Visiting the best Gibraltar attractions in a day
Does he feel like a British subject, a Spaniard or a Gibraltarian citizen, we want to know from our driver as we are headed for the Rock, arguably Gibraltar’s most prominent attraction. “I am a Gibraltarian, of course”, his quick response. He speaks with a strange accent, one that you cannot quite place. His name is Jason, “like the man with the Golden Fleece”, and he is driving us around the Gibraltar Rock National Park today.
It is a strange place, this little rocky outcrop at the southern end of Spain. A geographical anomaly. Not Spanish at all, but not British either. Like a hybrid, a strange creature that you cannot quite grasp in its complexity. An eyesore, if you ask the Spanish people. If you can believe Jason, the Spanish do enjoy damaging Gibraltan cars whenever they enter mainland Spain. Gibraltar is legally ours, they will say. Give it back to us.
But the British hold firmly onto the Rock. A history of war and conflict has shaped the place into what it is today. But is it worth your time, should you really visit this British enclave under the Spanish sun?
A Violent History
Gibraltar is one of the best fortified and fought-over places in Europe. It has seen and withstood numerous sieges throughout its history, in every single major conflict or war. It was settled by many different people over time, most notably the Romans and the Moors, until it became part of the Kingdom of Spain in 1462.
In 1713, however, Spain ceded the territory to Britain as part of the Treaty of Utrecht and as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession. They haven’t regained it since.
For Britain, Gibraltar would become one of the most important military outpost of the Empire. A stopover destination for ships entering the Mediterranean on their way to the Suez Canal and on to India. A stronghold to control the Strait of Gibraltar during WWII and beyond.
Today, the military importance of Gibraltar has been diminished, and you can see how the economy has moved away from defence income and towards other industries such as online gambling, tourism and financial services. It is largely self-governing but depends on the United Kingdom for defence and foreign policy. A referendum in 2002 to have Spain and Britain share joint sovereignty over Gibraltar was widely dismissed by the Girbraltarians.
While Jason gets us up the Rock, saving us the strenuous walk between attractions on roads that are too narrow for a footpath and too busy to feel comfortable sharing with the taxis, he gives us some insights into life in Gibraltar. His grandparents, he explains, came from the town of San Roque, which is located around 10km from Gibraltar on Spanish territory. They only speak Spanish, in contrast to his children who are much more comfortable using English than Spanish.
He attributes this to the omnipresent English media and the internet. The Spanish language must have lost its coolness.
Relations with Spain have not alway been smooth sailing. He remembers clearly a time when, as a child, he wasn’t able to cross the border and straight into Spain as it is possible today. Instead, his family would have to take a boat to Africa, and from there another boat to Algeciras in Spain. Quite a detour considering you can clearly see Spain in all its glorious beauty from the top of the Rock.
Being able to simply walk into Spain has a lot of advantages for the people living and working in Gibraltar. Housing is costly due to a lack of space. So many people will live in nearby La Línea de la Concepción and commute to their workplaces in the morning. There is a pretty statue in honour of these commuting workers on the Spanish side of the border.
The Brexit is, of course, a touchy topic at the moment. The overwhelming majority of Gibraltar citizens have voted to remain in the European Union. With the decision now in place to leave the European Union, as Gibraltar needs to follow suit in whatever the UK decides as a whole, the future of the border, the migration workers, the tax haven status and much more are at stake.
Not wanting to sound gloomy, but whether or not it will continue to be so easy as to just show your passport and walk into the territory after the Brexit becomes effective, remains to be seen.
The critique – is Gibraltar a holiday worthy destination?
Gibraltar doesn’t make it easy to fall in love with. It lacks the charm of Spanish cities which you can easily reach within an hour or two. And there is also no real British flavour either, so don’t expect to find here the excitement of London, the cuteness of the Lake District or the mystery of the Yorkshire Dales.
It is after all a military stronghold, purposefully built and with a sense of temporariness.
Most of the architecture is clearly disappointing. Shops just seem to try to sell you tacky souvenirs or duty-free luxury items. Food consists of a boring mixture of British and Spanish staples.
Interestingly, the territory is pushing strongly everything that has to do with tourism since many military operations have been closed down in the region. It has become a popular cruise ship port, and day trip visitors from Spain enjoy the different flavour in comparison to other destinations in the area.
However, there are quite a handful of attractions that we really enjoyed seeing. These are the things that make Gibraltar a unique place to visit and, in my view, very well worth the trip. Read on and decide for yourself.
The 8 best Gibraltar attractions
The fortifications and military history around the city
The best attractions in Gibraltar arguably can be found on the Rock and not so much in the city centre. However, when exploring Gibraltar on foot I do enjoy getting surprised by the historic remains of old battalions and fortifications. There are gates that you walk through and strong walls that cut through your line of sight. You cannot really do much with these old remains other than looking at them and maybe take a picture or two, but if there is one thing that gives this place some flavour, this is it.
Many of these structures have information nearby so that you can read up to the history behind these strategic places. Landport for example, is originally the only way into the city other than by sea and has seen thirteen sieges.
Incidentally, the Grand Casemates Square is the bustling centre of activity which wouldn’t be much more than just any other city square if it wasn’t for the historic surroundings.
There is also a small cemetery near the South Battalion which is the final resting place for many fallen soldiers during the Battle of Trafalgar which is worthwhile seeing.
The churches of Gibraltar
Gibraltar has a number of churches around the city which are not overly exciting but they are absolutely ok to visit.
They are St Mary the Crowned, the King’s Chapel, and the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
They may not be the most imposing churches you can see in the region – Spanish churches are much more intriguing in my view – but they come with a connection to the military past of the city. There are not many churches in the world that have model ships hanging off the ceiling, for example.
Not to forget, the British brought with them Anglicism which is a very different story to the Catholicism as it is practiced in neighbouring Spain.
King’s Chapel is tiny but the stained glass windows are something you will not regret looking at.
The Ape’s den
The true stars of Gibraltar are of course the Barbary macaques that live on the Rock. They are the only wild monkeys in Europe, a bit of an oddity. Nobody quite knows why there are monkeys in Gibraltar but it’s not unlikely that seafaring folk brought them along when they came to Europe from Africa.
When you enter the National Park you will see them pretty much everywhere, not just at the den. And there is enough of them to take really wonderful pictures and some fantastic interactions with them. You mustn’t feed them, of course, but the little creatures are clever and they will pose for you anyway.
There really is no reason to be afraid of the monkeys. We found them quite delightful and cheeky, not aggressive or intrusive at all. We even took one of them for a ride on our laps in the taxi before it hopped off again through one of the windows as soon as we left its territory.
And just like what they say about the ravens in the Tower of London, as long as the monkeys remain on the Rock, so will the British in Gibraltar. Food for thought.
St Michael’s Cave
If you love giant caves with massive stalagmites and stalactites then St Michael’s Cave won’t disappoint. It is as great as any prototype cave you could imagine. There are giant halls and smaller tunnels, stalactites that have been formed over centuries, and even a small underground lake. The latter you can only see with a special tour but everything else is easy to explore within half an hour or so.
Rumour has it that the cave is in fact bottomless and that there is an underground connection all the way to Africa. This is of course silly, but an interesting thought nevertheless.
One of the stalactites can be seen cut in half – a beautiful pattern of lines emerges where you can see how the different layers of deposit have been built up over time.
Gibraltar wouldn’t be Gibraltar if there hadn’t been a military use at some stage. During WWII there was a plan to use the cave as an emergency military hospital. Luckily that there was no need to use it.
Views from the Rock
There are quite a few spots from which you can enjoy fantastic views of the Straight, the port, the Spanish mainland and all the way to Africa. Depending on where you are, you can completely focus on the busy port or the Atlas mountains of Morocco. Or you can see a plane take off at Gibraltar airport or the Spanish coast looking east.
These views alone make a visit to the Rock worthwhile if you ask me.
The Great Siege Tunnels
You don’t even need to be very close to the Rock to see that it almost resembles a Swiss cheese. There are so many holes in the surface that it becomes quite obvious why Gibraltar has always had this strategic edge over other places. The Great Siege Tunnels are an attraction not just for history buffs and fans of military history. In fact, we were quite surprised by the scale of the whole operation, and enjoyed exploring the endless tunnels.
The construction of the tunnel system began during the so called Great Siege during the time of the American War of Independence. French and Spanish forces had hoped to be able to take advantage of the weakened position of the British.
However, the British started to dig a defence system into the Rock using nothing else but crowbars and their bare hands. They eventually reached The Notch, a protruding projection on the northern face of the mountain where they mounted their guns to fight back the attackers. The openings you can see from the foot of the Rock were also once armed with artillery, a very effective system to hold the territory against even larger armies.
Visiting the tunnels you learn a great deal about the history of Gibraltar as a military outpost during a number of conflicts, including WWII (interestingly, nobody quite knows what the tunnels were used for back then). You can peak through the ventilation holes onto the Straight and the Spanish mainland, and there are a number of man-sized models demonstrating the action within the tunnels during the time of war.
The extend of the tunnels is immense, and you don’t have to go all the way to get a good understanding of the system. Note that when we visited the tunnels were extremely wet with lots of big puddles as it had been raining a couple of days earlier.
The Moorish Castle
Without doubt there are better Moorish Castles in the South of Spain than the one in Gibraltar. The structure is not much more than a glorified ruin – the tower is reconstructed to the point of allowing you to climb up and look down, but then you do get those views and better views from other spots on the Rock as well.
With crumbling walls and destroyed floors, there is not much to see that will make your heart skip a beat. Just traces of Moorish design and some attempts to keep the structure from falling apart. You may need no more than 15 minutes to see the entirety of the castle.
Having said that, it’s an interesting puzzle piece in the history of Gibraltar. Muslim rulers were the first to fortify Gibraltar in the 12th century, and they lost it only briefly to the Spanish. The tower which was built by the Moors in 1333 on the foundations of an earlier tower, has withstood 10 sieges. Not much else is left of that period, so if you would like to have a more complete picture of the history of Gibraltar then this is a good point to start.
What you need to know before visiting Gibraltar
- Passport: Do not forget your passport when entering Gibraltar. Just like the UK, Gibraltar is not part of the Schengen Zone and entering the city means that you are crossing indeed a proper border. It may just be a formality but without the right papers you will probably not be able to get in at all.
- Walking or Driving: You have the choice of walking or driving into the city. So far, we have only ever walked into the city which saves you from the car queue and gives you much better insights into how this city works. For example you walk past a huge parking lot with permanent parking spot for residents on the Spanish side – space is at a premium in Gibraltar. Also, you are crossing the runway of Gibraltar airport which is quite an experience in itself. However, if you do decide to walk you will be facing quite a big day of walking in total, unless you choose to take a shuttle or a taxi back to the border when you are done sightseeing.
- Rental Cars from Spain: Travelling with a rental car? Before you decide to take it out of Spain (which is what you are essentially doing when leaving Spain and entering Gibraltar) do study your rental agreement and your insurance policy. If you are not covered outside Spain you might be better off leaving the car in neighbouring La Línea and walking across just like we did.
- The Border: If you want to enter the territory in a car be prepared for a long queue at the border crossing. Cars are indeed being checked coming in and going out again. The maximum amount of tax free cigarettes you can take with you back to Spain is just 200 cigarettes per person, and this is indeed enforced.
- The Scam: Also, while your are waiting in the car queue, don’t get scammed by people trying to charge you money for entering Gibraltar. There is no fee that you need to pay, and any money that you would hand over through your car window will inevitably end up in some petty criminal’s pockets.
- Parking Options: If driving to Gibraltar in your own car, there is always a chance of finding free parking around town if you are persistent. You have good chances at Queensway, or in Reclamation Road. There is paid underground parking for example at Ocean Villages.
- The Best Days to Visit: There are good days and bad days to visit Gibraltar. Try to avoid days when a cruise ship docks, usually a Thursday. This can make a profound difference as cruise ships can carry thousands of passengers. Weekends also tend to get busy as Gibraltar is a popular day trip destination for the sizeable British expat community on the Costa Del Sol.
- Money Matters: If you happen to have some British Pounds in your pocket – issued by the Bank of England and not in Scotland or Northern Ireland, use these to make payments in Gibraltar. Even though both Euro and the British Pounds are accepted you usually get a better deal paying with Sterling. Your change will always be in Sterling. Be careful with your cash though as you won’t be able to pay with Gibraltar issued money in the UK.
- Visiting the Rock: A visit to the Rock is a must-do in Gibraltar. However, you will find that you cannot drive all the way to the top, nor would you necessary want to as it can get crowded and driving can be challenging. Your alternative would be to take the cable car but this leaves you without transport once you are on top of the mountain. The best way to see The Rock and all its attractions is by hiring a driver who will stop several times along the route and will give you plenty of opportunity to explore the sights. Our driver also organised all tickets and offered tons of information on the places we visited. It is the costlier alternative but it really is worth its money.
Hotels in Gibraltar
The hotel scene in Gibraltar is not big but there are some good options available if you decide to stay overnight. All of the hotels below have received excellent reviews and ratings by previous guests. If you decide to click on any of the links provided, please note that you will be referred to Booking.com of which we are an affiliate. Any booking made directly from this referral will bring us a small a commission which is helpful in maintaining this blog, at no extra cost to you. Many thanks!
Hotel Sunborn is not exactly a hotel but a hotel yacht. But still, you won’t find that there is anything lacking. This 5-star hotel offers an infinity pool, a casino, a spa, and a restaurant. Choose between hotel rooms and apartments and enjoy the central location near Ocean Village. A perfect choice for couples that are looking for the celebrity treatment. For reviews and to check rates and availability, click here.
The colonial-style Rock Hotel has seen some illustrious guests walking though its doors, including Sir Winston Churchill himself. An institution of a hotel that is located on the Rock with some commanding views all the way to Africa. It is quite close to everything that you would want to be close to, including the shopping area and the cable car. Parking is free and the service is rated excellent by former guests. For reviews and to check rates and availability, click here.
Con Dios is a simple and cheap bed and breakfast option in Gibraltar which is, again, located on a boat. It comes with full facilities with the exception of a shower which you will find nearby at the marina. Guests in the past particularly liked the free Wifi, the good coffee and the sun terrace. For reviews and to check rates and availability, click here.