GIVEN the number of Irish tourists who flock to the Costa del Sol every year, it’s a safe bet that many of you reading this will have been to Malaga at some point, if only to be bussed from the airport to a nearby resort, along with many of the 16 million passengers who used the city as a gateway to southern Spain in 2016.
With that volume of people passing through, it’s no wonder Malaga’s mayor, Francisco de la Torre, spotted an opportunity to draw some of them into the city.
Under his watch this once tired port town has seen massive investment and a concerted effort to transform Malaga — birthplace of Picasso — into a chic cultural hub.
Several million euro later, it’s hard to argue the facelift hasn’t worked. The Malaga of 2017 is an architecturally charming, culturally rich destination; compact, walkable, filled with attractions and blessed with year-round sunshine, it’s a shopper, an art-lover and a foodies’ paradise, and the perfect spot for a romantic city break or a girlie weekend away.
Packed with galleries, anchored by a striking 15th century cathedral, watched over by a 12th century Alcazaba locals claim could have rivaled Granada’s Alhambra in its day, and boasting a brand spanking new waterfront promenade, the new Malaga is spotless and shiny — sometimes eerily so — but the bustling old town feels both vibrant and characterful, thanks largely to a thriving food scene and a nightlife best observed from one of the city’s busy rooftop terrace bars.
In a huge coup for the city, Malaga is home to a small but nicely curated Pompidou Centre (admission €7), which houses a rotating selection of the famous Parisian museum’s contemporary art treasures, all located beneath an illuminated glass cube that’s the jewel in the crown of the redeveloped harbour area.
If you fancy a bit of gallery-hopping, the Picasso museum (admission €8) is just a five minute walk away, traversing the lovely Paseo Parque and heading into the winding, narrow (inexplicably shiny) streets of Malaga’s old town.
Housed in the Palacio de Buenavista — a pretty courtyard building that exemplifies 16th century Andalusian architecture with its blend of Renaissance and Mudéjar details — the museum is home to a collection that gives a solid overview of Picasso’s life’s work.
Do yourself a favour and skip the overly didactic audio guide — wander through and let the work speak for itself.
If the Old Masters are more your taste, the Museo Carmen Thyssen is a stone’s throw away, but if you’re happy to keep it contemporary, a 10-minute walk — crossing the elegant main shopping street, Calle Marqués de Larios, with its high street favourites like & Other Stories and COS — will take you into the ‘Soho’ art district.
Boasting countless independent galleries, not to mention dozens of street art projects (sanctioned and otherwise), the must-see here sits on the banks of the Guadalmedina river — the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, or CAC Malaga (admission free).
This vast, hangar-like space showcases contemporary Andalucian art alongside an impressive permanent collection that includes Andy Warhol, Bill Viola, and Anish Kapoor, and temporary exhibits from equally renowned international artists.
The official tourist map of Malaga reveals the city is home to no fewer than 36 museums, dedicated to everything from wine to cars to football, so if you’re desperate for something to get you off its sunny streets, you’ll have no shortage of options.
If, however, you’re of the opinion that sunny streets were made for wandering, the warren of attractive laneways that make up Malaga’s old town won’t disappoint.
Dotted with tapas bars, gourmet ice cream parlours and cute cafés, opportunities for people watching abound.
At the heart of the old town, the cathedral — known as ‘The One-Armed Lady’ because of its unfinished south tower — is worth a visit for the intriguing blend of gothic, baroque and neoclassical influences on display in its interior.
If you’re up for a more strenuous stroll, the walk up to the aforementioned Alcazaba offers gorgeous gardens and a stripped back taste of the splendour of Andalucia’s Moorish palaces; while further up the hill (though, annoyingly, you have to come down and go back up again), you’ll find panoramic views of the city from the 10th century fortress, Castillo de Gibralfaro.
An alternative way to discover the city is to do Malaga by mouth. Both the modern, flashy harbour area and the old town are riddled with restaurants.
If the former doesn’t seem like it’s about to throw any gastronomic delights your way, El Palmeral — the first establishment you meet on the marina — is a pleasant surprise.
Their fried aubergine with molasses is delicious, and a regional speciality; if you don’t try it here, you’ll find it on the menu at a host of more traditional spots in the old town — including the legendary El Pimpi on Calle Granada, loved by celebrities, locals and tourists alike.
To uncover some hidden foodie gems, a tour with Spain Food Sherpas (spainfoodsherpas.com) is highly recommended. You’ll spend a few hours in the company of a guide who is as passionate about food as they are knowledgeable about Malaga’s culinary credentials.
After visiting some traditional ‘ultramarinos’ (grocery stores), and sampling regional delicacies at the very photogenic Mercado Atarazanas food market, we finished our tour at the delightfully idiosyncratic La Recova tapas bar, just off Calle San Juan.
Part antique store, part craft gallery, part rustic food haven, here you can enjoy a simple but delicious breakfast of coffee, toast, sliced tomatoes, and a platter of homemade jams and spreads for an astonishing €2.40.
It was the perfect final stop before we departed for the airport, joining thousands of other passengers leaving Malaga, and hoping at least some of them had enjoyed a little taste of what this charming city has to offer.
Aer Lingus and Ryanair operate direct flights from Dublin, and Ryanair flies from Cork to Malaga, with prices as low as €100 return.