For most, Malaga is simply a stepping stone to the busy resorts of the Costa del Sol. But take some time out in this magnificent city for a taste of the real Andalusia and the real Spain
For decades, since the introduction of the package holiday, Malaga to many has become the gateway to the Costa del Sol. Visitors barely look up as they check in and check out of the city airport, en route to wherever it is they are headed along the overcrowded coastal resorts. But Malaga offers so much more: if you want to sample the true Andalusian experience, stay a while in this unhurried, vibrant city, which is rich in both culture and climate. Open your eyes to this corner of Spain with fresh eyes, and you will be both rewarded and enchanted.
Málaga is in a stunning location on the Mediterranean, almost completely surrounded by dramatic mountains. The Moors certainly left their mark on this city, as they did on most of this part of Spain. This is most evident in the imposing 11th-century Alcazaba castle, which overlooks the city from high on the eastern hillside beside the Mediterranean. This amazing fortress was originally intended to defend the city from pirates, and it's a stunning spot surrounded by lush palms and pine trees - it's worth a trip up the hill for the breathtaking views alone.
For the more energetic, there is a spectacular walk that leads to the nearby Gibralfaro castle, offering equally amazing views over the city. Just below, you can see what's said to be the oldest building in Malaga, the Roman theatre. There is evidence that this historic monument is, incredibly, as old as the 1st century. This was only discovered and restored in recent times, about 50 years ago. From here, you can also take a leisurely stroll along the Paseo del Parque, a pretty, palm tree-lined promenade that runs alongside a popular park and leads to the harbour and the main part of the city, and onto bustling Calle Larios.
A stone's throw from the nearby Plaza del Obispo stands Malaga’s cathedral, which is a hotchpotch of architectural styles, across many centuries and even religions. This Catholic church is actually built on the site of a mosque. If you look closely, you can see that it leans slightly, and even appears not to have been fully completed.
At the heart of this Andulusian city is its old town, which is simply charming, with narrow streets that still have a distinctly Moorish influence. Pretty baroque balconies cling to crumbling pastel facades that lean precariously and almost meet overhead in cool narrow streets that open out onto unexpected tiny fragrant plazas. Lose yourself and discover hidden corners that will compete for your attention. There is no better place to get a real feeling of what Andalusia is all about as you step back in time.
Long after the Moors left, the local Malaguenos developed their own unique culture, influenced by a colourful past and turbulent history. Artists such as Picasso were born here, and no visit to Malaga is complete without a visit to the Picasso Museum (San Agustín 8; +34 952 127 600; www.museopicassomalaga.org). Set in a 16th-century palace, it houses some of the lesser-known works of this famous native of Malaga, but is certainly worth a visit. Entry: €6 or free on the last Sunday of every month.
Wander down Calle Picador, and you will find the Flamenco Museum, which gives you an interesting insight into the history of this passionate and moving gypsy music and dance. There are many artefacts, old guitars and photos. You have to phone ahead for entry: +34 952 210 876.
To understand the Malaguenos and Andalusian culture, try to visit around Easter or during August, when the best fiestas take place. Locals take to the streets, and flamenco, Rioja and tapas spill out onto every plaza.
Where to eat and drink
Head to the Plaza de la Merced, where there are plenty of outdoor cafes for a beer (cana), or a coffee. Bodega El Pimpi (Calle Granada 62; +34 952 22 8990) is popular with tourists, but still retains some of its charm from its old days as a flamenco bar. You can order tapas, or simple platters of serrano ham and olives accompanied by the house Rioja.
Pedregal is a beautiful coastal village, which can be found just to the east of the city. Its beach is backed by a promenade lined with countless traditional cafes that spill out onto busy terraces. It’s a great place for food-lovers, and you can really sample fresh local fare in many of the restaurants in the vicinity. Any are a good bet, but my favourite is El Morata (Paseo Marítimo El Pedregal; +34 952 29 2645), where you get to sample the best paella and the décor is traditional but cosy and welcoming.
Equally good is Bar Restaurante Maricuchi (Paseo Marítimo el Pedregal, 14; + 34 952 29 0412; www.restaurantemaricuchi.com), which is a lively beachfront restaurant that serves simple fresh food, particularly seafood. The menu is delightful, and the wine local and cheap. The calamares, and the fresh sardines, a local speciality, are delicious. Order a side portion of salsa verde, patatas bravas or aioli.
About 30 minutes west of Malaga, between the tourist resorts of Benalmadena and Torrequebrada, is La Cala. Right on a quiet beach, this is a typically Spanish affair, family-run and completely unpretentious. Amazing fish of the day is served within hours of being caught. We feasted on tender pulpo (octupus) and dorada (local white fish), some of the most flavoursome food I have ever had. Prices are very reasonable, with dishes starting from €4 and going up to €15. There's also good local wine. You can watch the sun set as the last remaining Spanish locals indulge in the gentle warmth of the evening sun on the beach long after the tourists have departed.
Just five minutes across this beach, across a wooden decked pathway, you will find the trendier, Dutch-owned Pietrino’s. Right on the beach, sheltered from the breeze by a breakwater of rocks, this trendy outdoor bar and restaurant is a good spot for a long leisurely lunch, or an afternoon beer. The classic Caesar Salad is excellent and good value at about €12.
Where to stay
When not staying with friends, there is really only one place to stay. The Parador de Málaga Gibralfaro is located high up on Mount Gibralfaro, surrounded by pine trees, overlooking the city and with stunning views of the bay. Stylish and relaxing, this is a special hotel. Rooms are spacious and start at €170.