The rock defines Gibraltar.
The shape of it, instantly recognisable as you arrive by air, dictates the layout of the community that has formed in this British enclave at the tip of Spain.
The city clusters around the western edge of the territory where the land is relatively flat. On the edge of it, the sudden and steep incline of the Rock of Gibraltar itself is visible from almost every vantage point. It dominates the landscape.
It’s not inert, this rock. It is not a useless physical obstacle that Gibraltar merely works around.
It has been integrated into the history, into the culture. It holds some of the territory’s greatest natural treasures and has been a natural defence to hold it from attackers.
If not for the rock, Gibraltar would not be what it is today. It has stopped countless attempted invasions that would have led to another administration, another influence, another course of history.
What is the Rock of Gibraltar?
The Rock of Gibraltar is an enormous limestone promontory that rises to a maximum height of 426 metres. It covers about 40 per cent of Gibraltar and has many of the territory’s main sights.
Why is the Rock of Gibraltar so famous?
The Rock of Gibraltar’s position at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea is the main reason it’s become so famous. It is full of historical sites because of the battles over its possession, and now has the most interesting attractions for tourists.
Can you visit the Rock of Gibraltar?
Yes, you can visit the Rock of Gibraltar and there are lots of things to see, including tunnels, caves, and old battlements. However, not all the tunnels are open to visitors, and parts of the rock are inaccessible because of the steep terrain.
For the visitors today who don’t have to fight their way in, the rock offers many of the highlights of a trip to Gibraltar. The rock is welcoming and generous to those it sees as friends.
While the city itself and the coastline are also important parts of a visit to Gibraltar, I would like to concentrate on the rock and tell you more about the opportunities it presents.
You can visit the Rock of Gibraltar independently, but if you would like a local to show you around, I would recommend this tour of the main sights.
In a moment, I’ll share some tips to help you make the most of your visit. However you approach it, I would suggest giving yourself an entire day to explore the rock and see the different sides to its character.
The history of the Rock of Gibraltar
The huge hulking Rock of Gibraltar was formed about 55 million years ago when limestone on the sea bed, created from the shells of sea creatures, was pushed upwards by the movement of tectonic plates.
But it’s not the geology of the rock, and the millions of years of weathering sculpting its current shape, that is the most interesting part of its history.
What you really want to know is what humans have done with the rock, right? And it’s certainly been a popular place!
Early humans lived in the caves here tens of thousands of years ago. Then the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and the Romans all used it as a base for their sea routes – the position at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea just being too good an opportunity to ignore.
In 711 AD, the Berbers arrived from North Africa to start their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (and it’s even thought the name Gibraltar comes from the Berber leader, Tarik, with ‘Jebel Tarik’ meaning ‘Tarik’s Mountain’).
The conquering Muslims controlled the Rock of Gibraltar for most of the next 750 years, until they were eventually overthrown and it became the property of Spain in 1501.
In the early 1700s, it was the target of yet another European war that saw it end up in the hands of the British in 1713.
And, despite several sieges and military offensives in the period since (and even a referendum in 1967), it has been British ever since, playing an important part in the country’s modern history, and proving to be a constant source of tension with the Spanish.
Many of the things you can see on the Rock of Gibraltar today are from the conflicts that have arisen during this time.
Things to do on the Rock of Gibraltar
There are remnants on the rock from most of these periods of history, from the caves that early humans lived in, to the defences built by the Moors, and the tunnels dug during more recent wars.
Plus, of course, there’s the beautiful nature and intriguing geology to discover.
This list of the main things to do on the Rock of Gibraltar are not in order of chronology, but in the order you’ll find them if you start at the northern end and make your way south, as most visitors do.
To get access to the rock, you’ll need to buy a Nature Reserve pass, which includes admission to all of these sights unless otherwise specified. I’ll give you more details on the pass shortly.
This large brick construction on the lower part of the rock was built in 1333AD (over the top of an older castle) by the Moors who controlled much of the Iberian Peninsular at this point in history.
It formed part of the defences that these Arab conquerors had constructed to protect themselves from the attacks of Western European forces.
The Moorish castle would have been much larger than the area that can be seen today because of damage over the centuries since it was built.
The best preserved section is the Tower of Homage which you can go inside and climb to the top of. It has great views across the city.
It’s hard to imagine when you look at it from the outside but the Rock of Gibraltar actually has more than 50 kilometres of tunnels inside of it.
Most of these were created during the Second World War using hand tools.
In the early stages of the war, the British were worried that Germany would attack this strategic territory and the plan was to accommodate tens of thousands of troops in the tunnels in preparation.
Although this never came to pass, the tunnels were used for other purposes like a hospital.
You can’t see the majority of the tunnels but you are able to take a guided tour for about an hour and see some of the highlights.
It’s quite an incredible sight to see where people lived deep in the rocks for months on end.
City Under Siege
This small museum just up the hill from the WWII tunnels is in one of the first buildings the British constructed in Gibraltar at the start of the 18th century. The museum is free to enter and has no staff on hand.
There is just a small exhibition showing what life was like for the residents of the territory during the long siege in the 1700s by the French and Spanish forces.
While it is interesting and shows a good insight into this period in the history of Gibraltar, the museum is relatively simple and not worth the effort on its own. It does complement the Great Siege Tunnels and gives a broader understanding.
Great Siege Tunnels
Two centuries before the British built the WWII tunnels as a defence of Gibraltar, they built a much smaller networks of tunnels which are now known as the ‘Great Siege Tunnels’.
The Great Siege lasted from 1779 to 1783 as French and Spanish troops blockaded Gibraltar in an attempt to claim it for themselves.
The tunnels were built into the rock so that holes could be made in the cliffs to mount guns. In the end, it was a decisive element in the victory for the British.
The Great Siege Tunnels are much more polished for tourists than the WWII Tunnels, which are still quite raw. The experience here is simple and can be done without a guide.
The length of the main tunnels has small exhibitions and displays explaining the history and different features.
The ‘apes’ (they’re actually macaques) are hard to avoid when you visit the rock and are the most iconic of the animal species that live here. However, I’m still not quite sure why there is a particular spot on the rock that has been designated as their home, seeing as they roam freely all over the area.
They can be cheeky and even aggressive and you do need to take heed of the warnings not to carry food near them. I saw one of the macaques jump onto the back of a woman and pull a sandwich out of her hand.
If you’re short of time, I don’t think it’s not necessary to visit the Apes’ Den and you’ll probably see them at one of the other sights – especially around St Michael’s Cave.
Windsor Suspension Bridge
The Windsor Suspension Bridge is a more recent tourist attraction, opening in 2016. It’s a 71-metre-long bridge that stretches across a gorge – where the ground is 50 metres below!
It connects two military batteries and is part of a walking trail that goes through the nature reserve. It’s been carefully built so that it doesn’t distract (too much) from the scenery.
And although you can use the Windsor Suspension Bridge to cross the gorge on a hike, I think most people come just for the spectacular views that you get across the city and out to the bay.
St Michael’s Cave
St Michael’s Cave is a true natural wonder and is definitely worth the visit. The main hall of the cave is enormous and has actually been converted into an auditorium for performances with a capacity of about 400 people.
From this section, there are stairs and pathways which allow you to explore other parts of the cave complex. It clearly stretches much further than you can visit and there is even a theory that it connects to a tunnel that you can use to reach Morocco.
Although it only takes 20 minutes or so to walk through the cave complex you could spend much longer to look at all the different sections in detail. A light display continually changes the colours in the main hall area.
Although I keep calling it the Rock of Gibraltar, there’s also another name used here – the Gibraltar Nature Reserve, and that’s because most of the upper area of the rock away from the city is protected.
Many of the main sights on the Rock of Gibraltar are historical, but there’s so much nature to see here too, including more than 300 species of bird that you can find at different times of the year.
A series have trails have been built across the rock that allow you to get amongst the flora and fauna and discover this for yourself. Each trail has its own name and logo, such as the ‘History Buff’ or the ‘Monkey Trail’.
To see some of the stunning landscapes, I would recommend heading out on the ‘Nature Lover’ or the ‘Thrill Seeker’ walks.
The Mediterranean Steps are a hidden gem on the rock and not visited by the majority of tourists. This is partly because you need a moderate level of fitness to explore them properly.
Essentially, this site is a path that has been constructed along the southern and eastern edges of the reserve.
It is a rough path and requires climbing up some very steep steps in parts – but the views are definitely worth it. As well as some wonderful angles of the cliffs, you can get up close with some of the flora and fauna of the territory.
The path starts at the Jews Gate and takes about 2 hours to do a return journey.
At the highest point of the Rock of Gibraltar, you’ll find O’Hara’s Battery, on the site where Charles O’Hara (the Governor of Gibraltar from 1795 to 1802) constructed a tower with the aim of seeing all the way to Cádiz (they couldn’t).
The tower survived until 1888, and later the artillery battery was built here with two cannons used over the years, the second one with a range of about 25 kilometres (easily able to reach North Africa).
It was active during World War II and the last time it was fired was during training exercises in 1976. The site has been refurbished for visitors to see it, who can either walk up or reach it with a taxi tour. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views!
Jews’ Gate Cemetery
At the southern end of the rock is the Jews’ Gate Cemetery, where members of Gibraltar’s Jewish community have been buried since the first Chief Rabbi was laid to rest here in 1746.
There are a number of graves here, some with impressive tomb stones. The last bodies were buried here in 1848, so there’s plenty of heritage protected in the cemetery.
While it’s not one of the most famous sights on the Rock of Gibraltar, it’s a good reminder that there’s a strong multicultural history to the community that’s lived here over the centuries.
Visiting the Rock of Gibraltar
It’s easy enough to visit the Rock of Gibraltar on your own, but there are a few important things to know in advance.
The first is that you’ll have to buy a Nature Reserve pass to access the rock, but it includes entry to all of the attractions that I’ve mentioned.
The Gibraltar Nature Reserve pass costs £18 for adults, £12 for children aged 5-11, and it’s free for children under 5.
The pass is valid for a single day. You can buy it in advance here, or you can just get it on the day at either the Moorish Castle entrance or the Jews’ Gate entrance.
The Gibraltar Nature Reserve is open:
April – October: 9:30 – 19:00
November – March: 9:00 – 18:00
It is closed on 25 December and 1 January.
Another thing to note is that it’s no longer possible to take your own vehicle up onto the rock. Personally, I think walking along the trails is part of the experience, but I appreciate that won’t suit everyone.
If you’re unable to walk long distances, you might prefer to look at some of the tour options I’ll discuss in the next section. To see all the sights is quite tiring and involves a fair amount of uphill.
There’s also the option of taking the cable car to the top, which will save you some of the uphill stretches – although you’ll still need to do quite a bit of walking if you want to see everything.
The return cable car ticket costs £19 for an adult, £17 for a student or senior, and £9 for a child (aged 5-11).
When it comes to seeing all the sights, you can do a loop in either direction. Most people start from the Moorish Castle side, so you might be able to avoid some of the crowds by going the opposite direction. Either way, you’ll find incredible views and the natural landscapes if you walk most of it.
Tours of the Rock of Gibraltar
There’s so much to see and discover on the Rock of Gibraltar, peeling back all those layers of history, finding viewpoints for those epic views, and getting amongst the nature (and perhaps trying to avoid the macaques.
So, if the idea of doing lots of walking is putting you off, please don’t give up on the idea of visiting completely.
There are a few tours run by locals in Gibraltar that will drive you up to the rock and take you between some of the main sights.
If you’re short of time, this 1.5-hour guided tour will take you quickly to all the highlights so you can see the rock. It’s pretty fast, though, so if you’ve got a bit longer, I would recommend this tour instead, where you’ll spend a bit more time at the stops.
Perhaps you’re happy to walk, but you would like to get more insight from a local expert. In that case, I would recommend this great 3-hour walking tour, where the guide will even take you to some special less-visited spots.
There are also some other options here that might suit your plans or interests:
I think it’s worth staying for a night or two in Gibraltar. There’s so much to see here, and so many fun things to learn about Gibraltar.
But I also know you may only be able to visit as a day trip from somewhere else. So, here are some tours that will show you as much as possible in a day.
- From Seville: An affordable option from Seville is this group bus tour, or you could also choose this tour by car.
- From Malaga: It’s an easy two-hour drive from Malaga, so there’s this affordable bus tour, or this private tour.
- From Cádiz: It’s also easy to reach Gibraltar from Cádiz with this lovely private tour.
However you do it, Gibraltar is a fascinating place, a mix of British and Spanish, with some stunning landscapes. The Rock of Gibraltar is the highlight and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN GIBRALTAR
There aren’t many options for accommodation in Gibraltar and none of them are particularly affordable – but here are my top tips.
You won’t find many backpacker options, but Emile Hostel has decent dorm beds.
Probably the cheapest hotel you’ll find that is still clean and comfortable is Bristol Hotel.
For something a bit more upmarket The Rock Hotel is one of the most popular options.
And the best luxury option is actually on a permanently-moored cruise ship at the Sunborn Gibraltar.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Gibraltar Tourist Board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.