The vast majority of visitors to Gibraltar come as day trippers, either on cruise ships or across the Spanish border. A quick tour around the sights, and perhaps a drink and a bit of duty free shopping before heading off back to the ship or the holiday resort. But there is plenty to see and do in Gibraltar if you want to stay a little longer.
For me, it was a return visit. I was last here during my student days, when the border with Spain was still closed, and the Rock was dominated by British military personnel. This time I went in search of a bit of winter sun, and to see what had changed.
Nature and History: The Rock of Gibraltar
For most visitors the main attraction is the Rock and its famous colony of macaque monkeys. If you take the cable car in both directions you could easily see them in a couple of hours, but there is much more to the Rock than this. The whole of the Upper Rock is a nature reserve, covered in Mediterranean trees and plants, with an abundant bird population. It is criss-crossed with hiking trails, and a little way from the top is the spectacular St Michael’s Cave.
If you’re interested in military history (which I’m not!) you could spend days exploring the sites of sieges and military operations from the earliest times. Gibraltar has always been of vital strategic importance and you’ll find batteries, cannons and military installations all over the Rock and the town. You can visit the Great Siege Tunnels, a massive defence system constructed in the 18th century and used again during World War II. And there are military cemeteries, most notably the Trafalgar Cemetery, the resting place of some of those who died at the Battle of Trafalgar.
But I was more interested in the town walls and defences. And in the Town Museum, with exhibits including the 14th century baths (said to be one of the best preserved Moorish bath houses in Europe) and an exploration of Gibraltar’s Neolithic history.
What Else Can You Do in Gibraltar?
For me, one of the pleasures of Gibraltar was walking down Main Street (a sort of cross between a Mediterranean town and Britain in the 1970s), and exploring the tangle of passages and stairways in the old town. Then there was the modern marina, the Botanic Gardens, and the tiny hamlet of Catalan Bay on the opposite side of the peninsula. One day we walked across the Spanish border and picked up a hire car. We went to explore some Roman sites, but there was lots more we could have seen and done in this part of Spain. Theoretically you can also take a day trip to Tangier, but this is subject to the whims of the weather and the tour operators.
Lots of visitors come to Gibraltar for duty free shopping, particularly drinks and cigarettes which are very cheap here. And there seem to be plenty of shops offering luxury goods such as electronics and perfume. Then there is Ocean Village, a modern complex with bars, restaurants and casinos. And in good weather you can take a boat trip to spot the dolphins.
Gibraltar: Some Practical Considerations
Gibraltar does have a few quirks that you need to know about. First there is the weather. Gibraltar is an exposed rock jutting out into the Mediterranean which means that it can be subject to fierce winds. Sometimes this can lead to things like the Cable Car and the Botanic Gardens being closed at short notice, and the occasional plane being diverted to Malaga in Spain. You also need to be aware that lots of things are closed at the weekend (in the low season at least), and that it is not always easy to find reliable information about opening times.
On a windy weekday you could visit the museum. Or you could buy a day ticket on the buses – very cheap at £2.50 – and ride around different parts of the peninsula. But if you are there on a wet windy Sunday afternoon (as we were), you may find yourself simply diving into the nearest bar!
Where to Stay and Eat in Gibraltar
We stayed in the Sunborn, a super-yacht moored on the edge of the marina area in Ocean Village. Although Ocean Village itself was a bit brash for my taste, I can recommend the Sunborn for its views of the sea and the marina (if you stay there make sure to request a sea view). And it has a great location, being easy walking distance from the town, the airport and the Spanish border. The Rock Hotel, a 1930s style hotel on the lower slopes of the Rock, looks more luxurious but might be less convenient for getting around. However, as we discovered, even if you don’t stay there the Rock Hotel is a great place for lunch or afternoon tea.
Don’t believe the guidebooks when they say you’ll find tapas everywhere – you won’t! Most of the pubs seem to sell unimaginative British staples like fish and chips or burgers, and the restaurants in Ocean Village can be a bit crowded and noisy. But you’ll find Indian and Chinese, and some good fish restaurants. The best meal I had was at the excellent Mamela in Catalan Bay (bus or taxi from the main town), and I also enjoyed authentic and inexpensive Moroccan food at the Marrakech on Governor’s Parade.
So how long would I recommend you stay in Gibraltar? I stayed a week, and could have spent longer, but for most people three or four days would probably be long enough. If you’ve been to Gibraltar how long did you stay? Let me know in the comments below.
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