Menorca is the smallest and calmest of the Balearic islands, a haven for lovers of understated luxury. It’s a place that doesn’t like to boast too much about its charms, but is full of history, fashion and great food. If you’re flying in to Menorca, or visiting on a cruise, why not take a day or so to explore Mahón, the elegant capital of the island. For those who enjoy mellow old buildings, stylish shopping and lazy seafood lunches by the port, here are the ingredients for your perfect day in Mahón.
A boat tour around the harbour
Start your day in Mahón with a relaxing 1 hour boat tour around the harbour, to dip into the naval history of the area. Because of the city’s deep harbour and strategic position in the Mediterranean, the British dominated the island for much of the 18th century and have especially left their stamp on Mahón. Buy your ticket at the kiosk at the bottom of the steps close to the cruise terminal and take your seat on the top deck for the best view, although you can retreat downstairs if it’s a bit too windy. As you pass the main sites of interest, there’s a commentary in several different languages including English.
Now if you ask me for every detail of the harbour history it’s a bit hazy as I was taking too many photos, but to start with we passed by some of the swanky villas where the wealthy folk of Mahón live. We passed the English Arsenal, painted red as was the custom for military buildings, and further on Quarantine Island with a hospital where those with infectious diseases were treated. I imagine that those who went in wondered whether they would ever emerge alive. Near the harbour entrance, the water got quite choppy as we passed briefly to the open sea. As soon as we turned around the water calmed again, and we returned past Cales Font, the pretty harbour of Es Castell which was the 18th century British garrison town.
The harbour boat tour is run by 2 main operators, the Yellow Catamaran and the Don Juan Catamaran which cost around €12 per adult (cheaper if you book online). Between them they run every half an hour throughout the day, selling drinks and snacks on board.
Elegant buildings overlook the harbour
Back on dry land, let’s climb up those white flights of steps to start to explore Mahón properly. As you near the top, look up to your right to see the elegant Art Nouveau facade of Casa Mercadel and up on your left there are plenty of viewpoints where you can have a drink with a view over the port. To your immediate left are two huge trees with roots like an elephant foot which are a well known landmark.
The elegant Casa Mercadel was one of the homes owned by a noble Menorcan family and was built in on the site of an ancient castle that overlooked the harbour, now housing a cultural centre.
A mid-morning snack at the fish market?
In Placa d’Espanya at the top of the steps, you’ll find the Mercat del Peix or fish market with all the lovely fresh fish on sale until 2pm (closed Sunday and Monday).
The bright red prawns and spiny lobster are used to make the lobster caldereta and other seafood dishes that you can order at restaurants along the seafront. Despite all the groups of tourists trooping through to take photos, the stall holders were very good humoured and relaxed.
Tapas with a glass of wine
Walking past the fish you’ll come around to the other side of the market with stalls selling tapas, snacks and drinks. If you’re ready for a mid-morning break, this is the place to grab a drink and a snack, sitting at one of the stools inside or tables outside in the courtyard. On a Saturday lunchtime the place was buzzing with locals meeting their friends for a glass of wine and a chat.
The tapas typically cost between €1 and €3 and you can just point at whatever takes your fancy. I loved all the glistening olives and the appetising slices of bread topped with onions, peppers and anchovies. There was also a stall selling tasty seafood croquettes so I had to try a few of those as well, including one that was black with squid ink.
A little further up the square next to the fish market is the Carmelite cloisters which has been converted to a covered market selling everything from fruit and veg to shoes and local food specialities. Worth knowing that there’s a public WC here as I didn’t find one anywhere else in the old town.
Dip into the history of Mahon at Ca n’Oliver
If you’d enjoy visiting historic houses, pay a visit to Centre d’Art I d’Historia Hernandez Sanz at Ca n’Oliver, a mansion which belonged to one of the most powerful families of Mahon in the 18th and 19th centuries. This gorgeous house now houses the Hernandez Sanz collection of artworks which are on display over several floors around the ornate wrought iron staircase with a painted fresco to impress you in the lobby.
The paintings, maps and displays give insights into the British legacy on Menorca as well as the Oliver family who made their money as merchants in the Mediterranean and supplied the military in Mahón. I especially enjoyed the painted ceilings with religious and classical scenes in many of the rooms, designed to show the wealth and taste of the family who lived here.
Centre d’Art I d’Historia Hernandez Sanz at Ca n’Oliver, Anuncivay Street 2. Open daily except Monday 10-1.30pm and on Thursday, Friday, Saturday also 6-8pm.
The Museum of Menorca in Mahon
Another fascinating place to visit is the Museum of Menorca in the old Franciscan monastery which was built in the baroque style at the end of the 17th century but confiscated in 1835. The Museum was closed for renovation when I visited but I was still able to see the beautifully preserved cloisters and visit an interesting exhibition about the Talayotic culture on Menorca explaining the background of some of the stone burial chambers and settlements I’d seen in different parts of the island.
Normally you can also see rooms which cover the history of Menorca from the earliest times, through the 18th century when the island was occupied variously by the English, French and Spanish, to the 20th century when the industries of shoe and jewellery making replaced shipbuilding.
Museum of Menorca, Avinguda Doctor Guardia, Open daily 10am – 2pm and some evenings. Closed Mondays. Normally €2.40 but free during renovation.
A leisurely lunch by the Port
By around 1.30 the shops and museums will be starting to close so it’s time to find somewhere to have a leisurely lunch. Of course there are plenty of bars and cafes in the old town but a great alternative is to walk back down to the main port area where you’ll find a string of bars and restaurants overlooking the marina.
Settle in to a table with a view of the harbour, so you can people-watch from behind your designer sunglasses and oggle a few of those expensive boats. Most restaurants have a well-priced set menu at lunchtime that includes 3 courses, wine and bread with both seafood and meat options. We really enjoyed La Minerva (Carrer Moll de Llevant, 87) which has a nice terrace and tried their Arroz, a cross between soup and risotto with rice and seafood in a rich sauce, which is what Menorcan families like to eat on a Sunday.
A wander around the old town streets
After lunch most of the shops will be shut until around 4.30pm, so it’s a good time to wander around the streets of the old town while they are less crowded and admire the mellow stone buildings. Turn your back on the fish market and walk up towards Placa de la Constitucia to see the Town Hall of Mahón with the clock presented by the English Governor, Richard Kane.
In the square is a bar called Boinder, named after the Menorcan term for the overhanging bay windows which you’ll see in many of the older houses around town. They are a legacy of the English, along with sash windows, door latches and highly polished brass door knockers. I have quite a collection of door-knocker photos!
From here follow Carrer Isabel II which runs parallel to the port and look out for the narrow passages between the houses that lead to viewpoints over the port. There are three that I found, the final one being at the end of the street where you’ll reach the Museum of Menorca.
The influence of the British on Mahon
On the right hand side as you walk up Carrer Isabel II is the impressive Governor’s Residence, which was adopted by British Governor Richard Kane in 1722 when he moved the island’s capital from Cuitadella to Mahón. Although Cuitadella had been the ancient capital of the island, he found it too inconvenient to travel back and forth from one end of the island to the other, since the English fleet was based in Mahon.
From the town hall, another interesting street to explore is Carrer de Sant Roc with some of the oldest houses owned by the noble families of Menorca leading to the gateway of Sant Roc which was once part of the city wall. The metal bands on the ground near the tower mark the line of where the city wall once stood. The gate overlooks a pleasant square, Plaça Bastio with café terraces and a children’s playground in the centre, so if you have children you’ll be able to sit with a drink and watch them play happily (at least that’s the theory).
A girl can never have too many shoes
Once the shops open later in the afternoon, it could be time do some souvenir shopping along the main shopping street of Carrer Hannover. Menorca has become a centre of quality shoe production and as we know a girl can never have too many shoes! The Avarca sandals that you’ll see in almost every shop were originally made with soles of old tyres but are now a high fashion item with many sparkly and colourful variations. Also look out for Pretty Ballerinas, a high fashion brand that is based on the island – their main shop is in the port area.
Don’t go home until you’ve tried the cheese!
You can’t go home without trying the traditional Mahón-Menorca cheese which has a protected designation so it can only be made with milk from the island. The taste varies depending on how long the cheese has been matured and you’ll tell the artizan cheeses by the wrinkles made by the cloths in which they are wrapped. Around town there are quite a few shops that will let you have a taste before you buy and one of the best is Autentic, a deli shop on Plaça de s’Esplanada which has a good range of cheese, sausages and other produce of Menorca such as honey and flavoured liqueurs.
Is it time for a drink yet?
At some point in the day you will want to taste some of the local gin which was another happy British introduction. In the past there were many distilleries on Menorca to keep the sailors satisfied, but now only Xoriguer remains. They have several shops around town but a good place to try their gin is in the main distillery on the harbourfront near the cruise terminal. Through the glass windows you can see the stills in operation and you are free to taste a range of the different gins and flavoured liqueurs that they produce and sell here.
The local way with gin is to mix it with fizzy lemonade to make a Pomada, deceptively refreshing in the summer and served in vaste quantities at all the fiestas on Menorca. You might want to try it as an aperitif in one of the bars once you’ve finished your shopping.
Dinner at Es Castells
Of course there are plenty of places to eat in Mahón, but for a change of scene why not take a 10 minute taxi ride to Es Castell where there are lots of restaurants around the pretty harbour of Cales Fonts. Take some time to look aound the town square which was once a parade ground, with the red painted military buildings, before settling into a table at whichever restaurant takes your fancy.
Time for bed at Hotel Artiem Capri
Having enjoyed the sunset and fresh seafood for dinner, a taxi will return you to your hotel in Mahón. I stayed at the very pleasant Hotel Capri close to Plaça de s’Esplanada and a 15 minute walk from the port. My room was spacious and modern and there is a lovely rooftop pool (which sadly I was too busy sightseeing to try out). The hotel is part of the Artiem Hotel group which has many excellent hotels around the island including the Hotel Artiem Audax in Cala Galdana where I also enjoyed staying.
Wherever you stay I hope you have a perfectly restful end to your perfect day in Mahón!
Hotel Artiem Capri, Caller San Esteban, 8, Mahón, Menorca.
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Have you visited Mahón or Menorca? What were your favourite Menorcan moments?
Visitor Information for Menorca and Mahon
If you need a guide to show you the sites of Mahon and Menorca, I can highly recommend Luis Amella of Menorca Guides
Thanks to Menorca Tourism for hosting my stay in Menorca, in a project in partnership with Spain Tourism, Menorca Tourism and Travelator Media