The faded Spanish city is making a surprisingly glamorous comeback
Toh be honest, it’s a surprise that we’re here at all. Stylish, historic Malaga – a long-term favorite of mine – was our primary destination, digging into a sea-view apartment on breezy Playa Malagueta. Graze during the day at chiringuitos on the beach, eat tapas around Plaza de la Merced in the evening.
Then my partner suggested adding a few days in nearby Torremolinos as it is “always fun”. As a cliché-dodging travel writer, I realized I hadn’t really been: all the more reason to give it a go.
There was another factor that interested me: the whispers about the city’s recent regeneration and its attempts to embrace the past and reinvent itself. It’s not the only Spanish place that is shifting from tacky to artistic — Lanzarote and Benidorm have already preceded you, but it is perhaps the one that most reconsiders its main assets.
Evidence of the metamorphosis greets us upon arrival. After a smooth 20 minute train ride from Malaga, we disembark at the gleaming £6.1 million station and adjoining square, which opened last summer. But that is not everything. Over the past five years, the city has been busy rebranding with new public spaces, including the £2.6 million transformation of the main streets and squares in the city centre.
Our apartment’s balcony overlooks the revamped, palm-lined Plaza Costa del Sol, which now benefits from a café atmosphere and a pergola designed by Malaga-based architect Salvador Moreno Peralta that creates a ripple effect in the midday sun. It’s pleasant to sit with a beer watching the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic outside the three-storey Clock Tower, a bar with live music in a converted former bank opposite (clocktower.es).
The city’s recent revamp has been long overdue. The first resort on the Costa del Sol to emerge in the 1950s, its popularity was initially boosted by its balmy sub-tropical climate (yes, it’s 21C for every day of our month-long holiday). But by the early 1990s, Torremolinos was surpassed by Ibiza and its reputation slid somewhat downhill, becoming synonymous with British pilsner culture abroad.
It’s easy to forget how glamorous Torremolinos was in its 1950s heyday, frequented by every star of its time. So the era is being reassessed and commemorated in a series of large-scale public murals by local graffiti artists. Unveiled last year, the Ruta de Murales is a walking trail depicting the Hollywood legends who have visited the city, including Frank Sinatra (on Calle de los Perros, La Carihuela) and Brigitte Bardot (at the Adriano Hotel, Plaza Costa del Sol), as well as the Spanish artists Picasso and Salvador Dalí (Avenida Carlota Alessandri). Local flamenco dancers and singers are celebrated in a work at the Art Deco Cultural Center Picasso (Calle de la Cruz, 42).
There’s politics too: on the L-shaped alley of Pasaje Begoña, a large mural depicts the 1971 raid, in which 114 people were arrested as Franco police cracked down on the resort’s pioneering gay venues, including Tony’s, the first gay bar of Spain, which opened in 1962 but unfortunately closed several years ago.
Fortunately, things have changed. In 2023, the scene is thriving, with more than 30 LGBTQ bars, clubs and businesses, most located in La Nogalera, a 1960s block adjacent to the renovated station.
Busy main street Calle San Miguel has also had a glow and is now home to boutiques and artisan shops, as well as more predictable tourist shops. It leads steeply down to the coast along the eponymous 700-year-old torre (tower), catching the midday sun high above the path. The beach – which is over five miles long – makes us gasp at its beauty. It has swaying palm trees, attractive chiringuitos and a hazy blue horizon beyond. We stroll past the packed Banana Beach Club and meander around a rocky outcrop to the old fishing district of La Carihuela. Popular with the ‘jet set’ of the 1950s, this idyllic pedestrianized village, with hidden tiled squares and narrow plant-lined alleys, is dotted with enticing local bars. After a chilly but serotonin-stimulating sea dip, we enjoy a cold beer by the sea and the last rays of the sun.
Now there is only one thing left on our minds: food. This also turns out to be a surprise. Back in the hilly center we find Bodega Guerola, which dates back to 1962 and has characterful barrel tables on the outside (boards from £5; bodegaguerola.com). Inside we grab the last two free spots at the counter. Crowds of animated Spanish families are all around us and we admire the shimmering fresh tuna, shellfish and chopped salads on display. Sipping crisp, cold verdejo – a glass costs £2 – we order plate after plate of dazzling tapas, from hot buttery scallops and an oil-soaked roasted red pepper salad to succulent, pepper-dusted grilled octopus a la gallega.
Croquetas are among the gourmet highlights in Torremolinos
The edible highlights don’t end there. At the long-run family-run beach restaurant Casa Antonio, we dine with friends who happen to be in town, sharing grilled monkfish and dripping black squid ink croquetas, though the service might be a little too relaxed (tapas from £5; Playa Bajondillo, 34). Later we discover Pueblo Blanco, a labyrinth of charming alleys around a sun-drenched white courtyard, Plaza de los Tientos, home to several neighborhood restaurants, including the acclaimed Creperia Bahia (pancakes from £7; Plaza de los Tientos, 29620).
● Best hotels in Malaga
● 19 of the best beaches in Spain
At the far end, on Calle Casablanca, is the modern tapas bar Serendipia Slow Food, where the ruby tuna tartare with lime and tomato is as memorable as the creamy oxtail sliders (mains from £8; Calle Casablanca, 20). The next day, a few minutes’ walk away, we sample the signature tapas at La Pepa – crispy hake with a rich prawn and leek sauce (tapas from £2, la-pepa-torremolinos.eatbu.com). Finally, foodies should explore Sabor a Malaga, an indoor gourmet market with an immaculate white interior and alfresco terrace in one of the most attractive renovated squares, Plaza de la Independencia (saboramalaga.es).
All too soon our short detour to Torremolinos is over and the airport is calling. We stroll back through the 1960s Brutalist walkways from the La Nogalera neighborhood to the station, observing the locals dining in the sunny, palm-lined streets ahead. It’s mid-afternoon and sure enough the atmosphere feels a bit sleepy, but nevertheless the mix of concrete and tropical somehow underlines the challenging spirit of the city.
Stephen Emms traveled independently. Fly to Malaga
Four chic properties in Torremolinos
By Sasha Nugara
1. Melia Costa del Sol
Step out the door and you’ll be on Bajondillo Beach in seconds. All 540 rooms are decorated in a muted palette, with the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean taking center stage. There are two rooftop pools, but if you book “The Level” service option along with your room, you will have access to a private rooftop terrace, separate pool and hot tub. Dine in the buffet restaurant or beach bar restaurant for seafood cooked to order.
Details B&B doubles from £103 (melia.com)
2. Paradise House Boutique B&B
Tucked away in the town of Torremolinos, a mile from the beach, this boutique may not have a sea view, but it makes up for it with character, style and friendliness. This classic Spanish villa is painted a rustic orange against bare stone walls and has just five rooms. Book the Suite Bunganvilla for a private veranda and direct access to the leafy gardens and pool. An à la carte breakfast is included, but if you don’t have a dinner option, you have a good excuse to turn into the evening and try one of the restaurants in the nearby streets.
Details B&B doubles from £93 (casaparaiso.es)
Occidental Torremolinos Beach
3. Occidental Torremolinos Beach
This hotel is right on the boulevard and less than a ten minute drive from the airport. It was renovated in 2021. The 508 rooms have blue tones that invite in the sea and sky, but not all rooms have a view of the coast. There are two bars and a buffet restaurant, as well as Arrozante, a restaurant serving paella for every palate, including lobster and artichoke. Choose from two different swimming pools and a separate children’s pool.
Details B&B doubles from £79 (barcelo.com)
Soho Hotel Boutique The Shark & Spa
4. Soho Hotel Boutique The Shark & Spa
El Tiburon, one of the first hotels on the Costa del Sol, has been welcoming guests since 1963. It is not on the coast, but La Carihuela beach is just 40 meters away. The hotel offers a wide range of excursions, including quad bike rental and day trips to Granada or Tangiers. If that’s too much effort, relax by the pool or head to the spa. There is a restaurant on site, but there is a good choice of seafront restaurants and bars nearby.
Details Room only double from £52 (sohohoteles.com)
Sign up for our Times Travel newsletter and follow us on Instagram and Twitter