With its spectacular location high on the cliffs overlooking the Alboran Sea, Melilla is well worth a trip. To help make the most of your visit, Culture Trip has assembled the must-visit sights of this Spanish city on the northwest coast of Africa.
From its impressive Catalan Modernist architecture to its fascinating museums, such as the Museo Histórico Militar and the Museo de Arqueologia e Historia, Melilla offers an excellent selection of things to do. Here are some of the best.
Melilla is home to the second-highest concentration of Catalan Modernist buildings in Spain (first place goes to Barcelona, naturally) and many of them were designed by Enrique Nieto, a brilliant pupil of Antoni Gaudí. One of Nieto’s most notable Melilla works, which dates back to 1950, is the Palacio de Asamblea, a city hall with an Art Deco facade and twin watchtowers located in Melilla’s Plaza de España.
Plaza de España is where you’ll also find another of Melilla’s most notable buildings, Banco de España, which boasts an arresting Classical facade and Arabic-style arches either side of its entrance. This was long the Banco de España’s local branch, which was planned by architect Juan de Zavala Lafora in 1935 and opened in 1944. The Bank of Spain moved out in 2011, making way for the military clinic that still has its base there.
This vast labyrinth of caves and tunnels has been of vital importance to Melilla’s defences since Phoenician times. The Cuevas del Conventico really came into their own from the 15th century onwards, when the city’s Portuguese and Spanish occupants were repeatedly attacked by Moorish armies. Spread over three levels, the caves were beautifully restored between 1993 and 2000.
The muscular Melilla la Vieja has played an integral role in the Spanish territory’s defensive efforts. Built throughout the 16th and 17th centuries on a hilltop looking out to sea, it’s been lovingly restored in recent years and now houses several superb museums. To enjoy some impressive views, follow the path up from the Puerta de la Mariana to the fort’s highest point.
Opened in 1997 to celebrate Melilla’s 500th year under Spanish control, the Museo Histórico Militar displays over 500 artefacts relating to the city’s rich military history. The collection ranges from weapons to flags and is spread over two halls occupying the site of a 16th-century ammunition warehouse. Its centrepiece is an amazingly detailed scale model of the city centre, which was made in the 19th century.
To acquaint yourself with Melilla’s fascinating past, head to the Museum of Archaeology and History. Situated within the walls of the mighty fortress, its permanent collection is split over two levels and traces the city’s development from Prehistoric times, through its Roman and Medieval epochs, to the present day. A third floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions.
Parque Hernández is a beautiful space in which to take some time out in Melilla. Join the evening paseo (stroll) on the central boulevard; enjoy a beer in the café; or check out the monuments that punctuate the greenery. There’s one remembering 17th-century playwright Lope de Vega and another in honour of Félix Rodriguez, the 20th-century pioneer of the nature TV documentary in Spain.
Melilla’s best beach also happens to be one of the city’s little-known secrets. A small cove accessed by a tunnel leading under the fortress walls, Playa de la Ensenada de los Galápagos is flanked by towering Medieval walls and sheer cliffs. Although the city centre is just a few minutes’ walk away, you’ll feel gloriously secluded as you bathe in its clear waters.
One of Nieto’s most important contributions to Melilla’s religious architecture is the Central Mosque, which is situated in the Modernism-dominated Ensanche barrio (neighbourhood). Conceived by the Catalan master in the late 1930s, this unmissable yellow and white building was opened in 1947 and received a facelift in 1994. Commercial premises, a prayer room and Turkish baths are found on its ground floor.
Straddling two streets in the city centre, the striking Casa de los Cristales is another Nieto masterpiece in Melilla. The “Glass House” opened as a luxurious hotel in 1927, thereafter being recreated, again by Nieto, as an office and apartment space in the mid-1930s. Distinctive green panes replaced original glass windows in the early 1980s and the building was most recently renovated in 2011.