Gibraltar had been on our bucket list for many years. We found the Rock of Gibraltar particularly impressive looking at it on photos online. We also read that this tiny British Overseas Territory has a fascinating history and that it’s home to a variety of wildlife, including monkeys!
Recently, we visited the delightfully sunny port city of Malaga again. A perfect opportunity, we thought, to finally explore Gibraltar. Our day trip to the city and the Rock lived up to all our high expectations.
Condensed history of Gibraltar
The Phoenicians were the first to establish a settlement on Gibraltar around 950 BC. Then came the Carthaginians and later the Romans. During the Middle Ages, Gibraltar changed hands several times. At the beginning of the 8th century, Gibraltar came under Moorish rule.
In 1704, an Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain ‘in perpetuity’. The British recognised Gibraltar’s strategic location as a gateway to the Mediterranean. They therefore expanded Gibraltar’s fortifications. For instance, they built an extensive tunnel system in the late 18th century.
One of the most important events in Gibraltar’s history is the Great Siege, which lasted from 1779 to 1783. During this period, the territory was besieged by a French & Spanish force that tried to recapture the Rock. However, the British garrison withstood the relentless attacks and never surrendered. The Great Siege became a symbol of British resilience and determination.
In the 20th century, Gibraltar faced numerous challenges, especially during World War II. The area served as a naval base and was heavily fortified by the British. It played a crucial role in the Allied campaign in North Africa. Despite being surrounded by fascist Spain, Gibraltar remained in British hands.
Our visit to Gibraltar
Since Gibraltar is about an hour and a half’s drive from Malaga, we decide to get up early. It is gloriously sunny and bright blue as we leave the city. After a scenic drive through the beautiful, mountainous landscape of the Costa del Sol, we reach our destination: the large car park located right before the border. Although you can usually cross the border with your car, it is kind of discouraged because of the traffic jams. We park the car and walk through the customs office to cross the border.
Once in Gibraltar, an unusual experience awaits us: at a kind of railway crossing, the barriers close with a loud clang. But instead of a passing train, we have to wait for a commercial aircraft to land! After having to pass a departing plane as well, we are finally allowed to cross the runway on foot.
Even before exploring the city and the Rock, we make a pit stop at a cosy café at the marina. It’s a nice spot, right on the water. A perfect start to a perfectly sunny day.
On the way to the cable car
The main attraction of the less than seven-square-kilometre peninsula, is the Rock of Gibraltar. To explore the Rock, you first have to get on top of it. One way to do that is to take a ride on the cable car. This seems like a good idea to us: after all, it takes just six minutes to get to the top.
Fortified by the delicious cuppa at the marina, we walk through the town to the cable car station. This walk is definitely not a punishment. We surprisingly like the British-looking town with its many sparkling red telephone booths. In a large square, a big stage is rigged up. This is undoubtedly where the New Year’s Eve party will take place the next night, we imagine.
A lavishly decorated shopping street takes us past many charming shops, restaurants and terraces. It is pleasantly busy. For a moment, we consider having lunch here. But as we still have a long walk ahead of us over the ridge of the Rock, we quickly move on. Just as well, we find out a few minutes later when we arrive at the cable car. There is a long queue of people – like us – eager to climb the Rock by cable car.
Still outside the station building, shouting salesmen take advantage of the situation: they proclaim that you are much better off using their van. You will then avoid the long queue and get to the top for almost the same fare. We decide to join the queue for the cable car after all. Unfortunately, we then have to wait for over an hour before it is our turn. You can read why we are glad we took the cable car in the frequently asked questions at the bottom of this blog.
The Rock of Gibraltar
Well before we arrived at the main car park, we saw the Rock of Gibraltar towering majestically above the city. Not only from a distance but also during the cable car ride, the giant, steep monolith continues to impress us. The terminus is a restaurant with viewing tower, located just outside the nature reserve. Here we immediately get breathtaking views of the Mediterranean and neighbouring Spain. Here we also see the first Barbary macaques, Europe’s only population of wild monkeys.
Large information boards show the main sights in the nature reserve and their distances between them. Useful, as this allows us to decide what we can or cannot see given the time. We decide to walk south first and then gradually descend to the west. The first stop is ‘Skywalk’: a huge viewing platform where the glass floor is so thick it can carry 5 Asian elephants. A pleasant idea, because as soon as we get there, we see loads of tourists taking selfies. We climb the platform and stay there for a good five minutes enjoying the expansive view. If we look closely, we can even see Morocco!
The next sight we have in mind is St Michael’s Cave. According to the brochure, this huge cave is decorated with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. Unfortunately, we miss a sign and thus a turn- off, so we don’t get to see the cave. However, after a delightful walk over the ridge, we do arrive at O’Hara’s Battery: a huge huge cannon from the late 19th century. Located at the highest point of the cliff, this cannon was still used during World War II. Here, we explore the excellently preserved artillery and the tunnels underneath. Definitely worth a visit!
Great Siege Tunnels
A long but beautiful walk then takes us from the south to the far north of the Rock. Wherever we look, we have beautiful views of both the town and Spain. It is already a bit later in the afternoon. The crowds we experienced earlier at the Skywalk are no longer there. We do see a few more tourist vans in traffic jams ticking off the last sights.
At the end of the Rock, we reach the Great Siege Tunnels: the tunnels carved out of the Rock in the late 18th century during the Great Siege of Gibraltar. During this siege, which lasted from 1779 to 1783, the combined forces of Spain and France tried to capture Gibraltar from the British. A team of skilled miners then began excavating the tunnels. Armed with little more than hand tools and gunpowder, they laboriously made their way through the hard rock, often in dangerous conditions.
The tunnels allowed the British to move troops and artillery unseen. And to launch surprise attacks and repel the enemy advance. The tunnels were also used to store supplies and ammunition. What makes the tunnels so remarkable is mainly the speed with which they were built.
We explore the tunnels and read the many interesting information panels. We are increasingly in awe of what people have achieved under harsh conditions! We are not the only ones in this, we read on one of the signs. After the Great Siege had completely ended, the commander of the Franco- Spanish siege was invited to dinner with British General Eliott. That was apparently how it went at the time. He was then also shown the tunnels, after which he praised their construction.
Delicious conclusion to our visit to Gibraltar
From the tunnels, we continue walking down the main road towards the city. In the process, we pass another landmark of Gibraltar: the Moorish castle. This ancient fortress dates back to the 8th century during the Moorish occupation. We think it looks interesting from the outside, so we take a look. A staircase leads inside the tower to the top. To be honest, we find the view here disappointing. Since we’ve grown hungry by now, we leave the castle sooner than planned.
On our way to the border, we arrive back at the square where a stage was set up earlier. Now technicians are doing a soundcheck. We pick a cosy-looking restaurant and go inside as it has become quite chilly by now. Here we enjoy delicious tapas and top-class hospitality. A great ending to a particularly nice day trip to Gibraltar we must conclude.
Answers to practical questions about visiting Gibraltar
Gibraltar is located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. It is a British Overseas Territory and borders Spain to the north. Gibraltar has its own airport but flying to Malaga might also be an option. From this beautiful city, you can then take a day trip to Gibraltar with a rental car or via organised transport.
Gibraltar is still less than seven square kilometres in size. Most of it is therefore great to explore on foot. Not much of a walker? There are also buses and taxis around the island.
The cheapest way to get to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar is by using your legs, but due to the steep climbs and the fact that you still have a lot of walking to do at the top, we really wouldn’t recommend it. And especially not in the warmer summer months.
Another option is by cable car. In six minutes, you will be at the top of the cliff. You can buy tickets both online and at the ticket office. A big disadvantage of the cable car, in our mind, is the long queue. It took us over an hour. By the way, on the site they claim that buying your ticket online gets you there faster. If you go for the cable car, take a ticket including entrance to the nature reserve anyway. You will then get a wristband that also gives you immediate access to all the attractions in the park and just outside it. Planning to hike down the Rock after your visit? Then take a ‘one way’ ticket including access to the nature reserve.
The most expensive and, in our opinion, worst option is to take a tourist van up the Rock. Shouting salesmen outside the cable car station building try to persuade you to go with their van. The cost is slightly higher than by cable car. But what we saw as a bigger drawback is that you have to go at the driver’s pace. And at the pace of the many vans in front of you. However, you do have the advantage of not having to wait long for your first trip up the Rock.
The GibraltarPass is a tourist card that gives visitors access to various attractions and discounts in Gibraltar. You get free entry with the pass to popular tourist attractions such as the Moorish Castle, the Grotto of St Michael and the Great Siege Tunnels. In addition, the GibraltarPass offers discounts on activities, tours, dining and shopping in the area. And you can use the pass to get to the top of the Rock by cable car as well as by van. But note: with return ticket of the cable car including entry to the nature reserve, you actually have the same benefits as well (except for the discount offers). And for £12 cheaper! In that sense, the GibraltarPass doesn't seem very advantageous. Unless you want to do a lot of other activities and take advantage of discount offers.
A full day seems sufficient to get to know Gibraltar well and see most of the sights. Try to be there by around 10am then though.
The best time to visit Gibraltar is during spring (April to May) and autumn (September to October). During these months, the weather is most pleasant. In the summer months, it can be quite hot, with temperatures well above 30 degrees. We were there during New Year's Eve. You are more likely to get some rain during this period. However, we were lucky with the weather: clear blue skies and temperatures of around 19 degrees.
As Gibraltar is a British overseas territory, we expected higher prices than in, say, Spain. However, it was not too bad for us. Especially the prices in a café or restaurant are comparable to those in Spain.
Gibraltar offers a diverse range of nice places to have a drink or something to eat. You will find many eateries with international cuisine in addition to Spanish (tapas) and typical British cuisine (fish & chips).
- Casemates Square: a square in the middle of the cosy town centre. At the square you will find numerous bars and restaurants. We ourselves ate delicious tapas at The Queen's Picturehouse & Eatery. Hospitality was outstanding. It is somewhat hidden in the northeast corner of the square.
- Ocean Village Marina: this marina is home to several restaurants and bars. You'll have great views and a pleasant atmosphere. If not for something to eat or drink, then definitely for a coffee!
- Queensway Quay Marina: this charming harbour area is home to some beautifully located waterfront eateries. With a choice of restaurants serving Mediterranean, international and seafood dishes.
- Irish Town. As the name suggests, you will find several Irish pubs and pubs in traditional British style in Irish Town. It is a popular area to enjoy a beer, pub food and live music. You pass through it on your way to the cable car station. Looked very cosy!
For us, a full day in Gibraltar was enough to properly explore the peninsula. Do you want to walk all the stunning hiking trails and have extra time to enjoy the super cozy town? Then an overnight stay is definitely a good idea. There are plenty of excellent options in Gibraltar. One of them is Sunborn Gibraltar, a permanently docked cruise ship.