Credit: Laura Hallett

Malaga travel guide: What to see and do, what to eat and what to buy in Spanish city

Author: Nicole Carmichael

Published on:

Malaga was once considered to be little more than a gateway to more desirable locations on the Costa del Sol, Picasso’s birthplace is now seen as one of Spain’s most exciting cultural hubs.

When you think of Malaga, maybe you picture all those high-rise hotels, jostling for space on the Mediterranean shore. But the capital of the Costa del Sol dates back 3,000 years – longer than almost any other city on earth – and today it offers the perfect mix of old and new.

From the once very functional port zone – now a thriving area of great bars, shops and street art – to the cobbled streets of the old quarter and its web of alleyways opening up into grand plazas, this is a place to be explored and enjoyed.

With 300 days of beautiful sunshine annually and the warmest winters of any European city, Malaga is great to visit all year round.

Step ashore here and you can look forward to some of the best food in Andalusia, from Michelin-starred fare to simple street-food tapas. And thanks to a rich heritage of Roman, Moorish and Renaissance history, it’s a total feast for culture-lovers too.

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What to do in Malaga

Malaga Cathedral

A Renaissance masterpiece whose elegant tower can be seen from almost everywhere in the city, Malaga cathedral is affectionately known to the locals as ‘La Manquita’ – the one-armed lady. Why? Because funds ran out before a planned second tower could be built, supposedly because cash was diverted to the American revolutionaries then fighting for their independence from Britain.

Nevertheless, the cathedral remains a thing of beauty, with many art treasures to delight the visitor. Admire the ornately carved choir stalls, then – if you’re feeling energetic – take the 200-step tour of the cathedral’s domed rooftops, your reward being some fantastic city-centre views.

Picasso Museum

The most influential artist of the twentieth century is also Malaga’s most famous son. Tributes to Pablo Picasso can be found all over the city but a good place to start is the Museo Picasso Malaga, which charts the great man’s life and work from the late 19th century until his death in 1973.

Situated just a few minutes away from his birthplace (also a museum) in Plaza de la Merced, the gallery recently enjoyed a stylish update and you can easily lose a day exploring its comprehensive collection. It’s worth booking an early start to make the most of the fantastic guided and audio tours, the temporary exhibitions, and to allow yourself time to relax and refuel in the lovely cafe. You can also download the museum’s free app to help inform your visit.

The Alcazaba

Other Spanish cities have their alcazabas – derived from the Arabic for citadel – but Malaga’s is the most impressive. Built on a hill overlooking the port, its walled enclosures and defensive archways date from the 11th century, though they received a major restoration in the 1930s. Take a trip back in history and explore the fortress, with its labyrinth of narrow corridors, then enter the palace with its beautiful gardens, stunning architecture and breathtaking views.

And while you’re time-travelling, in the Alcazaba’s shadow stands a tiered Roman amphitheatre, found by chance during building works in 1951. As well as being a fascinating place to visit, this ancient arena still provides an outdoor venue for theatre productions and concerts today.

Malaga cathedral is affectionately known to the locals as ‘La Manquita’ – the one-armed lady. Credit: Shutterstock

What to see in Malaga

Statue of Picasso

There’s no question who Malaga’s greatest celebrity is (Pablo’s only rival is film actor Antonio Banderas, who still keeps a penthouse apartment here). So if you fancy a Picasso portrait of your own, grab a selfie with the great man on his marble bench in the Plaza de la Merced, right by his birthplace. The popular bronze sculpture was created by artist Francisco Lopez Hernandez in 2008.

Mirador Del Gibralfaro

For unbeatable views of the city and its port, head for one of two lookout points on Mount Gibralfaro. It’s quite a hike to get there, but it makes a good place to have a breather if you’re visiting the Alcazaba and amphitheatre, and there’s a welcome cafe for drinks and ice cream.

El Cubo

For a contrast to the city’s historic landmarks, head to Malaga Port where you’ll find a giant Rubik’s cube-like installation by artist Daniel Buren. Made of coloured glass that glows and dazzles in the Spanish sun, it crowns the Contemporary Art Museum – an offshoot of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

For unbeatable views of the city and its port, head for one of two lookout points on Mount Gibralfaro. Credit: Shutterstock

What to eat in Malaga

Cafe Central

If you think you know your latte from your espresso, wait till you see the coffee menu here. Immortalised since the 1950s in a much-photographed ceramic mural, there are no fewer than nine styles, ranging from solo – a single shot – to nube (cloud), a gentle concoction mainly of milk.

Restaurant José Carlos García

You’ll find this Michelin-starred eaterie in the heart of Malaga’s bustling port. The eponymous chef is a big star of Spain’s culinary scene, creating a fusion of local produce and avant-garde techniques in his glass-walled kitchen. It’s not cheap and you’ll need to book well in advance – but if you’re a serious foodie it’s not to be missed.

El Pimpi

You’ll be impressed by the gallery of celebrity fans whose photos hang in the city’s most famous bar. A historic house with a warren of rooms spilling out into a sun-drenched terrace, it’s the place to go for sensational tapas, seafood, charcuterie and sandwiches.

Calla Larios is a marble-lined pedestrian street, built at the end of the 19th century. Credit: Shutterstock

What to buy in Malaga

Calle Larios

Ready to splash the cash? This beautiful marble-lined pedestrian street, built at the end of the 19th century, must be one of the most elegant shopping thoroughfares in Spain.

You’ll find all the famous Spanish chain stores here, including Mango, Massimo Dutti and Bimba & Lola, as well as a whole host of lingerie shops on nearby Calle Liborio Garcia. Running parallel to Calle Larios, and also pedestrianised, Calle Nueva is home to a more local, independent range of shops, and it’s here that you’ll find some great fashion bargains.

Sabor A Espana

Take home a true taste of Malaga from this incredible Spanish sweet shop. Here they offer nougat, caramelised almonds and other traditional Spanish favourites that transport you to Andalucia with just one bite.

All this deliciousness is hand-crafted from quality ingredients in the store’s own kitchens, you can try before you buy, and if you’re looking for sweet-toothed gifts, pick up a few extra – just in case they don’t all reach their intended recipients intact...

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