For Mediterranean glamour Marbella holds its own with the French Riviera and has all the things you want from a luxury beach destination: There are Michelin-starred restaurants, marinas filled with high-end yachts, golf courses, designer boutiques and a long chain of sandy beaches.
Little wonder that celebrities and millionaires have been coming here for decades. For the inquisitive there are lots of little discoveries to be made around the resort, whether it’s the renaissance palaces in the old-town or the remnants of Roman villas hidden between the luxury developments.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Marbella:
The oldest part of Marbella is a real find. It’s a labyrinth of pedestrian streets that are laid with red tiles and crazy paving.
The buildings are all whitewashed and topped with terracotta roofs, and many date back to the renaissance. Some are wrapped in bougainvillea; in fact the whole area is bright with flowers.
The houses area all arranged on corridor-like streets that emerge on little squares like Plaza de los Naranjos, where the square’s restaurants place their seating in a small formal garden bordered by orange trees.
The old quarter is also kept spotlessly clean, to the point where the tiles shine in the sun.
2. Alameda Park
Just a few steps south of the old-town is a park that feels like a private garden.
Below a thick canopy of tropical foliage are marble-paved walkways, fountains and benches where you can hide from the sun in the afternoon or sip a cup of coffee in the morning.
Many of the benches are clad with “azulejos”, classic Andalusian hand-painted tiles that show the city’s monuments and history.
On two sides the park is also bounded by a balustrade, which only adds to the sense of refinement.
3. Resort beaches
There are 20 beaches along the front of Marbella, most with sand that has a darkish tint, and all are served with facilities like chiringuitos (beach bars). Lifeguards are on duty at nearly all of them from Holy Week right the way through to the end of September.
One of the picks is El Faro, on the west side of the port.
At 200 metres it’s not the largest, but has been awarded the Blue Flag in 2016 and has an arc of sand washed by knee-high waters, great for the little guys to splash around to their heart’s content.
4. Avenida del Mar
This handsome walkway leads down from the Alameda Park to Playa de la Venus next to Marbella’s marina.
It’s a broad pedestrian avenue with palm trees, meticulously-trimmed hedges and several pieces of great public art.
The bronze sculptures were designed by the 20th-century surrealist Salvador Dalí, so you could easily pass a few minutes studying them, perhaps from one of the beaches along the way.
Shops and bars line the walkway, and if you’re visiting Marbella by car then there’s a handy car park underneath this esplanade, with convenient access to Marbella’s old-town and beaches.
5. Puerto Banús
A few kilometres east of old Marbella is the flashiest part of the resort.
If Marbella draws comparisons with the French Riviera, it’s down to the boutiques, super yachts and luxury sports cars that meet your gaze everywhere you look in Puerto Banús.
The area merits some of your time just to see the ostentatious displays of wealth, but you should check out the large Rhinoceros sculpture, also by Salvador Dalí, which weighs 3.6 tonnes.
While away a few hours on the sandy beach or dress up for one of the posh restaurants here in evenings – if you can book a table.
Recommended guided tour: Mijas, Marbella & Puerto Banus
6. Iglesia de la Encarnación
Marbella’s main historic landmark is a splendid renaissance and baroque church completed in the mid-18th century.
The city wasn’t “re-conquered” from the Moors until the end of the 15th century, much later than almost everywhere else in Spain.
This former mosque was sanctified straight away, and became a Christian place of worship centuries before work was completed.
So some of the building’s architecture has simply been adapted for Christian use.
Take the church’s tower, which was once a minaret.
The interior floor plan was changed to a basilica layout, with three naves and opulent 18th-century rococo decoration.
7. Museum of Spanish Contemporary Engraving
Hidden down an alley in the oldest part of Marbella is the only museum devoted to engraving in Spain.
The venue is part of the experience; it’s a 16th-century Moorish-style palace built for the naval commander Alonso de Bazán, which he bequeathed to the city as a hospital for the poor.
The collection hold some 4,000 engravings, etchings, aquatints, xylographs, lithographs and other pieces of graphic design by some of Spain’s most vaunted artists.
Goya, Picasso, Miró, Chillida and Dalí all have works on show here.
Fitting for a playground for the wealthy, Marbella has an abundance of golf courses.
There are 32 within half an hour of the resort, including very posh, invitation-only clubs, plush resorts with eye-watering green fees and more affordable no-frills option that will suit novices and rusty players.
If you’re newish to the sport then Monte Paraiso is the one for you; it’s mere moments from the centre of the resort and has relatively short, par-3 holes that are forgiving for newcomers but still pose a test for seasoned golfers.
If you want to go all-out try Los Naranjos or La Quinta Golf and Country Club.
9. Water activities
At Marbella’s seafront the Mediterranean will be calling out to you, and fortunately there are all kinds of ways to get out there.
If you’re a thrill-seeker you’ve got a couple of companies based around the marina providing jet-skis, parasailing, wake-boarding and white-knuckle powerboat rides.
If bouncing around the sea at 50mph isn’t your idea of a good time then you could always charter a luxury yacht to experience the lifestyle of Marbella’s ultra-wealthy, if only for a day.
If you pool together with friends or family a yacht with captain is surprisingly inexpensive.
You could set off for open sea or drop anchor at exclusive beach clubs where launches will even bring out your food and drinks.
10. Beaches for day-trips
The Costa del Sol is replete with Blue Flag beaches, and you’ll only be scratching the surface in Marbella.
Maybe you’ll want a change of scenery, or to find a less touristy place by the sea.
You’ll never have to go far; just past the western edge of the Marbella municipality is Estepona where there’s El Padrón, with cafes, restaurants, the Puro Beach Club and a large shopping precinct close by.
If some serenity is in order then San Roque is about 40 minutes along the coast, but the remote Cala Sardina is worth every minute of the drive, with no more than a few whitewashed villas on the hills behind it.
11. Vega del mar Basilica
This archaeological site just in from Guayaba Beach may look modest but it has vast historical significance, and objects recovered here have ended up at the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid.
It’s a paleochristian site, built by the Romans and then expanded by the Visigoths.
Initially it was a Roman necropolis, and the 200 graves on this site constitute one of the biggest Roman burial sites in Spain.
At some time around the 6th century a church was built here.
When you view the floor-plan from the raised wooden walkway you can make out three main halls, and also the vestibule with baptismal font, ensuring that anyone who entered the church was already baptised.
12. Bonsai Museum
Just up the hill from the old-town is the Arroyo de las Represas Park.
This is a long, narrow rock garden that follows a riverbed, blending with the sloping landscape and offering a long path next to the Avenida Dr.
Maíz Viñals, popular with joggers and dog-walkers.
At the centre is a bodega-style pavilion and garden that you have to pay a small fee to enter.
Within is one of the finest single collections of bonsai trees in Europe, as well as water features with turtles swimming in them.
Several of the specimens are olive trees, the oldest of which is an olea oleaster (wild olive) dating back 300 years.
13. Roman villa
Close to the mouth of the Río Verde are remnants of the city of Ciliana, which stood where Marbella is 2,000 years ago.
Under a permanent canopy lie the ruins of what must have been a stately Roman villa.
Although the walls and pillars are long gone, the villa’s marvellous mosaics are as vivid as they were two millennia ago.
The designs correspond to the part of the home they occupied, so the kitchen shows a cauldron with fish, rabbit and chicken, while the dining area even shows where guests are supposed to remove their shoes.
Entry to this small but exciting attraction is restricted to Thursday lunchtimes.
Gastronomy is one of the factors that pulls in the rich and famous, and in 2016 the resort had five Michelin stars to its name.
Skina has been winning acclaim since 2008 for its Andalusian-style cuisine with avant-garde inflections, while El Lago has a “zero kilometre” philosophy, with a menu with produce sourced in the Málaga province.
You don’t need to visit a destination restaurant for a great meal though; in fact the most satisfying local dish is espetos, usually sardines skewered with bamboo and roasted over a wood fire on the beach.
When it’s really hot, an old-fashioned bowl of gazpacho, made with vegetables, cucumber, tomato and garlic is very refreshing.
15. La Concha
A great idea for outward bound types in the milder months is to scale the mountain behind the resort.
La Concha belongs to the Sierra Blanca coastal range and tops out above 1200 metres.
Wherever you are in Marbella you can’t miss this brooding tree-less peak.
When you approach the summit after parking at El Refugio de Januar, you’ll be presented with a very different scene, where the steep valleys shelter tall pine and oak trees.
From there just follow the signs for PR-A 168 La Concha and you’ll soon be up in a landscape of rugged scrubland.
Once you’re at the top you can see out far beyond Marbella, to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The walk takes about four hours in all.