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A Day in Gibraltar: 10 Tips to Make the Most of It

Travel to Gibraltar: The Rock

I had low expectations for my trip to Gibraltar. A little country that isn’t a country in the south of Spain but not really in Spain? Yep! A bizarre mash-up of Spain and the UK that I absolutely loved.  

It has a harbor, an airport runway that stops traffic and a big Rock in the middle. Squeeze 33,000 people into the small but cosmopolitan-feeling city, add the sea and sun, and you’ve got yourself a Gibraltar. Oh, and English, add that too. Because that’s part of the attraction.  

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Even though I speak some Spanish, having everything in English in a foreign country makes life so easy. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy an adventure, but sometimes, easy is good. Especially after almost dying in the heat of Sevilla and not understanding a word in Bilbao.  

Being a British Overseas Territory at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula means Gibraltar is the UK with Spanish flare. You get the best infrastructure and great services with tapas and fantastic weather to boot. Though England’s rain makes it to Gibraltar starting in the fall and sticks around into the spring. 

Is Gibraltar worth visiting? That’s a big yes! I’d say stay a night or two to really enjoy it all.

 

British influences in Gibraltar
A little bit of the UK in Spain 

Gibraltar became British after the War of the Spanish Succession, and has stayed under the British crown ever since. Spain has a lot to say about that, but since Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected proposals for Spain’s involvement on more than one occasion, there’s not much Spain can do but pout. Catalonia, with Barcelona at the helm, is probably a little jealous. Those guys want Spain to leave them alone, too. So far unsuccessfully.  

10. Language 

The people of Gibraltar speak the official language of English, plus most also speak Spanish. Mix the two together and you get the vernacular called Llanito. Over 50% of Gibraltar’s workforce commutes from Spain, so you will still hear a lot of Spanish.  

9. Orientation 

Gibraltar travel highlights map
This is where all the highlight of Gibraltar are (closeup on the right)

Gibraltar is small. You can walk from the top to the bottom of it in an hour. It doesn’t feel small, I was surprised by how cosmopolitan it felt. But realistically, it’s small. It doesn’t even have towns. Whenever there is a neighborhood with more than a dozen houses (or so it seems), it’s called a Major Residential Area instead. The Rock takes up most of the peninsula, and the residential areas are at its foot, mostly on the west side, where the huge harbor is also located. The East side is the beach side. The airport is at the northern end, bordering Spain… and that’s pretty much it.  

8. Money 

The currency in Gibraltar is the Gibraltar Pound. The value is on par with the British pound, but the actual notes and coins are different. The funny thing is that British pounds are also accepted, so you will end up with a mix of both currencies in your pocket. On the other hand, using Gibraltar Pounds in the UK is not possible. It’s the same as trying to use Monopoly money. “What is this fake stuff?!” 

7. Getting in  

The flag of Gibraltar
The flag of Gibraltar 

When entering Gibraltar from Spain, you need to cross the border. With goods (little things, like food) and 15,000 Spaniards needing to come in and out of Gibraltar every day, it’s always been a busy place. And then bam! Brexit happened. There are still negotiations going on to essentially make Gibraltar part of Schengen and open the borders again.  

For now, it’s a pain-free process but it is a process, with both sides trying to make going back and forth as easy as possible. Just have your EU ID or national passport (and a visa if you need one).  

You are probably going to be driving into Gibraltar, and there are sometimes long lines of cars at the border. If that’s the case and you are only visiting for a day, consider leaving your car in La Linea on the Spanish side and just walking through the border instead. The main part of the city is just a 15-minute walk away, just a skip and a jump across the airport runway.  You can check the online stream from the border to determine if there is a hold up at the border.  

Also, if there is a traffic jam at the border there will probably be a traffic jam in the city, too. If you happen to come in when airplanes are also trying to come in or out, traffic will be even worse since they stop cars on the main road to let planes through (see below).   

Tip: Parking can be a problem and is heavily policed, meaning you will get a ticket if you park in the wrong place. Also beware that at parking lots, like the one by the cable car up the Rock, there is a color coded system: resident parking spots are yellow, paid parking spots are blue, and free parking spots are white and always taken up by residents.  

6. The Airport 

Airport in Gibraltar
The main road into town crossing the airport runway

  

Speaking of the airport, Gibraltar has one of the most unique airports in the world. The runway cuts through the peninsula, making it necessary for the main road into the country to cross right in the middle of it.  

Every time there is an arrival or departure, Winston Churchill Avenue gets blocked, a sweeper vehicle hurries out to the runway to rid it of garbage, and then a huge plane rushes by as if it were no big deal. Then traffic resumes and life carries on.  

There are daily flights from several cities in the UK.  

5. Shopping 

The main shopping street of Gibraltar s Main Street

Don’t go to Gibraltar expecting cheap electronics or whatever else you might be longing for. They claim shopping is amazing here due to the duty-free status, but it’s just a load of bull. Unless you want to stock up on cigarettes or whiskey (and maybe not even that), you aren’t getting any deals here. It’s like shopping at the airport—duty free but more expensive than in the city center.  

If you want to shop, shop because you like to, not for cheaper prices. Main Street is where all the stores are. Most shops are closed on Sundays.  

4. Restaurants 

Fish and chips in Gibraltar
This is the stuff (you can tell we’ve been in Spain for weeks now)! 

 

It sounds weird, but having restaurants that sell tapas and fish & chips on the same menu are awesome. Things like these remind you that Gibraltar is a UK/Spain hybrid.  

Our favorite spot is Jury’s Café and Wine Bar. It’s small and charming and the fish and chips with beer were great. Service can be slow because they are always busy, but slow and friendly is still better than slow and why-did-we-even-come-here frowny. Located on 275 Main Street. 

Another restaurant we found was right next to City Hall, and also has wine in the name, which doesn’t make sense because both Karin and I prefer beer. Vinopolis Gastrobar deserves a nod for the incredible service and tapas that can’t bother to pretend they aren’t British. Address: 30 John Mackintosh Square.   

If you like to enjoy your meal with a side of plane engine roars, head over to possibly the most modern part of Gibraltar, Ocean Village. There are tons or bars and restaurants here at this northern end of the harbor. A cruise-ship-turned-hotel, the Sunborn, is permanently docked here, too. It’s fun to look at and a great place to stay at, but I wouldn’t head in for food.  

I can recommend drinks at one of the Ocean Village bars, The Yard. They also serve food, but there are better places for that. I recommend The Yard for an evening with drinks by the bay (this will probably without the roars of the plane engines though, since almost all flights are during the day—sorry if that’s disappointing). If you are hungry, stop by Little Bay Bar first. It’s located just a few steps back from The Yard. It has delicious Indian food and tapas but lacks the views and atmosphere.  

3. Hotels 

You might think you’ll only need part of a day to see all of Gibraltar. And you might be surprised, as was I, by how much it has to offer. Then you may want to stay a night (or three). Here are a few hotels to consider, but try to book in advance, because there is literally just a small handful of good quality accommodation

The Eliott Hotel is a top contender located right in the center of town. The rooftop pool and bar alone are worth staying there.  

The Rock Hotel is just by the cable car station at the base of the Rock and is deorated in colonial style.  

Or would you want to stay on your own yacht? The Luxury Yacht Hotel is just that.    

I already mentioned the Sunborn Hotel if you want to feel like you are on a cruise.  

2. Sandy Bay Beach 

Sandy Bay, best beach in Gibraltar
Do you see the manta?

The best beach award (decided by me, of course) goes to Sandy Bay Beach. Granted, there isn’t much competition. Gibraltar has 4 official beaches. All are on the eastern side except for the rocky Little Bay, but that isn’t even what I’d call a beach.  

Sandy Bay is a little beach with golden sand hauled in from the Sahara desert. It’s enclosed so there are no waves. You can get a drink or a bad coffee at the little drinks place. Just a tip if you are visiting in the summer: the Rock hides the sun from about 6 pm, so visit before or after that time depending on how much shade you prefer.  

When you are up on the Rock, look down at Sandy Bay. It’s very distinct with its artificially crafted area, looking like a manta ray’s head.  

Out top tips for Gibraltar: 
⛰️ Top highlight: The Rock of Gibraltar 
✈️ Check out the airport: The runway stops traffic 
🐡 Eat fish and chips! Jury’s Café and Wine Bar 

Eastern Beach is way up north right next to the airport. This is a long beach that is often deserted, or so it feels. There’s just a lot of room to fit everyone. Great for plane-spotting if that’s your thing. Just check departure and arrival times beforehand, this isn’t Heathrow you know. You could be staring up at nothing for hours on end if you don’t plan right.  

Beware that this isn’t the Caribbean and the close proximity of the Atlantic Ocean keeps it a cooler temperature than some like. For a beach vacation, head up to Mallorca or at least the Sunny Coast, like the area around Nerja

1. The Rock  

At the viewpoint at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar
Those views! Excuse the clouds

The highlight of any trip to Gibraltar is a visit to the Rock, the huge limestone mound that takes up most of the land Gibraltar is on. It’s also why Gibraltar has always been popular amongst various armies. Imagine being bombarded from the cannons up top! Everyone wants to have the upper hand.  

The Rock is about 1,400 feet high (420 m) and the top of it is a nature reserve with the most magnificent views and some gnarly and some surprisingly big monkeys. You can get there using the cable car (details below).  

The Rock isn’t the solid lump of rock that it seems like. More like a big block of Swiss cheese. Just think about the 35 miles (55 km) of tunnels that are dug into it! That’s more than twice the length of all of Gibraltar’s roads! It even houses one of Gibraltar’s two desalination plants (that’s how Gibraltar is able to have drinking water), with underground water reservoirs excavated underneath it. How is that thing still standing?!  

Set aside half the day just for touring the Rock. It’s massive, with many trails that are worth exploring. You will be walking up and downhill a lot, which will slow you down. Add on time for stopping for the views, taking pictures, and fighting off the macaques. Visit the tunnels and the bridge and you will be ready to get to your hotel (because by now you’ve decided to stay the night). There is a decent café and an overpriced restaurant up by the top cable car station if you want a rest.   

Tickets 

Views of Gibraltar
One of the views from the Rock

 

You can get your tickets to the cable car and the nature reserve on the day of your visit either right after the border crossing or at the cable car station.  

Or pre-purchase them online. After you do the online purchase, you then annoyingly required to exchange the online voucher for real tickets at a ticket booth anyway (again either at the border or the cable car station), though you do get to stand in the fast track line to do so. You are also entitled to a complimentary shuttle from the border to the cable car station.  

The ticket voucher you buy online is only valid for 3 months, so don’t get over-excited when planning your trip a year in advance. 

The price for a return cable car ride and the entrance to the nature park is £30. If you don’t plan on walking at all and just want to ride up, have a soda in the café, and ride back down, it is possible to buy just the cable car ticket for £17 (return).   

The ticket to the nature reserve encompasses the entire Rock area you might want to walk in and includes access to places like the suspension bridge, the Skywalk and the tunnels.  

The cable car 

Cable car to Rock of Gibraltar, one of the best things to do in Gibraltar
Only 6 minutes to the top! 

You can walk to the top of the Rock, for example using the Mediterranean Steps on the southeast end. That’s if you super duper love hiking or want to prove something to yourself (like that you enjoy hiking up steep, tall stairs in the heat).  

For the rest of us, the cable car is the way to go. It’s an easy, 6-minute ride during which you can save your energy for what’s to come.  

No matter how and where you start your ascend, make sure to get your ticket to the nature reserve beforehand! Tickets are only sold at the cable car station at the base or at the border. 

  • The base station is roughly in the middle of the Rock on the west side on Red Sands Road. 
  • There is a parking lot, use blue paid spots or the white free spots that are never available. Do not use the yellow residential parking spots.  
  • The cable car runs every 10 minutes daily between 9:30 am–7:15 pm, the last one down is at 7:45 pm. During the winter it closes 2 hours earlier. No stopping at the middle station between April to October. 

What to see on the Rock of Gibraltar 

Monkeys of Gibraltar Rock
What they want you to think they are like… 

Once at the top cable car station, you will meet the monkeys. I was surprised by how big they are. They are either funny or extremely annoying.  

That depends if you’re the one they are trying to climb up to search your bag, or if you are watching some other poor tourist take them on. They are Europe’s only wild monkeys, so they’re pretty cocky. There’s also a superstition that says that if the monkeys ever leave the Rock, the Brits will finally leave Gibraltar.  

Mean monkeys of Gibraltar Rock
What they are really like. Buttholes.

  

The views 

The best views at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar
The views from the Rock are fantastic

Even if you just walk aimlessly up there you will be blown away by the views. To the south, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, you will be able to see Morocco. To the west, you see the entire town center at the base of the Rock, the impressive harbor with huge ships and, over the bay, Spain.  

I want to stress that the views are incredible. You want a thunder storm to pass over you just to highlight how dramatic it is. Ok, not really. But maybe. It would be cool!  

There are many trails to explore. Make the effort and walk all the way to the southern tip of the Rock and brave the climb to O’Hara’s Battery. For the views of course.  

The Skywalk 

The Skywalk at the Rock of Gibraltar
Lots of glass = the Skywalk (sorry for the fuzzy pic)

 

On your way there, stop by the Skywalk, a glass platform that’s a little out of place up here in my opinion, but some people might like it. It’s in the price of your ticket, so you might as well go.  

The suspension bridge 

Suspension Bridge on Rock of Gibraltar
Come for the experience, but the views are better elsewhere

Another man-made attraction is the Windsor Suspension Bridge. It’s quite a hike down, which means it’s then an extra hike back up. It’s pretty cool and good for a photo, but if the thought of walking across a narrow bridge that sways in the wind isn’t alluring to you, feel free to skip it. The thrill of walking on the bridge is the main attraction, the views aren’t the best ones you’ll get.  

The tunnels 

The tunnels through the Rock of Gibraltar
Most of the tunnels in the Rock are still used by the military

The Great Seige Tunnels at the northern end of the Rock are worth the 40 minutes it takes to walk through the part that is open as a sort of museum. These military tunnels are super interesting, and most are still closed to the public and looked after by the Ministry of Defense. They are included in the price of the basic nature reserve ticket, you get an audio guide, and parts are set up to show how they would be used (with figurines and beds and other furniture).  

Note that in their day the tunnels were set up as an entire underground city, able to house all 16,000 military personnel with enough food for almost a year and a half! There was even a hospital and a bakery.  

The tunnels start out flat but then go downhill steeply, so be prepared to walk up hill on the way back. Do get to the end though, as you will get to the balcony on the other side of the Rock!  

If military tunnels fascinate you, there is another section open, the World War II Tunnels. These are not part of the price of the ticket you have and must be booked as a guided tour separately.  

Gibraltar is the no. 1 place to visit in Andalusia 

As I mentioned, Gibraltar was a great surprise for me and is now one of my favorite places “in Spain”. I even put it as number 1 in my list of top places to visit in Andalusia! I loved it that much.  

I know it seems ironic that my favorite place in Spain is the least Spanish, and technically not even in Spain. I think it comes down to expectations—I was expecting so little and was proved so very wrong.  That doesn’t happen to me very often!  

The Rock with its views and nature was amazing, the city was so clean and cosmopolitan, the fantastic tourist infrastructure made everything easy, and I ate at a whole bunch of great restaurants. What more could one want? It might just be me—you’re going to have to go there and prove me wrong yourself if you want to dispute my claim.  

If you enjoy rocky places, check out that list of top places to read about another fun rock to visit, Caminito del Rey. You’ll have a hair-raising experience there for sure! That was my second favorite place… I think I have a rock fetish.  

And if you really like mountains, may I inspire you to add Torres del Paine onto your bucket list? Chile’s best national park will have you picking your jaw up off the rocky floor on many occassions.  

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