Trashy TV shows sensationalising crime levels, property scams and lager louts have, undeniably, tarnished the image of the Costa del Sol. Yet this 110-mile stretch of the Mediterranean coastline, dubbed the ‘California of Europe’ gives its critics the metaphorical finger by attracting millions of visitors each year - including celebrities, royalty, adrenaline junkies, families, young professionals, student travellers and retired pleasure seekers. And here’s why:
Let the sunshine in
It’s not called the Costa del Sol for nothing: this is the sunniest corner of Europe. Are 325 days of sunshine a year enough for you? Temperatures average a pleasant 22C throughout the year – although they can hit 40 plus in the height of the summer.
Sand and surf
These, of course, are two key elements in the area’s enduring appeal. From Nerja’s small coves to mile after mile of sunbeds in Torremolinos, Benalmadena and Fuengirola, to the pine-tree lined shores of Marbella and Estepona, there’s a staggering variety of places to top up your tan. So whether you prefer to escape the crowds with a good novel, you want to enjoy freshly-caught local seafood in a chiringuito, you want to play Frisbee with your kids in the surf, or you want to take part in action-packed water sports, the beaches guarantee to satisfy all inclinations (see my recommended beaches on my Costa del Sol Things to do page). And for those who want to ensure there are no tan lines, there are six nudist beaches – the most popular being Cabopino in Mijas Costa. Families are nearer the car park on the eastern side and gay men tend to head to the far end. It shouldn’t be too hard to work out which is which.
Costa del Golf
With more than 52 courses, there are more places to play golf on the Costa del Sol than any other area of Europe. And there are another 40 new courses in the planning stages in Andalucía. Such is the quality of these courses, that this part of southern Spain has hosted world famous competitions such as the Volvo Masters and the Ryder Cup. Golfers tell me it’s the enormous choice in a relatively small area that keeps them coming back.
Seven years ago the Picasso Museum (Museo Picasso) did for the city of Malaga what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao: it turned it into a ‘destination’ and ignited a massive urban regeneration project. The city woke up to the fact that it should be celebrating its most famous son. The museum is in a 16th-century national monument, a stone’s throw from his birth place, and houses paintings, ceramics, drawings and sculptures donated by his family and galleries from across the globe.
For decades most visitors whizzed straight through Malaga airport, ignoring the city itself. But beyond the wall of concrete tower blocks on the outskirts, is its true heart: the elegant old town, which includes the imposing cathedral, the Moorish fortress and Gibralfaro Castle. The narrow streets and sunny squares house the majority of the main sights as well as the city's never-ending nightlife. Picasso was “distraught” when his family left and took him to the colder, wetter north of Spain. And when you leave you may agree with the great artist that everything does seem “slightly less colourful”.
I reckon one of the best ways to discover the spirit of the Costa del Sol is to visit one of the local fiestas. Every town has an annual feria, which are week-long explosions of hedonistic street parties, vibrant flamenco costumes, graceful horse displays, bullfights, funfairs and music. The chilled sherry in the impromptu bars flows well into the early hours. Read more on my When to go to Costa del Sol page.
A step back in time
Explore traditional Andalusian villages with narrow cobbled streets, donkeys carrying people to and from nearby farms, and bright red geraniums bursting out of the window boxes. Soak up the laid-back atmosphere and enjoy an ice-cold San Miguel with the locals in a shady square or on a sunny terrace. In my eyes, Mijas, Benalmádena Pueblo, Frigiliana and Ronda are some of the best preserved villages.
Sports fan? Sense of adventure? The Costa del Sol delivers water sports on a grand scale. The coastline has defined leisure activities for decades. Whether it’s sailing out of one of the four blue flag marinas; surfing, windsurfing or kitesurfing in the – cliché coming – ‘surfer’s paradise’ on Tarifa’s California-style beaches; or learning to dive in one of the countless schools, there are endless ways to realise your nautical potential.
Lacroix, darling! Lacroix! Mega yachts, Ferraris, and huge sunglasses are the order of the day in the Costa del Sol’s glitziest resort. Ostentatious luxury has never gone out of fashion in the millionaire’s playground brimming with designer boutiques and high-end bars and restaurants. Read more on my Puerto Banús page.
Even if it’s just for one day, don’t miss out on rural Andalucía. There are now 23 protected areas, including Sierra de las Nieves and Sierra de Grazalema, where you’ll experience gorges, cliffs, valleys, rivers, and views across the mountains and ancient forests down to the glistening Mediterranean. Keep a look out for eagles, wild boar, vultures, deer, and the Spanish Ibex. There are visitors’ centres in each natural park offering guides and suggested routes.