It turned out there were lots of good reasons to go to Malaga. But I was attracted initially by a 2-day art tour there with Hotel Alphabet and as some friends had previously told me that Malaga is a great city and I would enjoy it, it seemed a good idea to take a chance to go. Thus I booked the art tour and added on another 3 days for relaxation and exploration.
I’m a summer person and like to seek a last dose of warm sun before winter takes hold and this makes Malaga an ideal destination in October when the average high is 24C. In fact, it’s never really cold; in the coldest months, December and January, you can expect highs of 17C and the lowest low is 8C.
Another great bonus for me is the combination of city and sea – all in one! You can enjoy all the benefits of a great city – museums, art galleries, historic sights, great restaurants – with long beaches and the blue Mediterranean glistening in the sun. And all of it within an easy walk.
How to get there and where to stay
I booked my hotel, as I often do, with my flight. Generally – though not always – the deal with British Airways gives me a good saving on the hotel. I like to stay very central. If it’s just a short trip and you want to be in the city and see the sights, it’s nicer to be able to walk everywhere rather than rely on public transport to take you into the centre. My hotel – Hotel Salles Malaga Centro – was an ideal location. It was just outside the historic centre because it was situated the other side of a bridge from Puerta Nueva, but I only had to cross the bridge – Puente de la Aurora – to be in the old town. I could walk everywhere easily, even right across to the other side of the city where the port and beach were – about half an hour’s walk.
I flew British Airways to Malaga from Heathrow but plenty of airlines fly there and it’s Spain’s 4th busiest airport. It’s been very much a gateway to more popular resorts in southern Spain up until now but more and more is becoming a destination in its own right. It’s only a few kilometres from the centre and you can either take a taxi (about 20-minute journey for €20-25) or there are buses and trains.
Getting around the city
It’s easy to walk everywhere, wherever you are in the centre. The heart and hub of the historic centre of Malaga is the beautiful square, Plaza de la Constitucion. It was just a 5-minute walk from my hotel and wherever I went, I had to walk through it, but I often I wanted to stay, find a bench to sit on, and people watch and simply enjoy its beauty.
From the square a major pedestrianised street, Calle de Marques de Larios, with lots of shops and cafes, runs down to the port and beaches. And there are busy offshoots – more streets and alleyways running from it, also full of cafes and restaurants.
It may be easy to walk everywhere in distance terms, but walking has its hazards. Yes, it’s mostly pedestrianised so you don’t have to worry about traffic, just the occasional taxi, but many of the streets are paved with marble. It looks beautiful but it’s also very slippery. It rained a bit while I was there, and also each morning when I went out I would see large trucks from which thick hoses were used to spray the streets clean. Despite taking great care, I slipped over a couple of times and took to wearing some walking-style sandals with a good grip.
The main sights
For the art lover
It was because of the art tour that I discovered how much Malaga has to offer anyone interested in art. There’s the CAC (Contemporary Art Centre), Picasso Museum, Museo Carmen Thyssen, State Russian Museum (a branch of the famous St Petersburg museum) and Centre Pompidou (a branch of the Paris one).
For all the fine art to see in Malaga, there’s no doubt that the real highlight for many will be the Picasso connection. Picasso was born in the city in 1881 and, although he left at the age of 19 to go to Paris and never returned, despite living to the grand old age of 91, the city makes the most of its favourite ‘son’. Apart from the Picasso Museum, you can visit his birthplace – the house, on a corner of Plaza de la Merced, is now a museum. I enjoyed the main Picasso Museum, which has over 200 of his works, though not the most famous, but the birthplace was disappointing, apart from a handful of lovely drawings on the ground floor, it had the feel of a fairly soulless museum rather than family home. Many restaurants and cafes are named after Picasso and there’s inevitably a lot of marketing in his name with souvenirs to buy.
The cathedral is truly stunning, as much by night as by day. It took two and a half centuries to build, from 1528-1782, and like many churches in Spain, was built of the site of a former mosque due to the long rule of the Moors. I didn’t get to go inside – there were always long queues – but I just loved walking by it and frequently did as it’s in the heart of the historic centre and its tower can be seen from other places, like Plaza de la Constitucion.
Like other parts of Andalucia in southern Spain, the Moors are in great evidence in Malaga. A nomadic north African people, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711AD and ruled until 1487 when they finally lost their last stronghold – Granada – to the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Although the Alcazaba Fortress, dating from the 8th and 11th centuries, is nowhere near so glorious as the wonderful Alhambra in Granada, it’s still worth seeing and costs only a couple of euros to enter (free on Sunday afternoons). Here you will get great views over the city and harbour and see those elements so typical of the Moors, the water features, courtyards, arches and mosaics, making it a peaceful and lovely place to spend some time.
For more dramatic views, go further up the hill to the Gibralfaro Castle, which dates from the 14th century. It’s a very steep and long climb – but definitely worth it to look across the harbour, the city and down to the fortress (click here for more info).
The port and beach
The Port of Malaga is one of the largest and oldest ports in the Mediterranean. The far western area is very industrial area and busy and you see large cruise ships coming in now. To the east you’ll find the Marina and then round a peninsula, with a lighthouse visible at the end, there is the beach of La Malagueta.
This part of Malaga has undergone major renovation over the last 20 years and is a wonderfully attractive area to spend time with lots of cafes along the front and quiet green spaces to sit, with play areas for children.
At first glance it reminded me of Genoa with its modern architecture but while I didn’t much like Genoa’s harbour and seafront, I really loved Malaga’s and sometimes would just walk down and sit there for a while, either looking out to sea or in one of the green garden spaces.
Food & Drink
Breakfast & Morning Coffee
I love coffee and can’t go far into the day without some. I prefer it a bit later in the morning, after a simple breakfast, and I like to find a nice cafe when on holiday to enjoy a good coffee with a pastry. I have to say I didn’t find anywhere truly great – an excellent coffee + an excellent croissant – but then Spain isn’t renowned for its pastries in the way France is, and even in northern Italy I’ve enjoyed some of the best pastries anywhere. However, I did find a great coffee stop near the cathedral – El Ultimo Mono Juice & Coffee – in Calle Sta. Maria. It was a funky modern place and they really know their coffee. For something more traditional, go to Cafe Central in Plaza de la Constitucion, an historic cafe that prides itself on serving good coffee.
You’ll find lots of breakfast deals in cafes and need only pay somewhere between €3-5 for fresh orange juice + coffee + pastry.
Of course the thing to eat in Spain is churros – a deep fried, choux-type pastry which you dip into thick hot chocolate. You’ll find them on offer in most cafes and while popular for breakfast, you’ll see people eating them late at night too.
You need look no further than a good tapas bar to fit all your eating needs – lunch, snack or dinner. I didn’t go to any restaurants and just ate in tapas bars. Tapas are traditionally just a small snack to eat with an early evening drink; dinner is served late in Spain, maybe as late as 10.30pm. However, in all the tapas bars I ate in, there were three sizes of dishes on offer: tapas (small), raciones (half portion) and full portions. It’s therefore possible to order a large ‘starter’ and follow it with a ‘main course’. Some bars, like Vineria Cervantes, don’t sell the small tapas-size portion later evening. I found all sizes very generous throughout Malaga. You’ll find paella on offer in most restaurants and bars but it’s not actually a local dish and comes from further north, in Valencia. I enjoyed it a couple of times at lunch, but it was wetter than the traditional Valencian paella so while you might enjoy it, it’s not the ‘real thing’.
The places I ate in and liked are: Vineria Cervantes, El Pimpi, Los Gatos, Casa Lola and a stall in the market. Particularly look out for and try: Iberican ham; Manchego cheese; boquerones – anchovies; patas bravas – fried potatoes with spicy sauce; fried aubergine slices drizzled with honey; espartos de sardinas – skewered charcoal grilled sardines.
Ice cream, Almonds and Turron
Wherever I am, I like to find some good ice cream. I read about Casa Mira, one of Malaga’s best ice cream shops, a little before travelling and made a note of it and went there on my first full day. I also went to Freskitt, another with great reviews. I had good ice cream but then came to the conclusion that no one makes ice cream like the Italians! I therefore had my next couple of ice cream treats in the Italian Amorino, which I’d spotted in Calle Granada. Calle Granada, leading from Plaza de la Constitucion up through Plaza Carbon, all the way to Plaza de la Merced, is the best place to look for somewhere to eat. It’s full of restaurants and bars and cafes.
Almonds are a big thing in Andalucia with great expanses of almond trees across hillsides. The blossom in the spring is said to be so beautiful that people make special journeys to see it. Thus it’s not surprising that you will see almonds everywhere – in fact, whole shops selling them in a variety of ways, and stalls selling toasted almonds, almonds in savoury dishes and the famous turron – a kind of soft nougat made from almonds, honey, eggs and sugar. Casa Mira is famous for its version as well as their ice cream. I find it far too sweet but many people love it.
This is Malaga’s biggest and most famous food market, open every day until 2.00pm, except Sundays. It’s a glorious place for anyone who loves food to wander about it, not just for the wonderful food but the delight of the great stained-glass window at one end.
I also had one of my best plates of food here at a bar with seating outside. Where better to eat the freshest seafood? Pescaito frito or Fritura Malaguena – mixed fried fish, is a speciality of the city.
To add to the perfection, a couple of guys playing Flamenco guitar and singing Flamenco came to entertain us.
Dancing and music in the streets
I loved the Flamenco playing and singing pair at the market, but it was quite common to find other Flamenco buskers in the streets, and on one evening I saw a couple with the woman dancing Flamenco and then another couple dancing Argentine Tango near the cathedral. Flamenco isn’t such a big tradition in Malaga as further north in cities like Granada and Seville, but it’s still fun to see and enjoy. Malaga is such a lively and exciting place by night.
Away from the crowds
The most obvious place to get away from the crowds is to head down to the beach. Yes, parts of it will be crowded but it’s just brilliant to take a walk along the front and enjoy the sea air and sit for a while in the sun. The sand is quite coarse and grey – not soft and golden! – but there were plenty of sun bathers and people stretched out on sun beds so you really can combine beach and city well.
On the way from the historic centre to the marina and beach you walk through gorgeous gardens – Paseo de Parque. I found them by chance on my first morning, heading to the Centre Pompidou. But also, as I said above, you’ll find nice green areas to sit by the marina. Malaga is a very green city and all the more beautiful for it.
There are botanical gardens 6km out of the city – Jardin Botanico La Concepcion. Bus line 2 will take you close and then a 15-minute walk. I didn’t have time to go there but they’re said to be some of the most beautiful tropical gardens in Europe so another time, it’s a must.
I’m really pleased to have discovered the delights of Malaga, from its beautiful historic centre, to the seafront, its Moorish sights with great views and, of course, its wonderful food. You could happily spend quite a lot of time there, as there’s so much to do, but it also makes an idea destination for a city break.