Let’s be honest here: The main reason people come to the Costa del Sol in Spain is for the beaches and golf courses.
And there’s no doubt that these are better and more plentiful than almost any holiday region in Europe.
But for the curious the Málaga Province has a world of choices for days out and activities.
You can descend into a gigantic cave that was forgotten for thousands of years, drive up to the mountains to scramble past fantastical karst rock formations and cross the Puente Nuevo into the dreamlike city of Ronda, which straddles a canyon 150 metres-deep.
Here’s the best things to do in Costa del Sol:
In 2016 22 of the Costa del Sol’s beaches were awarded the Blue Flag.
This is the gold standard for hygiene and public facilities, so wherever you go you’ll always be close to a first-class beach.
The climate helps too, as the Costa del Sol has the longest beach season in Iberian Spain, with consistent warmth from as early as April through to late-October.
Even in the low season it’s normally sunny, and daily highs will graze the high-teens.
As for the very best ones? If you’d like peace and seclusion, then the shingle cove at Playa del Cañuelo near Nerja is for you.
If you need a bit more life then Torremolinos is just as good today as it was when the first tourists started arriving in the 50s.
2. Water sports and cruises
Many holidaymakers find it impossible to resist the call of the Mediterranean and need to get out and paddle, windsurf and dive to their hearts’ content.
Fortunately there’s a water sports centre next to the beach at every resort in the Costa del Sol.
They’ll give you tuition and kit you out with all the gear for anything from jet skiing to parasailing.
There are also tourist ports dotted along the coast, the launch pad for white-knuckle powerboat rides or unforgettable whale and dolphin-spotting cruises.
Divers aren’t neglected either, with PADI-licensed centres in Torremolinos and Marbella.
The Costa del Sol has more than 70 golf courses, rightfully earning it the nickname “Costa del Golf”. This is more golf courses per square mile than any other location in mainland Europe.
Nearly all of these clubs are set next to the coast, which grants them views of the azure Mediterranean to the south and the littoral mountains to the north.
Nowadays the courses are also pretty sustainable, using water sparingly where possible and always including native plant and tree species in the course design.
If you want to practice your approach play there are 13 pitch and putts, which are also open to newcomers taking their first swings.
4. Culture in Málaga
Part of the magic of the Costa del Sol is that while you’ve got the earthly delights of sun, sea and sand in abundance, you’re also minutes from Málaga, one of Andalusia’s cultural centres.
You may even need more than a day to see everything here.
For history look no further than the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress-palace with stern outer walls that conceal a stately and tranquil upper enclosure.
Picasso was born in Málaga, so there are two museums for this famous son, and you should also get to the Automobile and Fashion Museum, a crowd-pleaser that puts dazzling 20th-century couture and classic cars side-by-side.
At this inland city you’ll snap some of the your most exhilarating photos ever.
Ronda is atop an escarpment, the bare rock walls of which are extremely precipitous.
It all makes for sights like the epic Puente Nuevo, an 18th-century bridge that crosses the El Tajo gorge.
The bridge structure plunges 120 metres down to the floor of the ravine.
Once inside be sure to investigate “La Ciudad”, the oldest part of the city, with medieval churches and palaces, as well as the Alminar de San Sebastián, the surviving minaret from the city’s Moorish mosque.
Some would say that you haven’t really lived the Costa del Sol life until you’ve tried this local delicacy.
Nearly every beach in the region will have chiringuitos, special beach bars that offer classic Andalusian fried seafood dishes.
But the main event will be the pits in the beach outside, this is where sardines are skewered with canes and roasted to perfection over crackling wood fires.
They go great with just a pinch of lemon and local white wine from the Ronda region.
Espetos are a big source of regional pride and the most famous dish in the Málaga province.
7. Teleferico Benalmádena
You can catch this cable car next to the Tivoli World theme park about 20 minutes south of Málaga.
On a 15-minute journey you’ll climb to the peak of Mount Calahorro.
The views on route are some of the most inspiring on the Costa del Sol, and at the top there’s a scenic lookout pointing out what you can see.
Gibraltar, the Sierra Nevada mountains and the coast of Africa are all visible on clear days.
Included in the ticket is also a falconry demonstration, while on summer evenings there’s stargazing at this lofty spot.
When you get your ticket you’ll have the option of getting a one-way pass and making your own way down the mountain along walking trails.
8. Atarazanas Market
Central markets like this delightful iron and glass building in Málaga are an integral part of daily life in Spain, preferred by many to supermarkets for a daily food shop.
The exquisite stained-glass window above the entrance makes it feel a bit like a place of worship, and to food-lovers this isn’t far from the truth.
You don’t need to be a foodie to be wowed by the stalls brimming with fresh produce, particularly the seafood and olive stalls.
And if you get peckish you can get a cold beer and tapa at one of the joints on the edge of the market.
Atarazanas is actually where Málaga’s Moorish shipyard was located, and the Puerta Nazarí is the last of this complex’s seven original horseshoe arches, dating to the 14th century.
9. El Torcal Natural Park
Surprisingly few people make it to this magical landscape in the mountains north of Málaga.
El Torcal is an area of karst scenery, unmatched in Spain for its ethereal beauty.
Park up at the visitor centre, and from there you can pick three different trails, the longest of which snakes through the mountainscape for three hours.
And some of the sights will leave you reeling, from the stone columns and spires, to the valleys that feel like stadiums for giants, with colossal terraces of ridged limestone that Iberian ibexes climb with ease.
At this elevation, 1200 metres up, there’s also a lot of hardwood vegetation, with four different species of oak trees.
10. Cueva de Nerja
It’s amazing to think that these cathedral-like caves lay undiscovered until 1959. They were found by a group of young bat-catchers, who, after finding a way inside, were terrified by the sight of skeletons next to ceramic bowls.
The human remains were in fact no more recent than the Bronze Age.
On a tour you’ll see some of the archaeological finds in glass cases, not to mention a host of alien-looking stalagmites and stalactites and prehistoric cave paintings.
Electronic guides inform you about the geology and human history of these chambers.
Once out in the open air you’ll get far-reaching vistas over the Mediterranean, as well as free access to Nerja’s Museum.
11. Bioparc Fuengirola
If you’re hesitant about visiting a zoo then rest assured that this attraction is as ethical as they come.
The Bioparc tries to synthesise natural environments as closely as possible across four different world regions: Equatorial Africa, Indo-Pacific, Madagascar and South-East Asia.
Water is in abundance here, as you tread through simulated tropical forest, rich in vegetation.
There aren’t any cages at this attraction, as the animals like Himalayan tapirs, Sumatran tigers, pygmy hippos and orang-utans are separated from the public by ditches or elevated walkways.
Reinforced glass as special viewing windows will also get you right up close to crocodiles and gorillas.
12. Jardín Botánico Molino de Inca
Against the dusty foothills on the western edge of the resort of Torremolinos is a peaceful garden complex at the source of natural springs.
These waters feed the garden’s fountain’s and ornamental rivers.
In Moorish times this was where Torremolinos’ flour mills stood, powered by water wheels.
When this attraction was opened the an old mill and wheel were restored, and you can see the time-honoured wheat-milling process in action.
There are 300 trees and 400 shrubs in the gardens, the most striking of which is the 50-metre-high Norfolk Pine, encircled by a fountain in the centre of a small maze.
13. Alcazaba de Antequera
Here’s a piece of Moorish heritage with an interesting story to tell: This fortress dates to the 1000s, but was expanded in the 1300s to provide a medina, a little walled district, for the various Muslims who had been expelled from the rest of Spain during the Christian re-conquest in the 1200s.
Pick up the audio guide, which will bring the walls and towers of this large complex to life.
You’ll notice that the main tower, Torre de Papabellotas is capped with a pointed a cupola; this was added in the 16th-century after town became Christian to house Antequera’s bell, which you can still see today.
The Alcazaba is on a rise, and has sublime views of the whitewashed town beneath it.
14. Alameda Park, Marbella
One of Marbella’s popular meeting places is like a cross between a botanic garden and a plaza.
One thing’s for sure is that it’s a fine place to be.
Look at the benches for instance; they’re adorned with typical Andalusian “azulejos”, hand-painted tiles with a motif depicting the history of the resort.
The central fountain and the dense and lush tropical vegetation give the gardens a needed freshness on hot summer days, and there can be no better ritual than bringing a cup of coffee and newspaper to the shade to while away a few minutes before everything heats up.
15. Winery Tours
Ronda is at an elevation of 740 metres, and the peaks around are even higher.
This ensures a microclimate that is just right for wine cultivation, so if you’re looking for day-trip inspiration consider a journey up to the Serrania de Ronda D.O.. There are 17 wineries around Ronda alone, and wine-tasting in Andalusia is always special.
That’s because the wines are served with tapas like manchego cheese and jamón ibérico for Crianza and Tinto Joven reds, and with seafood preparations like chipirones (baby squid) for Crianza and Blanca Joven whites.
The upland scenery is also awe-inspiring, on the edge of the Sierra de las Nieves and Grazalema biosphere reserves.