We arrived in Málaga in the late afternoon, reversing the hour and a half drive to Granada we had just done the day before. Compared with that interior city, the climate of Málaga felt cool and humid—no doubt, thanks to the Mediterranean.

The City of Málaga

Málaga is among the largest and most important cities in Spain. Populated since Phoenician times, it is also among the oldest. Even so, for me the city has a curiously un-Spanish atmosphere. This is due, I think, to the huge numbers of immigrants—from England and Germany, mainly—who live in and near the urban center, as well as the many tourists who stop through on cruises.

Yet this is not to say that the city is not a nice place to visit. Case in point: As soon as we arrived, we walked into the city center and ascended Gibralfaro Hill. This is a somewhat arduous trek, going up ramp after ramp, but you are rewarded with some truly terrific views.

The best vistas are to be found from the walls of Gibralfaro Castle, a fortification that dates back to the city’s Moorish past. Indeed, the history of the castle actually extends much farther back; a natural point of defense, a fortress of some sort has been here for over two thousand years. This castle is connected to a fortress lower-down the hill, the Alcazaba, which was another holdout against Christian conquest. The Catholic Monarchs starved out the defenders in a prolonged siege, which ended in 1487. One can easily see why it took the Christians so long: fortified with double walls, and in a perfectly defensible position, it is a formidable redoubt.

Another worthy historical site is Málaga’s cathedral. Though the building was not finished until 1782 (and arguably not even then, as one tower remains conspicuously incomplete) the church is made in a Renaissance style. Like any worthy cathedral, the place is filled with works of art, some of them quite wonderful. The wooden choir stalls are beautifully carved, there is a lovely neoclassical altarpiece, and hanging on one wall is a monumental painting by Enrique Simonet depicting the beheading of St. Paul. 

But I suspect that most visitors to Málaga don’t come for the historical sites. Rather, they come for the seemingly endless beaches and its endlessly sunny weather. Dotting the shore are a certain type of restaurant called chiringuitos, which are distinguished by the large wooden fire outside, often made atop an old boat that has been filled with sand for the purpose. These are not just decoration: fish are skewered and fire-roasted for the guests.

And this sort of place is very popular among the locals, as my brother and I discovered when we tried to have lunch in Litoral Pacífico without a reservation. There was not a single spare table. Defeated, we drove to Chiringuito Mari Guitiérrez, another well-rated place a little outside of the city center, and did manage to get a table. There, we ordered the most famous regional dish, espetos de sardinas. These are little sardines which have been cooked over the fire.

Being novices in the world of fish and seafood, we were unsure of the correct procedure for this particular fish. Impatient, I decided to eat one whole—tasty, but also a bit crunchy and slimy. My brother, Jay, more observant, saw that the locals ate the fish like corn on the cob, picking the meat off and leaving the spine. I tried another fish that way, and found it considerably better. To round out the order, we have boquerones fritos, which are basically sardines which have been breaded and fried. (You do eat those whole.) It was a very fishy meal.

But the best part of eating at a chiringuito is, undoubtedly, the fact that you can lounge on the beach and go swimming right after you finish. And that is just what we did.

At this point, I would like to make a general observation about Spanish food. Virtually every region—sometimes every city—has its own culinary specialty that the locals are very proud of. Nevertheless, once you try a few of these famous local dishes, you realize that these are mostly just variations on a basic theme. For example, in Málaga we were advised to have “pitufos,” which we discovered was just a sort of toast with crushed tomato—a dish consumed all over the country—but with a slightly different type of bread. We were also advised to get gambas pil pil. But when the dish was served, we found that it was identical to the commonly served gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic in olive oil), except for the addition of a few red pepper flakes.

If I sound like I am complaining, I can assure you I’m not, since all of these dishes and variations are delicious.

There is a lot to see and do in the city of Málaga. But as we spent much of our time visiting nearby towns, we unfortunately did not see many of the city’s attractions.

We did manage to make it to the Automobile and Fashion museum. It is a rather long walk from the city center, but accessible with the urban buses. When we arrived, we were greeted by about a dozen young people wearing strange clothes, who were arranged in the walkway in front of the building—apparently, models in training.

As a person who has virtually no knowledge of, or interest in, fashion, I really cannot say anything about the fashion side of this museum. But as somebody who knows nothing about, but can at least appreciate a cool-looking car, I can give the automobiles my blessings. The collection of odd and historic cars is quite impressive. There are examples of some of the first commercially available automobiles; enormous luxury cars with plush interiors; sleek sports cars; and some novelty vehicles, such as a car with a propeller or one designed to run on solar power. Though there were little informational plaques about the vehicles, it was more pleasant just to wander from specimen to specimen, to witness how something as familiar as a car can take so many different forms.

Mariposario and Mijas

On one of our days in Málaga we got into the rental car and made our way to the Mariposario de Benalmadéna, a butterfly sanctuary a short drive from the city.

When we parked the car, however, we could not help but notice the very large and odd structure nearby. This is the Stupa of Enlightenment, a 33 meter (108 ft) tall Buddhist shrine that has a commanding view over the landscape. According to the website, this stupa is the largest “in the Western world.” As far as I can tell, this is actually true—the only competition coming from the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, in Colorado, which is about the same height—though it is not, for my money, among the most beautiful examples of the genre. To enlighten you a little further, I will add that this stupa was completed in 2003 and consecrated by a high-ranking Tibetan lama.

Visible from the base of the Stupa is another odd monument, the Castillo de Colomares. This is the brainchild of one Esteban Martín, a doctor by profession, who decided to design and build a huge monument to Christopher Colombus. And while that explorer is no longer in such high repute, one must admit that this eccentric homemade castle is rather impressive. For some reason, this castle is the site of the smallest church in the world, with a total area just shy of 2 square meters (just over 21 square feet). 

These silly buildings are interesting enough. But I think the real star of this area is the butterfly sanctuary. After paying the entry fee, you walk through heavy plastic flaps, and enter a tropical world—hot, humid, and full of exotic plants. Signs warn you to be careful where you step, so as not to accidentally crush any of the inhabitants. The air is teeming with life. Bright wings are continuously flapping all around you. The butterflies range in size from a postage stamp to a paperback book, and come in every color and pattern imaginable, some with long, slender wings, others with wings like flower petals.

To be honest, I had never taken much time to appreciate butterflies before this visit. But spending time with these harmless, dainty creatures was almost therapeutic. And butterflies weren’t the only animals on display: the sanctuary also had tortoises, exotic birds, and a wallaby.

After that, we went to the town of Mijas, which is right next door. This is a typical whitewashed Andalusian village, with excellent views of the Costa del Sol. We did our best to explore the village and to enjoy the vistas, but the tremendous afternoon heat was not conducive to calm enjoyment. So, after a short walk, we found a restaurant with air conditioning and chugged down a few glasses of water with our meal. Then, it was back to Málaga.


Arguably the best day trip from Málaga is the small town of Nerja. We had our rental car, but I know from a previous visit that it is fairly easy to get to by bus.

On the day we visited, we headed immediately to the caves. These are located in the outskirts of the city—admittedly a fairly long walk if you arrived on the bus, but still doable. They are certainly worth the trouble of visiting. They are magnificent. After making your way through a few smaller chambers, you emerge into a series of caverns, each one bigger than the last. Elevated walkways make the visit quite easy to navigate, despite the slippery surfaces and dim light. The rock formations are wonderful—undulating, folding, melting, seeming almost alive.

It seems that earlier—much earlier—humans also found the place captivating, as the cave was used over thousands of years. There are cave paintings (in an area inaccessible to the visitor) made by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, as well as the remains of domestic animals, textiles, and pottery from later agricultural humans. Apparently, the cave was still used by locals up until the Middle Ages, but at some point knowledge of the cave was lost. It was rediscovered by a group of 5 locals in 1959 who, for whatever reason, decided to go catch some bats. For any visitors curious to learn more, I recommend the Cave Museum, located in the center of Nerja.

The skeleton found in the caves.

The cave thoroughly explored, we made our way into town, passing on our way the Acueducto del Águila, an enormous aqueduct made in the ancient Roman style, but constructed in the 19th century. We parked the car and had lunch in a restaurant called Dolares El Chispa. I imagine that it is a pretty crowded spot in normal times. Traveling in the wake of a global emergency, however, we almost had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed a feast of fish and seafood. Spanish cuisine at its finest.

Any visitor to Nerja will soon end up in the Balcony of Europe, an imposing viewpoint over the surrounding coastline. The name of this jutting cliff was given by the much-beloved king, Alfonso XII, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 27, but who still presides over his balcony in the form of a metal statue. Nearby are the town’s gorgeous beaches. Unfortunately, we had neglected to bring our swimsuits.

Me and the king.

On the way back to Málaga we stopped, briefly, at another beautiful village: Frigiliana. This is another very popular day trip from the city, and it is easy to see why. Frigiliana is a classic whitewashed Andalusian village, nestled on a mountain ridge. We arrived at the hottest part of the day, however, and only withstood about 10 minutes of walking around under the afternoon sun before we returned to the car. So I will leave this part to be filled in by you, dear reader.

The town of Frigiliana

2 thoughts on “Summertime in Andalucía: Málaga and Surroundings

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