The best of the Balearics

Travel inspiration


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Discover different shades of island life off the coast of Spain

It’s Spain, but it’s also not Spain. The four main islands of this Mediterranean archipelago — Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera — have the same wonderful climate as southern Spain, but each has their own unique side to explore. Let’s look at them one by one, shall we?


Hiking route GR 221 in Mallorca leads to the viewpoint Mirador d'en Josep Sastre exposing the a breathtaking view to La DragoneraThe viewpoint Mirador d’en Josep Sastre has a breathtaking view to La Dragonera — Shutterstock

We’ll begin on the largest island, which also happens to be home to the region’s capital, Palma. Since 1983, the Balearics have been an autonomous region of Spain, and this is the most popular place to begin to get to know what it’s all about.

In the past, Mallorca was often seen as a by-word for cheap package holidays in huge resorts, and although they do still exist (notably the 30km strip on the Bay of Palma and one or two on the east coast), Mallorca’s great strength is in its diversity.

Cathedral La Seu at Palma de Mallorca Cathedral La Seu at Palma de Mallorca — Shutterstock

Palma itself is a lively place, dominated by its huge Gothic cathedral and a smattering of grand mansions built by the nobility from the 16th century onwards. In the 19th century, it drew artists and writers to its narrow lanes and cobbled squares which look as beautiful now as they ever did.


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The rest of the island is virtually untouched, with the rugged Serra de Tramuntana peaks running along the entire northwest of the island, giving great options for climbing and hiking. There are hidden coves and small, unspoiled beaches almost everywhere you turn, and delightful little villages seemingly lost in time. The 13th-century Lluc monastery serves as a destination for both the religious and the secular, having been a place of pilgrimage since the 13th century, it now also houses a museum dedicated to the history, art, archaeology, and people of Mallorca.


The beaches in Menorca are perfect for snorkelingThe beaches in Menorca are perfect for snorkeling — Shutterstock

The easternmost island in the group is probably the most relaxed. It doesn’t have the city bustle of Palma or the party reputation of Ibiza (which we’ll come to soon enough!)

The whole island is a Unesco biosphere reserve, meaning that its forests and wetlands are preserved and untouched, as are the Bronze Age archaeological sites, sprinkled mysteriously around the landscape.

Indeed, inland is rolling hills and farmland, tiny settlements joined by seemingly endless stone walls weaving their ancient way across the landscape. Rent a bicycle and ride from place to place, or grab your map and find your way along one of the walking trails that criss-cross the island. 

The whole place is gently understated, with small, neatly whitewashed towns dotted around the coast, each on its own delightful harbor or bay, meaning there’s always a bit of a sea breeze to keep you from cooking under the Mediterranean sun. The laid-back atmosphere of these towns invites you to do very little: an amble along the seafront with an ice cream, maybe, or a relaxing dip in the clear, blue sea. Evenings might be spent sampling the local seafood, or on your balcony with a glass of wine. When life looks this good, why rush?


View to Ibiza's old town View to Ibiza’s old town — Shutterstock

The hard-partying tearaway of the group, Ibiza pulls in around seven million tourists in an average year, many (if not most!) of whom are there to dance all night to some of the world’s top DJs in many of the best clubs in the world.

It’s also a great place to come if you’re toward the other end of the partying spectrum: if all-night raving isn’t your thing, Ibiza has a history of bohemian, artsy types whose flowing-hippy-dress, flowers-and-large-sunglasses chic was established in the 1960s and is still going strong to this day.

But, like every one of the Balearic islands, Ibiza has a rich history to discover and also hides many, far calmer, secrets. The three towns of note — Ibiza town itself, Santa Eulària des Riu and Sant Antoni de Portmany (also known as San Antonio) — are all to the south and east of the island, so if you’re looking for peace and quiet, head north.


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Here you’ll find pine forests, rural villages, religious retreats, white sandy beaches, small family-run guesthouses and all manner of things to give even the most bleary-eyed party animal a wonderful reason to get fresh air into their lungs.

Group of friends watching the sunset from a cliff in IbizaGroup of friends watching the sunset from a cliff in Ibiza — Shutterstock

Otherwise, spend your days in the towns themselves. Ibiza town is built on a hillside and is dominated by the walls and ramparts of the Dalt Vila, a World Heritage site and home to the 14th century Santa Maria d’Eivissa cathedral. The nearby Puig des Molins is an Islamic necropolis that also houses a museum of archaeology, while walking a couple of miles north out of town will bring you to a 23-meter-high statue of Jesus Christ. If you need absolution for your previous night’s sins, you’re well provided for.


"Es calo d'es mort" is one of the most beautiful spots in Formentera“Es calo d’es mort” is one of the most beautiful spots in Formentera — Shutterstock

The hipster’s choice for Balearic travel, Formentera lies a mere eleven miles across the sea from Ibiza town and, despite being uninhabited for 350 years when the locals decided they couldn’t be bothered putting up with the constant attacks by pirates and abandoned the place, it has a lot in common with its larger sister.

It was part of the hippie travel explosion in the 1960s; indeed, it was positively encouraged that if hippies, travelers and other undesirable types wanted to come to Spain, they should confine themselves to the islands. The Francoist regime tolerated them in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind sort of way in that whatever they were doing there, at least they weren’t coming to big cities and fermenting unwashed unrest among the local youth. Pink Floyd, notably, were big fans of Formentera in particular.


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Hiking route GR 221 in Mallorca leads to the viewpoint Mirador d'en Josep Sastre exposing the a breathtaking view to La DragoneraHiking route GR 221 in Mallorca leads to the viewpoint Mirador d’en Josep Sastre exposing the a breathtaking view to La Dragonera — Shutterstock


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Geographically however, the island is different from Ibiza. Whereas Ibiza has greenery, vineyards and the like, Formentera is rather arid. It’s also covered in rosemary and lizards, which sounds like the title of a Pink Floyd album if ever I heard one. The beaches are some of the least-visited in the archipelago; long, white, and stretching around almost the entire island. It’s not somewhere to come if you’re looking for luxury, but if escape and blissful solitude is your thing, it’s the place to be.

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