There are 7,582 villages in Spain with populations so depleted they wouldn’t fill the press seats at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu soccer stadium. Abandoned in the post-Franco goldrush to tourism jobs on the Costas, you could argue until the goats come home over which has the most splendid castle, prettiest plaza de la iglesia or tastiest tapas. Yet a mere 105 live up to the scrutiny of Los Pueblos Más Bonitos de España, a non-profit association set up in 2010 to promote these tiny national treasures under a badge of tourism excellence.


There are 7,582 villages in Spain with populations so depleted they wouldn’t fill the press seats at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu soccer stadium. Abandoned in the post-Franco goldrush to tourism jobs on the Costas, you could argue until the goats come home over which has the most splendid castle, prettiest plaza de la iglesia or tastiest tapas. Yet a mere 105 live up to the scrutiny of Los Pueblos Más Bonitos de España, a non-profit association set up in 2010 to promote these tiny national treasures under a badge of tourism excellence.


Only villages with under 15,000 inhabitants and ‘certified architectural or natural heritagee’ can apply to join this elite club, and provided they tick the boxes on 29 other criteria, ranging from cultural tradition to traffic management to the upkeep of window boxes, judged by a panel of town hall Mayors.
Andalucía has 17 that make the grade, white pueblo wonders mostly bequeathed by the Moors whose fabulous fortified citadels show Spain in a more natural light. When you’ve visited our short list of six (tough choice), check out the website for the rest and download the free app to plan your own wondrous getaways.

The Cave Village – Setenil De Las Bodegas, Cádiz

Hobbit fans will adore this quirky troglodyte village with its one-of-a-kind ‘cave’ high street, squashed between a rock and a hard place like the filling in a sandwich. Hiding out in a limestone ravine spliced by the Río Trejo 15km north of Ronda, the pueblo clusters around a row of galleries gouged out by the river into a Flintstone’s commercial centre where you can drink, eat and shop.
Before they got doors and windows these caves were, chronologically, handy homes for early humans, olive and almond stores for Romans and Moors and wine cellars for the Spanish, when Setenil proudly added de las Bodegas to its title. Although it was pretty proud already: Setenil, from the Latin ‘septem nil’ (seven times nothing), refers to the number of times the Moorish town held out against Christian invasion before it was reconquered.
Phyloxeria saw off most of the wineries but you can still enjoy a local glass to pair with Setenil’s signature chorizo sausages and home-made pastries – if you can find a table. Tourists come by the busload for Instagram snaps of bars snuggled into the cliff face with olive groves growing on top of them. And rain or shine, in Calle Cuevas del Sol or Cuevas de la Sombra on the shady side of the river, you won’t need a parasol or a brolly thanks to the stone-age toldos above your head!

Don’t leave without…

  • Hiking up to the ruined castle via streets named after goatherds, blacksmiths, soap-makers and sock-makers.
  • A bottle of Principe Alfonso de Hohenlohe. The late German prince who founded Marbella retreated in his latter years to a magnificent cortijo on the village outskirts to make wine. His Bodega Las Monjas is Setenil’s last winery keeping tradition alive.

The Castle Pueblo – Castellar De La Frontera, Cádiz

A concrete church bell tower of Brutalist design is often the first impression visitors get of ‘medieval Castellar’ when they take a wrong turn and end up in the new town where most of the 3,000 inhabitants live. The original village is on top of a hill 10km away: a pueblo blanco hiding inside a 13th century Moorish castle where you can relive days of old when knights were bold – with better facilities.
This frontier fortress saw plenty of Moors v Christians action in its time but only 133 residents call their home the castle today. Many are offspring of 1970s German hippies who rolled up to the abandoned village in their battered Mercs to live alternatively.
The expensively repointed stone battlements enclose casas rurales you can rent, a handful of artisan shops and bars and a hotel built into the walls whose archery slits provide nests for falcons, kites and kestrels. The jaw-dropping panorama stretches across cork forests, stork nests and a turquoise reservoir to Gibraltar.
La Almoraima, Castellar’s third population nucleus, grew up around the cork industry and numbers 200 residents today. The largest private estate in Spain until it was expropriated by the government (along with the castle) in the infamous Rumasa Fraud Case; Mexican actress Salma Hayek’s billionaire husband tried to buy it. Ultimately absorbed into the natural park, from La Almoraima’s tiny Victorian station you can ride a British-built railroad to Ronda.

Don’t leave without…

  • Exploring Los Alcornocales Natural Park, a pastoral playground for hikers, bikers, equestrians, wild swimmers, mushroom foragers and deer rut voyeurs.
  • Visiting the rescue zoo in Nuevo Castellar. The tigers, lemurs and tiny tamarind monkeys were victims of illegal trafficking.

The Berber Village – Pampaneira, Granada

Locals joke that it gets so cold in winter even the chimneys sport scarves. And at a nippy 1,000 metres above sea level with snowy views of the Sierra Nevada, they might have a point.
Jarapas, the brightly-coloured woven rugs and crocheted blankets that decorate the curious conical chimneys and double as shade sails in Plaza de la Libertad church square are a tradition handed down by Moorish refugees who fled to the hills after the Reconquest of Granada six centuries ago. Back then, they planted mulberries, harvested worms and wove silk.
The flat-roofed houses are also typical of mountain villages in the Alpujarras where the way of life owes more to the Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains visible on the horizon. Day trippers flock from Granada to marvel at the irrigation channels in the streets and walk the ‘tinaos’ and ‘terraos’ – slate-covered porches supported by chestnut timbers connecting the houses, which provide shade and easier access over the rooftops to the farm terraces.
Pampaneira is one of a trio of villages strung in an eight-kilometre loop around the dramatic Poqueira Gorge and with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants between them. Hike to Capileira for lunch in Spain’s second highest village, break the journey in Bubión and be back in Pampaneira for a dip before dinner and you’ll be ticking three of Spain’s most beautiful villages off your list!

Don’t leave without…

  • Seeing how they used to do the laundry at Pampaneira’s 200-year-old public washouse.
  • Tucking into Plato Alpujarreño: blood sausage, chorizo, pork loin, ham, fried eggs, potatoes and green pepper – all the regional specialities on a plate!

The Desert Pueblo – Mojácar, Almeria

Half a dozen civilisations including the Greeks have fallen in love with the shape of Mojácar, a symmetrical cubist village standing out on the hilltop in blinding-white contrast to its barren setting.
Edging the Tabernas badlands of Europe’s only desert where it either never rains or it pours, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef were among the first ‘tourists’ to prop up a bar, in between shoots on Sergio Leone’s 1960s spaghetti western movies whose one-horse-town film sets are a popular day-trip.
Meanwhile, a group of well-heeled hippies were being blown away by the virgin beachfront 2km from the village doorstep. Taking up the mayor’s offer of free development land, and Indalo Man (from nearby cave paintings) as their logo, they spent a fistful of dollars turning the 17km strip into Mojácar Playa.
Today the good, the bad and the ugly head to the swinging but relatively low-rise beach resort and the 600 pueblocinos mostly benefit. Puffing up the charming-but-challenging streets to where the castle once stood for stupendous views, with a refreshment pit stop in pretty Plaza Nueva on the way down, is a rite of passage for most visitors. Although, thanks to thoughtful underground car parking and an outdoor lift, there’s no need for all that effort!
Back down on earth, if you prefer your beaches without banana boats and jet skis, a 20-minute drive brings you to the rocky coves and Perrier-clear waters of the Cabo de Gato Nature Reserve.

Don’t leave without…

  • Picnicking at Playa de los Muertos. There are no beach facilities and it’s a 15-minute hike from the car park carrying your gear. But it’s worth it!
  • Sampling the earthy cuisine. Gurullos (pasta noodles), pelotas (dumplings) and gachas (wheat porridge) add Almerian twists to soups, stews and sweets.

The Foodie Mecca – Vejer de la Frontera, Cádiz

A winner of more beauty contests than Miss Venezuela, Vejer’s vertiginous streets are swept daily, potted geraniums flower perennially and householders get an annual whitewash inspection from the town hall. Shops are artisan ateliers, tapas are ‘de autor’, hotels are chic and boutique and the indoor farmers market sports Ralph Lauren wallpaper.
Beneath the chocolate box packaging, vestiges of Vejer’s five centuries of Islamic rule are everywhere to see – in the tiled minarets of its former mosques, the Arabesque curves of its archways and the wide planes of La Janda where the Moorish conquest of Spain began in 711. The view from the battlements across orchards, pastures and sherry towns to the Atlantic which churns with blue fin tuna in spring reveals the delicatessens on the doorstep. Vejer is famed for its cutting edge gastronomy and lists over 100 restaurants and bars on Trip Advisor.
The famous 1805 Battle of Trafalgar is also connected with Vejer, whose villagers cared for the wounded – a reminder that the wide white windsurfing beaches of the Costa de la Luz are only 10km away.
Vejer’s virtues are sophisticated for a village of 13,000 people, extending to a modern theatre, a flamenco centre and a calendar of festivals that keeps it buzzing from Carnival in February to the autumn wine harvest, after which it turns a bit quiet. But you can make merry with sherry every day of the year.

Don’t leave without…

  • A taste of ‘atún de almadraba’, caught off the coast in ecological trapnets in the time-honoured Phoenecian way.
  • A Tarta Cochina, butcher Paco Melero’s tribute to Iberian pork
  • A selfie with La Cobijada, ‘the covered woman’ whose statue overlooks the village. The burqa was worn here until the Spanish Civil War when it was outlawed to prevent criminals donning it in disguise.

The Pueblo Museum – Genalguacil, Málaga

A life-size sculpture of a man in a hat with a suitcase waiting at the bus stop at the entrance to Genalguacil is a whimsical introduction to this artist’s enclave in Malaga’s green Genal Valley. Spiteful-looking cat sculptures perch on terracotta roofs bordering the church square and a fountain gushes water through the mouths of three comical mules.
Since 1994, Genalguacil has thrown open its sky-blue doors to an art biennial during the first fortnight in August, attracting painters and sculptors from all over Europe who set up their easels and potters wheels for a working holiday at town hall expense. Their oeuvres are their legacy, installed in the streets and exhibited at the very grand (for a tiny village) Fernando Centeno López Museum of Contemporary Art.
Genaguacil’s population of 600 swells by 10,000 visitors over this frenetic fortnight although, with only a handful of tourist lodgings and places to eat, they are mostly day-trippers. It’s all good news for one of the most isolated and depopulated villages in the province, reached along a wilfully windy road that finished in a dirt track less than a decade ago.
The route weaves through forests of chestnut and rare pinsapo pine, hairpinning down to the wild river beaches of the Genal before the final ascent to the village, 500 metres above sea level in golden eagle territory. With improved roads, the journey from Estepona is one of the best parts of the trip.

Don’t leave without…

  • Trying rabbit stew; photographing raptors in flight; wild swimming in Europe’s cleanest river.
  • Enjoying the chestnut season when prickly husks litter the road like hedgehogs and the cuisine is to go nuts for.