Looking to experience the best that Spain has to offer? Look no further than the Costa del Sol. Located in Andalusia, this region is home to some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean. It’s where Old Towns meet luxury beach resorts; and sprawling cities like Marbella meet historic fishing villages. There are so many things to do in Costa del Sol, but which are the best? Read below to find out!
With perfect weather year-round, it’s no wonder that this stretch of coastline translates to “sun coast” in English. There are parts that are urban and developed and other parts that are more rustic and historic – offering a unique juxtaposition to this top holiday destination in Europe.
Wondering what to do on Spain’s Costa del Sol? Sure, the beaches and golf courses are second to none. But this region also has no shortage of unique sights, activities, delicacies, and more. With some of these highlights and hidden gems you can make the most out of any trip!
Guest Post by Tunco Maclovio
History of the Costa del Sol
Take some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches and mountains, intersperse them with ancient cities, sprinkle with modern architecture, and make them pulsate with vibrant nightlife. Then, add one of the richest larders of the Mediterranean diet. Blend in culinary traditions from one of the world’s oldest cities – Málaga.
Next, add 300 days of sunshine a year. Finally, loads of people (including some of the world’s wealthiest) from all over the world living and vacationing. Leave all these ingredients to bake in the sun, and you’ll find heaven. This is southern Spain’s region of Andalusia and its famous coastline, the Costa del Sol.
Aptly named the “The Sun Coast,” the area’s relentless rays are moderated by the deep blue waters and soothing breezes of the Mediterranean. The tourism industry promoted this name to transform the region from its more sinister history.
For millennia, it was known as the Barbary Coast. Hapless visitors and natives—who weren’t inside a walled city—could be kidnapped and sold as slaves in North Africa. This is the fate that befell Miguel de Cervantes, the author of the classic novel “Don Quixote de la Mancha.”
Inland, roving bandits preyed on travelers as recently as the late 1800s. Eventually Europeans realized its quaint fishing villages, ample sunny beaches, and low prices had great potential for a tourist mecca.
Costa del Sol things to do for tourists today!
Starting with the now upscale Marbella, and the more pedestrian Torremolinos, rebranding took hold and tourism exploded. Thanks to visitors including princes, the Rolling Stones, sheiks and world leaders, the Costa del Sol has become a top choice among Europeans (especially Brits) for relocation and sunny holidays.
For many of these, a mantra of “no hablo español” is the only ticket they need to have fun. And nowadays, most of the kidnapping is done by timeshare resorts. Hoping to sell weeks of accommodation, they target unsuspecting families wandering about: ’punters,’ as they are known in the U.K.
Top things to see and do on the Costa del Sol!
Looking for more sights and adventures in Spain beyond the Costa del Sol?
Food and drink of the Costa del Sol
With so much to see and do along the Costa del Sol, you’re sure to be hungry for some local delicacies. Here you’ll ‘see food’ all day, much of it local seafood. Vegan and vegetarian travelers will have the best luck buying their ingredients at local vendor markets. While there has been a lack of good vegetarian restaurants, many are popping up. Terra Sana in Marbella is an old standby. Some dishes to note include ajoblanco (cold white garlic soup) and gazpacho (chilled tomato puree with olive oil and breadcrumbs).
These are beachfront restaurants where local tapas (hors d’oeuvres), wood fire pits, and locals converge. These are where many families spend Sundays munching, drinking, and chatting away in the warmer months. You probably will find the allure to do the same irresistible!
Here mariscos (seafood), pescaito (fish), and other local specialties are king. Just a few of these are:
- Calamares fritos (battered and deep-fried calamari rings)
- Espetos (skewered fresh sardines roasted over an open fire)
- Ajoblanco (chilled, white garlic soup)
- Pescaito frito (mixed, deep-fried shellfish and fish).
- Jamon Ibérico is a type of acorn-fed, thinly-sliced and air-dried ham. While not locally sourced, is a specialty nearly impossible to find in the USA.
- With Andalusia being the world’s main producer of olive oil, its fragrant varieties are everywhere.
Málaga dulce wine
The local fruity wine with its fragrant bouquet and velvety-smoothness isa necessity of any trip. With charismatically-named varieties like Pedro Ximen, Moscatel, and Pajarete, you will probably want to bring home a bottle or five.
Tasting this wine has been one of the best things to do on the Costa del Sol for centuries. Julius Caesar ordered local vineyards to be burned out of unwanted competition with Roman wine, and Catherine the Great imported large amounts to her home country of Russia. Now you can be the next to test the unbelievable popularity of this locally-produced wine.
The best place to try it is the oldest bar in Málaga, the Antigua Casa de Guardia. The bar is very unassuming, with huge barrels on the wall, sawdust on the floor, and a wide variety of wines. Since 1864, locals have come here to socialize, sip, and gossip. Pictures on the wall include one of the proprietors presenting a bottle to Pablo Picasso, whose birthplace and museum are just a short walk away.
Art to See on the Costa del Sol
Art runs deep in the soul of Spain. Some of man’s oldest cave drawings come from the caves of Altamira up north. And to the south, the last outposts of the Neanderthal boast art from nearby Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar.
When you want to take a break from feeding your stomach you can feast your eyes on amazing works of art. Some of the best stops (which offer free entry some times/days) include the Carmen Thyssen, the Pablo Picasso, and the Centre Pompidou.
The Carmen Thyssen is my favorite. It whisks you away to the days of old in Andalusia with vibrant colors and highly-detailed portrayals of life long ago. Here you can drink in all the culture that runs as deep as the Med through its artwork. You can be blown-away by paintings so old and so detailed they seem like selfies and group shots – from the same local culture, but of another age.
Finally, there is the wonderful the CAC, the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga. As a former regular of this modern art museum, I highly recommend it. It is always free and serves as a great shelter from the summer heat. Here, you can gawk at ultramodern works and ask yourself “¿Qué quiso decir?” (“what did they mean?”).
The old city centers
The Costa is littered with structures from its ancient past. This includes remnants of the groups such as Phoenicians, Visigoths, Romans, and Moors that once called this area home. Málaga was founded by Phoenicians, while Marbella and Fuengirola have Moorish castles and outposts. Exploring as many of these sites as you can is one of the best things to do in Málaga, Marbella, or anywhere else on the Costa del Sol!
Until the ’Catholic Kings’ Ferdinand and Isabella battled their way to the Costa during the Reconquista in 1492, the area changed hands often. The Moorish presence is obvious by the narrow cobblestone alleys between whitewashed houses, which shelter passerby from the intense summer sun.
Marbella’s Puente Romano (Roman bridge), Fuengirola’s Sohail Castle, and Malaga’s Alcazaba, Gibralfaro, and Teatro Romano (Roman theatre) are monuments to these days of old. Called Casco Antiguos (old city quarters), you can find these old downtown areas in almost every city. Another excellent sight from these times of antiquity is the hillside town of Mijas.
My favorite town in the whole area is picturesque Casares. It was built into the side of a mountain so that pirates couldn’t see it. This hidden gem is one of the best places to see on any Costa del Sol trip! You can easily reach Casares in a 45 minute drive from Marbella or an hour and a half from Malaga.
Marbella, Puerto Banus, and nightlife.
Marbella is known as the ‘Beverly Hills of Spain’. Though now an enclave for both down-home Andalusians and Europe and Spain’s super-wealthy, it started as a small fishing village. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it began to evolve into the home of the ‘jet-set,’ and now is a great place to see the best of the Costa del Sol!
A push of tourism that included an iconic hotel and a self-promoting mayor, Jesus Gil y Gil (who also owned the Atlético Madrid football team) jump-started the city’s popularity. Noteworthy figures from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to Sean Connery and Prince, have visited or lived here. And now you can do the same!
Even now, super-upscale gated communities like La Zagaleta boast some of the world’s richest and most famous residents. Along with the rich, corruption arrived and affected local politics. In fact, mayors including Jesus Gil y Gil were investigated or even arrested for various scandals.
Furthermore, the real estate boom of the early 2000s eventually popped, leaving empty houses and skeletons of never-finished resorts. All this aside, it still retains its small-town feel. That spirit, plus a seafront boardwalk, make a destination that Spaniards and Europeans flock to in the summer for all of the best warm weather sights and activities.
Puerto Banus is an over-the-top port with supercars, flashy stores, oversized yachts, and dapper visitors. So it’s no shock that this hub attracts tourists and looky-loos alike. Also not surprisingly, its nightlife is legendary – Spain’s as a whole is incredible, but here it’s on another level.
La marcha – Nightlife
Nightlife here, in Fuengirola, Benalmadena, Torremolinos, and Málaga pretty much starts and ends the same. That is, at least pre-COVID-19. Young Spaniards start with “el botellón.” This is like tailgating in the street, where dozens of people bring booze and mixers. You’ll also find the omnipresent local drink, calimocho (red wine and Coca Cola). The locals then proceed to emborracharse (get drunk!). This saves everyone a lot of money in comparison to buying drinks at bars and clubs.
Also, many indulge in a porro or churro (no, not the deep-fried pastries) which is tobacco mixed with hashish. It is smuggled in huge amounts across the Strait of Gibraltar from nearby Morocco. While either of these activities might elicit a response from police in countries like the USA, el botellón is legal. Chocolate (hashish) isn’t, but it’s pretty much tolerated. They are more strict to tourists however, so don’t risk getting thrown in el bote, the slammer! Local and national police and the Guardia Civil are famed for their hard-nosed approach to drug use and drunken idiocy. Plus, this is especially towards guiris (foreigners.)
As long as you behave yourself, clubs will go until 4 am or later. Then, some after-hours clubs will go to 10am! I always thought that this must be the worst job in Spain. But kudos to those who clock in at 4 am to deal with people who have been drinking all night and morning!
Getting involved in the nightlife is certainly one of the best things you can do on the Costa del Sol!
The Andalusians’ world encourages sharing one’s feelings and thoughts with all. This may be why they speak a highly-staccato version of machine-gun Spanish, and at unrivaled volumes to boot.
You can only understand 30% of their culture until you understand Spanish well enough to hang with them. Then, add 15% more if your spoken Spanish is good enough. At this level you can spend time conversing happily with anyone from politicians, gypsies, barflies, taxi drivers, and fish merchants.
Finally, add a few more percentage points when you can live, dance, and revel with them. With this skill you can come out awash in their joie de vivre shared with family and friends.
Only then, can you begin to see the true richness of this legendary piece of Spain. And furthermore, you can appreciate the role it has played in its history.
Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity no matter how much Spanish you speak! Chatting with Los Andaluces is a unique and exciting thing to do in the Costa del Sol.
Want to practice your Spanish? Spend more time in Spain in one of these amazing Airbnbs!
What’s the final step to understanding more about the Andaluces? Well, short of marrying one… go to the Feria de Agosto or Málaga Fair. This is a week-long riot of colors, aromas, flavors, and fancy dress. It embodies the true spirit of Andalusia and is among Europe’s largest fairs. In fact, hundreds of thousands come from all over Spain and Europe to have a blast. It has been going since the 1490s, inspired by the arrival of the Kings. If you can make it, it will be a highlight of any trip and possibly the best thing you do!
Here, investment bankers in flip-flops meet bearded-hipsters in blue-suede shoes. In fact, they rub elbows and shoulders while dancing the ubiquitous and complex Baile de Sevillanas. For one week, all are equal and valid, depending on mood and choice of drink.
Most sip sweet wine (Cartojal) from a shot glass hanging around their neck (hey, no downtime). Meanwhile, others just quaff ice-cold beers to stave off the oppressive heat. Of course, those dressed in the traditional Feria gear command respect and awe; these types are dialed into the centuries-old dress and politesse that the Fair evokes.
Watch hundreds of local couples dance together to the complex Sevillanas, (no, not Flamenco). Most of them have known it since childhood! This sight to me the greatest spectacle of Andalusia that I will never forget!
When you do go to one of these events, don’t over plan… just let the flow of sudden friendships and impromptu dance partners whisk you away into what is the Feria mentality. But remember – expect lots of heat!
This is the true essence of Andalusia. Its informality, amazing sights, oversized-personalities, and its passion, always taken to the next level. It’s easily one of the best things to see and do on the Costa del Sol!
There is plenty to keep you busy here. First, admire the Baile de Sevillanas. Then smell the fragrance of the Biznaga flower. Finally, sample the Vino de Málaga. The sweet wine fuels the Feria’s frenzy and helps tourists imagine the Ferias de Agosto from long ago.
If you take any advice, let it be this: enjoy yourself on the Costa del Sol! The sheer numbers of Europeans from Scandinavia, Germany, and the U.K. ensure you will meet people who speak English. However, make sure to meet an Andalusian or many. Take time to learn the basic phrases and be courteous to all.
The Andaluces are tolerant and respectful, so act the same way to them. Respect their centuries – old traditions and lifestyle – as rustic or anachronistic as they may seem to some of us Westerners. They embrace healthy foods and life-giving olive oil, as well as appreciate friends, family, art, music, and dance. These virtues allow many of them to live to ripe old ages filled with lots of happy memories.
Enjoy the endless sunshine, relax, and ground yourself on the beautiful beaches that dot the Costa del Sol. Take a guided tour of this magnificent region or cover this exotic locale at your own pace. You’ll quickly see why this is one of the top destinations in Spain.
We can learn a lot from them. In ten years of living there, I certainly did – and hopefully you will too!