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A visitors’ guide to Gibraltar

Picture an English town transplanted to the Mediterranean and you will know what to expect when you arrive in Gibraltar: red, double-decker busses, helmeted police “bobbies” walking the beat, and the familiar lilt of British accents set against palm trees and sparkling Mediterranean sunshine. English-speaking visitors will enjoy Gibraltar’s familiar language, customs, and dress while being delighted with the natural beauty and multi-cultural charm of this British overseas territory.

Gibraltar is small enough to be seen in a day (it’s less than 3 square miles in size) and the city offers a variety of activities to satisfy discriminating travelers. The maze of tunnels cut into the mountainside will thrill adventurous spirits. For visitors seeking nature’s beauty, Gibraltar offers sandy beaches, stunning geological features, captivating flora and fauna, and spectacular views. Abundant duty and tax-free shopping, easy transportation options, and accessible public services make Gibraltar a delight for any visitor.

Practicalities

Gibraltar is in the Central European Time Zone(CET), which is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time; two hours ahead from March to October. English is the official language but Spanish and Arabic are heard as well. Astute observers will occasionally hear a local dialect called Llanito, which is Spanish peppered with English, Arabic, and Hebrew words. No vaccinations are required to travel to Gibraltar and the water is chlorinated and drinkable.

The Gibraltar Pound is the standard currency and is on par with the British Pound Sterling at a one-to-one exchange rate. Coinage is issued in the same denominations as British coinage. You will have more spending flexibility if you shop using British Pounds rather than Dollars or Euros due to the favorable exchange rate. Most shops and services also accept Euros and US dollars but at a higher exchange rate. Travelers often prefer to obtain cash by using one of the many ATM locations around the city. If you receive Gibraltar Pounds at the ATM, be aware that they are not useable in the UK. Traveler’s checks are also widely accepted, but to get the most advantageous exchange rate, have the checks issued in British Pounds Sterling. Banks are open Monday through Thursday from 9AM until 3:30 PM and Fridays from 9:30AM until 4:30PM.

Prepare for your day in Gibraltar by dressing appropriately. Regardless of the season, wear comfortable walking shoes. Since Gibraltar is bordered on three sides by water, mornings and evenings can be chilly, so it is best to layer your clothing so that items can be removed as the day warms up and put back on as evening arrives. In the summer, shorts or cotton trousers are advised. The mid-day Mediterranean summer sun can be brutal, so wear long sleeves and a hat or lots of sunscreen if you burn easily. In the winter, a jacket is advisable at all times.

You will not need your travel documents while ashore in Gibraltar, so leave them in the safe deposit box in your cabin. You will, however, need your ship identification to get on and off the ship. Gibraltar is densely populated; there are over 27,000 residents, plus international visitors and day-trippers from across the northern border in Spain. Be wary of your valuables; pickpockets are common in crowded areas. Do not show your money in public. The Royal Gibraltar Police advises visitors to keep cash and credit cards in several different pockets, your wallets out of sight, and purses at close hand.

Cruise ships berth alongside the Cruise Terminal on the west side of Gibraltar. Communicating with your loved ones is easy in Gibraltar. Within a few minutes walk from the ship you will find telephones, postal services, and internet access. The terminal itself offers international telephones, a tourism information office, and other amenities. There is a Wi-Fi hot-spot located on nearby QueensWay quay, and there are other hot spots available around the city. The Main Post Office is located on Main Street, about one-half mile from the cruise terminal. Gibraltar has a modern telecommunication system which supports land lines and cellular service, including cellular roaming. The emergency phone number in Gibraltar is 112. The international calling code for Gibraltar is +350; the outgoing call code is 00 followed by the relevant country code. City codes are not required.

Gibraltar is compact enough to explore solely on foot, but for those who prefer to ride, shuttles are available at the cruise terminal and taxis are commonplace. There is also an excellent public bus service. The city is dissected into four bus routes, and service is available every fifteen minutes. Gibraltar busses are handicapped accessible and great for parents with baby strollers and shoppers with lots of packages. Car rental is available, but not recommended for cruise passengers because of the difficulty in finding parking.

Gibraltar’s Main Street, about a fifteen minute walk from the cruise terminal, is pedestrian-friendly and a delightful place to shop and eat. Shopping there is a traveler’s dream: there is no VAT or sales tax and the shops are duty-free. Consequently, there are bargains to be found in electronics, cameras, porcelain, china, wine, spirits, jewelry, cosmetics and clothing. Shops in Gibraltar generally open at 9AM Monday through Saturday and close at 6PM on weekdays. Shops usually close mid-afternoon on Saturdays; very few shops are open on Sundays. Some of the larger department stores offer late-night shopping on Thursdays. Gibraltar shops are a mix of some of Britain’s premier retailers and small local boutiques. You will find such names as Marks & Spencer, Dorothy Perkins, Morrison’s Super Store and BHS.

Service fees will not be added to your restaurant bills and taxi fares, so tipping is necessary. Usually, acceptable tips are ten percent on bills under ten pounds and five percent of bills over ten pounds.

History

The history of Gibraltar is best summarized by a careful look at the flag and the Coat of Arms of Gibraltar. On each you will see a red castle with a key at the central gate. The castle represents the Fortress of the Rock of Gibraltar; the key indicates Gibraltar’s key position to entering and leaving the Mediterranean Sea. Gibraltar has held this important strategic position since it was first “discovered” by the Phoenicians around 3000 BC. All the cultures that have risen to power in the Mediterranean: the Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, and Europeans, have fought to capture and hold the Fortress of Gibraltar in order that they might control the gateway between two seas and two continents.

In Greek legend, Homer writes of “The Pillars of Hercules” which were located at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. The exact location of the second pillar on the African coast is in dispute, but it is generally agreed that the Rock of Gibraltar was one of the two pillars. In ancient times, the Pillars of Hercules were the westernmost boundary of the known world.

Some historians believe that the Phoenician’s arrival in Gibraltar is what moved the ancient world from the Copper Age into the Bronze Age. The Phoenicians were remarkable sailors and traders. In ancient times, the Phoenicians lived on the coast of today’s Syria at the east end of the Mediterranean. They traded in lumber, silk, and glass along the Mediterranean and North African coasts.

Eventually, the Phoenicians braved passage through the Strait of Gibraltar and explored the Atlantic coast of Europe. There they found a civilization that worked mainly in tin. Combining tin with copper, metalsmiths created bronze, which was harder than copper and made better tools and weapons. The Iberian Peninsula, of which Gibraltar is a part, thus became the center of bronze production in the ancient world.

The importance of the development of bronze cannot be overstated. In modern times, the invention of gunpowder changed the face of warfare forever; the same is true regarding the development of bronze. Ancient armies that possessed bronze weapons would have a distinct advantage over their enemies. So important was this supply of tin for the making of bronze weapons and tools that the Phoenicians named northwestern France “Barra-Tannica” meaning “land of tin”. Barra-Tannica became what we know today as Brittany. Whoever controlled access to the supply of tin would become wealthy. Whoever controlled Gibraltar controlled access to the tin supply. The nation that controlled Gibraltar would become the most powerful nation in the Mediterranean. Nations would go to war for such an advantage. The military history of Gibraltar was about to begin.

For the next thousand years, control of Gibraltar changed hands repeatedly. The Phoenicians gave way to the Carthaginians, then the Romans, then the Vandals and Visigoths. Making a permanent settlement in Gibraltar was difficult, because there was no source of fresh water; there are no rivers or lakes in Gibraltar. Water for drinking and cooking was acquired by capturing rainwater. (Even today, the government of Gibraltar reclaims rainwater for public use. The remainder of the public water supply today is made up of de-salinized seawater.)

In 711 AD, the armies of Islam (the Moors), having conquered and converted most of North Africa, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to begin their conquest of Iberia. The Muslim forces were led by general Tariq ibn-Ziyad. The geological formation that we know as the Rock of Gibraltar is named for this general. The Moors named the mountain Jabal Tariq, or “mountain of Tariq”, and Gibraltar is a derivation of Jabal Tariq.

The Moors ruled Iberia for seven hundred years. As is the case with all conquered peoples, the Spanish population resisted domination. The Spaniards were Christians, and domination by Muslim overlords was consistently resisted. Finally, in 1462, just thirty years before Columbus discovered America, the Duke of Sidonia led the Spanish forces to victory over the Moors. Gibraltar was under the control of Spain for the next two hundred and forty-two years.

During the years Spain controlled Gibraltar, Europe stayed in turmoil. The Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant Revolution, and wars of royal succession kept armies busy and the Strait of Gibraltar in constant use. Shipping through the Strait was regularly plundered by pirates from the Barbary Coast of Africa. Conflicts frequently arose between the navies of Spain, England, and Holland over piracy issues. When Charles II of Spain died without an heir in 1700, the balance of power on the continent was threatened, and the War of Spanish Succession began. Gibraltar’s strategic position was an asset coveted by both sides of the conflict. Fighting for control of Gibraltar was constant during the four year war.

When the fighting stopped in the War of Spanish Succession, the political positioning began. Ultimately, the French Prince Phillip was declared the King of Spain. Various territorial exchanges were agreed upon, and Great Britain in 1704 gained control of Gibraltar. Three hundred years later, they are still in control.

Gibraltar has proven to be a supreme strategic asset to Great Britain over the years. During the Napoleonic war, Gibraltar became an important base for the royal Navy, and played a key role prior to the Battle of Trafalgar. When the Suez Canal was completed, accessing the canal by sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar greatly shortened the route to the British Empire east of the canal. During World War II, Gibraltar played a key role in limiting Nazi access to North Africa.

Despite ongoing tensions with Spain, the population of Gibraltar has steadfastly remained loyal to Great Britain. In 2006, a new Constitution Order was approved by Gibraltarians and the British government, granting residents of Gibraltar full British citizenship. Citizens of Gibraltar have all the rights and privileges afforded British citizens, including freedom of religion.

General Interest

Food & Drink

The multi-ethnic makeup of Gibraltar assures a wide range of food choice. The most common food offering is British “pub-style” food, with an emphasis on fish & chips. Fast food fanciers will find McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut right on Main Street. Running parallel to Main Street is Irish Town, where one can partake of a Guinness and a big serving of Shepherd’s Pie or corned beef and cabbage. Diners looking for more than British and American meat-and-potatoes will find restaurants that specialize in Moroccan, North African, and Mediterranean cuisines. The dish local to Gibraltar is called Calentita, made from chickpeas. Calentita became popular during the Great Siege and has remained a local favorite. Italian, Spanish, Argentinean, Kosher, and Vegetarian meals are also offered. A wide range of international wines and beers are available at most locations.

Entertainment

Gibraltar is a melting pot of many cultures, and these cultural influences shine forth in the music and entertainment of Gibraltar. The Gibraltar Song Festival, supported by the British Academy of Music, attracts singers and song writers from the UK, Spain, Australia, Portugal and as far away as Chile, Brazil, Colombia, the US and Australia. The energy created by this musical event has carried over into the local music scene. Talented musicians from around the world can be heard playing in the local pubs, hotels, and outdoor venues.

Gambling enthusiasts will find that there is no shortage of gaming in Gibraltar. Casino table games, poker, slots, bingo, and sports betting are all available. Gibraltar’s Gala Casino offers gaming instruction for beginners and live poker challenges for seasoned pros. The most common venues for sporting events in Gibraltar are the Victoria Stadium and the Tercentenary Sports Center. Gibraltar fields international teams in Cricket and Football-Soccer. Rugby is popular, and there are many local teams. Gibraltar recognizes eighteen local sports associations, and has organized a committee to pursue entrance into the Olympics.

Gibraltar has a dynamic theatrical scene, offering music, movies, and live theater. The Open Air Theatre opens for special performances and concerts. The Theatre Royale, originally opened in 1847 as a concert and opera venue, has recently been restored and is open to the public. Moviegoers can choose from the Prince of Wales Cinema, Queen’s Cinema, and the Regal Cinema.

Key Attractions

Great Siege Tunnels

The Great Siege Tunnels are a “must-see” for visitors to Gibraltar. During the American War for Independence, France and Spain laid siege to Gibraltar for four years (1779-1783) in an attempt to re-capture it from the British. In order to move their cannon to the opposite side of the mountain, the British decided to tunnel through the rock. With picks, shovels, and dynamite, the soldiers tunneled for about eighty-two feet before being overcome by dust and fumes. When a hole was cut through the rock for ventilation, they discovered the hole was perfectly placed for cannon. More tunnels were then dug for gun batteries. By the end of WWII the British had completed more than thirty miles of tunnels inside the mountain containing everything from fancy staterooms for officers to enlisted men’s barracks.

Gibraltar Museum

The best two pounds you can spend in Gibraltar is the entrance fee to the Gibraltar Museum, located just off Main Street. Start your museum tour by watching a short film on the geology of Gibraltar, and then visit the exhibits which chronicle thousands of years of history. See displays of the Neanderthals who originally inhabited the caves of Gibraltar, visit the Moorish Baths, then see the display of enormous oyster shells from the Roman period, and finish by enjoying the 245 year-old 1:600 scale model of The Rock.

Apes Den

The Apes Den is arguably the favorite attraction for visitors to Gibraltar. The Den is home to the tailless Barbary Macaques, who are tourist-friendly and very entertaining. Be careful not to feed them, though; there is a five-hundred pound fine for doing so. The Den is located on the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, on the route between the top of The Rock and St. Michaels Cave

Europa Point

Visitors who have come to stand at the top of The Rock and take in her views must surely visit Europa Point. Located at the top of The Rock at the southernmost tip of Gibraltar, Europa Point is a flat area containing a Church, a mosque, a lighthouse, and a playing field. On a clear day, one can see Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as the Bay of Gibraltar and Spanish towns along the coastline. Hardy souls may choose to walk, but most visitors travel to the top by cable car.

St Michaels Cave

On the south side of The Rock, the mountain is riddled with more than 150 caves, once home to a population of Neanderthals. The most popular of these caves is St. Michaels Cave, which receives almost one million visitors per year. This popular cave contains awe-inspiring display of stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is named after a similar cave in Italy, where the archangel Michael is said to have appeared. Transportation by cable car is available.

Quirky Facts

Gibraltar’s only airstrip has a major road running through it. The road must be barricaded for planes taking off and landing.

There are no golf courses on Gibraltar.

The word “gibberish” derives from the eclectic mix of English, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic spoken by some residents of Gibraltar.