5 great things to do on the Costa del Sol

Your guide to some of the very best places to go and things to see on your next visit to the Costa del Sol region.

By Andy Stevens

Published 9 May 2024

Perched above a vast gorge and flanked by river valleys, the initial question you might ask yourself on seeing Ronda for the first time could well be: "How on earth did they do that?"

Ronda's location - and it's some location - is a triumph over geography and geology at the epicentre of the wild Serrania de Ronda mountain range.

The city's three bridges are Ronda's most compelling man-made feat in taming its vertiginous environment, which leaves a deep impression on the visitor.

The most impressive - and most photographed - of these is the Puento Nuevo; an 18th century linkspan of the highest drama 100 metres above the chasm, offering a perfectly precarious spot to snap away at the grand mountains beyond.

On a slightly less precipitous vantage point either side of the magnificent Puento Nuevo you'll find Ronda's old and new towns, revealing the city's unique pleasures that are palatial, historic and pastoral in equal measure.

Moorish influence is pretty much a staple of older Andalusian towns and cities. It's there in abundance in Ronda, with its 13th century Arab bathhouse and the 14th century palace, the Palacio de Mondragon, which these days serves as the city's museum.

Nature lovers will be delighted by Mondragon's stately gardens, and also by the Jardines de Cuenca, which cling on spectacular terraces along the city's ever-dominant gorge, these latter gardens named after the city of Cuenca, a place of uncanny geographical similarity in Spain's distant interior, a couple of hours south of Madrid.

The serene picture-book Mediterranean town of Nerja has a bit of a hidden secret. Well, it was a secret until a mere 60 or so years ago; not even the blink of an eye in geological terms, especially where Nerja's superlative-redefining caves are concerned.

Las Cuevas de Nerja are now a must-see and supremely popular sight for visitors to this delightful town. And the caves have been racking up records since they were accidentally revealed to the world in 1959.

Here are two of those superlatives which set Las Cuevas de Nerja apart from any old cave system: they are home to what is still reputedly the world's tallest stalagmite (yes, they're the ones that go up), coming in at 32 metres high, and 13m by 7m at ground level.

But undoubtedly the most significant discovery in Las Cuevas are Neanderthal cave paintings, carbon-dated at somewhere between 43,500 and 42,300 years old, making them the oldest known cave paintings in the world.

The discovery of the caves by some inquisitive local boys is commemorated in a sculpture at Nerja's Balcon de Europa, the town's stunning viewing panorama area, where people promenade and much of the main daily action happens.

And in a region where outstanding views in dramatic settings can be sought out with just a shortish trip and a little sense of adventure, visitors to Nerja must take a little journey beyond the town to see the Acueducto del Aguilar (Eagle Aqueduct), a feat of incredible 19th century engineering and a source of huge pride to Andalusians.

The Costa del Sol's main city of Malaga has suffered a little bit of 'turn right' syndrome when tourists leave its airport and head for the well-known coastal resorts towards Marbella and beyond.

Next time you're in your hire car, do yourself a favour and take a left to sample the many joys of this relatively compact and captivating city, including its great cathedral, Roman amphitheatre, the brooding Moorish hilltop fortresses of Castillo de Gibralfaro and the Alcazaba and, down by the water, Malaga's historic food market.

Did someone say food? Happily, yes. Malaga's central market, Atarazanas, is an absorbing foodie heaven that will have you mooching happily in wonder at the wares on offer, while building up an appetite for some seriously tempting fresh snacks.

Atarazanas boasts no fewer than 260 fresh food stalls, whose bright displays of the freshest finery are matched by an inspirational renovation of a grand building which once served as Malaga's shipyard in a previous life.

It has been a market since 1879, and you'll note echoes of Paris' famous Les Halles in its design origins, plus a beautiful stained glass window which has been added in recent years.

There's a distinct nod to the culinary joys of Morocco among many of the stalls, where olives, dates, dried fruits and nuts vie for your attention alongside tempting pastilla pies of meats, almonds and cinnamon.

And Malaga's main market's bars are a singular thrill in themselves for fine local fare and the requisite people-watching. Just pull up a stool and watch the world go by over fresh fried shrimps, octopus or Iberian pork loin to name but three specialities, washed down with a full-bodied local beer.

No visit to Malaga is complete without some kind of homage to the singular genius of Pablo Picasso. And one of great artist's wishes was that his work should find a permanent exhibition space in his home city.

Picasso's museum in Malaga is, appropriately enough, just a couple of minutes' walk from where he was born (follow signs for 'Museo Casa Natal') on Plaza de la Merced, which is also a popular place on the visitor trail for Picasso lovers to explore.

The lovingly-restored 16th century Palacio de Buenavista, in Malaga's historic central district, provides a suitable home for a museum dedicated to the life and works of the Andalusian city's most revered son.

And the museum's devotion to creating a collection worthy of the great man is impressive thanks to the generosity of the Picasso family; it now houses more than 200 of the prolific artist's works, plus regular temporary exhibitions.

Benalmadena is, of course, one of the string of long-established sun, sea and sangria resorts which pepper the Costa del Sol shoreline.

But just as Fuengirola has its whitewashed Mijas nestling nearby in its hills, so Benalmadena has its unexpected delights beyond the admittedly pleasurable regime of bars, boats and bronzey-bronzey.

La Paloma Park provides a pleasing oasis of green, perfect for kicking back on a day of relaxation, with time to take in the simple joys of well-tended landscape gardens, a lake, waterfalls and a few gentle domesticated animals who call the place home.

If you're curious to see what the mountains behind the town have to offer (answer: incredible views, far and wide) then you can take a ride on a cable car for further upward exploration.

And this might surprise, or indeed, enlighten you: this holiday resort is where you will find Europe's largest Buddhist monument, the Benalmadena Stupa. This bold, gold-domed, white monument can be seen from far and wide, and affords similarly spectacular views from where it stands.

The stupa includes paintings by Himalayan artists depicting the life of the Buddha, and as a place of contemplation and serenity away from the melee of daily life, it more than performs its desired function.

Take a holiday to Costa del Sol for sunshine and sophistication.

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