Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection
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The Cathedral of Málaga towers over the city.

Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection

Beyond Barcelona: A weekend on Málaga’s magical coast

Find bright beaches, fresh seafood, and Pablo Picasso in this vibrant Mediterranean city.

Overtourism has overtaken the grand avenues of Barcelona and the ancient alleys of Madrid. For a charming alternative to these popular destinations, head to Málaga, Spain’s sixth largest city, which offers a taste of Andalusia and its unique landscapes, gastronomy, and architecture.

Thanks to its busy international airport, which handles traffic for the entire Costa del Sol, Málaga is easily accessible—and an ideal stop for a long weekends. Admire the works of Pablo Picasso, wander the awe-inspiring Alcazaba, and savor fresh seafood on sun-drenched beaches. Here’s how to explore this jewel on the Mediterranean.

Saturday: Picasso and paella

Down at the Plaza de la Merced, early-rising Malagueños enjoy breakfast surrounded by piles of Spanish novels in the buzzing Café con Libros—a themed café located in the shadow of Pablo Picasso’s childhood home. Start your day with an order of pitufos (miniature loaves of fresh, warm bread stuffed with tomatoes), cheese, or jamón serrano (cured ham).

The nearby Palacio de Buenavista, the 16th-century building where Picasso was born, is now home to the Museo Picasso, which hosts 285 works by Spain’s most iconic artist. There’s plenty of history underfoot, too. Beneath the Andalusian tiles are the ruins of the Phoenician culture that established the city of Malaka in the eighth century B.C., making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. A visit to the archaeological exhibit in the basement gives visitors a fascinating view of the city’s origins.

Málaga’s Phoenician, Roman, and Moorish history is also on display throughout the city. Take a five-minute walk from the Museo Picasso, through the ancient 220-seat Teatro Romano amphitheater, and then up to the immaculately well-preserved Alcazaba, a sprawling Moorish military fortress.

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This legacy of cultural exchange is also captured in Málaga’s unique food culture, which combines the land and sea in a burst of flavors. For the best local produce and recipes, head to the monumental Mercado de Atarazanas, a 19th-century hall filled with bustling crowds who stand shoulder to shoulder while ordering plates of Malagueño specialties. Order the vibrant seafood paella, thick with loose-skinned tomatoes and musky Arabian saffron. And don’t miss the conchas finas: fresh clams soused in a Spanish-style garlic butter, which is flavored with parsley and local sherry.

Sunday: Cathedrals and coastline

For the residents of Málaga, Sundays are days for strolling through the city, sitting on the beach, and dining on fresh seafood. Start your day with a visit to the Cathedral of Málaga, which locals affectionately call La Manquita (the one-armed woman). It’s a mixture of classical fluted columns, Gothic towers, and lavish interiors. Tours of the building, including a rooftop walk, can be arranged directly through the cathedral. Outside, the bell tower rings out over the neighborhood, and you can purchase gastronomic souvenirs like the Tarta Malagueña, a famous Andalusian spice cake made from almonds, fruit, and wine.

Next, head to the port to soak in the city’s impressive coastal landscape, dominated to the north by the Montes de Málaga, a green-and-dun massif that twinkles with white haciendas and flashes of purple bougainvillea. The brightly colored Centre Pompidou, a giant plexiglass outpost of Paris’s famous art gallery, complements the harbor’s natural hues. On Sundays, the port is packed with market stalls filled with handmade jewelry, vintage clothing, and regional produce, including lightbulb-shaped jars of golden honey, which is locally harvested and studded with Andalusian almonds.

The port is also the beginning of Playa de la Malagueta, the gray-brown beach that runs east for four miles towards the beach area of El Chanquete. On Sundays, all of Málaga comes out to walk, jog, scoot, and cycle this dazzling section of the Costa del Sol. Look out for the small, refurbished boats lining the shore that have been converted into barbecues for grilling fresh catch. Stop at the beachfront Andres Maricuchi, where you can savor the traditional espeto, grilled sardines with sea salt.

If there’s one food experience in the city that’s worth traveling the five miles to El Chanquete, it’s El Tintero. While the long walk up the quiet beach is like drawing in breath, this hectic, supermarket-sized seafood restaurant is a bellow of release. Don’t expect anything as conventional as a menu; the waiters simply stroll around carrying platters of whatever is freshest from the kitchen. It’s up to the bravest diners to decide what they like before another hungry soul waylays the parading server first. El Tintero is a fundamentally Spanish way of enjoying food when surrounded by friends and family.

Stephen Connolly is a freelance writer based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
This story was adapted from National Geographic Traveller India.