Guide to Western Costa del Sol
There is more to the Costa del Sol than at first glance. Although the sunny, sandy beaches are famous, step inland a few kilometres and it’s a different world. You’ll find whitewashed villages full of flowers and vast expanses of Natural Parks with rare wildlife. These contrast with sophisticated resorts and golf courses – all basking in the glorious sunshine, the watchword for this region.
Holiday fun for all ages
There is so much to enjoy in this region. Some of the activities are not what you'd expect!
The Costa del Sol conjures up a variety of images, many based on the mass tourism which originally brought wealth and a certain notoriety to this area of southern Spain. There is however another side to the Costa del Sol which you don’t have to travel too far to uncover.
The region we’re talking about covers the area west of Málaga and includes going inland to the Sierra de las Nieves and the huge Natural Park of Alcornocales. Traditional white hilltop villages like Casares and Jimena de la Frontera are waiting to be explored, as are surprisingly pretty parts of Marbella and Estepona—towns more associated with designer shopping and night-life.
Whatever type of holiday you fancy, be it hiking, playing golf, or just watching the world go by at a street café—with an average of 300 days’ glorious sunshine—you will love doing it here.
Let’s start with the beaches, miles upon miles of sandy shores, each with resorts of different character. Leaving Malaga and heading down the coast towards Marbella are the towns much beloved by northern Europeans: Torremolinos, Fuengirola, Benalmádena where, although you won’t find much of an authentic Spanish experience, there are plenty of holiday activities to cater for all family members. Theme parks, water parks and water sports abound here, it’s lively and fun in a non-stop way.
From traditional charm to international glamour
Everyone has heard of Marbella and it's certainly worth a visit. But don't miss out on the pretty little towns close by.
Head inland for just a few kilometres and towns like Mijas Pueblo, Alhaurín el Grande and Coín are completely different from the modern commercial holiday experience. The ancient legacies from the Romans and, more discernibly the centuries of Moorish rule, are evident in these towns. Mijas is a photo opportunity at every corner with flowers in abundance on every cobbled street, splashes of colour against whitewashed walls, brightly painted ceramics and the local donkey taxis too. Alhaurín el Grande and Coín are smaller and quieter, but are still as pretty— Alhaurín with its church plaza, Plaza Baja, and the Arco del Cobertizo a 12th century Moorish gateway, Coín with its renaissance churches.
If golf is a passion for you or a member of your holiday party, then this is the region for you without a shadow of doubt. The Costa del Sol offers more than 60 courses, half of those being Europe’s finest which have hosted international tournaments. Andalucía won the 2017 IAGTO (International Association of Golf Tourism Organisation) award for Best Golf Destination in Europe and Costa del Sol has won for 2019.
And now we arrive in Marbella! Marbella, that famous resort of international celebrities, with its sophisticated restaurants, glitzy nightclubs and casinos. And with its 27 kms of stunning golden beach, it truly is an amazing playground.
For more down to earth enjoyment of Marbella, head for the ‘casco antiguo’ the old quarter. The Plaza de los Naranjos (Orange Tree Plaza) is a delight and you’ll find inexpensive tapas bars, boutiques and art galleries in the vicinity, just follow the narrow winding streets. Marbella has two parks, green oases in the heart of the town: Parque de la Constitución which hosts open air events (there is usually something going on all summer) and is a quiet place to sit and relax; Parque la Alameda has a traditional 18th century fountain done out in Andalucian tiles, with plenty of benches to sit amongst the tropical plants. See sculptures by Salvador Dalí for free in the Avenida del Mar—a pedestrianised street graced with his works of art. Food here is second to none, the cuisine available ranges from international to local—sardines grilled at chiringuitos on the beach.
The evening stroll or 'paseo' is a time-honoured tradition, one that everyone can take part in.
Puerto Banús is Marbella’s marina and is the place to moor a million dollar yacht, or just to look on and take nautical interest. Here you’ll find exclusive shopping with a concentration of designer names who have shops here: Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Loewe for example. High street brands and more affordable goods are also catered for. El Corte Inglés is the major department store in Spain, there is a flagship store here and another in Marbella—keep your passport handy if you make a purchase in El Corte Inglés as discounts of 10% apply to some tourist purchases. La
Cañada shopping mall just outside of Marbella offers a wide range of shopping too.
For a retail-free activity take a walk along the beachfront promenade from Puerto Banús to Marbella. The paseo is a traditional stroll which is undertaken by the whole family. Join in the paseo, especially on a Sunday with families done up in their best.
Another lovely walkway is in Estepona. Its 2 km long Paseo Maritimo is a very pleasant beach front promenade, a delightful flat stroll, especially in the evening. The Paseo has play areas for children, lots of cafés and all surrounded with tropical plants and flowers. Estepona itself is well worth a visit. Its quaint ‘old town’ has cobbled streets and flower-filled pots, beautifully maintained by the municipality. Local shops sell unique souvenirs and the inhabitants have a real sense of civic pride. Although Estepona has an authentic Andalucian feel, with its palm trees swaying in the sea breeze you could be in the Caribbean rather than Europe.
Only 15 minutes’ drive from the coast, but with a completely different atmosphere, is the white village of Casares. This authentic and unspoilt Moorish village is built on a steep hillside with an arabic fortress on top—it’s worth a detour to visit. From Casares continue on the road further inland and you come to Gaucín perched high on its rocky cliff. It too has an arabic castle (although now ruined). The road continues until you reach the iconic city of Ronda.
Green forests and golden beaches
The Costa del Sol has vast expanses of forest to enjoy. Hike amongst cork oaks and marvel at the number of bird species you can spot.
The Costa del Sol is surprisingly well favoured for wildlife areas and woodland beauty. The Sierra de las Nieves is a Natural Park 25 kms from Marbella covering an area of 300 square kms. Its rugged mountain landscape is home to the extremely rare Spanish fir (pinsapo) as well as ibex, roe deer, mongoose, otters and many species of birds of prey. Sierra de las Nieves is soon to be designated a National Park, only the third in Andalusia (after Doñana and Sierra Nevada).
Alcornocales Natural Park is even larger in area and its eastern end borders on this region. So called because of its extensive cork oak forests, it’s a haven for birds on their migration route from Africa. The cork harvest takes place between June and August each year, it’s a skilled art, done by hand so as not to damage the trees, allowing the tree to regenerate its cork after nine years.
Castellar de la Frontera is situated on the edge of Alcornocales Natural Park and is a 13th century Moorish village built within the walls of an impressive castle. The main population moved to Nuevo Castellar in the 1970s to make way for a dam, so this old village is semi-deserted. The views from the castle are superb—it looks down to the white town and river below, green fields and countryside beyond, then Gibraltar and (on a clear day) Morocco.
This region, with Malaga and Gibraltar airports conveniently situated close by, has more in the way of contrasts than any other region. It has the sophistication and glamour of international jet-set living, as well as the authentic traditions of a simpler Andalucía. The beauty of Spain’s wildlife and its natural world can also be enjoyed to the full—from its green hinterland to its sunny, sandy beaches for which it is world famous.
Photos on this page by Andalucian Sky and some of them courtesy of Robert Pittman, PafGames, Rene Dana, Hernan Pinera, Steve Slater, Subhernal, Nick Henrick, Bogdan Migulski, Kevin Poh, Terry Whalebone, Eliott Brown, Aran Bee and Michael Vadon.