Lots of people on their way to Seville or Granada arrive in Spain through Malaga airport. The city has something of a reputation as one of those coastal resorts full of high-rise hotels that grew up during the tourist boom of the sixties and seventies, but although there is an element of truth in this, especially along the coast to the west of the city, the heart of Málaga is quite a different animal, and if you’re passing through it’s well worth taking a day to take a look around.
For a start, this is a city full of history. Apart from the native Iberians, the Phoenicians were the first colonisers in around 770 BC, followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Vizigoths, Byzantines, Moors, and finally, in 1487, the Christians. All these successive peoples, and the fact that Málaga is a port city, have left their mark on the appearance and culture of the city, and helped to make it the vibrant place it is today.
Secondly, it’s beautiful. Sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, with an old centre that mixes the elegant and the picturesque, a castle perched on a hill, and a seafront garden promenade, it has something for everyone.
For an overview (literally), start the day with a coffee or beer on the terrace of the Parador Hotel on the hill above the bullring, and enjoy the stunning panorama of the city before the sun gets too high. It’s the stuff of which picture postcards are made. Tip – take the number 35 bus up from Parque Málaga to the Gibralfaro Castle (also worth a visit), but walk back down the steep hillside path to the Alcazaba, the 11th century Moorish palace-fortress, which while much smaller than the Alhambra, achieves the same combination of luxurious dwelling, peaceful garden and working fortress.
After that, get out and about in the old town. It’s small enough that you can’t get really lost, but it still has the labyrinthine charm that you expect. The Aduana Palace (the old Customs House), containing both the Fine Arts Museum and the Archaeological Museum, the Cathedral, and the Roman Theatre are all within five minutes walk of the Alcazaba. A bit further on is the museum of Málaga’s favourite son, Pablo Picasso (Antonio Banderas is a close second), housed in the delightful Buenavista Palace, where you can also find the 7th century BC Phoenician wall that is the oldest known structure in the city. The house where Picasso was born can be found in the Plaza la Merced, at the end of the city’s “main drag”.
This starts with Calle Granada, which still follows its original serpentine mediaeval course. Near the northern end is the church of Santiago, dating back to just after the Christian conquest, which is a fine example of the Mudejar style of the time, and the southern end is in the Plaza de la Constitución, which has been the city’s main public space and political centre since the 15th century. For art lovers the Thyssen Museum can be found a little way along Calle de la Compañia, one of the streets leading out of the west side of the square. Beyond the square is Calle Larios, which is quite different in character to Calle Granada. It’s Málaga’s main shopping street (now fully pedestrianized), and was built in the late 19th century by cutting a wide swathe through the existing street layout from La Constitución down to the harbour. I think its one of the most elegant streets I know of anywhere.
From the bottom of Larios it’s well worth making a diversion to the recently renovated Atarazanas Market, and taking a stroll among the stalls laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and meat. Take a moment, too, to admire the big stained-glass window at the end of the market hall, with its montage of scenes of the city. The name Atarazanas means shipyard, and in Moorish times the sea came right up to the walls of the building.
No visit to Málaga would be complete without taking a stroll along the promenade of Parque Málaga alongside the harbour, as Malaguenos have been doing for over a hundred years, enjoying the cool shade of the trees and the profusion of subtropical and exotic plants, fountains and statues, that always feels like a haven of tranquility despite the nearby main roads. This part of the harbour has recently been redeveloped with a marina, shops, bars and a small maritime museum.
Other things to do if you have time or are staying longer:
About a half-hour walk eastwards along the beach from the Alcazaba, past the delapidated splendour of the Balnearios del Carmen, is the former fishing district of Pedregalejo. As well as a picturesque boardwalk between the beach and the fishermen’s cottages there are some fabulous fish restaurants that barbecue fish on open fires. My personal favourite is Andrés Maricuchi.
A similar distance out of the centre, but in the opposite direction, is the Automotive Museum, and you don’t need to be a vintage car enthusiast to enjoy this collection of immaculately preserved vehicles that spans the whole of the twentieth century.