My best friend is Gibraltarian and I’ve been going to visit her a couple of times a year for about 15 years, first as a student staying in a hostel and more recently in nice hotels with my wife. I love everything about it. What I see is not the stereotype of little England in the sun. Yes, there are sports bars and you’re never more than 10 feet away from a roast dinner on a Sunday. And OK, there’s an M&S on Main Street, red postboxes and policemen wearing bobby hats.
But there’s also a very deep and diverse culture, and very little prejudice. As well as an Anglican and a Catholic cathedral, and churches of all denominations, there are four synagogues, two mosques and a Hindu temple. The fantastic Ibrahim al Ibrahim Mosque, by the lighthouse at Europa Point, looks straight across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Rif mountains in Morocco. And the people are genuinely welcoming to visitors – there is such a friendly atmosphere. Being in Gib is like having a big hug!
I’m a chef, so the food is a big draw. It’s such a melting pot of different cuisines. Sacarello’s is the Gib Starbucks. It’s a family-run coffee shop in the former warehouse of an old merchant’s house. Like many Gibraltarian businesses, it was founded by 19th-century immigrants from northern Italy. The owners roast their own coffee and do nice lunches: fresh salads, specials that change three times a week, and fish on Wednesdays.
I go to Cafe Modelo, a little Spanish cafe in Grand Casemates Square (one of the two main squares), for elevenses. It too does great coffee, and I also recommend the amaretto on ice: the waiter brings a glass with huge ice cubes and the bottle to your table and free-pours – no stingy British measures!
Amar’s Bakery is a Jewish bakery that has been doing great bagels since 1820. The Kasbar is an organic, plant-based cafe where you can get yourself a healthy shake. They also have acoustic sets with local musicians on Saturday nights.
For tapas, it has to be La Tapilla Sixtina, which serves hot and cold pintxos, really good charcuterie, great octopus, grilled iberico pork … The service is really good, too – when I went for a second time, months later, the waiter remembered which wine I’d been drinking on my first visit.
The Dolphin in Rosia Bay is fantastic for seafood. All fish is locally caught, and the calamari and prawns are amazing. We go for the Sunday night seafood paella or arroz negro, and watch the sun setting over Africa.
At 4 Stagione you really feel like you’re in the Mediterranean. It’s a rustic Italian where you eat under the vine leaves in the courtyard. It is close to the Alameda Gardens, Gibraltar’s botanic gardens, which is lovely for a shady walk.
Ocean Village is one of the newer developments on Gibraltar, and is mostly home to chain restaurants. However, it also has an authentic Indian restaurant called Little Bay. It’s my favourite – even though I’ve got Manchester’s Curry Mile down the road at home! It’s always busy, but that means you can have a cocktail at the bar while you wait. The cocktail list is fantastic, or you can just tell the staff what you like and they’ll make you a bespoke drink.
Taste of Marrakech is on my list for my next visit – friends have told me it’s the best Moroccan restaurant, with great tagines.
For drinks, My Wines has regular wine tastings and live music on the roof terrace on Friday nights – it’s another good sunset spot. And the nearby Spirit of the Rock is the only gin distillery in Gibraltar, which does tours and tastings.
We often start the day on one beach and move to another, because the Rock is so steep it casts its shadow over different areas throughout the day. You can ride the bus all day for about 70p, so it’s easy to beach hop. On the Atlantic side, El Quarry, or Camp Bay, has an outdoor pool in a former quarry, a rocky beach and great swimming, snorkelling and diving – there are 11 wrecks in the bay.
On the Mediterranean side, where the water is noticeably warmer, my favourite is Sandy Bay. We had the beach to ourselves in October, when it is too cold for the locals but feels like summer to Brits. The activity company In2adventures is based here – I’ve been paddleboarding with them, and they also do hydrofoiling (riding a jet-propelled surfboard) and coasteering (a combination of ziplining, climbing, scrambling, jumping, abseiling and swimming).
La Caleta, or Catalan Bay, is stunning, and the houses are all different colours and built into the rocks, so looking back at the village from the beach it looks like Balamory. The villagers are mainly descendants of Genoese fishermen who settled here in the 17th and 18th centuries, and fishermen still set out from here to get the day’s catch. There are a couple of little restaurants serving fresh fish and tapas.
Eastern Beach, Gibraltar’s biggest, is right next to the airport runway so you can see planes taking off as you sunbathe. There are a couple of beach bars serving tinto de verano (similar to sangria) for £2.
Common, bottlenose and striped dolphins can be seen almost every day in the bay and the Strait. I went out on a friend’s boat and saw loads of them, as well as massive tuna swimming alongside. Three companies offer dolphin-spotting trips.
My favourite walk is up the Castle Steps just off Main Street to the top of the Rock. It’s hard, but it’s a great hangover cure or Sunday stroll. The Upper Rock is a nature reserve, and also Gibraltar’s version of the Hollywood Hills. You can also take the cable car up – the restaurant at the top, Mons Calpe Suite, has floor-to-ceiling windows giving panoramic views of the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Spain and Africa. Come down via the Mediterranean Steps, part of the Gorham’s Cave Complex, which is a world heritage site.
There are some great sights on the Upper Rock. St Michael’s Cave is absolutely incredible. It is a network of limestone caves, and the biggest – Cathedral Cave – is now a concert venue with amazing acoustics. The World War II Tunnels are like an underground city, complete with a hospital – you could spend the whole day there. The Nature Reserve Pass (£13 adults, £8 children, under-fives free) gets you into these and other attractions, from the ancient Moorish Castle to the modern Skywalk and Suspension Bridge.
My hostel days are over. These days, I splash out on the Sunborn, a five-star yacht hotel (doubles from about £200), but there are more affordable options, such as the 1930s art deco Rock Hotel (doubles from £115).
I’m going back to Gib in three weeks’ time. There is always something to bring me back, whether it’s the good food, the warmth of the people or the sun – and it’s always sunny in Gibraltar!
• Rachel Stockley is the head chef at Baratxuri, Ramsbottom