I love Spain but the Balearic Islands have never featured in my holiday ‘top 10’ wish list. Friends have tried to convince me that Mallorca is a great destination, extolling the virtues of its beautiful coastal scenery and pretty villages.
But I wasn’t to be swayed. Perhaps it was my dreadful trip to Ibiza as a teenager which put me off. It was my worst ever holiday – I hated its boring, flat, scrubby terrain and fake sandy beaches.
Memories of drunken Brits wearing party hats, getting off their faces in overcrowded resorts packed with English pubs didn’t help either. Wouldn’t Mallorca just be a bigger version of Ibiza?
How wrong I was…
Here are my top reasons to embrace the joys of Palma, Mallorca’s biggest city, the first landing point for most Brits and the island’s most vibrant location.
This is number one of my three part guide to the island, with plenty of tips about how to avoid being sucked into the Mallorcan mass tourism machine.
- La Seu – Palma’s magnificent cathedral.
- Seafront and marina – fish, ships and cocktail bars… plus boat trips and sea life. Nearby beaches and coves.
- Bellver Castle and park – history and wild walks,
- Modernista architecture – lovers of Art Nouveau are in for a treat.
- Juan Miro Foundation – excellent modern art museum.
- Foodie heaven – Top tapas and Mallorcan wine.
Palma – The New Barcelona?
Palma has that winning combination of culture and cool. A bit like a smaller version of its Spanish competitor, Barcelona, it’s stuffed full of galleries, museums, historic sights and fabulous Modernista architecture.
Head first for Palma’s Cathedral, La Seu, a Gothic masterpiece with modernist embellishments, courtesy of Antoni Gaudi. It’s simply gorgeous.
La Seu is one of Europe’s tallest Gothic buildings and looks like a giant, tiered wedding cake. Gaudi improved its interior in the early 1900s and his signature can be seen throughout the building.
Close to the cathedral, there’s a royal palace – the Palau de l’Almudaina, the historic Arab Quarter and Baths, and the Museu Funacion Juan March, a modern art gallery for those who enjoy Picasso, Salvador Dali and Miro.
Don’t miss a walk to nearby Parc de la Mar where you can chill out with tapas and cava whilst enjoying great views of the cathedral and old town walls.
Look out for ‘balloon man’ making serious shapes for the kids, but thrilling the adults by posing with them for bubble pictures. I feel an Instagram post coming on!
A Sense of Place
One of the reasons I disliked Ibiza was its dull landscape and hordes of drunken clubbers, but here in Mallorca, there is a stronger sense of place and greater diversity of landscapes.
You don’t have to go far to find tranquility and quiet walks. In Palma city centre, there are plenty of parks where you can relax from Parc de la Feixina with its ribbon like waterway to the Parc de La Mar close to the seafront.
I’m told that the Arab Baths also has a charming garden with real character although sadly I ran out of time to take a break at this intriguing historic site.
One of my favourite places to escape the crowds is the Bellver Castle gardens not far from the city centre.
After the visiting the castle, take the loop walk around the park, following paths which take you through lovely shady woodland areas and interesting landmarks including an old quarry.
Another distinctive feature of the island is the diverse range of architectural styles from traditional Spanish vernacular to Moorish, Art Nouveau and cool contemporary.
The Moorish influence is seen in many Mallorcan buildings. The Moors conquered the island and governed it during the 8th-13th centuries.
I love the many hidden courtyards which you can glimpse when you walk through the city”s quieter back streets. They’ve been influenced by a combination of Spanish and Moorish architecture.
There’s something serene and orderly about their formal style and geometric lines, broken up by an ornate staircase and plain archways.
The best example of Mudejar architecture in the city is the impressive Palau de l’Almudaina, an old palace which mixes Moorish and Gothic styles.
Its towers look medieval but look again and you’ll see the Moorish style crenallations. The main palace building also has a strong Islamic feel – its central courtyard recalls the Real Alcazar in Saville.
In common with many of the buildings on the island, it’s built of Mallorcan stone, giving it a warm, earthy feel which radiates warmth in the sunlight. There are spectacular views from the terrace.
If you’re a fan of Art Nouveau architecture, you’re in for a real treat because Palma is home to some of the most impressive Modernista buildings in Spain.
This came as a huge surprise to me. I hadn’t realised the extent of the Modernista movement in Mallorca at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
I’d recommend going on a self-guided walking tour of these buildings which are mainly concentrated in the old shopping area around Placa Mercat and Placa de Cort. The best selection is along Colom, an attractive street with many lovely buildings.
Two of the most spendid Modernista masterpieces are the Can Casayas and Pension Menorquina, located on opposite sides of a small alleyway off the Placa Mercat.
Their most striking feature are their parabolic arches, curves and sinuous decoration, typical of the Art Nouveau style.
They have a real wow factor if you stand back to admire this perfect pairing from a short distance away. I love their shapes and swirling forms – and the detailing is exquisite if you look at the top of their roofs.
Another fine Modernista building in the city is Can Forteza Rey, a striking five-storey clinic and apartment block designed in the late 19th Century.
Inspired by Gaudi, it is decorated with mosaics of colourful tiles, fan-shaped patterns created with ironwork and swirling, organic shapes like tendrils of a plant.
This beautiful building is located on a charming, boutique-style shopping street close to the Placa Major. You can’t miss this Art Nouveau blockbuster – it’s a big statement building.
A short stroll away is the Casa de las Medias which stands out because it’s covered with broken tiled decorations, a style loved by the Modernistas. The tiles sparkle and shine with a mirrored effect in the early evening sun.
The front of the building looks like it has small boulders of rock stuck on the facade which makes it hard to miss.
It’s nicknamed ‘the house of stockings’ because of the haberdashery shop which once inhabited the ground floor.
Palma’s Panoramic Views
On the edge of town, there’s a great but steep walk up to the Castell de Bellver where you can enjoy great panoramic views of the city. Those who prefer a more leisurely route may prefer to take a bus trip to the top of the hill.
The castle keep and circular central courtyard are extremely impressive structures, surrounded by a ditch and fortifications.
Once inside his 14th Century royal fortress, there’s plenty to learn about the island’s intriguing history in the museum. There are fantastic views from the top and I can also recommend taking the nature walk back through the extensive grounds to the city.
Once inside the castle, there is a beautiful 14th Century central courtyard surrounded by antique statues from where you can ascend the stone stairs to get yet more mind blowing 360 degree views of the bay below.
Invaders wouldn’t have fancied their chances of making it up to the top of this impenetrable fortress. The hill climb is hard work and you’d have seen an army coming from a mile off.
Don’t miss the lovely sculptures and ancient finds in the museum which has a few stand out pieces including a statue of the Greek god Hermaphroditus – an early example of gender fluidity.
Bellver Castle – Photo Gallery
Art Lovers’ Paradise
One of the things I love about Mallorca is that it feels much culturally ‘cooler’ than Ibiza, perhaps because it has associations with lots of European artists and writers.
The Spanish-Catalan artist Juan Miro lived and worked on the island between 1956 till his death in 1983 when his wife converted his studio and house in Palma into an art centre.
Today you can visit the impressive Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miro which houses a gallery full of Miro’s paintings and his former house – Son Boter – complete with the artist’s charcoal graffiti art on its walls.
Miro’s wife and mother were both Mallorcan and he had longed to return to the scene of his childhood holidays to draw inspiraton from “the light of Mallorca”.
The foundation collection includes more than 100 paintings, 25 sculptures and 3,000 studio pieces by Miro which the museum moves around to showcase selected works at any one time.
It’s an immensely enjoyable museum to walk around, not least because of its lovely gardens dotted with Miro’s sculptures and murals.
The main gallery building is beautifully-designed and houses permanent and temporary exhibitions. It has a calm, temple-like zen atmosphere which means that it’s a good escape from the city’s crowds on a hot day.
You can even play the piano in the central room of the gallery which is something my partner Tony had no hesitation in trying.
Also impressive is the adjacent Artist’s Studio – the actual place where Miro painted and designed his creations. It’s almost as if Miro has just popped out for a glass of Mallorcan wine in between projects.
The paintings are reproductions of the originals but there are many authentic items on display including Miro’s figurines and objects which inspired the artist including Hopi dolls, Mexican terracotta and a large sunflower design.
Miro is also famous for his murals and you can see them at the museum as well as in Palma city centre including a colourful work in the Parc de la Mer, overlooking the cathedral.
The Miro Foundation – Photo Gallery
I do like to be beside the seaside, especially on a hot and humid day. With my keen eye for a good sea view, I booked a room overlooking Palma’s main bay at the Melua Marina Hotel.
It’s a good choice of hotel with a lovely waterfront walk nearby, once you cross the coast road, being careful to dodge the heavy traffic whizzing into Palma city centre.
Along the huge marina frontage, there are plenty of posh boats to admire as well as a few for sale with ridiculously high price tags. Look on with envy!
To get the best sea views, you’ll need to gain a bit of height. Try walking up to nearby Bellver Castle – it’s a fantastic vantage point.
From the top you can see right across the bay including the marina and the cruise ship terminal. Palma is one of the main stopping points on the cruise circuit and there’s always big boats berthed up in the bay.
For those who want to get out on the water, there are boat charters and trips around the bay. Or you can simply head to a cocktail bar and dream about buying your perfect super yacht.
Back in the city centre, Palma has a lively cafe culture and it’s not hard to stumble upon a wide range of bars and hostelries.
Sitting around and gazing at the world going by is something of a national hobby in Mallorca. The old historic quarter around the cathedral has an excellent selection of places to eat, drink and chill out.
Away from the main tourist trawl, it’s easy to lose yourself down one of Palma’s many cobbled streets and find surprising ‘hidden’ quarters of the city.
Sitting outside is great, if you enjoy soaking up the sunshine and eating al fresco, although there are also plenty of chilled (literally) bars and restaurants with indoor seating.
Whilst you’re exploring the maze of alleyways, it’s worth looking around for many independent shops and boutiques. I was very impressed by the large number of great shoe and leather shops with reasonable prices. I’m now kicking myself for not buying the amazing red leather shoes I spotted!
There is no shortage of tapas bars in Palma but be aware that not all tapas dishes are top quality. With so many tourists to feed, some places cheat and buy in pre-cooked tapas in packets to heat up. You can tell the difference if you ‘shop around’.
Try to find an authentic bar which makes fresh Mallorcan tapas and cooks them on the spot.
There are plenty of cafe bars but my advice is to treat yourself and look out for proper Mallorcan restaurants serving local dishes such as sea bass in rock salt, seafood paella, paprika pork sausages, and flaky pastries called ensaimades. They’re delicious!
Mallorcan wine is undergoing a surge in popularity so don’t be frighted to try the local vino – it’s surprisingly good quality and value.
I prefer the red Mallorcan wines but the whites are characterful too.
Clubbers will enjoy hanging out till late at the city’s many popular clubs including Tito’s, on the bay front just outside the main city centre. It’s located in Paseo Marítimo, next to dozens of bars, restaurants and dance venues.
There are also some decent cocktail bars overlooking the marina for those who enjoy a more leisurely drink.
Anyone who enjoys watching life go back should head to the area beyond the cathedral by the coast road where there is a cafe with an outdoor terrace from where you can enjoy the illuminated historic buildings at night.
It’s hard to list all my recommended eating places as there are so many to choose from. I tend to avoid anywhere with plastic menus with pictures of the the food, although that might be my snobby foodie habit kicking in!
Many of the most interesting restaurants are located in old wine cellars which gives them an atmospheric feel. One of my favourite authentic eating places is a small restaurant called La Paloma in the old town. It’s authentic, friendly and not too expensive for an evening meal.
Sadly, I was on a tight budget for this trip so didn’t seek out the Michelin starred Adrian Quetglas restaurant, a fusion of Mediterranean, Russian and Asian styles. Another talked-about eaterie is Marc Fosh, a high quality gastro experience in an old convent. Next time…
Walk on the Wild Side
One of the joys of Palma is that it’s a city of contrasts… not only in terms of its architecture but the overall feel of the city.
There are busy peripheral main roads but charming, pedestrianised streets; bustling urban parks but also quiet, secluded gardens. The hustle and bustle of the city sits comfortably side by side with a more relaxing, laid-back way of life. It’s easy to chill out and not get too stressed which is a great antidote to cities like Rome and London.
Palma is also full of surprises. I saw this large egret happily fishing for its supper near the marina overlooking a busy city highway. Not a sight you see often in big cities.
Palma has so much to offer – it’s lively but relaxed, culturally vibrant but not too ‘show-off’ and ‘in your face’.
It’s a great place to explore on foot, but small enough to see the main sights if you don’t want to walk too far. And there’s plenty of attractions to visit, from palaces and historic sights to lovely shops and the seafront.
Just as long as you avoid the beach resort of Magaluf down the road, the city of Palma could be my perfect weekend break.
Palma… I’m sorry I wrote you off for so long – you’re a real treat and a joy!
Palma – What the Guide Books Don’t Tell You
Getting to Palma is easy from UK airports with cheap flights from most major cities. It’s a short 2-3 hour flight so makes for a good long weekend or week’s break. The airport is located about 15 minutes drive from the city centre or 20 minutes by public transport.
I stayed in the marina area which has a slightly mixed feel, somewhere between upmarket and ‘down at heel’ but there are many decent large hotels and pleasant seafront bars with views. The main down side is the Autopista de Llevant/Avinguda Gabriel Roca, a busy duel carriageway which crashes along the waterfront, dividing the sea from the city.
Eating out is generally good value and there’s an excellent range of restaurants ranging from cheap & cheerful to expensive.
What about the language? Before leaving for my trip, I did a crash course in Spanish. The day before the trip, I discovered that most Mallorcans speak a form of Catalan, infused with some Balearic influences! So much for trying to blend in with the locals. However, most people speak English and German so trying to learn Catalan isn’t important.
Don’t try to cram Palma’s attractions into a single day. There’s a lot to see and it’s worth at least 2-3 days of your time.
There are plenty of places to escape from the hustle and bustle of Palma, if you fancy a trip to the countryside or coast.
It doesn’t take long if you want to head to a charming traditional Mallorcan village, rocky headland or national park, especially if you have a hire car. I’ll be telling you more about those places in parts 2 and 3 of this blog.
The tram to Soller is another good way of getting around the west side of the island, if you fancy a day trip. It’s cheap, fun, frequent and convenient.
The best time to visit Palma is late Spring or early Autumn to avoid the heaving crowds of holidaymakers and the oppressive summer heat. My favourite month to spend a weekend in Palma is May.
A good place to chill out on a hot day is Bellver Castle on the edge of Palma city centre – it has a small cafe from where there are great panoramic views.
Hotels are priced around the same rates as most major European cities but you could keep the price down by booking an apartment or resort hotel further along the coast. But be aware that some resorts near Palma are extremely touristy and over-commercialised because they’re catering for a mass market.