How to spend 48 hours in Gibraltar

Gibraltar is tiny. You realise this the moment you land: its airport is wedged in between the city, the harbour and the massive limestone Rock of Gibraltar. The runway is intersected by busy Winston Churchill Avenue, which has to be closed each time a plane lands or takes off, which is fortunately not often.

The inimitable Rock of Gibraltar
The inimitable Rock of Gibraltar © Markus Mainka - Adobe Stock Image

With it being under seven square kilometres in size, Margate is nearly double that, it's astonishing how much is packed in. Its compact size makes it ideal for a short break, with all sights nearby.

As Gibraltar* is a British Overseas Territory, British pounds are accepted everywhere, and therefore you're free from worrying about exchange rates.

"There's no VAT, so goods are cheaper, indeed things like coffee, many foods and alcohol are around half the price you'd pay in the UK," says Kevin Bossino, until recently the CEO of the Gibraltar Tourist Board.

What's more, English is spoken everywhere and its red phone boxes, policemen in bobby hats, M&S on the high street and royal portraits in public places really underline the familiar feel.

Getting to Gibraltar: find great value flights to Gibraltar with British Airways* as well as affordable holidays*, all departing from London Heathrow.

Friday evening

On arrival, you'll no doubt want to hit the Old Town for a bite to eat. As well as familiar British staples like fish and chips, Gibraltar's geographical situation means that it is a melting pot of different cuisines. There's an especially healthy tapas scene, which is unsurprising with the Spanish border close by.

Black rice risotto balls at The Chimney
Black rice risotto balls at The Chimney - photo courtesy of The Chimney

The Chatham Counterguard area has several tapas bars including The Chimney. Its modest look belies its ability to produce some great local dishes such as black rice prawn risotto and Mexican tacos with pan-seared tuna chunks. Even the tripe dish was delicious.

Saturday morning

You can't visit Gibraltar without exploring its dominating 426 m-high peak, The Rock, famed for its 160 or so mischievous, playful Barbary macaques, which are the only wild monkeys in Europe.

There's a six-minute cable car to the top, or you can take a taxi or walk, taking the steep Mediterranean Steps and taking in views of the Strait of Gibraltar, separating the territory and mainland Spain from Morocco.

The top of the rock is home to Gibraltar Nature Reserve, and at certain times during spring and autumn, you'll see millions of migratory birds flying to and from Africa.

Here there are walking trails and the Gibraltar Skywalk, a former military lookout point 340 metres above ground, as well as Windsor Suspension Bridge, hanging 71 metres over a canyon.

The impressive Gibraltar Skywalk
The impressive Gibraltar Skywalk © Visit Gibraltar - Visitgibraltar.gi

One must-see here is the labyrinth of siege tunnels, painstakingly carved out by hand by the British military using sledgehammers and crowbars, built to protect Gibraltar from being captured by the French and Spanish between 1779 and 1783.

The latter allied with the Americans during the American War of Independence and declared war on Britain. The tunnels were then expanded during WWII and now extend for more than 50 km.

Inside the historic siege tunnels
Inside the historic siege tunnels © Wilson Loo - Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The fee to enter the Reserve includes entry to 16 sights, including those mentioned above, the Military Heritage Centre, Ape's Den, Moorish Castle and others, making it great value for money.

Another extraordinary sight is St Michael's Cave, a cathedral-like cavern that has been augmented by a mesmerising immersive sound and light show.

Atmospheric music and changing dramatic red, blue, green and purple lights colour the huge stalagmites and stalactites, and there's a 600-seat auditorium for concerts and live shows.

Saturday afternoon

Back to the Old Town for a late Moroccan lunch at Taste of Marrakech, a short walk from the National Museum, which portrays the Rock's millennia-old history.

It also incorporates the remains of a 14th-century Moorish bath house. The Mario Finlayson National Art Gallery, also in the Old Town, showcases the works of six celebrated Gibraltarian artists.

I've visited a few gin distilleries in my time. Still, none have conducted such an interesting, informative talk and tasting as that by Peter Millhouse who, with his wife Stella, opened Gibraltar's only gin distillery, Spirit of the Rock, in 2019 off Main Street.

Peter Millhouse of Spirit of the Rock
Peter Millhouse of Spirit of the Rock - photo courtesy of www.spiritoftherock.gi

He explains how gin is made and how it developed over the years, presenting the facts in a fascinating timeline, making the story of the spirit all fit together. They use rare endemic flowers such as candytuft and campion to produce delicious craft gins.

Saturday evening

The Queen's Picturehouse & Eatery is a good choice for dinner with delights such as octopus braseado with cous cous salad and squid ink linguine. There's a small private cinema room at the back and memorabilia from the now-gone 1,000-seat Queen's cinema that the restaurant owners had for more than 50 years spread throughout.

Sunday morning

Gibraltar is an ideal location for dolphin-watching as there are around 2,000 common, bottlenose and striped dolphins in the bay and strait area. It was awesome to see these fascinating mammals surround the boat and perform acrobatics in the air. As ever, we recommend checking that the provider you chose offers ethical tours.

Go dolphin-watching in the Straits of Gibraltar
Go dolphin-watching in the Straits of Gibraltar © Visit Gibraltar - Visitgibraltar.gi

More wildlife can be seen at the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park located at the Botanic Gardens situated at the bottom of the cable car.

The park looks after unwanted exotic pets, animals confiscated by Gibraltar customs, and some native species. Parrots, lemurs, iguanas, marmosets and a whole lot more are residents of this small park.

Sunday afternoon

Delicious fresh clams, prawns, octopus and calamari are in abundance at the easygoing Seawave Bar overlooking pretty Catalan Bay, which is surrounded by some attractive pastel-coloured buildings. It's so relaxing here, on the eastern side, you don't want to leave.

A couple of kilometres south of here is the Gorham's Cave Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There's a restriction on visitors and a waiting list, and you need to be agile to walk the steps and rocks to reach the cave, but it's well worth it.

Slithering through gaps in the rock against the beating sun, the crashing waves a few metres away, I felt like a Poundland Indiana Jones, and it was fascinating to see evidence of Neanderthal life dating back 120,000 years, such as carvings, and charcoal deposits from a barbecue from that time.

Mesolithic and Neolithic humans, as well as Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman seafarers, all visited or lived on this site.

Goat's Hair Cave where early modern humans once lived
Goat's Hair Cave where early modern humans once lived © Rocklights - Adobe Stock Image

Guide Professor Clive Finlayson, Director of the Gibraltar National Museum, explained that the cave fits the legend of Medusa and that where we were standing was believed to be the entrance to the underworld. Quite a thought indeed.

A bit further south is the tip of the Iberian peninsula, at Europa Point. From here, on a clear day, you can see North Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. It is a fitting panorama to end a packed 48 hours in this little, yet fascinating, territory.

Weather in Gibraltar

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall
Sea temperature °C

The above guide shows the weather in Gibraltar.

Ready for your long weekend in Gibraltar? Check out the latest online offers on flights and holidays from British Airways.

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Ben West

Ben West

Ben has written for many publications including The New York Times, The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The FT. He has also written a number of books, including the Bradt Guide to Cameroon. Ben covers many subjects such as travel, the arts, health and property, and has even penned a popular stage play.

Posted on Wednesday 23rd August 2023 in: City Culture Europe

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