New flights make Mallorca’s capital even easier to reach from the UK. Imogen Haddon samples the port city’s fine food, architecture and art
Why go now?
Because summer is surprisingly quiet in Palma as both tourists and the Mallorquins head for the beach resorts outside the island's capital. This allows you breathing space to enjoy the sunshine in this hip Spanish city that seems to have, so far, avoided the hen and stag parties that plague Barcelona. Try to catch the Nit de Foc (Night of Fire) on June 24, when a dramatic fireworks display over the Parc de la Mar marks the beginning of Mallorca's summer fiestas.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) launched a new service last weekend from London City airport to Palma, up to five times a week. Prices start at £69 each way. The leading carrier is easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), with flights from Bristol, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton, Gatwick, Stansted and Newcastle. Palma's Son Sant Joan airport lies 8km east of the city. Bus 1 runs to the bayside Passeig Marítim via Plaça Espanya every 15 minutes from about 6am to about 2.15am, fare €1.85. A taxi costs about €22 to the city centre and takes 20 minutes, longer in heavy traffic.
Get your bearings
Palma is hard to get lost in. The best point of reference is the magnificent Seu (cathedral), overlooking the sea, with its spires visible from almost every point in town. The rest of the city spreads out behind the cathedral, with the handsome Plaça Major north-east of the cathedral, and the busy Plaça Espanya marking the northern extent of the city centre. The best view of the ensemble is from the only circular Gothic castle in Spain, the 14th-century Castell de Bellver in the west; it houses the Museu d'Història de la Ciutat (00 34 971 73 06 57; 8am-8.30pm daily except Sunday; €2.10).
Tucked away in a narrow street in the old town, Hotel Tres at Carrer d'Apuntadors 3 (00 34 971 717 333; hoteltres.com) is a haven of calm in the midst of a touristy district. The Scandinavian-run hotel, originally a 16th-century merchant's palace, is understated in its elegance, retaining the original beams with a simple white decor. Breakfast can be served in the sunny courtyard. The roof has a deck to sunbathe on and a small plunge pool, with great views over the cathedral and rooftops. Double rooms start at €230, including breakfast. Hotels with decent-size pools are hard to find in the centre of town, but 25 minutes' walk will take you to the seafront Hotel Portixol — an art deco-inspired hotel and restaurant at Carrer de Sirena 27 (00 34 971 271 800; portixol.com), which has a Miami feel to it. Doubles start at €240, including breakfast. Among the budget options, try Hotel Born, which has a good central location at Carrer Sant Jaume 3 (00 34 971 71 29 42; hotelborn.com); double rooms start at €80, including breakfast.
Take a hike
Palma's streets vary from the narrow, shuttered alleyways of the old town (Sa Llotja) to the wide elegant promenades of the Rambla and Passeig des Born with its Modernista street lamps and stone sphinxes. The nod to design throughout the city even extends to the robot-like recycling bins dotted throughout the city.
Start out from the cathedral up to a key hub of the city since the 13th century, the Plaça Cort , centred around a twisting olive tree that's reportedly more than 1,000 years old. From here, head up to the arcaded Plaça Major and along Palma's primary pedestrianised street: Carrer de San Miguel. This is where you will find the Museu d'Art Espanyol Contemporani (13) (00 34 971 35 15; march.es/museupalma; open 10am-6.30pm Mon-Fri, 10.30am-2pm Sat; free).
Carry on up this street up to the Plaça Espanya and then cut across left and left again down the boulevard of La Rambla, which apes its more celebrated counterpart in Barcelona. Walk past the flower stalls under a canopy of plane trees, before bearing right (west) and passing the undulating façades of the identical Modernista apartment buildings of the Casas Cassayas (14) on your way to the Plaça Rei Joan Carles. Turn left down the elegant promenade of the Passeig des Born, ducking down the shaded street of Sant Feliu with its exclusive private art galleries and left down Montenegró back to the winding cobbled streets of Sa Llotja.
Lunch on the run
For a quick tapas lunch, drop by La Bóveda at Carrer de Boteria 3 (00 34 971 714 863), open 1.30-4pm, 8pm-midnight, Mon-Sat. Get there early, grab a place at the tiled bar and shout your order above the noise for classic Mallorcan pa amb oli (bread and olive oil), jamon, gambas al ajillo, boquerones and a lemon sorbet shot laced with vodka to finish.
Palma's premier modern art gallery, Es Baluard is more completely known as the Museu d'Art Modern i Contemporani de Palma (00 34 971 90 82 00; esbaluard.org) and is open mid-June to September, 10am-1pm daily except Monday, admission €6. The building itself is the main draw here, incorporating the old fortifications within clean lines of white concrete and glass. The museum contains works by Picasso, Miró (who spent his latter years in Palma) and Magritte, among many others. Don't miss Walls and Cathedral at Dusk by Firmin Massot, which hangs on the corridor that leads you to the roof of the museum, which, as well as the terrace with its classy cafe, has fantastic views of the city.
The smart shops in town, such as Loewe and Hugo Boss, line up along the Passeig des Born. Pop in to the city's first fully fledged concept store, Rialto Living at Carrer de Sant Feliu 3c (00 34 971 713 331; rialtoliving.com).
Try out the bar at the ‘urban oasis’ of Puro Hotel, Carrer Montenegro 12 (00 34 971 42 54 50; purohotel.com), a trendy boutique hotel in the old town, with a massive white-feather light installation above the bar. Then, for something completely different, hop just across the road to Abaco, at Carrer Sant Joan 1 (00 34 971 714 939; bar-abaco.com). Perhaps one of the most expensive bars in the world: a 16th-century converted palace, decked with flowers, fruits, and even caged songbirds. It gets busy in the summer and on weekends.
Dining with the locals
If you have time, venture out to the more remote Genova district of Palma to visit what is reportedly the busiest restaurant on the island, Meson C'an Pedro 1 at Carrer Rector Vives 4 (00 34 971 40 24 79; mesoncanpedro.com). Eat pan tostado con tomate, frito mallorquin, padrón peppers, followed by paletilla de cordero (lamb) or chulletitas (tiny, burnt chops). Watch locals swoop in long after 10pm with their snail-eating children.
Sunday morning:go to church
Dominating not only the seafront, but also Palma itself is, as it is locally known, La Seu. It was completed in 1601 after 400 years and now stands as one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Europe.
Gaudi worked here between 1904 and 1914, opening up the interior by a number of modifications. To the right of the altar is the addition of the modern Mallorcan artist Miquel Barceló, whose haunting three-dimensional mural in the Chapel of St Peter depicting the Feeding of the Five Thousand was unveiled in 2007.
A walk in the park
Up until 30 years ago, the seafront used to come up to the walls of the cathedral, but after a land reclamation project, in 1984 an artificial lake was sunk into the area between the cathedral and the harbour, creating part of the Parc de la Mar. This enabled the cathedral to once more be reflected in its full glory in the water, as it used to be in the sea. The park also boasts a Miró mural and a sculpture garden by Josep Guinovart.
Out to brunch
In the hip, albeit slightly shabbier, district of Santa Catalina, have brunch at a mainstay of the Palma restaurant scene: Fabrica 23 at Carrer Cotoner 42-44 (22) (00 34 971 45 31 25; fabrica23.com). The lunchtime ‘menu del dia’ (Sundays 1-3pm) is a real draw at this restaurant, which fuses traditional Mallorcan cuisine with contemporary European influences.
Write a postcard
Stop in the afternoon at Bar Bosch in Plaça Rei Joan Carles at the top of Passeig des Born. Order a coffee and an ensaïmada, a Mallorcan sweet bun, and watch the world rush by from this central meeting point of Palma.
Take a ride
A train trip on the Ferrocarril de Sóller is a must-do on any visit to Mallorca (00 34 971 75 20 51; trendesoller. com, a return ticket costs €17). Six trains a day, with wooden carriages, brass fittings and gaslights, leave the station from Palma at Plaça Espanya to wend their gentle way up and down hills and through tunnels towards the harbour town of Sóller, in the north of the island. The views of the lemon groves as you pass through them make this an unforgettable ride.