The Costa del Sol is more than beach — it’s the home of historic Malaga and the Alhambra Palace, Andalucia’s centers of art and culture.
For a taste of the region that introduced flamenco to the world, spend time in Malaga. The commercial capital of prosperous Andalucia is also the birthplace of Pablo Ruiz Picasso, the renowned painter who left his mark on many European cities, as well as Antonio Banderas, the sexy actor who’s done his part in spreading Spanish culture.
Unlike the more industrial (and industrious) north of Spain, the sunny southern Costa del Sol borders the Mediterranean and presents travelers from around the world with a warm and breezy welcome. The region boasts of having 325 days per year of sunshine and an average Mediterranean Sea temperature of 18ºC (64ºF). In summer, the coast’s seaside condos fill to capacity with British families, especially in the well-known beach resorts of Marbella, Benalmadena and Torremolinos. Inland at Granada’s celebrated Alhambra Palace, daytripping tourists rush through this UNESCO World Heritage site to avoid the scorching high noon sun. In the charming hotels of Malaga’s ciudad vieja or Old Town, however, families will find comfortable accommodations — at better rates — and many things to do right outside their room.
In Town Instead of at The Beach
We particularly enjoyed our stay at the Room Mate Hotel’s Larios (formerly the Hotel Larios during our stay) (Marques de Larios, 2, 29005 Malaga; 952 22 22 00), where a junior suite sleeping three cost us €215 per night including a full breakfast. A discreet chrome and glass door distinguishes the stylishly renovated Larios from the wrought iron and creamy stucco walls of adjoining historic buildings along the Old Town’s main promenade, Marques de Larios.
The chic hotel typifies the renaissance occurring in this city, selected by the EU to be Europe’s Cultural Capital in 2016. In preparation for this honor, likely to divert many sun-seekers away from the beaches towards town, graceful cranes tower over Malaga’s centuries-old steeples to repair terracotta and Moorish tiles. Sidewalk cafes like the popular Gorki’s, are enhancing their menus to include continental flavors, as in foie gras tapas and small toast squares with Norwegian salmon and farmer’s cheese. Contemporary museums, like the Museo Picasso and the Fondacion Picasso Archives (housed in Picasso’s birthplace in the Plaza Merced) are sprucing up exhibition space and adding galleries.
Because Malaga’s old walled city is largely a pedestrian zone, it’s ideal for families with young children. From the preserved 19th-century buildings surrounding the Plaza de la Constitucion outside the hotel, down Larios, the five-block-long pedestrian promenade leading to the port, there are several cafes, restaurants, shops and small hostels.
You may note the many Rebajas signs. All of Malaga’s hip boutiques and European chain stores hold big sales from late June to late August each year, as is the custom throughout Spain. If there was an unaffordable polo shirt your son had to have in Paris, or a cotton miniskirt with flamenco flounces that your daughter craved in London, this is the place and time to buy it.
Historic Malaga and Ciudad Vieja
Although Malaga’s miles of developed coastline are easy to tour by public bus, the downtown attractions are within walking distance of each other. La Manquita, or the “one-armed,” a Cathedral whose second tower was never completed, is an absolute must-see. A Hispanic friend back home had bestowed a $5 bill upon our son to “give to a beggar in Spain, so as to bring luck to your journey” and sure enough, here outside the church was a crippled man to receive his alms. Next door to the Cathedral is the Museum of Fine Arts showing the works of Picasso among others.
Continue wandering the lanes behind the church, where you will pass small galleries, some of the city’s finest bars and casual music clubs. The colorful decor and barrels on display at l’Antigua Casa de la Guardia, Malaga’s oldest tapas bar, fascinated our son. Bodegas las Garrafas on Calle Mendez Munoz, founded in 1915, fills wine carafes directly from its barrels and serves a variety of tapas Malaguenas — several Spanish hams and cheeses — brought by friendly waiters.
Exploring the New Malaga
From the popular rooftop bar of the Room Mate Larios which becomes a jazz club after midnight, you’ll have a wonderful view of the old town’s towers and steeples. But there’s much more to Malaga. A 10-minute walk away is the Ataranzas market, the city’s principal fresh meat and produce market. (The tiny, contemporary Hotel Ataranzas, Calle Ataranzas 19, is a good choice here with B&B doubles from €85 per night for two but no connecting rooms.) Just a 15-minute walk east is an arid hill above the picturesque town park, whose cypress trees have been joined at their tops to form arcades of green. From here, it’ s easy to see how the large port fuels this international city of nearly 600,000 residents, actually much bigger than its cozy historic core suggests.
With steady sea breezes to keep you cool, the 10-minute uphill hike leads to the walls of Gibralfaro, a fortress dating back to the days of Phoenician rule. Below it is the well-preserved Alcazaba, a Moorish fort ca. 1065 built after the 8th century invasion of Spain by Arabs from north Africa. The Alcazaba’s small museum shows displays of the findings from local excavations, as well as a Roman amphitheatre that was excavated from this hillside.
When you tire of the sun, hop on the Malaga Tour, a double-decker guided bus tour of the city that allows you to hop on or off at 14 stops in a 24-hour period. The modern Cruceros Malaga ferry (952 12 22 88) offers another vantage, making several hour-long trips around Malaga Bay, where you might see pods of dolphins.
Granada and the Magnificent Alhambra
Much of Andalucia’s cuisine, culture and lifestyle have been influenced by the rule of the Moors, Arabs who spread the religion of Islam from north Africa to Spain. Architecture is the most obvious domain, because many of southern Spain’s towns still have their fortifying walls, twisted narrow maze of streets, and domed palaces. Yet none is more impressive than Granada, an early Roman town rebuilt by the Nasrid Sultans between 1238 and 1492. Even as the last Moorish ruler King Boabdil was being expelled from the Alhambra, the first Catholic Kings, Fernando II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile, so admired the beautiful palace that they and their heirs continued to use it throughout the Renaissance.
Before you arrive at the site, be sure to visit Andalusian Stories and download the fun kids’ app that uses augmented reality to bring the whole castle complex to life. The hilltop complex includes four principal areas and you’ll enter by the Arab Palaces or Casa Reales, with their enormous colonnaded courtyards. Pause in the Hall of Ambassadors to admire the ceiling whose intricate patterns represent the seven heavens of Islam; the 124 columns and marble lion fountain of the Los Leones patio built by Mohammed V; the halls of Los Dos Hermanos and Los Reyes. The current restoration of the patio’s 12 worn lions reveals them to be much more sophisticated sculpture than previously attributed to the Moors. Throughout the complex, but especially in the latter halls named Two Brothers and The Kings, plaster wall decor carved with verses from the Koran and coffered wooden ceilings rising to honeycomb-like domes illustrate the best of the Mocarabe style. All the rooms were originally embellished with bright colors and gilding and at the Alhambra many retain their startling, vivid hues.
The site’s other principal areas are the 13th-century Alcazaba, the Moors’ fortified weapons store which offers the best views over the city; the unfinished 16th-century Palace of Charles V (known in Spain as Carlos I) which is now a surprisingly interesting museum of the site’s relics; and the Generalife, a separate rural palace built by the Nasrids, certainly the most romantic part of the complex with its flowering gardens, elegant courtyards, fountains, and tales of trysts between queen and knight. Although it took 10 years for the Inquisition to oust the Nasrids, under Charles V, the Alhambra’s gardens, whose marble fountains and multi-colored tiled pools and water features were so important to Islam, were much enlarged and reinforced to withstand earthquakes.
The vast complex has only one entrance, and guards are strict about enforcing the timed entry allotted to each visitor. In summer, it’s best to buy your tickets online before arrival to ensure an early morning admission. Use free time in this distinguished city to visit the Albaicin or old town dating to the 13th century. In its tangled cobblestone lanes you can recognize the hallmarks of a classic Arab medina, but the 30 mosques said to have dominated its skyline were turned into churches during the Renaissance. Shopping specialties include items based on the city’s Moorish past: tables and ornaments of taracea (inlay made with many colors of wood); the natural patterns captured in the Fajalauza ceramics and pottery; tooled leather; wrought iron and brass; and delicate silverwork.
The moderately-priced Hotel America (Calle real de la Alhambra, 53, 18009 Granada, Espana; 34/958 227 471) is so well situated within the Alhambra’s walls that it can’t be beat. There are only 17 rooms within this 19th century structure, mostly small, furnished in an eclectic, camping lodge style. They were fine for our overnight stay and the pretty breakfast garden was just the right introduction to the beauty if it’s not booked.
Family Fun Along the Costa del Sol
Families who are staying longer may want to do what the locals do — take the kids to an amusement park. Closest to Malaga are Aquavelis, a water park in Torre del Mar known for its tall waterslides and family-size raft rides, and Parque Acuatico Mijas, whose Aqualandia for toddlers has large elephant sculptures, minislides, and shallow, sprinkling water play features. In summer, rent a car and drive south to the larger Aqualand or silly Crocodile Park, both in Torremolinos.
If you’re going farther, the seaside resort of Fuengirola has parasailing and quad (ATV) rentals for families with older or more adventurous kids. Busiest of all the resorts may be Benalmadena, with a lively marina, cablecar to the top of Mount Calamorro, and the environmentally conscious Aquarium Sealife. This smart park teaches families about marine life native to the Amazon, Mediterranean and tropical reefs, has a pirate-themed minigolf for all ages and a quiet Infant Zone for little ones who get cranky — a real possibility since it’s open from 10am to 10pm daily.
Another excursion we enjoyed was the 45-minute bus ride to Antequera, a preserved hill village whose Coso Viejo Square boasts the Palacio de Najera, now a museum, and the church of Santa Catalina de Siena. We enjoyed a traditional Andalucian meal at El Angelote (952 70 34 65), opposite the square, followed by a sip of Spain’s famous sherry, Jerez, from the village of the same name nearby.
For more information, free maps and current entertainment schedules, visit any outlet of the Andalucia Tourist Office.
Images Courtesy of Wikipedia
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.