How to spend a day in the Gateway to the Mediterranean.
Waters shifting from azure and turquoise to sky blue and cerulean will lap against golden and tan shores as your ferry pulls up to Gibraltar. Beyond the sea, your eyes will be greeted by the shining metropolis of sand and rust buildings climbing up white and green cliffs to the peninsula’s crowning monument — the Rock.
An Overseas British Territory, Gibraltar has a long history of different nations laying claim to its turquoise and tan lands. This history is written into the peninsula’s architecture, culture and landscape — creating many ways to explore Gibraltar while also figuratively stepping back in time.
In the ancient world, Gibraltar’s deep caves and dominating monolithic limestone promontory — the Rock — played various spiritual roles to the likes of the Phoenicians, Romans, Ancient Greeks and Carthaginians.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the area — located at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula — was briefly conquered by the Visigoths before being raided by Berber’s who crossed the sea from North Africa. Led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, this invasion opened the gate for the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Moorish forces for around 700 years.
The area was dubbed Jabal Tariq — meaning the Mount of Tariq — which has since morphed into Gibraltar. One of Gibraltar’s most striking monuments, Medinat al-Fath or City of Victory, was built in 1106 by Sultan Abd al-Mu’min. The Moorish Castle’s Tower of Homage still stands proudly as part of Gibraltar’s skyline.
In 1462 Gibraltar traded hands once more to the Spanish. However, in 1704 the winds of change shifted and Gibraltar was taken by Anglo-Dutch forces after the Spanish War of Succession, before finally being ceded to the British in 1713.
Gibraltar has since remained in British hands, although Spain also lays claim to the area.
Yet, political assertions aside, spending a day meandering through Gibraltar leaves one with a sense that the area is indeed overwhelmingly British. Read on to discover what gives Gibraltar it’s distinct English flair while spending a day discovering this piece of paradise.
1. Eat a full English breakfast.
Start your day in Gibraltar off with a quintessentially British experience: The full English breakfast. Many restaurants within Gibraltar will offer this stacked meal — including eggs, toast, beans, sausages, fried tomatoes and black pudding. Fuelling up for your day is definitely a good idea, particularly should you choose to hike up to the Rock.
If a full English breakfast is not to your taste or stomach capacity, fear not as Gibraltar hosts an array of restaurants.
2. Visit Trafalgar Cemetery.
Despite its name, there are actually only two graves in Trafalgar Cemetery belonging to those who died during the infamous battle. The graveyard was active from 1798 to 1814, after which it fell into disrepair and disuse — with the exception of one burial that took place in 1838.
While the cemetery is no longer in use, it is a peaceful parcel of history well worth walking through to see gravestones as old as 18th century or to take a moment to visit the Battle of Trafalgar Memorial Monument.
3. Get up close and personal with Barbary macaques in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
The Barbary macaques making Gibraltar home are arguably one of the area’s top attractions. There are many local legends surrounding the apes. For instance, while Barbary macaques initially hail from North Africa, one myth suggests the apes made their way to Gibraltar from Morocco by means of an underground tunnel that emerged in St. Michael’s Cave.
Another popular legend is that should the macaques leave Gibraltar, so too will the British. Sir Winston Churchill took this myth quite seriously. When ape populations began to dwindle during WWII, the then-Prime Minister imported more macaques from Northern Africa to ensure numbers were kept high.
While the Barbary macaques — which can be found at the Apes Den at the Upper Rock Nature Reserve — appear cute and cuddly, do remember these creatures are wild animals. Do not touch, feed or sneak up on Barbary macaques. Additionally, bags of food are quite appealing to the apes and they will steal bags or backpacks if given the chance. It is advised to not bring any bags with you when visiting the Macaques.
Purchasing a ticket to the Nature Reserve (£12) enables one access to most attractions, including St. Michael’s Cave, Apes Den and the Mediterranean Steps.
4. Hike the Mediterranean Steps up to the Rock.
Like many of the other attractions in Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Steps were built for use during times of war. The steps were created by the British military in the 18th century to enable soldiers to travel between various defence posts. The 1,800-metre trek will take you up to 420-metres above sea level, where one will be able to soak up the stunning surroundings at O’Hara’s Battery.
If by the time you reach the top of the Rock and walking back down towards St. Michael’s cave is not to your fancy, there is the option to take a cable car.
5. Take in the view at O’Hara’s Battery and the WWII fortifications.
O’Hara’s Battery is named after General Charle’s O’Hara, who was a Governor of Gibraltar is remembered for being a handsome, dapper and lavish gentleman. Post-construction, the battery was nicknamed “O’Hara’s Folly” after failing in its intended purpose: To observe the Spanish at the port of Cadiz.
The tower stood until 1888, after which is was demolished and replaced with a gun two years later. The weapon currently on display at the battery — although not in use — is a 9.2 inch Mark X BL gun rumoured to be able to shoot across the 22.5-kilometre wide Straight of Gibraltar to hit the North African Shore. The battery remained active throughout WWII. Indeed, one will come across a variety of other buildings constructed during the war while walking up to the battery.
6. Delve into St. Michael’s Cave.
Just a short walk down from O’Hara’s Battery is St. Michael’s cave. A massive cavern — that was once believed to be bottomless — the cave has been used as a theatre since the ’60s and can fit up to 600 people at once.
The cave also makes a pleasant respite from the Gibraltarian heat, while also offering an array of natural wonders including a massive stalagmite that at one point in history became too heavy and fell to one side — possibly thousands of years ago.
7. Explore Grand Casemates Square and Main Street.
Named for the neighbouring British-built casemate — a fortified enclosure from which weapons can be fired — that defended the British territory from many a siege, Grand Casemates Square is a vibrant area in Gibraltar packed with restaurants, shops and pubs. While the square used to be the site of public military hangings — the last of which was held in 1864 — nowadays it is the perfect spot to wrap up your day in Gibraltar by enjoying a refreshingly cold — and well-deserved — pint.
The square is located at the northern end of Main Street, which is prime for shopping. The street is lined with a variety stores — from mom and pop shops to the British department store Marks & Spencer — all housed in Andalusian, Moorish, Portuguese, Genoese, and British architecture.
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Photos and text by Sarah Comber.