Culture Call: The Five Best Places to Visit in La Rioja, Spain

This province of northern Spain home to a handful of sleepy, sun-baked villages laced with streams and world-renowned vineyards, all hemmed in by medieval walls crumblier than over-baked croquetas. Planning a summer trip to La Rioja? Make the most of the area with these five great villages and hotel recommendations.

You're familiar with the wine, but have you visited the terroir? While plenty flock to the cooler French province of Champagne or spend summer sizzling in Bordeaux or popping corks in Italian Prosecco vineyards, what of La Rioja, Spain's foremost wine region? We like to think of it as Europe's underdog - home to a handful of sleepy, sun-baked villages, hemmed in by medieval walls crumblier than over-baked croquetas and sheltered by the sublime Cantabria Mountains. Pour yourself a glass and settle down: we've trawled through the vines and picked out the five best villages to visit in La Rioja.

Keen to soak up Spain's La Rioja province? Here are five of the best villages to visit.



Why we can't wait to visit again: Most people stay in nearby Haro. Not us. Every year Haro hosts a "wine battle" (Batalla de Vino), during which bottles of red in their thousands are chucked and sprayed all over the place - a thoroughly Spanish answer to champagne showers. Yes, it might look like a quaint, by-the-book Spanish town thanks to its protection as a site of cultural heritage, but there's mischief to be had in the rowdy tapas bars which spill out onto Haro's tiled streets. It's a great place to spend the day, but we'll bed down in Briñas, if only to play the contrarian. This village is as dastardly kitsch as they come - signposted by a dusty spire, licked by a gently tumbling river and wrapped in vineyards.

Where we're staying: Hospedería Señorío de Briñas

Before you go: Get into the swing of things with a virtual tasting courtesy of Dalston's Newcomer Wines.



Why we can't wait to visit again: We're going to stretch out those lockdown legs by walking the length of the Oja River, visiting Hispano-Flemish-style parish churches and ticking off all the romantic bridges we can find. Thanks to Excaray's slightly higher altitude in the foothills of the Demanda Mountains, Ezcaray is known for producing top-quality vegetables, dairy and livestock. Accordingly, its restaurants don't disappoint. You'll want to huddle around a barrel at El Rincón del Vino with a bottle or two. Ezcaray is technically on the cusp of the Basque Country, but it's just on the border so we're squeezing it into a La Rioja trip anyway.

Where we're staying: Echaurren Hotel Gastronómico

Before you go: Grab a copy of Jon Bonne's The New Wine Rules, a refreshingly unfussy etiquette guide for discerning wine drinkers



Why we can't wait to visit again: We're suckers for some Frank Gehry architecture and this unassuming town is home to his first-ever venture into hotel design - the Hotel Marqués de Riscal. It bears all the curvy metal sheets and swooping wooden struts you might recognise from the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris or the Guggenheim Museum not far away in Bilbao. There are plenty of historical marvels to ogle in this town, too. For instance, the Church of San Andrés and the 17th-century hermitage of the Virgen de la Plaza. Time your visit right, towards the beginning of September, and you might just catch the rowdy Virgen de la Plaza festival where people jig to music thrashed out on tabours and pipes of yore. We suggest you schedule a couple of early evening wine tastings before hitting ye olde dancefloore.

Where we're staying: Hotel Marqués de Riscal

Before you go: Flick through Green Architecture for an overview of the 21st century's most prolific, eco-conscious architects - Frank Gehry included.



Why we can't wait to visit again: We're dreaming of Entrena's herbaceous wild gardens, but if you're the type who is, er, horticulturally challenged, the USPs of this village might be lost on you. Between the vines and in the patches of greenery that sprout among the village's hefty medieval foundations, you'll catch a glimpse (and a whiff) of wild rosemary, thyme and pointy restharrow. Hardcore gardening nerds will also be interested to learn that the village's market gardens are irrigated by the River Antiguo which meanders around Entrena. On a map, this old fortress town resembles a bisected onion - lots of wibbly-wobbly concentric circles - but that's simply a case of eccentric, 11th-century urban planning. Confused? You'll understand when you get there.

Where we're staying: Finca de los Arandinos Bodega

Before you go: Rustle up a few dishes from Monika Linton's Brindisa cookbook, which contains regional recipes from provinces all over Spain. Spoiler alert: it's not just tapas.



Why we can't wait to visit again: We're long overdue for a city break and Logroño is the provincial capital of La Rioja. This is La Rioja, so you won't find a bells-and-whistles, drive-thru McDonald's or a 24-hour bubble-tea café. Still, it has a little more verve than the region's wisened old villages. From about midday to midnight, the tinkling of half-full rioja glasses and lively chatter ricochet around its ochre-tinged, medieval streets. It's a place for energised wine-lovers, not those prone to deep slumber after a couple of glasses. Curious as to why there are so many backpack-laden, pole-toting walkers around? They're likely to be pilgrims tackling the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route; Logroño is a popular pit-stop.

Where we're staying: Hotel Calle Mayor

Before you go: Get to know the sculptural work of Óscar Cenzano. His studios are based in Logroño.

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