A small British Overseas Territory located at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. Hence its being British
is contested by Spain
, which claims it should be theirs, and this has frequently led to tensions between the two countries. Yet the local population has repeatedly voted in favour of remaining British.
Apart from the contemporary controversy (and current uncertainty due to Brexit) about the political status of this little rocky piece of land, it has also had its part in 20th century military history, including WWII
, and the mysterious plane crash that killed the Polish
Prime Minister in exile … And it's because of all those things that Gibraltar features on this website.
More background info: Geologically, the Rock of Gibraltar is quite an anomaly, being a monolithic limestone promontory jutting out of the surrounding flat land by some 1400 feet (426m), its steep ridge actually being an overturned fold.
The strategic position
of the Rock has always been obvious throughout history. The British entered this history in the early 18th century when the Rock was claimed by an Anglo-Dutch fleet; and in the 1713-1715 Treaty of Utrecht, Gibraltar was signed over to British
control “in perpetuity”. Unsurprisingly, though, this territorial claim has always been contested
in the centuries that followed. And it's still the case today. There are waves of more or less tensions, but the issue ultimately remains unresolved, as is the case with so many Overseas Territories (cf. Falklands
Under British control, Gibraltar has always had a significant strategic military role, especially as a base for the Royal Navy (e.g. it was the main base for the fleet that fought in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805).
In the second half of the 18th century, the Great Siege of Gibraltar
1779-1783 was the most significant, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by Britain's great adversaries Spain
to capture the Rock.
In the 19th century, Gibraltar's military significance increased after the opening of the Suez Canal
in 1869. It now formed the westernmost point of the British Empire's
in the Mediterranean
, with Malta
in the centre and Cyprus
and British possessions in Egypt and Palestine
to the east.
In the wake of this, the promontory's fortifications
and armaments were strengthened, including the installation of two massive 100-ton guns – one of which survives to this day (see below
). By then Gibraltar had become a venerable fortress
, Gibraltar's position became even more crucial. The British were obviously worried about their exposed outpost at the Rock. Spain
didn't directly enter the war, yet its recently established dictatorship under Franco was a close ally of Nazi Germany
and fascist Italy
. The latter's air force did indeed launch air strikes and naval operations against Gibraltar, but the feared full-on invasion never came. Still, as a precaution almost the entire civilian population
of Gibraltar was evacuated
Also with a view to a possible loss of Gibraltar, the British planned “Operation Tracer”, a stay-behind spying mission, meaning a group of signalmen plus a couple of doctors would be staying in a sealed bunker with enough supplies for several years to report on enemy shipping movements, which they could observe through a slit in the rock on the one side and a concealed terrace on the other. The secret bunker was ready by 1942 but the operation never actually had to be implemented. The secret only came out in the 1960s and the actual hidden bunker was discovered only in the 1990s.
Without such a level of secrecy, the British military also dug miles and miles of tunnels
and underground chambers
into the Rock for storage of fuel, water, ammunition, and they also included communication stations, power supplies and even a fully equipped hospital. Thus Gibraltar became entirely militarized – a fortress by the sea, controlling the passage between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
The port of Gibraltar was the departure point for supply convoys
to besieged Malta
in the south Mediterranean between 1940 and 1942, including Operation Pedestal
in August 1942, in which the USS Ohio
just about managed to get into the island's Grand Harbour to bring in vital supplies at a most crucial time (see National War Museum
Gibraltar then served as a major staging post for the joint US-British Operation Torch
– the Allied invasion of North African territories in late 1942, commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (who later also commanded the invasion of Sicily/Italy
and after the war became the USA
's 34th president).
In July 1943 there was a curious incident, a plane crash
, that has been the subject of conspiracy speculations ever since: an aircraft with 16 people on board, including General Władysław Sikorski
, the Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile, crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Gibraltar killing everybody on board except the pilot. An investigation into the crash concluded it was an accident but failed to determine the actual cause of the crash. There were and still are rumours that sabotage may have been involved and that it was a British, or even Soviet or Polish, conspiracy to get rid of Sikorski, and thus make the post-war territorial reorganization of Poland
easier. (This was later agreed on at the Yalta Conference – by which the USSR
would keep their annexed territories in eastern Poland for which Poland was compensated by being given formerly German territories in the west – cf. Wrocław
. Quite a few Poles, who had allied themselves with Britain against Nazi Germany, felt this amounted to betrayal and for them Winston Churchill
isn't quite the hero that he's normally painted to have been. There have even been claims that Churchill himself may have had a hand in the “disappearance” of Sikorski.)
After the surrender of Italy
in September 1943, the threat to Gibraltar greatly diminished for the remainder of WWII
, and some of the civilian population were already allowed to return before Victory in Europe had been secured..
ease of tension was short-lived, though, as Spain
under dictator Franco renewed its territorial claims
on the Rock, and eventually closed the border and severed all links to the mainland after Gibraltar's population voted in a referendum in 1967 to remain under British rule. This blockade
was partially lifted only in the early 1980s after Spain's return to democracy, and the border was fully reopened after Spain joined the EU in 1985.
In 2002 another referendum was held over a proposal of shared sovereignty between Spain
– but again the population rejected this by 99%, opting instead to remain British.
And in the 2016 Brexit
referendum Gibraltar's electorate (with a turn-out of 82%) voted with 96% for remaining in the EU, but will now be forced to leave too alongside the UK
. How that will be handled technically and what it will mean for the future remains to be seen. At the time of writing it seems impossible to tell. I'll try to put updates here as and when possible ...
What there is to see: Given Gibraltar's intriguing and unique history, going there constitutes a kind of dark-tourism activity in itself. The particular points of special interest from a dark-tourism perspective on (or even inside) the Rock are the following:
In addition to these there are plenty more military relics, bastions and fortifications to be seen all over the coast and the Rock. Some are abandoned, but of course there are also still military installations that are in use to this day (like the radar and communications positions on the crest of the Rock) – and the latter, naturally, are not open to tourists.
Of the ones commodified
for tourism, the biggest, heaviest and most celebrated of all these military historic relics is the 100-ton gun
on a coastal fort on the western side of the peninsula originally installed in 1883. This is one of only two preserved such mega-guns – the other one is at Fort Rinella
. Yet neither ever fired a single shot in anger. But if size matters it's still one monster of a cannon. (Opening times: 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., daily; admission: £3)
More bastions, fortifications, former gun emplacements, bunkers and tunnels can be found all around the peninsula's coastline as well as when walking along the footpaths along the ridge of the Rock
from the cable car station all the way south to O'Hara's Battery
… see the gallery below
for images of some of those.
Note that the Upper Rock is a Nature Reserve and an entrance fee is levied. You can choose just to walk the trails (for £5) or go for a comprehensive ticket (£12) that includes various attractions (see the following paragraphs)
A new attraction added along the ridge more recently (in 2018, so it wasn't yet there when I visited Gibraltar in 2015) is the so-called “Sky Walk” – a glass walkway zigzagging over the steep precipice, which may appeal to those who get a kick out of battling with vertigo (open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., admission included in both Nature Reserve entry tickets).
Just above the entrance to the WWII Tunnels
, there's also a Military Heritage Centre
, mainly about coastal gun batteries and their history (open 9 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., admission included in the comprehensive National Reserve entry ticket). This is associated with the nearby Princess Caroline's Battery
featuring four large coastal guns.
One larger military-history-related attraction that I gave a miss (partly because of limited time and also because it relates to a period outside the usual time frame relevant to dark tourism
) is the City Under Siege Exhibition
, which is, as you may have guessed (from the above
), about the 1789-1793 Great Siege (open 9 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., admission included in the comprehensive Nature Reserve entry ticket).
Back down in the town
on the west side of the Rock, there are several plaques and memorials
relating to Gibraltar's chequered history, including a gun memorial on Casemates Square, a plaque for Operation Torch (see above
), and also a monument commemorating the evacuation of civilians during WWII
, and many more, too many to list here comprehensively.
Moreover there's a small cemetery for casualties from the Battle of Trafalgar. And for those really into cemeteries, there's a large one just to the north of the Rock, wedged in between the foot of the mountain and the airport.
Also squeezed into a small plot by the airport you can see (e.g. from the balconies of the tunnels inside the rock above) an old British-French “Jaguar” fighter jet, apparently permanently parked there, maybe to serve as a kind of memorial to Gibraltar's air defences.
Finally, the historic Rock Hotel
should be mentioned here, not so much for its providing relatively posh accommodation, but more so for its historic connections and the fact that it's been the place of choice for the rich and famous since the 1930s. Among its illustrious guests were Winston Churchill
, actors Sean Connery and Alec Guinness as well as hippy-era icons John Lennon and Yoko Ono (who got married here!). The hotel features a large “Hall of Fame” photo gallery with images related to this history.
not quite at the southernmost point of the Iberian peninsula (that's at Parque Natural del Estrecho, on Spanish
territory), but only a bit to the east of that, on the eastern side of the Bay of Gibraltar (with the Spanish city of Algeciras on the other side) and ca. 40 miles (65 km) south-west from Marbella, ca. 60 miles (100 km) south-east of Cadiz, a good 300 miles (500 km) south of Madrid
, and well over a thousand miles (1800 km) from London
; but only less than 15 miles (25 km) north of the coast of Morocco, North Africa. The Spanish town right on the other side of the land border is called La Linea de la Concepción.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: depends, can be tricky, can be easy; price-levels vary too.
Since Gibraltar has its own airport (a rather unique one – see below!) you can even fly in directly, and there are a few connections straight from the British motherland
to here (and also a couple of connections to Morocco). Quite a few other visitors come by sea, especially by cruise ship.
But for most serious travellers, dark tourists included, it will probably be best to get in overland, i.e. via Spain
, by car. That's what I did when I was there in 2015 and had hired a car from Seville. I just had to declare it with the hire car company that I intended to cross the border into Gibraltar, but it wasn't a big problem. Parking within Gibraltar can be tricky, though, so I made sure I had booked a hotel that came with its own private parking lot (namely The Rock Hotel – see above
At that time (2015) crossing the border between Spain
and Gibraltar was relatively easy and hassle-free, though quite slow. Yet it's well known that at some times the Spanish authorities have made it deliberately harder for people to cross over and on a few occasions even closed the border altogether. But at least when I crossed it was OK and there was no paperwork or visas involved (with both Spain and the UK being part of the EU). What it will be like in the future after a potentially chaotic exit of the UK
from the EU, remains to be seen …
Within Gibraltar, driving is NOT on the left, as in Britain
, but was changed to the right side some decades ago in order to end the need to move over to the other side of the road when crossing the border. Driving into Gibraltar also involves the unusual treat of having to cross an airport runway – at an intersection that is controlled by traffic lights and movable barriers! (Though there are plans for a tunnel under the runway ...)
Having a car also facilitates getting around Gibraltar a lot, though parts of it are walkable and there are taxi services and guided tours by car/van for things further afield. The cable car at least allows comfortable access to the crest of the Rock. To do everything on foot though is not easy, given the size and steep topography of Gibraltar.
If you don't want to do things independently and don't have a car you may want to consider investing in a fully guided tour of the Rock, which would include several or even most (possibly all) of the attractions outlined above, and is provided by several of the colony's taxi drivers and specialist tour operators. Unless you're with a group of people to split the costs, though, these tours can be quite expensive.
options include some rather affordable B&Bs as well as more upscale hotels, with the historic Rock Hotel (see above
) being a particularly attractive choice for the history-conscious traveller. That's why I picked it – and did not regret it.
As for food & drink
, Gibraltar is unfortunately a bit of a step down from what you can get on the the other side of the border over in Spain
, yet I managed to track down some decent and spicy curry (not so prevalent in Spain!) and pizza places. I also tried a few pubs, expecting a good dose of good-olde-worlde Britishness, but found them rather disappointing, to be honest.
If you're self-catering you can make good use of Gibraltar's duty-free status and get good prices on some products (alcohol especially) though many of the regular food items sold in supermarkets (of familiar British names) are imported from the UK and hence less cheap.
of Gibraltar is naturally Mediterranean and more or less the same as the surrounding Andalusia of Spain
… though when I visited the Rock in April 2015 the spring warmth and sunshine of Spain was pushed away by a spell of rather more British-like drizzle, cold and strong winds. I was told it was very unseasonal for this to happen, but it meant, for instance, that my booked day-trip over to Tangier in Morocco was cancelled and that the promised glorious sunsets to be enjoyed from my hotel room never materialized. The rainy spell only ended the day I left for Spain again three days later.
Time required: To properly see all the particular places covered here, one has to allocate at least one very long and intensive day, but better spread it over two or three days.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
None really close, but see under Spain
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Gibraltar is primarily a not-so-dark mainstream tourism destination (even if its military history and political controversy are never far away), and the main draw is shopping and going to the top of the Rock to see the monkeys
. These are Barbary macaques
(and as such not, as is sometimes erroneously claimed, “apes”) originally native of the Atlas Mountains over in Morocco. But they are now considered the only wild monkey in Europe … though they are not completely wild, but actually a well supervised and managed population. There's symbolic value in this as well – local mythology has it that if the monkeys were ever to disappear, so would Gibraltar's Britishness (it's a bit like the superstitions about the ravens at the Tower of London
Watching the monkeys is indeed quite fun – and there are local guides who specialize in taking visitors to “meet” them. Be careful, though, these are (semi-)wild beasts accustomed to, and unafraid of, humans and they are swift to raid any unsecured handbags or backpacks. Apparently they bite too. So be on your guard when in their presence! Feeding the monkeys is strictly forbidden!
Apart from that, it is of course the views from the top of the Rock that are an attraction in themselves!
Those in search of ancient architectural relics can head to the Moorish Castle
, which, as the name suggests, dates back to the Middle Ages when Spain
was under Moorish, i.e. Arab, control. It's a square stone tower, basically, and you can go inside (open 9 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., admission included in the comprehensive Nature Reserve entry fee).
A much-touted visitor attraction is also St Michael's Cave – this is not a man-made cave but a natural limestone cave full of stalagmites and stalactites. As an underground site it might have been considered a dark attraction, but that's kind of thwarted by the fact that the caves are illuminated in really garish coloured light, and other than dazzling visitors visually with these the caves are also a venue for (classical) music concerts, since the acoustics inside are said to be special (admission included in the comprehensive Nature Reserve entry ticket).
Many visitors also come for the simple reason that Gibraltar is a duty-free-shopping territory so one can stock up on booze, fags and toiletries. Not least because of that it is also a regular stop for cruise ships – that great maritime bane of the mainstream tourism world that I for one couldn't see the back of soon enough. Fortunately, when I was in Gibraltar, none of these sea monsters were in port.
The town of Gibraltar does have its charms too in its characteristic mix of very British
elements (red postboxes, bay windows, countless Union Jacks) and Mediterranean elements. The heart of the Old Town
is quite attractive, while the newer developments on reclaimed land further north-west and south are much blander in appearance.
While the western side of the peninsula is a quite densely populated conurbation and harbour, the slim eastern coastal strip is much quieter and feels almost isolated.
Further afield, outside Gibraltar itself, neighbouring Spain
is obviously full of attractions – with the region of Andalusia north of Gibraltar actually one of the most beautiful parts of that country. Several particularly rewarding places, such as Ronda, Seville or Cadiz, are all within an easy few hours drive from Gibraltar.
Moreover, the geographic proximity of Morocco makes it possible to hop over by boat for day-trips, especially to Tangier, a major North-African city on the Maghreb coast. In fact when I was there I had such a day-trip booked – but unfortunately it was cancelled at short notice due to bad weather and rough seas.
- Gib 01 - the Rock seen from Spain
- Gib 02 - Navy HQ looking across to Spain
- Gib 03 - flying united flags
- Gib 04 - Main Street
- Gib 05 - bay windows
- Gib 06 - Mediterranean touch
- Gib 07 - booze shops on Main Street
- Gib 08 - how very English
- Gib 09 - Royal Mail
- Gib 10 - English culinary and military traditions
- Gib 11 - royal chapel
- Gib 12 - general church
- Gib 13 - Casemates and the Rock
- Gib 14 - top of the Rock
- Gib 15 - Catalan Bay
- Gib 16 - Rock summit seen from the east
- Gib 17 - the sheer eastern side of the rock face
- Gib 18 - former funicular
- Gib 19 - waterfall
- Gib 20 - bastion
- Gib 21 - residential part of town
- Gib 22 - evacuation memorial
- Gib 23 - plaques
- Gib 24 - forging a special relationship
- Gib 25 - south bastion
- Gib 26 - historic cemetery
- Gib 27 - copper cannon
- Gib 28 - instead of three lions
- Gib 29 - cable car up to the Rock
- Gib 30 - arriving at the top
- Gib 31 - by the monkeys
- Gib 32 - monkey not giving a monkeys
- Gib 32 - warning
- Gib 33 - though they look so harmless
- Gib 34 - most of the time
- Gib 35 - cheeky monkey
- Gib 36 - serene monkey
- Gib 37 - mother and child
- Gib 38 - grooming
- Gib 39 - holding hands
- Gib 40 - dead monkey
- Gib 41 - cannon monkeys
- Gib 42 - Moorish Tower
- Gib 43 - inside the tower
- Gib 44 - heritage centre
- Gib 45 - military heritage
- Gib 46 - shelling out shells
- Gib 47 - the town from above
- Gib 48 - airport
- Gib 49 - road crossing the runway
- Gib 50 - old Jaguar jet permanently parked by the airport
- Gib 51 - cemetery
- Gib 52 - on the crest of the Rock
- Gib 53 - old military building on the crest
- Gib 54 - lookout
- Gib 55 - looking out east over Catalan Bay
- Gib 56 - seagulls enjoying the storm
- Gib 57 - looking south
- Gib 58 - St Michaels Cave
- Gib 59 - the same in green
- Gib 60 - almost neutral colour
- Gib 61 - big chain
- Gib 62 - narrow path
- Gib 63 - nature reserve
- Gib 64 - bastion
- Gib 65 - abandoned bastion
- Gib 66 - 100-ton gun
- Gib 67 - dockyard
- Gib 68 - tunnel entrance
- Gib 69 - blocked off
- Gib 70 - crossroads on the Rock
- Gib 71 - the great wall of Gibraltar
- Gib 72 - heading out to sea
- Gib 73 - a glimpse of Africa
- Gib 74 - all quiet at night
- Gib 75 - Gibraltar by night