Menorca is an island that for centuries has been violently fought over, occupied and protected. While the accessible Camí De Cavalls path was once a defence ring lining the coastline of the entire island, Menorca’s main harbours have also played a role in its defence and remain as significant points at each end of the island today.
I stood gazing at the seawater in multiple shades of blue that filled the charming harbours – the inviting gateways to the heights of two of the most architecturally and historically rich towns, Mahón and Ciutadella, before venturing up to explore. Both mark the most western and eastern points of the island, and port to port are accessible via a central main road that connects both within 45 minutes.
Alongside its nature trails and protected biosphere environment, Menorca’s main towns are also a highlight – windows into the siege-filled history of the island that many civilisations wanted a piece of, and who certainly left their mark.
Mahón – Menorca’s Main Port (East)
Surrounded by fortress walls and towers in all directions, Mahón’s defence ruins are a testament to it once being one of the safest ports in all of the Mediterranean, having fought off many civilisations who tried to take control of it. Today it is considered the Mediterranean’s largest natural port, used by large boats and giant cruise ships that bring welcome visitors to the island.
There’s a lot to take in, but many come to learn about its more recent history. Mahón has been captured by the Romans, Vikings, Greeks, Romans and the Ottomans to name a few, but the most significant structures that line this harbour are from the British occupation when the island became a part of the Crown in the 18th Century.
At risk from Pirates, taking control over the Mediterranean was of significant importance to European powers. Britain wanted its fleet permanently in the area because of its strategic potential and captured it along with the Dutch in 1708. Its large size and natural enclosure that granted it a ‘safe’ status was appealing.
Britain was handed Menorca in 1713 in the Treaty of Utrecht, but lost it to France in 1756-1763 who returned it after being defeated by the British in this ‘Seven Years War’. France and Spain joined forces, which again recaptured the island from the British, regaining control in 1782-1798.
Since Britain and France could not reconcile differences, it was agreed that they would withdraw from particular territories, of which Menorca was one. By 1802, Menorca was finally back in the hands of the Spanish for good.
These sites are sometimes referred to as the ‘British Route’ since many visitors come to Mahón to clamber amongst the forts and other architectural remains from this period. The main highlights include the areas of Es Castell with the imposing Fortress Isabel and the parallel structure on the opposite side of the harbour – Fort Marlborough. There are also 14 watchtowers dotted along the coastline.
The old and historic town of Mahón may not be as picturesque as the architectural darling that is Ciutadella, but it makes for a pleasant stroll before setting off from the harbour in order to understand its sheer size and dominance as a whole and the history that fills it.
The best way to discover this wide expanse that stretches over three nautical miles and over 900 metres wide is to either adventurously sail around it, or take the Glass bottom Catamaran Don Joan tour that leaves four times daily.
In Mahón you can sail through centuries to the past.
This boat, complete with historical interjections on the loud-speaker, passes grand houses of luxury residential areas, ‘Es Castell’, British Colonial style architecture, the 18th Century defence towers, fortifications, Naval Base and military hospital built by the British and La Mola – a defence fortress used by the Spanish in the 19th Century.
With such clear waters, you can also head down to the bottom of the boat and gaze at the marine life that lives in these clean and protected waters, surrounded by natural coves and bays.
Ciutadella – Menorca’s Second Largest City (West)
It was always the capital of Menorca until the British moved it to Mahón, yet Ciutadella retains its splendour as an important centre, whose present-day layout comes from the days of Turkish occupation. It was later adorned with 17th-century additions including Italian style buildings, a Catalan Gothic style Cathedral (built upon the foundations of an old Mosque in the 14th century with later additions), and Baroque palaces and mansions, alongside the Església of Socors Abbey in the same ornate style. Ciutadella still remains the island’s religious centre.
Ciutadella’s history is not as repeatedly turbulent as Mahon’s, but it was still a destination once occupied and under siege, mainly by the Turks. In 1558, an army of 15,000 on 140 ships of The Turkish Armada of 140 ships entered the town, completely destroyed it, and the few thousand inhabitants who survived were taken to Turkey and sold as slaves.
Now considered one of the most beautiful cities in all of Spain, Ciutadella sits up high in majestic poise, ready to tempt you in.
Aside from soaking up the walls of history, Ciutadella is the one town that oozes a modern Mediterranean flair. Large open squares of al fresco diners and daily rendezvous, shopping streets filled with boutiques and famous Menorcan sandal sellers, and swish bars serving the local gin and lemon juice mix, Pomada, this is the end of the island all about the good life.
As soon as I chose a street to start my exploration, I was compelled to just keep walking – down mysterious Medieval and Arabic style narrow streets, through grand archways, past the sandy and rusty orange-hued buildings that beautifully blend in unison and to the edges of the Old Port of Ciutadella – one the smallest in the Mediterranean.
Other Notable Ports and Harbours in Menorca
Mahon and Ciutadella may be the islands strongholds but other notable ports can be visited, each with its own distinct offering. In the north you will find the traditional fishing village of Fornells, used as the starting point for trips to the Marine Reserves and where many water sports enthusiasts take to the waters.
Addaia is next to the Natural Park of Albufera d’es Grau and is one of the lesser-known ports of the island and Cala’n Bosch is the man-made lagoon found in the south – the only port on the southern coastline of Menorca, which is more secluded since large boats are not granted access here.
Things to Know About Menorca’s Cities
- The Glass Bottom Don Joan Catamaran service leaves at 11, 12:30, 14 and 15:30 (11 euros adults, 5 kids, under 3 free).
- Boats can only anchor at designated points in Mahon, as part of the on-going preservation of the island.
- For further information about planning your time in Menorca, visit the Spain Tourism website
Where to Stay in Menorca
Many choose to stay outside of the cities in Menorca hotels along the coastline. The Hotel Artiem Audax – An adult-only hotel, sits on the nature reserve coastline of Cala Galdana Bay, not far from Ciutadella.