Málaga walks all over Barcelona and Valencia, in my eyes.” It’s a bold statement from Myles, a long-standing British ex-pat resident of Málaga province. But then again, during the past decade, Myles has seen Málaga transform from gritty port gateway to the Costa del Sol to an outpost for prestigious international arts institutions.
In the 10 years leading up to the grand openings of the Centre Pompidou Málaga and the Málaga branch of St Petersburg’s State Russian Museum in 2015, the city invested €100m (£90m) in the arts. “It has more museums than anywhere else in Spain, allegedly,” says Myles. It certainly has lots. Over 30, in fact, including two dedicated to native painter Picasso, one recently furnished with 160 pieces of career-spanning art.
But as I shuttle around on one of the city council’s free-to-use bikes, it’s clear the city itself is a Mediterranean masterpiece. Previously shuttered from the sea by tatty 20th-century docks, the grand neoclassical villas of Málaga’s palm-fringed Avenida de Cervantes once again look onto the water, thanks to a shiny new marina, fragrant strip of botanical gardens, and a boardwalk stringing together over 15 miles of beaches.
Freewheeling along the coast, I stop for a swim at a chiringuito (seafood shack) and lunch on espetos — the skewered sardines after which Malagueños are nicknamed. Of all the simple, sunny joys to be had in Málaga, these grilled sardines — plucked from a barbecue pit fashioned out of old fishing boats — are surely the most superlative.
Back at the marina, a coffee at the El Artsenal gallery sets me up for an afternoon of perusing. More populist than the adjacent Pompidou, El Artsenal’s steam-punky sculptures and colourful bric-a-brac art are a welcome antidote to the marina’s stark white concrete and glass.
In neighbouring Soho, with its graffiti murals and minimalist tapas spots, Málaga has another burgeoning arts district. But, as one of the world’s oldest cities, it’s no stranger to edgy generational flux. Málaga’s modern incarnation was largely funded by liberal 19th-century industrialist families — rather than conquering colonialists — whose extensive arts and archaeology collections have been creatively curated in the palatial new Museo de Málaga.
Yet the city’s crowning glory — one I ditch the bike to navigate — is a magnificent, historical mille-feuille dating back even further. Crowning a hill is the 10th-century Gibralfaro Castle, beneath which sits the Alcazaba, a Moorish fort with labyrinthine gardens weaving down to a subterranean Roman amphitheatre. Legs burning, heady with the scent of orange blossom and jasmine, I stop for a glass of cava near the top, at El Ambigú de la Coracha, a small cafe wedged into the hillside like a box at the opera. From its heights, Málaga’s drama continues to unfold: the sprawling, unfinished, gothic-renaissance-baroque cathedral dwarfing the old town; the porticoed grandeur of the La Malagueta bull ring and, of course, the Med.
The beaches of the Costa del Sol, which used to be the sole reason to fly into, and hastily scurry out of, Málaga, now almost seem like an afterthought.
See & do
Museo Picasso: The collection housed in this lovely 16th-century villa is not in the same league as Madrid’s Reina Sofía, but its drawings, oils, sculptures and sketches give real narrative to Málaga-born Picasso’s prolific, eight-decade career. Highlights include Restaurant (1914), an oil painting stuck onto glass, and an impressive roster of temporary exhibitions examining his collaborations and influences. A visit to Museo Casa Natal (set in the building where the artist was born), on nearby Plaza de la Merced, completes the picture. fundacionpicasso.malaga.eu
Cathedral: Málaga’s gloriously florid, sprawling cathedral contains marvellous carved choir stalls, an ornate 18th-century organ and a painting by ‘Spanish Michelangelo’ Alonso Cano.
Centre Pompidou Málaga: Overlooking the port, Richard Cummins’ stained-glass cube has become a symbol of Málaga’s recent regeneration. Underneath it is a subterranean space hosting a modest but captivatingly curated, changing collection of contemporary art, regularly shipped over from its sister gallery in Paris.
Roman Amphitheatre, Alcazaba & Gibralfaro Castle: A layered historical showpiece stacked up the hill above the old town. Start at ground level, touring the tiered Roman amphitheatre (or enjoy its elegance from the opportunistically positioned El Pimpi bar, opposite). The 11th-century Alcazaba is too small to really justify comparisons to Granada’s Alhambra, but the orange tree-lined paths winding up the hill — leading to shady courtyards and panoramic terraces — are a similarly soul-stirring joy. Roam the leafy ramparts right up to Gibralfaro Castle above — built to protect the fort — for the best city and sea views in town.
Museo de Málaga: This elegant, neoclassical former customs house, with a vast internal courtyard and soaring ceilings, houses awe-inspiring pieces of art and archaeology charting Málaga’s history. Highlights include a Roman mosaic with Venus emerging Botticelli-like from a shell; a well-preserved Phoenician tomb, complete with the warrior’s remains; and a fantastical painting of Gorge of the Gaitanes, the end point of the infamous Caminito del Rey canyon walkway in Málaga’s mountainous hinterland.
Cycle tours: A ride with Málaga Bike Tours is a brilliant, breezy way to take in Soho’s arty sights, including its vast murals. Don’t miss two by D*Face and Obey adorning a huge apartment block. They overlook the excellent Contemporary Art Centre of Málaga (CAC Málaga), which initiated this hood’s urban street art programme. Other tours include a ride along the boardwalk linking Málaga’s marina with a string of sandy beaches and seafood shacks, all the way to Benalmádena, some 15 miles east.
Mercado Central: Get the pick of the local produce at Málaga’s central market — all stained-glass windows and sculptural ironwork, converted from a Moorish shipyard. Try sweet toasted almonds, pan de higo (fig bread), Cabra Malagueña goat’s cheese with olives from surrounding groves — the lesser-known variety Hojiblanca is highly recommended. There are also excellent Iberico hams and shellfish, as well as tapas, all of which makes for a lovely gourmet lunch. Calle Atarazanas 10.
Flamenco finery: Eschew tourist tat and buy from authentic purveyors in the small streets off the main Calle Larios shopping hub. Get measured for a pair of bespoke-designed flamenco shoes: a joy even if you don’t dance, at either Viva La Feria or El Rocio.
Sombreros Maquedano: Buy a fedora, panama, straw boater or Cordobés — worn for bullfights during April’s Feria de Abril festival — from this elegant shop with a marble-and-gilt facade. From around €20/£18. Calle Sierpes, 40.
With superb tapas and great local wines from €2 (£1.80) a glass, you don’t need to bust the budget to go gourmet in Málaga.
(£) Chiringuitos: Grilled sardines on the beach is the ultimate Málaga foodie moment. The chiringuitos (seafood shacks) in villages dotting the east coast are cheaper than those in town. Try Miguelito El Carinoso, in Pedregalejo, where a seafood feast for two — garlicky prawns, warm octopus salad and sardines — costs around €30 (£26), with a bottle of local Barbadillo. Paseo Marítimo de Pedregalejo, 77.
(££) Lola y Ludwig: This tiny Soho spot serves Irish-Spanish dishes (reflecting the owners’ origins) like tortilla with colcannon and bacon, and salmon marinated in Irish gin. facebook.com/lolayludwig
(£££) Eboka restaurante: At this popular central dining spot, ask owner Antonio to walk you through the wine list — a hefty tome — or ask for paired dishes, with brilliantly ambitious standouts including tartare of Málaga sausage and presa Ibérica salad.
Like a local
La Casa Invisible: Tucked away down Calle Andrés Pérez, La Casa Invisible is a secret city oasis — an enclosed courtyard garden with a fountain, cool cafe and live music.
Semana Santa: Less well-known than equivalent celebrations in nearby Seville, Semana Santa (‘holy week’) is a huge deal here, so book well ahead to be here when processions of pointy-hatted members of the cofradías (Catholic brotherhoods) take over the city. It just so happens that a couple of these are led by Málaga-born film star Antonio Banderas.
Drink smart: ‘Málaga Wine’, a sweet, fortified sherry-like tipple is wonderful, but not to be confused with other local Málaga-produced wines. If beer is more your bag, El Rincón del Cervecero make great craft brews, including a special one for Semana Santa.
On your bike: The first half-hour on Málaga’s hire bikes is free.
Málaga after dark is more about rooftop cocktails and tapas than being out on the tiles.
Alcazaba Premium Hostel: Room Mate Larios and the Marriott hotels host the classiest crowds, but this hostel is top of the terraces for its reach-out-and-touch castle views (book well ahead to bag one of this arty hostel’s twin rooms).
Beer bars: Soho is home to La Fábrica de Cruzcampo, a buzzy new craft brewery serving beer and bites. Another place for craft beer purists to make a pilgrimage to is El Muro Bar Independiente, hidden away in the northern old town. Expect DJs, live indie rock and 15-strong menu of local brews.
Mercado Merced: It may not have Mercado Central de Atarazanas’ cathedral-like setting, but this place is buzzing after dark. It’s recently started serving gourmet tapas and tipples from local producers, too, including an offshoot of Málaga’s oldest bar, Antigua Casa de Guardia. Calle Merced, 4.
Uvedoble: For late-night bites head to Málaga’s sleekest tapas spot. Set on an unprepossessing central shopping street, it serves refined modern re-imaginings of such classic tapas ingredients as octopus, artichokes and tortilla and an impressive range of Spanish wines by the glass.
Málaga’s hotel scene hasn’t quite caught up to its tourist boom, so Airbnb and private rentals still reign supreme. But for those who don’t want to self-cater, there are a few strong choices.
(£) Hotel California: A cute, colourful little townhouse that’s flip-flopping distance from the beach with a Med-American art deco aesthetic, three double rooms, a sunny breakfast patio and a sea-view rooftop terrace.
(££) Barceló Málaga: An ‘urban beach hotel’ that’s not on the coast but does have a cracking rooftop pool, spacious rooms, and a slide from the first floor into the lobby, plus arty design that belies its practical, central railway station location (convenient for trips along the Costa).
(£££) Grand Hotel Miramar Málaga: Málaga’s only five-star resort and spa, set in a converted hospital, is a glorious seafront grand dame, all whitewashed exteriors and Moorish tiled interiors. You won’t want for chandeliers, shiny marble or gilded archways, but staff are far from stuffy, and the pool and sea-view rooftop bar are elegant beauties, as is the modern Mediterranean restaurant — well worth splashing out for.
Getting there & around
Málaga Airport is on the local rail network, with direct, 12-minute trains to Málaga Centro-Alameda every 20 minutes. Buses head into the city every 30 minutes. For more information on Spain’s rail network, visit renfe.com.
If you only have hand luggage, you can be off the plane and in town in half an hour, where everything is walkable; bike rental and Uber/taxi make outlying beaches and hotels accessible.
When to go
Málaga is at its hottest in August, when humid highs can exceed 40C; winter lows are roughly 17C. And unless you want the full-on Holy Week experience, it’s best to avoid Semana Santa (14-20 April in 2019).
The rural hinterland surrounding Málaga is also prime bird-watching territory, so if you’re planning on catching a glimpse of an incredible variety of our feathered friends, spring and autumn are the best times for sightings.
How to do it
British Airways Holidays has two-night breaks to Málaga with flights and room-only accommodation from £100 per person.
Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)