1. Málaga’s tapas bars are better than Barcelona’s
Seriously? Well, yes. Sure, the Catalan capital probably wins on more evolved eating-out (31 Michelin stars to Málaga’s one) but for the classic, standing Spanish tapas joint, Andalucía’s unsung second city is pretty much in a league of its own.
OK, go on… Opened in 1971, reliably buzzy El Pimpi is a beloved Málagan institution and the kind of old-world, sherry-and-sardines Spanish bodega that’s increasingly hard to find in the centre of Spain’s tier-one cities. And it’s by no means the only one: eat glorious salted shrimp or grilled cuttlefish with local pensioners at the no-frills-in-a-good-way Marisquería Casa Vicente; fried anchovies at La Farola de Orellana (established 1938); or grilled octopus at Cortijo de Pepe in the Plaza de le Merced, Pablo Picasso’s old neighbourhood.
Oh, and another thing… The list goes on: Mesón Mariano, El Tapeo de Cervantes, Mesón Ibérico… The best bit? All are incredible value. Think $7 for a tapa and glass of something.
2. There’s nothing second-tier about Málaga’s arts- and culturescape
Seriously? There was a time when Málaga was considered a disappointing, grubby gateway to the beaches of Spain’s Costa del Sol. But, thanks to popular mayor Francisco de la Torre, the city has been respun as a cultural stronghold that can hold its own against the Spanish capital, Madrid.
OK, go on… There is, of course, the impressive Museo Picasso Málaga (think, early works from likely the city’s most famous son) and Museo Carmen Thyssen (a collection of 19th-century Andalucían paintings), both in converted 16th-century buildings. And there are more contemporary offerings in the shape of emerging arts district SoHo’s CAC Málaga (you’ll find Málaga’s street art close by) and the city’s own Parisian spin-off – the Centre Pompidou Málaga, which opened in 2015 and has work by such artists as Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon.
Oh, and another thing… It’s not just me-too cultural institutions: opened in 2018, the ace Ifergan Collection houses a set of Phoenician statues that were discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Lebanon.
3. There are no tourist traps in Málaga
Seriously? None that we encountered, anyway. While a place like Barcelona and many European cities like it could be said, delicately, to now belong to the world, Málaga still belongs to Spain. Meaning? It’s not over-run with tourists. Stand at any tapas bar and it’s still Spanish being spoken, not selfie.
OK, go on… Nowhere can the city’s Spanish-to-the-core soul still be found so wonderfully intact as at its Atarazanas Market, a working downtown food market where malagueños come for fresh produce and to pass Andalucían-slow Saturdays at one of the absurdly good-value seafood bars. You may double-take at the bill for the entirely opposite reason as in
Oh, and another thing… Perhaps one of the most Spanish bars in Spain, right next to the market is Antigua Casa Guardia. Opened in 1840, this is Málaga’s oldest bar – Picasso used to drink here, apparently – and serves vino dulce (sweet wine) straight from the barrel. No-one’s saying tourists don’t come here but, compared to anything similar in Barcelona, this is still a diminishingly rare and seriously satisfying made-in-Spain affair.
4. It has Spain’s best-preserved Alcazaba, bang in the middle of town
Seriously? A kind of boutique Barcelona, Málaga is tiny so there’s no need for public transport as you can pretty much walk everywhere. The best place to wander? Well, there’s the delightful Parque de Málaga or the equally well-tended grounds of the Alcazaba, right next to the city’s old town.
OK, go on… You can’t – and won’t – miss it. It’s well worth an early-morning visit when you have the place pretty much to yourself, even on weekends. Built in the early 11th-century, this is a Taifa-era citadel; the only site similar to this in the world can be found in Syria. Even so, while the building itself impresses, the bigger draw might be the delightful jasmine, bougainvillea and orange gardens. Centred with a fountain and views of the Med, the peaceful Patio de la Alberca is where workaday stress comes to die.
Oh, and another thing… Worth the extra calories, the equally well-tended ramparts of the Castle of Gibralfaro further up the same hill have comfortably the best views of the city.
5. Málaga has one of Spain’s coolest new boutique hotels
Seriously? Just opened, the very cool, very different Palacio Solecio bills itself as the first luxury hotel in the city. And no-one appears to disagree.
OK, go on… Designed by architect-interiors ace Antonio Obrador, the 18th-century building – a former palace once home to the boss of Real Fábrica de Naipes (“Factory of Playing Cards”) – has been given a sensitive, stylish $33 million refit with the standout feature being the bright, double-arched zaguán courtyard that has transformed into the hotel’s centrepiece restaurant, Balausta. This is where malagueño chef José Carlos Garcia deploys respun Andalucían staples at what’s quickly become the city’s most in-demand eating-out address.
Oh, and another thing… The hotel is in the old town close to pretty much everything, including the museums, as well as another speciality: check out either Kelipé or Tablao Los Amayas for an old-world flamenco experience. Failing that, it’s a 60-second walk to Málaga’s best-loved rooftop bar, La Terraza La Alcazaba.
6. Málaga is the gateway to Andalucía
Seriously? With a couple of exceptions – the yachty, swank town of Marbella and remote port city Cádiz included – much of the crowded Costa del Sol might disappoint anyone with expectations of a secluded-chic Mediterranean coastline. Even so, Málaga still works as the gateway to the largely untapped Andalucían heartland – it is to Spain what Tuscany is Italy.
OK, go on… As with its Italian equivalent, the thing to do here is to stay at country-house haciendas. Our favourites include the super-secluded, mountain-set La Quinta close to time-forgotten village Casares; with two swimming pools, a heli-pad and 10 bedrooms, the multi-gen family getaway Torre de Tramores; and La Donaira, a finca set in 700 hectares of garden-woodland with sleek suites or luxe yurts, a spring-fed pool, yoga platform and stables for 70 rare-breed Lusitanos.
Oh, and another thing… There is definitely no shortage of alternatives: try the glorious Hacienda de San Rafael, which offers boho-chic rooms and lonely hiking in the hills around the pueblo blanco of Grazalema.
From June, Etihad offers one daily flight from Abu Dhabi to Málaga via Rabat. Booking is available now.