“Surely it can’t rain like this all day!” I exclaimed to my husband as we wiped condensation from the bus window, trying to improve our view of Palma, Mallorca’s capital city, following two weeks of touring around the rest of the island. “We will have to find a bar to shelter in” was his response, wincing as an elderly gentleman leaped over a huge puddle on departing the bus. Which is exactly what we did – stepping 10m from the bus stop into La Rosa Vermutería for an impromptu vermouth tasting session, while the rain actually did stop for the rest of the weekend!
Our visit would mainly focus on food and art. We were excited to investigate Palma’s food scene, mainly the off the beaten track quarter of Santa Catalina. Palma, and in fact the island of Mallorca, hosts many artists and wonderful works of art and Palma is the epicentre of modern art on the island with several galleries we wanted to visit and a pilgrimage to the former home and studio of Catalonian artist Joan Miró.
So on our first evening we headed out west from our hotel in the centre of the old town, past the famous cathedral, across the palm-lined Passeig del Born and over the Pont de la Porta de Santa Catalina to arrive on the outskirts of Santa Catalina, which at 8pm on a Friday night in October was slowly warming up (now the rain had stopped). The huge diversity of the restaurants, bars and cafes was immediately obvious, as was the clientele – not so much the monied expats and tourists, instead locals and visitors seeking out a more genuine experience. Over the next few days we enjoyed Japanese, Creole, Italian and Spanish cuisine (what a shame we only had three days!), as well as speciality coffee at streamlined cafes and caipirinhas at paint-stripped bars. The area also boasts one of the oldest food markets in Palma where you can not only shop for the best produce from Mallorca and indeed from all over the world but you can join the throng of local workers every lunchtime enjoying the tapas, seafood and charcuterie on offer. Very close to both the marina (it was formerly a fisherman’s village) and the centre of the city, Santa Catalina is definitely worth including in your Palma itinerary.
At breakfast the next morning, we were greeted by the welcome sight of an icing sugar drenched platter of the famous Mallorcan ensaïmades – a sweet treat, a little like a croissant but made with pork lard instead of butter. I know this doesn’t sound particularly appealing but once you try one, you will develop a daily ensaïmade habit! You can find the best in the centre of Palma at Fornet de la Soca and Forn Fondo.
An interlude to our eating and art gazing agenda was a highly recommended beach day! There are many beaches close to the city – some in walking distance (though we were told these get busy and there are rumours of pollution) and many accessible by public transport/car. We chose to hop on the No.10 bus from right outside our hotel in the centre of town which took us directly to the beach club Balneario Illetas in Ses Illetes in 40 mins. The beach here is gorgeous – a small cove with white sand and calm water, but with all the services of an established beach club with restaurant, bars and beach service. Visiting on a Sunday, every sunbed was taken and every spot on the sand smothered a beach towel however it was still relaxing and a great way to pass a day in the October sunshine, people watching, supping Mallorcan wine on a comfy sunbed and stepping into the chic restaurant for a delicious lunch. We stayed until the sun had disappeared, the sunbeds were being stacked away and the last groups of friends had made their plans for that evening and moved on. A perfect day.
Back on the art trail, a slightly shorter journey on the same bus route took us to Fundació Miró Mallorca, the former home and working space of the painter and sculpturer Joan Miró. I have wanted to visit this place for well over a decade and it was even more evocative than I had hoped. It really is off the beaten track, well-hidden on a hill high above Platja de Cala Major and therefore very tranquil. There are three main buildings: a modern exhibition space which quite perfectly displays much of Miró’s work; his minimalist studio designed by Miró’s friend, Josep Lluís Sert, which is a work of art in itself; and an 18th century Mallorcan farmhouse which was converted into a studio and where you can find his work scribbled directly onto the walls. The site is surrounded by the most stunning exotic gardens and there are views down to the sea. You can spend hours wandering, admiring Miró’s work and soaking up the Mallorcan sunshine away from the crowds. Another art filled placed with incredible views is the Es Baluard, adjacent to the cathedral and looking out to sea, this contemporary art museum and cultural complex is built within and around the former defensive walls of the city. While some of the exhibitions may not be to all tastes, the minimal entrance fee is worth it for the stunning views and architectural design. I thought it was a wonderful cultural space and will always make a point to return whenever in Palma to see what’s happening.
Another essential stop for all art lovers is the Museu Fundación Juan March, situated right in the heart of Palma, which is a wonderful collection of Spanish contemporary artists, including some well-known names. Entry is free and as well as lots of wonderful art, it’s a superb opportunity to explore a restored 17th century Mallorcan stately home. I suggest exploring Palma through these recommendations:
- Es Baluard Museu d’Art Contemporani de Palma – By the marina, next to the cathedral – brilliantly designed modern art gallery – great for architecture and modern art fans
- Museu Fundación Juan March, Palma – In the centre of the city – another great art gallery, free to enter and set in a grand 17th century palace
- Catedral-Basílica de Santa María de Mallorca – One of the most iconic and tallest cathedrals in Europe with a wonderful position overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Arrive early to beat the crowds.
- Llotja de Palma – Just along from the cathedral, I fell in love with the architecture of this 15th century gothic masterpiece, especially when lit at night.
- ICON Rosetó – Great location in the centre of town, rooms are spacious and there is an airy internal courtyard which is the setting for a varied breakfast buffet. The small pool and sun deck on the roof are great for catching some rays in between sightseeing.
Eat / Drink
In the centre:
- La Rosa Vermutería – Very popular restaurant (with some bar tables) – pop in for a vermouth and a famous Gilda (jalapeño/anchovies/olives on a stick) or have a blow out tapas meal and a bottle of wine from the excellent wine list. It’s always busy, the staff are friendly and efficient and the food is fresh, simple and tasty.
- Mistral Coffee House – Great speciality coffee house with baristas who really know what they are talking about.
- Gibson Bar – Popular with expats and locals, this cheap bar with small terrace is bustling and great for people watching.
- Bar Nicolás – Pricier than its neighbour but offering more varied drink options with a larger terrace and the same great atmosphere.
- Bodega Can Rigo – Book ahead for a table at this cosy, family-run bodega which is super friendly. The tapas and wine selection are excellent and their famous meatball dish is sublime!
- 13% vinos tapas bistro – A relaxed bistro of sorts with a slightly unusual menu, with some interesting vegetarian options and a good wine list with organic options.
- Mercat de l’Olivar – A large indoor food market in the very centre of town, established since 1951, thriving with multi-levels, lots of produce to peruse and buy and many varied eating establishments, some with excellent value set lunch/dish options.
In Santa Catalina:
- Nola – Instantly transported to the American deep south for some soul food in this culturally varied quarter of Palma. The décor is gorgeous, the cocktails fun and the food finger-licking good – if a little pricy.
- Japo Santa Catalina – Exquisite Japanese restaurant offering very good value sushi platters.
- Havanna Bar – Relaxed, Cuban themed bar with a wide open front ideal for people watching.
- Buscando el Norte Santa Catalina – This very popular restaurant offers a great tapas selection with a buzzy atmosphere and friendly staff.
- Simple Smart Food Bar – Head here if you’re looking for a break from the meat-heavy tapas and fancy a cleansing juice or super salad. Chilled vibe and smart design.
- Mercat de Santa Catalina – You can take your pick of the tapas and seafood stalls at this indoor market where you can pull up a chair and enjoy a glass of wine and your pick of the freshest fare.