Eight Magnificent Cities to Visit in the South Region of Spain –Costa del Sol
Back then, before we knew what the word COVID meant and the disruption that it caused the world, I had taken a 12-day road trip through La Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun or Sun Coast) a region in the south of Spain comprising of coastal towns and communities along the coastline. We visited eight cities….loving its people, its culture, and its history. I plan to go back to Spain and travel to the northern side of this awe-inspiring country in the near future. If you are interested in traveling to Spain, here are my favorite places with tips and photos to hopefully inspire you to GO soon.
Most Important Tip: If you really want to explore all of La Costa de Sol you need a car. In fact, you need to hire a car (same as renting a car) preferably from a local company, much cheaper than Alamo or Hertz. When you make the reservation, request an automatic unless you can drive a stick shift. Automatic transmission cars are not as available. The cities that we visited are all 1- 3 hours away driving thru narrow and mountainous roads. Buses are an option for selected cities, but they are not cheap. The views are magnificent, but it takes time to go from one place to another scheduled around Spain’s siesta time when many businesses are closed for a couple of hours. Let’s begin this tour….
Charming Estepona, Costa Del Sol
Arriving at Malaga Airport, we drove to the nearby beach town of Estepona and stayed at a Moroccan style castle situated on a cliff nearby. The Old Town section of this 13-mile coastal community is beyond charming. Its laid-back Andalusian style with a bit of modernization but remaining true to its 14th-18th century historic roots makes you want to cash in all that you have and move here. This is a walkable community with over 100 quaint streets; the ocean being its major landmark. (None of the over-the-top boardwalk cheesy commercialization that you see on the US coast). The architecture and streetscape have been restored to its past similar to both Old San Juan and Old Havana but are more colorful with a preference for white walls, native plants, colorful flowerpots and terracotta roofs. It is a relief to walk on tile sidewalks with flat cobble streets that won’t destroy your high heels or your ankles.
The Spanish are known for their love of plazas— small open green spaces for enjoying the outdoors and taking life easy. This small town has about 10 plazas of every size named after leaders, saints, and nature. Eating here is a past-time as restaurants, café and tapa bars get ready for the evening. Dining is mostly outside, with many of the streets near the shore open to pedestrians seeking the best spot to dine and enjoy the ocean warm breeze.
The town is known for its 30+ gigantic murals referred to as “La Ruta de los Murales” a two-hour walk with its own colorful map for you to find them. It also houses an Orchids Dome, consider one of the largest in Spain — (and who doesn’t love orchids). ⠀⠀⠀
Historic Malaga, Costa Del Sol
Malaga is both a city and a province. The word Malaga, when settled by the Phoenicians, means salted fish. Once, a busy trading port during Roman times, occupied by the Moors, and then later by the Catholics who pushed out the Moorish population by the mid-16th century, losing much of the city’s fortunes. Over time, both agriculture and tourism became its revival.
The province is extremely mountainous with the coast at its fringes and curvy roads. Malaga, the city is quite urban — gritty, dusty and crowded. A pedestrian city where its downtown is also a residential community. The old historic district has been completely restored, and it is amazing. The district entrance is an open red door sculpture that leads into a festival marketplace of beautifully historic restored buildings with every type of retail you can imagine. In the historic district, there are over 20+ monuments and museums. Time was not on our side, so we focused on the cathedral and one museum. Strongly suggest you give yourself two days if you want to fully become entrenched in Malagain history. A must is the Cathedral worth the 6 Euros. I don’t think I have ever been inside a church this big and so magnificent. (Almost makes one want to attend mass). Built on the site of a mosque dating back from the 16th century, with several modifications along the way, this amazing structure has a combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque mixed within its architectural design. It has about 20 significantly large chapels, each distinct and just stunning. The craftsmanship is indescribable.
Gorgeous Granada – The Alhambra, Costa Del Sol
We rose at 4:00 am to get to Granada by 8:30 AM to go see the Alhambra, a three-hour drive through winding roads with very little lighting and no sunrise until 8:00 am. By now some of you may wander what the heck is the Alhambra that is worth this long arduous drive. The Alhambra is the royal ancient city built by the Moors later captured by the Catholics during the violent wars of the 13th-14th centuries when Muslim rule end in Spain but not without leaving their imprint. The remains of this once ancient city inhabited by the sultans and the monarchs of these two religions are considered one of the most important architectural structures of Islamic art. You must buy tickets online to get in.
The Generalife, the gardens where the royals relaxed, are surrounded by these tall and slim, beautiful cypress trees and these emerald, green hedge shrubs that were shaped like squares with the center carved out to see or walk through. The interior of the garden contains an elongated pond with water lilies and just about every kind of flower, along with the intoxicating scent of Jasmin. It is amazingly peaceful, giving one a feeling of tranquility magnified by its beauty.
From there we went to visit the palaces of Nazaries and Carlos V and then the Alcazaba, the fortress where battles were won and lost. Interesting fact, the Spaniards consider the capture of this royal city a major victory and possession to have until the discovery of America. The Palace of Charles V was built later to accommodate a place that met all the Spanish emperor’s comforts and of his family. Of special interest to me was the tiling and arabesque designs of the buildings, specifically the walls where you see both Islamic and Christian influences competing for your attention. From the top of almost any location, you can see most of the city of Granada.
Splashy Marbella and Awe-Inspiring Mijas – Costa Del Sol
We visited two coastal towns that are about 30 minutes from each other starting with Marbella. I was in Marbella in 2001 after the attack on the twin towers and to my surprise I found the place a bit over-developed. It remains the preferred resort of celebrities and the rich, known for its golf courses and nightlife (none which I took advantage of). The boardwalk reminded me a bit of Florida beach towns. We walked the beach and the Boardwalk and headed to the historic town for lunch and shopping. The old town section consisting of two historic quarters is small, mostly white structures, lots of flowers and native plants adorning the walls. Super charming, with narrow cobbled streets, full of wonderful and trendy outdoor dining, boutiques, and shops. The town layout has been preserved dating back from the 16th century when it was under Arab rule. Arab influence is everywhere, especially in the architecture, tiles, and fabrics. Hands down, the historic town is the best part of Marbella unless you prefer the beach.
From there, we drove up a steep mountain to Mijas Pueblo, a true gem of a community. Here we met up with a Face-Booker friend (Maggie) who gave us a tour of this enchanting town. Mijas is part of a group of white villages mostly located in the mountainside that are referred to as “pueblos blancos “(every structure is white). The town has preserved its traditional Andalusian history and festive lifestyle. We arrived at the end of the siesta and was able to see how this community came alive with families stepping out to dine enjoying the cool mountain breeze until late in the evening. The community offers horse-drawn carriage rides and donkey taxis. Tourism is a big part of its economy, attracting many foreigners as an ideal place to retire. When visiting I recommend you get there early before the siesta and possibly spend the day. The place will definitely make you think about all the unnecessary pressures we impose on ourselves.
Bohemian Tarifa and Captivating Vejer, Costa Del Sol
Tarifa, is a beach town at the very southern tip of Spain, facing North Africa. This is where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet creating powerful wind conditions, which has created one of the largest wind turbine farms in Spain. It is also a popular spot for windsurfers and kite surfers. This was the first city in history to charge merchants for using its port (tariff) hence the name. As expected, there’s quite a bit of Moorish influence, including the gateway to the historic city, a castle, and a fortress. The Moors were a powerful presence in the southern peninsula and has made me curious to learn how the Spaniards were able to conquer and push them out. Curious to know of a book or film that tells this story accurately.
In its present form, Tarifa is a major draw for many young folks throughout Europe interested in wind sports and the beach. There are several hostels and camping grounds giving the place a bohemian beach vibe. We had lunch and took a stroll through the historic section of the city and later at the beach to see the wind surfers, both colorful and impressive as was the beach.
We were near another Pueblo Blanco (white village) in the mountainside known as Vejer. By the time we got there, it was already siesta time, and the place was pretty quiet. The streets here are very narrow and hard to drive through. Best to park your car and walk. This town has a population of 7,500 and has less of a tourist following, allowing the place to be more authentic—- feeling like you are back in time 100 years ago. The siesta remains an important lifestyle for these towns and most of Spain. Practically everything closes from two to five. Days here are much longer with daylight ending after 8 pm when the weather is cooler, and it’s time for chow. Dinner is generally from 8 to 10 pm. Most interesting part about their eating schedule is that they don’t seem to have an obesity problem like we do in the US.
Seductive Seville, Costa Del Sol
Seville was first a Roman city, then Muslim and finally Spanish, where it became a center of economic power by using its port for transcontinental trade. By the way, Seville is the warmest city in Europe due to its location. We arrived at the historic district of Seville in the neighborhood of Macarena (yes, just like the dance) having booked a nice studio thru Airbnb. Prior to leaving, I have been struggling with a nasal infection that was becoming more difficult to manage. We decided to have an early dinner and head out to the hospital. Coming face to face with Spain’s health care system was a pleasant experience. I had two young female doctors check my vitals and assure me I had nothing severe. They prescribed a stronger decongestion. My prescription cost me $5.00 without an insurance plan. I am pretty sure these folks don’t know what the word deductible means, and I am happy for the people of Spain that they don’t.
The Macarena neighborhood is surrounded with tapa bars, cafés, and local market stores (no souvenir shops here) giving the place a real authentic vibe of daily living by Spaniards with its wrought-iron balconies and its many churches. In the downtown district, we visited the Cathedral Giralda and the Alcazar Real which are near each other. The Alcazar’s interior and gardens has been preserved and used in the series Games of Thrones and other films. The Interior of the Cathedral Giralda is no comparison to Malaga but worth seeing. The architecture surrounding the plaza complements both these sites in its grandeur and historical significance. Seville has over 40+ monuments and historical sites. Lots of historic churches and religious festivals. Too many sites to see in a couple days. Choose what most interest you and move on.
Seville is known for its tapas bars, nightlife and flamenco dancing. Tapas dishes are pretty generous, at times a bit salty, lots of fish (some I never heard of). We purchased tickets to see an authentic flamenco dance. There are flamenco shows every day, but many are not good. Two of the very best are Los Gallos and Tableo El Arenal. The “Sevillanas “folk song and flamenco dancing have its origins in this city. We chose El Arenal with tapas and it did not disappoint. The singing is a combination of song, yodeling, praying, clapping, and stomping accompanied by a guitar with so much intensity. The stumping, spinning, the grace, the passion and athleticism of each dancer’s footwork was truly hypnotic. Best show ever!
Spain will always be one of my favorite places to have visited and I look forward to returning to Madrid and heading north. I have included 30 photos listed in the same order as my stories, although I have so many more. I hope they inspire you to travel with a friend, solo or as part of a tour group. There will be no regrets.
Don’t forget to click the center of the photos for a full view.
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Our feature photos taken by Grizel Ubarry are available for sale as notecards with inspirational quotes. Ideal for scribbling messages of thanks, greetings from your travels or just to stay in touch. These five note cards are beautifully printed on high quality paper packaged in a silk drawstring pouch also perfect as a gift. Click Here