A staggering 19 million people stream through Málaga airport every year. It’s a fair bet that most of them are there for the sun and sea on the Costa del Sol.
But it’s well worth giving the beach a miss to take the half hour drive into Málaga city itself. The place is on a bit of a roll these days and it’s become a city break in its own right.
Málaga has always suffered by comparison with the better-known bits of Andalucia – it didn’t have the passion of Sevilla, the magnificence of the Alhambra in Granada or the stunning scenery of Ronda. Now though, it’s making a serious claim to be a cultural destination, with more museums and galleries than you can shake a stick at. There are two dedicated to Picasso alone. Pablo was born in Málaga and spent the first ten years of his life there.
There’s also the Carmen Thyssen museum, as well as an offshoot of the Centre Pompidou and even a Russian art museum housed in the tabacera, the former cigarette factory. Did we visit them all? No. Just the Museo de Picasso. It’s pretty good too, housing the art created by Picasso for his own family.
The thing is, before the invention of mass tourism, Málaga was really an industrial and commercial hub. In the 19th century, it was one of the main industrial cities of Spain, after Barcelona. When tourism finally came along in the 1960s, it took a fair old while for the city to realise it needed a serious facelift – as recently as 1990 the city centre streets and squares were choked with traffic.
Now though, the main shopping street (Calle de Larios) is an elegant, pedestrian-only paseo into the heart of the city and you can happily stroll around much of Málaga centro without seeing a car. Be careful with the little electric scooters though – there are literally thousands of them whizzing around all over Málaga and they get absolutely everywhere.
Calle de Larios is named after one of Málaga’s most powerful families. Larios gin, which you see everywhere in Spain, is apparently still one of their interests. In November, Calle de Larios is transformed into a sparkling light show (el Alumbrado de Navidad) that lasts over the whole Christmas period through to Twelfth Night in January.
So what else in Málaga is worth seeing?
Well there’s history in abundance, some stunning vistas, some good food and, as we’ve seen, plenty of art and culture. Plus the Malagueños – as people from Málaga are known – are a friendly bunch.
Catedral de La Encarnación
The cathedral is quite something – its lone 84 metre tower still dominates Málaga city centre, which has mostly escaped the curse of high-rise blocks that have spoiled so many towns in Spain.
There were originally supposed to be two towers – you can still see where the unfinished one was supposed to go – and the facade definitely has a lopsided look. Irreverent Malagueños nicknamed it “La Manquita” – the one-armed lady. The story goes that the builders ran out of money for tower number two because the cash was spent on helping the American colonies win their War of Independence against Britain. Maybe, maybe not.
The cathedral itself was built on the site of the city mosque – the Moors had dominated Málaga (Malaquah in Arabic) for nearly 700 years before the Catholic Monarchs took the city in 1487. Demolishing the mosque and building a cathedral instead was a pretty effective way of showing who was the new boss.
Inside, the cathedral is all about height and light. The three naves are all 40 metres high, which gives a real sense of space, while the golden glow over the high altar illuminates the towering columns. For an extra €6 you can climb up onto the roof for a panoramic view over Málaga city.
Castillo de Gibralfaro
But the best views, for my money, are from the Castillo de Gibralfaro, high above the city. Take a bus ride up (number 35) and walk the walls for superb vistas of the port, the city, and the mountains that hem Málaga in from behind.
The castle is Moorish, built in the 14th century and only overcome by the Catholic Monarchs after a three month siege. There’s not much to see inside – just an exhibition that curiously fails to mention the Arabs who actually built the place – but the views are definitely worth it on their own. There’s also a bar if you get thirsty!
Alcazaba and Roman Theatre
The Alcazaba lower down the hill was the real centre of Moorish power in Málaga for seven centuries.
The Moors saved themselves a lot of time and expense by pinching stone from the Roman theatre below the Alcazaba. Yes, inevitably the Romans were here too, making Málaga one of their most important cities in Spain. You can stroll around the ruins of the theatre, and take a peek at where the Romans made garum – a fermented fish sauce that was a big Málaga export at the time. By all accounts, it stank just as you’d expect fermented anchovies to stink, but apparently the Romans couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
The Alcazaba itself is well worth a wander, through typical Moorish patios with tinkling water fountains draped with jasmine and bougainvillea.
It may lack the ostentation and luxury of the Alhambra, but there are wonderful views over the city. Tip: for a great view of both the castle and alcazaba, try the restaurant/bar in the Museo de Málaga in the Palacio La Aduana – it has a great terrace.
Paseo del Parque
Look down from the Alcazaba towards the port and you can’t miss the Paseo del Parque, a great slab of green near the waterfront. It’s a huge botanic garden, built partly by the Larios family (them again) and it’s one of the biggest open-air tropical gardens anywhere in Europe.
It’s Málaga’s green lung and well worth a shady stroll in the heat of the day. The only drawback is that it’s flanked on both sides by multiple lanes of roaring traffic, which isolate it from the elegant buildings of the Ayuntamiento, the University and Palacio de La Aduana, and from the waterfront itself.
In fact, the city’s relationship with its waterfront is the one thing I’d say Málaga hasn’t got quite right. The cruise ship terminal stops you walking along the quayside, and the determinedly modern Muelle Uno development at one end is soulless and touristy.
But Malaga has got an awful lot of things right too. Check out the market –I’m a sucker for Spanish mercados, and Málaga’s Mercado de Ataranzas is a good one – and this is not a city where you’ll go hungry either.
We weren’t there long enough to recommend too many places, but try La Deriva in Alamada Colon for some real food innovation and a great wine list. Try also the city institution of Bodegas El Pimpi on Calle Granada, festooned with signed photos of the rich and famous, including that of Malaga’s most famous recent export, movie star Antonio Banderas.
Malagueños have some endearingly quirky things going on too. Take the Biznaga for example. Plenty of cities have a flower as an emblem, but the biznaga is a bit weird. It’s made from aromatic jasmine flowers – the buds are picked and then carefully inserted by hand into the stalk of a thistle that grows locally. The custom was originally Arab – biznaga meant gift of god – and the end result is rather beautiful. Take a look at this video to see how it’s done.
Like other cities in Andalucía (think Sevilla, for example), Málaga really pushes the boat out in Semana Santa – Easter Week. Massive tronos carrying the Virgin are paraded around the city on the shoulders of hundreds of the faithful. The difference in Málaga is that these tronos are truly huge – the heaviest takes more than 250 people to lift it. And they keep going for hours at a time.
For a good free Málaga City tour, I recommend giving these guys a go. It’s a free tour, but you pay what you think the tour is worth. It’s pretty good, so keep your wallet handy.
© Guy Pelham
If you’re heading for this part of Spain, see my blogs here on the beautiful Ronda (about 1.5 hours drive away) and the remarkable Caminito del Rey – once the most dangerous footpath in the world – about an hour’s drive up into the mountains.