48 Hours In: Palma

Beaches, Miró, warm weather – and the tourists are on their way home. Need any more reasons to visit the Mallorcan capital?

Why go now?

Almost all the tourists have deserted Mallorca's beaches for another year, but the island usually stays warm and sunny for a few more weeks. Indeed, the middle fortnight of November is known locally as "little summer", when the light is sharper than in heat-hazy July and August. As the temperature falls, so do hotel prices, and the relative lack of visitors leaves more elbow room to explore the old town's mysterious lanes and picturesque squares, while enjoying excellent shopping, restaurants, nightlife and a thriving arts scene.

Touch down

The writer flew with easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyjet.com), which has the most connections between UK airports and Palma, but a dozen other scheduled or chartered airlines serve the city from a total of more than 20 UK airports.

Palma's Son Sant Joan airport is 8km east of the city. Four buses leave every hour for the busy Plaça Espanya (1), on the north side of the centre. The single fare is ¿1.80 (£1.30). By metered taxi, the same journey should cost around ¿15 (£10.80). A tourist office in the square (00 34 971 712 216; www.illesbalears.es) is open 9am-10pm daily.

Get your bearings

Palma has fanned extensively inland over the last 20 years: half of the 700,000 permanent residents of the Balearic islands now live there. Almost everything of interest, though, remains crammed into a small, easily navigable inner circle. This is contained to the south by the old city walls parallel to the sea, and to the north, west and east by wide, interconnecting boulevards. For instant orientation, simply scan the skyline: the towering Gothic La Seu cathedral (2) is visible from almost every point of the city.

Check in

Hidden from view down a narrow old-town lane, the Palacio ca sa Galesa (3) at Carrer de Miramar 8 (00 34 971 715 400; www.palaciocasagalesa.com) combines history and art in a setting of relaxed luxury. Its seven suites and five rooms, recently refurbished to the highest standards, surround a classical Mallorcan courtyard dating from the 16th century. The public rooms are crammed with valuable paintings, clocks and furniture; afternoon tea is served in a yellow room inspired by Monet's kitchen; there's a private sun terrace on the roof with a close-up view of the cathedral, and an intimate Romanesque swimming pool and gym in the basement. Double rooms start at ¿301 (£216) including breakfast. In contrast, the Puro Hotel (4) is clean, white and uncluttered, reflecting its Swedish ownership. Situated at Monte Negro 12 (00 34 971 425 450; www.purohotel.com), the starkness of this hip, 26-room hang-out is offset by exotic wood and stone artefacts from India, south-east Asia and Morocco, with dreamy ambient music and a rooftop terrace with a plunge pool. Doubles, including breakfast, cost from ¿235 (£168). Among the budget options in the heart of town, English-owned Hostal Brondo (5) at Carrer Ca'* Brondo 1 (00 34 971 719 043; www.hostalbrondo.net) has double rooms with en-suite bathrooms and miniature balconies at ¿65 (£47), excluding breakfast. In the reception area, a portion of a Roman arch is preserved in the modern wall.

Take a Picture

Palma's second-most imposing landmark is the circular, 16th-century Bellver castle (6) at the summit of a wooded hill north-west of the city. The castle and its museum are open 8am-5.30pm Monday to Saturday; only the castle is open on Sundays. Admission is ¿1.65 (£1.20), except Sundays, when entry is free. The castle is a popular stop on the open-topped tourist bus circuit (01708 866000; www.opentopsightseeingtours.co.uk), which departs from various stops around the city for a one-day fare of ¿13 (£9.30). The ground floor of the castle has a History Museum (00 34 971 730 657), and there are wonderful views of the city and its sweeping bay from the battlements.

Take a hike

... around the medina-like tangle of streets, alleys and squares that form the old town. You're bound to get lost, but that's half the fun. Along the way, peer through wrought-iron gates into elegant, shady patios with stone staircases and galleries covered in flowers. Start at the true heart of the city, the stately Plaça Mayor (7), and work your way south through the refurbished artisans' quarter to the Basilica de San Francisco (8) to admire its impressive sandstone frontage and enormous rose window. Turn right along Carrer Cadena to Plaça de Cort (9), and continue down the incline to the southern end of Passeig d'es Born. This historic tree-lined promenade, known as "El Born", is Palma's equivalent to Barcelona's Rambla. It is flanked on either side by busy roads, but its stone sphinxes and giant modern sculptures are delightful. At the northern end, Plaça Joan Carles I (10) is the gateway to Palma's main shopping streets.

Write a postcard

Plaça Rei Joan Carles I (10) is also the site of Bar Bosch, a family-run establishment for generations where locals and tourists fill the pavement tables to watch the morning-to-night promenading up and down El Born.

Lunch on the run

Stop for an ensaïmada – a sweet bun filled with custard, jam or chocolate – at one of the countless bakeries and cake shops, known as pastelerías. For something more substantial, Café Bonaire (11) at Carrer Bonaire 7 (00 34 971 710 053) serves an all-you-can-eat buffet of couscous, salad, pastry, wine or mineral water for ¿9.50 (£6.80), with a small supplement if you eat at one of the terrace tables.

Cultural afternoon

Art and architecture have figured prominently in Palma since the Modernists started reshaping the city at the turn of the last century, and a fine collection of Modern and Postmodern works is on view at Es Baluard (12), an angular white concrete building adjoining the medieval wall at Plaça Porta Santa Catalina. One section contains Picasso's ceramics; another celebrates Miró and his followers. The museum (00 34 971 908 200; www.esbaluard.org) is open 10am-8pm daily in winter, except Monday; admission is ¿6 (£4.20). Miró spent his later years on the island, and there's a permanent collection of his paintings and collages at the Joan Miró Foundation Building (13) to the west of the city, at Carrer Joan de Saridakis 29 (00 34 971 701 420; miro.palmademallorca.es), where you can also visit the artist's chaotic workshop. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays (and only to 3pm Sundays); admission is ¿5 (£3.60).

Window shopping

Smart shops and department stores line the two connecting thoroughfares, Avinguda Jaume III and Calle Unio, a little north of the old town. The streets and squares of the old town itself have smaller shops with more authentically Mallorcan products, such as hand-blown glass, pottery, handicrafts and leatherware. Plaça Olivar (14) has the best covered market, with dazzling displays of flowers, fruit and seafood, open 7am-2pm Monday to Saturday.

All but the tourist shops and department stores (open 10am-10pm daily except Sunday) take an afternoon siesta, typically 1-4pm.

An Aperitif

It's expensive and sometimes overcrowded, but Abaco (15), at Calle San Juan 1 (00 34 971 714 939) remains one of the most memorable cocktail bars you'll encounter anywhere, let alone in Palma. Cascading arrangements of flowers and fruit, caged songbirds, classical music, a tinkling fountain in the courtyard, flamboyant waiters and exotic drinks (cocktails around ¿15/ £10.80) in the setting of a converted 16th-century palace combine to produce an intoxicating experience. Abaco opens 8pm-12.30am Tuesday to Thursday, 8pm-3am Friday and Saturday, and is closed on Sunday and Monday.

Dining with the Locals

To sample authentic Mallorcan cuisine, such as fresh cuttlefish and snails, the place to go is C'an Carlos (16) at Carrer de l'Aigua 5 (00 34 971 713 869). This family-run restaurant presents the food imaginatively and charges reasonably. Along the seafront, the smart and friendly S'Eixerit (17) at Carrer Vicario Joaquin Fuster 73 (00 34 971 273 781) has both a sea-facing terrace and a luxuriant interior garden. The freshly-caught dorada (¿14/£10) is worth the trip alone.

Sunday morning: go to church

Many of Palma's fine churches tend to be overlooked by visitors – but that's the price of having one of the great cathedrals of Europe. La Seu (2) took 400 medieval years to complete. Its sandstone walls and flying buttresses are best viewed from the seafront, but the interior is no less impressive. One is left wondering how its narrow columns can possibly support such a monumental ceiling, which even survived an earthquake in 1851. The largest of the stained glass rose windows extends almost beyond the reach of the naked eye, and the sense of wonder is completed by Antonio Gaudí's many fanciful embellishments from the early 20th century, notably the wrought-iron canopy, symbolising the Crown of Thorns, suspended above the altar. It opens from 10am-3.15pm Monday to Friday and 10am-2.15pm on Saturdays (00 34 971 723 130; www.catedraldemallorca.org). Admission is ¿4 (£2.80). Mass is held from 9-10.30am on Sundays, when only worshippers are admitted.

Out to Brunch

Outside the cathedral, descend the steps of Costa de la Seu (18) towards the egg sculpture that Miró gave to the city. Halfway down the steps on the right is the best of the island's small Cappuccino chain of restaurants. It serves excellent all-day breakfasts and lunches. Get there early to secure a table on the outside terrace.

A walk in the park

The construction of a coastal motorway dividing the cathedral and the sea could have been an aesthetic disaster, but the creation of the Parc de la Mar (19) on some of the reclaimed land saved the day. Built around a seawater lake, the park is a pleasant oasis of flowers, palm trees and walkways, with an outdoor theatre for concerts, a Miró mural, and an art gallery in the vaults of the old walls.

Take a ride

Hop aboard one of the quaintest, clankiest trains still running for a 28km rollercoaster journey to the attractive town of Sóller on the north coast (00 902 364 711; www.trensoller.com). The narrow-gauge electric train, with its aged but well-maintained rolling stock, has been running since 1912 from a miniature station on the north side of Plaça Espanya (1). The exciting bit is when it burrows noisily through 13 tunnels to penetrate the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, before coming to a halt after 75 minutes at Sóller's ornate station, which boasts its own art gallery. There are seven services in each direction every day. The fare is ¿14 (£10) return. If time permits, take the equally venerable tram to the beach at Port de Sóller, for an additional fare of ¿3 (£2.10) each way.

Icing on the cake

The gaudy resorts on either side of Palma are renowned – among other things – for their beaches, but Palma has five of its own, with fine white sand and excellent facilities. Above them, pavements and cycle tracks follow the main road east to the fishing villages of Portixol and Molinar, which are being quite attractively restored and gentrified, and where the seafood is reputed to be the best on the island.

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