Otherwise known as 'The Rock' — and also often referred to as 'Gib' — Gibraltar is a small British Overseas Territory located alongside the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Contrary to popular belief, Gibraltar isn't an island (geographically, at least) — it's attached to mainland Spain, via a single road with an international border.
Currency: The currency in Gibraltar is the Gibraltar Pound, which is pegged to the British Pound. You can spend British Pounds in Gibraltar too — but good luck finding anywhere back here in the UK that'll take your leftover Gibraltar Pounds after your holiday. Plenty of places, from restaurants to tourist attractions such as the cable car, take Euros too, so it's worth packing any leftover currency you've got from previous jaunts to the continent.
Language: English is the official language of Gibraltar, but you'll hear plenty of Spanish spoken too. Many residents are bilingual, and several Spanish residents cross the border on a daily basis to work in Gibraltar.
Opening hours: If you're heading to Gibraltar for a long weekend, be aware that many businesses close early on Saturday (around 2pm) and don't reopen until Monday morning. Larger attractions such as the cable car and nature reserve open on Sundays, but smaller places such as the Museum of Gibraltar don't — and much of the high street remains shuttered all of Sunday, including, to our surprise, several pubs and bars.
Monkeys: Probably the most famous thing about Gibraltar is its resident troops of Barbary macaques, the only wild monkey population in mainland Europe. It's a species native to mainland Morocco, and nobody's quite sure how they ended up on the Rock. They stick to the nature reserve at the top, so they won't trouble you if you don't head up there. If you do, be aware that they're ballsy little blighters, and follow all of the safety instructions. Keep your distance, hold onto loose objects (and any children you're particularly fond of), and wear rucksacks on your front.
Getting to Gibraltar
Gibraltar is around a three-hour flight from London airports. If you're a nervous flyer, skip this next sentence. The landing at Gibraltar Airport is known to be one of the more challenging in Europe, as it's a fairly short runway so pilots have to engage the brakes very forcefully to avoid ending up in the sea. If the wind is blowing the wrong way, it's not uncommon for pilots to have to abandon attempts at landing and head to Malaga airport a couple of hours up the coast instead.
Generally, sitting on the right hand side of the plane for landing in Gib, and the left hand side for take-off, offers you the best views, though this isn't guaranteed. The departures lounge at Gibraltar Airport has a fantastic open-air viewing deck with views across the runway back towards the Rock.
The other way into Gibraltar is from mainland Spain. The town of La Linea de la Concepcion borders Gibraltar, with international border force between the two — so if you're visiting Gibraltar on a day trip from mainland Spain, remember your passport or you won't get in. You can enter by vehicle or on foot — the latter tends to be quicker.
Bizarrely, the one road into Gibraltar (Winston Churchill Avenue) and the runway of Gibraltar International Airport intersect, meaning that the road is closed multiple times a day to allow a plane to land or take off.
Getting around Gibraltar
Once you're in Gibraltar, getting around is fairly easy. Driving isn't recommended, as the roads are congested, and several of the streets are narrow, steep and windy — plus most of the centre of town is pedestrianised anyway, and private vehicles aren't allowed into the nature reserve.
Gib has an excellent bus network, with 10 different routes, and it's very easy to use. Bus stops look remarkably similar to those in London, with clear route and pricing information displayed at each stop, and the drivers speak English.
Walking is an option too, though you'll need to be fairly fit so see some of Gibraltar on foot. The main town centre is fairly flat and easily walkable, but once you start heading up to the nature reserve on top of the Rock, things get very steep, very quickly. Also note that although Gibraltar isn't huge, there is a whomping great hill in the middle of it, so though the east and west side aren't even a mile apart, it's a case of walking all the way round rather than straight across.
Things to see and do in Gibraltar
Europa Point: It's often claimed that Europa Point is the southernmost point in mainland Europe, though that accolade really belongs to Tarifa, further along the Spanish coast. Europa Point is actually the part of mainland Europe which is closest to Africa — Morocco, to be precise. It's home to a lighthouse — the only one outside the British Isles which is maintained by Trinity — as well as a bunker housing a small exhibition about Gibraltar's history. The 2 bus route gets you here fairly easily from the centre of town. A picturesque viewpoint, and nice to be able to say that you've been to the point, but don't plan to spend too long there as there's not much to see.
Gibraltar Cable Car: Strung up the west side of the Rock is the Gibraltar Cable Car, an easy way up to the nature reserve at the top and back down again. Best to get there early in the day, as soon as it opens (or even a bit before) especially in peak season, as long queues build very quickly and last all day. If it's just the views you're after, a return trip ticket gets you access to the viewing gallery at the top, with seriously stunning vistas across Gibraltar, back along the coast of Spain, and out into the Strait of Gibraltar.
However, you can also buy a Nature Reserve ticket as part of your cable car ticket, and you'll need it if you want to visit any of the other attractions up top (see below). During peak season, the cable cars stop at a middle station halfway up, where you can access attractions including the Apes' Den and Windsor Suspension Bridge. During autumn and winter, this station shuts, and the cable cars only serve the top and bottom stations.
Gibraltar Nature Reserve: The monkeys are the main draw, but a Nature Reserve ticket gets you access to loads of different attractions including caves, tunnels, and a castle. It can be overwhelming deciding what's worth seeing, but for our money:
- The Skywalk is a viewing gallery with partly glass floor, offering views over the eastern coast of Gibraltar. The apes tend to gather on the road between the top cable car station and here, so a great spot for seeing the wildlife;
- St Michael's Cave is a natural cave system, illuminated with colourful lights, with an auditorium show at the end. Great cafe with views over the Bay of Gibraltar too;
- WWII tunnels stretching miles under the Rock, with an audio guide talking you through how they were used during the war. Interesting history, but also worth it for the takes-your-breath-away moment as you step out of the darkness and onto Jock's Balcony, with views over the runway and into Spain;
- Moorish Castle, just a couple of minutes walk down the hill from the tunnels, and offering magnificent views over the Bay of Gibraltar.
Top tip: Your nature reserve ticket lets you exit and re-enter the nature reserve all day. If you've explored the area around the top station but can't face the hilly walk over to the Tunnels and Moorish Castle, head back down via the cable car, and take a taxi through town and back up to the Moorish Castle entrance.
Gibraltar Botanic Gardens: Next to the car park at the bottom of the cable car is the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens, a free-entry public park best seen in spring and summer when the fauna is at its best. Be warned, it's fairly steep as it's on a hillside, but there are plenty of benches dotted around. Within the Botanic Gardens is the Alameda Wildlife Park, a small zoo for which there is an entry fee.
Dolphin watching: Head to the Marina and Ocean Village and you'll find plenty of companies offering dolphin watching boat trips out in the Bay of Gibraltar. We've been out with Dolphin Adventure, and saw dozens of dolphins on a 90-minute trip. They offer a 'Dolphin Guarantee' policy so that if no dolphins appear on your trip, you can rebook for a later date— so it's worth doing earlier in your visit to Gibraltar so you've time to rebook if needed. Whale watching trips are also available out into the Strait of Gibraltar in the summer months.
Beaches in Gibraltar: There are a couple of sandy stretches on Gibraltar, though it's not your standard beach holiday destination. Our favourite spot is Catalan Bay, on the western side. It's secluded, and comes with a pleasing backdrop of pastel houses. A little further north of Catalan Bay you'll find Eastern Beach — it's Gibraltar's biggest beach with lovely golden sand, but it's right next to the airport runway, so not exactly peaceful. On the west side, Camp Bay is your best bet — it's a rocky beach, but it does have a lido alongside it for swimming. It's rare that any of Gibraltar's beaches get a full day of sun, as the Rock itself casts shadows as the sun moves throughout the day.
Where to eat and drink in Gibraltar
If you're not one for stepping outside your comfort zone even when on holiday, Gibraltar has you covered. Pizza Express, Las Iguanas, Wagamama, Gaucho's Steakhouse, McDonald's and Costa Coffee are some of the familiar chains you'll find here, particularly around the marina area. Don't be fooled by The Ivy though — it's not an outpost of THE Ivy.
Being both British, and located at the point where a sea and an ocean meet, Gibraltar does a solid line in fish and chips. There's disagreement among locals as to which shop does it best, but Roy's Fish and Chips in Grand Casemates Square — the main town square — comes highly recommended.
Head for the marina, Reclamation Road or Grand Casemates Square for the highest densities of restaurants, and see what takes your fancy. Just be warned — if you spot somewhere during the day that you fancy heading back to that evening, do check that it'll still be open later. We were surprised to find several pubs, bistros and wine bars closed early on a Saturday evening.
For our money though, the most special place to eat in Gibraltar is at the top of the Rock. The Upper Rock cable car station is home to two eateries: Top Rock Cafe (follow signs to the gift shop) is a casual cafe keeping tourists fed and watered with coffee, cakes, and light lunches. Upstairs, The Mons Calpe Suite is the more upmarket of the two, a more formal restaurant open throughout the day. Both offer spectacular views all the way round.
In theory, calentita — a sort of dark flour pizza without any toppings — is Gibraltar's speciality dish. That said, we've never seen it on a menu anywhere in Gibraltar, so make of that what you will.
Where to stay in Gibraltar
Due to its small size, Gibraltar has a limited amount of accommodation, so it's worth booking a room as early as possible when planning a trip. Although Gibraltar is small, its main amenities are fairly spread out — and hilly — so there's no one central location to aim for. Here are a couple of accommodation options:
Sunborn Gibraltar: A 5* yacht hotel (with a sister vessel in London) moored up at Ocean Village, close to the restaurants, bars and nightlife, with its own casino on board. A good option if you want to splash out on a bit of luxury.
Elliot Hotel: Centrally located 4* hotel just off Main Street, halfway between Grand Casemates Square and the lower Cable Car station. Rooftop pool and bar for a bit of luxury after a day of sightseeing.
Rock Hotel: Admittedly, we've never been inside this one, but from the outside, this 4* hotel oozes art deco glam. Location is out of town (and an uphill walk from the centre) but there's a bus stop right outside — and that elevation means views across the harbour, and all the way across to Africa on a clear day.
The Bristol Hotel: A 3* hotel with a small outdoor pool across the road. Somewhat dated and dark interiors, but handily located for Main Street. A good budget option if you're not planning on spending much time in your room.
Shopping in Gibraltar
Strolling down Main Street, you could be in Guildford rather than Gibraltar. British chain stores including M&S, Matalan, Next, Accessorize and Card Factory have a presence here, reiterating that this really is a slice of the UK. The high street is also home to plenty of liquor, perfume and tobacco shops, as Gibraltar is tax-free, so plenty of day trippers, cruise ship visitors and holiday makers stock up. Do your research though — we've noticed that in some chain stores including M&S, the same product is often more expensive in Gibraltar than in the UK, presumably as the store has to cover the costs of shipping stock to Gib.
The best of the rest
There's a distinct military undertone in Gibraltar, with war memorials, cannons, defensive walls and the like part of everyday life here. Anyone with a keen interest in military history could spend days focusing on that alone, with Trafalgar Cemetery and Nelson's Anchorage among the spots to visit.
Interestingly, a lot of modern Gibraltar is actually land reclaimed from the sea. The Rock itself is, of course, natural, but the flatter areas west of Queensway Road on the western side of Gibraltar have all been added on in recent decades. We weren't even in sight of the sea when our (fairly youthful) taxi driver said "I used to swim right here as a child." — several blocks of shops and housing have been tacked onto the edge of the land during his lifetime.
A couple of pieces of Gibraltar trivia for you: the name derives from 'Jebel Tarik', the Arabic for 'Tarik's mountain'. You might see the word 'Calpe' thrown around — it comes from the Roman name for Gibraltar, 'Mons Calpe'. Also, as the process of desalination is so expensive, all toilets on Gibraltar are flushed using salt water. Wouldn't recommend tasting it to check, though.
One last thing: keep an eye out for London-style phone boxes as you wander around Gibraltar. There are ten K6 boxes and two K2 boxes dotted around the place, predominantly used for tourist photos these days. It's odd — we walk past dozens of them in London each week, but there's something about seeing them elsewhere that awakened our inner tourist and had us snapping away.
All photos except top one by the author.