I need to be a little careful about saying Gibraltar is on my Top 10 list of Best Travel Experiences, since I haven’t actually sat down and put said list together but I’m sure it would be on it! One of the best pieces of travel I’ve ever done is a perfect day in Gibraltar. I’ve done it twice; the first time by accident and the second time on purpose. There are lots of ways to see Gibraltar, but as far as I’m concerned the best way is to: start your morning off early with a cable car up to the top of Gibraltar, climb the Mediterranean Steps down in almost complete isolation and bliss, move on to the standard tour of the Rock; St. Michael’s Cave, the Great Siege Tunnels etc. and finish with real British fish & chips and a Pint – Perfection!
I’ve been to Gibraltar twice. The first was our last stop as we finished up a road trip in Southern Spain. We did little to no prep work in preparing for our visit and ended up having a wonderful time, but we were completely mis-dressed for the adventure. After our first trip I knew I needed to get back and do it again now that I knew what I was doing. So a year and a half later I had the opportunity to make another trip there and it was perfect! I would absolutely go again if given the opportunity and do the same exact itinerary; it makes for a perfect day, a perfect slice of travel!
On our first trip we stayed in La Linea, Spain, just over the border from Gibraltar. We had planned to stay in Gibraltar but hadn’t had any luck finding a hotel with decent reviews and they were all very expensive. So we ended up in La Linea which worked just fine. La Linea itself has nothing to offer but its access to Gibraltar; we arrived in the evening and had dinner in the hotel, went to bed, had breakfast in the hotel, took a cab to the border, spent the day in Gibraltar, returned to our hotel, had dinner, went to bed, had breakfast, hit the road. Not exactly the most exciting itinerary but we were focused on Gibraltar and this worked fine for us. One full day was enough to see the Rock of Gibraltar, spend a little time in the town, and get good fish & chips and an English pint. The difference had we stayed in Gibraltar would have been a little more time in the town, some more interesting meals, and a lot more money spent. Our second trip to Gibraltar was a day trip from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. We left early had a full day in Gibraltar and returned to Jerez de la Frontera.
I’m going to focus mostly on the rock of Gibraltar. The town itself is full of British stores and food, and is kind of fun, but wasn’t what we were there to see.
Guidebooks – We used the same Fodor’s Spain we used during the rest of our Spanish road trip. There was a small section in the back about Gibraltar. If you are visiting Gibraltar as part of a larger Spain trip I would recommend this book for your Spain trip, and I wouldn’t bother getting another guide book just for Gibraltar. If you are visiting Gibraltar independently, then a Gibraltar specific book is the way to go, although I don’t have one I can recommend first hand. – Fodor’s Spain served us well and I never felt the need for anything more, such as a city specific book.
Transportation – Assuming you are arriving to Gibraltar across the Spanish border there are two common options. The first is driving across in a car of your own. I don’t know the specifics about taking a rental car across, but when we drove our personal vehicle with Moroccan plates on it we were never asked for registration nor proof of insurance. If you are planning on driving a rental car across the border I would check with the rental car company ahead of time.
We drove across the border when visiting on a Sunday, and it was a piece of cake. In fact the whole visit was great because there was no one there on a Sunday! None of the shops are open on Sunday, but if you are just going to see the rock of Gibraltar Sunday is the day to go! Back to driving – If you are visiting on a Sunday and can drive across the border I would recommend doing so. There was little to no border wait and parking was free. If you are visiting any other day of the week I would leave your car in Spain. The border waits for cars at the border looked horrible and I would assume parking would be crazy and certainly not free.
If you are not planning on driving across the border public transportation is set up to make this very easy. You can either park your car on the Spanish side of the border or take a cab from your hotel as we did. At the border you will take a bus to the center of town at which point most things will be within walking distance. When buying your bus ticket you will have the option of buying a collective ticket that also includes the sites on the Rock of Gibraltar. If you are planning on seeing the Rock I would recommend getting all your tickets there. They will also provide you with a map and will write the appropriate bus numbers on the map so you know what bus to take back to the border at the end of your day.
Map – You can find a good map of Gibraltar here which should help you follow along with the sites and my recommended tour.
Touring the Rock – I’m going to list the sites in order in which I would recommend seeing them. If you are up to doing a nice day hike I would recommend taking the Cable Car to the top of the Rock and walking the Mediterranean Steps which take you down the east side of the rock, around the southern point and back to the west side at which point you can walk the road and see the sites on your way down. You can also skip the Mediterranean Steps and walk down from the Cable Car if you are looking for an easy walk on a nice day. The other readily accessible option is to take a tour with a cab / van / or tour company. I don’t have a lot information on these as we have never done it this way, but I’m sure your guide book can help you.
Casemates Square – This is the square where buses drop you off. There is also a parking lot behind it with free parking on Sunday if you drive in. Either way you will start your journey from here. And if you were traveling with me you would end your journey here with fish & chips, and a pint! From Casemates Square you can follow Main Street, (which is full of shops), down to the Cable Car.
Cable Car – Unless you have a fear of cable cars or heights I completely recommend using the cable car. The views are nice, but more importantly it is the most fun way to get to the top of the Rock. If you aren’t going to walk the Mediterranean Steps it will probably be the best view of the day, but I recommend taking the Mediterranean Steps down and finding views to beat it! You can buy your ticket for this either in Spain when buy your bus ticket or at the Cable Car station. Regardless of where you buy it I would recommend getting the ticket that also includes entrance to all the sites on the Rock; even though it will include a trip down on the cable car that you probably won’t use. – Must See
Note: While walking to the Cable Car you will come across numerous people with vans and cabs trying to talk you into hiring them for a tour of the Rock instead of using the Cable Car. Don’t do this, take the Cable Car! But more importantly tell them you already bought your ticket in Spain, (even if you haven’t). They will give you a hard time and tell you you shouldn’t have bought your ticket in Spain, but most importantly they will stop trying to sell you a tour!
Upper Rock Nature Preserve – You will actually be in the Upper Rock Nature Preserve from the time you get off the Cable Car at the top all the way until you get just above the town at the end of your tour. On the Upper Rock Nature Preserve Barbary Apes roam wild. You will see lots of tourist signs warning against getting close and you will see lots of tourists getting as close as possible until one of these apes jumps on them. I have no interest in getting close at all. I have a great zoom on my camera and it can take pictures while standing at a very safe distance away.
Touring – After taking the Cable Car up you can either take the Cable Car back down, walk down, or take the Mediterranean Steps down. If you are walking down from here you are going to want to follow signs for St. Michael’s Cave; that will be your first site stop.
If you are taking the Mediterranean Steps, go you! You will be following signs for O’ Hara’s Battery. If you are not going to take the Mediterranean Steps there’s no real need to walk up to O’Hara’s Battery, there’s not actually anything really there.
Mediterranean Steps – As far as I’m concerned anyone who is fit enough to do so should take these steps. If you choose to take them you will find that I’m either alone in my opinion or most people don’t know about them because you will spend most of your time not being able to see another soul. The Mediterranean Steps take you from the very top of the Rock of Gibraltar down the eastern side and around the southern point. The views are amazing, serene, and never ending. When you come around the western side and you find the rest of the tourists that think they are having a good time, you’ll know the truth. They completely missed the coolest part of Gibraltar and don’t even know it. It’s hiking the Mediterranean Steps specifically that make visiting Gibraltar one of the best pieces of travel I’ve ever done. – Must See
Okay, to give you an idea what to expect. I would call this a light hike. Full hiking boots are not required, but you are going to want light hikers, good sneakers, or walking sandals (only if you are very comfortable with them and have used them for hiking before). What is going to be the most important for you is traction. You will be walking steps which are a random combination of carved stone, stacked stones, and naturally made with a variety of rises and runs. Some of the trail has ‘hand rails’ (I use this term lightly) and others have none at all. You will also find a few areas of natural path. If you are walking this trail top down you will spend about %80 of the time going down and about %20 percent going up; most of the down is at at the very beginning. Once you finish the Mediterranean Steps you will need to walk up hill to return to St. Michael’s Cave to start your sightseeing.
I’m not trying to scare anyone off, just to help you be prepared. The first time we did this was in street clothes and shoes and I was carrying a 7 month old baby on my front. We survived but were not nearly as comfortable as we could have been and there may have been some choice words shared with my husband who way undersold this little excursion when we hit the uphill towards St. Michael’s Cave. The second time I did this with my mother and sister while carrying a 2 year old in a metal frame Deuter Backpack Carrier on my back and had a great time. We were all dressed appropriately, had the right footwear, and brought water. – So if you are at all outdoorsy, or athletic, or just in good shape and up for an adventure – DO IT!
St. Michael’s Cave – This is one of my 3 do’s in Gibraltar. It’s a pretty quick little self-guided tour of a naturally formed cave, but it’s beautiful, unique and should be not missed. It’s also included in the package ticket, and it’s on your way down the rock why would you not go? – Must See
This is also the first site you’ll come to after you finish the Mediterranean Steps. There are restrooms, a shop, and a very casual place to get a little something to eat (safe from the apes). It makes for a nice place to stop and take a break. Also, if you are traveling with a group with different interests this makes for a nice meeting place if not everyone is going to hike the Mediterranean Steps.
Great Siege Tunnels – After the Mediterranean Steps this my favorite part of visiting Gibraltar. You really get to walk all the way into the tunnels and read about their history. It’s unbelievable how extensive the network is. It’s really like nothing else I’ve ever seen before. – Must See
World War II Tunnels – I’m not really sure what’s going on here. You will pass this going to and from the Great Siege Tunnels. Don’t stop on your way to the Great Siege Tunnels. If once you are done with the Great Siege Tunnels you find yourself still wanting for more reading about obscure historic facts stop in and see the World War II Tunnels; because there’s really not much more to it than that. – Leave for the history buffs
Moorish Castle – If you follow my suggested itinerary this will be the last thing you hit on your walking route. If you skip seeing it you will not be missing much, but at the same point when’s the next time you’re going to be in Gibraltar. So if your legs are up to a couple more flights of stairs you should go for it. And if you’ve gotten the package ticket that I recommend the castle is included, so there’s nothing to lose. – Take it or Leave it
FAVORITES – In case you weren’t already sure my favorite is of course hiking the Mediterranean Steps! And then when you are all done finishing it off with a well-deserved plate of fish & chips and a pint. It’s amazing how much better a pint of beer taste after a day a hiking, (particularly in Europe)!
Lastly and most importantly ask them to stamp your passport! They have so many tourist coming over the boarder every day they don’t ordinarily stamp passports, but if you ask they will.