Malaga beachFlickr
By Christine Potter

The beaches are beautiful, the tapas scene is superb, the art is awesome and the city is lively and enticing. Thousands flock to Malaga Airport but most travel on to sun themselves in resorts along the nearby Costa del Sol, missing the city completely.

Malaga’s Old TownChristine PotterMalaga is an overlooked gem, a town that has kept its character and historical integrity despite being a neighbour to some of Spain’s densest tourism development.

On Plaza De La Marina a bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen sits on a bench. Why? Because after the Danish author visited in 1862 he wrote “…in no other Spanish city have I been as happy and as comfortable as in Malaga.” If he could revisit now, more than 150 years later, I believe he would feel the same way. Modern Malaga honours its history, preserving its stately old buildings and monuments while offering a sophisticated destination.

The Historical Quarter is home to charming hotels, great restaurants (ranging from shellfish bars to five-star gastronomical delights) and an enormous variety of stores occupying its spider’s web of pedestrian streets and lanes. (Remember, opening times are traditionally from Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and again from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. to cater to the almost-sacred siesta hours.) Here, too, is the Atarazanas Market, dating to the 14th century. It’s THE place to enjoy the sounds and smells of busy Malaga, with colourful stands of local vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. (It closes at 2 p.m. and all day Sundays.) If you visit before breakfast, enjoy a “churro” (a type of doughnut) with a coffee or double hot chocolate in one of the market cafes.

Malaga’s Atarazanas MarketChristine PotterPablo Picasso was born here in 1881 and is well represented among Malaga’s attractions. The Picasso Museum (housed in a 16th-century palace) holds about 160 of his works including paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics from his earliest pieces to the 1970s. It’s as popular for his art as it is for the portrayal of his women and children. A walking route designed by Malaga tourism (www.malagaturismo.com) traces the artist’s early years, and leads to the exhibitions.

More art and artists are represented in the gleaming Centre for Contemporary Art (CAC) with its fine, if small, collection of 20th- and 21st-century works and its superb temporary exhibitions. The Museo de Artes Populares is packed with colourful displays of Andalusian life over the past three centuries such as farming, wine, bullfighting and fashion.

Picasso museumFlickrHistorical buildings include the Moorish fortress and Christian castle (Alcazaba-Gibralfaro) high on the hill overlooking the city. The Alcazaba is like a mini-Alhambra with horseshoe arches and distinctive Islamic decoration. The Alhambra in Granada was the palace of the nation’s Moorish rulers and Malaga’s 11th-century Alcazaba served the same role for the city. A stroll along the eucalyptus-lined paths yields panoramic city and ocean views, and a visit to the Alcazaba Archeological Museum depicts the city’s history from Roman times. (The remains of a Roman theatre, built in the reign of Augustus and used until the end of the third century AD, sit below the Alcazaba. The Moors used material from here to build the fortress.)

The Christian Castillo (castle) came later, built adjacent to the Alcazaba in the 14th century. Its crenellated walls and towers shelter a small museum and peaceful gardens.

Malaga CathedralBert Kaufmann/FlickrMalaga Cathedral is a highlight for those visiting the town’s sacred places. It took more than 200 years to complete and was started in 1528, built on the site of the main mosque. Its two magnificent 18th-century organs (boasting more than 4,000 pipes between them) are still used.

While looking at history and culture, visitors may well want to see a flamenco show. Andalusia is the heartland of the iconic Spanish dance, and while Malaga is not one of its major centres, some good examples can be seen at Diquela, a flamenco supper club near the airport, and at other venues in the city. Check with the local tourist office for showtimes.

If you’re in the city during August (between the 17th and 24th) you’ll catch one of Spain’s largest cultural celebrations, with bullfights, dancing, food and wine, and a heady mix of events taking over the main streets. At night, a giant funfair lights up the lighthouse area.

Don’t forget the beaches. Malaga’s coastline has 16, from huge curving bays to secluded coves. But here in the city centre, the city beach is surprisingly good. A tasteful beachfront development with broad boulevards hemmed with restaurants and a long, palm-studded park area is well used by locals and tourists alike, providing a fine welcome to cruise ship passengers.

With so much to offer, Malaga is more than a mere gateway. It’s a destination and a great add-on to either end of a Mediterranean cruise or a European vacation.

More information from www.malagaturismo.com.

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