As the spring sun heats the tabletops in Plaza Cabildo, tanned waiters in white shirts and black pants chat and hum as they clear tables or guard restaurant entrances. The plaza is almost empty but coffee-stained cups, oil-streaked plates and discarded white napkins remain on the tables, suggesting that the breakfast crowd were here just moments ago. A few people are finishing off their coffees, hiding behind crinkly newspapers, chatting loudly or gawking at passersby.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda is a coastal town which gets going again in the spring after a jarringly quiet winter, when the crowds descend from Barrio Alto and make a long-awaited reappearance along the beach. Bars and restaurants lining the beach promenade go from ghost town to pijo (yuppy) hangout, where fashionable young couples and families go for a late afternoon coffee or cubata. Streets are an obstacle course of prams, small dogs (French Bulldogs are all the rage now) and handbag vendors. The sun doesn’t go down until about 10pm so the days are long with many hours to fill in between. Spring is the perfect time to visit Sanlúcar when it’s warm enough to pick a table outdoors, but before summer sets in and tourists arrive and there are no tables to choose from.
Many locals begin their day in Sanlúcar’s main square, Plaza Cabildo. In the morning, Sanluqueños sit at the rickety tables scattered around the fountain to have breakfast or a coffee. When you visit, make sure to stop and look up at the colorful flowers spilling out of the pots in the windowsills above. Choose one of the bars that fringe the square and have an oily tostada de jamón y tomate and a coffee or fresh orange juice. The café con leche is strong and bitter but it will keep you going until the sun finally sets. It doesn’t matter where you have breakfast, most places offer the same menu: toast with tomato, ham or marmalade. Breakfast isn’t a big deal here; it’s something to fill you up until lunchtime where the menus offer more variety. You can pay for breakfast at most restaurants with a 2€ coin and still manage to get some small change.
From the plaza, take the steps up Cuesta de Belén, a steep cobbled street that will lead you up to Barrio Alto, Sanlúcar’s higher ground. This is the old part of town where you will find narrow streets with white-washed walls and small rustic bars with the sound of flamenco reverberating off crumbling brickwork. Visit the gardens in Palace of Medina Sidonia, where you can enter for free and relax in the palace’s courtyard with the sound of quiet chatter, birds singing and the scent of fresh rosemary fluttering around. Take a walk around the neat, green garden enclosing the courtyard and follow the orange sandy path to find an unexpected view of the centre of Sanlúcar, a cubist puzzle of skewed rooftop terraces and sheets swaying on clotheslines in the salty sea breeze.
Get lost in the streets of Barrio Alto and have a peek through wrought iron doors at the impeccable courtyards colored by lush plants and glossy Moroccan tiling. If the weather is cloudy, make your way back toward Plaza Cabildo and take a left down the shopping strip, Calle Ancha until you reach Calle San Miguel where you will find Bodegón de Lola, a tapas restaurant with plenty of tables and plenty of dishes. Make your way to the bar to view the display case full of tapas. Watching the crustaceans in the tanks snapping their claws is an adventure all on its own. The tapas are 2-4€ each, and if you’re game, the caracoles (snails) are popular during springtime, but on the plate they’re not as cute as the happy cartoon snails chalked on the sandwich board above the bar.
Bodegón de Lola’s most popular tapa is fried bacon wrapped on a stick, resembling a lollypop and it comes with a cheese dipping sauce. This decadent dish has become the restaurant’s ‘house tapa.’ The chocos fritos (fried squid) is a tapa staple in Sanlúcar for those who like to get their fingers oily. To round your meal off, try the crackers served with baked cheese topped with a sweet marmalade sauce, caramelized onions, pine nuts and raisins (2.50€). This exquisite treat is a terrific combination of creamy, salty and sweet.
If it’s a sunny day, you may prefer to dine al fresco at Casa Balbino, owned by the same people as Bodegón de Lola. Balbino’s is a tapas favourite in Sanlúcar and the place is always busy when the sun is shining. Try the region’s typical dish, the tortillita de camarones, a fritter made of small shrimp and flour. Pair it with a manzanilla, a dry sherry made only in Sanlúcar. Those who are financially challenged will appreciate the menu prices at Balbino’s and many of the other bars in the plaza.
Work off lunch with a leisurely walk down the Calzada, Sanlucar’s main road which is divided by a strip of sand to take a walk on. This leads you directly to the beach. Spend the afternoon walking along the beach promenade, dodging the rollerbladers and bike riders. Head toward Bajo de Guía where you will find a stretch of bars and Sanlúcar’s more expensive restaurants and cafes. Find Cafe Azul (azul is blue, the color of this café) and grab a drink while enjoying the view of fishing boats bobbing in the Guadalquivir River. Stick around as the sun dips into the water along the horizon, creating another one of Sanlucar’s notoriously beautiful sunsets, with sprays of color tinting the Atlantic waves.
Post sunset, head back to Plaza Cabildo and treat yourself to an ice-cream from Toni’s. They offer locally made flavors such as tiramisu, apple pie and gin and tonic, so you may need to spend more time choosing than eating. If there are no available tables do as the locals do and enjoy your ice cream on the ledge of the Plaza’s fountain (taking care not to fall in). This sweet late-afternoon snack is called la merienda, and it will push you through until Spanish dinnertime at 9 or 10pm.
For dinner, indulge in Sanlucar’s famed seafood cuisine at the old-fashioned seaside restaurant of Casa Bigote. The place is homey and the service friendly, and you’ll receive a small bowl of olives upon arrival. Don’t leave here without trying a plate of the langostinos (king prawns), partnered with a fino sherry or manzanilla – of course.
Later on in the evening head to El Almacen, an old-fashioned corner store-turned-bar that still retains its old wooden shelving and antique fittings. There’s a pool table in the backroom, or you can just sit at the bar and listen to the thick Andalusian accents swimming around you.
Make your way to Sanlúcar’s fresh food market (Monday till Saturday, early morning until 1-2pm) where you can pick up anything from live seafood, snails, fruit, vegetables and bull meat. Watch the fishmongers fillet their fish with ease in between sneaky sips of manzanilla. You’ll also find rowdy women manning stalls outside, a brisk market of chorizo, olives, cheeses, jamón and jars of honey. Watch as impeccably dressed barmen navigate their way through the chaos gracefully carrying round trays of coffees and tostadas to deliver directly to stallholders. After a wander around the market don’t forget to pick up some snacks for the beach.
Relax on the sand, gorging on the morning’s purchases. When you’ve had your fill of sun and snacks, head to one of Sanlucar’s bodegas, such as La Gitana, Barbadillo or La Cigarrera for a tour. There, you’ll learn about the town’s famous manzanilla, a tangy, appley sherry produced in Sanlucar’s mild, humid microclimate. Enjoy a manzanilla outside in the bodega’s charming courtyard, standing around a barrel and letting the sherry do the talking.
Catch your second sunset from the eleventh floor of Hotel Guadalquivir. From here you can see the magnificent yellow lights of the town flicker against the blues of the ocean which bleed into the pink sky.
For dinner, Barbarroja (which translates to red beard) offers a mix of hot and cold tapas. The atmosphere here is lively and busy, especially when there’s a football match on the screen. If you can’t handle any more seafood, go for the patatas bravas or one of the montaditos (small sandwiches). If you’re not ready to give up the seafood just yet, the langostinos con bacon (king prawns wrapped in fried bacon) is one of their signature dishes. If you’re missing fresh vegetables, which can happen if you’re tapas crawling through Spain, the house salad is a generous serving for 5€.
End the night (or begin it, depending on your mood) at Ribera 22 cocktail bar. The place is stylish but unpretentious. The bar serves a range of classic cocktails, and potentially one of the best mojitos you’ve ever had (6€). Watch them spend the 15 minutes it takes to carefully prepare it and you may appreciate it even more. Mingle into the noisy crowds that spill out onto Plaza Cabildo.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda is a friendly, close-knit town solicitous to please guests via the tummy. If you’re after that ‘authentic Andalucian experience’ people keep talking about, Sanlúcar de Barrameda provides a direct way there. Los Amarillos run bus services from Cadiz or Seville to Sanlúcar, and Linesur run buses from Jerez.