Although small, Gibraltar is home to many fascinating attractions. From the 56 kilometres (35 miles) of tunnels that weave through its Rock and its famous Barbary apes, to a quirky old town and the dolphins that swim in its waters, here are the top 20 things to see and do in Gibraltar.
One of the unique experiences to be enjoyed in Gibraltar is visiting its famous Barbary macaques – the only wild monkeys living in Europe. Most of the 230-odd strong population live at the top of the 400-metre (1,312-foot) Rock and can be reached by cable car, but these cheeky and curious residents have been seen all over the upper parts of the territory and occasionally even in hotel rooms. Though they are harmless, it’s recommended that you keep important possessions close to you, as some of them are expert pickpockets. It is said that when the macaques die out or migrate elsewhere, Britain will lose control of this intriguing territory.
Great Siege Tunnels
The Rock of Gibraltar houses miles of underground tunnels, the earliest of which were dug during the 1779–83 Great Siege of Gibraltar. Their construction began towards the end of the siege on the orders of then-Governor of the territory, General Eliot, who built them as a means of installing guns into the inhospitable terrain of the Rock. As you wander around this attraction, ducking and squeezing as you go, it’s amazing to think that most of these subterranean pathways were dug by sledgehammer within the space of a few weeks, contributing to the Rock’s eventual defeat of its French and Spanish assailants.
The Gibraltar Museum dedicates itself to the territory’s rich cultural, military and natural history. In its well-organised spaces you can learn about the different peoples who have occupied the Rock from Carthaginian times to the present, gaining a fascinating insight into the history that gives Gibraltar its unique ambience. There are also rooms focusing on the territory’s natural and prehistory, and in the basement are the remains of what was once an Arabic bathhouse. Despite being used as stables by the British military at one time, these are some of the best-preserved Moorish baths in Europe.
One of the most curious, even surreal, parts of Gibraltar is its old town, which occupies the northwestern corner of the territory and is only a 15-minute walk from the airport. A network of narrow lanes surrounding the central thoroughfare of Main Street, it is a slice of England in the sun: high-street stores such as Debenhams and traditional British pubs tell you that you’re in the UK, yet the curious blend of architecture and the spotless blue skies remind you that you that you’re in the Mediterranean. Casemates Square is the neighbourhood’s principal outside space and has plenty of sunny terraces on which to enjoy a pint or a meal.
One of Gibraltar’s oldest buildings, Main Street’s Convent dates from 1531 and was originally used as a residence for Franciscan friars. It retained its name after 1728, though, when it was converted into the official domicile of the Governor of Gibraltar. Presumably, a fairly robust constitution is required for this job, as the former convent is said to be one of the most haunted public buildings in Europe. A ‘Lady in Grey’ (a Spanish nun who was walled in alive in one of the rooms by her father) is said to roam the corridors and set off alarms in the middle of the night.
The geographical feature from which Gibraltar takes its full name is a 400-metre (1,312-foot) cliff, from the top of which you can take in spectacular views of three countries (Gibraltar itself, Spain and Morocco) and two continents (Europe and Africa). It is reached by taking the cable car up from the base station on the southern edge of the old town, and when you disembark on the top you’ll receive a warm welcome from the territory’s famous Barbary macaques. Bear in mind that on days when the wind is particularly strong, the cable car doesn’t run, as it would sway dangerously on the way up.
Though fairly unlovely in itself, Europa Point occupies the most southerly tip of Gibraltar and offers humbling views of the north coast of Morocco, which lies just 21 kilometres (13 miles) away across the Straits. From the viewing platform here you can also make out, on a clear day, the hazy outlines of the Rif mountain range, home to the Jebel Musa peak. Legend has it that the Musa was once one with the Rock before Hercules crashed through them and created the Two Pillars of Hercules. It’s an epic uphill walk to Europa Point from the town centre, so you’re best off jumping on the number two bus, which runs about every 10 minutes in both directions.
Ocean Village is a cool neighbourhood located in and around the trendy marina of the same name, in which most of the residents live on boats. It feels a little like a scaled-down version of Marbella, with its slick waterfront bars and restaurants, an enormous luxury yacht hotel and exclusive private vessels bobbing up and down on the quayside, replete with G&T terraces on which to see and be seen. This is also where most of Gibraltar’s nightlife plays out, with Bruno’s bar a popular local hangout, and the Casino Sunborn opposite one of the few places that serves food after about 11pm.
The largest section of the Rock of Gibraltar’s underground tunnels was built during World War II, when a further 13 kilometres (18 miles) were added to the existing seven (the latter of which were excavated during the 1779–83 Great Siege of Gibraltar). Their main purpose was to house a 16,000-strong garrison and all of its supplies, and to connect a new military headquarters at the territory’s southeast corner with those on the western side. In addition, workers from the Royal Engineers and Canadian Army carved out two main subterranean thoroughfares – Fosse Way and the Great North Road – which run almost the entire length of the Rock.
St Michael's Cave, Gibraltar | Hannah and Simon, flickr
Gibraltar’s most spectacular geological attraction is St Michael’s Cave, a series of limestone chambers and tunnels so deep they were once believed to run under the Straits all the way to Africa. They consist of an upper section that is linked to a lower level of concavities by drops of up to 45 metres (148 feet), below which narrower tunnels descend up to 62 metres (203 feet) in depth. These breathtaking underground chambers were used for defensive purposes by the Moors and Spaniards and were prepared (although never used) as a hospital during the Second World War. Today, the Cathedral Cave houses a 600-seat auditorium. The caves also feature some stunning stalagmites and stalactites.
Originally known as the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, this protected area of fauna and flora was renamed the Gibraltar Nature Reserve in 2013 to reflect its wider scope: now, it covers almost 40% of the territory. It effectively runs the entire length of Gibraltar and is home to most of the territory’s 250-strong population of Barbary macaques as well as red foxes, mouse-eared bats, the Gibraltar funnel-web spider, five species of lizard and six species of snake. The views of Spain to the north and Africa to the south – including the rugged outline of the Atlas mountain range – are worth a visit for their own sake.
If the cable car isn’t running to the top of the Rock because of high winds, and if you’re feeling fit, you can walk almost to the top using the Mediterranean Steps. Originally used by the British military to access their various bases, this demanding pathway starts at the Jew’s Gate at the southern end of the Nature Reserve and climbs up a winding stone staircase. Many locals use it as a means of getting super-fit, and time their ascents. Although walkers with an aversion to heights might find some sections a little hairy, from the viewing platform at the top the north coast of Africa is clearly visible across the Straits. Allow a good two hours for ascending and descending.
The Church of England’s Moorish-revival style cathedral dates from 1832 and resembles a mosque more than a church. It sits unassumingly at the northern end of Gibraltar’s old town and its elegantly understated style makes it easy to walk past, so keep an eye out for it. The cathedral emerged from both World Wars intact, only to be badly damaged in 1951, when a British battleship exploded while moored in the nearby docks. A new roof and windows were required as a result of the explosion.
The other of Gibraltar’s two cathedrals belongs to the Roman Catholic Church and dates back to 1462, when it was consecrated by Spain’s monarchs, King Ferdinand III of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille. Previously, a mosque dating from the territory’s time under Moorish rule had occupied the site, the central courtyard of which is now the cathedral’s patio. This tranquil little space also bears the coat of arms of the Catholic monarchs.
One of Gibraltar’s liveliest streets (and not neighbourhoods, as the name might suggest) is the smart Irish Town, which runs parallel to Main Street and takes its name from the Irish women who arrived here in the late 1720s to keep members of the British garrison company. Throughout the remainder of that century, the street’s location close to the port made it a thriving commercial centre, but all of its buildings were destroyed in the 1779–1783 Great Siege. Many of the elegant buildings on Irish Town that we see today date from the extensive rebuilding carried out in the early 19th century, since which time it has established itself as one of the most fashionable parts of Gibraltar.
The main defensive tower of Gibraltar’s 8th-century Moorish fort is the highest remaining from southern Spain’s time under Moorish rule. Its scarred and battered exteriors tell of the many battles this formidable structure has seen; indeed, it required extensive rebuilding in the mid-14th century, as it was heavily damaged during the Moorish recapture of the territory from Christians (Gibraltar was under Moorish rule between 711 and 1309, and again from 1350 to 1462). Perched high up on the rugged terrain of the Rock’s western flank, it is one of the first things you notice when walking over the border to Gibraltar from Spain.
As its name suggests, this mighty structure was once one of the Moorish castle’s principal entrances. From its turrets you can take in some jaw-dropping views of three countries and two continents – a perspective that enables you to fully understand why this fortress was so impregnable during Gibraltar’s two Moorish epochs. The grounds of the castle it protected once extended all the way down the hillside to what is now Casemates Square in the old town, meaning they would have rivalled the gardens of Granada’s great Alhambra in size.
The waters off Gibraltar – particularly in the Bay of Algeciras – are rich with marine wildlife, including whales, blue-fin tuna and a large population of dolphins. One of the most moving sights afforded by a trip here is seeing the dolphins cruising and leaping through the clear blue waters, often with their young by their sides, as the sun sets over the Bay of Algeciras (a time when they are particularly active). They have been known to jump straight over the bows of smaller boats, giving visitors some wonderful photo opportunities. Regular tours are run by Dolphin Adventure and Dolphin Safari.
Opened last year, the Windsor Suspension Bridge is the newest addition to Gibraltar’s tourist scene and a must for visitors seeking an adrenaline rush. Covering a 70-metre (230-feet) wide and 50-metre (164-feet) deep gorge in the territory’s precipitous nature reserve, it sways in the wind and is definitely not for those without a head for heights. Appropriately, it forms up part of the Thrill Seekers Trail on the Upper Rock, a path that also allows you to explore the fauna and flora of this beautiful protected area.
Though it can’t match Cordoba’s 1,000-year-old Mosque-Cathedral for sheer grandeur, Gibraltar’s mosque – the most southerly in continental Europe – is nevertheless a fine example of modern Islamic architecture. It sits on Europa Point, at the southern end of Gibraltar, and looks spectacular when seen from the west, with the great Rock rearing up into the sky in the background. The mosque was constructed between 1995 and 1997, contains a library and a lecture theatre as well as space for worship and is one of the largest such structures in a non-Muslim country.