Promising blemish-free beaches, sleepy harbour towns, and colourful markets, holidays to Formentera are for people who like to lose track of time.
Formentera’s calling card is its beach scene. The smallest of the Balearic Islands is known as the ‘last paradise’ because there’s a blanket ban on beachfront buildings, and the island’s sands are uniformly long, white and unspoilt. Most of them come with Blue Flag status, too, including the 5-mile stretch at Migjorn.
Ibiza’s little sister
Despite being just 17 kilometres from Ibiza, Formentera is a million miles away in terms of personality. While Ibiza burns the candle at both ends, Formentera’s flames flicker gently in the laid-back harbour-side restaurants of La Savina, and the lantern-lit hippy markets of El Pilar de la Mola. Even the island’s capital has go-slow as its default setting. San Francisco is built around an unhurried central square, where notice boards advertise massages and yoga classes.
That’s not to say there’s no nightlife on Formentera. Es Pujols, on the island’s north coast, has a collection of cocktail bars and open-air street cafes, which are open until the early hours. And if it’s bright lights you’re after, it’s easy to catch a boat over to Ibiza.
Things to See and Do in Formentera
Formentera’s 69-mile coastline has been compared to the Caribbean. The sand on the beaches is bright white and cotton soft. Rustic beach bars known as chiringuitos sell sangria and fresh fish dishes, and beachfront buildings are banned by island conservation law. Sunbathers in Formentera don’t keep office hours. Instead, they stick around on the sands until late evening to watch the sunsets.
The big beach
Just 15 minutes from San Francisco, on the island’s north coast, Playa Illetes is Formentera’s poster child. It's been voted Europe's best beach by TripAdvisor, and it's easy to see why. The beach itself is flat, white, and topped with a few wooden restaurants, which serve up paella and fish platters. It's usually the first port of call for visitors from Ibiza, so you'll see speedboats and yachts moored in the water.
The secret beach
Cala es Ram is meditatively quiet. This pebbly beach on the island’s south side is framed by rugged cliffs and pine trees. You can even hear cicadas chirrup while you sunbathe. It goes without saying there aren’t any restaurants on this secluded beach, but you have got a sleek eco resort a few metres from the sand, which has a roof terrace where you can watch the sunset in comfort.
Like its sister island, Ibiza, Formentera has plenty in the way of boutiques. San Francisco has the biggest selection. On Calle Santa Maria and Avenida Pla del Rei, you’ll find fashions by local designers as well as leather accessories shipped over from Milan. La Savina has a few speciality stores, too, which offer bespoke gifts and antique home furnishings.
For island souvenirs, hit Es Pujols Promenade. Here, you’ve got stalls and stores selling mugs, T-shirts, beachwear and leather goods. The shops are open until around midnight in the summer months, so you can pop in for a browse after dinner. If it’s food and drink you’re after, the Centro Gabrielet in San Francisco has a good selection of fruit and veg, plus local specialities like honey.
One of the things Formentera has in common with Ibiza is its hippy market. On a Wednesday and a Sunday, the streets of El Pilar heave with stalls selling children’s clothes, kaftans, woolly jumpers and wacky jewellery. It opens around 3pm and doesn’t close until dark. If you’re here with children, the street entertainers will keep their attention while you shop.
Sunsets are at the heart of evening entertainment on Formentera. You can watch some of the best at Cala Saona, 20 minutes west of San Francisco, and at Piratabus, 20 minutes south west. The Blue Bar on Migjourn Beach has its own circular sunset viewing platform and a DJ plays music between 7pm and 9pm.
Es Pujols has a decent collection of bars. Head to Paseo Peatonal or Avenida Espalmador streets for cocktails and tapas. Then there’s San Francisco’s main square, which gets busy in the summer months. For all-nighters, though, you’ll need to head over to Ibiza. A boat leaves La Savina at 10pm and returns at 6am the next morning.
Fresh fish is everywhere in Formentera. It’s cooked in lots of different ways, but the most common methods include grilling it and sprinkling it with lemon juice, or baking it in a stew and mixing it with fluffy potatoes. Try rao while you’re here – this small fish is exclusive to the waters around the Balearic Islands.
Otherwise known as ‘peasant salad’, this dish is made with potatoes, peppers and dried fish, all coated with lashings of olive oil. The fish-drying method is a tradition in Formentera, and it involves cutting the fish into fillets, coating them in salt, and then hanging them out in the sun to dry for up to 4 days.
If you’re not a fan of big starters, order this local speciality. It’s essentially an eggless mayonnaise, made with garlic, oil and salt. Follow the example of the locals, and smother it over warm crusty bread before your main meal.
Coca looks and tastes a lot like pizza. It’s got a very similar base, but with a slightly thicker outer ring. In Formentera, it comes with a topping of roasted tomatoes, crunchy peppers, onions and garlic. Order as a main course and enjoy with a cold glass of the island’s white wine.
This herbal liqueur is made with thyme, wild flowers and sugar. It’s best enjoyed alongside desserts like flao – a round tart made with eggs, soft cheese and mint – or greixonera – a pudding flavoured with cinnamon and lemon.
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Platja De Migjorn
Platja de Migjorn is on the opposite side of the island to La Savina, where the ferries from Ibiza dock. But Formentera is such a little place – barely 20 kilometres from head to toe – that it’s still only a 10-minute drive to get there. Greeting you is an unspoilt ribbon of sand, backed by a wooden walkway. Behind it, you’ll find a couple of bar-restaurants, sand dunes, and salt flats. Some tourist shops and a handful of low-rise hotels and apartment blocks do little to mess up the coastline.
Less than 10 minutes’ drive from the ferry port, Es Pujols sits at Formentera’s eastern shoulder, with a large, saltwater lagoon at its rear. It’s the only purpose-built resort on the island, but it still manages to keep things intimate. There’s a sandy beach and, behind it, a paved walkway with shoulder-to-shoulder bars and restaurants. Deeper in to the town, the slim streets thrum with souvenir shops and more terraced places to eat and drink.
Step straight off the ferry from Ibiza – it’s a 30-minute crossing – and you can drop your bags right away. La Savina is the island’s port and the gateway to Formentera, but it warrants more than just passing-through status. There’s a beach lapped by clear waters, inland lagoons to each side of the town, plus fabulous views back to the bigger Balearics. Elsewhere, most of local life plays out around the busy harbourfront, hemmed by cafés, bars and restaurants, with front-row seats of the boats chugging to and fro.
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