Known to many as the capital of the Costa del Sol, Málaga is more than a seaside city. You can learn about Spain’s Islamic past at the majestic Alcazaba fortress palace, while Pablo Picasso was born here, so there are museums that shed light on his early years.
And during the city’s famous festivals you can also get to know Andalusian culture, watching flamenco shows and quaffing sherry, in the part of the country where they originate. And in case you needed reminding, the world-renowned beaches, resorts and golf courses of the Costa del Sol could hardly be closer.
1. La Alcazaba
With powerful walls visible from almost anywhere in the city, Málaga’s Alcazaba is a Moorish fortress palace and valuable monument from the Islamic era.
It was first erected in the 8th century and was bolstered and expanded over the next five hundred years. On this hill are two sets of walls protecting an inner and outer citadel.
The outer citadel contains the palace’s stunning gardens with fountains and gateways that the Arabs built out of old Roman columns.
Within the second set of walls is the palace and stately dwellings that are spread across three peaceful courtyard gardens.
2. Roman Theatre
Just down the hill, beyond the outer walls of the Alcazaba is the best ancient monument in the city.
The theatre was in use for around 300 years up to the 200s but then was forgotten about and even used as a quarry during the Moorish period.
The structure was only rediscovered in 1951 and considering all its been through is actually in pretty good shape today.
Several tiers of seating of the 16 metre-high cavea (spectator’s circle) remain undamaged and there’s a recently-opened visitor centre showing off some of the finds at the site including amphorae and everyday tools.
3. Málaga Cathedral
The city’s cathedral took more than 150 years to build, and so is a kind of melange of renaissance and baroque styles.
The facade for example was one of the last parts to be completed and is suitably grand, with arches, columns pillasters and stone reliefs depicting saints.
The cathedral’s north tower is 84 metres-tall, second only in Andalusia to La Giralda in Seville.
There was supposed to be a South Tower, but instead the funds for this were diverted to help America gain independence from the British.
You can read about this on the cathedral’s information plaque where the tower should have been.
4. Castillo de Gibralfaro
Like the Alcazaba this hilltop fortress looms above the city. It’s a majestic landmark that you might recognise from Málaga and the wider province’s emblems.
Unlike the Alcazaba the site has a more warlike purpose, with lookout towers and ramparts that are still standing today, competing with the pines on the hillside.
There has been a fortress here since the Phoenicians more than 2,500 years ago and this castle was the scene of a pivotal siege in 1487.
The Muslim Malagueños held out against King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for three months before surrendering when they ran out of food.
5. Museo del Vidrio
This intriguing little museum is in a lovely old house from the 1700s, with exposed beams in the ceilings, period furniture and tasteful decoration.
What people come to see though is the large collection of antique glassware that spans several thousand years.
There are pieces from a range of ancient civilisations: Phoenicians, Romans, Ancient Greeks and Egyptians.
Check out the green Roman glass bowl, still intact 2,000 years later.
Then further on you’ll see beautiful Venetian items, glassware from the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age and a collection of English lead glass including jugs and wine cups from the 1500s.
6. Ataranzas Market
As with much of Spain, the central market is such a focal point of daily life in Málaga that you have to see it for yourself.
Locals favour the stalls at Ataranzas for freshness, and because the prices are reasonable.
It’s also just a lovely building, with an elegant iron and glass canopy, Mudéjar arches and a magnificent stained-glass window.
Come to buy all the usual market produce, like fruit & veg, meat (both raw and cured), cheese, fresh bread and some local honey or sherry.
There are also bars where you can get a tapa to go with a cold glass of cruzcampo.
7. Parque de Málaga
When the heat is on, this esplanade is like diving into the undergrowth, and you’ll be surprised how cool it can be, even in the summer.
The broad, lush fronds of the towering palm trees provide ample shade over the three main walkways.
There’s also something surreal about seeing ornate pieces of baroque and renaissance sculptures and fountains surrounded by subtropical plants.
In front of the City Council building is a beautiful rose garden, ringed by orange trees and cypresses.
8. Automobile and Fashion Museum
Here’s an attraction that celebrates the finer things in life. Both guys and girls will find something to admire.
For the blokes there are 100 classic cars, including Maseratis, Cadillacs, Aston Martins and Bugattis.
The collection goes back to the earliest years of automotive travel with a De Dion Bouton from 1903.
As you journey through the decades, from the roaring 20s to the 1950s Dolce Vita era the museum adds historical context to models on show.
You can make a similar trip through the years in the seven fashion galleries, where 200 original pieces of haute-couture are on display.
9. Picasso’s Málaga
Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga, so no trip can be complete without paying tribute to this 20th-century icon.
Head first to his birthplace, or Casa Natal, on Plaza de la Merced.
It’s a few minutes on foot from all the city’s landmarks, and his parents rented the first floor for a couple of years at the start of the 1880s.
There’s a small collection of his artwork, as well as artefacts from his youth.
A larger display of his paintings can be seen at the Picasso Museum a couple of minutes away (tickets can be booked here).
Much of these are from his formative early-20th century years (Olga Khokhlova with Mantilla, 1917) but they illustrate the artist’s growth in that time.
La Malagueta on the city’s waterfront is good enough, but is right up against the busy N-340 and can be packed out in summer.
Still, the Costa del Sol is Europe’s sun and sand paradise, so you won’t have trouble finding a better beach close by.
Those who know hop in the car and go to Torremolinos, a pleasant 20-minute drive away.
The Blue Flag-winning La Misericordia is a delightful sandy bay, broad and long, and washed by moderate waves.
Los Alamos is just as lovely, but a bit more developed with apartment complexes to the rear and beachside concerts in the summer.
11. Málaga Football Club
In the northern suburbs is La Rosaleda, a marvellous stadium with a 30,000 capacity.
Its home team, Málaga CF, has been in the Primera División for almost a decade now.
For a period Málaga underwent huge investment from their Qatari owner, which propelled them to the Champions’ League, but he has stopped pumping money into the club so they have fallen back a bit.
At any rate, every other week from August to May you can see matches from Europe’s best league here, and there’s also a stadium tour and museum documenting Málaga CF’s famous players and trophies.
If you want to try a dish that is completely local, then you can’t go wrong with espeto (grilled sardine) at a local chiringuito (beachfront bar).
The classic way to make these is to dig a hole in the sand and make a fire, then roast the sardines over the embers.
Long, thick canes are normally used to skewer the sardines and when they’re done you can enjoy them with a squeeze of lemon and glass of crisp white wine.
There’s even a statue of an “Espetero” cooking sardines on Málaga’s Paseo Marítimo de Antonio Machado.
13. Semana Santa
Holy Week is of course a big deal across Spain, but in Andalusia and especially Málaga it takes on a profound significance.
This is partly because the Catholic brotherhoods here (organising and taking part) are perhaps more prominent than in other places around Spain.
They’ll hold masses throughout the year and have more manpower to get things organised for the big week.
The spectacular floats that they carry on processions taking place from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday can be several metres tall, and the Virgin statues are often lavishly decorated.
There’s also a different feeling among Malagueños during Holy Week compared to other Spanish cities; it’s much less sombre and more exuberant here.
14. Feria de Agosto
Málaga’s a great city to visit at any time of year, but in August it’s a little more special.
In medieval times it was one of the very last cities on the Iberian peninsula to return to Christian rule after the Islamic era.
Málaga was taken on 14 August 1487, and this event is commemorated by the week-long festival on the third week of August every year.
More than anything it gives you a good look at Andalusian culture, as toasts are made with fino (sherry), there are plenty of flamenco performances and there are daily bullfights at La Malagueta.
The streets of the city are lovely at this time too, decorated with flowers and paper lanterns.
After all, you are on the Costa del Sol, and this means that you can barely go a few kilometres without tripping over a top-notch golf course.
10 kilometres along the coast from the city is Parador de Málaga, an 18-hole course that welcomes players of all abilities.
So if you need to rediscover your swing then this is the place for you.
It’s in an invigorating landscape of dunes, palms and eucalyptus trees, and is one of the oldest courses in the country, dating to the 1920s.
On the western fringe of the city is Guadalhorce, an 18-hole course where you can play a fairly forgiving front nine, or go straight to a back-nine loaded with hazards that will test the best.
Further reading: Best places to visit in Spain