Many travellers have experienced the Gothic splendour of Barcelona or wandered down Madrid’s stately avenues; even more have eaten their way through plates of patatas bravas and crispy croquetas in tapas bars across the country. Beyond the headline acts and the top 10s though, overlooked cities such as Málaga offer an alternative Spain, an Andalusian Spain where history, nature and culture collide to produce experiences and foods unique to
Thanks to its busy international airport, which handles traffic for the entire Costa del Sol, Spain’s sixth largest city is accessible for easy weekends, or as a stopover on longer visits too. With the warmest winters of any large European city, it’s also a good year-round introduction to an elegant, southern European town covered in the dust of North Africa. If you’ve got a weekend to spend then don’t miss these cultural, historical and gastronomic highlights.
Down at the Plaza de la Merced, the atypical Malagueños who rise early to breakfast (the first meal often only takes place around 11 a.m.), sit surrounded by piles of Spanish novels in the buzzing Café con Libros. Waiters whisk by with icy tumblers of freshly squeezed orange juice and strong, quarrelsome-looking coffees. It’s an appropriate cultural theme for a café where you can try the local staple of pitufos, miniature loaves of fresh, warm bread stuffed with tomatoes, cheese or jamón serrano (cured ham), right in the shadow of Pablo Picasso’s childhood home.
The nearby Palacio de Buenavista, the 16th-century building where Picasso was born, is now home to the Museo Picasso, boasting 285 works from Spain’s most iconic artist. There’s plenty of history underfoot too. Beneath the Andalusian tiles are the ruins of the Phoenician culture that established the city here as Malaka back in the eighth century B.C.; a fact which makes it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. A visit to the archaeological exhibit in the basement gives a view onto the world that underpins everything the city was later built upon.
The Phoenicians (600 B.C.) were later followed by the Romans in the third century B.C., and then by Muslim Moorish rulers in the eighth century. This storied past is played out in the structure of the city itself, so when you take the brisk, five-minute walk from the Museo Picasso, through the ancient 220-seater Teatro Romano amphitheatre, and then up to the immaculately well-preserved Alcazaba (a Moorish military fortress), it’s also a trip through history.
This legacy of exchange is also captured in Málaga’s unique food culture, which rolls together the sea and the land in a coating of flavours borrowed from all of its inhabitants. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the monumental Mercado de Atarazanas, an imposing 19th-century hall filled with bustling crowds who stand shoulder to shoulder and order plates of Malagueño specialities. Ask for the most typically Malagueño dish and you may get pearly hunks of conchas finas (locally caught smooth clams) or almejas (small clams) soused in a Spanish-style garlic butter enrichened with parsley and local sherry. Equally though, you might get the vibrant seafood paella, thick with loose-skinned tomatoes and musky with Arabian saffron. The market feels chaotic but it all runs perfectly and people will advise you, not nicely perhaps, but authoritatively. Trust in their judgement and enjoy the best local produce and recipes.
For the residents of Málaga, Sundays are for strolling, for visiting the miles of beaches which front the city, and for food. First of all though, for many of the predominantly Catholic Spanish, Sunday morning means a visit to the cathedral locals affectionately call La Manquita (the one-armed woman). It’s a cavernous, baroque mixture of classical fluted columns, Gothic towers, and interiors of lavish opulence. Tours of the interior, including a rooftop walk, can be arranged through the cathedral itself.
Outside, the bell tower rings out over a neighbourhood where you can find gastronomic souvenirs like the famous Andalusian spice cake of almonds, fruit and wine, the Tarta Malagueña. Head for the port though, where the landscape is more open, dominated to the north by the hilly backdrop of the Montes de Málaga, a green-and-dun massif that twinkles with white haciendas and flashes of purple bougainvillea. The colours are matched by the man-made too, here in the brightly coloured form of the Pompidou Centre, a giant Plexiglas outpost of Paris’s famous art gallery.
On Sundays the port’s packed with market stalls filled with handmade jewellery, vintage clothing and local produce like the lightbulb-shaped jars of golden honey, locally harvested and studded with Andalusian almonds. The port is the beginning of Playa de la Malagueta, the grey-brown beach which runs east for seven kilometres towards the beach area of El Chanquete. On a Sunday, all of Málaga comes out to walk, jog, scoot and cycle this section of the Costa del Sol, a piece of Spain where the turquoise Mediterranean washes Africa onto the shores of Europe.
The most notable things in this part of the world are the miles of lively bars and restaurants (chiringuitos) that line the coast. On the beaches outside nearly all of these are small, refurbished boats that have been converted into barbecues for the grilling of locally caught fish. Don’t miss out on places like Andres Maricuchi, where you can sit next to the beach and eat the traditional dish of espeto; sardines grilled on a skewer until the skin is bucked and charred with fine bubbles and lousy with rocks of sea salt.
Though if there’s one food experience in the city that’s worth having, then it involves going the full distance to El Chanquete, so far from the centre that even the tireless beach runs out of steam. There you’ll find El Tintero. If the long walk up the quiet beach is like drawing in breath, then this hectic, supermarket-sized seafood restaurant is a bellow of release. Don’t expect anything as conventional as a menu; the waiters simply stroll around carrying platters of whatever is freshest from the kitchen. It’s up to the bravest diners to decide what they like and to catch their eye before another hungry soul waylays the parading server first. It’s a vibrant, human version of dining, a fundamentally Spanish way of enjoying food when surrounded by friends and family. Yes, Spain has highlights galore, but if you visit here, to this out of the way place in an area many people never make it to, then you may just find out something about the Spanish way of living that people chasing top 10s are unlikely to.
Pablo Vasquez, a food guide and native Malagueño, whose company Spain Food Sherpas offers food tours and cooking classes throughout the region, lists some local delicacies.
Pescaito frito Fried fish, especially boquerones or white anchovies.
Málaga wine This sweet wine from Málaga can’t be missed. The best place to try it is at Antigua Casa de Guardia, the oldest tavern in town, where it’s poured directly from the barrel.
Aloreñas olives The only table olive in Spain which is protected by the “Designation of Origin” programme that means only foods grown in that area can be so named. Harvested by hand, you can find them everywhere in Málaga.
Gazpachuelo A popular soup of fish stock, mayonnaise and garlic that’s particular to the city, and can be sampled at restaurants such as Restaurante Juanito in the El Palo neighbourhood.
Zurrapa A pork dish typical of the Ronda Mountains. Zurrapa is pork loin fried in lard, further enhanced by a choice of spices, garlic, oregano or paprika.
Plato de Los Montes This is a good example of dishes that come from the villages in the mountains, and which differ from those on the coast. This recipe includes potatoes, pork loin, peppers, chorizo and blood sausage, all fried in lard.
Desserts They are still the same traditional pastries that were eaten here a thousand years ago: pestiños (a kind of doughnut enjoyed at religious holidays), the famous arroz con leche (rice pudding), and alfajor (an Arabian cake of spices, honey, nuts and fruit).
Stephen Connolly is a freelance writer based in the UK. As a former historian he travels to witness first-hand everything he's read about in books; as an ongoing glutton he roams the world looking for the best things to eat.