A Guide to Spain's Most Underrated City: Malaga

The once-hidden gem is becoming a travel hot spot.

Spain's Andalusia region and its sandy coastline, the famed Costa del Sol, is best known for stretches of beach and tourist-filled towns like Seville. Travelers to the region typically fly into Malaga, the capital of Andalusia, and a town once regarded as little more than a transit hub with bonus points for being the birthplace of Pablo Picasso.

Oh, how times have changed.

Malaga, Spain

Valerie Conners

The last decade has seen nothing less than a rebirth come to this coastal city. Multiple museums have opened, restaurants sprung to life, and a once dreary port has been transformed into a vibrant focal point filled with shops and dining.

While Malaga's history isn't as storied as towns like nearby Granada, it's no less interesting and dates back 3,000 years to Phoenician times. Discover the city's fascinating past, and enjoy its current riches, like hip food halls, traditional tapas bars, theaters and beaches.

Where to Eat and Drink

Your eyes might be too busy staring at the ancient ruins of Malaga's fortress to glance skyward. However, if you look up, you'll spy La Terrazza bar on the roof of the ultra-hip art hotel, Alcazaba Premium Hostel. The terrace offers splendid views of the city's ancient ruins, as well as its grand cathedral and the tiled rooftops below. Arrive early to get a seat along the edge and stay for sunset over the distant mountains.

Head to the roof deck of the AC Malaga Palacio Hotel and you'll be dazzled by the sweeping views of the city, port and distant coastlines. ATICO Bar and Restaurant enjoys Malaga's highest vantage point, which means its views are unparalleled. Grab a glass of rosé and some small plates and enjoy the vistas.

Food halls have become an ever-growing trend in cities around the globe, and Malaga is no exception. Located just off Plaza Merced, the Mercado is a hipster paradise of food stalls selling everything from grilled octopus and steak, to empanadas and plates of cheese and delicately sliced jamón ibérico.

Dig into plates of authentic tapas, like ham croquettes, patatas brava, and ensaladilla rusa while trying not to be distracted by the floor-to-ceiling Easter-themed decor at Las Merchanas. The restaurant is a Malaga icon, known as much for its wall art featuring all manner of Catholic figures, portraits and crucifixes. The overall effect is far more quirky than creepy.

Want to hang with the cool crowd in Malaga? Join university students and other locals as they elbow for a stool at the many barrels-turned-tables at this popular restaurant on Plaza Uncibay. Order the prawns in garlic sauce, and a montadillo, toast topped with anchovy and tomato, or grilled steak and peppers.

Malaga, Spain

Valerie Conners

Where to Stay

One of Malaga's ritziest digs in the city center is the AC Palacio, a longstanding hotel that was taken over by Marriott and completely refurbished. The hotel's 214 rooms are sleek and modern, and many feature views of the city's waterfront and large balconies.

Travelers on a budget should consider a stay at the funky Dulce Dreams Malaga, a tiny boutique hotel where low-cost rooms are simply decorated with dessert-inspired themes like "cupcake" and "apple pie." Some rooms have shared baths, while others have private, en suite bathrooms and balconies. Grab breakfast at the hotel's cafe, which is popular with locals thanks to its healthy, organic menu items.

What to Do

Set high on a hilltop overlooking the city of Malaga, the Alcazaba is a Moorish palace and fort that dates back to the 11th century. Wander through the Alcazaba's citadels, snap photos of classic gardens and fountains and admire the traditional Islamic architecture.

Rising above the Alcazaba is the Castillo, parts of which date back to the 10th century, though the primary structure was built in the 14th century. The structure served as a lighthouse and military barracks. Take a walk along the ramparts, where you'll see sweeping views of the Costa del Sol coastline and Malaga below.

Art lovers should plan a pit stop at the only outpost of Paris's Pompidou Centre outside of France. Housed inside a colorful glass cube at the Malaga Port, the Centre houses about 80 works, with two or three rotating exhibitions each year. You'll see pieces by iconic artists like Frida Kahlo, René Magritte, and Francis Bacon.

The Thyssen family's art collection is legendary, with much of it displayed at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, but Carmen Thyssen -- related to the family through marriage -- has her personal collection shown separately here. The works focus largely on 19th-century Spanish painting, in particular, works from Andalusia, and the museum is housed in the 16th-century Baroque Palacio de Villalon.

One of Malaga's great claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso. Fans of the artist will find more than 200 of his works inside the city's Picasso Museum, which is housed in a 16th-century villa just steps from where Picasso was born. Visitors will be privy to works that had never been displayed elsewhere, like "Woman in an Armchair."

Malaga, Spain

Valerie Conners

Technically, the Port of Malaga has been in use for 3,000 years, since the Phoenicians first landed and set up shop. Today, the port has been completely remodeled and hosts an increasing number of cruise ships. Take a walk along the port's promenade, admiring the water views, shop at the trendy boutique shops, or dine in one of the international restaurants.

Malaga Cathedral

Often referred to as "The One-Armed Woman," Malaga's 16th-century cathedral is perhaps notorious for having only one complete tower -- the second tower's construction was never completed despite the church's construction lasting 200 long years. The cathedral's interior is a wonder, with 131-foot ceilings, 15 ornate chapels, cedar-wood choir stalls, and two organs with more than 4,000 pipes.

Set high on a hilltop overlooking the city of Malaga, the Alcazaba is a Moorish palace and fort that dates back to the 11th century. Wander through the Alcazaba's citadels, snap photos of classic gardens and fountains and admire the traditional Islamic architecture.

Rising above the Alcazaba is the Castillo, parts of which date back to the 10th century, though the primary structure was built in the 14th century. The structure served as a lighthouse and military barracks. Take a walk along the ramparts, where you'll see sweeping views of the Costa del Sol coastline and Malaga below.

Beach at Malagueta

Just past the port, you'll find Malagueta, the most popular beach in Malaga. Catch some sun on the dark sand beach, or rent a beach chair and umbrella for a small fee. Take a dip in the cool water and work up an appetite before eating at one of the beachfront chiringuitos, small seafood restaurants that line the sand.

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