3 min

Malaga, Spain

Once a jumping-off point for package tourism, Picasso’s hometown emerges a confident, cosmopolitan port town

El Palo Beach in Malaga. Credit: Aefa Mulholland

Picasso’s hometown has shrugged off its reputation as being merely a jumping-off point for package tourism. It’s reemerged as a confident cosmopolitan port town with a fine stock of boutique hotels, gleaming galleries, fantastic shopping and a handsome restored old quarter. With a near-perfect climate and budget flights from all over Europe, it’s an easily reached unexpected gem.

Malaga is one of Spain’s busiest ports and the capital of Andalusia. Most visitors just pass through en route to the Costa Del Sol’s resort towns, but this up-and-coming city has a distinctly different flavour than its neighbours along the coast. The city of half a million manages to balance modern Spain with serious historical and cultural clout. It also boasts some incredible restaurants, stylish bars and beautiful stretches of beach. Playa de la Malagueta is right at the cruise dock — a wide swathe of sand, peppered with chiringuito beach bars and grilled-sardine stands. The docks themselves offer a slew of slick restaurants, surprisingly cheap boat cruises and decent shopping.

It’s an appealing city to explore. There’s an easy 20-minute walk up from the docks, past the first-century Teatro Romano and the 11th-century Moorish Alcazaba fortress. The thousand-year-old Moorish castle of Gibralfaro is perched above. Continue to slightly scruffy Plaza de la Merced, where Picasso was born; café tables jostle for sidewalk space around the square’s hems. Have lunch or drinks at one of the colourful tables outside book-themed Café Con Libros and watch plaza life. Wander back through the historic quarter’s elegant streets and admire the lopsided Renaissance cathedral and ancient stores selling ceramics, edible local specialties and fans.

Malaga has a staggering number of museums — of glass and crystal, wine, flamenco and Holy Week — and artistic offerings, including the internationally renowned Centro de Arte Contemporáneo; Museo Picasso, with its nearly 300 works by Malaga’s most famous son; Andalusian art attraction Museo Carmen Thyssen; and Picasso’s birthplace (Fundación Picasso).

While streets are all but deserted during siesta hours, once night approaches, they fill with friendly Malagueños promenading, and the nightly tapas frenzy starts: tables fill, the volume of conversation rises and crowds linger over staggered dinners of small dishes. If you eat before 9pm, you’ll beat the crowds and get a seat, but hold off until 9 or 10, or even 11, to experience the real thing. Try Bar Lo Güeno for excellent tapas, such as spicy langostinos pil-pilor beans with local chorizo, washed down with the sweet local dessert wine, Malaga; it’s like alcoholic syrup and packs quite a punch. If you’re staying in self-catering acccommodations, sample regional specialties at the Mercado Central. Another unusual taste of this town comes courtesy of the nuns of the silent Santa Ana order; they bake treats such as dulces de convento and lethal, rich tocino de cielo flan at their abbey off Calle Cister, serving them through a grill between 9am and 1pm most days.

Beaches stretch for miles to the east. El Palo is the best sandy spot. It’s 10 to 15 minutes by cab or by the efficient number-11 bus from Paseo del Parque. Sprawl on the sand or grab a seat at a beach bar for a sangria or a portion of espetos, sardines or other boat-fresh fish, caught that day and grilled on charcoal piled inside old fishing boats. It’s just another delightfully distinctive flavour of this colourful city.

Down an alley that would turn into an instant traffic jam if two people with suitcases were to meet midway, Casa de las Mercedes offers small, smart, comfortable rooms 100 metres from Plaza Merced. In the midst of the historic centre, Coronado Aparthotel is ideal for those who want a wee bit more space, plus kitchen and WiFi. Two apartments have chic private terraces.

Take in the tapas bars for a sweet dulce wine or sangria, explore the lively LGBT scene at the stylish Warhol dance club, on a narrow pedestrian street south of Plaza Merced, or have early-evening drinks at gay-friendly Flor de Lis on Plaza Merced. Nearby, Café Con Libros (see above) is another gay-friendly spot where local lesbians and gay men gather in the early evening for tapas and wine.

Road trips
Travelling northeast from Malaga, Valencia is about a six-hour drive away. En route are Cartagena, Alicante and BenidormMadrid is a five-hour drive north of Malaga.