If the Costa Del Sol is on your list of holiday destinations for 2012, then Malaga most definitely should be too. Our Malaga holidays expert and local resident, George Prior, sets out his hassle free guide to planning an affordable, low-stress, unforgettable holiday on Spain’s sunshine coast.
A decade ago, Malaga, the Costa del Sol’s capital, was a place that holidaymakers landed in, or whizzed through, to get to Nerja, Torremolinos and Marbella. But that has all changed. The elegant, bohemian-spirited port city, whose skyline is dominated by a Phoenician-built fortress and a 16th century cathedral, now holds its own as a ‘destination’.
The palm-lined plazas, marble-paved boulevards, and windy narrow lanes of Picasso’s birthplace are packed full of Andalusian character and yet they aren’t over-run with tourists. However, the rise in the number of cruise ships scheduled to visit Malaga in 2012 means many more are set to discover the city’s bustling tapas bars, world-class galleries and fascinating history.
When to go
With the mercury often hitting 35C, sun-worshippers descend on Malaga and the other local coastal resorts throughout the summer for the beaches. August is the month when people flock to the area from other parts of Spain, and the beaches get busy with lots of large, extended Spanish families, especially on Sunday afternoons. It’s also when the Malaga ‘feria’ takes place, a week-long city-wide festival.
Spring and autumn are often seen as the ideal seasons as it’s not scorching but you can expect sun-filled days and mild evenings. Winters are still mild (averaging 12C) compared to the UK, but the buildings don’t usually have central heating so it can feel chilly, especially at night. And having a subtropical climate, when it rains it really rains!
Getting the best deal
Peak season in Malaga is, unsurprisingly, in July and August, meaning accommodation and flight prices can rocket in the summer. Easter week is also a major national holiday and hotels and car hire rates are likely to be higher, especially in the city itself. Another key time is the week after New Year as Spain’s seasonal festivities don’t end until January 6th. However, during school term time you can usually find some good deals for accommodation and car rental as locally-based suppliers are only too aware of the need to be competitive in the current economic climate. Booking flights in advance with low-cost airlines usually secures cheap flights.
Don’t forget to get travel insurance on the off chance that you become seriously ill or have an accident, although if you’re an EU citizen you’ll be covered by the State health service in an emergency if you have the EHIC card – it’s free so register now. Your insurance should also cover you for theft of valuables, which is, sadly, something that is happening more and more due to the sky-high unemployment rates in Spain.
Packing and baggage
Most major supermarkets stock many British products and international brands so you won’t need to pack a jar of Marmite or a can of baked beans when visiting Malaga! But there are usually no 3-for-2-style offers on sun creams and they’re generally quite expensive, so it may be cheaper to buy them before you leave.
Getting to the airport
Malaga is served by almost all the major airports in the UK, including Gatwick, Luton, Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow – plus new routes are being added all the time. There are more flights put on per day from the bigger UK airports between April and October. If you’re driving to the airport book in advance to get the best deals. Don’t forget that most airlines require you to be at the airport two hours before take-off.
Surviving the airport
Make sure you read the small print regarding baggage allowances – many carriers will charge you £10 per extra kilo of weight. If possible pack all liquids in your suitcase rather than in hand luggage and be prepared to take your shoes, belts and coats off, and to remove your laptop from its case, when going through security. Those with mobility difficulties should seek assistance when they arrive and allow for extra time to get to the gate.
The Malaga City Bus (C19) goes right into the city, making several stops it takes about 20 minutes. The first bus leaves the airport at 7am and the last bus leaves the airport at midnight. Local buses, to nearby resorts such as Nerja, Torremolinos and Marbella, start at 8am and finish at 10am. The airport’s bus stops are located opposite the Arrivals entrance in Terminal 3, near the taxis. You buy a ticket from the driver on boarding.
Trains run every 20 minutes from the airport’s recently-modernised station to the city and to resorts to the west as far as Fuengirola. Previously you had to negotiate lots of stairs and bridges to the platform, but the new station has travelators and lifts. Much easier! At the time of writing, the trains to Malaga leave at 14, 34 and 54 minutes past each hour (but check the website for the latest timetable). The journey takes 12 minutes to the most central station (Centro-Alameda). The one before (María Zambrano) is the city’s main station that connects to the national network. There is a helpful map of all the stations on the line running from the airport here.
There are also always plenty of taxis outside Arrivals and you should expect to pay about 15Euros (£12.50) into the city centre. See the Useful Links section below for two helpful websites.
There are a dozen or so car rental firms on site at the airport, so competition is fierce. Shop around for the best deal and don’t be embarrassed to say that you’ve seen a better deal down the road.
Once you’re there
Things to do on your first night in Malaga
Join the city’s effortlessly cool, yet totally unpretentious, beach-goers as they come off the sand at La Malagueta and head for sundowners at one of the urban chiringuitos (beach bars) that line Malaga’s most popular beach. Chiringuita La Malagueta is a favourite. After a generously-measured vodka tonic and maybe a freshly barbecued sardine or two, stroll amongst the towering palms of Alameda Park, keeping the port on your left, and head to Plaza de la Merced, one of the city’s most beautiful historic squares. In and around the plaza, there are lots of different tapas bars so you can do as the Malagueños do and sample several throughout the evening. From the oldest bar in Malaga, the barrel-lined El Pimpi which is a built around a typical Andalusian patio, to the slick and contemporary venues, such as La Moraga, there’s no chance of going hungry or thirsty.
Practical considerations for planning an itinerary
Malaga is one of those privileged destinations that allow you to combine a city break with a beach holiday. And with more than 325 days of sun a year there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy both.
People in southern Spain eat late compared to northern European countries. For a livelier atmosphere have lunch when the locals do between 2pm until 4pm – which is ‘siesta’ time, meaning many smaller, independent shops will close, but most high-street names and attractions do now stay open. If you eat at the bar the bill is normally 15-20 per cent cheaper and most restaurants will have a menu del día, a three course meal for about 10 Euros and this often includes wine and coffee.
Peak time for dinner is 10pm. I’d recommend getting to your restaurant half an hour earlier if you want to be guaranteed a good table or if you’re in rush, so you can place your order before the crowds descend.
La Malagueta Beach is just a 15 minute walk from the main shopping and historic centre and is a great place to kick back and watch the boats come and go from the nearby port from your sun-bed. The water’s remarkably clean for a city beach and for the more sporty, there are several volley ball pitches as well as kiosks offering activities such as jet-skiing.
In recent years the city has become a cultural hub and has three internationally-acclaimed art galleries, the most-lauded being the Picasso Museum, which celebrates Malaga’s most famous son. Most of the works on display in the converted 16th century mansion have been donated by the artist’s family. If you’re pressed for time, there are fewer queues in the afternoon. Art lovers will also love the recently launched Carmen Thyssen Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum of Malaga. The Picasso Museum is open every day from 10am until 8pm, except Mondays when it is closed. There are free guides in English every Wednesday at 11.30am. The Carmen Thyssen Museum is closed on Sundays but open Monday-Saturday from 10am- 8pm. The Contemporary Art Museum of Malaga is also closed on Mondays but open every other day from 10am until 8pm.
Malaga’s most-visited monuments are also its oldest, with the most senior of all being Gibralfaro Castle, which was founded by the Phoenicians and rebuilt by the Arabs. The museum inside chronicles the city’s history over the centuries, but the over-riding reason for a visit is that it has the best views in town. Those panoramic vistas are particularly striking at sunset.
On your way down from the giddying heights of the Gibralfaro, stop and take in the 11th-century Alcazaba fortress, whose aromatic gardens will take you on a meandering, cobbled route down to the web of the 19th century lanes and to the imposing cathedral.
The pedestrianised Calle Marques de Larios is one of the city’s principal shopping boulevards. With high street retailers jostling for space alongside classy boutiques and craft shops, the prices can be steep. Cheaper alternatives can be found in the adjacent labyrinth of narrow streets.
To really explore the area outside the city, it is best to hire a car which can be done easily from the airport or main train station. Once you’re mobile, don’t miss one of Malaga’s best kept secrets: the Jardín de la Concepción, a stunning subtropical garden with over 3,000 plants and trees. The 250,000 square metre park in the mountains overlooking the city, was created by a British consul in the 19th century.
Malaga Hassle Free – the map
View larger map
If you’re dropping off a car, allow an extra 20 minutes as the drop-off points can be tricky to find due a lack of signs and then you still need to get to the terminal. Most flights to the UK now leave from Terminal 3 at the recently re-named ‘Malaga-Costa del Sol Airport’. Opened by the King in March 2010, the terminal is modern, light and spacious although long queues are still a problem. There’s a good selection of high street brands and souvenir stores represented, plus a large Duty Free shop and eight bars and cafés – although be warned that the prices are up to double compared to those in the city centre. Being so spacious there’s also a bit of trek from check-in and security to the gates. If you need mobility assistance, the help desk is located in the centre of Terminal 3, near the revolving doors.
It’s easy to get the post-holiday blues when leaving Malaga. Even Picasso himself said “somehow everything is slightly less colourful now” as he left the city to go to the colder, wetter northern Spain.
Why not take home some gastronomic delights so you can relive some of the delicious flavours and wonderful smells that you discovered in Malaga? For instance, the area has been famous for its sweet wines since Roman times, and you could pack some of the high-quality and inexpensive olive oil too – it’s known locally as ‘liquid gold’.
You could also keep in contact with what’s happening in Malaga but checking out the online version of the local English-language newspaper, SUR in English, or perhaps following the official tourist agencies such as @ViveCostaDelSol on Twitter.
Costa del Sol Tourist Board on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/user/visitcostadelsol
Spanish rail: http://www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/index.html
Local bus timetables (Malaga): http://portillo.avanzabus.com/web/default.aspx?lang=en
Local train timetables: http://www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/cercanias/malaga/index.html
Local tourist offices:
Costa del Sol tourist info: http://www.visitcostadelsol.com/
Malaga tourist info: http://www.malagaturismo.com/opencms/opencms/turismo/home.jsp?id_idioma=2
Marbella tourist info: http://www.marbellaexclusive.com/index.php?lang=en
Estepona tourist info: http://www.estepona.es/turismo/
Nerja tourist info: www.nerja.org (Spanish only)
Other useful sources of information
Foreign and Commonwealth Office Spain advice page: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/europe/spain
Trip advisor’s Malaga forum: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowForum-g187438-i333-Malaga_Costa_del_Sol_Andalucia.html
Excellent local website run by an English expat and packed with up to date information: http://www.andalucia.com/
Simonseeks expert guide content is also very good: http://www.simonseeks.com/destinations/europe/spain/andalusia/costa-del-sol/malaga__8977
Local news in English – SUR in English: http://www.surinenglish.com/