Nerja: the Costa del Sol's hidden gem
- Recommended for:
- Beach, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
Whether you're looking for a bit of culture with your sun and sand, a base for family days out or just fancy sampling some Spanish food, Nerja's the place to go
In the 25 years I've been visiting Nerja, a traditional resort 35 miles from Granada on the Costa del Sol, it seems to have grown up with me.
Back in the Eighties, you made your way down a steep, winding dirt track to get to the main beach, Burriana, and the restaurants lining the seafront were makeshift shacks. Fast forward to 2009 and the horses who lived on the beach are long gone, the dirt track has been concreted and the restaurants have poshed up but the beach still smells the same. It's a mix of fresh fish, paella and sun cream – the best smell in the world!
Thankfully, the building of high-rise monstrosities was banned in Nerja, unlike concrete jungle Torremolinos, a resort further along the coast. Looking up from the beach, you just have a lovely view of never-ending hillsides decorated by clusters of whitewashed houses.
The restaurants on Burriana serve all day and each has its own charm. Try La Barca for fresh barbecued fish. Every time I go back there, I get stuck into a prawns pil pil, scrunch my feet into the deep layer of sand carpeting the floor and know I'm home. Or try next door's Ayo, famous for its giant paella pan. Ayo's owner is famous for another reason. In the Fifties, he was one of a gang of schoolboys who accidentally found the now-famous Nerja Cuevas (caves), dating back to prehistoric times.
Nowadays, tourists can stay in the spanking new apartment blocks just behind the beach. Two extra rows of grocery shops, eateries and watering holes have appeared too, including the obligatory English pubs. In fact, Burriana's so well serviced, you could spend your entire holiday here but that would be a mistake.
Just a short walk from Burriana, you'll find the heart of the town - the Balcon De Europa, overlooking the cute Caletilla beach. All the winding, cobbled streets in Nerja seem to lead to the Balcon and, at night, it buzzes with artists, musicians, dancers and street sellers. The Balcon is supposedly the most southern tip of Spain and, as you stand on the edge as it juts over the Med, you feel like you could spot the edge of Morocco if you looked long enough. The North African influence on the area is evident in Moorish-style pottery available in Nerja's gift shops.
Try an ice cream from one of the carts run by the identically dressed sisters who've been there as long as I can remember or watch the world go by from one of the cafes lining the Balcon. Try El Viejo Sotano (33 Calle los Huertos) or Pata Negra (Plaza la Marina) for traditional fare, or La Sardinia Alegre for Basque delicacies (they tend to put boiled eggs in every dish, even the soup!). The Round Bar (Calle Gloria) is a legendary Nerja drinking hole for locals and tourists alike. Wash down a few choice dishes of tapas with one of their huge San Miguels. A couple of doors along is the slightly fancier Buddha Bar – a mecca for lovers of swanky cocktails. They have good happy hour deals and a fabulous roof terrace carpeted in fake grass, which I was entranced by after a couple of potent mojitos!
As teenagers, my sister and I would sneak off to the Tutti Frutti square for happy hour cocktails. It was the place to be. But now it seems quiet and soulless – even in high season. Having said that, Jimmy's, the nearby nightclub, is still good for a laugh. Head to Cochran's Irish Bar by the Balcon for live music and friendly service. Their measures are very generous and they’ll let you carry on drinking long after everyone has crawled home.
But you don't have to spend all your time eating and drinking. The Cuevas de Nerja, two miles from town, are well worth seeing. There's a direct bus from the bus station and you could even catch one of the operas or ballets they show in the cavernous main hall. Watch out for the photographer lurking by the first set of stairs. He doesn’t take any prisoners and won’t give you a second chance but we bought our overpriced rabbit-in-the-headlight shot anyway for comedy value.
Visit Malaga, about an hour away, to visit the Picasso galleries or Granada to see the gorgeous Alhambra gardens. Closer to home, the water park in Velez-Malaga is a great family day out. Or take a trip into the mountains to the village of Frigiliana or Competa and sample the local figs, honey and baked rabbit washed down by sweet wine wine.
Accommodation ranges from budget to luxury. Go for self-catering if you can't afford to eat out every night - despite the current shocking exchange rate, it's possible to find bottles of wine at €1 a pop in the Supersol supermarkets dotted around town. At that price, you can afford a couple!
British Airways, bmibaby and easyJet all fly to Malaga, the nearest airport.
There's no visible bus station but all buses begin and end at the lay-bys close to the BP petrol station in town. You can catch a bus from here to the main bus station in Malaga (takes about an hour) before hopping on the shuttle bus to the airport (about 30 minutes). Taxis to/from the airport cost around €70.
Self-catering villas cost from around £180 a week. Self-catering apartments on Burriana Beach cost from around £475 in June. A package deal at Riu Monica Hotel with Thomson costs from around £525pp for seven nights half board, including flights and transfers.