While the Costa del Sol is famous for its sun, sea and sand, plenty of interesting cultural attractions and historic sites can also be found in its capital Malaga. Overlooked by two huge hilltop citadels, its enchanting Old Town boasts loads of excellent art museums and attractive old buildings.
One of the Mediterranean’s oldest seaports, it was remarkably settled back in the eighth-century BC by the Phoenicians. Its millennia of history and multicultural heritage can be seen in all its landmarks dotted around the center. These include not just an ancient Roman Theatre and exquisite Baroque cathedral but the magnificent Moorish Alcazaba too; the city’s main symbol and sight.
Packed with tourists each summer, the sunny seaside city also acts as a transport hub for the rest of the resorts and towns scattered along Spain’s southern coast. With plenty of things to in Malaga and top dining spots to hit up, Pablo Picasso’s birthplace has everything you could want from a holiday destination.
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23. La Calle Larios
Malaga’s main shopping street, the lively La Calle Larios is lined by scores of unique boutiques and stylish storefronts. Thankfully covered by awnings in summer, it has a very elegant look and feel with numerous concerts, cultural events and art exhibitions also held here over the course of the year.
Inaugurated in 1891, the pedestrian street stretches from the picturesque Plaza de la Constitución to Parque de la Alameda Principal. Bordering it to either side are beautiful historical buildings designed by the Malaga-born architect Eduardo Strachan. These mainly host upscale fashion shops with only a few ice cream parlors, cafes and restaurants found alongside it.
Other than stopping for a coffee or buying some clothes, you can also pick up perfume, cosmetics or other accessories in its luxury boutiques. Thanks to its buzzing ambience and big events like Malaga Fair, Holy Week and Christmas celebrations taking place here, there is always something new to see along La Calle Larios.
22. Mirador del Gibralfaro
When you’re panting your way up to the city’s castle, make sure to stop off for a break and enjoy the phenomenal panoramas from Mirador del Gibralfaro. Overlooking the port, bullring and Alcazaba, its shady spot offers up some fabulous photo opportunities.
Starting from just behind the eleventh-century Moorish fortress, the steep path slowly snakes its way up the hillside below Castillo de Gibralfaro’s crumbling walls. Along the exposed route are a handful of vendors selling both refreshing drinks and souvenirs. If you don’t fancy hiking there yourself, there are also buses and taxis to take up to the castle.
The divine views make it well worth all the effort though as you see the sun-kissed city and sparkling sea spreading into the distance before you. Besides catching our breath here, we really appreciated seeing the city and castle from a different angle. The vistas from its ramparts are even better though so take a minute and keep on heading upwards!
21. Cac Malaga
Down by the port next to the Guadalmedina river is the cutting-edge Cac Málaga. At the outstanding contemporary art center, visitors can inspect thought-provoking pieces by international and emerging local artists.
First opened to the public in 2003, its enormous exhibition halls now house an extensive collection of paintings, photos and sculptures, among many other art forms. As they stand out delightfully against its wide-open, white spaces, many instantly draw the eye and appear quite dramatic.
Constantly changing, it displays a number of modern artworks by renowned Spanish artists such as Juan Munoz and Miquel Barcelo. The state-of-the-art center also often puts on temporary exhibitions that explore countless different themes and artistic movements. After perusing its paintings, you can always carry on to the Picasso Museum and marvel at yet more amazing masterpieces.
20. Parque de Malaga
If you instead need a bit of a break and want to immerse yourself in nature, then visiting the nearby park is one of the best things to do in Malaga. Full of pretty gardens, fountains and sculptures, Parque de Malaga’s verdant grounds lie between the Alcazaba, Old Town and the city’s waterfront.
Laid out in 1897, its landscaped, tree-lined paths provide some welcome respite from the scorching sun relentlessly beating down. Beneath its soaring palms, you can relax on park benches, admire its plants, trees and flowers or stroll amidst its wonderful statues and water features.
It also encompasses a fragrant rose garden while playgrounds and a promenade by the port are set nearby too. With exotic birds flitting about peacefully amongst the foliage, the park is a very pleasant spot to spend some time.
19. Mercado Central de Atarazanas
Not far from its lush, leafy confines is the massive Mercado Central de Atarazanas. Home to dozens of stands, stalls and several tapas bars, the vibrant market is loads of fun to explore.
Built back in 1879, its immense wrought-iron frame is decorated with elaborate arches and sublime stained-glass windows. Above its entrance for instance is a particularly captivating and colourful one that depicts historical images relating to the city’s past.
After snapping some pics, head inside and see all its stalls laden with fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. Yet others still sell specialty food products and spices or local cheeses, meats and baked goods. We really enjoyed the market’s lively ambience, arresting architecture and the tiny tapas bar we tried.
18. Plaza de la Constitucion
Just a short walk away again is the important Plaza de la Constitucion which is one of the city’s main squares and meeting points. Surrounded by lots of attractive buildings, it hums with energy at almost any time of day.
Lying at the very northern end of La Calle Larios, the spacious square has served as the political and economic center of Malaga since the fifteenth century. This was when it was properly laid out for the first time. Some of its oldest buildings like the Church of the Holy Christ of Health also date to around this time.
Before its fine facades is the gorgeous Genoa Fountain. Made of marble in the seventeenth century, it makes for some great photos with the beautiful palms and buildings behind it. Numerous cafes and shops also border the plaza which has tons of atmospheric alleys to explore branching off from it.
17. Museo de Malaga
A fascinating place to wander around, the Museo de Malaga boasts a myriad of astonishing artworks and archaeological findings. Located right by the park just behind the cathedral, it is remarkably one of the largest museums in Spain with its three floors covering over 2,000 years of history.
Now housed in the Palacio de la Aduana, an ornate eighteenth-century mansion, it was formed back in 1973 when the fine arts and archaeology museums were combined. On display in its galleries are thousands of fantastic old paintings, pots and sculptures. Enthralling exhibits also present Malaga’s Phoenician past, Roman-era and its eventual Islamisation.
Many masterpieces by famous names such as de Goya, Picasso, Ribera and Velazquez are also on show. With so many glittering treasures and unique artifacts to examine, we spent way longer than we meant to ambling about the excellent museum.
16. Teatro Romano
Overlooked by the old walls of the Alcazaba are the ancient ruins of the Teatro Romano. Although it is maybe not as large or as impressive as others in Europe, the amphitheater still looks stunning with the fort rising dramatically behind it.
Only discovered in 1951, it was constructed back in the first century by the Romans during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Very well-preserved, its worn stone seats are nestled into the side of the large hill while what was once its stage area now borders the plaza beside it.
At its visitor center, you can learn about its age-old history and see some artifacts uncovered at the site. From both below and its upper tiers too, there are some brilliant photos to be had of the theater and its scenic surroundings.
15. Museo Carmen Thyssen
Also in the Old Town is the magnificent Museo Carmen Thyssen which mainly focuses on Spanish paintings from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Situated just off Plaza de la Constitución, it also has a cosy cafe and outdoor terrace to stop by.
Actually only opened in 2011, its collection occupies a purpose-built museum erected about the ruins of the sixteenth-century Palacio de Villalon. Centered around its elegant, airy courtyard are four floors of galleries for you to stroll about. These contain a plethora of very detailed portraits, landscapes and romantic images of daily life in centuries gone by.
Alongside all its incredible Andalusian artworks are also some wonderful works by the European Old Masters. After enjoying the wide range of topics and techniques covered, you can pick up some gifts or souvenirs in its on-site shop.
14. Plaza de la Merced
On the northern side of the Old Town is another of Malaga’s most happening squares. At Plaza de la Merced, you can relax and enjoy the sun at its cafes’ terraces while taking in its laidback atmosphere and lovely architecture. There is also Pablo Picasso’s childhood home for you to visit at one corner.
While the square has served as a public space since way back in Roman times, it was only from the fifteenth century onwards that it operated as a marketplace. It was later smartened up when military parades were held here during the short-lived existence of Napoleonic Spain. The plaza’s colourful collection of old buildings is now instead home to countless local cafes and tapas bars.
In its center too is an ornate obelisk dedicated to General Torrijos and forty-eight of his companions who were executed here on the orders of Ferdinand VII. Much more cheerful is the statue of Picasso on a bench that many people sit and take photos with. Sipping a drink and watching both locals and tourists go by was by far our favorite thing to do in this part of town.
13. Day Trip to Antequera
If you want to see a bit more of the south of Spain, then it is well worth taking a day trip to Antequera if you have the time. Known as ‘the heart of Andalusia’, the historic town is reachable in just forty-five minutes’ drive through the majestic mountains directly north of the city.
Due to its central location in between Malaga, Granada, Cordoba and Seville, it thrived for centuries as a commercial hub. This led to plenty of impressive palaces and churches springing up with it also developing into a cultural center too.
While the loss of Spain’s American colonies put paid to its prosperity, it still has a staggering array of historic sites to see. These include not just its fortress and bullring but the Renaissance-style Royal Collegiate Church of Santa Maria la Mayor too. Other than checking out its other charming churches and convents, you can also sample delicious dishes from around the region.
12. Jardin Botanico Histórico La Concepción
On the way back into town is the absolutely idyllic Jardin Botanico Histórico La Concepción. Home to all kinds of pretty plants, flowers, trees and shrubs, its shady paths and sparkling water features are a delight to amble about.
First conceived of over 150 years ago, its lush green grounds now contain over 50,000 tropical and Mediterranean plants. These hail from almost every corner of the globe with fantastic waterfalls and fountains also being found amidst its exotic flowers and aquatic plants.
Immaculately maintained and very lovingly laid out, the Romantic-style gardens sprawl across a huge hillside. From their upper realms, you can also enjoy commanding views with frogs, lizards and birds sometimes spotted amongst the undergrowth. After seeing its cacti, orchids and succulents, stop by its tranquil outdoor cafe before returning to the busy city center.
11. Centre Pompidou Malaga
Yet another of the city’s top-class art museums to explore is the Centre Pompidou Malaga. Instantly recognizable due to the large, colourful cube outside, its exciting exhibits and art installations occupy a massive modern building down by the port.
The first branch of the world-renowned Centre Pompidou located outside France, its state-of-the-art centre was opened in 2015. Its galleries contain an eclectic mix of paintings, photos and sculptures with works by Picasso and Frida Kahlo also featuring.
Delightfully displayed, many of its unique installations have numerous ways to interact with them and interpret their meaning with unusual shapes, objects and art forms all represented. Much better (in our opinion) than the Picasso Museum, we found all its exhibits super interesting and eye-catching. While it isn’t very large, we’d still highly recommend Centre Pompidou for its fun, thought-provoking pieces.
10. Semana Santa
One of the best and most memorable times to visit Malaga is in the run up to Easter when important processions and celebrations take place for Semana Santa. Hugely significant (and extravagant!), its exuberant crowds, spectacular floats and lively marching bands really are special to experience.
Since the reconquest of Andalusia some 500 years ago, Holy Week has been held across the south of Spain to commemorate the Passion of Jesus. During the last week of Lent, Malaga’s festivities are particularly fervent as over forty Catholic brotherhoods and all their thousands of members take part.
Parading through the city’s streets, the candle-lit processions hold up heavy wooden sculptures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and striking scenes from the Passion. Only adding to the spectacle are all the moving chants, music and hordes of penitents massing about along the route. Utterly unforgettable, Semana Santa is an exciting if exhausting time to explore the city.
9. Playa de La Malagueta
As no trip to the Costa del Sol can ever be complete without lounging on the beach, you just have to hit up Playa de La Malagueta at some point. The nearest swathe of sand to the center, it lies just a short walk from the Alcazaba, overlooked by Castillo de Gibralfaro high up on the hillside.
Curving its way gently alongside the Mediterranean, Malagueta’s soft sands stretch over a kilometer in length. Very wide and spacious, it is equipped with sun loungers, umbrellas and showers while plenty of bars and restaurants border its palm tree-lined promenade. A couple of playgrounds and a small observation platform are also dotted here and there.
Aside from sunbathing and swimming, you can play volleyball or enjoy fine views over the rest of the city’s coastline. Thanks to its super convenient central location, the beach is very popular with locals and tourists alike. This means it can get quite crowded during the sunny summer months.
8. Museo del Vidrio y Cristal
Boasting a beautifully curated collection of glasswork from across the millennia, the Museo del Vidrio y Cristal really is an overlooked gem. Its incredibly enthusiastic guides and the gorgeous architecture of the building itself make it even more of a must.
Located in a carefully-restored eighteenth-century building just north of the Old Town, the decorative arts museum was first opened to the public in 2009. On display are roughly 3,000 glass vases, bowls and wine jugs. These hail from all around the world with the oldest dating to antiquity. Each room is also exquisitely decorated with fabulous period pieces, furniture and paintings.
While the lovely house, its layout and collection already look a treat, its knowledgeable guides really enthuse you about the museum’s unique objects. Very friendly and engaging, they impart everything there is to know about the Phoenician, Persian and Roman glassware before you.
7. Walk the Caminito del Rey
If after all the endless art museums and historic sights you want an exhilarating outdoor adventure, then the Caminito del Rey is definitely the place for you. Nestled amidst craggy mountains around an hour’s drive away, the narrow gorge has an amazingly scenic trail to hike along.
Constructed in the early twentieth century, the precipitous path was closed for years after falling into disrepair and being described as ‘the world’s most dangerous walkway’. Since reopening in 2015, its dramatic cliffside trail has proven highly popular with hikers. As everyone now wears harnesses and helmets and groups are accompanied by an experienced guide, it is extremely safe.
Winding its way for three kilometers through the mountains, it takes you by some absolutely stunning scenery. Peering down into the rugged gorge, seeing its streams and shrubs hugging its steep sides really is an awe-inspiring experience. One of the highlights of our time in Malaga, its majestic views and remarkable landscapes make it a must in our eyes. You may want to give it a miss though if you don’t have a head for heights!
6. Puerto de Malaga
Much more relaxing is wandering about by the picturesque Puerto de Malaga back in the city center. Recently redeveloped, it now has tons of waterfront restaurants and bars to try with sites such as the Centre Pompidou and La Farola lighthouse also being found here.
One of the oldest ports in the Mediterranean, it was impressively founded by the Phoenicians around 1000 BC. Whereas it was once Roman, Moorish or Imperial Spanish ships that traded here, it is now instead sleek cruise liners that dock at its wharves.
A hive of activity, especially at weekends, the port often has live music and market stalls for people to enjoy. With beaches, marinas, parks and, of course, the Old Town all also lying nearby, it is a very pleasant spot to stop by either during the day or evening.
5. Museo Automovilistico & de la Moda
Just a bit further down the coast from both the centre and the port is the Museo Automovilistico & de la Moda. One of the best in town, it has countless classic cars and haute couture items for visitors to admire. While this may seem an unlikely combination, the way its thirteen thematic rooms pairs them together really works rather well.
Established in 2007, the interesting automobile and fashion museum occupies the former building of the Royal Tobacco Factory. Inside are around a hundred vintage vehicles and roughly 300 pieces of fine clothing and lavish accessories to examine. Among them are not just glinting Bugattis, Bentleys and Jaguars but exotic gowns by Balenciaga and Dior too.
Its exhibits highlight how artistic trends and automobile designs have evolved hand-in-hand over the decades. Different trends and eras are explored across the collection such as Art Deco and the Belle Epoque. Highlights include its bright red Maserati A6 and an early two-cylinder car dating to 1898.
4. Castillo de Gibralfaro
Looming above the entire city and even the Alcazaba is the enormous Castillo de Gibralfaro; one of Malaga’s main sights. From its crumbling ramparts, you can enjoy sweeping views over both of them and the sparkling coast stretching far off into the distance.
Due to its strategic setting amidst Malaga’s coastal mountain range, some form of fortifications have stood here for at least 2,500 years. Its current walls were built by Caliph Abd-al-Rahman III about its 130-meter-high hilltop. Later enlarged and strengthened, the castle was the site of a famous standoff between the Moors and Christians during the Reconquest of Spain.
While not much besides its towers and ramparts remains, walking along them and about its grounds is still worthwhile. Asides from its riveting views which really are unrivaled, there is a smallish visitors center which covers the castle’s past. Although it is possibly a bit underwhelming after the Alcazaba, we still enjoyed our visit. We certainly appreciated its shady cafe after having panted our way up the hill in the scorching sun.
3. Museo Picasso Malaga
The one modern art museum that everyone makes sure to find time for is the Museo Picasso. As the esteemed artist was born in Malaga, hundreds of his paintings, sketchings and sculptures have been collected here.
Founded in 2003, the museum is located in the sixteenth-century Buenavista Palace in the Old Town near the Alcazaba. In total, over 200 works are displayed in its rooms surrounding the building’s airy central courtyard. These represent the entire span of his life and career with early drawings and rare engravings lying next to some better-known paintings and small sculptures.
Although it is now one of the city’s biggest draws, we came away quite disappointed by the museum. Not particularly large (and quite pricey for its size), it also doesn’t seem to contain many of his main masterpieces. Most people there appeared to enjoy it though so go and see for yourself whether his early artworks take your fancy!
2. Malaga Cathedral
Besides the Alcazaba, Malaga Cathedral is by far the city’s most important and impressive building. An architectural gem, it boasts a beautiful Baroque facade, an enormous, ornate interior and tons of religious treasures.
Following the Reconquest of Spain and Andalusia, the colossal cathedral was constructed between 1528 and 1782 to replace the Great Mosque and return the city to Christian ways. Its imposing size and spectacular architecture really do make a statement.
Although no expense was spared, it is still known as ‘La Manquita’ or the ‘One-Armed Woman’. This is because money for its unfinished south tower was instead donated to the Americans to help them achieve independence from the British.
Inside is just as arresting as soaring ceilings and columns rise high above its art-filled chapels, altars and elaborately carved choir stalls. We couldn’t believe the sense of space inside and loved taking in all its fantastic features and centuries-old religious paintings. You can also take tours up to its rooftop which apparently has incredible views over the Old Town, Alcazaba and the belltower before you.
Dominating the Old Town are of course the ruddy red walls of the Alcazaba which overlook it from its prominent hilltop. One of the best-preserved Moorish medieval forts in Spain, its elegant courtyards, towers and gardens are fascinating to explore.
Tumbling their way down the hillside, its series of sturdy walls, towers and gates were erected in the eleventh century. As you progress up along its cobbled paths to the palace, you’ll pass lush gardens, groves of pines and phenomenal viewpoints. Once you arrive, there are gorgeous courtyards full of marvelous Mudejar architectural elements and gushing water features to stroll about.
While it may not quite be as impressive as Granada’s Alhambra, the Alcazaba was undoubtedly the highlight of our time in town. All its decorative details, delightful architecture and divine views made it amazing to amble around. Not to be missed, the citadel is Malaga’s standout attraction for most people.
Where to Stay in Malaga
As most of the main tourist attractions in Malaga are concentrated in the Old Town, you are best off staying in or around the center. Numerous hotels are also located by Playa de la Malagueta. This is another enticing option if you want to roll out of bed onto the beach before visiting museums and historic sites later in the day.
Perfectly placed for exploring the Old Town, port and beach is the four-star Molina Lario. Lying right by the cathedral, it guarantees guests a quiet, relaxing stay in its spacious, stylish rooms. As well as an elegant dining room, its rooftop pool and bar provide panoramic views over the rest of Malaga. To top it all off, friendly and welcoming staff are only too happy to help out with anything you need.
Almost right next to it is the delightful Hotel Don Curro. Great value for money, the family-friendly three-star hotel has comfy, clean rooms and complimentary breakfasts to enjoy. Many have balconies with fine views of the cathedral and city. Walking distance to almost everything, the hotel’s restaurant also has a terrific menu of the day to try out.
How to get there
Very well-connected to the rest of the country and almost the whole of Europe, the city is served by Malaga-Costa del Sol Airport; one of the busiest in Spain. From here, you can easily get a bus, train or taxi to the center.
Malaga also operates one of the busiest seaports in the Mediterranean with ferries from North Africa and cruise ships often stopping off here.
Another option for reaching the city is by high-speed train with it taking about two and a half to three hours to the capital Madrid. Both Cordoba and Seville are much closer at just an hour and two hours respectively. Regional trains and buses also take you to various towns along the coast. Motorways run all the way to either Gibraltar and Almeira or inland again to Cordoba.
Once you arrive, almost everything is within walking distance. If not, you can always hop on a bus or take a taxi to any tourist attractions a bit further away. Many people also rent cars for day trips along the coast or to other Andalusian cities.
Approximate travel times
- Marbella – 45 minutes by car, 1 hour by bus
- Nerja – 1 hour by car, 1 hour 30 minutes by bus
- Cordoba – 2 hours by car, 1 hour by train
- Granada – 1.5 hours by car, 2 hours by train and bus
- Seville – 2.5 hours by car, 2 hours by train
- Madrid – 5.5 hours by car, 2 hours 30 minutes by train
Best Time to Visit Malaga
Wonderful to visit at any time of year, Malaga is blessed with over 300 days of sunshine and warm, if not hot, weather each month. While it can make for a nice winter getaway, April to October sees the lion’s share of tourists arrive.
The Easter holidays are usually when the first wave of visitors rock up. Semana Santa – the city’s most important festival – sees religious parades, ceremonies and live music events all take place. Although still too cold to swim, temperatures of 19 to 23°C (66 to 73°F) in April and May are perfect for sightseeing, hiking and day trips along the Costa del Sol.
From June onwards is beach time in Malaga as temperatures remain between 27 and 30°C (80 to 86°F). While it is the busiest and most expensive period, the weather couldn’t be better for sunbathing and swimming. Countless festivals like the Feria de Malaga create a lively yet laidback ambience around town.
Slightly cooler and much less crowded, September and October are among the best months to visit Malaga. Aside from sunbathing and swimming, you can explore all the White Towns of Andalusia with fewer people around.
Winter can be a great period to pick up some deals as relatively few people visit despite the temperature never dropping below 14°C (57°F).