Málaga, Spain – arts & fun in the sun

Some travel guides bypass Malaga, an important seaport and the largest city in the southern part of the Andalusian region of Spain, on the Costa del Sol (coast of the sun). A prominent travel writer in the USA even advises people to skip the ‘overbuilt and overcrowded’ Costa del Sol altogether. 

The problem with that is, if you skip the Costa del Sol, overcrowded in some spots as it may be (Torremolinos beach comes to mind), you will miss the beautiful Málaga, one of the most welcoming and happening cities in Andalusia and in Spain. After a few days there, I found Málaga more real and more authentic than many of the better-known tourist destinations in Spain. Málaga is a lively regional center, a place where people actually live and work, rather than just visit on vacation. And it has a lot to offer.

Why go to Málaga:

  1. The friendly people
  2. The food
  3. The arts scene
  4. The history
  5. The architecture
  6. The museums
  7. The flamenco
  8. The Mediterranean beaches
  9. The nightlife
  10. The prices  
The Old Town

A charming downtown

My friend Margo and I got to Málaga at the end of a bright day in February of 2020. The sun was so strong, despite being winter in Spain, that even my very dark sunglasses could not keep the light out of my eyes.

On the taxi to our hotel we passed by long stretches of nondescript 1970’s high rises, the kind that we see in the outskirts of every modern city in the world – not pretty. I was starting to think that Málaga perhaps didn’t deserve a visit, after all.

Our hotel was nice, but on a charmless and modern city block. We left our suitcases in the room, got a city map at the front desk, and set out to explore the city. I was not expecting much, at that point, but as soon as we crossed River Guadalmedina, and walked towards the center of town, things changed drastically: we had entered a much older area, with narrow cobblestoned streets and beautiful buildings. That was the Casco Antiguo (old quarter), and that’s where we found the beautiful, friendly and fun Málaga. 

Larios Street

Málaga is mostly flat, and walking or riding a bike are great ways to explore it. We walked a few blocks until we got to Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square), the heart of the city’s old quarter. Surrounded by coffee shops, banks, boutiques and confeitarias (tea houses), the plaza was buzzing with people at the end of a Sunday, and the atmosphere was happy and relaxed: people smiling, children having ice cream with their parents, older and well-dressed couples strolling leisurely. It was the paseo time, the daily ritual when Spanish people take a break and walk the streets – usually the same streets, downtown – with family and friends. I find it a refreshing ritual.

Constitution Square is also the place to have Málaga-style coffee. In Málaga, each coffee has a different name, depending on the amount of coffee served. For example, a ‘cafe mitad’ is half coffee and half milk, a ‘sombra’ is three quarters milk and one quarter coffee. There are at least nine ways to order coffee in Málaga. Whichever you pick, try a ‘churro‘ with it. They are rich in calories, sure, but simply delicious and made to perfection in Málaga.  

Downtown houses

We followed the crowd and moved on to Calle Larios (Larios Street), Málaga’s main pedestrian shopping street, where the most exclusive shops, cafeterias and ice cream parlors are located.  We found Casa Mira easily; it’s home to Málaga’s most famous homemade ice cream, known internationally for its local flavors. The place was crowded with people waiting in line, but I’m glad we joined them: the ice cream was so delicious it certainly deserved the wait. Next to Casa Mira is Lepanto, a classy shop favored by local Malaguenos (as the natives are called), where staff in uniform will inform you about a variety of pastries, cakes and sweets in all shapes and tastes. 

The mighty Mediterranean

View from the old port

At the end of Larios Street we could see the Mediterranean- shining bright under the sun – and the port of Málaga, with ships big and small on the horizon. After a brief stop at the tourism office to get maps and information on the city’s main attractions (some of which I used in this post), we crossed a beautiful park with many tall trees – Paseo Park – before joining a sidewalk by the water, where locals were enjoying the day’s last rays of sun and tourists were taking pictures. 

Palmeral de las Sorpresas

Called the Paseo de la Farola, or Muelle 1, it ends in the historic La Farola, a lighthouse that marks the entrance of the port and is the symbol of Málaga. Muele 1 has shopping centers, boutiques and bars with tables by the water. Its continuation, Muelle 2, is a boulevard named Palmeral de las Sorpresas (palm grove of surprises), built in 2011 under a metal ‘palm tree’ frame. 

Both Muelles form a very pleasant leisure center. They are part of a popular modern project, started in 1998, to remodel the port’s derelict docks, when their use declined. After its completion, a total of 2 million square feet of new urban area were added to the city, integrating the old port and the sea as vital parts of Málaga. It’s where luxury cruise ships depart for tours of the bay, and some mega yachts are docked. No less than nine million people visited the complex in 2016.

Malaga’s old port and the Alcazaba

Between the two Muelles there’s a museum, Center Pompidou Málaga, the first international branch of the famous Pompidou Center of Paris. It’s called El Cubo (the cube), because of its form. It opened in 2015 and has a permanent exhibition of major art works from the headquarters in Paris, including Francis Bacon, Georg Baselitz, Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso, who, by the way, was born in Málaga. 

The Cube

Arts and culture 

In 2016 Málaga had a population of 569,000 people, which makes it the second largest city of Andalusia – after Seville – and the sixth most populated in Spain. But Malaga holds a great advantage over the other five: it’s in the sunny south of Spain, not far from Gibraltar and northern Africa. That means its climate is very mild, and its Mediterranean beaches can be enjoyed during most of the year. Not bad at all…

Water everywhere

Winters are not cold in Malaga – the thermometer never dips below 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Summers last from April to November; that’s when temperatures can be around 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, there’s always the wind blowing from the sea, which makes the heat more manageable. Malaga has an average of about 300 days of sunshine, very little rain during the year, and is one of the few cities in Europe which is green all year round.

With a blessed climate – and a major international airport – Málaga has become the city of choice for northern Europeans getting away from harsh winters in their countries. Brits come in droves, either on vacation or to live year round, after retirement. Right after them are the French and the Germans. The number of resident foreign nationals has risen significantly recently.

Narrow and shady streets
The architecture reflects the styles of many centuries

A smart decision

Less than two decades ago, Malaga’s authorities made a crucial decision: to invest massive amounts of money to transform the city into a cultural destination. The idea was to draw the kind of visitors that want more than just sunny beaches and great food, like those who flock to other destinations on the Costa del Sol. As a result, Málaga now has 28 museums, many art galleries, international art shows and festivals, and is firmly established as an international hub for the arts.  

The 10 most-visited museums in Málaga:

  1. The Museum of Málaga
  2. The Picasso Museum
  3. Th Picasso Birthplace Museum
  4. The Carmen Thyssen Museum
  5. The Contemporary Art Museum
  6. The Pompidou Center Malaga (The Cube)
  7. The Russian Museum
  8. The Municipal Art Museum (MUPAM)
  9. The Flamenco Art Museum
  10. The Gibralfaro Interpretation Center

Picasso Museum

Picasso’s hometown

Perhaps the most influential artist of the 20th century, Pablo Ruiz Picasso’s full name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso! A long name for a great genious. He was born in 1881 in Málaga, where his father, Don Jose Ruyz y Blasco, was a painter who specialized in depictions of birds and other nature themes. For most of his life Ruiz was a professor of art at the School of Crafts in Málaga, and the curator of a local museum. Pablo Picasso’s training under his father began before he was 10 years old. 

Atelier of Picasso’s father

On the year he turned 10, Pablo’s family moved to La Coruna, in the north of Spain. He returned to Málaga with a friend a few times after that, but at nineteen he left the city and never returned. From that point on, Picasso embarked on a career that was marked by success in Barcelona, and subsequently in France, where he achieved international fame. 

Museum Picasso-Málaga

Picasso’s desire to offer his native city part of his works materialized through his daughter-in-law Christine and her son, Bernard Ruiz Picasso. Called the Collection, the donated works are now housed in a museum in the Palacio de los Condes de Buenavista, a beautiful Renaissance building that was once home to the Buenavista counts.  

The works displayed in the many galleries of the museum relate to different phases of Picasso’s artistic life, especially to his sense of origins and family. Interestingly, they are the ones Picasso kept for himself, or gave as a gift to his family, including the portrait of his sister Lola and the amazing ‘Three Graces.’

Museum Carmen Thyssen

María del Carmen Rosario Soledad Cervera y Fernández de la Guerra, born in Barcelona in 1943 and popularly known as Tita, was Miss Spain in 1961. Her third husband (she was his fifth wife) was the legendary German baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, whose private art collection was one of the largest and most important in the world.

Upon the baron’s death, in 2002, Tita (called by then Baroness Bornemisza) donated a big part of her husband’s collection to Spain, a controversial decision at the time, as Germany thought the treasure should stay in the late baron’s native country. Nevertheless, a big part of his collection is now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, in Madrid, and in the Carmen Thyssen Museum, in Málaga.   

The Carmen Thyssen Museum in Málaga, inaugurated in March 2011, has a permanent collection of more than 200 works by 19th-century Spanish artists, especially Andalusian painters. The collection also features two Spanish masters of the 20th century, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and Romero de Torres. In addition to that, the museum has a very dynamic program of temporary exhibitions. 

People love to go out

A ‘handicapped’ cathedral

Málaga’s cathedral is monumental, like most cathedrals are in Spain – a predominantly Catholic country. But this one has a peculiar characteristic: it only has one tower. Although its construction started during the Gothic period (16th century), on the site of an old mosque from the Moorish period, the current building is of Renaissance style and is still unfinished. Funds ran out in 1782 and work was stopped, leaving the southern tower unbuilt. This led to the Cathedral’s nickname of La Manquita, or ‘one-armed lady’. It is indeed a peculiar site, when one faces its facade. But the interior is majestic and opulent.

La Manquita
Interior of the Cathedral

The Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro

The main sea port in Andalusia – and Spain – Málaga was for centuries under the rule of the Moors, Arab and Berber tribes from northern Africa who ruled what they called Al-Andalus for over 700 years, from the year 711 AD to 1492. The Moors were Muslims, and their exquisite legacy is seen everywhere in the city – from the architecture to the food, from literature to the vibrant colors of fabrics and decorations.  

Roman columns and Moorish arches in the Alcazaba
The Alcazaba has many gardens and fountains
Malaga’s bull ring seen from the Alcazaba

Nowhere is this influence more palpable than in the Alcazaba (fortress), Málaga’s greatest monument. Built as a fortress in the 8th century, when Malaga’s port was the main entrance to the Moorish kingdom, the Alcazaba was the residence of the local ruling emirs from 1057 to 1063. Centuries later, king Fernando and queen Isabel lived there as well, after conquering the city, in 1487. The Alcazaba has many beautiful buildings and gardens, and offers impressive views of the city. At its foot is the Roman Theater, built by the occupying Romans in the 1st century B.C. and now used as a theater for special public performances. 

The Roman Theater
Roman ruins and the walls of the Alcazaba

Right above the Alcazaba, connected to it by a path easily conquered by foot, is the Castle of Gibralfaro. Built as a fortification by Abdemarran III from the existing ruins on top of the mountain – among them a Phoenician lighthouse called ‘Yabal Faruh’ by the Arabs – the fortress was extended in 1340 by Nazari King Yusuf I, to become a castle. Its main use, since Phoenician times, was as a coastal vantage point. The fortification now contains a small museum with all the ‘new’ defensive devices of the time, like the big flanking tower, the rampart perimeter adapted to the terrain by zigzag walls, and the angled gateway. On a clear day – like the day I visited – the Gibralfaro offers unlimited views of the city and the of the Mediterranean, and it’s one of the best spots for picture taking in Malaga.  

The Gibralfaro
Old city walls

Tapas & friendly people

Malaga has very lively nightlife. Even on weekdays, starting with the paseo at the end of the day, the streets of the town’s center are bustling with people, restaurants and bars are full, and the fun goes on until late at night. Double that on weekends.

For our last night in the cit, Margo and I chose to have tapas for dinner. An Andalusian institution that is becoming more and more popular around the world, tapas in Malaga are served everywhere, with drinks. 

With the friendly staff

People we had met in the city recommended a tapas bar called Casa Lola (Lola’s House), which the concierge in our hotel confirmed as the best place for tapas in town. We later had to agree with our sources: the food was fresh, the variety of tapas huge, the price was great and the friendly service certainly was the best we encountered during our stay in Málaga. And that is no small accomplishment, in a city where people are exceptionally friendly and fun. 

I liked Málaga. Unpretentious, open, friendly, beautiful and inexpensive. I intend to go back. 

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