Life moves to a contented, chilled-out beat in this, the Balearic Islands’ good-looking, good-natured capital. And what a looker she is, spread across a bay in the south west of Majorca, home to golden beaches, decadent architecture and a rather dapper restaurant and bar scene.
An old pro at capturing people’s hearts, Palma’s sassy spirit is often a surprise to first-timers who wrongly pigeonhole the city with its tacky neighbour, Magaluf. They’re invariably bowled over by the city’s relaxed atmosphere, quickly falling head over heels for its languid lifestyle and nifty nooks and crannies that pop up along cobbled lanes.
With a scintillating historical heritage that’s a welcome surprise to many, you’ll discover crumbling remnants from its Moorish past, palatial townhouses with peeling shutters lining boulevards, and the mighty gothic cathedral, La Seu, which looms large over the city. It’s a cracking view to take in over a cocktail or two; its grand walls and turrets bathed in a warm, golden glow after dusk.
And while the cathedral is one of Palma’s leading acts, it’s not just this beautiful behemoth that defines the city. I can’t get enough of morning ensaïmadas (pastries), filled with thick creme catalana in tiny Santa Catalina cafes; late-night partying during summer’s balmy heat in the bars around La Lonja; window shopping surrounded by the dressed-to-kill-locals; and cycling along the coast to the impossibly gorgeous village of Portixol, with its pretty beach and cafes dishing up the best jamón serrano sandwiches I’ve ever tasted.
Your best bet is to take a lead from the locals and stroll around at your own pace. Tick off market squares with a rotating cast of buskers and street performers, drift through the former Arab and Jewish quarters and sift through the creations of local designers around the streets between Plaça Mayor, Plaça Mercat and Plaça Cort. Then there’s the marina, where you can pick up an ice cream — or three — and ogle the yachts.
One thing’s for sure on a trip to Palma, you’re never going to be short on things to do, just take it slow and loosen your belt a few notches.
What to do
La Seu: This grand gothic cathedral was built between the 13th and 17th century, with Gaudi adding some trademark flourishes last century, including the controversial, unfinished, Crown of Thorns — a cardboard and cork canopy above the altar.
Old Town: The oldest part of the city is home to the cathedral, Banys Arabs (Arab Baths) and the Museo de Arte Español Contemporáneo. The cobbled alleys are dotted with tapas bars, cafes and boutiques plus Renaissance palaces and squares.
Portixol: Pick up one of the free red bikes in the Plaça d’Espanya and cruise along the promenade, beside joggers, bladers and other cyclists to this former fishing village. Cool off with a paddle at Portixol’s sheltered beach and grab an iced coffee in one of the seafront’s drinking dens.
Deia: Palma is occasionally swamped with cruise ship day-trippers. Take refuge in the chic hideaway of Deià, a magnet for avant-garde artists and literary figures — most famously, Robert Graves — and home to quaint cottages, orange and olive groves, and a small shingle beach with rockpools and gin-clear water.
Fiestas: January sees the city fire up for its patron saint, Sebastian, with parades, music concerts and fireworks at Placa Joan Carlos, Placa Cort, and San Francesc among others. Elsewhere, live it up on 24 June for Saint Joan, the eve of which sees a cornucopia of street parties, bonfires and fireworks culminate in the infamous ‘correfoc’ — the fire run — where locals dressed as devils run through the streets with firecrackers.
Bellver Castle: Trailblaze on foot through the pine woods above Carrer de Bellver towards this 14th-century royal fortress. The museum is worth a quick look but the all-seeing view is the real star.
Mercat de Santa Catalina: Buy salty ibérico ham, stinky cheeses and oversized prawns and oranges at this indoor market in Santa Catalina — a great place to try out your Spanish.
Natura: Kook is all the rage at this store on Plaza Reina, with Balinese-inspired homeware, jewellery and boho-chic clothing, amid the pungent aroma of incense.
Arsitocrazy: From humble beginnings in 1940s Bilbao, this Spanish jewellery boutique has grown to encompass a collection of stylish outlets across Mexico, Aruba and Portugal; it’s popular for its chunky chain bracelets, stone-encrusted necklaces and limited-edition Game of Thrones rings.
Where to stay
Stay Catalina: Sitting in the arty action of Santa Catalina, this new opening offers a foolproof formula of slick design, friendly staff and great facilities. Channelling boho chic, the five individually designed apartments and studios come with fully equipped kitchens; some with terraces, others with a garden — an enchanting spot for a G&T above the buzz below.
Hotel Tres: Occupying a 16th-century former palace in the heart of Old Town, this hotel is centred around a beautiful courtyard with stone columns, balconies and a towering palm. Book the ‘Suite’, whose ace card is a private terrace with jaw-dropping cathedral views.
Purobeach: Mingle with the modish set at this chichi beach club — a white haven of plush sunbeds and inventive cocktails. By day, DJs play low-key Balearic beats to a crowd lingering between the massage table and dinner table, while by night, designer togs replace bikinis for parties into the small hours.
Bar Ábaco: Pricey drinks but it’s worth visiting this theatrical 17th-century house for an aperitif, with its candelabras and OTT displays of fruit and flowers.
Jazz Voyeur Club: With smoky sax solos, low, seductive lighting and a laid-back vibe away from the Europop, this dimly lit drinking den is a hidden revelation in La Llonja. Carrer d’Apuntadors, 5, 07012.
Where to eat
Bar Bosch: A favourite meeting point for locals and prime people-watching territory, this lively place spills onto the Passeig des Born with its outdoor tables, where punters fuel up on ensaïmadas and pa amb boli (bread with tomato rubbed into it and a dash of olive oil and salt).
Duke: The boho area of Santa Catalina has a clutch of buzzy restaurants, and this casual number, run by two surfers, wows with its healthy, daily-changing menu. Options include salmon tartar with avocado and coriander on a yellow mango gazpacho and white chocolate tiramisu with green tea and wasabi. T: 00 34 971 07 17 38.
La Cueva: Tapas abounds in Palma but La Cueva, on Carrer d’Apuntador, has some of the best. The oxtail stew and classic dishes such as patatas bravas and gambas ai ajillo (garlic prawns) are to die for. T: 00 34 971 72 44 22.
Like a local
Art attack: Travelling in September? Don’t miss the Nit de l’Art when Palma’s galleries and museums open their doors for free and the Old Town’s streets are taken over by performance arts and theatrics.
Mercado del Olivar: Discover eating on the move — start with oysters at Ostras (in the fish hall), then continue to S’Agla for strips of salty ibérico ham and to Capuccino Grand Café in Calle San Miguel for a carajillo de ron Amazonas (coffee with rum).
Instead of forking out for a taxi on arrival, follow the signs for the airport bus (number one) — it costs just €2 (£1.60) and takes around 20 minutes to reach the centre of Palma. The city is very walkable and it’s hard to get lost — simply navigate by using the cathedral. If you’re heading away from the city, there are plenty of car hire firms at Palma de Mallorca Airport.
There’s also the new ‘Palma Pass’ for free public transport and discounts in the city’s monuments, museums and restaurants. From €34 (£27) for a 48-hour pass and €28 (£22) for a 24-hour pass.
When to go
Spring and autumn, with temperatures in the mid-20Cs.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.20.
International dial code: 00 34.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Alpharooms.com offers three nights at Hotel Tres from £365 per person, including B&B and flights.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)