Where can you go where you walk across the airport runway to get to your hotel, explore a rock that has over 30 miles of tunnels bored into it, and wander along country paths and not bat an eye at a large monkey sitting preening itself on a fence? The answer is Gibraltar.
I recently spent two nights in this tiny British Overseas Territory that borders Spain on its southern shores. It’s only 2.6 square miles but you can easily fill a weekend exploring all the sights Gibraltar has to offer.
Most of these are centred around “the Rock” – which is hardly surprising since at almost 1,400 foot, it’s impossible to go anywhere without staring up and seeing it. It also played an important role in some of the historical events that have shaped Gibraltar’s history and which you can learn more about during your stay. Below I’ve listed the essentials that I think you should be on your list:
A trip to the summit of the Rock
This is a must and pretty unavoidable since many of the things you will most likely want to do are part of the Rock itself. But I’d recommend going straight to the summit where you will be rewarded with some breath-taking, panoramic, views.
You can either drive up, take an organised tour, walk the Mediterranean Steps (apparently not for the faint hearted!), or brave the cable car ride that takes you from the town’s Main Street.
I chose to take the cable car. I have to say that even though I’m not a fan of them (see my post on my experiences of taking the cable car up Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain), this one is fine. It only takes six minutes and is a fairly smooth ride so in no time you’re stepping out and looking straight at the Rock’s peak. You won’t be disappointed and will snap some incredible photos from the vantage point.
There’s a café, so you could stop off for a cuppa, or alternatively, as I did, stroll downhill along a pathway which offers up some stunning views which you won’t want to miss; if this is on your to do list, make sure you stop off about twenty minutes into the walk at the glass Skywalk which provides a 360-degree vista out across the sea.
Meet the monkeys
It’s almost impossible to visit Gibraltar and not see its famous monkeys. Although you normally have to leave the town and start ascending the Rock to run into the furry residents, one local did tell me that they do, on occasion, wander into town. The specific breed here are the barbary macaques, a species normally found in north Africa, but present in Gibraltar as the only wild troop in Europe.
Organised tours will take you to the spots that they are most likely to hang out in – for example, Apes’ Den. Once there you get to see quite a few all in one place, primarily because they are drawn by the lure of food from the tour guide (note, however, that the Gibraltar tourist board asks that you don’t feed the monkeys as it can encourage aggressive behaviour as they vie to get the titbits).
I witnessed this on a tour that I booked, and although none of the monkeys were aggressive – just a bit excitable – and it did allow me to get some great photos, I actually preferred it the next day when I wandered through the lanes of the Rock’s nature reserve and could see them in their natural environment – lounging on fences staring out to sea, preening themselves at the side of the road, or playing with their fellow monkeys.
Seeing them being their natural selves was so much more rewarding and I didn’t see a single one that exhibited any signs of aggression.
Explore the tunnels in the rock
There are two places where you can experience the Rock’s tunnels, each associated with a different time in Gibraltar’s history.
The Great Siege Tunnels: The creation of these tunnels started in May 1782 as part of the defence of Gibraltar from France and Spain during the Great Siege and as a way of hoisting a gun from what is known as “the Notch”, a sheer part of the cliff face on the northern side of the Rock.
A small group of men, (less than twenty), spent five weeks boring through the rock to create passageways, in the process opening up air vents on the outside of the rock (most likely to enable the noxious fumes from the rock blasting process to escape or as a way of getting rid of the rock that had been dug out).
As a result, several embrasures were formed which doubled up as areas in which to mount guns. You can see these gun points as you walk through the rock: open vents where you can look out to sea and which have guns and cannons placed behind them.
The Notch was finally reached after the end of the Siege and then during the Second World War Royal Engineers continued the tunnelling.
The World War 2 Tunnels: These are definitely worth exploring. Thirty-four miles of the rock were excavated to provide space for military equipment during the war and as a secure site to protect troops. In much the same way as the Jersey War Tunnels that I’ve also written about, Gibraltar’s tunnels were large enough to hold a hospital, fuel and ammunition.
You have to book on an official tour to see these tunnels; you’re then taken around different sections, stopping at various points to listen to a handheld audio guide – this gives an excellent overview of the significant work that was needed to create the tunnels as well as life inside them. In total, you’re probably inside the tunnels for around 45 minutes.
Be amazed by St. Michael’s cave
As you descend the Rock from the top, you’ll pass the entrance to St. Michael’s cave. You must go in here. It’s only small, but what it might lack in space, it more than makes up for in spectacle.
The first thing you come across is an auditorium, set up for concerts (and I imagine pretty memorable concerts, given the unique location).
Walk past the seating area and then you’re in the main part of the caves. At this point, I just had to stop and stare: in front of you are massive stalactites forming twisted columns working their way up from the floor; above you are stalactites and helictites hanging down in seemingly razor sharp blades from the ceiling.
They are all lit up, the colours alternating between greens, blues, purples and pinks, and there is music playing around you, all of which adds to the atmosphere in here.
It’s a really special place in my opinion. I’ve been to a fair few caves in my time, but never have I seen anything like this.
Visit Mons Calpe
This is the Roman name for the Rock, one of the Pillars of Hercules that guard the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar (the second one is in north Africa).
This is really just a viewpoint, but it affords you superb views across the sea and out to Morocco in one direction and Spain in the other. On a clear day, it’s worth a quick stop here. You can also look out over these countries if you visit the Ibrahim al Ibrahim mosque at Europa Point.
Other things to do in Gibraltar
For such a small place, there is a surprising variety of other things that you can see if you have the time:
The Alameda botanic gardens: these are just a couple of minutes from the cable car station. They are small, but a really pleasant place to cool off after a long walk around the Rock or if you need to escape from the scorching sun.
The Moorish Castle: you can walk around the Moorish part of town, a few minutes uphill from the main town square, Casemates; it has a castle with its Tower of Homage.
Casemates Square: This town square is where you can find a number of bars and restaurants. I didn’t spend much time in the actual town as I was more focused on the Rock and I have to say didn’t find it was the most buzzy and vibrant of places I’ve ever visited – but this may be because I visited in early January.
Lower St Michael’s Cave: If your visit to St. Michael’s Cave has whetted your appetite and you want to see more you can book an organised tour to see the natural attractions in Lower St. Michael’s Cave (these apparently include a gorgeous underground lake).
The tour can take around three hours and my understanding is that it’s a bit more full on than the alternative cave visit (involving some climbing). The entrance fee is £25.
The beaches: There are a scattering of beaches that you can visit, should you want some respite from sightseeing. I didn’t make it to any of them, but it was January! More information about their location can be found here: www.visitgibraltar.gi/see-and-do/beaches
Go further afield: If you’re in Gibraltar for an extended period, you may want to visit its neighbouring countries – Spain and Morocco. Spanish cities such as Malaga and Seville are around an hour and a half and two and a half hours away, respectively.
You can also get boats that take you to Tangier Med, 40 km away from Tangier, in Morocco – these take around an hour and a half.
A note on admission prices: To visit the attractions on the Rock, you need to purchase a Nature Reserve ticket for £12 (£7 for children); the World War 2 tunnels are extra at £8. But it’s pretty good value for money as this gives you access to a number of different things, including the caves, Apes’ Den and the Great Siege Tunnels. If you want to just wander around the Rock, but not visit any of the attractions, you need to pay £5.
The cable car is £15.50 return (£6.50 for children), but when purchased with the Nature Reserve ticket is £25.50 (£16.00) for children, plus the £8.00 for the World War 2 tunnels (this means there’s a small saving when buying the cable car ticket at the same time – which can be done online up to three months in advance).