Glorious beaches and people watching are among Mallorca’s biggest draws, but the urban side of things has its own appeal. Visiting the capital, Palma de Mallorca, also the largest and oldest town on this Balearic island, is a treat whether it’s history, culture or food and drink you’re after. Here are our top picks of things to do in this beautiful part of Spain.
One of only a handful of circular castles in Europe, this 14th-century fortress sits on a pine-forested hill overlooking the city below. Originally a royal residence – and a refuge from the plague – and then a prison, Bellver Castle is now open to tourists, with a comprehensive museum dedicated to Mallorca’s history. Classical concerts and other events take place in the central courtyard throughout the summer. There are car parks around the castle, but it is also a pleasant winding walk to get there through the pine forest, if a little tiring in the heat of summer. Reward yourself at the top with a cold beer and a slice of tortilla – there is also an excellent cafe with a viewing deck.
The San Juan Mercado Gastronómico makes for a real feast of the senses, both in terms of the Instagrammable interiors and the extensive array of delicious treats on offer. Set in a former abattoir, the place is also cavernous, with high-table seating down the middle and 17 “stalls” offering everything from freshly cooked seafood, oysters and champagne, pintxos, mini-burgers, endless hams, every kind of croquette you can imagine and much more. The jet-black squid-ink tortilla is a must-try, and most stalls also have an impressive range of wines. Always buzzing, it’s a great place to grab a quick lunch or enjoy a night out with regular live music and DJs.
Wander the narrow cobbled streets of Palma’s casco antiguo, and admire its elegant archways, grand historic palacios, medieval churches and charming squares. Snatch a glimpse of shady courtyards through ancient doorways, or take an official guided tour and learn about the district’s long and varied history. Along the way, stop to buy some traditional Mallorcan baskets at the Mimbreria Vidal, one of Palma’s oldest basket shops; nibble on an ensaïmada from any one of the many local bakeries; or sit in a sunny plaza and enjoy a cold drink and tapas. If your legs aren’t up to the stroll, you could always take a Segway tour.
No trip to Palma would be complete without a visit to its spectacular sandstone cathedral, La Seu. This impressive building took 600 years to build, and due to its size and placement on the old city walls, is almost impossible to miss. Well worth paying the small fee to look around (there is also an excellent audio tour), it boasts one the world’s largest rose windows, and some of the 20th-century renovations were undertaken by the famous modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. For a few days each year, the cathedral’s upper terraces and bell tower can be explored as part of an hour-long guided tour.
One of Palma’s key highlights is its wide promenade and cycle path that stretch for miles along the seafront. A pleasant 25-minute stroll or a 10-minute cycle east will take you to Portixol (little port). Once a quaint but run-down fishing village, it’s now very much gentrified, with the stylish Portixol Hotel, a pretty marina and a handful of excellent eateries. There’s also a nice little beach for a spot of sunbathing or a quick dip, then you can either head back to Palma or keep going towards the next beach, or the next beer (or both!).
Tapas Tuesday, or Ruta Martiana, was introduced as a way of getting customers out on the quietest night of the week. It takes place in Gerreria, in the centre of the Old Town. Essentially a bar crawl with tapas, it’s a fun way to explore the Old Town, and the bars on the route offer a glass of beer or wine and a tapas dish for just €2-€3 (£1.80-£2.75). The tapas tend to actually be pintxos (tasty bites on a slice of bread), and most bars have platters with a selection to choose from. The food quality and selection does vary from place to place, but if you take a shine to a particular bar or snack, there’s nothing to stop you from staying for a few. The website lists participating bars, but you can just as easily head to the area and wander – bars usually have a blackboard outside stating what they offer. For a large, lively bar full of locals, Molta Barra is a good place to start.
Discovered only 100 years ago in the gardens of a manor house in the Old Town, the Arab Baths date back to some time between the 10th and 12th centuries, when Palma was an Arab city known as Medina Mayurqa. Thought to have been attached to a private home rather than a public hammam, the Arab Baths seem to have been constructed from the remains of other buildings from previous periods. The (mainly Roman) columns in the domed roof tepidarium are all different and clearly salvaged from different places. A small but fascinating place to visit, the baths are also set in a pretty secluded garden.
Artist Joan Miró’s mother and wife were both Mallorquin, and Miró spent much of his childhood on the island. He moved to Mallorca permanently in the 1950s and achieved his lifelong dream of having his own studio, which was designed for him by architect Josep Lluís Sert. The Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, set up by Miró and his wife shortly before he died, allows visitors to see the studios where he worked right up until his death in 1983. There is also a gallery, sculpture garden and educational spaces, and its peaceful location in the hills on the outskirts of Palma allows for magnificent views over the city and the sea.
If you need a break from sightseeing and fancy a beach day without having to stray too far, Palma’s city beach (C’an Pere Antoni) has everything you need. Easily walkable from the centre of town, this 750m-long (half-mile) stretch of sand has showers, toilets and a lifeguard (in high season), plus a beach club at either end. As city beaches go, this one has a lot going for it – mostly frequented by locals, it’s clean, the sand is fine and golden, and the water clear and safe for swimming. Upmarket Nassau Beach Club at the far end has comfortable sun loungers (reservable by phone) with waiter service, and a popular (but expensive) restaurant. Closer to the city is the Anima Beach Club, with a more youthful Ibiza-esque vibe.
Right in the centre of town, Esbaluard is the art gallery in Mallorca, and at a paltry €6 (£5.50) entry fee, there really is no excuse not to visit. Joan Miró once again features, flanked by some 500 modern and contemporary artists with works on display in the vast space. You can even see some of Picasso’s lesser-known ceramics. Walking the gallery will give you a Balearic history lesson, from the Islamic origins of the district where the building is situated up to the present day. Included on site are a viewing platform to take in the gorgeous vistas, a restaurant and the Aljub – a former freshwater cistern repurposed as a flexible event space.
Get a lesson in Spanish brandy at the Bodegas Suau
Despite being warm all year round, Mallorca is famed for its brandy, a drink typically consumed to stave off the cold. Since 1851, Bodegas Suau has represented a partnership between the island and mainland Spain, as the liquor is distilled there, then brought to Mallorca to be aged. The cellar itself is a great attraction, and the perfect place to sample the brandy, as you’ll be meeting it just as it is ready to be bottled and sold. Given its age, the location is rich with Mallorcan tradition, and tours can be booked for just €10 (£9.10) per person.
Sailing is a fun way to take in the Mallorcan coastline, but why not take it to the next level by boarding the oldest working ship in Spain. The Rafael Verdara, launched in 1841 and registered in Ibiza, has a long and fascinating history. It’s well maintained and fully functional, and you can now book trips for the day, for a romantic sunset cruise or, for the more adventurous, a 10-day long whale-watching excursion (only available in summer). Day trips run at €95 (£87) per adult, setting off from the Muelle de Golondrinas de Palma. It’s not the cheapest, but you won’t forget it in a hurry.
Gordiola has been making glassware in Mallorca for more than 300 years, and its artistic, unusual blowing and decorating has endured. Its approach to bowls, stemware, vases and other products means that no two items are the same, so you’ll be going home with something truly unique. Vidrería Gordiola is right in the centre of Palma, just a few minutes from the cathedral, and the staff there are happy to answer questions about the amazing products on display. There’s really no better way to take a piece of Mallorca home with you than to pick up some Gordiola glass, just be sure to pack it safely!
As you’d expect from the largest town on the island, Palma has a bustling nightlife. The Plaza Quadrado isn’t just reliable for good tapas, it also makes a perfect waypoint for heading out on the town. Clubs such as the Blue Jazz Club and Bar Flexas take a very relaxed approach. If you’re looking for something more modern, Stereo Club and Es Gremi offer house, techno and other dance music to keep you moving until the small hours. If you’re inclined towards something more rustic, Galactic offers swing music nights, while Social is a great spot for a relaxed cocktail to close out the night.
Back in the days of Arab rule, Mallorca was of immense strategic value, and this continued as the island sought its independence. The Royal Palace of La Almudaina, with a castle of Roman origin, is a modification of the Muslim alcázar begun in 1281; it became a place for Spanish and Mallorcan monarchs to hold court. The Spanish monarchy use the citadel for visits to this day. It is open to visitors all year round (although it closes earlier from October to March), with an admission fee of €7 (£6.40) for adults. The courtyard features a series of historic tapestries, and the outer Moorish arches are home to yet another Joan Miró piece, Egg. To top it off, it offers some of the best views you’ll find anywhere in Mallorca.
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