Smaller than its neighbours and sweet as a nut, Menorca is considered by many travel aficionados to be the jewel of the Balearic Islands – if you like your fun in the sun a little more low-key that is. Holidays in Menorca are very much in fashion for those who seek authentic travel experiences and that’s a trend that’s very much on the up and up.
This natural gem of an island is reaping the rewards of its stalwart refusal to allow anything like the levels of large-scale and high-rise commercial building works that have changed the face of so many areas of Mallorca and Ibiza beyond recognition.
The fact that Menorca was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1993 and has since continued its passionate commitment to conservation and the protection of all aspects of the environment for both the local population and its nature and wildlife, has become a major selling point.
Its picturesque towns and rural areas retain their traditional Spanish charms, while top restaurants and the best hotels in Menorca exude a unique blend of Menorcan warmth and hospitality – as well as delivering innovative experiences and modern creature comforts.
While most UK travellers think of Menorca just as being a safe and sweet spot for a traditional ‘bucket-and-spade’ style family break, this belies the myriad cultural attractions Menorca offers beyond its golden sands. Beautiful beaches come as standard; the island’s little cultural gems are both an added bonus and a charming surprise.
Ciutadella Old Town
Get ready to walk back in time to another world. Ciutadella is Menorca’s ‘Old Town’ and it was formerly the capital of the island during Roman Times before Mahón became the big city. Here, anyone with a passion for history will fall in love with its stunning architecture and its labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets. Located on the western tip of Menorca, Ciutadella is a picture-perfect haven and escape from modern life.
Wander around and you’ll discover pretty sun-splashed plazas surrounded by elegant townhouses and Mediterranean-style architecture that leads down to a small harbour. The must-see highlights? The first stop has to be the impressive Santa Maria Cathedral – it’s hard to miss it. Built in the 13th century on the site of an old mosque, it still has part of the minuret within its walls, making it an intriguing blend of cultures and designs. The interior features an arresting marble altar and intricately carved columns.
The main town square, Placa d’es Born, is not only the island’s most beautiful, it is also considered to be one of the loveliest in all Spain. Once a parade ground for troops when the town was invaded by the Moors, it was rebuilt in a more flamboyant Renaissance style. The square itself is also home to a cluster of beautiful buildings and landmark attractions, including the Gothic-style Town Hall and no less than three palaces, including the very grand 19th century Palau de Torre, the Palace Vivo and the Palau Salort.
Ready for a little elegant retail therapy? Close to the cathedral you’ll come across the avenue Ses Voltes, where you’ll find beautiful little shops tucked inside a maze of whitewashed arches, along with a charming huddle of patisseries, cafes and restaurants when you’re ready to stop and refuel. This is also a lovely spot to enjoy an aperitif and dinner when the sun goes down.
And when it comes to people watching, the best place to hole up is Placa Nova, a little square that’s home to Ciutadella’s most delightful pavement cafes.
If you want to see this historic gem at its most colourful, then time your visit to take in the wonders of the Festa de Sant Joan, held every year on 24 June – particularly if you’re a lover all things equestrian. In addition to dancing in the streets, fuelled by bars serving plentiful glasses of ‘pomada’, (the local gin mixed with fresh lemon juice), the local black and very beautiful Menorquina horses are the stars of the show.
Ses Pedreres de s’Hostal
A short hop (less than a mile) from the old town you’ll encounter the sandstone quarry of Ses Pedreres de s’Hostal – a thumb-stopping Instagram moment for sure. Believed to be more than 200 years’ old, this was the excavation site for the sandstone used to create the island’s traditional houses and buildings up until the 1990s.
What remains is an intriguing natural quarry ‘artwork’ of geometric shapes carved out of the earth. True to the island’s form, it has been preserved and developed. Spotting its inherent beauty, Laetitia Saleau, an Italian sculptor, set up Líthica, a non-profit cultural association which has not only preserved the site but also created a stone labyrinth and added botanical gardens and orchards. This amazing commitment has turned the quarry into a unique cultural venue that now hosts concerts and exhibitions. Incredible.
Museum of Menorca
If you’re having lunch at one of the restaurants along the harbourside in Mahón, you can also feed your hunger for history. Tucked away above the harbour in a baroque convent building, you’ll find The Museo de Menorca, which is currently being renovated for a grand re-opening this summer. It’s a charming venue spread over several floors with exhibits that tell the stories of Menorca’s colourful past, including ancient maps, sculptures and artefacts, as well as an interesting collection of art from 18th-20th century. Entry is free.
Xoriguer Gin Distillery
Who fancies a G&T with ice and a slice? Small wonder that the British occupation of the island led to the swift foundation of gin-making distilleries. It didn’t take long for the locals to get a taste for it too and it remains one of the most popular spirits drunk in the islands bars to this day. Of all the local brands, Xoriguer is the most popular and its tours of its distillery on the Mahón waterfront are a highly civilised delight. Come and sniff the botanicals but don’t ask for the recipe – it’s a fiercely-guarded family secret.
Museo Etnologico Molí de Dalt
Ready to get back to the land and learn about traditional village life? Museo Etnologico Molí de Dalt is the island’s ethnological museum housed in an ancient windmill in the little town of Saint Lluis. Built during the French occupation, the lovingly restored Molí de Dalt is the town’s only surviving windmill, and its charming interior is used to tell the story of its importance to the town’s agriculture, traditional farming tools and crafts and insights into the life of the villagers.
Torralba d’en Salord
Do you have a passion for pagan historical sites? Then beat a path back to the Bronze Age and come and take a look at the mighty boulders and megaliths still standing at Torralba d’en Salord, a Talaiotic Village that’s Menorca’s answer to Stonehenge. In addition to a circle of standing stones used as a religious ceremony space, you’ll find the actual village where the architects lived still perfectly preserved. Historians believe it was first founded around 1000BC and was a thriving settlement up until the Roman occupation.
Cap de Favàritx
Beach walks are made even more delicious when you can discover secret little coves and lighthouses. The Cap de Favàritx lighthouse, located on the north-east tip of the island, is still fully operational and shines a safe light on all boats coming in and out of this coastal area. Built back in 1922, its majestic tower standings 47 metres tall. Hikes to the lighthouse are rewarded not just by fabulous views over the ocean but also by the discovery of one of the island’s prettiest beaches – Cala Presili. Pack a blanket, a picnic and a bottle of wine – this is a gorgeous spot to watch the sun dissolve into the sea.
Isla del Rey
Hop on a boat – a yellow catamaran to be precise – out of Mahón and you’re a short hop along the waves to the teeny tiny island of Isla del Rey (King’s island) situated in the middle of the port. The island was the former home of the old British Military Hospital, with many much earlier buildings also still standing. Today, it is a protected site of natural as well as historical importance since local flora and fauna still call it home. Treat yourself to a sightseeing cruise to the island and around the whole bay.