It may be the second largest city in Spain’s Andalusian region, but I’d wager Málaga is a bit of a hidden gem. Almost 13 million passengers fly into its airport every year, only to be quickly bundled onto buses by Europe’s biggest tour operators and shunted out to the resorts of the Costa del Sol: Torremolinos, Estepona, Marbella.
I’ve been coming here since I was three years old, but this was the first summer I properly explored.
If you too are the type to struggle by day five of a poolside holiday, then I highly recommend a day trip to Málaga. A couple of things to note before you go: the city is a couple of degrees hotter than the coast, so I’d recommend factor 50 sunscreen, loose-fitting cover-up clothing and keeping out of the sun as much as you can. Take plenty of water, a hat and your summertime essentials!
The Málaga region is well-served by suburban rail: trains are modern, regular, air-conditioned and cheap. A return from Benalmadena-Arroyo de la Miel cost around €5 off-peak.
Rather than get off at Málaga’s main train station, Málaga Maria Zambrano, I stayed on until the end of the line: Málaga Centro Alameda. Your first sight of the city may be an abandoned municipal building that appears to have lain untouched since my last (super brief) (I pretty much just stayed in the Larios Centre tbh it was so hot) visit about a decade ago, but the smaller station is easy to navigate and well located for everything I’ll write about here.
Never knowingly an early riser, I made it into the city for about midday and headed straight for my first stop: Atarazanas Market (less than 10 minutes walk from the station). Málaga’s main food market is located in a 19th century building, which was itself repurposed from an old shipyard which dated back to the Nasrid Islamic dynasty of the 14th century, and is open until 3pm daily (excluding Sundays).
With lots of choice for fresh meat, fish, cheeses, baked goods, fruit and vegetables and spices, the sights and smells of Atarazanas will take your breath away (although the butcher stalls in particular are not for the squeamish – I caught what I suspected was a calf’s head out of the corner of my eye and knew better than to go back to double-check). I got a freshly-squeezed fruit juice to walk around with, but kept my purchases minimal as I knew I had a day in the city ahead of me: some chimichuri spice mix to take home, and a euro’s worth of fresh cherries, their juices muddling with the paper bag.
Lining the street outside the market are what at first glance appear to be some small tapas bars, but which I quickly realised once I sat down were attached to the fish stalls at that end of the market. I don’t have much of a taste for fish, as you know, but since you can’t beat convenience I decided against searching elsewhere for meats and cheeses and ordered some gambas pil pil and roasted verduras, washed down with a glass of Sangria. The vegetables were a little salty for my tastes, but I couldn’t fault the setting.
I’d had some half-hearted notion of climbing up into the hills to visit the 10th century Castillo de Gibralfaro (it’s the one from the Málaga flag and coat of arms), but since it was barely lunchtime and already pushing 36 degrees I decided to wander in the direction of the cathedral instead (sidebar: how much will it break me to lose EU roaming after Brexit?). I took some photos in the picturesque side streets – none of which I liked enough to keep – ultimately making it as far as Plaza de la Constitución before I was tempted into & Other Stories by the promise of air conditioning, a Tom Petty soundtrack and the sale.
(I bought a tunic dress, some socks that are way more Instagrammable than my feet would be in them, a €3 gold nail polish and a lemon lip balm which was terrible, since you’re asking.)
As Málaga’s most famous son, Pablo Picasso not only gets an airport named after him but also a dedicated museum. I’d spent time at the Museo Picasso Málaga on my last visit but I didn’t remember much about it, and I was wondering whether my relationship to the art would have changed at all as I had gotten older – and, honestly, because I had seen Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette just before my holiday and I was wondering how a collection that purports to provide a chronological overview of the artist’s work would handle the misogyny Gadsby was forced to reckon with as part of her art history degree.
Turns out, no, it didn’t do any of that, and it turns out that I also really, really hate Picasso whose work is pretty much just… boobs. Boobs everywhere. Boobs and expressions of horror. But! The museum is also hosting a pretty brilliant Andy Warhol exhibition – Warhol: Mechanical Art (until 14th September) – and that was well worth an hour or so of my time.
Spread across two floors, Mechanical Art documents Warhol’s complete career from his early work in commercial graphic design in 1950s New York to his death in 1987, featuring originals of works such as Three Coke Bottles, Brillo Soap Pads Box, Gold Marilyn, Liz and Mao; silent Screen Test shorts of Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Salvador Dali; and installations like Silver Clouds and a video recreation of a night at The Factory. Plus, the (incredibly in-depth) audio guide had a Velvet Underground soundtrack, so your girl was pretty happy!
Let’s not talk about how much I spent on some crayons for my nephew in a little recreation Campbell’s soup can afterwards, but having spent that long absorbed in consumerism-as-art I think I can be forgiven.
Here’s a life hack for you: buy ridiculously extravagant gin and tonics with a view of the Mediterranean in hotels you can’t afford to stay in… for the ‘gram. Serve with complimentary nibbles, and a Muzak version of the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack for some reason? The waiter at AC Hotel Málaga Palacio brings the bottle of Hendricks to your table and pretty much asks you to say when… plus, it was a handy pit stop where I was able to squeeze some much-needed charge into my phone!
There’s a bit of me that’s extremely resentful of paying entry fees to Catholic churches, but step inside Málaga Cathedral and it’s hard to begrudge them the €6 fee (€10 to include a tour of the roof). Constructed between 1528 and 1782 and never quite finished – it’s nicknamed La Manquita, or the one-armed lady, due to its incomplete south tower – the cathedral is expansive, with a Baroque/gothic exterior and Renaissance-style interior. Around the walls are something like 15 individual chapels, which I did two circuits of before deciding where to light a candle for my mum, and an extensive collection of religious art and sculpture.
Again, my entry fee entitled me to an audio guide – but you’d need to set aside three or four hours, I reckon, in order to properly explore everything the cathedral has to offer. Me, I had about 35 minutes before the next tour to the roof was scheduled to depart.
They warn you before you make the climb that you will be going up a narrow spiral staircase with 200 steps – but, rather than feel like I was stuck in some flashback of nearly having an asthma attack in an alcove off the Glasgow University tower on a visit at the age of 16, it didn’t seem half bad! We exited a relatively modern stone staircase onto a flat roof area above one of the side chapels where I relaxed and took a couple of photos – until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw our guide disappear.
We were only halfway up.
The trouble with narrow spiral staircases is rarely the staircases themselves – you ought to feel free to take it easy when you’re Scottish and it’s in the mid-30s outside, to say nothing about being a little out of condition – but the worry that you’re holding up everybody behind you. But when I finally made it to the top? The views were spectacular. Including those of the Castillo de Gibralfaro.
Just… if you’re planning to replicate this itinerary at all, maybe leave the free-pouring gin until after the climb, eh?
After all that exertion, I figured I deserved one last treat before heading for my train. Opened in 1932, Casa Aranda is the most famous of Málaga’s churrerías – and a must-visit, if you’re a fan of Spain’s iconic elongated fried doughnuts.
I ordered three on the advice of the waiter – besides, at 45c per churro, it would have been rude not to. They arrived con chocolate, in the traditional Spanish way: an espresso-sized cup of thick hot chocolate, just about runny enough to drink but even better for dipping. It may or may not have been how I was supposed to eat them, but it was just the treat I needed after my climb!
Coming in at less than a fiver (I ordered a Coke as well, to replenish my blood sugar), there’s no reason why Casa Aranda shouldn’t be on your whistlestop Málaga itinerary. In fact, the whole town is a treasure – well worth taking a break from the beach for!