The first thing you notice when you arrive in Palma is La Seu, the city’s gigantic cathedral. It’s boxy contours and generous proportions have me thinking of Noah’s ark, just waiting by the edge of the ocean for a tsunami style flood, hoping to float away. But as Gaudi’s gothic masterpiece gazes out to sea, daydreaming of an escape to the mainland, I am glad to be here; cocooned by the ocean in one of my favourite European cities : Palma.
Palma is much greater than the sum of it’s parts, for definite, since no one would book a city mini-break just to see a cathedral. You see, on paper it’s scoresheet is pretty poor but once you’re inside it’s walls you’re ticking boxes left right and centre.
Palma Old Town
Just beyond Gaudi’s ark (La Seu) are a tangle of cobbled streets no heels should tackle, since once you start exploring you won’t be able to resist a maze-walk of curiosity around an area that began it’s current life in the fourteenth century. Romans, Arabs, Greeks and Phoenicians left their mark over the centuries in one way or another, particularly in the food and heritage, but the old town is predominantly gothic in architecture and as preserved as a good jar of pickle – very few ugly modern buildings have wormed their way in, unlike in some less fortunate cities. The streets are narrow and the walls are high but catch a glimpse through the archways or open doors and you’ll see an abundance of pretty courtyards and ornately glamourous staircases crying out for a Chanel photo-shoot. There are a couple of hidden gems too, worth getting your map out for, like the Jardí del Bisbe (or Bishops Garden) a few streets behind La Seu – a quiet little garden haven, charmingly rustic and maybe in need of a jet-wash but nevertheless a sanctum of tranquility only streets away from the selfie-sticks and cruise-ship cronies. Or the Arab Baths, one of the only traces of 10th century Islamic roots left in the city, and an excellent €2.50’s-worth of a glimpse into old high-society, once the privately owned baths of a rich merchant, and much of it still in tact.
TIPS : There are several boutique style hotels in this area with amazing courtyards and private roof terraces. Here are some of my favourite…
Palacio Ca Sa Galesa – set in a 16th century palace which you would be forgiven for thinking was just a garage door. But, like I said – the good bits are all hidden around here. There’s a roof terrace and luxury spa in a vaulted cellar.
Santa Clara Urban Hotel & Spa – a little more affordable, jacuzzi’s in the living room and a rooftop terrace. I said Jacuzzi’s in the living room!
Hotel Cort – Enough reason to go out and buy a drone. From above the hotel rooms are staggered on a giant staircase, all with their own beautifully tiled terraces. And as if that wasn’t enough, this has to be one of the prettiest squares in Palma : a gnarled old olive tree sits on it’s 7 metre spread in the middle of the Town Hall Square and commands the attention of camera wielding tourists all day and into the evening. It lived the first quiet 600 years of it’s life up near Pollensa (North Mallorca) but has spent the last 18 with a side show of Castellers, Flamenco and the occasional hand-cuffed drunkard doing his night in the town hall cells for starting a bar fight. Definitely a Square worth savouring over a cold beer and plate of pinchos.
Sant Nicolau & Sindicat
Leaving the tranquility of La Seu and the old town behind you, as you carry on into the bowels of Palma you hit the streets of Sant Nicolau and Sindicat. The architecture changes and the buzz is palpable. It’s not from tourists though, Palma is a city of Spaniards and it’s refreshing to be amongst the locals. Some of the streets are steep, especially on the way up to Placa Major but then the world opens up into this grand square and all of a sudden you realise how claustrophobic narrow cobbled streets can become. Placa Major is your usual humdrum of fake Gucci handbags on the arms of middle-easterners and generic restaurants pushing photographic menu’s on bilboards. Have a twirl in the heart of the city then get your balance, leave through one of the many exits and get back to the narrow streets where the real hearts beat.
Gaudí is the bomb in this town and these are the areas that most resonate the Mallorcan love for this bearded architect fellow. The intricate innards of La Seu cathedral are replicated on the house-fronts of the 19th century buildings you walk by – rainbow mosaics decorate the streets (think Parque Güell in Barcelona) and ornate ironwork is everywhere. If you can find a seat then be sure to take breakfast at Cappuccino Colon in the Can Forteza Rey building – it’s a beautiful place to drink your coffee and nibble on a pastry. Alternatively, there are plenty of more humble authentic Spanish cafes nearby, not as beautiful but great for watching the locals buy their morning croissants and bread for the day.
La Rambla means ‘the river’ and to the north-west of Sant Nicolau you find yourself at the bottom of the old tributary that was carving a groove towards the sea. Nowadays it’s a tree-lined avenue of flower stalls and old coin markets, a bit random but oh so pretty and worthy of a picture.
ZARA’ s flagship store on Passeig Del Born cannot be missed. I mean, it’s set in an old theatre but this is one occasion where I’ll be salivating at the clothes rails rather than at the historical architecture. I’m in my happy place, Mr MLLH will be found in a local bar somewhere.
Hotel Almudaina on Av. de Jaume III has a rooftop bar with some of the best views of Palma. We ate 2 generous sized tapas, 2 large glasses of red wine and sat with the prettiest view ever for an hour and it only set us back €14 – worth every cent!
La Lonja & Puig De Sant Pere
One of my favourite area’s of Palma, where artists find their vibe and the cool youth come out to party. The combo shouldn’t work – yacht folk and their entitled offspring rub shoulders communally with artists and thespians as if the two breeds have never disagreed. However, it’s easy to tell them apart if you’re looking for your crowd – the artists won’t be wearing YSL. During the day the narrow streets are home to studios and galleries, all a stones-throw from their heritage at the Museum of Modern Art. But, when the lights go down, other craftsmen go to work in their kitchens and cocktail bars, enticing the appreciative crowds to some of the best restaurants and bars in Mallorca. Painters and shipmates alike all need their pinchos!
A fascinating little Hall right on the seafront, the area’s namesake – La Lonja, was the original Maritime Trade Exchange, the gateway of wealth for the rest of Mallorca. It’s a grand hall of stone and carved twisted pillars that sends echoes of your impressed expressions circling around the room for all to hear, you can only imagine the noise levels when this place was filled with traders from every one of earths corners. Outside is a walled garden where I’m sure many a merchant went to when deafness had set in. Free entry and well worth a little look.
Abaco Cocktail Bar is one of the most instagrammable spots in Palma, a bar resembling more of a flower shop than a drinking establishment and so polinated you need to take a Piriton pre-drink. However, every friday night, along with your €15 cocktail, you can enjoy a flower petal display as bucket-loads are showered from the balconies and cover the floor and guests in a blanket of sweet smelling blossom. A bit gimmicky but probably worth doing once.
Alternatively, another great hotel bar with a roof terrace and amazing view of the sea and Spanish rooftops is the PURO Hotel, there aren’t that many beds but if you can get in early and snatch one, you’re set up for the evening in one of the comfiest real life screen savers known to the western world. Don’t forget your camera.
So I’m just going to put it out there and say that Mallorcan cuisine is possibly my favourite type of food there is. And why is it so different to just plain old Spanish!? It just is. It’s Catalan, Arabic, eastern and modern all rolled into one. Mallorcan’s take their food so seriously that even regular chains like Es Rebost claim to do fast food slowly in order to get it right. So when you hear that Santa Catalina is the food district that locals choose to eat at, you’ve got to pay it a visit right?
The whole area is awash with restaurants offering great food at extremely reasonable prices. In fact, there are many little bars where your drink will automatically come with a free plate of pinchos, or tapas ; now you’re talking! But if you want to know where the locals go to eat then you need to head on over to Carrer de la Fabrica. Most restaurants spill out onto a neatly groomed, pedestrianised avenue packed with cafe tables and chairs and the air is filled with families enjoying their evenings together. It really is nothing to look at when you consider how beautiful and old the rest of Palma is, but if you want great food then you will need to take a walk just beyond the ancient city and believe me – that 5 minute stroll will be well worth it!
Patron Lunares, Carrer de la Fabrica, is on the Bib Gourmand list (ViaMichelin), award winning food for approximately €25-35 per person for 2 courses. Special food in a trendy restaurant with a relaxed setting. Check it out!
Highlights Of Palma
See, if I wanted history and passion (and pizza), I’d choose Rome. If I wanted excitement and fun I’d book London. Romance? It’s Venice for me. But what if I just wanted a chilled-out weekend break with good food and wine, a relaxed vibe, great shopping and a walk along the beach thrown in for good measure – well, Palma for me is all of that and more. The people are friendly, the sun warms your cockles 330 days of the year, the history is fascinating and there are always more hidden gems to discover every time we visit. Palma will always be one of the best Spanish cities in my books and when that plane touches down on island soil, I get a shiver up my spine at what the weekend has in store!
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Have you been? What are your thoughts? Do you know of any more hidden gems or highlights you can share with me? Be sure to leave me a comment or drop me a line below…
Looking for where to stay with the family in Mallorca :