders the southern end of the old town. This is a true beach paradise for young families with small children. The crystal-clear waters are particularly shallow along this section of the coastline. It's perfect for both adults and kids to splash around in safety. Again, the ever-present old town will tower in the background. Together with the perfect blue seascape, it once again conjures an idyllic picture-postcard backdrop. During the high season you can hire sunbeds, colourful parasols or even rent kayaks and pedal boats for a full-on day of fabulous fun and seaside bliss.

Of course, there's a wide range of hotels and accommodation in Peñiscola. It all adds up to make for a perfect holiday location to suit all tastes.

Although glorious Portugal offers so much, so does the rest of the Iberian peninsula. I enjoy both equally which (according to Carl Munson of Good Morning Portugal) makes me a bonafide Bi-berian. I can't argue with that!


Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring. 

Douglas Hughes