Málaga is home to some of Andalusia’s greatest historical monuments, such as the Moorish Alcazaba fortress and the stunning Roman amiptheatre. But that’s not all: from a restaurant where you can eat kangaroo while enjoying live flamenco to a museum showcasing the works of a Málaga-born painter who revolutionised 20th century painting, here are the city’s top 20 attractions.
Málaga’s great cathedral, one of the city’s key architectural attractions, is known locally as ‘La Manquita’, or ‘The One-Armed Woman’, due to its uncompleted second tower. Built between 1528 and 1782 near to the site of an early Almohad mosque, original plans for this huge Renaissance and Baroque-style cathedral had included two towers, but the second was never built because of a lack of funds. Construction dragged on for over two hundred years before the Mayor of Málaga commissioned Aragonese architect José Martín de Aldehuela (1729–1802) to finish the cathedral off in the late 18th century. Aldehuela’s other iconic contributions to the province include Ronda’s stunning ‘New Bridge’ and bullring.
The Moorish rulers of southern Spain built the Alcazaba fortress – the best-preserved Moorish citadel in Spain – on the remains of a Roman fortification around the middle of the 8th century. Though it doesn’t have the grand interiors of its more famous counterpart in Granada, this amazingly preserved fortress is every bit as beguiling as the Alhambra. The fort was extensively rebuilt by the Sultan of Granada in the 11th century and connected up to the nearby Gibralfaro Castle by a Nasrid King in the 14th century. One of the most notable features of the Alcazaba is how effortlessly it fits into the hillside above Málaga, while inside it is a maze of secret courtyards, open-air corridors and battlements that command incredible views out to sea and over the city’s rooftops.
Málaga’s Roman theatre is the oldest monument in the city and one of the few remaining Roman structures in Andalusia. Its location at the foot of the Alcazaba makes this part of Málaga’s centre one of the most historically significant – and beautiful – sites in southern Spain. Built during the 1st century AD, the theatre was in use until the 3rd century AD, after which it fell into misuse until the Moors settled in Málaga in the 8th century. They showed little respect for this once-magnificent place of entertainment, and plundered it for material with which to build the Alcazaba. Only in 1951 was it rediscovered – during the construction of an arts centre, fittingly – and it opened to the public in 2011 after a complicated and lengthy restoration. Now it once again stages concerts and plays and features an informative visitors’ centre.
Built in the 10th century by the Caliph of Cordoba, this formidable hilltop castle was enlarged in the 14th century by the Sultan of Granada. Walking along the length of its turrets, you can survey the ocean and the surrounding landscape for miles and miles; no wonder, then, that the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella needed three months to take the castle from the Moors in the famous Siege of Málaga in 1487 – and even then, they won only because their besieged foes ran out of food and water. Like the Alcazaba, to which it was connected in the 14th century, the Gibralfaro is exceptionally well preserved, and has been expertly restored where necessary, enabling you to understand why it was once considered the most impregnable fortress in mainland Spain.
No visit to Málaga would be complete without a visit to El Pimpi, one of the city’s oldest and most-loved places to eat. Enjoy a pre-lunch or early evening vermouth (red Martini over ice) on the outside terrace, overlooking the Moorish Alcazaba and the Roman amphitheater, and watch the world go by on Calle Alcazabilla. An army of waiters provides excellent service, much like the original pimpis – cheerful locals who would help sailors arriving in Málaga’s port to unload their wares before showing them where to head for a drink and a snack. Particularly recommended here are the mini buey (ox) burgers and the homemade croquetas.
After lunch or drinks at El Pimpi, pop next door to the superbly maintained Picasso Museum to admire the work of Málaga’s most famous son. The museum was opened in 2003 by Christine and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Picasso’s daughter-in-law and grandson, and the permanent collection features over 200 works from every stage of Picasso’s eclectic career. Over the next three years (from March 2016), the museum will also be displaying a further 166 Picasso pieces – some of them rarely displayed to the public before.
Over recent years, the oldest continually-operated port in Spain has been transformed into one of the most Málaga’s most aesthetically pleasing and vibrant areas, mainly with the addition of the tropical-feeling ‘Palm Garden of Surprises’ along the promenade. At the far end, near Málaga’s historial bullring, is the Pompidou Centre – Málaga’s answer to the famous Parisian gallery, topped with a giant, multi-coloured cube – and the Paseo del Muelle Uno, a lively thoroughfare lined with bars and restaurants that leads to the Malagueta beach. This is now a great area for an early evening stroll, or from which to watch the enormous cruise liners come and go on their voyages around the Mediterranean.
One of old Málaga’s central squares is Plaza de la Merced, on which Pablo Picasso was born in 1881: nowadays, it is lined with bars and restaurants with sun-drenched terraces, making it a great place to hang out. The fact that it’s favoured by street performers of all kinds means there’s likely to be live entertainment as you enjoy your tapas, too. Venturing off Plaza Merced itself, the neighbourhood of La Merced itself is a hedonist’s playground: Calle Alamo is lined with super-trendy bars and clubs and gives way to the equally popular Calle Carreteria, on which you’ll find La Tranca, the tapas joint of choice for La Merced’s locals.
La Tranca’s client-base almost entirely consists of Malagueños, making it a unbeatable spot to take the pulse of La Merced’s streetlife. Crammed into the tiny bar and spilling out onto Calle Carreteria, clients are plied with vermouth, sweet wines and homemade tapas by the ebullient owner Ezequiel, making for a noisy and chaotic atmosphere that is the signature of any truly local bar in Andalusia. The back wall of Tranca is plastered with album covers by classic Spanish singers, from pop to flamenco, but the bar itself is airy and light rather than cluttered. One of the best bars in Málaga that tourists don’t know about.
Exploring Málaga’s key architectural attractions can be thirsty work, especially in spring or summer, but there is no shortage of places to eat and drink in the city centre. One of the coolest spots to grab a cold beer and some tapas is Mercado de la Merced: reopened in October 2015 after a six-month makeover, Mercado de la Merced is now one of the trendiest places to eat and drink in the city, as well as being a den of culinary innovation and excellence. The market’s 22 stalls offer everything from cured hams, fresh fish and vegetables to designer tapas bars and sushi stalls. The market is situated in the heart of the super-cool La Merced neighbourhood and just a five minute walk from Málaga’s old town.
If you want dinner with a difference in Málaga, few places can beat Vino Mio (situated just a few minutes’ walk off Plaza Merced) for friendliness and originality: indeed, it may well be the only restaurant in Andalusia where you can enjoy kangaroo and crocodile while watching a live Flamenco show. This imaginative combination of artistic and culinary pleasures makes dining at Vino Mio a hugely enjoyable experience, and one which is enhanced by the warmth and efficiency of the waiting staff. At the end of the show, the dancer selects diners to come up and try their flamenco skills – an experience which will makes an evening at this quirky restaurant all the more memorable.
If you fancy getting out of the city centre for an afternoon, Málaga’s beautiful botanical gardens are situated in the nearby suburban quarter of ‘La Concepción’, about a 15-minute bus ride from the centre. The gardens, dating from the mid-19th century, display fauna and flora, trees from five continents, over 49 hectares of tropical forest and 23 hectares of botanical gardens. Throughout spring – the best time to visit – the gardens come alive with the colours and scents of all these exotic specimens in bloom, making it perfectly possible to believe you are in some faraway, tropical land rather than on the outskirts of one of Europe’s most popular cities. Particularly notable are the garden’s collection of palm trees, some of which are over one hundred years old, as well as a 400-year-old olive tree.
The best views of Málaga’s attractive 19th-century bullring are from the turrets of the Gibralfaro castle, from where you can see it tucked in amongst high-rise apartment blocks just a stone’s throw from the sea. Work on this understated, elegant plaza began in 1874 and it staged its first bullfight two years later; nowadays, it is one of the the most important bullrings in Andalusia and holds prestigious bullfights during Easter and throughout Málaga’s riotous August fiesta. Tours of the ring are available, and it also houses a museum exploring the history of the controversial spectacle that takes place within.
This scruffy and charming barrio is situated between the Guadalmedina river to the east and the Maria Zambrano train station to the west and is one of Málaga’s oldest neighbourhoods. It’s hard to believe that Perchel is in the same city as the smart, sophisticated old town, but for that reason it gives you a true taste of what life was like before Málaga became a major tourist destination. It was – and still is – a working-class neighbourhood, many locals earned their living from the ocean on their doorstep. Nowadays it’s still the place to head for the freshest fish in the city, sold from stalls at the wonderful Mercado del Carmen.
If you get tired of looking at monuments and want to experience some authentic Málaga life, head to El Perchel’s Mercado del Carmen. The usual cacophony of bargaining and socialising awaits you inside, along with what many Malagueños say are the best fish and seafood stalls in town. Indeed, El Carmen sits in the old neighbourhood of ‘El Perchel’, named after the hooks – ‘perchas’ – on which local fisherman used to hang the day’s catch to dry. Though now surrounded by fashionable tapas joints, this market has not lost its truly local ambience or its wonderfully fishy aromas. You can enjoy the freshest catches as tapas in one of the many nearby bars.
The beautiful Moorish entrance of the Atarazanas looks more like something you’d expect to see in Granada’s Alhambra than adorning the facade of a posh supermarket – but then Málaga’s grandest mercado has had many incarnations. The archway is the only piece to survive from the original 14th-century seven-arched structure, which was a giant shipyard when Málaga was under Arabic dominion (at which time the sea came further inland than it does today). When the Catholic monarchs seized Málaga from the Moors in 1487, the Atarazanas was turned into a convent and in subsequent centuries the structure was also used as a military fort, a hospital and a medical school. Be sure to also check out the beautiful stained-glass window on its rear façade, which depicts fishing boats coming and going in Málaga’s great port.
Los Gatos is one of the friendliest bars in Málaga, a place where visitors stepping in for the first time are greeted like loyal clients of 20 years. The décor is traditional, with an enormous stuffed bull and bullfighting paraphernalia occupying one corner, and various trinkets and antique items randomly scattered throughout the restaurant. Los Gatos pulls off the not-inconsiderable feat of appealing to both locals and visitors, the latter of whom are warmly welcomed in both English and Spanish. Its location just off Calle Granada – the historical quarter’s central street – means it’s a perfect place to enjoy a cold beer and tapas whilst monument-hopping.
You won’t see many tourists on the streets of Soho, a now-neglected quarter of Málaga that fifty or so years ago was a desirable residential area. Bordered by Alameda Principal to the north, the Guadalmedina river to the west and the port to the east, this now-unloved neighbourhood is nevertheless home to the most exciting and innovative street art scenes in Andalusia. As part of the initiative known as Málaga Arte Urbano Soho (MAUS), some of the world’s leading grafitti artists have adorned Soho’s crumbing facades with amazing spray-paint images; hunting for these is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon off the tourist circuit. And best of all, it’s completely free.
One of the best things about being in Málaga, especially on a sweltering summer’s day, is the city’s proximity to a cluster of superb beaches. The Playa Malagueta is the closest and most popular of them all and is reached by just a 10-minute walk along the lovely promenade at the east end of Málaga’s great port. Its 0.6 mile-long, man-made stretch of fine sand provides the perfect setting for a refreshing dip and a dose of Andalusian sun, before lunch or drinks in one of the many excellent restaurants and bars on the nearby Paseo del Muelle Dos.
Every August, usually around the middle of the month, Málaga’s annual feria erupts into life. A distinctive aspect of Málaga’s week-long blowout is that the celebrations don’t just take place in marquees (called “casetas”) on a sandy site the size of several football pitches known as a “recinto”, which are usually located quite a way out of the city center. Of course, Málaga has a caseta-packed recinto to rival any other major Andalusian city: but here, during the day, the fiesta is on the streets. Spontaneous street parties break out all over town, with women wearing the stunning flamenco dresses and big groups of Malagueños sharing bottles of cartojal, a sweet white wine that is the feria’s signature drink. Particularly lively are Calle Marques de Larios and Plaza de la Constitución in the old town, which are packed with locals dancing, drinking and socialising all day, every day, for a week. Quite simply wonderful.