I didn’t have high expectations when I first landed in Málaga in the fall of 2014. I had heard about the overbuilt and over-touristy Costa del Sol, serving crowds of northern Europeans in search of sun and sand, without an iota of Spanish culture. As an international visitor, Málaga was my point of entry for a visit to Andalucía, southern Spain’s most popular region.
When I had to postpone my flight because of an airline strike, I ended up skipping Málaga completely and taking a bus straight to Cádiz. It wasn’t until two weeks later that I was finally able to spend an afternoon in the city. And I liked it. I liked it a lot. This was a real city, not a resort, and it was beautiful and interesting. I needed to come back!
Why Málaga is worth a visit
Fortunately I was able to carve out four days at the end of my 7-week trip and return. This past winter, I spent three more days there on my way to the Canary Islands. It was still as pleasant as I remembered. So here is why I think I have a serious crush on this city, and why Málaga is worth a visit. (Sorry for keeping it a secret for so long!)
A real Spanish town
I think the main reason I like Málaga so much is that it feels like a real city, with real Spanish people living and working there. Although there is a beach, and cruise ships stop here, it’s not a resort. The tourist presence is not overwhelming like in the smaller towns along the coast.
Despite being a real city of over half a million inhabitants, Málaga is well laid out and pleasant to explore. The friendly locals are a bonus.
Pedestrian-friendly town centre
The old historic town centre is largely pedestrianized, including the wide commercial street Marqués de Larios, other main arteries, and small side streets. They are paved with smooth cream or light grey tiles that give you the impression of walking on marble floors. All the sights of interest to visitors are located in the town centre, and walking between them is pleasant and easy. No car or bus required.
Málaga is a port city, so it should come as no surprise that the waterfront is one of its main features. This wasn’t always the case I’m told, as the port area was off-limits to the public until 2011. Now you can stroll along two quays (Muelle 1 and Muelle 2), stopping to shop, eat, or drink along the way, or just sit and contemplate life. Muelle 2 is also called “The Palmeral de las Sorpresas” (the palm garden of surprises) and offers a modern and clean look, backed by gardens and sitting areas, and of course, palm trees. It’s one of my favourite spots to relax with a latte on a sunny afternoon.
Even though the traffic and pace of life in Málaga is nothing too stressful, a bit of greenery is always welcome. Right across the road from Muelle 2 is a long leafy park with sculptures, fountains, and benches. You can walk the whole perimeter for a total of about two kilometres.
If you need more exercise, taking the path behind the Alcazaba (entry fee applies) will take you up to the Castillo de Gibralfaro through another peaceful green area.
Food everywhere – did someone say tapas?
Málaga is known for having some of the best tapas bars in the province. According to Lonely Planet, the historic centre counts over 400 tapas bars and restaurants! And it’s not all fried eggplant and croquettes either. I’ve had tapas here that I haven’t seen anywhere else, such as those created at tiny restaurant Tapeo de Cervantes. Also near Plaza de la Merced, Cortijo de Pepe has a very local feel with more affordable and larger portions. Not all tapas bars are created equal, so ask locals for advice.
House wine is cheap, but if you want something more refreshing in summer, try tinto de verano. It’s similar to sangria, but not as sweet.
Cappuccinos are not really popular here (and they look weird). If you like milky coffee, ask for a café con leche, although this may mark you as a tourist. The image on the left shows how to order a coffee the real Málaga way!
Plenty of things to see and do
For a city its size, Málaga is well endowed with attractions, including several museums, a cathedral, and remnants of its Islamic past in the form of the Alcazaba and Castillo de Gibralfaro (combined ticket available).
Among the museums, the Museo Picasso Málaga is probably the best known, but the Museum of Glass & Crystal is equally (if not more) interesting. A slew of new museums have opened in recent years: Museo Carmen Thyssen (19th century Spanish art), Pompidou Centre (modern art), and Museo de Málaga (archeology and fine arts). And that’s not even all of them. These museums cost only a few Euros to visit (with a maximum of 10 Euros for the Picasso Museum).
There is also a bullring (if you’re into that), Picasso’s childhood home, roman ruins, an indoor market (Mercado Atarazanas), and several beautiful squares surrounded by historical buildings (Plaza de la Constitución in particular).
If you prefer to spend your entire day within sight of the Mediterranean, follow Muelle 1 toward the lighthouse and round the corner to find the local beach, La Malagueta. You can continue walking on the boardwalk for several kilometres, passing more beaches, perhaps grabbing a seafood lunch at one of the sea-facing restaurants in the El Palo neighbourhood and then taking a local bus back downtown.
Málaga is also a good base to travel to Nerja (resort town), Ronda (inland), or Mijas (white village). These can be done as day trips, with several bus services a day, although Ronda deserves at least two days.
It’s not called the Costa del Sol for nothing. I’ve spent 8 days in Malaga so far, in October, November, and even January, and I have yet to see rain. Bright sun shines almost every day, even in winter, when the temperature can still reach a pleasant 17C in the shade. It can climb to over 30C in July though.
Palm and orange trees grow here, and even in the middle of January, the orange trees are loaded with fully ripe fruits.
Easy access from the airport
One of the best parts is how easy and cheap it is to get into town from the airport. You don’t need to spend your Euros on a taxi. You can take the train for 1.80 Euros or a bus (Express Line A) for 3 Euros. The closest train station is across the river though, so unless you’re staying in the western part of town, the bus may be more convenient. The bus takes 20-25 minutes to get downtown while the train takes 12 minutes to Malaga-Centro station (via Maria Zambrano, the inter-city bus station).
Málaga is one of those underrated destinations that just keeps getting better. I’m not sure how much longer it will remain a secret, but it’s definitely worth a multi-day visit.
My hotel recommendation: La Siesta Malaga, a cosy, quiet, and super clean guesthouse near Plaza de la Merced.
My guidebook recommendation: Lonely Planet Andalucía travel guide.