Any time of year is a good time to visit the capital of the Costa del Sol. Sun worshippers head for the heat of the city and its beaches in the summer months, spending long balmy nights sipping cocktails on one of its trendy rooftop terraces. Some prefer to experience traditions and plan their visit to coincide with events such as Holy Week, when the city is resplendent in its devotion. Others take advantage of the mild climate for an ideal winter city break.
It may be a thriving, modern city, with museums, music festivals and one of the largest technological hubs in Europe, but Malaga’s origins go back to Phoenician times. Evidence of human settlements can be dated back to then, when the site was known as Malaka and was already an important trading port.
Later evidence of the Romans in Malaga can be seen through the well-preserved theatre, which sits just below the Alcazaba fortress. The theatre was discovered in 1951, when work was taking place on the gardens of the Casa de la Cultura that then stood on the site. Workers unearthed what was originally believed to be an old city gate and as excavations continued, they realised they were on the site of a Roman outdoor theatre. The building was eventually demolished in 1994 and the theatre was left open as a historical artifact for all to see.
The origins of the Alcazaba, the fortress which stands proudly over the city, are also, in fact, Phoenician, but more of the castle’s history is known from the long Islamic reign of Al-Andalus, from 711 until the Catholic King and Queen, Isabella and Ferdinand, captured the city in 1487.
The Gibralfaro, Malaga’s other, higher, Moorish castle, was built to defend the city, but it eventually proved not strong enough when Malaga became one of the last cities to be reconquered by the Christians.
Malaga’s cathedral, known as La Manquita (one-armed woman) as it only has one tower, was built on the site of a mosque, eventually becoming the Christian place of worship it is today.
During the Spanish Civil War, Malaga was largely Republican and many religious places and iconography were destroyed.
Thousands fled the city in an attempt to escape the aerial bombardments signalling the capture of the city by Franco’s fascists. While there are few testaments to this dark period, the photographs taken by the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, or the memoir, My House In Malaga, written by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, provide stark insights into what happened.
Malaga has always retained a very Spanish feel, even with the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of this grand European city. With more modern international coffee franchises opening up, ‘Malagueños’ are fiercely proud of their unique coffee tradition.
Look out for posters that will help you to order just the right amount of caffeine in your cup in the traditional Malagueño way; from a ‘nube’, (a ‘cloud’ or splash of coffee and a lot of milk) to a ‘solo’ (no milk).
On the subject of Malaga drinking institutions, Bodega Bar el Pimpi on Calle Granada has been serving Malaga’s famous sweet wines and serrano ham since 1971, seeing an endless stream of national and international celebrities, among them Sean Connery, pass through its doors. As well as photos of its famous visitors, the walls are lined with old Malaga fair posters, from as early as the late 1800s, as well as old bullfighting posters, providing a glimpse of the fascinating history of two of Spain’s biggest traditions.
Along the Alameda Principal another sweet wine institution is La Antigua Casa de Guardia, where waiters serve a variety of different local wines straight from the barrel and keep tabs by writing in chalk on the wooden bar.
Malaga has reinvented itself to become a modern, vibrant city with culture at its heart. When museums including the branch of Paris’ Centre Pompidou on Muelle Uno, the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), the Picasso and Thyssen opened up, they brought with them a cultural revolution. Now entire districts, such as Soho, are given over to some of the best street art in Europe. This is also where Malaga’s own Hollywood star Antonio Banderas runs a theatre named after the area, Teatro del Soho, showing award-winning musicals to sellout audiences.
The city’s lively vibe extends along the harbour, Muelle Uno, which connects the city to the sea, with restaurants, funky bars and shopping opportunities to suit all tastes, from boutique shops to market stalls.
A short walk connects the harbour to the popular Malagueta beach, which heralds the start of a wide variety of restaurants or ‘chiringuitos’ to indulge in the Costa del Sol’s most typical dishes: ‘pescaíto frito (fried fish) and sardines grilled on skewers, known as ‘espetos’. Chiringuitos stretch along the beaches to the eastern neighbourhoods of Pedregalejo and El Palo.
Christmas is the perfect time to visit Malaga; the city famously spends millions of euros on its Christmas decorations and the centre is lit up by a stunning light display.
On 5 January towns and cities throughout Spain organise ‘cabalgatas’, or parades, welcoming the Magi, or ‘reyes magos’ who brought gifts to the baby Jesus at Epiphany, and Malaga is no exception.
Semana Santa, or Holy Week, the week leading up to and including Easter weekend, is possibly Malaga’s biggest, most symbolic and impressive festival. ‘Tronos’, or enormous floats, bearing larger-than-life images of the Virgin Mary and Christ are carried through the streets of Malaga, day and night, to the sound of trumpets and drums in an ostentatious display of devotion.
Malaga’s annual Feria (fair) takes place mid-August when during the day the city centre is packed, while in the evening and late into the night, the partying continues on the fairground on the outskirts of the city when locals and visitors alike meet with friends and family to dance, eat and drink.
There is no best time of year to visit Malaga, as there’s always something happening.