Move over Gretna Green – the curious peninsula of Gibraltar is this year’s hottest elopement destination. Couples from all over the world are heading to the British Overseas Territory to tie the knot, thanks to its relative lack of restrictions and after facing various hurdles back home. Whether it’s guest list limits or difficulty in securing permits that’s causing weary couples to steal away, Gibraltar's swift and cheap weddings have become the ‘Plan B’ few expected.
Gibraltar has long been known as an alternative wedding choice – John Lennon and Yoko Ono married here back in 1969. But as the pandemic continues to keep much of the world in a state of semi-closure, its popularity has exploded. Since travel restrictions were lifted in July and the government began to ‘Unlock the Rock’, couples have been flying in to exchanging rings and registry office slots are booked up until the end of November.
Whatever reason you have for visiting the quarantine-free destination, here’s how best to experience its unique charms.
Why go now?
Gibraltar is one of relatively few destinations British holidaymakers can visit without having to quarantine for two weeks on return (for the full list and details of entry restrictions see here; be sure to check current FCDO advice before booking). A good choice for those who want a last blast of sun, temperatures generally stay in the twenties well into October.
One big advantage for visitors is that everyone speaks English – and Gibraltar also packs a huge amount into a very small space. The mere fact of it being a British Overseas Territory attached to Spain is constantly surprising: there’s a pleasing oddness in seeing red British phone boxes dotted among southern classical architecture; in finding a branch of Marks & Spencer just yards from the Mediterranean; and in sipping a pint of bitter while admiring a view of Africa.
Because Gibraltar has been a crucial British military stronghold for more than 300 years, it has a collection of fortifications – again surprising in their prettiness – unlike anywhere else in the world. And despite its tight boundaries, it still has empty spots – beaches and nature reserves – in which you can lose yourself and feel you are a million miles away from one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. There is, literally, nowhere else like it on the planet.
To get away from downtown Gibraltar, head for the Caleta Hotel, on the peninsula’s half-empty east coast. On one side of the hotel are the mammoth limestone cliffs of the Rock of Gibraltar, on the other the beach and the Mediterranean. Double rooms with breakfast cost from £133.
The Rock Hotel is closer to the centre of the action. It was built by the Marquess of Bute in 1932 and is full of old-fashioned charm. A great white art deco colossus, it is perched on the side of a hill above Europa Road, with a peerless view across to Morocco. One afternoon, a Gibraltar monkey (they are strictly tailless monkeys, though often referred to as apes) loped across my balcony as I looked out to sea, cup of tea in hand. Double rooms cost from £95, including breakfast.
Gibraltar’s Main Street is the spine around which the city is wrapped. Walk up and down and you will soon get your bearings. Within the space of an hour you will see most of the important city sights: the Governor’s Residence, the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals and the charming Garrison Library. You will also get a feel for the buzz of Gibraltar life and the warmth of the Gibraltarians.
You will be spoilt for choice in terms of sights, but make sure you pay a visit to the top of the Rock. You can either walk up – the ascent isn’t that steep, but the winding roads take around an hour to traverse – or take the cable car. On the Upper Rock you will see the monkeys everywhere, but don’t be tempted to feed them; they are already very well fed by the authorities. While you are up there, visit St Michael’s Cave, a network of enormous limestone caverns said to be the site of the Underworld in Homer’s Odyssey. Visit, too, the labyrinth of tunnels that thread through the Rock, built by the British over a period of 200 years, with some particularly frantic digging done during the Second World War.
Dolphin tours from the harbour show how wildlife still thrives in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The dolphins swim only a few miles off the coast. There are short-beaked common and striped dolphins and, in summer, bottlenose dolphins and migrating whales. The tours cost £20 per adult, £10 per child.
Gibraltar offers some superb bargains because it is VAT-free. Main Street is the best shopping street, full of familiar high-street brands such as Marks & Spencer, as well as less familiar but intriguing stores with local character. The best independent boutique is Isolabella (211 Main Street), which can equip you both for the beach and for glitzy Mediterranean evenings. For wines, spirits and beers in a charming old-world setting, pay a visit to Lewis Stagnetto (41 Main Street).
Jury’s Café and Wine Bar is right in the buzzing heart of Gibraltar, and always filled with both locals and tourists. Drinks are reasonably priced, too, with wine at around £5 a glass and cocktails for about £10.
For a restaurant with a view, take the cable car to the top of the rock. There you will find the Mons Calpe Suite – try the salmon, the octopus or the good old fish and chips; the three-course set menu costs £35.
It’s worth taking a £10 cab to Europa Point, the southern tip of Gibraltar, with the unexpected sight of the King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud Mosque, a gift from the late Saudi monarch that took two years to build. From this southern vantage point, you can gaze across to North Africa and get a full view of the Bay of Gibraltar and the neighbouring Spanish towns, as well as the Rock of Gibraltar itself.