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Tenerife History & Culture

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The First Occupants

Tenerife’s first occupants were Berber migrants from North Africa who came to the Canary Islands around 1000BC. These early settlers worshipped male and female gods as well as the sun, moon, earth and stars, and Guanche idols excavated on the island can be seen at the Archaeological Museum in Puerto de la Cruz. Guanche cave paintings can also be found all over the island, particularly in the south around Arona.

‘The Island of Hell!’

Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman traders are known to have visited the islands and Roman artifacts have been found in the Canaries dating from around the 4th century CE, although there is no evidence of a Roman settlement. According to Roman historian Pliny the Younger, the islands were named by the Berber King Juba II after the wild dogs (canarius) found on Tenerife. The island was known to the Romans as Nivaria, after the snow-capped Mount Teide; in later centuries, the volcano appears to have been active as maps from the Middle Ages refer to Tenerife as Isla del Infierno or ‘the island of hell’!

Captured Kings

The Spanish conqueror Alonso Fernández de Lugo landed at Santa Cruz de Tenerife in April 1494, supported by the monarchs of Castile and Aragon in present-day Spain. With an army of 2,200 men Fernández de Lugo occupied the fort and captured the native kings of Tenerife. The Guanches fought back doggedly, but finally surrendered to the Crown of Castile on 25 December 1494.


Throughout the 16th century, Tenerife was colonised by migrants from Spain and the growing Spanish Empire, including settlers from Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Germany.

Spanish rule

Under Spanish rule, Tenerife’s economy centred on growing and trading sugarcane, wine and bananas. In the 17th century, the island became a frequent stopping-point for expeditions heading from Europe to the New World, and a significant number of early settlers in Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico and even Texas relocated from Tenerife. Migration from the island to the Caribbean and Latin America continued throughout the 20th century, especially following the Spanish Civil War; but in recent years that pattern has reversed and families of tinerfeños who settled abroad have started returning to Tenerife in large numbers.

A European holiday hotspot

Tenerife became popular with European tourists from the late 19th century onwards, with visitors from France, Germany, Italy, the UK and mainland Spain attracted by the island’s natural beauty and pleasant, spring-like climate. The island suffered a tragedy in March 1977 when Los Rodeos airport became the site of the most fatal accident in aviation history.


Festival in Tenerife

Arts and crafts

Classical paintings, sculptures and woodcarvings dating from the 17th and 18th century can be found in many churches on Tenerife. The church of Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia in Puerto de la Cruz features works by Luis de la Cruz y Ríos (“El Canario”), who later became court painter to King Ferdinand VII of Spain. Other prominent artists from Tenerife include Valentín Sanz and Juan Rodríguez Botas, whose work can be viewed at the Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes in Santa Cruz; and the surrealist painter Óscar Domínguez.

The lacework known as Tenerife lace (calado canario) is produced by hand-embroidering a stretched piece of cloth to create intricate designs, often used for table linen. Other important crafts include hand-worked clay and basket making; traditional palm-leaf baskets and dolls make charming souvenirs and can be found in craft and gift shops all over the island.

Festivals and events

The biggest annual festival on the island is the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, which is held each February in the city of Santa Cruz and the surrounding areas. The carnival is the second-biggest in the world after the Rio carnival in Brazil, and attracts hundreds of thousands of people annually from all over the world. The event follows a chosen theme each year; previous themes have included The Thousand and One Nights, The Roaring 20s, Hollywood Musicals and Magic. The carnival is a ten-day riot of street processions, floats, music and dance competitions and games, ending on Ash Wednesday with the Burial of the Sardine, at which a giant model of a sardine is cremated at the end of a funeral procession, symbolising death and rebirth.

A festival is held twice-yearly in honour of the Virgen de Candelaria, the patron saint of the Canary Islands. Feast days in February and August are held with solemn processions to the town of Candelaria; local people also dress as native Guanche goatherds, who are said to have discovered a statue of the Virgin on a beach in 1392.

Other important celebrations in Tenerife are connected to Corpus Christi and Easter weekend, around the end of March to the middle of April each year. Corpus Christi is celebrated with floral carpets and intricate soil tapestries laid out in the streets, especially in the northern town of La Orotava where the soils are taken from the Teide National Park. Easter is celebrated with colourful processions with flowers and sweets, as well as religious services.

Food and Drink

Fish is a key component in Canarian cooking, either roasted or salted and served in stews. Cod, mackerel, bass and bream are all plentiful in Tenerife, as are prawns and other shellfish, and the local favourite vieja or parrot fish. A maize flour known as gofio is often added to soups and stews, and features in the salted fish stew sancocho.

Potatoes are a common accompaniment to Canarian meals, and the small unpeeled potatoes boiled whole in salt water called papas arrugadas are a delicious side dish. They’re usually served with one or more piquant sauces; red and green sauces, mojo rojo and mojo verde, are the most common. Sweet-toothed visitors are well catered for in Tenerife, with bienmesabe, a dessert made from almonds and lemon rind bound with eggs, and a milk pudding called frangollo often on the menu. During Lent, a fried sweet eggy-bread dish known as torrija is often eaten.

If you love history and culture, you'll want to check out the Hidden Gems of Tenerife as well!

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