Málaga may be reinventing itself as a cultural destination but there’s a lot more to this unfairly overlooked Spanish jewel
The Plaza de la Merced doesn’t look much different from when the infant Pablo Picasso used it as his playground. The buildings along three sides of the square are essentially as they were in the 1880s, and though the tapas bars and coffee houses may have been remodelled any number of times, the drinks and morsels of food on offer would have been familiar to the 20th century’s most iconic artist as he grew up in Málaga.
However, one recent arrival in the plaza, a vegetarian restaurant named Cañadu, suggests the city has become a very different place since little Pablo was running around in short pants. Back in the 19th – and, let’s face it, the 20th – century, you’d do well to find a vegetable peering from the meat-and-fish-fest that was a typical Spanish restaurant menu. But new waves of visitors are bringing new ways to this city of 600,000 happy souls.
Málaga has always had its tourists, drawn by its history and architecture, its fine weather and sandy beaches, and its wild summer feria. Tourist numbers have mushroomed, though, since the Museo Picasso Málaga opened its doors in 2003. Stocked with more than 200 works of art donated or loaned by members of Picasso’s family, the museum has proved a massive hit in a city well-served by low-cost airlines from across Europe.
Of course, all those Picasso fans need somewhere to sleep and eat. Hence the arrival of such wild innovations as a vegetarian restaurant. It’s only one of dozens of city centre bars, cafes and restaurants that have opened in recent years, all aimed squarely at foreign tourists with sophisticated palates and Spaniards hungry for new tastes.
The art trail doesn’t end at the beautiful, remodelled 16th-century urban palace that houses the Picasso collection. There’s the stunning CAC modern art gallery, housed in the city’s old fish market, and also the city’s fine art museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes.
Even so, art is not the most compelling reason for visiting Málaga. The city as a whole is what entices. From the palm-tree-lined waterfront paseos, through the tiny, winding back streets and up towards the encircling hills, the sharp light, heady atmosphere and sense of history are an inspiration.
This is a city that can trace its origins back almost 3,000 years, when the Phoenicians founded Malaka. The Romans and Moors passed through before handing on to the rule of Christianity. But Málaga has always drawn people from all over the Mediterranean. North Africans, Greeks, Italians – you can see their heritage in the faces of Málagueños.
They’re a friendly bunch, even by Andalusian standards. Walk into any bar and you can find yourself in a conversation within minutes – if you can cope with the near-impenetrable local accent. It doesn’t matter what the topic is but you’re on safe ground with football (Málaga FC, of course), wine (preferably sweet Málaga)and fresh seafood (caught off Málaga).
The tight, bustling streets echo with car horns, street vendors’ calls, the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves as they pull tourist carriages and police sirens throughout the day.
In the evening, when things cool a little – on the surface – the mood is quieter, until you enter a bar. If silence is, in your book, golden, turn around. Otherwise, dive in and enjoy. This is Spain at its most exuberant – raucous, good-humoured and booze-fuelled, and guaranteed to send you back to your hotel with a warm glow.
Amid all the fraternising, it’s worth heading uphill to see the city in all its glory by climbing (or getting a taxi up) from the Gibralfaro hill on the eastern side of Málaga. The archaeological conveyor belt that best describes Málaga’s history is laid out neatly at your feet, with the gardens of the Moorish palace, or alcazaba, running down the steep hill to the Roman amphitheatre, still being painstakingly restored. Nearby sits the great cathedral – La Manquita, or the little cripple, so-called because the second of its bell towers was never completed.
Shoppers scuttle past its huge double door, heading for modern department stores or more traditional local stores, or maybe both. For me, the winding Calle Granada represents commerce at its best: an eclectic mix of hippy chic, traditional outfitters and ironmongers, cool bars and designer fashion outlets and even a hole in the wall shop selling prosthetic limbs. And when the commercial urge is sated, there’s a hammam (Arab baths) to soak away troubles, in nearby Calle Tomás de Cózar.
To the beach
Away from the centre, the beach is the city’s main attraction – especially on Sundays. This is when Málagueños head for El Palo and Pedregalejo, two former fishing villages in the eastern suburbs. The agenda never varies: a late morning promenade, a drink in one of the bars, a spell on the beach and perhaps a swim. Then it’s down to the serious business of lunch. Málaga is famed for its chiringuitos – beach huts where chanquetes, or whitebait, are fried by the bucketload.
Other than that, it’s sardines and mackerel, skewered and grilled on the beach, or any one of the couple of dozen or so species of fish or shellfish on offer. The restaurants don’t bother to vary their menus – they all fill up, every week.
Where to stay
AC Hotel Málaga: excellent modern luxury hotel in the centre. Great views from the 15th-floor rooftop swimming pool and terrace.
Hotel Molina Lario: big on style and comfort. Good central location.
NH Málaga: mid-price but good standards; on the edge of the city centre.
Hotel Humaina: a few miles out of town but worth the detour. Simple but beautifully located in a natural park with a terrace pool and good food.
Where to eat
Gorki: everything from sandwiches to five-course dinners. (Calle Strachan, 6)
Bodegas El Pimpi: great atmosphere and a good lunch menu. (Calle Granada, 62)
La Antigua Casa Guardia: the city’s oldest taberna, where the monster prawns are always good, washed down with local wines. (Alameda Principal, 18)
Cafe Bar Central: a vast range of coffees and a good breakfast. (Plaza de la Constitucion, 14)
Lepanto: Looks and feels like a Parisian patisserie. (Calle Marqués de Larios, 7)
What to see and do
Gibralfaro and Alcazaba: ruined Moorish castle with panoramic views of the city. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9am-7pm.
The Cathedral: open Monday-Saturday, 10am-6.45pm.
Museo Picasso Málaga: open Tuesday-Thursday, 10am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-9pm; Sunday, 10am-8pm. (Calle San Agustín, 8)
CAC: contemporary art museum with a frequently changing collection. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-2pm, 5pm-9pm. (Calle Alemania s/n)
Hammam: Arab baths with an authentic Moorish feel and low prices. (Calle Tomás de Cózar, 13)