Sparkling blue sea, tapas on tap and some of the most glorious medieval architecture in Spain: sounds like Barcelona, right? In fact, it’s Palma, capital of Mallorca and surprisingly suave spot. Forget the ‘Shagaluf’ clichés: the city belies the rowdy reputation of its near neighbour with chic shopping spots, a spectacular cathedral and a buzzy brand of nightlife, albeit less hedonistic than the sort found on the other side of Mallorca. You can’t help but feel a bit sorry this lovely city has been so overshadowed by Magaluf, although the resulting quietness does mean that there’s plenty of space in which to enjoy it.
While there’s no shortage of sun, sand and cerveza, there’s more to a summer in Palma than topping up your tan. The city has a fabulous modern art gallery, the Es Baluard Museu d'Art Modern i Contemporani de Palma (Plaça Porta de Santa Catalina 10), which during the summer, is behind the crop of installations that springs up around the city. But if you’re looking for something less cerebral, only the Nit de Foc festival will do. A midsummer spectacular held in the Parc de la Mer every June, it heralds the start of Palma’s summer season with the help of multiple bonfires and a fabulous fireworks display.
Palma is small and most journeys are easily made on foot, although there’s plenty of choice should you wish to take the weight off your feet. Horse carriages are freely available, cheap and a gentle way to see the city. Car taxis are also easy to find and can be hailed down, or you can head to one of the ranks that dot the city. Easiest of all, though, is public transport which includes buses, trams and trains, all of which can be accessed with an Intermodal Card (available from stations and tourist offices). These pre-paid cards can be used on any form of public transport and for as many journeys as you like.
Top cultural sites
Although summer’s modern art fest and the galleries packed with works by Miró, Picasso and Dalí get most of the attention, Palma has more than modern greats to offer. The city’s historic Jewish quarter is a wonderful warren of old streets pitted with hidden courtyards that can be seen peeping from behind ornate wooden gates, while dominating the town is the majestic medieval cathedral – known to locals as La Seu (Plaça de la Seu). Begun in 1229 by the Aragonese king, James I, the Catalan Gothic building wasn’t completed until 1601, but now dominates the Moorish citadel and can be seen from just about everywhere.
Best for families
Buckets and spades, golden sand and clean blue water are the stuff childhood holidays are made of, so take children to the quiet beach at Cala Mayor where they can play and paddle to their heart’s content. If flopping out on the beach doesn’t appeal, head to La Reserva Puig de Galatzó (Predio Son Net, Puigpunyent) just outside the city, where you’ll find wildlife galore, hiking trails and a vast swimming pool. If all else fails, head to the charming Can Joan de S’aigo (Carrer de Can Sanç 10) for an ensaimada (local pastry) or two. No child will be able to resist.
Best for couples
With its winding streets and hidden courtyards, it’s hard not to feel a little romantic in Palma. That said, if you need nudging in the right direction, start with the central Hotel Tres (Carrer Apuntadores 3), which has a romantic rooftop pool with striking views of the cathedral and an obliging Norwegian manager happy to provide never-ending supply of champagne. If that doesn’t appeal, try a romantic dinner for two at Simply Fosh (Carrer de la Missió 7A), a Michelin-starred restaurant tucked away down a back alley, or at the cosy, family-run La Bodeguilla (Carrer Sant Jaume 3).
If you love a thrill
Along with companies offering typical Mediterranean watersports such as waterskiing and jet-skiing, Palma is also home to Scuba Mallorca (Carrer d'Elcano 23), a PADI-certified scuba centre that offers trips into the deep – usually in the Bay of Pollensa. For the truly wild at heart, the company also runs shark diving trips from Palma. If you prefer to stay on land, horse riding, canyoning and cliff-jumping experiences are just a short drive away, while for the truly red-blooded, there are regular bullfights at the spectacular Plaza de Toros de Palma (Avinguda del Arquitecto Gaspar Bennazar 32).
Best hidden gems
Few realise that Barcelona isn’t the only Catalan city with a ‘La Rambla’, and Palma’s version is well worth a visit. A long winding lane tucked away behind the cathedral and lined with flower sellers, it’s the place to go for interesting fashion finds as well as chichi homeware. Just around the corner, on the Plaça Santa Pagesa are Can Frasquet and Cas Net – twin chocolate shops that are hard to resist. For a truly democratic Palma experience, only the Olivar Market (Plaça d'Espanya) will do. Expect gleaming piles of fruit and vegetables, bunches of colourful blooms and the odd gory pig’s head.