Don't head for the hills (or the overcrowded beaches and resorts) as soon as you land in Málaga and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Meera Dattani lets us in on the best things to do in Málaga, one of Spain's most underrated cities. 

A strange thing happens at Málaga airport. Almost everyone grabs their luggage and heads for transfer buses and rental cars, en route to the high and low culture of Andalucia and the Costa del Sol. Meanwhile, a tiny crowd crosses over to the airport train station, buys a €1.75 ticket and heads for Málaga. The city.

After years in the first group, wondering what lies a mere twelve-minute train ride away, it was now time. And when you do discover it, you realise ‘Málaga’ may well be Spain’s most misunderstood word.

The 1960s may have brought mass tourism to the surrounding region, but Málaga is no resort town. You’ll see more Malaguenos than tourists, getting groceries in the Ataranzas market with its olive stalls, fishmongers and butchers, shopping along Calle Larios and around Plaza de la Constitucion or bargain-hunting at Sunday’s Rastro market.

Plaza de la Constitucion, Malaga, Andalusia, Spain

Historic highs

Backed by the Montes de Málaga mountains, this Mediterranean port city leaves few boxes unticked – beaches, harbour, historic centre, hilltop castle, food scene. Think Barcelona, but smaller, calmer and sunnier. It’s spectacular to walk around – the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and Christians have all spent time here, their legacy evident with vast number of churches, Arabic arches and Roman ruins.

Málaga’s is also the birthplace of Picasso and hometown of Antonio Banderas. And aside from putting the city on the map, Málaga’s prized son (Picasso, that is – there’s no museum, as yet, for Banderas) is honoured at the Casa Natal museum.

Other major museums include Carmen Thyssen, a sixteenth-century palace containing Málaga’s most comprehensive Spanish art collection and part-sister museum to Madrid’s Thyssen. Málaga has about 27 museums in total, covering glass, wine, classic cars, football and even interactive music. A favourite is CAC, Málaga’s centre of contemporary art. Just off-centre by the Guadalmina river, its changing programme, outdoor bar and sushi restaurant are extra reasons to visit.

Malaga Cathedral, Malaga, Andalusia, Spain

Get some perspective

To get some perspective, head for the fourteenth-century Moorish citadels of Alcazaba and Gibralfaro. The winding path up Mount Gibralfaro leads to the castle ramparts where the city unfolds in front of you. On a hot day, the bus (regular or hop-on-hop-off) is tempting and it’s worth arriving later in order to stop for sundowners at the Parador de Málaga Gibralfaro, a luxury hotel which welcomes non-residents to its terrace where views over the city and harbour are quite sublime.

Back in the centre, the Alcazaba’s courtyards and gardens recall Granada’s Alhambra in miniature. A few steps away is the Roman Theatre, which predates the citadels by over a thousand years.

Just as impressive is Malaga’s Gothic/Renaissance-style cathedral. You’ll probably hear about it before you see it – it’s a miracle if 24 hours pass without someone pointing out its odd, one-tower design. Known as La Manquita or "The One-Armed Lady", work was halted when a bishop diverted funds to the American War of Independence against the British. “They held a referendum on the adding the second tower,” one guide said, “but they voted no to keep it unique.”

Crowd-free Costa

Peel yourself away from the alluring old quarter and you’ll find yourself on the palm tree-lined Paseo del Parque with its botanical garden. Follow the surreally designed seafront promenade El Palmeras de las Sorpresas to the restaurants and shops of Muelle Uno (Pier One), part of the redeveloped harbour and cruise terminal.

Here, just past Málaga’s lighthouse, are the city beaches, from Malagueta and eastwards to the pretty neighbourhoods of Pedregalejo and El Palo. These two are made for lazy weekends with cove beaches, promenades and endless line of bars, restaurants and chiringuitos (beach bars/restaurants), usually packed with locals. Buses head there regularly, or you can hire a bike from companies such as Malaga Bike Tours. If you’re not averse to hi-vis vests, guided Segway tours zip along the beachfront and up to the castle.

Malagueta, beach, Malaga, Spain, Europe

Looking to the future

It may have 3000 years of history behind it, but Málaga is a city in the making. Wedged between the port, river and Alameda Principal thoroughfare is new artsy district Soho. On a walkabout, WeLoveMalaga guide Victor Garrido tells me how residents and businesses decided to clean up this red-light zone, stopping short of sanitising it entirely (a smattering of sex shops remain and the brilliant graffiti has been left). What’s striking is most bars, restaurants and shops are less than two years old – one particular store opened two weeks ago. Forward-thinking boutique hotels, Room Mate Lola and Bahia Soho, are here and a street market is imminent.

Like many a Spanish city, it all comes alive by night. Soho, the harbour, Plazas Mitjana, de la Merced and Uncibay in the old quarter and the rooftop bars of the AC Palacio, Molina Lario and Larios hotels fill with drinkers and sunset-seekers. Shop shutters drop and others rise, revealing traditional tiled tapas bars, Málagan fried fish restaurants, shiny new gastro bars and everything in between. A white-suited regular at Meson Gibralfaro in the narrow Pasaje Chintas insists, non-euphemistically, that I try his pickled anchovies, and at seafood tapas bar Wendy Gambas bar-perching guarantees chats. “I thought Málaga was a holiday town, all resorty,” one punter tells me, "but it’s well Spanish.”

The proof was in the prawns. It seems Málaga has to be tried to be believed. Viva its ‘well Spanish’ loveliness.

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