How to get to Gibraltar & what to see: monkeys, castles & caves

It’s not often you can stand in the middle of an airport runway, completely unmolested, letting the sea wind blow your hair.

But there I was, feet firmly planted in the middle of the tarmac of Gibraltar International Airport, as dozens of people streamed by me, and four lanes of traffic whizzed past over the runway.

Rather unexpectedly, walking (or driving) 80 meters across an international airport runway is the only way to access this British Overseas Territory.

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Visiting Gibraltar

Gibraltar is a tiny spit of rocky land but its historical significance is as massive as it’s namesake peak, the 400 metre tall Rock of Gibraltar. At just under 7 kilometers square (2.6 sq mi) it’s been a small but strategic — and coveted — location for millennia.

One of the world’s most extreme airports, that’s also a highway

Because it’s so small, the only place to put the airport meant that it had to share space with a causeway for traffic and pedestrians. So when one of the two to four international flights arrives each day, small wooden gates stop traffic for about 10 minutes, pedestrians are herded behind barricades, and a street sweeper comes out to vacuum any debris from the runway surface.

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A British Airways plane landing at Gibraltar airport

Minutes later, a British Airways Airbus A320 (Flight BA 490, if you’re an aviation geek) screams down onto the tarmac, rolling right over where we’d just walked. Two minutes later, a whistle blows and cars, mopeds and pedestrians flood back across the runway. I mean walkway.

Amazing.

It’s the only airport in the world that I know of that shares space with cars and foot traffic.

Crossing Gibraltar runway

The Rock: Strategic and stunning

The British territory known as The Rock to its 34,000 residents, has been coveted real estate for thousands of years, since it controls access to and from the Mediterranean Sea, which is only eight kilometres wide here.

Named for an Arab conqueror Jabal Tariq in about the year 711, the 400 metre peak’s name translates roughly to Jabal’s Mountain, Jabaltar, or Gibraltar. The Rock has also been referred to as the Pillars of Hercules.

It changed hands numerous times over centuries; Phoenicians, Greeks, Moors, and Spaniards all laid claim to this strategic location, but in recent history, the Brits have held onto it. Who truly owns Gibraltar is a sore spot to this day. The long and varied history might explain the multinational population living on this promontory today.

“We are whites, blacks, Spanish, French, Arabs, gay, and straight. And we all live here peacefully in Gibraltar together. We don’t understand why the rest of the world can’t do the same,” says Robert Holgado, a tour guide with Visit Gibraltar.

We met Holgado accidentally, after wandering into a small plaza, looking for a taxi to take us to some World War Two tunnels we wanted to explore.

It seems that in Gibraltar, there are no taxis. Well, I’m sure there probably are, but during our entire six hour stay on The Rock, we didn’t see a single one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We planned on a quick drive over to Gibraltar en route from Malaga to Jerez, Spain. But what started as a quick visit turned into a surprising day-long adventure.

Don’t drive to Gibraltar

We assumed we could simply drive to Gibraltar, but some quick Google searching told us this is the worst idea ever.

Gibraltar, as mentioned above is just a couple of square kilometres. It’s only got about 26 kilometres of roads, so as you can imagine parking is extremely limited. Parking in the wrong place has also been known to get you ‘booted’, where large steel blocks are affixed to your wheels and cost a pretty penny to have removed.

So, just don’t try to drive to Gibraltar. There’s an easier way.

How to get to Gibraltar

There are several public parking lots and underground garages in La Linea, the Spanish town adjacent to Gibraltar. If you set your GPS for the Gibraltar airport, you’ll pass several on your way; just look for the signs. Parking for most of the day cost us just under €20.

gibraltar airport gibralter runway walk traffic how to what to monkeys macaques, sightsWith your car safely parked, you’ll walk over the international border into Gibraltar. It’s an easy 5-10 minute walk depending on the parking lot you choose, and it’s perfectly flat.

Cursory border security

The border crossing is more theatre than security. We showed our passports to both Spanish officials and Brits, and neither of them scrutinized them for more than a second. They weren’t scanned and we weren’t asked any questions, nor were we requested to use the baggage scanners that were inside the building. In seconds we were on our way.

That took us to the first surprise about Gibraltar, the aforementioned airport runway-walkway.

Entering old town Gibraltar

Walking from the airport, you’ll weave your way into the old town. There’s a large plaza packed with British Pubs and international fast food. The architecture is reminiscent of old London, and the theme continues onto a main shopping street, flush with international stores.

What to do in Gibraltar

You can shop, yes, but the stores feature stuff you’d find just about anywhere in Europe. The advantage is the purchases are duty-free.

Focus instead on seeing the amazing sights; steel yourself for a lot of walking and climbing, since the town itself clambers up the side of The Rock where it doesn’t have too to spread towards the sea.

Trust me: Do the tour option instead of the Cable Car

We ended up buying a tour package, since it was rather economical to have a driver take us to see all the top sights (no mountain climbing required). We found our tour accidentally. We wandered into a plaza off the shopping street and saw a bunch of minibusses with taxi signs in the windows, all parked. Thinking we could hire one for a lift, we asked one of the drivers, who told us he worked for a tour company, and introduced us to the tour leader.

It was here we learned the cost of using the Gibraltar Cable Car to get to the top is about €14.50, round trip. You’ll pay extra to see the various attractions once you’re up there, not to mention you’ll have to navigate the confusing, steep and very narrow mountain roads on foot, dodging minibuses the whole way.

Instead we paid €35 each for a two hour driving tour, with ticket access to St Michael’s Cave, and The Great Siege Tunnels, plus a trip to see the macaques included. A bargain, as far as I’m concerned.

Since the tunnels weren’t a part of our tour, per say, we had the driver leave us there so we could explore at length, and we walked down the City Steps to Main Street afterwards, about 15 minutes climbing steep but decently maintained stairs down through local neighbourhoods.

It’s worth noting, these tours seem to be somewhat customizable, since another couple in our minibus only wanted to see the macaques and had paid €20 for the trip. Talk to the tour folks and let them know what you want, then agree on a price.

What to see in Gibraltar

Pillars of Hercules

Our first stop is the Pillars of Hercules, a scenic viewpoint over the Atlantic Ocean side of Gibraltar. After a few minutes of sightseeing and taking photos in front of a small, and somewhat unattractive monument, we move on.

St Michael’s Cave

gibraltar airport gibralter runway walk traffic how to what to monkeys macaques, sightsThis was part of our tour, but it wasn’t something we’d looked into or knew what to expect, so it was a lovely surprise.

St Michael’s Cave is a massive underground cavern. It’s covered in stalagmites and stalactites and has most recently been converted into a lovely natural auditorium.

Cleverly, the Gibraltar government has installed massive amounts of lighting, and a cute sound and light show plays as you explore. The coloured lights are a really cool effect on the rock and it makes for some amazing photographs, though it wold be nice to be able to enjoy the cave in more natural light too.

The cave consists of an Upper Hall, which leads to a series of narrow holes and chambers, reaching a depth of some 250 feet (62.5m) below the entrance. You’ll be in and out in 25 minutes.

Gibraltar’s monkeys: Barbary macaques

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A short drive up the road from the cave, we reach a roadblock of sorts. Dozens of minibuses are all parked on the single lane road that runs along the spine of the Rock of Gibraltar. It’s here that dozens of Barbary macaques roam across the road, and begin clambering onto the vehicles.

The macaques are quite docile, but many of them tug at the pant legs of our driver/guide, begging for peanuts or fruit which they’ve clearly brought to lure the fauna for the tourists.

The macaques will sit quietly and don’t seem to mind being photographed or oggled. Occasionally the shriek of a visitor lets us know one of the primates has leapt onto their back in hopes of finding a snack. Or maybe they get a kick out of shocking the tourists.

Watching these tail-less monkeys pose, and groom each other — a significant passtime — is a treat. They’re beautiful creatures with rather human features.

After about 30 minutes, the bottleneck abates and we’re delivered to our last destination.

Great Siege Tunnels

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Dating back to the 1700’s these tunnels were blasted into the heart of The Rock by the British, who were trying to find a way to get a more strategic defensive point over their territory. They managed to blast a battlement point out the back of The Rock of Gibraltar, and ensure their enemies, the combined forces of the French and the Spanish, couldn’t surprise them.

The tunnels are surprisingly tall in places, and cavernous rooms were created for storing munitions, and for laying in wait.

The tour is self-guided, with signage throughout, and it’s easily done in about 30-45 minutes. Some info we read suggests you must buy a ticket in advance to the tunnels, so it’s just as well we had our guided tour handle that for us, since we’d made no advance plans.

Below the tunnels, there’s a ruined battery you can walk through. Princess Caroline’s Battery saw action in the Great Siege and was also equipped during World War Two. The guns are still there, along with some ruined buildings.

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Moorish Castle

No territory in this part of the world would be complete without an ancient Moorish stronghold.

The Moorish Castle here is small but charming. It’s primary attraction is the large tower, which is easily visible from the airport and old town. Inside are the remains of living quarters and an Arab bath. It’s a quick visit, and you can easily climb to the top and take in the views.

Gibraltar is a charming and easy day trip

After our unexpectedly lengthy visit, we were thoroughly charmed by Gibraltar. A quick crossing back to mainland Spain was held up by the arrival of another plane, which we got to watch land up close — another treat.

After more perfunctory flashes of our passports to nonplussed guards, were were on our way back across the Spanish countryside.

Know before you go: Gibraltar

  • Taxis are few and far between. Plan to walk and climb a LOT, or book a tour.
  • Do not try to drive onto Gibraltar. Yes, you certainly can cross easily enough, but there’s no parking once you’re there and you’ll spend a lot of time looking for what’s not there.
  • Use the public parking lots and undergrounds in La Linea. They’re safe, easy and relatively inexpensive.
  • Know your crossing to or from The Rock may be delayed by air traffic getting priority over the runway.