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El Puerto de Santa María
© Philip Lange / 123RF
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El Puerto de Santa María

By Amy Adejokun Amy Adejokun Section editor

Our Editorial team's advice

El Puerto de Santa Maria is a place that will arouse all of your senses. Known as the "the city of a thousand palaces" and rich with 3,000 years of history, El Puerto de Santa Maria once served as the entrance to the peninsula for Muslims and its port once played an essential role in expeditions to America. Its history and traditions are even reflected in the façades of the residences, palaces, and monuments, as well as in the charming wine cellars that are still in business and produce excellent Marco de Jerez wines. Purely Andalusian courtyards, a traditional and high-capacity bullring, legendary seafood restaurants and a lively atmosphere are just some of the characteristics of this part of the Costa de la Luz. That's without forgetting the dozen-or-so superb beaches here and a marina that you can't leave without seeing. It is here that the Santa Maria, the biggest ship to accompany Christopher Columbus on his first trip to the New World, is said to have been built. You can also visit the Galeras Fountain, where caravels stocked up with water before leaving for the Americas. In 1950, Juan de la Cosa drew the first world map that included America here, which can be admired on the façade of Castillo de San Marcos.

To see

The Plaza de toros de El Puerto bullring is one of the main symbols of El Puerto de Santa María. With a capacity of approximately 12,200 spectators, it is the biggest bullring in the country after those of Madrid and Valencia. The bullfighter, Joselito, nicknamed 'El Gallo', once said: "Anyone who hasn't seen the bullfighters in El Puerto doesn't know what a bullfighting event is." The city is home to several of the elegant palatial residences built in the 16th and 17th centuries by rich 'Indian dockers' thanks to the thriving trade between Spain and America at the time. Vizarón, Aranibar, Varela and Reinoso de Mendoza (where city hall is located) are a few examples of these. Other places not to be missed in the city: the former stock exchange, the Monastery of the Victory (which was once a prison from which El Lute escaped) and the Castle of San Marcos. The latter served as a mosque during the Almohade period. Its façade boasts the world's first map to include America, dating back to the year 1500.

To do

A classic activity here is to take a ride on the famous 'vaporcito', the motorboat (formerly a steamer, from where it gets its name...) which has provided a 45-minute crossing from El Puerto de Santa Maria to Cadiz since 1928 and which was declared "Property of Cultural Interest" by the Andalusian Assembly in 1999. This is the legendary boat on which the famous film "La Lola se va a los puertos" was shot, remaining one of the main reasons that people visit Cadiz. Alternatively, you could also relax under an umbrella or practice some water sports on one of the various beaches in the area: Valdelagrana, La Puntilla, Fuentebravía, Le Calita Diver, Vistahermosa, Las Redes, Levante and La Calita. The market is another place not to be missed for those who like a bit of retail therapy: the stalls are set up every Tuesday morning beside La Puntilla beach (on the Paseo José Luis Teja). The municipal market is also held here, where you can finish off your shopping trip with a nice glass of fino.

pros

  • +  The famous wine cellars of fino.
  • +  The cuisine based on seafood.
  • +  Access to Cadiz in 45 minutes thanks to the 'vaporcito'.
  • +  The heritage of the conquistadors.

cons

  • -  The city is packed in summer.
  • -  The beaches are not exactly idyllic.

To think about

It's a good idea to visit this beautiful city during its annual festival. The Spring Festival and the Fino wine festival take place every year after Holy Week. Those who want to participate in some fireworks should know that they take place at the end of the Seville Spring Fair and a week before the Jerez Feria. The ones during the El Puerto Festival, which lasts a week, are an explosion of colours and liveliness where flamenco costumes and short dresses are the attire of choice. Entertainment and dancing carry on through till dawn in charming huts set up especially for the festival. In addition to the fairs, El Puerto offers entertainment all year round and especially during Holy Week and in summer when the people of Madrid, Basque Country and Seville invade the city's bars, hotels, and flats.

To avoid

If you are planning to visit the city in summer, think ahead to book a hotel or an apartment in advance as this is an extremely popular destination for seaside holidays. The same goes for restaurants: in high season, they go as far as to put out a sign asking you to reserve or turn up early if you want to be sure to get a table. The population in El Puerto quadruples between July and August. For those who can't stand crowds, it's better to avoid these periods. Similarly, if you want a quiet night's sleep without any noise, think of opting for a hotel outside of the city centre, as it is rare not to be able to hear the noise coming from the terraces and the groups of young people who come here to party.

To try

The seafood here is a must. There is an area in El Puerto de Santa Maria called "Seafood shore" where there is a concentration of packed terrasses. Among them you will be able to find cones of gambas, shrimp and even crab claws. El Romerijo is one of the most popular seafood restaurants in the area. A real institution, its success is undeniable. Customers choose the products they want by weight directly at the counter. Drinks are ordered separately. You may also want to try the 'fried fish' at one of the group's other restaurants. El Puerto is also home to many excellent restaurants that serve fresh fish cooked in countless different ways. There's nothing better to go along with your meal than one of the region's wines: fino, amontillado, oloroso, Palo Cortado, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, among others, and that's not to mention the vinegar, all made from sherries with an AOC label (controlled designation of origin). The most popular fino is produced by the Osborne brand, whose emblem, a bull, can be seen along most of the roads in Spain.

To bring back

When visiting one of the wine cellars in the region (Osborne is notably the most famous one), why not buy some wine, which is often cheaper than in the shops. However, if you are travelling by plane, don't forget that you can't carry your bottles in your hand luggage. Those who like vintage wines could also bring back a venencia (a small container with a long handle used to test the sherries from barrels) as a souvenir, to practice the art of serving finos. El Puerto de Santa Maria is home to many ceramic factories where you can buy ceramic tiles, objects or handcrafted replicas. The Spring Fair is above all the opportunity to admire the flamenco costumes and the short dresses that you can have made to fit in numerous shops. El Puerto is the ideal place to satisfy your cravings for flounces and broad-rimmed hats.
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