Rich in history, seafood and pomadas, Duncan Rhodes discovers a quiet capital, but one with enough art, culture and events to keep you off the beach for a day or two…
Built around the second largest natural harbour in the world (after Pearl Harbour), Mahón is a grand old port town that was colonised by the British in the 18th century. The Brits promptly declared the city as Menorca’s capital in 1722 (much to the chagrin of locals from Ciutadella, who have resented their loss of status ever since) and set about constructing the grand naval buildings and Georgian townhouses that still characterise the city today.
Now happily bereft of the Queen and her armada, Maó – as it is called in the local Menorquin language – is a distinctly sleepy destination of just 30,000 people, where excitement levels rarely rise beyond taking an evening stroll in the Old Town, enjoying a glass of vermouth with tapas at the waterfront, or shopping for the island’s iconic abarcas sandals at any number of specialist stores. Well there is of course that one other notable vestige of British rule to discover… the local gin, which is best drunk with lemonade to make the popular pomada beverage.
Best of the Beaten Track
A boat tour of the capital’s harbour is about as cheesy as it gets, but hey, it’s fun as well and gives you a sense of the scale of this 5km long natural port. Several boat companies schedule tours which include running commentaries, pointing out sights such as the Illa de Rei, the island on which the old British Military Hospital is built (some boats stop here in fact… check the Yellow Catamarans), the Illa de la Quarantena, where suspicious boats were quarantined back in the day, as well as the small house on the water where I’m told Richard Branson once stayed.
Back on dry land and the Menorca Museum is the best place to get a sense of the island’s unique history with exhibits from its mysterious, Bronze Age, Talayotic people, along with left overs from Roman, Byzantine and Islamic conquerors. Also on display are some wonderful land- and seascapes by local artists from the 18th to 20th centuries. The museum is situated in a romantic old Franciscan convent and is free to visit. It’s closed on Mondays.
If you’re a sucker for a grand temple or two then both the Santa Maria church, with it’s impressive organ and curious stencil-like artwork, and the Carmen Church (the one with the statue of the rearing horses outside), are well worth a butcher’s hook. The cloister of the latter has now been converted into a market where you can buy artisan food products, such as the famous Mahon cheese or ensaimada pastries, clothes and souvenirs and it also functions as a cultural space, often with free concerts at night.
Whilst Mahon is far too small to support a thriving alternative culture scene, travellers with hipster pretensions will no doubt enjoy some of the large scale street art that you can find at the bus station and surrounding the car park next to the Es Freginal gardens, an example of which is pictured below.
One museum that feels fresh is the Centre D’art I D’historia Hernandez Sanz. It’s home, the town house Can Oliver is something of a marvel in itself, with its wrought iron railed staircase, murals and frescoes, whilst the artwork is more modern and less staid than at the more traditional Menorca Museum… a stencil of a gorilla fornicating with a donkey is good testament to that.
No conscientious tourist leaves Menorca without a pair of abarcas sandals, the iconic footwear of the isle sported by plebs and celebs alike. You can buy them in stores throughout the city, but for a handmade pair following the the traditions of the isle visit Toni (pictured above) at S’Abarca den Toni at Moll de Llevant 21. For more modern fashions Nivolats is a great boutique.
Experience & Events
One more cool thing to do in Mahon is drop by the fish market on the weekend, as live music takes place every Saturday from noon, so you can nibble on some of those classic Balearic seafood specialties (there are plenty of tapas stalls as well as market vendors) with some tunes. Otherwise it’s a fun place to drop by and shop for John Dory anyhow.
Festivals wise and put the first weekend of September in your diary. This is when the Nuestra Señora de Gràcia (Our Lady of Grace) fiesta comes to town. The magnificent jet black Menorquin horses rear up on their hind legs in procession, giants parade around the city, bells ring, bands play and much merriment ensues. More on what to expect here.
Finally if you somehow haven’t imbibed any of the local gin yet then I’d strongly advise heading to the Xoriguer distillery where you can check out their classic blend, along with other brands and their very own hierbas (a grassy liqueur popular in the Balearics… it’s awesome!).
Chances are you’ve already booked your villa elsewhere in Menorca and are just coming on a day trip, however if you’re fully committed city break specialist (in which case we applaud you!) then you’ll find some great digs in Maó. Few are fancier than the Artiem Capri with its roof top terrace and swimming pool together with its “Le Petit Spa”, whilst the Hotel Port Mahon has an enviable spot overlooking the harbour. You can recline on one of their white poolside deckchairs on a perfectly manicured lawn as you watch the ships go by. Finally the Hotel Ses Bruixes is a very stylish and romantic boutique option in the centre of town.
Recommended in the Michelin guide, Ses Forquilles is an innovative tapas restaurant that fuses top quality ingredients with fancy presentation to deliver a great dining experience. A tapa (small plate) typically costs between €6-12, so it’s still very affordable by most standards. For fresh seafood at a family run restaurant try the highly rated S’Espigo. They also serve the legendary Menorquin dish caldereta de langosto (lobster stew!). Probably the most sought after seats in Mahon though are those at the table of Passio Mediterrania, where creative dishes like octopus carpaccio with guacamole and wasabi have garnered the restaurant much acclaim.
Sipping on a pomada as the evening sun kisses your face at the terrace of El Mirador is a timeless Mahón pleasure. The slightly obscured views from “The Look Out” are not in fact spectacular, but it’s a fun venue nonetheless thanks to its pleasant bustle. Inside you can practice your opening gambits using the house chess set (always a sign of a good bar IMHO!). Another great hang out is Can Vermut on the harbourside, whose terrace and attractive red and white front are hard to pass without stopping for a sly vermouth snifter. Serious party animals however are likely to find the local nightlife pretty tame… your best bet is probably to take a taxi out to the Cova d’en Xoroi or head all the way over to Ciutadella and Space Menorca.
Getting There & Around
Menorca’s Mahon airport is 4.5km from the town itself (a short bus journey or taxi ride away), and is very well connected to the rest of Europe. Just from London you can fly with Monarch, Easyjet, Thomas Cook, British Airways and Iberia, with a flight time of just over 2 hours, and you can also get direct flights from Manchester and Birmingham. Meanwhile Spanish budget airlines Vueling with connect you with Cardiff and Edinburgh and all of the Spanish mainland destinations like Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia.
There’s a dearth of useful information in English online about Mahon… which is probably how you ended up here in the first place! Lonely Planet manages to list a few attractions at least. The Menorca Tourist Board also has a very small section on the capital, although I’d recommend the site more for the rest of the island.
Colm Toibin’s love affair with Spain is on display again in his 2010 novel The Empty Family, a collection of shorts that includes a story of a Spanish woman who returns to her homeland to claim a family home on Menorca.
Menorca has not received the kind of attention its sister Mallorca has when it comes to celluloid. The one exception might be the Catalan language film El Vent de l’Illa (1987), set in 18th century under British colonial rule – it represented Spain at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988, although it looks pretty awful to me. Otherwise look closely during episodes of British TV drama Hornblower and you might spot the odd slice of Minorca’s shore.
For exploring outside the capital DO NOT miss our article on the best things to do in Menorca, as you’ll find some amazing tips on everything from prehistoric sites to the best Balearic bites…