For years Malaga was overlooked by many on the march to the sybaritic paradises of the Costa del Sol. But, having visited a dozen times in the last ten years, I reckon it really should now rate higher in travellers’ minds: as one of Europe’s top weekend destinations, in fact.
Why? It’s connected by every (budget) airline going, yet – importantly – perfectly Spanish, and prices aren’t extortionate either: wine and beer can be as cheap as €2 a glass, with tapas starting at around the same. The dozens of free galleries and museums are a bonus, too. And you’re sure to enjoy some winter sun.
Tourist sites are numerous: as well as the cathedral, dominating the narrow pedestrianised streets, the Alcazaba, a magnificent Moorish fortress, is an essential climb; and, further up the steep, bougainvillea-clad hillside, the Gibralfaro Castle. Within the ramparts you can sink a beer at its shady cafe after gulping down views of a city sprawl dominated by the cathedral on one side, turquoise sea on the other. Better still, both are free on Sundays after 2pm. Modern art galleries are dotted around, too: best of all is the Centre of Contemporary Art (free), an enormous converted wholesalers’ market with (currently) works by Tovar, Olafur Elassen, Basquiat, Warhol and Anish Kapoor. In particular we loved Galician sculptor Leiro whose wooden figures are dark and mesmerising.
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Four more sights to visit
Picasso Museum This attraction displays elegance and ambition, but also worth a visit is nearby Picasso’s birthplace (Casa Natal, Plaza Merced, €1). Palacio de Buenavista
Paseo del Parque A shady tropical garden near the port, with plaques identifying each rare plant, where you can take in the sounds of city life – along with the clack of exotic birds. Free
English Cemetery The hillside English Cemetery (€3) is an exotic “paradise” (Hans Christian Andersen’s word) with 800 graves, some covered in sea shells, founded by the British consul William Mark in 1830, after he learnt that Protestants were buried upright on the seashore (consecrated ground being reserved for Catholics). Sailors, missionaries, philanthropists and writers are all illuminated by captivating anecdotes. Tues-Sun, Avenida de Pries
Mercado Centrale 19th century wrought-iron palace to gawp at the cornucopia of fish and outsize vegetables, not to mention the swaying loins of the usual mammalian suspects. Free. 7am-3pm, Calle Atarazanas
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10 Tips: Eating & Drinking
Old-school tapas bars If it’s a first visit, try the standards: Bar Lo Gueno (Calle Marin Garcia) whose counter heaves with delights such as bacalao, langostinos and albondigas (meatballs). Nearby Bar Orellana is older still, dating back to the 1930s. Rammed on any given service, it’s as touristy as it is popular with locals. La Campana (Calle Granada) specialises in fish; the eponymous bell is rung when you leave a tip.
Most famous of them all? Antigua Casa de Guardia (Corner of Pastora on the Alameda). Unchanged since 1840 (the barmen write the bill in chalk on the wooden counter), this creaking bodega may seem intimidating but order a vasito of Pajarete (sweet local wine) from one of 20 barrels and a pinchito atun queso (raw tuna and cheese). And, as every guidebook instructs, you’ll want to try El Pimpi, always wildly popular, with slender tapas bar, cavernous restaurant and terrace overlooking the old theatre.
Playa Del Merced Arguably the best stretch in town for people-watching. By day it catches the sun whether it’s January or August, and by night it’s busy with a more colourful crowd. Long known as the gay district, it’s now undoubtedly mixed (although we were dismayed to see Starbucks open next to longstanding gay café-bar Café Bruselas). Hungry? Hit Pica Tapas for five tapas for €10.
Mercado Merced This smart food market reopened under new management in November last year. On our visit about ten stalls were open, and a smallish crowd of locals, including big groups of families, were clustered in corners. One stall, La Bendita, just inside the entrance, is worth the trip alone: a trio of toasts and toppings were extraordinary – loin of smoked sardine with wakame, anchoves in vinegar on guacamole and wild red tuna. The other outlet we rated was Jesus Gutierrez, a butcher who cooks cuts on a plancha – the solomillo of pork and chicken thigh were delicious. Calle Merced 4
Garcia The owner of this acclaimed gaff told us he has done time in Bristol’s lively food scene – and it shows. We shared delicious plates of beef carpaccio, shrimp ceviche, wild salmon tartare with mango and grilled octopus over mash. Be warned: after 9:30pm it gets crazily busy. And every venue on this hip street is worth a visit too, from the Microteatro craft brewery to Manana cocktail bar. San Juan de Letran 17
Brunchit From the breakfast options down the Calle Carreteria, Julia’s Bakery is most famous, but as it wasn’t open, instead we went to its neighbour, this contemporary, Nordic style café. Choose from piled-high waffles to tasty bagel with smoked salmon apple and avocado watercress. Calle Carreteria, 46
El Tapeo Cervantes Arched windows, cosy interior and a blend of “traditional and creative” dishes at good prices are a winning combination. It’s been our go-to tapas bar over the years – and doesn’t disappoint. Calle Carcer
Nuevo & Sur This experimental dining room, the brainchild of an affable Dutchman, serves streetfood from Asia and South America with an Andalucian twist in witty, playful ways: squid as chips in a black bao, a kebab in a dustbin marked Junk Food, octopus with romesco on slate. Calle Madre de Dios 22
Gloria Eclectic living room with cheap wine (€2), value breakfasts from €3.50 and open morning through early hours. Calle Carreteria
Playa de la Malagueta All along the beach there are chiringuitos serving skewers of chargrilled sardines. For a sunset drink try Playa de Pedregalejo, east towards El Palo. (Take the number 11 bus)
El Tintero Beachside restaurant on the furthest tip of Playa del Palo, where camareros clasping plates of fish allow you to grab what you fancy. Recommended? Red mullet, calamares and gambas.
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Sleeping & Getting There
There are lots of apartments in the heart of the Merced area on airbnb. We stayed in the slick, modern one pictured, available through Malagaflat, with high ceilings and Andalucian balconies (more info here). Flights from London start at £25 one way on Easyjet and £36 on BA.