The city of Palma is so compact that you’d never guess that more than 400,000 souls make it their home. And yet, even with an addition of millions who descend upon the island of Mallorca in summer, the capital of Spain’s Balearic archipelago proves itself perfectly peaceful as you wander the narrow mazes of Moorish-era streets.
As ever more of Palma’s old villas become small hotels these days, you couldn’t find a quieter abode than the Boutique Hotel Sant Jaume in the heart of the old town. On a street—more an alley really—of the same name, the property’s neighbors include a lovely parish church…of the same name, of course. In a reverse of the usual urban development, not too many years ago this little stretch was full of bars that are gone today. Tonight, and perhaps after enjoying the rooftop plunge pool, you’ll sleep like you haven’t in ages.
To be sure, the 36-room, 18th-century mansion is also conveniently right off the leafy pedestrian La Rambla avenue (it’s nicely not Barça frenetic) lined with flower kiosks, and minutes away from the chi chi boutiques on the Paseo del Borne.
A small bar in the hotel foyer sits across from the Cantina Panzá, which is thankfully a fine dining restaurant, rather than the canteen English speakers might expect. Art works fill the hotel, starting with the 40-foot-high abstract sculpture by Mallorcan artist Robert Ferrer i Martonell that runs up the height of the atrium ceiling. A series of lovely and bright small illustrations by Victoria Masdeu and Estefania Pomar reflects highlights of Palma life.
When it comes time to explore the city, you’ll find that Palma’s bright-yellow sandstone Santa Maria of Palma—known as La Seu—has extra bragging rights for its famously soaring height as it looms over the Balearic sea. Its Baroque nave too rivals any on the mainland for its spectacular central rose window through which the morning sun floods. Visitors can climb up to the cathedral terraces and stand under thick Gothic flying buttresses for stunning views.
While Gaudí did some work on the interior, today a huge draw is a bold and bright fractured ceramic mural of loaves and fishes that renowned Mallorcan artist Miquel Barceló created in a side chapel in 2007.
With some digital assistance in order to not get lost, you can enjoy a stroll from La Seu down more of Palma’s twisty Casco Antiguo (old town) lanes to land up at the Posada de Terra Santa. With a mere 26 rooms, the renovated mansion with Gothic roots has arches everywhere and some lead right you into its La Despensa del Barón restaurant. The posada’s spa pool lies deep below in the stone-walled former grain store and is complemented by a small pool on the sunny rooftop.
If Spain explodes with richly laden public markets, you’d be hard pressed to find one as fine as Palma’s Olivar, overflowing as it is with fresh fruits, seafood, olive oils, cheeses, wines and and the ubiquitous ensaïmada pastry made with pig lard. The person to take you there is the engaging food historian and chef Deborah Piña who speaks excellent English and calls her small business Deborah’s Culinary Island.
Perhaps more exciting is to enter Piña’s Forn de sa Llotgeta, a former bakery with thick stone walls and a well equipped kitchen that she uses for her gastronomic workshop of “home and comfort food” based on the seasons. Learn to make the vegetable flat bread called coca, how to spread paprika-laced sobrasada sausage like a paté, and sample indigenous wines at wooden tables.
You’ll also find in Palma a wonderful opportunity to dine below ground in former stables. Sounds weird perhaps, but Quadrat Restaurant and its tasting menu, which might include braised octopus and guinea fowl dishes, is worth traveling for.
And you might just overnight upstairs in the Hotel Sant Francesc Singular on a square facing the Gothic Sant Francesc Basilica (and where Californian visitors in particular will recognize the name of Mallorcan missionary Junípero Serra on a statue there). The Sant Francesc is yet another mansion turned not long ago into 32 rooms and ten suites.
Among art works throughout the hotel, Mallorcan artist Guillem Nadal’s richly-textured and striking painting of curving parallel lines is prominently displayed in the lobby. Like all the best Palma properties, the Sant Francesc has a rooftop pool terrace with an up-close view of the Cathedral. You may not ever want to come down.
Travel Notes: Making for the only long-haul flight from the U.S. to the Balearic Islands, United Airlines will launch service between Newark (EWR) and Palma de Mallorca (PMI), from June 2nd through September 23rd. The Boeing 767-300ER aircraft, with new cabins that include United’s new premium Polaris, will fly three times a week. United will also launch new seasonal service to the Canary Islands.