On Malaga holidays you can embrace the laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle but see the sights too. Now established as a cultural centre in the region, Andalucía’s provincial capital can at last hold its own against its neighbours Seville, Granada and Córdoba.
Like the rest of Andalucía or al-Andalus, Málaga was occupied for over seven centuries by the Moors, a racial mix of Arabs and Berbers from North Africa and Morocco, and this has had a lasting influence.
You’ll arrive to a buzz of excitement and anticipation, as evening strollers negotiate winding streets, in search of the many bars that are so much a part of Spanish nightlife. The main square is la Plaza de la Constitución, where palms trees sway around a large fountain, flanked by a good selection of cafés and restaurants.
The scene is dominated by the Catedral de Málaga, constructed in the sixteenth century on the site of a mosque, of which the only reminder now is the orange trees in the Patio de los Naranjos. Its impressive size with its forty metre-high domed ceiling, huge nave and choir stalls, fifteen decorated chapels and two eighteenth-century organs, is only outdone by the views of city and coast from one of its towers.
Considerations of time and cost meant that the overall project was abandoned, leaving an unfinished bell tower known as La Manquita or the one-armed lady. Photographers will love the small onsite garden and its adjoining café. When you’ve finished, don’t miss the nearby Cistercian Abadia de Santa Anna, with its museum of sacred art and a chapel enhanced by deep blue stained glass.
The Gothic cathedral shares the skyline with a jumble of church spires and terracotta roofs, while above everything, and providing the best vista of all from its ramparts, is the eleventh century Gibralfaro castle. Another reminder of the city’s Islamic past, the Castillo de Gibralfaro was originally built by the Cordoban emir Abd-ar Rahman I in the eighth century.
Málaga’s later importance as a port for the emirate of Granada led to re-construction in the fourteenth century, when its main purpose was as a military barracks and lighthouse. Today the interior offers nothing much from that era, but a military museum displays a model of the complex. If you don’t want to walk the walls, enjoy the panorama from the alfresco café instead.
Reach it after a pleasant but steep walk upwards through cultivated terraces, where stops for stunning views will allow you ample excuses to rest. Or make a detour to the lower residence, the eleventh-century Alcazaba, a fortress and palace where water features, courtyards, horse-shoe arches and lush vegetation are reminiscent of Granada’s Alhambra. What was once the servants’ quarters now houses an archaeological museum of Moorish pottery. While you’re there, call in at the adjacent Roman amphitheatre which dates back to Augustus in the 1st century AD, but was only re-discovered in 1951. An evening visit is a thrill – sit on the surviving tiered seats that overlook the stage area, with the Alcazaba illuminated behind it.
Calle Victoria at the base of the castle has two examples of typically Malagueña houses and one of the city’s few street chapels, which contains two religious effigies. Near this you’ll come across the Basilica Santa Maria de la Victoria with its ornate interior, on the spot from where the Catholic monarchs started their battle to regain the city in 1487.
Of course, you won’t want to spend the whole of your Malaga holidays sightseeing, and there are plenty of ways to escape the summer heat and bustling streets. The local Malagueños love to walk through the palm-lined Paseao de España or de Parque. The park was reclaimed from the sea in the late nineteenth century, and its exotic trees and plants offer welcome shade, with Sunday entertainment from buskers. Gather at the Eduardo Ocon bandstand for a pre-lunchtime concert by Málaga’s municipal band, one of the longest-established in Spain.
Less frequented is the nineteenth-century St George’s Cemetery, known as the English Cemetery, which was used mainly for foreign deaths, and was the first Spanish Protestant burial ground. Exploring these tranquil gardens among the graves will give you a sense of Málaga’s history, and the British part in it.
La Concepción Botanic Garden on the city’s edge mixes formal gardens with luscious greenery, and has been hailed one of the best in Europe. The hillside Historical Garden, with its waterfalls, streams, steps, glasshouses and ancient trees, is surrounded by the Botanical Garden. Here, you’ll find a rockery, insectivorous plants, orchids and palms, with other routes including local trees such as olives, vines and a lemon grove, or cacti, succulents and sub-tropical fruit trees. Find a peaceful corner with the stone classical-style Exedra seat, the wisteria-covered arbour, or the iron Oriental Pavilion, and spend the entire day here!
As you’d expect in the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, art lovers are spoilt for choice. Pause in the lovely cobbled plaza outside the Museo Picasso Málaga to marvel at the unusual variety of façades, architectural styles, ages and colours of the houses around this square. Inside, get an idea of the master’s scope by studying two hundred and four of his works, including family paintings, plus temporary exhibitions, or take in a cultural event. For something completely different, go down to the basement, where you’ll see the Roman, Phoenician, Islamic and Renaissance remains excavated during building.
This prolific painter and sculptor was born in Málaga in 1881, and a short distance from the museum you’ll find the house of his birth, Casa Natal de Picasso, which is now a study foundation. Get an idea of his early life with the replica studio and family memorabilia, and be sure to catch one of the changing shows of his work. End with a browse in the bookshop and a coffee in the courtyard café.
The less-well known Museo Revello de Toro is one of the few remaining seventeenth-century houses in the vicinity, and here you can find out about well-known local artist Félix Revello de Toro. The house was also home to Granada-born sculptor Pedro de Mena (1628-88) while he worked on the cathedral choir stands. This street, Calle Císter, takes you into the oldest district, where you’ll pass San Agustin church and convent (1575).
The Contemporary Art Centre boasts a fine collection of Spanish and international artists in a 1930s converted wholesale market, while the Carmen Thyssen Museum in the sixteenth-century Palacio de Villalón concentrates on nineteenth-century Spanish and Andalusian paintings. Reach the latter by way of the pedestrianised and marble-clad Calle Marqués de Larios, lined with fashionable shops and elegant cafés.
The Museo Ruso de Málaga, a branch of St Petersburg’s Russian State Museum housed in a 1920s tobacco factory, contains several centuries of Russian art. After all this splendour, head for MUES (Málaga Arte Urbano en el Soho), where street art and graffiti have brightened the area between the city and the port (now renamed Soho), and arty bars, restaurants and markets have sprung up. Look for graphics and giant murals on walls, bridges, car parks and the riverside. Browse Soho’s monthly market for art, crafts, vintage and the all-important street food.
Continue to the port for an extension of the Paris Pompidou Centre, topped by a colourful cube, and blessed with a collection that includes pieces by Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon. The wide walkways of the newly-developed waterside are lined with restaurants, bars and a variety of shops, making this a popular and lively stretch, day and night. The port is one of the oldest in Spain and the Mediterranean, and cruise ships are now able to take advantage of the upgraded facilities by adding Málaga holidays to their itineraries.
The resort is famous for its seafood and other fish. Sample typical dishes like barbecued sardines, fried fish or coquinas (cockles fried in oil and parsley), or cruise the chiringuitos and marisquerías (beach restaurants) in the fishing districts of Pedregalejo and El Palo, said to be the best in the region. We all know what tapas are nowadays, and you can take your pick of these in the many bars, both on the promenade and inland.
Carry on beyond the jostling crowds on the quays to local beaches that are less developed than some others around this coast, but still have adequate amenities and some decent restaurants. Kite surfers will like the Playa del Campo de Golf – San Julián, and as it’s behind a hotel’s golf course, so will golfers. Next along, the Playa de Guadalmar continues to the Guadalhorce estuary, where the city’s only nudist beach can be found among the sand dunes.
Go further eastward for the small deSacaba and the two-kilometre long Misericordia strips. Here, summertime surfers await the passing of the Málaga-Melilla ferry and the spectacular waves that it generates. The manufactured Playa de la Malagueta has full facilities, while Caleta is tops for sport. Baños del Carmen, home to the city’s first spa in 1918, attracts a young crowd. The same age group flocks to Playa Pedregalejo – Las Acacias for its language schools and its nightlife, or you can watch fishermen unload their haul every day in this pretty fishing village.
Next along is El Palo and Paseo Marítimo, popular with locals and students. The Peñon is a rock facing the sea and visible along the coast, making its beach an atmospheric setting for numerous barbecues and beach parties. Other pleasant spots are the Playas de San Andrés, El Dedo and El Candado.
Local museums always help you to understand the locality, and the Museo de Málaga goes right back to reproductions of Nerja cave paintings in its archaeological history gallery, where you’ll also find a 1.7 metre statue of a Roman soldier from the second century AD. The Moorish section recreates an Arab Medina or market-place, and displays some Nasrid ceramics. The museum also contains a fine selection of nineteenth and twentieth century art.
At a seventeenth century inn, experience past rural and urban life at the Museo de Artes y Costumbres, where you can see traditional painted clay figures or barros, characters from local folklore. And you can’t leave Andalucía without a visit to the Museo del Arte Flamenco. In the prestigious surroundings of a peña or private club, you can feast your eyes on elaborate and colourful costumes, fans, posters and other souvenirs.
If you like the good things in life, there are several collections in Malaga holidays that will please you. Head away from the centre for the Museo del Vidrio y Cristal in an eighteenth-century mansion with three courtyards. Antique furniture and furnishings, stained pre-Raphaelite glass windows and sixteenth-century portraits supplement the main focus on glass and crystal. Car-lovers and fashionistas might prefer the Museo Automovilístico in a disused tobacco factory, where they can drool over a restored flower-power Rolls Royce, a Bugatti and other vehicles, together with twentieth-century fashion classics from top designers like Chanel and Dior.
Architectural style can be followed at the superb Mordenista building that is La Térmica, a centre for theatre and the arts with a regular antiques market. And then where could it be better to finish a day of culture than at a wine museum? The centrally-situated Museo del Vino will take you through the history and production of the region’s produce, with some tastings to prove its quality.
To the north of the Almeda Principal is the iron-clad Mercado Atarazanas, which combines fourteenth-century Moorish design with nineteenth-century architecture. This was a shipyard up until the eighteenth century when the sea still reached this far, and the original Moorish gate connecting the port and the city is part of the structure. A beautiful stained-glass window shows historical scenes, in what is now a market hall touting a mouth-watering selection of fish and fresh food. Take some time over this visit, as you will be tempted and encouraged by the stall holders to sample the produce.
For the ultimate in relaxation, call in at the renovated Arab baths of Hamman Al Andalus on Plaza de los Mártires, transported to Málaga by the Moors in the eighth century. Indulge yourself and purify body and mind with a holistic experience of thermal baths, massage, steam rooms and so on.
The temperate climate of southern Spain is suitable for outdoor activities all year round. There are more than three thousand festivals every year in Andalucia, with the nationally-held Semana Santa or Holy Week being a solemn but impressive affair. Málaga follows the Easter spectacle of hooded figures carrying statues from every church, which can take some hours (be warned!).
Málaga’s first celebration of the year is the Procession of the Kings during Epiphany on 5 and 6 January. Carnival is a last chance to indulge before Lent, and the Carnaval de Málaga is one of the best. Costumed and masked performers, with the ‘murga’ or street bands, pass from the Esperanza Bridge to the beach of La Malagueta, where the “burial of the sardine” marks the end of the festivities.
The Feria de Agosto takes place around the third week in August, and celebrates the re-taking of the city from the Moors by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1487. Revellers take to the decorated streets in flamenco costumes for the Analusian dance of Sevillanas. Leaving summer behind, All Saints’ Day in early November remembers the dead in sociable family visits to graves, but turns it into a celebration of respect and of life. Other festivals include Picasso Month in October, a Flamenco Biennial and a Film Festival.
Málaga is well placed as a base to visit other areas, such as Granada, Seville and the Sierra Nevada, with the option of canyoning and trekking at the latter. Further afield, Madrid, Toledo and North Africa wait to enhance your Spain holiday. Travel around the local area by bike or on foot, and go further by bus, train or hire-car (the train and bus stations are close to each other).
The main airport is nine kilometres south west of the city, and buses to the city centre depart from outside the arrivals hall every 30 minutes, with tickets available on the bus. Flights to Málaga arrive here from the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia, plus from internal and other European destinations.
Holidaymakers can find accommodation to suit all pockets and tastes, from luxury hotels to budget establishments. New ones have emerged along the quays of the revamped port to the west and east of the town. Villas in Málaga are a good option for families, larger groups or those who want a quieter, more private stay, with longer lets a tempting possibility.
The Moorish legacy is a major factor in southern Spain’s unique character, and Málaga reflects this without losing its individuality. In addition, the Spanish capacity to enjoy life gives this stretch of coast a unique feel, with the high sunshine record an added attraction. With so much to do and see, your memories of Málaga will ensure that you return – soon.