Many tourists ignore the capital of the Costa del Sol entirely, heading straight for the beaches west of the city instead, although cruise-ship tourism now brings plenty of visitors to the city. Approaching Málaga from the airport, you'll be greeted by huge 1970s high-rises that march determinedly toward Torremolinos. But don’t give up so soon: in its center and eastern suburbs, this city of about 550,000 people is a pleasant port, with ancient streets and lovely villas amid exotic foliage. Blessed with a subtropical climate, it's covered in lush vegetation and averages some 324 days of sunshine a year. Málaga has been spruced up with restored historic buildings and some great shops, bars, and restaurants. A new cruise-ship terminal and the opening of the prestigious Museo Carmen Thyssen in March 2011 have also boosted tourism, although there are still far fewer visitors here than in Seville, Córdoba, and Granada. Arriving from Nerja, you'll enter Málaga through the suburbs of El Palo and Pedregalejo, once traditional fishing villages. Here you can eat fresh fish in the numerous chiringuitos and stroll Pedregalejos's seafront promenade or the tree-lined streets of El Limonar. At sunset, walk along the Paseo Marítimo and watch the lighthouse start its nightly vigil. A few blocks inland is Málaga's bullring, La Malagueta, built in 1874. Continuing west, stroll through the Muelle Uno (port-front commercial center). It's great for a drink and for soaking up views of the old quarter. From here, stroll along the Palmeral (Palm Walk), and you'll soon reach the city center and the inviting Plaza de la Marina. From here, walk through the shady, palm-lined gardens of the Paseo del Parque or browse on Calle Marqués de Larios, the elegant pedestrian-only main shopping street.
Málaga's main nightlife districts are Maestranza, between the bullring and the Paseo Marítimo, and the beachfront in the suburb of Pedregalejos. Central Málaga also has a lively bar scene around Plaza Uncibay.
Built between 1528 and 1782, the cathedral is a triumph, although a generally unappreciated one, having been left unfinished when funds ran out. Because it lacks one of its two towers, the building is nicknamed La Manquita (the One-Armed Lady). The enclosed choir, which miraculously survived the burnings of the civil war, is the work of 17th-century artist Pedro de Mena, who carved the wood wafer-thin in some places to express the fold of a robe or shape of a finger. The choir also has a pair of massive 18th-century pipe organs, one of which is still used for the occasional concert. Adjoining the cathedral is a small museum of religious art and artifacts. A walk around the cathedral on Calle Cister will take you to the magnificent Gothic Puerta del Sagrario.
Just beyond the ruins of a Roman theater on Calle Alcazabilla stands Málaga's greatest monument. This fortress was begun in the 8th century, when Málaga was the principal port of the Moorish kingdom, though most of the present structure dates from the 11th century. The inner palace was built between 1057 and 1063, when the Moorish emirs took up residence; Ferdinand and Isabella lived here for a while after conquering the city in 1487. The ruins are dappled with orange trees and bougainvillea and include a small museum; from the highest point you can see over the park and port.
Surrounded by magnificent vistas and floodlit at night, these fortifications were built for Yusuf I in the 14th century; the Moors called them Jebelfaro, from the Arab word for "mount" and the Greek word for "lighthouse," after a beacon that stood here to guide ships into the harbor and warn of pirates. The lighthouse has been succeeded by a small parador. You can drive here by way of Calle Victoria or take a minibus that leaves 10 times a day, between 11 and 7, roughly every 45 minutes, from the bus stop in the park near the Plaza de la Marina.
Mercado de Atarazanas
From the Plaza Felix Saenz, at the southern end of Calle Nueva, turn onto Sagasta to reach the Mercado de Atarazanas. The typical, 19th-century, iron structure incorporates the original Puerta de Atarazanas, the exquisitely crafted 14th-century Moorish gate that once connected the city with the port. Don't miss the magnificent, stained-glass window depicting highlights of this historical port city as you stroll round the stalls, filled with local produce.
Facing the cathedral's main entrance, this is a fine 18th-century mansion with one of the most stunning facades in the city, as well as interesting interior details. The inside is only viewable when there are temporary exhibitions.
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo
This museum includes photographic studies and paintings, some of them immense. The 7,900 square feet of bright exhibition hall are used to showcase ultramodern artistic trends—the four exhibitions are used for a changing show from the permanent collection, two temporary shows, and one show dedicated to up-and-coming Spanish artists. The gallery attracts world-class modern artists like South African William Kentridge or the British duo Gilbert and George. Óleo, the riverside restaurant, is popular at lunchtime (closed Mon.) and a favored summer evening venue for cocktails. Outside, don't miss the giant murals behind the museum painted by the street artists Shepard Fairey and Dean Stockton (aka D*Face).
Málaga's most famous native son, Pablo Picasso, was born here in 1881, in what's now the Fundación Picasso. The building has been painted and furnished in the style of the era and houses a permanent exhibition of the artist's early sketches and sculptures, as well as memorabilia, including his christening robe and family photos.
The narrow streets and alleys on each side of Calle Marqués de Larios have charms of their own. The most famous is Pasaje Chinitas, off Plaza de la Constitución and named for the notorious Chinitas cabaret here. Peep into the dark, vaulted bodegas where old men down glasses of seco añejo or Málaga Virgen, local wines made from Málaga's muscatel grapes. Silversmiths and vendors of religious books and statues ply their trades in shops that have changed little since the early 1900s. Backtrack across Larios, and, in the streets leading to Calle Nueva, you can see shoeshine boys, lottery-ticket vendors, Gypsy guitarists, and tapas bars serving wine from huge barrels.
Part of the charm of this art gallery, one of the city's most prestigious museums, is that its small collection is such a family affair. These are the works that Pablo Picasso kept for himself or gave to his family, including the heartfelt Paulo con gorro blanco (Paulo with a White Cap), a portrait of his firstborn son painted in the early 1920s; and Olga Kokhlova con mantilla (Olga Kokhlova with Mantilla), a 1917 portrait of his insane first wife. The holdings were largely donated by two family members—Christine and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, the artist's daughter-in-law and her son. The works are displayed in chronological order according to the periods that marked Picasso's development as an artist, from Blue and Rose to Cubism and beyond. The museum is housed in a former palace where, during restoration work, Roman and Moorish remains were discovered. These are now on display, together with the permanent collection of Picassos and temporary exhibitions. Guided tours in English are available (book at least five days ahead).
Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga
Like Madrid, Málaga has its own branch of this museum, with over 200 works from Baroness Thyssen's private collection. Shown in a renovated 16th-century palace, the collection features mainly Spanish paintings from the 19th century, but does also have work from two great 20th-century artists, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and Romero de Torres. The museum also hosts regular exhibitions and talks and workshops on art.