• Danik Bates

Top places to visit in Andalusia, Spain

Updated: May 7

As a regular traveler to Spain, before we came to Málaga we have to admit we weren't that impressed with the big cities. We have done some islands, resorts, beaches, mountain regions etc but before Málaga, we only came across Madrid and Barcelona. They didn’t impress us. When we came to Málaga, we weren’t getting my hopes up high. However the second biggest city in the Andalusia region really did surprise me. Located on Spain’s Costa del Sol with a population of half of million people, this city had it all. Beach, sea, nightlife, culture, dining out, it had charm, it had character and above all, it’s also a great base to be when exploring the surrounding area. We had the pleasure of visiting this city twice and would consider going back for the hat-trick.

Located on the Mediterranean Sea and with a history of over 2,800 years which makes Málaga one of the oldest cities of Europe, we sensed more of a historical aspect to a Spanish city compared to those to the north of the country. Since being founded in the 6th Century BC, the city has been ruled by Romans, Islam, Chrisitians and Phoenicians and whilst exploring the centre of the city, it’s like walking around an open-museum as there is a lot of archaelogical remains and monuments to check out. In recent times, the city is also known for its art scene (check out the Pompidou Center - Centro Pompidou de Malaga, yes! The world famous museum in Paris has a branch in Málaga), as well as being the birthplace of Pablo Picasso (there is also a museum about him in the Old Town). For movie goers, Antonio Banderas was born here as well (we, well Danik really, have to admit, we thought it was from Mexico but hey ho!).

For visitors, the main appeal is that the city has around 300 sunny days a year. This is true, we have been here in the summer months and every day was a sunny day and in December when we came here for a mini-break so that we could run a marathon, every day was sunny. Marvelous. The main airport for the city is located to the north-west and is easy to get to and when you look at the main departures-arrivals board inside, there are a lot of flights to the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. A lot of Northern Europeans come to Málaga. This is because of the areas all year round sunshine and the amazing resorts with its beaches all along the coastline. Málaga is the gateway to the Costa del Sol. However, a lot of those passing through the airport will hit up the resorts and tend to miss this amazing city. Málaga has to be explored and here is what visitors can do and see.

Old Town of Málaga: we loved walking around the cobbled streets, checking out squares, walking down the main shopping street with shades above us. There are plenty of eating options as well as fantastic bars to check out. Check out the Roman amphitheater as well as the oldest remains of the city, which are parts of the city walls which can be found in the cellar of the Picasso museum. Don’t forget to check out the cathedral which was built in the 16th century and has stunning Renaissance architecture.

Gibralfaro Castle: located on top of a 130 meter hill (known as Mount Gibralfaro) which is a Moorish castle and still stands in very good condition to this very day. The fortifications were first laid in 770 BC but the castle we saw on this trip was ramped up in the 14th century. What we loved whilst exploring is the ramparts which overlook everything in the area and we mean everything. Even the tall pine and eucalyptus which grow here. However our favourite thing to do here is to check out the amazing views of Málaga down below. Best time to come is before sunset and check out the sun going down over the Mediterranean and the city.


Alcazaba Fortress: this is probably Málaga’s top landmark to check out. Whilst checking out the fortress, this reminded me of a smaller version of the Alhambra in Granada. Another great place for views, however, take a stroll around the gardens and see the beautiful fountains. A shortcut to get there from the Roman amphitheater is to tackle the steep slopes from there to the fortress or take the elevator from Ayuntamiento de Málaga.

The beaches: there are so many beaches within the city limits however the main one we kept hitting up is the Playa de la Malagueta. It was a little bit busy when we came in the summer months but it's understandable. Short walking distance from the centre, lots of restaurants and bars in the area, golden sands and a calm city (however the water can still be cold here in the hot months due to the closeness of the cold Atlantic Ocean waters which come into the Mediterranean). On the days we weren't exploring the city or road tripping in the region, we would hit up the beach.

Port of Málaga: We know adding a sea port to this guide might sound a bit crazy but after redevelopment many years ago, head to Muelle Uno (Port One), this is a trendy place to hit up especially in the summer months. There are plenty of tapas and cocktail bars amongst others to check out, however walking along the seafront is also a pleasant thing to do. We spent a lot of time here in the early evenings and we had the pleasure to check the place out when it first opened in 2011.

Now after checking out the city, we must say some of the sights in the region have to be checked out. Hire a car or get on board with a tour for the following places. We rented a car for two weeks so we could have the flexibility to do things at our pace. You won’t be disappointed.

Ronda is a small town located over 100km (60 miles) west from Málaga in the Sierra de la Nieves National Park. The drive (which takes about ninety minutes) to Ronda was amazing, there were small mountains, rolling hills, beautiful scenery to see and probably one of the most relaxing drives we have done in the country. Ronda is built on top of the El Tajo Gorge and with the town's white buildings and the surrounding mountain landscape, this is one of the photogenic places we have come across in Spain. When walking around the top of the gorge, every angle for us was a photo opportunity. We didn’t come here just to take good pictures, we were embraced with the local culture, the fine fresh food and wine and loved walking up side streets whilst saying hello to the locals.

The top place to hit up has to be the Puente Nuevo which in English means ‘New Bridge’. However the bridge has stood here since the 18th century so it is not really new now. The bridge goes across the gorge and the Guadalevin river which stands over 100 meters tall. Along the top of the gorge there is the Jardines de Cuenca (the Cuenca Gardens) where there are a few terraces which we caught amazing views of the gorge and the bridge.

In the centre of Ronda on the Plaza del Toros is the Bullring which is one of the oldest in Spain and is known to be the home of the sport. Back in the 1700s the sport was that popular until Francisco Romero gave it a boost somehow and then bullrings popped up all over the country and in Southern France. We don’t like the sport, we think it is totally wrong, however, the bullring itself is a stunning building which has to be checked out.

To the east of Málaga is the resort of Nerja which takes about one hour to drive to. Whilst walking around it just felt like another seaside resort with its shops, beaches, restaurants and we didn’t get the feel of any culture (if any) like the other places we have visited in the region. However on the day trip here we did check out the beach and walked around taking in amazing views of the sea. Don’t get us wrong, if visitors are just looking for a beach, eat, drink and shop, then come to Nerja. However, we are not giving Nerja a bad name. As mentioned earlier, visitors will either come for the sun, sea, sand, food and drink or they will also come and do sightseeing, embrace the culture and create memories. Sounds strange. Well, Nerja for us was the first lot but there is one place which has to be experienced and that is the caves.


The Cuevas de Nerja is one of the most visited places in Southern Spain and with 80,000 years of history, we can see why. Going on a tour and checking out the stalactites and stalagmites was truly breathtaking. Visitors can only explore a third of the caves (it is huge!) but that is just enough to be honest and we think we were down there for over an hour checking out the place. Remember to take a light jumper or jacket as it can get a bit cold down there, even in the summer months when we go.

The resorts of the Costa del Sol are a big draw here for people looking for sand, sun and sea with plenty of food and drink. As British citizens, we just had to check out some of the places along the coastline located to the west of Málaga. One day we took a train to Torremolinos (the train line from Málaga to Fuengirola also goes to the airport, so when arriving at the airport, visitors can take the train either into Málaga or to the resorts like Torremolinos, Churriana and Fuengirola). Now for us, this was the day where we didn’t want culture and history and to just chill on a beach, have greasy food from a cafe nearby and to look for souvenirs at the shops. It was actually enjoyable. We don’t do this often but once in a while it was nice to do.

Another place we hit up for another day by the beach and do nothing is Marbella. We have heard about this resort since we were young children and was a top place for British people to hit up in the 1990s and still is. The town is bigger than Torremolinos, the beaches here are nice, plenty of eating places and shops. However we don’t remember hearing anyone speaking Spanish. It was either Russian or English (and we speak both languages amongst others). We remember seeing some Russian women (who were tourists) walking (or should I say having trouble walking) along the beach in long fashionable dresses whilst wearing stilettos, whilst other European people were in bikinis or next to nothing should we say. Will always carry that memory.

Want to go to another country? Well Morocco is across the sea (and there are tours from Málaga which will take you there for day trips we have been told but we didn’t do this so we can’t advise readers on this), but there is the United Kingdom. Yup, the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar is under a two hour drive away. Since being handed the land by Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, this part of the coastline has been with the United Kingdom ever since (who knows if it will ever return to Spain, god knows). Another popular destination for British people to visit (and easy to get to with flights from the UK), the main place to hit up is the mountain known as The Rock, which has amazing views, hiking trails and monkeys. Down below are a few beaches, shopping experiences and British tea rooms and bars. That didn’t appeal to us but The Rock is an amazing place to hit up so we recommend visitors just to come for this.


The impressive fortress of the Alhambra


We have been to a lot of places around the globe and it is usually the natural sights like mountains, lakes, beaches, ocean which take my breath away but when it comes to man-made places, not so many. However, when exploring the city of Granada in the south of Spain, we came across the Alhambra which is a huge palace perched on a hill overlooking the city. The palace and grounds here really took my breath away and we were amazed by the architecture.

Here’s the history to give some background on this amazing fortress. Built way back in AD 889 on a site where Roman fortifications once stood, the fortress fell into ruins until it was rebuilt in the middle of the 13th century under the command of the Moorish chief Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar to which the current palace and walls still stand to this very day. Since then it has been converted into a royal palace, then overrun by Christians who kicked out the Moorish people and had a bit of a refurbishment on the way, where some of the palace now features some Renaissance style facade and art.

After a while the fortress and palace fell into disrepair again for a few centuries, then some squatters moved in but after the French leader Napoleon came along, had a battle and lost, the locals and the British (who were just passing through) rediscovered the palace and rebuilt it to its former glory. Moving onto the present day, it is now one of Spain’s top attractions to see which shows off a lot of Islamic architecture. The palace and grounds are also on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

Checking out the grounds of the fortress consists of buildings like the Royal Complex, the Courtyard of the Palace of Charles V, Court of Myrtles, Hall of the Ambassadors, the Court of the Lions (with its beautiful fountains), Hall of the Abencerrajes and the Generalife. The following are some of the photos taken whilst walking around the complex.

Nasrid Palace - the main part of the fortress (and probably the first part of the fortress which visitors will come across after entry) which was built for the rulers during their dynasty in the 14th century. Walking around here reminded me that we were flung into the middle east and we were engaged with the Arabesque design. All the walls, rooms, courtyards, hallways, they are beautifully decorated but above all, we just loved checking out the ceilings. Also from most of the windows, we managed to get amazing views overlooking the city down below.


The courtyard of the Palace of Charles V - this is located on the outside of the palace building and we were pretty impressed with the layout and design.


The Partal Palace - this is in another part of the Generalife area of the Alhambra and has many small pools in the garden. This is the perfect place in the summer months to chill out and take in the sun rays or to take a stroll to get away from the urban sprawl of the city of Granada down below.


The Generalife - this was the summer palace for the Nasrid rulers around the 14th century. The highlight has to be the courtyard with the water channel in the middle with flower beds surrounding it. This is the last part of the visit but before leaving, We got to walk through beautiful gardens with lush vegetation. There couldn’t have been a more perfect finish to my visit.

Other parts of the Alhambra we kept coming past other parts of the palaces and beautiful pools to take a wander around. The only downfall we found coming here was that we couldn't go into all the rooms to check out the palace and to see if, for example, the bedrooms were more grandeur than other rooms we saw. However, this palace is to be explored for its outdoor parts. Walking around this stunning fortress on the hilltop in the summer months is purely breathtaking. Sitting on the outside wall of the Generalife, looking out towards the rooftops of Granada down below is one of the top places we have come across in Spain. There are also the nearby mountains which makes the surroundings even more spectacular. If in this region we would totally advise visitors to make a day trip here and explore this beautiful location.

Tips to making a visit to the Alhambra a smooth one


Book tickets online as queues can be long during the months of June to September. Don’t leave it up to the last minute expecting to get tickets, it has been known people have had to book ninety days in advance!


Coming by car, come early as the official parking near the fortress can fill up quite quickly. It's a bit of a walk up the hill if parking at the bottom.


Allow plenty of time to explore the complex. Make sure you book tickets to see everything then you won’t come away disappointed. We would recommend getting here a few minutes before opening times to have the complex mostly to yourself and get those perfect pictures. (Updated: tickets have a four hour time slot to explore the whole area, however check the time on the ticket to which you are allowed in the palaces. Don’t miss this because it is the best part of the visit.


Have good walking shoes as there is plenty of walking to be done (to which there are some uphill paths to overcome). Also have a bottle of water (or two) as Granada is located in one of the hottest parts of Spain during the summer months.

Overall


Ok, there are other places to hit up in the region like Cadiz and Seville but we haven’t been there yet, so when we do, we will tell you all about it. The region has so much to offer and despite the touristy beachy aspects which is a huge draw for Northern European families and sun-seekers, there is a lot of history and culture to embrace. Málaga for us was the ideal base and probably would go back again to use it. As we had a car, all the places in the region were a quick and easy drive due to the highways. Andalusia is one of our favourite regions of Spain and will always be a big draw for us.


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