“I got the key, I got the secret” – Urban Cookie Collective
Does Gibraltar even have a capital city? If so what is it? One way to find out is to go backpacking there and storm your ways through the sights of this wacky place. Gibraltar, even by its name is a quirky enigma. It’s one of those places that has people asking “is it a country or is it not?”. Twinned with the Northern Irish town of Ballymena, holding a border with Spain, using the British pound (Gibraltarian notes and coins), enjoying the fortunes of their international football team, this wee place is worth a few days of exploring and I loved it. Incidentally, it was not the sort of place I expected to love, but I did. It’s the coat you never wore, then when you put it on you’re the Fonz.
I crossed the border by foot from the town of La Linea de la Concepcion and I got checked into the cool budget hotel, the Cannon Hotel. The Cannon Hotel is in the city centre/town centre of Gibraltar.
Gibraltar Town/Gibraltar City/Gibraltar’s Capital
The thing about Gibraltar is that it doesn’t really have a capital city or town, Gibraltar itself is stated as being the capital. But I want it to have a capital and I needed to tour the capital. Even Podjistan, Ladonia and Austenasia have capitals: The People’s Palace, Nimis and Wrythe as it happens. So what’s Gibraltar’s capital?
About Travelling to Gibraltar
Gibraltar is an enigma to some and I have even met backpackers in Spain that didn’t even know about it!! Gibraltar is a member of the European Union, however it is not part of the Schengen Area or the EU Customs Union. This means that there are immigration and customs controls when travelling between Spain and Gibraltar. Citizens of the European Union are required to have a national identity card or passport, while all others are required to have a passport to enter.
The entry requirements for Gibraltar are not the same as the United Kingdom. Unless exempt from visa requirements, to enter Gibraltar you must have either a Gibraltar visa (to be applied for separately from a normal British visa at a British embassy/consulate), a UK visa valid for at least 6 months, or a UK permit of residence valid for at least 5 years. If arriving by air, Gibraltar airport staff will refuse entry to anyone who does not comply with these requirements. That said, the border was pretty fast, easy and efficient but then again I was on a UK passport.
To make things a bit easier, I decided to break my posts on the backpacking sights of Gibraltar into three parts of the country:
1. Sights of Europa Point
2. Sights on the Top of the Rock (and on the way up/down)
3. Sights in Downtown Gibraltar/The Capital of Gibraltar (this article)
For the basis of this post, I am writing about the top sights I enjoyed in the downtown part, i.e the lower area, not Europa Point, not the other side of the Rock and not the Top of the Rock. To me, it seems like the capital should be called Gibraltar Town or Gibraltar City, and these are my favourite sights from my time there.
1.St. Mary’s Cathedral
St. Mary’s Cathedral is actually situated on the site of an Old Mosque. The Cathedral was badly damaged in the Great Siege but it has been rebuilt and it looks damn good on the Main Street.
It was converted into a Catholic Cathedral in 1462 and is one of two Cathedrals in the capital.
2.The King’s Chapel
The King’s Chapel is beside the Convent and Governor’s House and is more interesting than the Cathedral. There are a lot of British War references and plaques here as well as the burial place of the wife of a Spanish governor and the previous British governors.
The King’s Bastion was the keystone of the Rock’s defences during the Great Siege. Nowadays the site is actually used as a leisure centre and restaurant. You can still scale the walls though.
4.John Mackintosh Square
John Mackintosh Square is probably the main square in Gibraltar. It has been the centre of city life since the 14th century and takes its name from John Mackintosh, a local philanthropist. Notable buildings on John Mackintosh Square include the Parliament Building and the City Hall.
The Gibraltar National Day Declaration is also read in the square, and a symbolic release of 30,000 red and white balloons from the roof of the Parliament Building follows. There was a major celebration here in 2009, when the Miss Gibraltar, Kaiane Aldorino returned home after being named Miss World. Have you ever shagged a sexy Gibraltarian? It mightn’t take you long to get rock hard.
The City Hall is also here in John Mackintosh Square. Nothing to write home about but of course another important building in this mini country. And also surely a justification that here is the capital city?!
6.British War Memorial
Aside from the Siege of Gibraltar and the many wars down the years, Gibraltar is a country with a lot of conflict and political history, given its important geographical position. The British War Memorial is on the walls near the King’s Bastion and represents those from Gibraltar who fought and died in the wars of the 20th century. It dates back to 1921.
7.US/American War Memorial
The American War Memorial (also known as the American Steps) is a World War I memorial on the same wall near the British War Memorial. This one was built for the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1933, and incorporated into the main city wall, the Line Wall Curtain. It commemorated the successful alliance of the United States and the United Kingdom in their naval exploits in the vicinity of Gibraltar during the Great War.
If you’re walking to the town centre from the border, you will pass through Casemates Square. In line with my ridiculous London shortening of names, I call this one Casey’s Q, the same way Trafi’s Q and Lesi’s Q exist in my obscure mind. This is the largest square in the country and is named after the military barracks, which are north of the square. There is a cannon here and a few other monuments.
This was once were public executions were carried out. these days it’s great in the summer for bars, cafes and restaurants and a lively place. Shops and bars accept Euros as well as Pounds here and some of the staff cross the border from Spain everyday to work.
9.John Mackintosh Hall and Library
This Macka kid was some pup so he was as they also named the Library after him as well as the square. The coolest part for me though is the massive Gibraltar Flag made from Lego blocks! There is a library, a hall and a theatre in this cool complex.
10.Holy Trinity Cathedral/Gibraltar Cathedral
I don’t normally whack two cathedrals or a hat-trick of churches in my top sights list, but here, it seems like there are two cathedrals in town worthy of it. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity is the cathedral for the Church of England Diocese in Gibraltar. Located in Cathedral Square, it is sometimes referred to simply as Gibraltar Cathedral. The cathedral is particularly notable for its Moorish revival architecture, particularly in its use of horseshoe arches. This is an architectural style inspired by Moorish architecture, appropriate given the period of Moorish control in Gibraltar’s history.
Walking down Gibraltar’s Main Street is where you get the flavour of the nation. Excellent bars and restaurants, souvenirs shops and a good mix of local businesses and British brand names give this an unusual feel.
12.The Convent, Governor of Gibraltar’s Residence
Basically the Governor of Gibraltar lives here. You can actually go inside, it’s manned by guards by day and connected to the King’s Chapel.
I also liked the building opposite though my maps and guides never quite told me what it was. It was closed.
Some of those who died at the Battle of Trafalgar are buried here. Cape Trafalgar is near the city of Cadiz in Spain.
14.Arts Gallery and the John Lennon Exhibition
Sadly the Johnny Lennon exhibition was over on my visit, but it may come around again. At any rate, the Art Gallery is worth a look. Local art, not many tourists around and free entry. It’s in Casemates Square.
Most places we go have a Little India or a China Town, but here – an Irish Town??? I thought this idea was nuts and kind of hoped it would have been a Northern Irish Town. Is it loads of lepracons wearing green and drinking Guinness? No, and I had to dig deep to find out the reason for the name.
The main reason for the Irish Town name dates back to the early 19th century when Gibraltar was split into different quarters. However, 95% of Irish town is in fact rumoured to be Welsh! It was once thought that the name was derived from Irish merchants residing in Gibraltar and having their properties and warehouses on this street, but the property owner lists of 1749 and 1777 don’t show any Irish names, all of which seem to have lived in Main Street. It is more likely however, that it acquired its name from an Irish regiment that was barracked at this street, probably in the White Cloisters. I was looking for a wee pint of Guinness, yet Gibraltar’s Irish Pub O’Reilly’s isn’t even on this street! There is a Police Station here though.
16.Central Post Office
You might have read how I love to collect stamps, coins, banknotes and tick off my travel list in each country. To do this here, you should visit the main post office. Gibraltar used to have £1 notes, which are now a novelty. This is a contrast to Guernsey and Jersey, which I believe still issue them. The Philatelic shop is worth a look and you can pick up souvenirs in other shops too, including fridge magnets.
I wanted to do a bit of old school drinking in Gibraltar and indeed I kept up to date with AFC Bournemouth’s 1-0 win at Reading in the Angry Friar Pub. But Star Bar is the oldest bar in the country, so it’s worth popping into for a beer. You can buy Gibraltar beer in very few places, and they don’t stock it here, but worth a visit.
To get my Gibraltar beer, I actually had a bottle of it at the Top of the Rock.
Sadly the standard of Victoria Stadium was not deemed good enough by UEFA to play international football on, which means that Gibraltar can only play friendly matches here and not official competitive games. Due to the political situation with Spain, this has meant that Gibraltar have to play their home qualifiers in Portugal.
On my visit, I watched some rugby at Victoria Stadium and even got into the dressing rooms and backstage. I couldn’t work out why this stadium is not good enough for international football.
19.Winky Churchill Avenue
The British influence is clear for all to see. When you get into the country across the border from Spain, you walk along Winston Churchill Avenue to get to the town centre.
20.Old Town Gates and Walls
The walls and gates are everywhere when you’re walking around town. You’ll see the Orange Bastions, South Bastion and other Bastions. The Old Town Gates that you walk through to get into the capital city area of Gibraltar are quite an enjoyable entrance. You walk out the other side and you are in Casemates Square.
As well as all this, there are some great pubs, restaurants and bars. Gibraltar has lots of touristy souvenir shops and various religions are represented in the country, including Muslim Mosques, Jewish Synagogues and a Hindu Temple. It’s a surprisingly cool place to go backpacking in and one you shouldn’t miss. You can backpack overland into Spain afterwards, or get the boat to Africa – boats leave to Tangiers in Morocco from Gibraltar.
Here are some videos of my time backpacking in Gibraltar: