Insider's Travel Guide to Malaga, Spain
Visiting Malaga, Spain? There’s more to it than the beaches of the Costa del Sol. Our Malaga travel expert and city insider, Lisa Francesca Nand, shares her insider’s knowledge on what to do, what to see, what to eat and drink, and where to stay in Malaga.
Read on below to find out more about Malaga’s culture and heritage, as well as Lisa’s suggestions on where to find the best of the city (views, tapas, cocktails, wine lists), and her advice on how to escape city-life, the local art scene, as well as the best bars and restaurants to either save or splurge. There are even some Michelin star restaurants on the Costa del Sol. Happy travels!
A BIT ABOUT OUR INSIDER, LISA FRANCESCA NAND:
Name: Lisa Francesca Nand
Place of birth: The UK, but I grew up in Spain.
Occupation: Broadcaster, journalist and host of The Big Travel Podcast (find it on Apple iTunes).
Hobbies and interests: Travel, long walks in London parks, dancing, complete Spanglophile.
What is your relationship to Malaga? I got dragged, kicking and screaming, to live in Malaga when I was 7 years old, but immediately loved it and never looked back. Although I moved back to the UK to study aged 16 I go back to Spain every 6 weeks or so, and still call it home.
A BIT ABOUT MALAGA:
When I first arrived on the Costa del Sol in the '80s, Malaga city felt like a bit of a no-go area. It has since transformed, blossoming into the grand city it was always destined to be - filled with culture, museums, boutiques and busy, beautifully-tiled tapas bars galore. There’s even a beach.
How can we navigate Malaga?
Malaga is a great walking city with wide, tree-shaded boulevards and much of the centre is pedestrianised. You can also take the train from Malaga airport to the beach (Fuengirola, Torremolinos or Benalmadena).
What is special about Malaga?
Malaga’s tapas bars are legendary – from the many dark, azure-tiled old favourites clustered around the alleys by the Cathedral, where locals drink sherry straight from the wooden barrels, to the more modern food and drink bars scattered across the city neighbourhoods (or barrios). Don’t miss Malaga’s Soho, where once dilapidated mansions are now buzzing with arty graffiti, boutiques and some brilliant places to eat and drink.
Where is your favourite view of Malaga?
For sweeping views of the city, climb to the top of The Alcazaba the best-preserved Moorish fortress palace in Spain and one of two Moorish fortresses in the city - the other being the Castillo de Gibralfaro. Views stretch out over the Mediterranean, with the cruise ships and boats of Malaga Port, and right across the city to the mountains beyond. Beautiful.
Where can we find the best view of Malaga?
Through the atmospheric alleys of the historic centre you catch glimpses of Malaga’s famous Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación (Our Lady of Incarnation) cathedral, until it emerges resplendent in its Renaissance and Baroque-style and, yet, actually unfinished. Like the cathedral in Granada it was meant to have two towers but, for reasons still debated, only one was finished. The locals affectionately call it “La Manquita,” or “the one-armed woman.” The inside is a wonderful place for a wander away from the sunlit streets outside.
Can you tell us some secret, underrated, off-the-tourist-radar places in Malaga?
The whole of Malaga has been, until relatively recently, underrated as a city destination with holidaymakers using the airport as a gateway to the coast and countryside. The renaissance in what is actually one of the world’s oldest cities has been remarkable – including the museums, art galleries and extensive renewal of its previously rather industrial port. It has put Malaga firmly on the must visit map. If you want to head to a quieter neighbourhood, the barrio of Perchel between the Guadalmedina river and Maria Zambrano train station is one of the oldest neighbourhoods, so-called due to the perchas or hooks on which fishermen hang their catch to dry. It has plenty of small local tapas bars and also the fish market at Mercado del Carmen.
Where to stay in Malaga:
Where would you stay if you were visiting, and why?
The historic centre is a good place to base yourself if you’re time-poor and want to be culture-rich. Comprising of two refurbished 19th century buildings, retaining their original facade and a third new building, the four-star Hotel Molina Lario is right opposite the Cathedral. Don’t miss the spectacular rooftop bar with two panoramic terraces and dramatic views of the rooftops.
Where is your favourite respite from hectic city life?
Malaga is a beach city with Maluguetta and Pedregalejo beaches just a short walk away from the city centre, surrounded by quaint fishing cottages and a bustling promenade. This is what weekends in Malaga are all about; waves gently lapping the golden sand, skewered sardines barbecuing outside the Chiringuitos (or beach bars) lined along the promenade and a cooling dip in the Mediterranean…There’s also the serenely beautiful botanical gardens, a tropical oasis first cultivated in 1855.
Any tips on etiquette and/or cultural faux pars?
Eat, drink and be merry. The Malagueñans know how to have fun. Terraces spill out onto the streets until the small hours of the morning and there are numerous local fiestas, the largest of which is the exuberant August Feria when the whole city turns into one big party of flamenco music, horses, dancing, tapas and sherry through the bunting-strewn streets. I’ve had some of the most memorable days (turning into nights) hopping from bar to bar, dancing with locals and sharing little icy glasses of fino and manzanilla sherry.
Where to eat and drink in Malaga:
What is Malaga’s local delicacy?
The fertile fields around Malaga have long been famous for their produce and Malaga has many specialties including a local sweet wine, grapes, sheep’s cheese and of course plenty of seafood. Fritura Mixto is a local dish of deep fried squid and fish you will find everywhere. Another local favourite is the lesser-known sister of Gazpacho, Ajoblanco. Brought here by the Moors “white garlic” is a delicious chilled soup made from ground almonds olive oil and garlic and often topped with local Moscatel grapes.
Which dish is a must-try?
For traditional tapas in Malaga, it’s hard to beat Mesón Mariano, which has all I look for in a traditional Malaga tapas bar – ceramic blue and white tiles, wooden barrels stocked with wine and sherry and really tasty tapas. I love the grilled artichokes and atún encebollado - tuna cooked with onion, local raisins and dates. Hidden down a street near Plaza de la Merced it is always packed with locals.
Which restaurant has the best atmosphere?
There’s atmosphere in truckloads at El Pimipi, perhaps Malaga’s most famous restaurant. Okay it’s become a tourist trap, but for good reason. You enter this traditional bodega from Calle Granada, through the beautiful Patio de los Geranios (Patio of the Geraniums). The cluster of rooms (I could swear more are added each time I go) house several bars, patios, barrel rooms, formal dining areas and a stage for regular flamenco performances. I love the huge 1930s posters adorning the walls along with photos of the many famous faces that have dropped in.
Where serves the best value-for-money dining options?
It’s hard to pinpoint a best value tapas bar as there as so many neighbourhood places to eat in each of Malaga’s different barrios but something to look out for, if you want a more substantial meal than tapas, is the menu del dia (menu of the day) which most restaurants will chalk up on a board. The menu changes depending on what fish has been caught and what’s in season and is usually a brilliant way to eat tasty food at good prices. Often a drink and a dessert or coffee is included.
Where is the best place to splurge on a delicious meal?
Until recently Southern Spain bowed to its northern counterpart in terms of haute cuisine however in recent years the Costa Del Sol’s restaurants have been bestowed with seven Michelin stars, once of which belongs to famous local chef José Carlos García and his view-blessed gaff in the newly fabulous Malaga port, Muelle Uno. Expect stylish décor and experimental dining with new and interesting takes on local favourites. The port is a great place to explore too.
NOW, ONTO THE NIGHTLIFE IN MALAGA:
Where Is Malaga's best cocktail?
Undoubtedly the best place for cocktails can be found at Bar Mañana, where craft cocktails and unique gins are served to a laid back crowd on comfy sofas or on the small terrace. You'll find it slightly off the beaten track alley running between Teatro Cervantes and Plaza de la Merced. For somewhere where the cocktail makers don’t mind spending time finding out what drink you will love it’s surprisingly good value. A great place to kick off a long Malaga night out.
Who has the city's best winelist?
The local sweet, dessert wines have been made in Malaga for centuries mainly from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel white grapes. Restaurants around the city have fine wine lists however for a real taste of the local offerings try The Museum of Wine. Housed in a city-centre 18th-century Palacio de Biedmas the museum traces the history of local winemaking taking in Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and the Moors. You’ll learn how the vines are grown and the wine aged and best of all there is a tasting at the end.
And the bar with the best atmosphere?
The streets off Calle Larios are buzzing with busy bars; one of my favourite places for atmopshere is the relatively new La Fabrica de Cruzcampó in Malaga’s Soho. It’s a micro-brewery with a large and busy bar and a stage for live music. As well as unique beers there’s also a cocktail menu and even a cheese menu. Add in good music, regular beer tasting events and its convenient Soho location to explore that part of town and it’s a pretty good place to while away a few hours of socialising.
Which bar is the best value-for-money?
Pretty much everywhere is good value for money for drinks in Malaga. Even in city centre bars the house wine (which is usually very good) starts at around 1.50 Euros for a nice glass. Beers are similarly priced.
And the best splurge?
Malaga is home to the wonderful Parador Gibralfaro, a perfect hilltop located hotel and restaurant overlooking the city, port and bullring and surrounded by beautiful gardens neighbouring the Gibralfaro Castle. It’s at its most spectacular in the evening when the carpet of city lights below start to twinkle and come alive. The food isn’t cheap but it’s worth it for a lovely meal away from the hustle and bustle of the city on the spacious terrace with its glittering swimming pool. A great place to watch the sun go down.
And finally, where is the best place to carry the night on, post-midnight?
The whole of the city centre is open for nightlife until the early hours but the area by Plaza de Uncibay and Plaza de la Merced are the liveliest, with clubs open until around 4am or later. Spanish tapas dinners go on for many hours and there are also several really great rooftop bars in Malaga, unmissable for their views and a cocktail. But if it’s proper old-school clubbing you’re after there are a few options of which Sala Gold is probably the most talked about. Nightlife doesn’t really kick off until 1am though so be prepared for a late night. They have salsa classes on weekdays if you want to brush up on some moves.
FOR CULTURE VULTURES:
Who is your favourite local artist?
Barcelona and Paris might try to claim Picasso but this is the place he was born and lived until he was ten. The Museo Picasso Malaga near his birthplace in Plaza de La Merced is a wonderful place to visit. Picasso’s father was curator of the city museum in the old town hall and part of the Picasso senior’s payment was a space for his own painting studio, where Picasso junior created some of his first works.
Where is your favourite local gallery?
Malaga is now home to a collection of curious museums from the large and well known to the small and back street. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the world's foremost art collectors, now has her own Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Malaga, which displays paintings from her personal collection. The collection has been amassed over the past 30 years and is mainly by 19th-century Spanish artists, with most of the subject matter being Andalucia - Cordoba, Malaga and Seville.
And your favourite international gallery?
Malagueñans are honoured to boast the only Pompidou Centre outside Paris and El Cubo, its colourful cuboid glass structure, is a welcome addition to the rejuvenated Malaga Port area. Like it’s Parisian counterpart the Pompidou Malaga houses works from the early 1900s to the present day including masterpieces such as The Frame by Frida Kahlo, The Flowered Hat by Picasso and works by Francis Bacon and René Magritte. There are regular performances in feature dance, film and spoken word.
FINAL WORDS: why do you love Malaga?
The Spanish tourist board had a long-running campaign called Spain: Passion for Life and to me this was a really accurate way of summing up the Spanish lifestyle but in particular the Andalucian lifestyle, nowhere is this summed up in city-form better than Malaga. Sure Granada, Seville and Cordoba are pretty damn amazing too but Malaga’s passion for food, wine, socialising, culture, art, dance, music and doing this alongside being a vibrant, working city really does embody the passion of Spain.
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