The Costa del Sol has some of the finest beaches in Spain. Lying 260 mi/420 km south of Madrid, the famous Sun Coast area officially stretches along the Mediterranean from Nerja (east of Malaga) to Gibraltar. Unofficially, many people think of it as including the beautiful coast south of Granada, the Costa Tropical.
Once a pleasant playground, today's Costa del Sol has been overdeveloped and overrun by tourists, especially those arriving on package vacations from northern Europe. Expect lots of high-rise condominiums and hotels, and a wide selection of golf courses, tennis clubs, casinos, discos and outdoor cafes. Deep-sea fishing and sailing are popular in the waters off the coast. Malaga and Marbella are two of the better-known destinations in the area, but while Marbella is simply a tourist town with a reputation for attracting starry celebrities, Malaga—the capital of the whole local province as well as the Costa del Sol—is a large traditional Spanish city with a character quite different from, and more individual than, those of the other towns and resorts that line the coast. Today it has a switched-on cafe and restaurant scene and an increasing number of first-rate museums, including the superb Picasso Gallery in the old town. Its new port area, featuring an array of chic harborside eating spots, nestles below the impressive hilltop Gibralfaro fortress, beside which the city's long-established Parador enjoys superb panoramic views up and down the coast.
Just west of Malaga lies the famous—notorious, even—town of Torremolinos. Once it was nothing more than an old Costa del Sol fishing village set atop a cliff, with two long, wide beaches, an old mill tower (for which the town is named), whitewashed houses and flowers. But that was before the advent of mass travel by air and the cheap package tour. Torremolinos was the first town on the Costa del Sol to be extensively developed for tourism, and parts of it now look considerably worse for the wear: If you're looking for peace and tranquillity or a quiet beach atmosphere, you won't find it in Torremolinos.
Inland from Torremolinos and neighboring Fuengirola, another popular resort town beloved by settled expatriates as well as visiting holiday-makers, hillside Mijas (pronounced MEE-hahs) is a picturesque, touristy Costa del Sol village with a distinctly Arab feel. Visit its ancient bullring and the Lady of the Rock Church (carved into a hillside rock). You can hire donkeys to transport you around the town.
Perched on a cliff, an hour's drive east of Malaga, Nerja is a popular international Costa del Sol seaside resort that retains traces of its fishing-village past and has excellent beaches. Visitors can avail themselves of the rowboat facilities, clear water and isolated coves. Like so many areas of the Costa del Sol, Nerja attracts many English and Scandinavian emigres, who settle in villa complexes, apartments and retirement villages.
A nearby attraction is La Cueva de Nerja, a vast stalactite cave that resembles an underground cathedral. Traces of Paleolithic-era paintings, as well as stone weapons and tools, have been found inside. Special music and dance performances are sometimes held in one of the caves.
The two most interesting towns on the neighboring Costa Tropical (which lies east of the Costa del Sol in Granada province) are Almunecar and the castle-crowned white town of Salobrena, with long, pebbly beaches.
You will hear many languages being spoken along both the Costa del Sol and Costa Tropical, as many northern Europeans spend a month or two in winter enjoying the mild climate of this corner of southern Spain; additionally, there are many full-time expats living there. Pubs, beer halls, cafes, smorgasbords and reflections of other international tastes mix with the local Spanish flavor. There are dozens of clubs, bars and discos for nightlife, and flamenco dance performances are easy to find.
The Costa del Sol is relatively close to Seville, Granada and the White Villages of Andalusia. Try to visit one or more of these on a day trip or, better yet, on an overnight excursion. (Be forewarned, however: You may not want to go back to the Costa del Sol after you've experienced Andalusia's more sublime character.)
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