Zahara de la Sierra has three main things going for it. One, an impressive Moorish castle set atop a huge, rocky hill visible from miles around. Two, a beautiful blue lake (Zahara el Gastor), handy for swimming and paddleboarding and cooling down and such. Three, a pretty cool name.
Of course, the list doesn’t really end there. It is also very close to the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema, one of the best parks in Spain for hiking, scenery and wildlife. And, like most of the amazing pueblos blancos (white villages) of Andalusia, the town itself is an attractive jumble of Moorish buildings and narrow alleys decorated with pink bougainvillea that make for enjoyable wandering.
Only about 2,000 “zahareños” live in Zahara de la Sierra, Cádiz but the fantastic natural surroundings and its central location among the pueblos blancos makes it an excellent base.
Zahara de la Sierra represented the Moorish frontier in the 14th and 15th centuries facing off against nearby Olvera on the Christian side. As for the name, there is some debate over its origins. The obvious one is that in Arabic “zahara” means “big rock”. Although another plausible suggestion is that it comes from “sahra”, which means “desert” (which is interesting because of that other famous desert but I’m not sure it applies here).
There is a more elaborate theory as well, though. “Azahar” means “orange blossom” and, apparently, from the time the Christians retook the town up until the 1970’s it was called Zahara de los Membrillos because of all the quince (“membrillo”) trees, which are somewhat similar to oranges. Seems like a stretch, but who knows?
Whichever one is true, Zahara de la Sierra is a truly remarkable place. Located in the scenic foothills of the Sierra del Jaral, within walking distance of Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, it is a terrific place for sightseeing, hiking or birdwatching (Zahara is a very popular “twitcher” town).
Map of Things to Do in Zahara de la Sierra Cadiz
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15 Things to Do in Zahara de la Sierra
Wander the Town Centre
As with most of the pueblos blancos, the first thing you should do in Zahara de la Sierra is take off on an informal walking tour of the old town, which was named a National Historic and Artistic Site in 1983.
The Plaza Mayor represents the town centre and there are excellent views of the square from the 16th century clocktower (Torre del Reloj), as well as the lake and surrounding countryside from the nearby mirador.
The Puerta de la Villa is an important and photogenic spot, there are some fascinating stone fountains and most of the 16th and 17th century houses are attractively decorated with flowers in colourful pots.
Climb to the Zahara de la Sierra Castle
The first thing you’ll notice when approaching Zahara de la Sierra is the spectacular 13th century Nasrid castle perched at the very top of the rock. The entire complex includes the ruins of a former town (“Villa Arabe” or “Villa Medieval”), abandoned in the 17th century, and covers an impressive 6 hectares at the highest part of the town.
Highlights of the Zahara de la Sierra castle are the Torre del Homenaje, a former defensive fortification that now provides the best angle for views down over the lake and olive groves, and the various miradores scattered around the ridges. While today the panoramic views mostly serve to delight tourists, in its day as a Moorish town they were critical military lookouts. With its natural defenses and strategic location between Seville and Ronda, Zahara de la Sierra was an important outpost.
There is no entrance fee but the steep climb from the Plaza Mayor will probably take 10-15 tiring minutes.
See the Views from the Alameda de Lepanto Viewpoint
Located at the bottom of town just off the road from Olvera, the lovely Alameda de Lepanto viewpoint offers up the best look at the majesty of Zahara de la Sierra itself. It is very informal, with no entrance fee and no specific viewing platforms but the image of Zahara spilling down the side of the mountain is well worth a stop.
And there are great views of the Zahara de la Sierra lake on the other side.
Check out the Church of Santa María de la Mesa
Close to the very noticeable clocktower, this beautiful 17th century baroque church features an extraordinary pink façade, an elegantly carved gold altarpiece and the interesting Parish Museum.
Have a Drink or Meal on the Main Street
Calle Ronda serves as the main street of Zahara de la Sierra and is filled with spots to sit, relax and have a drink or meal. You can even find a spot in front of the Church of Santa Maria de la Mesa for a view of the City Council, church, fountain and everyone passing by on their way to the castle.
The main section of the street is only about 200 meters long but has about 10 restaurants and bars and an equal number of shops along that short distance.
Head to the Chapel of San Juan de Letrán
Connected to the rather obvious Torre del Reloj on Plaza de San Juan, this historic chapel was built on the ruins of a former Moorish mosque but is now dedicated to Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, the patron saint of Zahara de la Sierra. Inside you’ll find an extensive collection of 16th and 17th century art.
Embalse de Zahara el Gastor
Despite being man-made and relatively new, at least in the scheme of this ancient town, the Embalse de Zahara el Gastor still adds a welcome bit of colour and beauty to Zahara de la Sierra.
Formed by damming the Rio Guadalete, it offers some great views, short hiking trails and kayaks for rent in summer. On a small hill next to the lake there is a set of pretty walls where you can climb up for phenomenal views over the reservoir, town and surrounding hills.
Relax on the Playa de Zahara de la Sierra
Arroyomolinos Recreation Area is located on an artificially expanded section of the Guadalete River and features an artificial beach known as La Playita. The water’s real, though, as are the views and the welcome respite from the summer heat.
Backed by the picturesque Sierra de Monte of Zahara de la Sierra, it is equally popular for hanging out or as the starting point for hikes or water sports. Interesting Cueva del Susto is only a few minutes away on foot, there is a restaurant and bar and even lifeguards (in summer only).
Molino El Vinculo
This old 18th century olive mill located on the road to Grazalema can be visited as a day trip destination or you can choose to stay in their charming little hotel. Founded by Don Pedro de Peñalver y Castroverde in 1755, it is one of the only mills in Andalusia that still uses the original stone presses to grind the olives.
You can wander on your own, shop for homemade olive oil or even take a tour to learn the inner working of the olive process.
Find Las Fuentes (The Fountains)
Zahara de la Sierra has several nice fountains worth a look and maybe a photo or two. Start with the stately stone fountain on the Plaza Mayor, then work your way out to see La Higuera, next to the swimming pool and communal washing station, El Altabacar near Molino El Vinculo and La Calera on the road to Arroyomolinos.
Picnic at the Los Palominos Roman Bridge
This attractive Roman bridge has a handy picnic area with barbeque facilities in a very unique, relaxing setting.
Drive to the Puerto de las Palomas Mirador
Although it is about 15 kilometres from Zahara de la Sierra on the road to Grazalema, the Puerto de las Palomas Mirador is one of the most impressive anywhere in the pueblos blancos.
At the high point of the pass, it provides fabulous views down over Alcornales Natural Park. It is a very popular place for hang-gliding, as well as vultures, both for the same reason, presumably.
Get an Adrenaline Rush While Paragliding
Speaking of soaring through the sky like a crazy person, nearby Algodonales is one of the most popular paragliding destinations in all of Spain. There are a number of paragliding companies that offer a range of activities from single flights to comprehensive classes.
Cycle the Via Verde de la Sierra
The award-winning Via Verde de la Sierra is the most famous bike route in Andalusia. With a distance of 36 kilometres and over 1,200 metres of elevation gain, it is definitely a workout. However, since it is built on an old railway line there are no particularly steep sections.
The Via Verde de la Sierra, which essentially means “green route of the mountains”, refers to the small section of the original rail line between Olvera and Puerto Serrano. While the trail can be done in either direction, it is more downhill than up if you start in Olvera. Going both there and back is certainly possible but plan for a long day.
AllTrails: Via Verde de la Sierra (36 km / 1250m)
Hiking in Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema
Because of its close proximity to the famous Spanish protected area of Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema, also referred to as Grazalema Natural Park, we felt that hiking near Zahara de la Sierra deserved an entire section on its own.
This huge, pristine protected area covers 52,000 hectares and is known for its spectacular limestone mountains, dramatic gorges and being the rainiest place in all of Spain with 2,200 millimetres of the wet stuff each year. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
The park has many wild rivers and over 1,300 plant species, many of which are endemic to the area, including a wonderful forest of Spanish fir trees. There are also numerous impressive cave systems, including the Hundider-Gato, the largest in Andalusia. The largest of the caves is 4 km long with a 60-metre-tall opening.
You also may come across a wide range of fascinating wildlife. On land, you may spot (or at least see evidence of) deer, ibex and mongoose, just to name a few. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled to the sky for the chance to see griffon vultures, buzzards, golden eagles, peregrine falcons and various kites.
The entire Sierra de Grazalema Nature Reserve has been classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1977 and was named the first natural park in Andalusia in 1984. There is a small park information centre in Zahara de la Sierra and the main Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema Visitor Centre is located in El Bosque (30 minutes from Zahara de la Sierra by car).
The park has an excellent network of well-marked and maintained trails offering a the whole range of options from short and easy walks to strenuous all-day undertakings. El Torreon, El Pinsapar, La Garganta Verde and Llanos de Rabel require “permisos” from the El Bosque office, although it is sometimes possible to acquire them by email up to a month in advance.
Just send them your name, the hike you want to do, your passport number, the number of people and the date you want to hike. You might also want to include alternative dates (since, in our experience, they don’t always get back to you right away).
For more immediate answers, try calling instead: +34 956 709733
Now, on to the hikes (all distances are for the entire return trip):
La Garganta Verde
Trailhead: 4 km south of Zahara de la Sierra
5 km / 2 hrs / 300m elevation gain
AllTrails GPS Map: La Garganta Verde
Arguably the main highlight of park, the name of this outstanding hike near Zahara de la Sierra means Green Throat, which happens to be a rather apt description. This lush, dramatic gorge formed by the Arroyo del Pinar features steep walls covered in green vegetation that reach as high as 400 metres at certain points, making it popular for climbing and canyoning.
As you descend, the canyon gets steadily narrower until eventually you reach sections where you have to cross and/or walk in the river. About a third of the way down you’ll reach a griffon vulture viewing platform, in some spots you need to use ropes to clamber down and eventually you reach the impressive stalactites and stalagmites of the Ermita del Garganta cave system.
Llanos del Rabel
10 km / 3 hrs / 370m
AllTrails GPS Map: Llanos del Rabel
This relatively easy, scenic trail starts out along a gravel trail and eventually loops around through some pretty sections of forest. It also traverses some very cool natural stairs.
There are also several more great hikes in the area that are just a bit farther from Grazalema. Easy enough to reach if you have a car, though.
5.5 km / 4 hrs / 700m
AllTrails GPS Map: El Torreon
El Torreón is the highest peak in Cadiz (1,648m) and from the top you can see Morocco on a clear day. This is a hefty climb but the scenery is worth it (both at the top and on the way up). The weather changes particularly quickly at the summit so be prepared and dress in layers.
Check out our Day Hike Packing List
Permiso and guide required
21 km / 6-7 hrs / 1,330m
AllTrails GPS Map: El Pinsapar
El Pinsapar is considered the biggest challenge of all the day hikes in the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema. It is a long, difficult hike with great scenery, including rare pinsapo fir trees only found in Andalusia and Northern Morocco.
Sendero Rio Majaceite
The trail runs from about 2 km northwest of Grazalema all the way to Benamohoma. You must hike with a guide and it is only accessible from June 1st to October 15th.
9 km / 3 hrs / 230m
AllTrails GPS Map: Sendero Rio Majaceite
This trail follows a relatively gentle slope along a beautiful stream from Benamahoma to El Bosque (or vice versa). It is a popular choice for families as you can stop to swim or play in the water at many points along the way.
Salto del Cabrero
7.5 km / 2-3 hrs / 480m
AllTrails GPS Map: Salto del Cabrero
A good mid-range choice, this hike runs through the beautiful Sierra del Endrinal from Puerto del Boyar to Benaocaz that features another stunning gorge – the name means “Goatherd’s Leap”.
Starting from Grazalema adds another 2 kilometres along the Camino de los Charcones to reach Puerto del Boyar. If you can’t organize transportation from one end or the other it is also possible to do most of this hike as a loop out of Benaocaz instead.
Llanos del Endrinal
3 km / 1 hr / 240m
A short, pretty loop trail known for its impressive collection of wildflowers.
Arroyo de Bocaleones
6.5 km / 2 hrs / 170m
AllTrails GPS Map: Arroyo de Bocaleones
A scenic river hike with very little elevation change.
3.5 km / 1 hr / 180m
AllTrails GPS Map: Cerro Coros
A short climb to a nice viewpoint.
If you are planning to do a lot of hiking in the area you may want to invest in a guidebook. We would recommend The Mountains of Ronda and Grazalema by Guy Hunter-Watts. It has excellent descriptions and maps and can be purchased either in print or as an ebook to minimize the weight in your pack.
Where to Stay: The Best Zahara de la Sierra Hotels
Accommodation in the pueblos blancos is very affordable by European standards. There are many excellent value hotels and apartments for rent in Zahara de la Sierra.
TUGASA Hotel Arco de la Villa is conveniently located at the bottom of the trail to the castle, just up from all the bars and restaurants around the church.
Both the rooms and restaurant have impressive lake views.
And, since the hotel is built into the side of the cliff, the hallways actually consist half of rock.
Los Estribos has air-conditioned rooms with amazing lake views.
La Gonzala is a comfortable 4-bedroom house which charges less or more depending on how many people you have.
The rural townhouses of Casas Paraje Natural feature beautiful mountain views, full kitchens, fireplaces and washing machines.
Hostal Marques de Zahara has a variety of rooms with private bathrooms and heat/air conditioning set in a traditional Andalusian house with a courtyard.
About a kilometre out of town, Molino El Vinculo gives you the chance to stay at one of Andalusia’s oldest olive mills. The nice villas have full kitchens and private patios, as well as access to a shared pool.
Casas Rurales Zahara de la Sierra
Zahara de las Sierra also has two of the nicest casas rurales in all of Andalusia.
Casa Rural La Maquinilla is an outstanding 4-bedroom holiday home with a private pool and unbelievable views.
Casa Rural La Bodega is even bigger (5-bdr), more luxurious and slightly more expensive but staying there will be an experience to remember.
History of Zahara de la Sierra
Dating all the way back to the 13th century, Zahara de la Sierra was built as a defensive frontier town by the Nasrids to protect their empire from the Christians. It worked, but only for so long, as it eventually capitulated to the Christians in 1407. Of course, that only lasted about 75 years before it changed hands back again before, eventually, the famous Ponce de León (Duke of Arcos / Marquis of Cádiz) took it back for the Catholic team, for good this time.
Festivals and Events in Zahara de la Sierra
Every June, local zahareños enthusiastically celebrate the Fiesta of Corpus Christi, extensively decorating their homes and businesses with various branches, rushes, palm leaves and other random shrubberies. The idea is to make the town look like the country. Not sure if cow dung is shipped in for the event or not.
Either way, this big festival has earned National Tourist Interest status, kicking off with Sunday mass at the Iglesia Santa Maria de la Mesa before moving on to the Procession of Santisimo Sacramento (Blessed Sacrament) and the Procession of the Virgen del Rosario the next day.
Where to Eat in Zahara de la Sierra
Zahara de la Sierra is known for a variety of local dishes featuring tomatoes and asparagus, topped off by a dessert of local cream puffs known as “cuernos” (horns). As for where to try these local specialties:
Just out of town on the Paseo del Fuente, Los Tadeos has great terrace views of the Rio Bocaleones.
The restaurant at Marques de Zahara in the main square serves local homemade food in a 16th century mansion courtyard.
Los Estribos has a restaurant near the Santa Maria de la Mesa church with superb views over the reservoir.
The restaurant at TUGASA Hotel Arco de la Villa has an impressive menu and a great view of the lake.
How to Get to Zahara de la Sierra
Zahara de la Sierra is easily accessible by car from several main centres in Andalusia. Comes buses run several times per day between Cadiz and Ronda and stop off in Zahara. Most other places can be reached by bus, too, as long as you’re willing to switch at least once.
Most people visit Zahara de la Sierra by car, either their own or a rental. With so many great towns and villages in the area we highly recommend renting a car for at least a few days to cover more ground and set your own schedule. We find Discover Cars usually have the best deals in the area.
Zahara de la Sierra is easily accessible from Seville, Cádiz, Malaga, Gibraltar, Córdoba and Granada, each of which have international airports.
Nearby Main Centres by Car:
Seville to Zahara de la Sierra: 100 km / 80 min
Cádiz to Zahara de la Sierra: 115 km / 1.5 hrs
Malaga to Zahara de la Sierra: 135 km / 2 hrs
Gibraltar to Zahara de la Sierra: 150 km / 2.25 hrs
Córdoba to Zahara de la Sierra: 180 km / 2.25 hrs
Granada to Zahara de la Sierra: 195 km / 2.5 hrs
Nearby pueblos blancos:
Algodonales to Zahara de la Sierra: 10 km / 15 min
Grazalema to Zahara de la Sierra: 15 km / 30 min
Olvera to Zahara de la Sierra: 30 km / 30 min
Villamartín to Zahara de la Sierra: 35 km / 30 min
Ronda to Zahara de la Sierra: 35 km / 40 min
Villaluenga del Rosario: 30 km / 45 min
Setenil de las Bodegas to Zahara de la Sierra: 30 km / 45 min
Arcos de la Frontera to Zahara de la Sierra: 55 km / 45 min
Jerez de la Frontera to Zahara de la Sierra: 85 km / 1 hr
Medina-Sidonia to Zahara de la Sierra: 115 km / 1.25 hrs
Casares to Zahara de la Sierra: 85 km / 1.75 hrs
Vejer de la Frontera to Zahara de la Sierra: 150 km / 1.75 hrs
Parking in Zahara de la Sierra
Parking, not to mention driving, is difficult in Zahara de la Sierra. It is easiest to park at the bottom and walk up (easiest from a parking standpoint, not the walking part). However, if you don’t mind driving through narrow, cobblestoned streets you can try your luck at finding a spot up near the main square or continue on to Hotel Arco de la Villa where they offer roof parking. You might also get lucky and find a spot slightly farther along that road.
When to Go: Zahara de la Sierra Weather
Andalusia gets very hot in summer, which is good for beaches and water sports but may be a bit warm for hiking or sightseeing. At least it almost never rains. July and August are the hottest (35C+) but June and September also regularly see 30C+ temperatures.
Winters are relatively mild with daily high and low averages ranging from about 4C to 15C but there is a lot more rain at this time, starting in November and continuing right into April.
The best times to visit Zahara de la Sierra are in spring and fall, with May and October both boasting perfect 20-25C daytime highs and much less rain than the winter months.
Other Pueblos Blancos (White Villages)
Exploring the pueblos blancos of Andalusia can be fascinating and there are enough options in the area to keep you busy for weeks:
Algodonales boasts an impressive location next to the Sierra de Lijar mountains and is famous for a) having the largest hang-gliding school in Andalusia and b) making great guitars. I kid you not.
Grazalema is known for its many amazing hiking areas.
Olvera has some of the best viewpoints in the area from its impressive castle.
Villamartín is another relatively large white town that is spread out across both sides of a tall hill. It has the obligatory whitewashed buildings and some architectural highlights including Topete Mansion and Matrera Castle.
Ronda is both the largest town in the region and the crown jewel of the pueblos blancos with its stunning El Tajo gorge and fabulous Puente Nuevo (New Bridge).
Tiny Villaluenga del Rosario has an awesome little bull ring and fantastic cheese.
Setenil de las Bodegas is famously built under a massive rock, making it extremely unique among all these hilltop fortress and soaring views.
Arcos de la Frontera is all about the arches, many obvious and others hidden in the least likely spots.
Jerez de la Frontera is the sherry and flamenco capital of Andalusia. So if those are things you are into, Jerez is a must-see. If not, well, it’s still a very beautiful place (and much larger than most other towns on this list).
Medina-Sidonia is the oldest pueblo blanco and features an understated elegance perched atop a hill not far from Cádiz.
Pretty Casares is close to the Costa del Sol and is considered the gateway to the white villages. It also features a photogenic castle atop a rocky outcropping, a griffon vulture colony and a fun via ferrata.
Of all the amazing white villages we visited, Vejer de la Frontera was our favourite. Great vibe, beautiful place and the nicest main square in Andalusia.
For an overview of our white villages road trip, check out 12 Spectacular Pueblos Blancos in Andalusia
Cities Near Zahara de la Sierra
Classic Seville is one of the gems of Spain, with a beautifully walkable old town, many amazing churches and, of course, the world-famous Real Alcazar. Hopeless romantics will also love the street and balcony that inspired Romeo and Juliet.
Check out our guide to the Best Things to Do in Seville
Although it lacks the one big, incredible site of the other major Andalusian cities, Cádiz was among our favourite cities in Andalusia for its beaches, atmosphere and old town ambience. With balmy weather (even by Andalusian standards) and perfect for wandering, Cádiz is the kind of place where the days slide by and you’ll always wish you could stay a bit longer.
Malaga has a lot of international flights and is a common entrance point to Andalusia. Mainly known as a transport hub and beach/party town, we found Malaga to be a pleasant surprise. It has some nice old streets, good pedestrian areas and the Alcazaba, a phenomenal ancient medieval Moorish fortress that is comparable to the big attractions in Seville, Granada and Córdoba.
A somewhat bizarre bit of Britain dropped right on the edge of Spain, Gibraltar has some pretty compelling sites (i.e. Rock of Gibraltar) and historic WWII attractions. The border crossing is straightforward and Gibraltar is easily visited on a day trip, although the sites are pretty spread out so if you want to see everything it wouldn’t hurt to stay a couple of nights.
Much smaller and more manageable than Madrid, Barcelona or Seville, cute Córdoba has the world-famous mosque-cathedral, La Mezquita, which is definitely worth the visit alone. There is also a fascinating Jewish quarter, vibrant old town and impressive bridge (that also featured in Game of Thrones). It is less than 2 hours from Seville by car, roughly 2.5 hours by bus and just 40 minutes by high-speed train.
Comparing Granada and Seville is like comparing apples and oranges (both excellent but could probably use a wash first). Granada’s central area isn’t quite as perfect as the one in Seville, or compact as Córdoba, but it has some fascinatingly gritty neighbourhoods and a long list of awesome viewpoints. And, of course, the Alhambra, which just might be the coolest historic site I’ve ever visited.
For more ideas, see The 17 Best Things to Do in Granada
Zahara de la Sierra Summary
One of the most objectively spectacular pueblos blancos in Andalusia, your first glimpse of Zahara de la Sierra coming up over the hill is bound to take your breath away. Built up the side of a very prominent hill/mountain, with the bright blue Embalse de Zahara el Gastor twinkling below and rolling hills as far as the eye can see, Zahara de la Sierra deserves a spot at the very top of your pueblo blanco road trip itinerary.
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