Once overlooked by tourists as the place you land before heading off for a beach holiday, Malaga is pushing back with a cultural renaissance and new found fame as an important and unmissable destination in its own right.
Neither do culture-seekers arrive at the newly named Costa del Sol airport and head straight off to the cities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba without giving Malaga a second thought. Now, they choose to linger a little longer in this fabulous city.
It’s partly down to the phenomenal transformation that has taken place in recent years to open up the city centre and reveal all of the secrets which lay within. There are few places in Spain where you can so easily combine up-close and personal contact with ancient history, enjoy world class art, revel in some of the most important cultural celebrations in Spain, choose from so many tapas bars within a square kilometer, and still be relaxing on the beach in the afternoon with the Mediterranean gently lapping as you enjoy freshly grilled sardines and a cold beer!
Bar and Cafe Scene
Malaga is a truly Mediterranean city, so as you might expect, this is a place for being sociable. Food and drink take centre stage in Malaga life, from the café’s bustling in the morning for the breakfast crowd in search of a café con leche, with fresh orange juice and tostadas, to an evening tapas crawl with friends before hitting the discos in the center of town or one of the chic and trendy suburbs.
Anyone visiting for the first time will be amazed at the transformation which happens after dark, as bars which were hidden away unobtrusive by day suddenly appear from nowhere and begin to fill with evening partygoers.
But it’s not all about the nightlife, as locals and visitors from all walks of life find the bar and cafe scene in Malaga an intrinsic part of everyday living.
In Malaga there is something for everyone; from traditional tapas bars lined with wine barrels which become packed to the rafters as people stand around with a plate of jamon and a glass of Manzanilla, to chic upmarket eateries offering a spectacular range of tempting montaditos (think, canapés) and delicious morsels.
Great areas for bars and cafes:
- Calle Marques de Larios – For the best of Malaga’s bars and cafés, you could do no wrong by heading to the main artery through the historical centre, the Calle Marques de Larios (known locally just as Calle Larios). From there you can explore the back streets that radiate off in either direction, all dotted with bars and cafes for every taste. Keep going to the top of Calle Larios and into the rabbit warren of the old town to find some real foodie gems.
- Cathedral of Malaga – Coming off Calle Larios are streets leading east to the Cathedral of Malaga. For a large serving of history with your meal, head past the Cathedral towards the Alcazaba and the newly revealed Roman Theatre facing the terrace of El Pimpi, the oldest bar in town (a real treat inside), before leading to a collection of cafes on Calle Alcazabilla and through to Picasso’s birthplace, Plaza el Merced.
- Quick Bites – A couple of favorites to try for a quick bite and a glass of wine are Los patios de Beatas, Gorki and Lo Gueño
Andalucia is home to the Mediterranean diet; delicious salads, freshly caught seafood and piles of “Pescaito Frito” (fried fish) adorn Sunday lunch tables along the coast.
Villages all around take pride in their local produce and typical dishes, holding annual festivals to celebrate and share the dishes with anyone who chooses to visit. Among the local celebrations you can enjoy Sardines, Asparragus, Cheeses, Ajo-Blanco (cold garlic soup), Almonds and Migas (a popular local dish of friend breadcrumbs)
Dishes to try:
- Fritura Malageña – the Malaga version of Pescaito Frito (fried fish): The smell of fried fish pervades the air around many parts of Malaga as the locals enjoy sharing huge plates of freshly caught and lightly battered fish. Among which you will find tiny fry, boquerones (fresh anchovies), calamares, sardines and often some succulent Rosada frita, or en adobo – marinated with garlic and vinegar before being fried. The best way to enjoy Pescaito Frito is with plenty of lemon and with lashings of Ali-oli and soft fresh bread on the sided.
- Gazpacho: Nothing can be beaten on a hot summers day than an ice cold serving of Gazpacho. The most Mediterranean of dishes, this blend of juicy tomato, peppers, cucumber, garlic, olive oil and bread has to be tried to be appreciated. Completely delicious and utterly refreshing! A thicker more substantial version, often topped with chopped boiled egg and ham can be ordered as Salmorejo or Porra Antequerana
- Ajo Blanco: The Andalucia region contributes to Spain being the second largest producer of almonds in the world, and this typical dish from Malaga is a delicious way to put them to good use. Made with almonds and garlic, this cold soup is served with Moscatel white grapes also typical from Malaga.
- Revuelto: Also known as huevos rotos (scrambled eggs) a revuelto is often served in a skillet in the centre of the table, and comes in various guises with asparagus, ham, potato or prawns, with added garlic and sprinkled with paprika.
Also on menus is the best ham in Spain, the Jamon de Bellota from Aracena in Andalucia, alongside fresh goats cheese from Ronda, served with a salad and balsamic reduction. But you can’t visit Malaga without enjoying espetos on the beach! These freshly caught sardines are cooked on open barbecues on the beach, giving the unmistakable aroma of Summer in Malaga.
Malaga is quickly catching up on the heels of big sister Seville who some may argue holds the Andalucian foodie flag. Today´s visitors to the beachside city will be surprised by the sheer choice and eclectic mix on offer; history and tradition stands shoulder to shoulder with chic restaurants and gastrobars, while the newly upgraded port area offers a range of international options and smart places to enjoy fresh seafood.
The exceptional catering school La Consula, (located a stone’s throw from the back of the airport) has nurtured many a local chef who has gone on to greatness in the gourmet world. Patriotic to their beloved Malaga, chefs like Michelin-starred Dani Garcia have brought fame and a more upmarket vibe to the city’s gastro-scene, with his concepts La Moraga and Manzanilla bringing a newly contemporary edge to traditional Spanish cuisine.
Visitors looking for a sense of “real Spanish life” might enjoy a trip to nearby districts of Pedregalejo and El Palo, still enjoying life as traditional fishing communities with some of the best seafood in Spain on the menu. Much fun can be had at Restaurant El Tintero in El Palo, where in order to eat well, you must grab a plate of whatever the waiter has available as he is passing by – keep the plates though as there is no price list here, you just pay for the plates you took.
Do’s and Don’ts
Malaga is very laid back when it comes to dining, but don´t expect to turn up for at your usual 6 or 7pm dinner time and expect things to be open, for the Malagueños that is still the middle of the afternoon!
- When to Eat: Breakfast generally happens out in a café at around 10:30, and might be a coffee, fresh orange juice and tostada – toasted baguette with tomato and oil, Serrano ham, pate or Sobrasada. From 14:00 lunch begins and by 15.00 most good places will be bursting; at around 17.00 people might enjoy a merienda of a coffee or infusion and a pastry, then from 20.00 – 21:00 it’s time for dinner. Quite often as the main meal is at lunchtime, diner might be more like a tapa or “racion” (full plate rather than a small bite”) shared with friends over a beer.
- Be Assertive: Understand that assertiveness is the key to success in any restaurant, bar or cafe. Whether you need to order, grab a drink or simply pay your bill, don’t hesitate to make a bee line straight to the server; otherwise, you may be reaching retirement before your needs are met.
- Dress respectfully: Malaga may be the gateway to the Costa del Sol, but the only places where you can (just about) get away with dining in a sarong, are the chiringuitos sitting right on the beach. So do the locals a favor and keep it covered.
- Don’t mistake direct for unfriendly: The Andalucians have a reputation for being a friendly bunch, however the reality in the middle of busy meal service can seem rather direct and a little grumpy – please don´t be fooled, it’s called getting a job done, and there is always a happy smile beneath it!
- Tipping: It is appreciated in Malaga, but it’s usually more a case of leaving the loose change on the plate rather than making an effort to leave a good 10% tip – 5% is more usual, apart from in the more upmarket places where the usual standards apply.
One of the most surprising things about Malaga is the wealth of culture and history you can find in such a tiny radius of the historical centre. The Roman ruins, amphitheatre, Alcazaba and Gibralfaro, and even the magnificent Cathedral with only one of two towers in homage to the war, are a complete feast for the senses.
The atmosphere in the city centre is like no other; no matter what time of year Malaga is a magical place to come and “pasear” (take a stroll)
Hotel bed occupation went up by a larger percentage than any other city in Spain in 2012 and with an exciting Art scene just about to get even bigger with the opening of the Fine Arts Museum, Malaga is a fine coastal city, brimming with very pleasant surprises for its visitors to enjoy.
The Malagueños are known for their open mindedness and humorous demeanors. They welcome the visitor, as tourists are still new kids on the block. The city is not plagued by tourist fatigue like other established tourist cities as could be the case with Barcelona. Visitors mix with the locals and once you pass the outer limits of the city centre, you will find a plethora of great places to visit between meals
Places worth visiting:
- Alcazaba: From the same Nazrid dynasty as the Alhambra, the Alcazaba is easily accessible yet often overlooked. Inside it reveals patios, mosaics and intricate architecture that easily compare with a trip to Granada. The icing on the cake are the excellent views of the city and lush gardens leading to a small Moorish palace at the top which holds a number of artifacts from excavations on the site.
- Castillo del Gibralfaro: Energetic visitors might like to carry on upwards to reach the Castillo, and just next to the entrance to the Alcazaba you can find the newly excavated Roman Theatre and visitor centre. All this right in the centre of the city.
- Carmen Thyssen Museum: Recently opened, this city centre museum houses the most important private art collection in Spain. The owner chose Málaga over Girona for the extension of her museum in Madrid.
- Car Museum: An unexpected gem housed in the old tobacco factory on Malaga´s seafront. You don´t have to be an avid watcher of Top Gear to appreciate the beautiful antique automobiles vehicles being preserved inside.
- Picasso Museum: A small but interesting collection of works by Malaga´s most famous son, located a stone´s throw from his birthplace.
- Beach: The city centre beach is called La Malagueta, though for prettier and less crowded beaches head east towards Pedregalejo and El Palo.
If you should be lucky enough to visit in August, then the whole city comes alive with the famous Feria de Agosto – a 10 day long party of Flamenco, music, dancing, eating and drinking! By night the feria moves to the specially built feria ground on the city outskirts and easily reached on the feria bus. Not to be missed!
Header photo by PRONick Kenrick