Malaga is a misunderstood city. Until a few years ago it was seen as just the gateway to the Costa del Sol, itself a byword for the package holiday excesses of fleshpots like Torremolinos. It was always an historic place, with an attractive old town surrounding the massive cathedral, a Moorish fortress on a hill, and a Roman amphitheatre that tells of an even deeper history dating back to the Phoenicians.
It was also known for its food and Semana Santa celebrations to rival those of Sevilla. Yet, it also seemed like a workaday city, lacking the glamour of better known Andalusian towns, a little rough around the edges with high unemployment. That might still be true, but today it has reinvented itself as a cultural hotspot, as the Picasso Museum, Carmen Thyssen Museum, Centre for Contemporary Art, and the Pompidou Centre attest.
In the days when Malaga was one of the gems of the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus, the Islamic explorer, Ibn Battuta, wrote in the 14th century, “It is one of the most beautiful capitals of Al-Andalus … its figs and almonds, its fine ceramics and gold porcelain, are exported to the furthest corners of east and west.” After a long period of relative obscurity, the city can once again claim the moniker of “Malaga the Beautiful”.
The only other time we’ve been to Malaga was seven years ago for the wild Semana Santa celebrations. This trip was to celebrate a ‘significant’ birthday, and it is hard to imagine a city better suited to hosting celebrations. A lot of our time was dedicated to eating delicious seafood and sampling local wines in the many tapas bars, but Malaga is a fascinating city to just wander around.
Since we were last here, Malaga’s Soho district has been completely revitalised. Once regarded as a bit dodgy, or ‘gritty’ as one travel article I read put it, this little triangle wedged between the port and the old town, is now one of the most happening neighbourhoods in the city. There are good bars and restaurants, cultural spaces and seemingly obligatory street art. Even on a drizzly March day after a sandstorm, it seemed hip.
We were staying just over the tree-lined Alameda Principal, close to the Mercado Central, which doubles as both a fresh food market and cluster of bars and restaurants. It’s a great place to sample local seafood and is wildly popular with tourists and locals. It’s close to Malaga institution, Casa Aranda, the place to start your day after a long night with hot chocolate and churros, or coffee and pan con tomate.
When we weren’t eating or drinking, we were exploring. The nearby cathedral, a huge hunk of a building that dominates the narrow surrounding streets, is a must see. It’s been given the nickname “La Manquita”, the one-armed woman, due to its unfinished second tower. Its impressive interior is rivalled by the wonderful views over the old town from its roof.
Wander north from here up narrow streets and you’ll find yourself at the equally impressive (and busy) Picasso Museum housed in a 16th century mansion. It has well over a hundred of Picasso’s sculptures, paintings and sketches, and is well worth the 9 euro entrance fee. Afterwards you can go and have a drink in the buzzy Plaza Merced, close to the house where Picasso was born.
For the birthday lunch with old friends, we headed to a chiringuito seafood restaurant on Playa la Caleta. Eating and drinking like a true native of the city is, literally, the best way to spend several hours on a Sunday. A stroll back along Malaga’s famed city beach, la Malagueta, was our digestif. We had an Andalusian road trip ahead of us, but this won’t be our last time in this relaxed, vibrant and thoroughly unpretentious city.
No one should leave Malaga without first visiting Antigua Casa de Guardia though, a bar serving wines from the barrel where they chalk up your bill on the sherry-soaked wooden bar. It’s a Malaga institution that dates from 1840, and it’s said Picasso was a regular. I remember coming here during Semana Santa and the thrill of its exuberant atmosphere. It didn’t disappoint this time either.