Now that Spain is welcoming visitors once more, holidaymakers both domestic and foreign are once again making their way down to its legendary stretch of Málaga province’s Mediterranean Sea coast known as the Costa del Sol, running 160 kilometres (99 miles) between Nerja in the east to Estepona out west. This is where the country became a sun-and-fun magnet beginning in the late 1960s, and 60 years later the “Coast of the Sun” is still going strong, with all of its towns easily accessible by car, bus, and train. All these different destinations can be a little bewildering, so to help you choose, here’s a quick look at the top ten, which reach from whitewashed villages nestling in the mountains just off the coast to frankly glamorous beach resorts.
(Before I get to each, however, it’s worth noting what most of the blue-flag beaches at these destinations have much in common, starting with wide, white sands gently sloping down towards the sea. There are several rocky spots, like in Cala and Mijas as well as near Fuengirola, but otherwise few pebbles or stones to speak of. On virtually all beaches you will find chiringuitos – waterfront snack bars and eateries – as well as places to rent equipment for paddle boarding, surfing, snorkelling, and other water sports. These beaches are a mix of public and private, and sunbeds/chairs/umbrellas are included or for rent at beach clubs and resorts but not on public stretches.
Finally, keep in mind that as I noted in a post earlier this month, this summer are some new coronavirus-related rules in force on the sands here, including disinfection procedures and maintaining physical distance between 1.5 and two metres (five to 6½ feet). There will also likely be some local variations – so once you get here, be sure to learn what they are to avoid potentially significant fines.)
OK, here goes!
Famously dubbed the “Balcony of Europe” by Spain’s King Alfonso XII when he visited in 1885, this lively town at the eastern end of the Costa del Sol lies a half-hour drive east of Málaga’s eponymous capital. It’s mostly charming and low-rise, having kept highrises and bif develoers mostly out. And there’s an actual Balcón de Europa here, a platform with a statue of the king, cannons which are a legacy of the site’s military defensive past, the waves of the Mediterranean crashing at the bottom and views as far as Africa; a glass structure leads down one side with a café and restaurants practically hanging above the sea. Nerja’s mostly pedestrianised streets allow peaceful strolls amid a mix of modern and traditional white Andalusian architecture to admire an abundance of original art and craft shops where you can get your fill of mementos like colourful ceramics and handpainted fans (very useful in the summer heat!). There are also a nice group of vibrant nightspots – especially during the summer season, and especially clustered around the whimsically named Plaza Tutti Frutti and an adjacent street, Calle Antonio Millón.
But the area’s must-see attraction is the stunning nearby Nerja Caves, believed to be part of a massive, still not entirely explored network stretching up to Granada. What’s accessible to the public so far is awe-inspiring enough, including the world’s tallest stalactite. Guided tours are available, some even conducted by one of the men who first chanced upon the caves in 1959. The chambers are connected by easy-to-negotiate walkways – although some steps may be a bit slippery, so wear appropriate shoes.
You might also want to check out lovely Frigiliana, north just north of Nerja, a “poster child’ of Andalusia’s Pueblos Blancos (Whitewashed Villages) and certified as one of Spain’s most beautiful towns for good reason. Envisage steep cobbled streets lined with row upon row of gleaming white houses with a medieval Moorish flair, red-tile roofs, pastel-hued wooden doors, and wrought-iron balconies brimming with multicolour geraniums in full bloom – all before the background of the sea on one side, the mountains on the other and the blue sky covering it all.
West of Málaga, just a 15-minute drive and 25 minutes by bus and commuter train, the first major resort town was one of the original Costa del Sol resorts. And Torremolinos (meaning “water mills tower”) remains one of the largest (pop. 68,000) and most popular among holidaymakers and expats alike, thanks certainly not to its fairly unremarkable modern archtecture but in large part to its amenities and especially its six beaches, spread along seven 7km (4⅓ miles) of coast, the most popular of which is Playa del Bajondillo, with others including Los Álamos and Playamar.
Yes, there are quite a few highrises here, but there’s also the La Caruhuela and El Calvario districts, legacies of the fishing village this once was, and quite nice to stroll around. Near Bajondillo Beach you’ll also find 720-year-old Torre Pimentel, a Moorish watchtower originally called Torre de los Molinos (hence the town’s name). Other attractions include a big Aquapark and a complex including botanical gardens, hot springs, and examples of the historic molinos. Finally, Torremolinos is also known for its lively and liberal nightlife (including, notably, being along with Gran Canaria‘s Maspalomas and Sitges near Barcelona one of Spain’s top gay holiday capitals; daytime action is centred around Bajondillo’s Eden Beach Club and after dark a bar-and-club complex in the passageways off Plaza de la Nogalera).
Just a ten-minute hop south of Torremolinos, like several Costa del Sol resorts Benalmádena consists of two centres, Benalmádena Pueblo on the hillside and Benalmádena Costa on the sea. The latter is a quite upscale beach resort with a long stretch of beach and waterfront promenade plus a beautiful marina surrounded by flats of very original architecture; another landmark is Bil-Bil Castle, built in neo-Moorish style in 1934. To reach the pueblo, the train leaves you right their, or you can take a winding road which leads past a unique monument: the Castillo de Colomares, a fairytale-castle-like tribute to Christopher Columbus, built by just two men in the early 1990s.
Both halves live for tourism, of course, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find a quiet spot in one of the many plazas, enjoying a drink in the shade of trees which abound in the village. As for culture, there are several museums, including one in a lovely former manor house with exhibitions from pre Columbian artifacts to local rural life, as well as a bullfight museum (like it or not, la corrida is part of Spanish heritage).
Moving right along, a 12-minute hop down from Benalmádena brings us to another resort not unlike Torremolinos, also one of the Costa del Sol’s oldest, and still popular because of its more than 8km (five mi.) of sandy beaches (with an especially wide array of motorised and non-motorised water sports), bordered by a beautiful, palm-lined Paseo Marítimo promenade. Fuengirola boasts all the bars, cafés, restaurants, lodgings, entertainment, and shopping you’d expect (this last especially for Spanish designers, leather goods, and ceramics), along with a great marina and attractions such as the Bioparc zoo, a water park, and an adventure park with ziplines, rock climbing, and other activities. There’s some history and culture, too, especially the city museum; the hilltop Castillo Sohail, a 10th-century Moorish castle; and a small ancient Roman archaeological site.
An eight-minute hop farther down the coast from Fuengirola, Mijas Costa (aka La Cala) is another stretch – 12km (7½ miles) in all – of beach and holiday resorts with plenty of bars, restaurants, water activities (including a water park), golf, and myriad other kinds of entertainment for all ages.
Whereas Mijas Pueblo, 15 minutes up into the hills, is quite a different story. Row upon row of white washedhouses climb the slopes with their abundance of flower pots and pine trees in between, a picturesque scene which has attracted many writers and painters over the years, some of which have made their home in the village; a great many craft shops and galleries add to the colourful ambiance, lovely for strolling; taking in the view from the Mirador del Compas overlook; and checking out the history and miniatures museums as well as landmarks such as the boxy bullring, the 17th-century Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Peña, and the 16th-century Church of la Concepción. For many years one of the biggest local attractions has been its “donkey taxis”, which after years of animal-rights lobbying are now are protected by laws to safeguard their health and weight restrictions put on their passengers. If you still feel bad about it, why not use an electric tuk-tuk instead?
Another 15 minutes from Mijas brings us to “Beautiful Sea”, the crown jewel of Costa del Sol beach resorts (pop. 141,000), with two dozen beaches along 27km (17 mi.). After the opening of the exclusive Marbella Club resort in 1954, it and then the town in general in the 1960s became a playground of the international jet set, and the rich and famous like Antonio Banderas and George Clooney are today joined by many other visitors from many walks of life. The glamour lives on at Marbella’s high-end shops, beach clubs, and nightlife, and in the meantime, its 16th-century old quarter has preserved its charm, with narrow streets and the famous Plaza de los Naranjos, where you can enjoy exquisite eating under orange trees
There are several good museums here, such as the Spanish Contemporary Engraving Museum, an archaeological collection as well as the remains of an ancient Roman villa, a bosai museum, and the Ralli Museum, displaying Latin American art along with Dalì, Joan Mirò, Marc Chagall, Giorgio di Chirico, and Henry Moore. There are also plenty of wonderful public sculptures along the Avenida del Mar, including works by Salvador Dalì, and amid the palms of beautiful Alameda Park you’ll find benches covered in colourful handpainted tiles.
Technically part of Marbella, this newer town – celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – merits separate mention because it’s even more of a distillation of glamour and wealth. If you want to see how the one percent live and flaunt it, just stroll along Calle Ribera bordering the marina and marvel at the multi-million-dollar yachts berthed here. The shops are no less impressive and expensive, and the nightlife is legendary. Bars like Sinatra are still going strong, including plenty of glam shots of past and present glory adorning its the walls. The seafood restaurants here are fantastic; a couple of nice strands flank the marina, Pedro’s Beach to the south and the larger Playa Puerto Banús to the north; and while as you might expect, most lodging is pricey, there are also apart-hotels, self catering flats and other more affordable options. It’s a six-minute drive here from downtown Marbella, or you can take a more scenic ferry from Marbella’s port.
We’re now coming to the western end of the Costa del Sol, where another charming town, just five minutes west of Puerto Banús, is another former fishing village as well as a onetime centre of sugar plantations. Relatively new to holiday resort development and ideal for a quiet and more economical holiday, San Pedro (pop. 35,500) is toned down compared to Marbella, and reflects a more traditional Spanish lifestyle, with nice beaches, gardens, and shops; quiet parks and plazas; and a 12km (7½-mi.) seafront promenade.
The town as such dates back to the mid-19th century, and historic landmarks include a pretty church built in 1866; nearby 3rd- and 4th-century ruins from the Roman town of Ciniania, including a bath house and paleo-Christian basilica and necropolis; a 16th-century watchtower; and the 19th-century sugar mill. And Thursday is market day – an especially colourful local scene!
Larger (pop. 70,000) as well as better known and older as a resort destination than San Pedro 40 minutes away, this small, appealing city has also preserved its authentic local feel despite an influx of tourists and expats for a half century. Apart from its pedestrianised old quarter, perhaps its most prominent feature is the long promenade along the beachfront consisting of Playa de la Rada and 16 other beaches along 20km (12½ mi.), filled with joggers and strollers at all hours and actually extending as far as Marbella. There’s an interesting route of more than 40 artistic murals on various walls around town, and of course plenty of bars, restaurants, and entertainment for young and old alike.
Other attractions here include Europe’s largest collection of orchids (along with other flora); several museums and galleries including a modest archaeological museum with artifacts dating back to Estepona’s Roman roots; and the 18th-century church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. Nearby you’ll find the prehistoric Corominas Necropolis and Selwo Aventura, styled after African safari parks and housing 2000 animals in semi-wild conditions. Also worth a visit from here is Casares, another typical white village with suger-cube houses piled one on top of another up the mountainside all the way to a 12th-century castle on top; with no tourist buses and few foreign visitors, it’s another charming bit of Andalusia at its best.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an attorney turned travel writer/photographer, currently based in Alicante, Spain, whose work has appeared at GoNomad, GoWorldTravel, EuropeupClose, and BBC Travel. Her blog GlamourGrannyTravels.com is dedicated to female baby boomers who love to travel in style and comfort.