Málaga is an ancient Mediterranean port town in southern Spain. It has beautiful beaches, historical monuments and a rich, diverse culture and history. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 770 - 780 BC (and in fact the name of the city is derived from the Phoenician malaka, which means "to salt"). It was then conquered by the Romans in 218 BC and they occupied the city for the next 600 years. You can see evidence of their stay in Málaga in the form of the amphitheatre at foot of the Alcazaba fortress (more on that below).
The next notable change in governance came around the 5th century AD, when Málaga was invaded by the Visigoths and other Germanic tribes, who apparently kept most of the Roman institutions intact. Sandwiched between this time and the later Arab rule was a brief period of Byzantine dominance.
Málaga was then taken over in the 8th century AD as part of the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula. Again, you can see evidence of their stay today in the form of the Alcazaba fortress and Gibralfaro fortress (more on those below as well). Málaga was ruled first by the Caliphate of Cordoba and then by the Nasrid Caliphate of Granada. Muslim rule came to an end in 1487 when it was re-taken by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella of Castilla y Leon in the culminating period of the Reconquista.
Since then, Málaga has had its ups and downs like any other city. Today, however, it enjoys a booming tourist trade, a warm, inviting and hospitable atmosphere, a wealth of places to eat and historical monuments to marvel at. It has various museums and galleries to visit, a famous 19th century bullring, alluring beaches, diverse and rich culture, all kinds of flora and fauna. And of course, there's plenty of fine wine.
In Christmas of 2019 I spent a few days in Málaga shopping, eating out, sightseeing and just enjoying the beautiful winter weather. Needless to say I absolutely loved it, even though unfortunately there wasn't enough time see everything the city has to offer. However, the sections below showcase the places I visited that I loved and strongly urge other people to experience for themselves.
The recently discovered Roman amphitheatre lies at the foot of the Alcazaba fortress that looms over the old historic town of Málaga. It dates from the first century BC and is remarkably well preserved for such an ancient monument. It is alas incomplete, as materials such as columns, seats and stone blocks were taken and used in the construction of the Alcazaba fortress. In fact, the theatre was lost for centuries until it was re-discovered by workers digging in the area in the 1950s. Excavations to fully unearth this wonder of the ancient world spanned decades and actually concluded only in the 1990s.
Today you can visit the amphitheatre and I highly recommended that you do so. The site operated as a theatre from 1 - 3 AD - a relatively short period of time - but thanks to the shows and events that take place there you don't have to wonder what it must have been like to attend such a theatre - you can find out for yourself. Take a look here to see what's on and when.
The Alcazaba fortress on the hill that dominates the old town of Málaga was built by the Hammudid dynasty in the 11th century AD. Ringed by impressive stone, square towers, it is considered to be the best preserved Moorish fortress palace in Spain and one can see why. Walking around the fortress you can see orange trees, palm trees, arched doorways, mosaics, fountains, cobbled floors, studded doors, gardens with varied flora and fauna, vaulted ceilings with intricate patterns, and even heraldic emblems. It only costs around 4 euros to visit the site plus you can combine the price with that of the entrance fee to the Gibralfaro castle for a discounted total of 6 euros. So it's well worth the time and money to visit.
The Gibralfaro castle is situated on the hill overlooking the old town and port area; it is right next to - and almost as well preserved as - the Alcazaba fortress. It started life as a Phoenician fortification that was then expanded upon by later Moorish rulers. There's no direct entry into the castle from the Alcazaba fortress. Instead the castle is reached by walking up a hill, and an impressive uphill climb it is; on your left are the solid walls of the Alcazaba fortress as they become the walls of the Gibralfaro castle; orange groves and other greenery are visible as well. On your right are amazing views of the town and port.
Then you arrive at the castle proper. There you are treated to narrow ramparts set on high walls, as well as open spaces, mosaics and green areas, chambers with arched doorways and vaulted ceilings, stone staircases, walls with vaulted edges and more. You might even see a squirrel or two! The castle also boasts commanding views of the town and surrounding areas and these are absolutely breath-taking as you can see from the images below. Come for the history, stay for the view!
Fun fact: The Gibralfaro castle also houses a small museum showcasing its history that you can visit as part of the tour.
The port of Málaga is the oldest one operating in Spain today, being founded by the Phoenicians around 1000 BC. Located in a natural coastline, it quickly established itself as a trading hub during the Roman occupation, exporting commodities such as oil, wine, garum (type of fish-based pickle), pottery and almonds to other parts of the Empire. The port continued to expand and serve an important role under later Islamic and Catholic rule, cereals becoming a major export during the latter.
Today the port is divided into several quays or wharves, each serving a plethora of needs: cargo and commercial shipping, ferries, cruise liners and fishing boats among other things. The most well-known quay - Muelle Uno - is located on the east side of the port and is home to a host of restaurants, bars and shops. Here you can enjoy a fine meal or glass of wine in a friendly, relaxing atmosphere.
Visitors can also enjoy other diverse activities such as boating trips, shopping sprees or a climb aboard the replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon, the Galeón Andalucía; they can also take a look around the famous 19th century lighthouse situated at the end of Muelle Uno.
The port is also the home of the Centre Pompidou, an art gallery that alas I did not get a chance to visit; the outside is instantantly recognisable by its cuboid design and different coloured tiles. If you're planning on visiting the city, I recommend a stroll around Muelle Uno and a sample of one its many restaurants. It's close not only to the old town but also to some of Málaga's finest beaches, so exploring it is a no-brainer.
One cannot talk about Málaga and not mention its impressive and beautiful cathedral, the Holy Cathedral of the Incarnation. Built between 1528 and 1782 AD on the site of an older Almohad mosque, Málaga's cathedral is situated in the heart of the old town and only a stone's throw from the equally impressive Alcazaba monument; in fact one has a great view of the cathedral roof and tower from the fortress. Fun fact: the cathedral is colloquially known as La Manquita (the one-handed); this is because the south tower was never completed, and several theories abound as to why this is.
The interior of the cathedral - inspired by Renaissance and Baroque styles - has an impressive sense of scale and size, even by Andalusian standards, where grand cathedrals exist in several major cities like Seville and Granada. Photos do not do justice to the architectural beauty of the place: beautiful chapels with handsomely adorned statues, paintings enclosed in richly ornate frames; lavishly decorated tabernacles. Columns rise up to the roof and meet vaulted ceilings which play host to intricate patterns; beautiful stained glass windows dominate the upper echelons. The centrepiece may just be the choir area in the centre of the church. The organ is stunning in its design and complexity. On the walls are beautifully lacquered wood carvings.
Those accustomed to visiting English churches and cathedrals might be surprised to discover that there's a mandatory entry free to visit the cathedral, amounting to €6. Throw in a visit to the cathedral roof (which I missed out on unfortunately) and you're looking at €10. However, the cathedral is more than worth the price of admission. If you're ever in Málaga with a few hours to kill, visiting this beautiful and stunning piece of architecture should be high on your list of priority.
Undoubtedly one of the best times to visit Málaga is Christmas time. I had been to the city a handful of times, mainly to sample the array of tapas that only Málaga's chiringuitos can offer. That changed in December 2019. And I have never seen Málaga come alive as I did that time. Scores of people filled the streets, roads were lined with stalls selling trinkets, sweets, cakes, roasted chestnuts, turrón (in a happy stroke of luck there was a shop selling turron and other delicacies right around the corner from the hostel); the air was filled with different aromas and smells and sounds. Finally, everywhere you looked you saw beautiful Christmas lights and decorations.
The most famous Christmas lights are the ones that adorn Calle Larios in the city centre. But these aren't just ordinary lights. Called the Bosque de Navidad (literally "Christmas Forest") they consist of hundreds of LED lights set into aluminium frames that are then arranged into arch shapes; these in turn are further adorned with other lights showcasing angel, flower and snowflake designs. These impressive structures are placed at regular intervals along the whole of the street, and are the basis of a spectacular display featuring light and music that occurs three times a night (6.30pm, 8pm and 9.30pm) during the Christmas season. Different parts of the structures are lit up at different times in synchronicity with the music, making for a very entertaining spectacle. In fact, so popular is the show, that Calle Larios is packed with tourists, visitors and locals, all wanting to see it. I was lucky enough to find a seat in the outside area of the Café Central cafeteria. Located in the tail end of Calle Larios, this cafeteria does wonderful coffees and snacks and comes highly recommended if you're ever in Málaga. Which I recommend you visit once (hopefully) things return to some kind of normality.
So what type of city is Málaga? In short it's warm, friendly, atmospheric and beautiful. There's a wealth of history to discover, a plethora of restaurants and bars to sit (or stand at) and a culture that only southern Spain can provide, eating at a restaurant or just having a glass of wine in a bar. In fact, for a lovely, reasonably priced meal I heartily recommend Cortijo de Pepe.
A lot of events go on (or used to go) that I didn't get a chance to enjoy but that I intend to in the future. There are museums like the Pablo Picasso museum in the old town that again I didn't get a chance to visit (the man himself was born in Málaga and the main hall of the city's airport is named in his honour). If you're interested in bullfighting, there's the bullring near the port to explore. Speaking of which, a saunter around the port itself with its myriad of shops and restaurants is worth your time as well. If it's summer and the weather is hot (as it's bound to be) then head towards one of Málaga's beaches (playa de la Malagueta springs to mind).
If nothing of the above interests you there are shopping malls featuring an assortment of stores and places to eat. So there is something for everyone in Málaga, the place that I consider to be the crown jewel of the Costa del Sol. Once travel restrictions are lifted and free travel and movement is permitted, do yourself a favour: visit Málaga and soak up all the sights and sounds it offers.