Twenty years ago, when I first visited Málaga, it was the ugly stepsister of Spain’s Costa del Sol: a little scruffy and down-at-heels (though with gloriously sunny weather and a seaside location). So it was pure pleasure to return last summer and find it transformed into a Cinderella: one of Spain’s most livable—and affordable—cities for coastal living.
Today’s Málaga is clean and bright, with a pedestrian-only city center and a revamped harbor area that is a joy to stroll. The city is brimming with museums, great dining, and plenty of shopping to suit all tastes and budgets.
Happily, the best of the “old” Málaga remains, as well. The sun still shines, there are miles of seaside, winter temperatures are balmy (days average 63 F in January), and sea breezes still blow off the Mediterranean, cooling the hot summer days. And Málaga is still cheerful and vibrant, oozing its trademark Andalusian charm.
Best of all, it remains a very Spanish city, even in the prime tourist areas. So if you enjoy big-city life with laidback charm and a side of seashore, give Málaga a whirl. You can even get by in English.
Simply walking up Calle Larios, the broad, pedestrian-only avenue that is the heart of Málaga’s historic center, can lift the spirits. Shops and restaurants line both sides of this wide, tile-paved street. Benches, colorful flower stands, and tall, graceful streetlights march at regular intervals up the street. Four or five stories above ground level, a series of huge canopies is strung across Calle Larios, shading the strollers below from the blazing Mediterranean sun.
I spent a blissful day just being a tourist here, exploring Calle Larios and meandering along the narrow side streets that branch off this main artery. Sidewalk cafés and wine bars, their tables shaded by large umbrellas and with white-aproned waiters at attention, are everywhere.
This is where trendy Malagueños come for a drink or for lunch in town after a busy morning shopping.
It’s also where tourists come for some culture. The Museo Picasso—the artist is one of the city’s most famous native sons—is nearby. So is the new Museo Carmen Thyssen Malaga. It holds mostly 19th-century Spanish paintings.
And you’ll find street performers—mimes, mummers, and “living-sculpture” performance artists—provide entertainment many days. (I saw one fellow who’d suspended himself in the air, with no visible means of support. I still don’t know how he did it…)
At 2,800 years old, Málaga is one of the oldest cities in the world. Founded by the Phoenicians in about 770 BCE, it’s been inhabited by half-a-dozen major civilizations since then. As a result, it offers plenty for the history buff. Just past the Roman amphitheater is the Alcazaba, the medieval Moorish quarter. And you can take a bus up to the Gibralfaro, the Moorish-era fortress sitting above the city that offers one of the best views around.
But, if you spend any time here, it becomes clear that Málaga is not a city that lives in the past. Here, history is the spice, not the main course. Twelve million tourists a year pass through Malaga’s international airport, and about half of them visit the city (the rest head directly to the region’s many beach resorts). Yet tourism, though important, is not the only economic driver. Technology, construction, transportation, logistics, and other industries are all big here—this is Spain’s fourth-most important city for economic activity, and one of its biggest ports. This means a big plus for expats and tourists: A city where English is generally understood.
Walk south from Málaga’s historic center and in minutes you reach the port area. In recent years part of the port area has been smartened up. Green park areas border the avenue that runs along the sea, while a long paseo marítimo (boardwalk) runs along the water itself. Muelle Uno, or Wharf One, a long wharf of shops and restaurants, is a prime draw and is nearly always hopping with activity.
One neighborhood I like is Huelin, which is just a mile or two from the centro histórico in the district known as Carretera de Cádiz. Twenty years ago, when I visited friends who lived in Huelin, the city was just expanding the paseo marítimo out this far. Since then, Huelin has cast off its working-class, fishermen’s roots to become a lively, middle-class neighborhood of good-quality apartment housing, plenty of bars and restaurants, supermarkets, and other amenities. Bus service is frequent, a metro line from the center to Huelin is under construction, and the bus and train stations are not far away.
In Huelin you can find one- and two-bedroom apartments for sale for well under €100,000 (about $130,000). And $650 in rent can get you about 900 square feet of living space—you may even get a sea view with it. Day-to-day expenses are low, too. My friends and I enjoyed a long summer evening at an outdoor café here, spending only about $4 each for generous tapas—a couple of them made a full meal.