Mallorca Highlights for Adventurers
Twenty-five years after my first visit to Mallorca, I returned to the Mediterranean island in October with Tony in tow. Like many visitors, my first experience here was a rushed trip spent on the busy tourist beaches near Palma. It was only later, through a German magazine article, that I learnt just how many adventurous activities I had missed. So this time around, I wanted to do it right. During our two weeks on the island, Tony and I set out together to discover the best of what the largest Balearic island has to offer.
During our explorations, we drove over 1,000 kilometers through rugged mountains and past isolated coves, we visited romantic medieval villages and uninhabited islands, we ventured underground and underwater, and we chilled on the island’s secluded beaches. We absolutely fell in love with Mallorca! To help all those island adventurers out there plan their next trip, we’ve compiled a list of experiences you shouldn’t miss.
Walking the old town of Palma
Mallorca’s capital Palma is surprisingly cool. The first thing you’ll notice entering the city is its majestic Gothic cathedral. Famous for Antoni Gaudí’s altar canopy, its gargantuan rose windows, and Miquel Barceló’s modern mud art, it’s quite the eye-catcher. At sunset, the behemoth with its soaring flying buttresses looks like a giant stone arachnid crawling into the ocean.
The entire old city is a work of art. It’s an atmospheric labyrinth of cobbled lanes and grand plazas lined with Gothic palaces, small boutiques, Baroque churches, and cute little cafes and bakeries. Most tourists come to Old Palma for just a short visit, but not Tony and I. We rented a small AirBnB apartment on the pedestrianized tourist thoroughfare smack-dab in the middle of Palma’s architectural wonderland.
Visitors should not miss Palau de l’Almudaina, La Llotja, Palau March, the Arab baths and the monumental city walls. As you wander through the narrow streets taking in the grandeur, look out for tasty ensaïmadas (Mallorcan sugar-dusted pastry swirls) and grab a creamy gelato at the super-friendly Giovanni L. Gelato on Carrer de Jaume II.
And if – in addition to ice cream – you crave a bit more Catalan Modernism and Art Nouveau, there are some gorgeous examples in town including the Caixa Forum, the Can Rei, the Can Casayas and the Moorish-influenced Can Corbella, which was literally next door to our apartment. Castle fans will also want to make the pilgrimage out to the very unique circular Bellver Castle on a hill overlooking the city to enjoy the medieval atmosphere and the epic views.
Checking out Mallorca’s stunning beaches
There is no denying it, most visitors come to Mallorca for the gorgeous beaches. While many of the southern beaches near Palma are overrun with package tourists, beaches further from the capital are still quite idyllic. The further they are from a road and parking, the better they get.
One big exception is Platja des Trenc near Colonia de Sant Jordi, which was one of our favorite beaches on the island. You can roll right into the parking lot, walk through the pine-covered dunes, and step onto the beautiful white sands. Wow! The beach stretches for several kilometers along beautiful turquoise waters and offers several clothing-optional sections for skinny-dipping.
If like your sand with no development whatsoever, try the gorgeous beaches of Cala Mesquida and Cala Torta near Artà, the secluded Platja des Coll Baix near Alcúdia or the stunning Cala Varques south of Porto Cristo. (In Cala Varques, make sure to walk north to the next bay for a chance to watch some amazing free climbers and cliff divers.) Getting to any of these beaches is a bit of a walk, but it’s well worth the workout.
Dining in style at the Michelin-starred restaurant Simply Fosh
They say that sea air makes you hungry. I totally agree. While Mallorca has a great little restaurant scene, it’s worth looking for something extra special. Simply Fosh, Palma’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, is exactly that. British chef Marc Fosh describes his food as a modern, yet simple cuisine with clean tastes and big flavours. That sounded like something we needed to indulge in.
Simply Fosh is housed in a former 17th-century convent on Old Palma’s Calle de la Missio. While you might expect to find a restaurant that matches its historic shell, the interior surprises with a modern, monochrome decor. Also surprising is the simple sophistication of the menus. The restaurant offers a lunch menu and three different dinner menus including a vegetarian option. We went for Simply Fosh’s Menú Simply, its newest addition which we can highly recommend.
The evening started with a brilliant amuse-bouche of pork-filled dumplings with apricot jam, cheese macaroons, and crackers with fried pepper and stingray. A flavorful Mediterranean fish soup was follow by truffled chicken breast on pearl barley served with a house Cabernet Sauvignon. Delicious. Marc also surprised us with a special dish, foie gras with red-cabbage hibiscus jelly, quince and spiced bread. Wow! It came with just the right amount of dots and cubes, and the flavors just melted together beautifully. “Clean tastes and big flavours,” just as he promised.
If you are worried that the vibe of a Michelin-starred restaurant won’t mesh with your casual Mallorca holiday – don’t! Marc Fosh himself made his rounds from table to table in his bright-red sneakers. (We love that!) He and his German wife Iris are very down-to-earth and go out of their way to make sure visitors have a great experience. All in all, four thumbs up! We think there’s definitely a second Michelin star in their future.
Discovering Mallorca underground
One of our biggest discoveries was Mallorca’s amazing cave systems. The grandest and most famous is Las Cuevas del Drach in Porto Cristo. Hourly, self-guided tours take hundreds of visitors on a 1.2-kilometer shuffle through a beautifully lit system of four interconnected caves. Yes, it’s a bit too popular, but for good reason.
Visitors pass through cathedral-like caverns decorated in karst. Huge stalagmites and stalactites grow out of a forest of millions of fragile needle-like straw formations. It’s a virtual jungle of calcium carbonate reflected in serene crystal pools. Tony, who has visited far more of the world’s caves than I have, said it just might be the most spectacular easily accessible cave system he has seen. That’s quite a statement coming from him!
The walk comes to an end at a large underground amphitheater on Lake Martel. Visitors sit in the arena-like setting as the lights drop and four musicians in candle-lit row boats drift in playing classical music. It’s all quite dramatic. To some, the live concert might seem a little corny. To me, it was definitely a highlight of the visit.
Driving Mallorca’s scenic coastal roads
Many beach bums don’t realize this, but Mallorca has some amazing mountain scenery. Mountainous preserves in the north and the stony Serra de Tramuntana range in the west, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offer great opportunities for drivers, hikers and cyclists alike.
One popular outing is the drive from Palma via Sóller to Sa Calobra. Visitors pass through farmland past gorgeous fincas and traditional Mallorcan windmills before heading into the green hills. From there, it’s all switchbacks, spectacular views, and hairpin bends. A short trail at the end of the road leads to Sa Calobra, a photogenic pebble beach framed by two granite peaks like a giant gateway.
Another popular destination is the twisty cliff-side drive through Cap de Formentor at the northernmost tip of the island. Starting from Port de Pollença, the landscape changes dramatically. Razor-edge cliffs and rough limestone peaks jut far out into the azure Mediterranean Sea. The drive ends at the cape’s 19th-century lighthouse. Although traffic jams and limited pullouts can at times be maddening, we both think this is a serious contender for the world’s most gorgeous coastal road.
Immersing yourself in medieval village life
If you are into medieval villages, Mallorca should definitely keep you satisfied. One of the highlights is Artà in the northeast. Pretty stone buildings line the narrow streets, which all lead up to an impressive hilltop fortress. For those Game of Thrones fans, make sure to walk the crenellated 14th-century walls and turrets and enjoy the views over the terracotta rooftops and wooded hills beyond. Need more? Head over to nearby Capdepera, a hidden Mallorca highlight, and climb through the steep winding alleys to the stunning hilltop castle. You almost expect to find Tyrion Lannister lurking in the shadows.
Another must-visit destination is Alcúdia in the north. During our visit, the beautiful old town was an island of quiet calm. (Why wasn’t this place overwhelmed with tourists?!) Within the bulky walls, visitors discover atmospheric lanes and plazas, cute cafes and souvenir shops as well as historic mansions and flower-adorned homes. Other villages worth visiting are bohemian Pollença and western Mallorca’s prettiest towns, artsy Deià and impressive Valdemossa. Both can easily be seen en route from Palma to Sóller.
Exploring Mallorca underwater
The crystal-clear waters around Mallorca make the island the ideal place for a bit of underwater exploration. If you have never dived Mallorca or even the Mediterranean, you might wonder where to start. After a bit of research, we opted for a fun dive at Illa de Sa Dragonera. The uninhabited islet, whose silhouette resembles the back of a dragon, offers 30 dive sites including caves and wrecks. We signed up with Scuba Activa in Sant Elm to dive the “Aquarium,” a dive spot famous for its underwater landscapes and schools of fish. (The steep cliffs above water swarming with birds of prey are also a major attraction.)
With our Dutch dive master Luuk, we explored the seascape of boulders and rock towers, spotted barracuda and moray eels, floated side by side with gropers, and searched for colorful nudibranchs. As Mediterranean coral is a lot more subtle than tropical coral, our focus was mostly on the beautiful landscape and the incredible visibility. We definitely enjoyed our first-ever Mediterranean dive and wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.
If you wonder why we chose German-run Scuba Activa, it was highly rated on Germany’s leading scuba dive forum Taucher.net. Luckily, Mathias the German owner did not disappoint. His Aqua Lung equipment was all in excellent condition, prices were great, dive masters were professional, and communication is super easy in English, Dutch, Spanish or German.
Wandering through prehistoric talayots
If medieval villages aren’t old enough for you, Mallorca has some amazing ancient treasures up its archaeological sleeve. The island boasts several cool Talayotic settlements dating back to the Bronze Age between 1,300 – 900 BC. Two of the most famous sites are Ses Païsses on the outskirts of Artà and Capocorb Vell between Llucmajor and Cap Blanc. For history buffs, these megalithic compounds are well worth a visit.
Tony and I visited Capocorb Vell en route to Es Trenc beach. The ancient village is made up of 28 interconnected dwellings as well as three circular and two square talayots or watchtowers. Scientific digs were done in the early 20th century, but it has never been conclusively decided whether these towers were used for defensive or ritual purposes. It’s quite a sizeable settlement despite the fact that only half the site has been excavated. Definitely a place for Indiana-Jones-wannabes! We also enjoyed relaxing with a cold drink in the owner’s cafe which seems to double as a VERY local hang out.
Visiting the uninhabited Cabrera Island National Park
There’s only one national park in the Balearic Islands, the small Cabrera archipelago 16 kilometers off the southern coast of Mallorca. If you’re interested in seeing one of the best preserved coastal landscapes in Spain, this is for you. But unless you happen to be sailing around Mallorca in your own private yacht, the only way to get there is on an organized cruise. We chose to explore the park with Mar Cabrera based in Colonia de Sant Jordi.
The full-day cruise includes a stop at Es Burri Cove for a cool dip in the crystal-blue waters before continuing around Cabrera Island past steep cliffs and sculpted stone islets. Although the park is made up of 19 islands, visitors can only step foot on Illa de Cabrera. The dry hilly isle is highly protected, almost overprotected, so hiking options are quite restricted. The most obvious path leads up to the restored 14th-century castle with epic views over the turquoise bay below. And for non-hikers, there are a few sheltered beaches and relaxed snorkeling.
On the way back to Mallorca, the boat makes one final stop at the Blue Grotto, a cave hidden in the island’s steep walls. Incredibly, our large motorboat navigated through the narrow cave entrance to allow snorkelers to dive into the water which literally glows a surreal shade of incandescent blue from the sunlight filtering in. You definitely don’t want to miss this!
Experiencing the Palma Aquarium
For anyone who isn’t a scuba diver or snorkeler but is interested in coral and underwater creatures, the family-friendly Palma Aquarium is a great place to visit. The marine park features 8,000 animals in 55 tanks of salt water. There’s definitely something for everyone.
We spent three hours exploring all the different zones, tanks and tunnels. The self-guided tour takes you through the Mediterranean Sea introducing the local marine life such as lobsters, scorpion fish, and seahorses. If you are looking for colorful clownfish and live coral, head to the Tropical Seas exhibit. The Palma Aquarium is actually a global leader in coral reproduction, which is quite impressive. Also check out the cute baby cuttlefish in Micromundo, the bulbous red devil cichlids in the Amazon jungle exhibit, and the large hawksbill sea turtles in the outdoor area. All very cool.
If you like the bigger stuff, head to the Big Blue exhibit where you come face to face with fierce-looking sandbar and sand tiger sharks. Visitors can actually dive with the sharks for an extra fee or stay dry and observe them from a glass tunnel and large port holes. Our favorite way of shark-watching was definitely lazing in front of the enclosure on comfy floor pillows.
Thanks to Natalia for a great AirBnB stay in Old Palma
We absolutely loved Natalia’s 1-bedroom AirBnB apartment in Old Palma. All I can say is location, location, location. We were 10 minutes from the cathedral and Plaça d’Espanya, and only a few minutes from Plaça Major. Surprisingly, our second-floor apartment was really quiet, especially after 9 pm when foot traffic died down in the pedestrian zone.
I also have to say, this was one of our favorite AirBnB apartments so far. Natalia, who manages all four apartments in the building, was super friendly and helpful and provided lots of information on Mallorca. The apartment was extremely well equipped with a washing machine and dryer, an ironing board and iron, plenty of dishes, pots and pans, as well as lots of fluffy towels, pillows and blankets. Natalia has also added many artsy touches and even provided a handy beach umbrella.
Visitors wanting to rent a car need to know that rentals are super cheap but parking in Old Palma can be difficult and quite expensive (around 1.80 Euro/hour). Natalia recommended we look north of Plaça d’Espanya for free parking. We did manage to find parking every day for a week on Carrer Jacint Verdaguer. Thanks Natalia for all the helpful tips and a wonderful stay in Palma.