The Beach and Beyond in Costa del Sol
Table of Contents
Introduction – Things to do in Costa del Sol:
With stunning sandy beaches, you may well have already considered a sea and sand holiday in the Costa del Sol. Beyond the beach though, the region itself is still very much an unexplored gem though. On the south coast of Spain offering 325 days of sunshine a year and a warm climate, it is rightly known for over 120km of sandy beaches, 70 golf courses, and a relaxing way of life. But there is so much more, and with all year round sun Costa del Sol makes for an ideal winter sun getaway when you need a real break – whether or not you want to sunbathe on the beach.
The majority of Costa del Sol’s heritage is concentrated in 3 main cities, Malaga, Antequera and Ronda. All within 1 hour of each other these cities are surrounded by mountains and nature reserves offering an amazing range of things to do and places to go. Once you start to explore, you’ll quickly realise you need to return. I spent 4 days visiting the region with Jet2 flights from Manchester, and there were so many things to do in Costa del Sol that I only saw the beach once!
El Torcal de Antequera Nature Reserve:
An hours drive north into the Sierra del Torcal mountains above Malaga is the Torcal de Antequera range, a vast area of karst landscapes and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.
Karst landscape is identified by numerous caves, sinkholes, crevices, and underground streams which form in areas of plentiful rainfall and carbonate-rich rock. It is the layers of rock which have, over time, eroded at different speeds that makes the Torcal de Antequera range the most impressive of its kind in Europe.
From the atop on of the ridges, you can see Gibraltar and as far as North Africa on a clear day. At night the view of the distant town lights is as magical as the clear starlit skies. The park is open 24 hours a day and there is even a sunset and sunrise tour suitable for romantics and photographers alike.
As we walked around, our guide explained the formation of the mountains and identified all the plants along with their botanical uses. Wild blackberries abound, along with a wide variety of plants which the local people forage to make spices and perfumes.
High above you can see eagles circling in the hot sky, observing the numerous rabbits and foxes that live in the mountains. Although nocturnal, you can occasionally see them during the day, free to roam as they are protected and therefore in a safer environment. You may also see mountain sheep and goats lower down the mountain, outside of the park, but these are farmed free-range.
Antequera is located in the heart of Andalusia, only a one hour drive up the mountains to the north of Malaga. Surrounded by small “white villages” dotted around the mountainside, it is often described as the “City of White”, and sits under the Torcal mountain range next to open green plains. It is this location that has made it so important and given it such a rich history. Antequera has some of the best archaeological finds in Andalucia, with Bronze Age and Roman ruins ranking among the most important in Spain.
The old quarter of Antequera has been declared a heritage site. It provides a fascinating insight into a vibrant town as it would have looked historically. Narrow cobbled streets with pristine white houses give way to open plazas and walled views across the valleys.
Antequera has more churches per person than any other town in Spain, yet each church has a design and history that is unique. As times changed so did the churches and their use and architecture highlight the evolution of both people and building technology through the ages.
Located at the top of the town, there is a magnificent entry arch, the Arco de los Gigantes, dating from 1585, and was built in honour of King Philip II. This late-Renaissance arch was constructed using Roman masonry with sculptures and inscriptions, taken from the earlier ruins of the Roman town.
You walk through this triumphal arch to get to the castle walls and to the Real Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor. (There are three other lower gates in Antequera: Puerta de Malaga, Puerta de Estepa and Puerta de Granada.)
The Real Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor was the first Renaissance church to be built in Andalusia (c.1550). Its unique monumental façade is one of the most publicly used symbols of the city of Antequera and a popular location for visitors, photographers and historians alike. Access to the interior costs 1 euro, which goes towards its upkeep. The church is formed by three arches divided by buttresses crowned with pinnacles. Its three naves have Moorish roof frames, separated by Ionic columns, giving the interior of the church a typical Roman air. The outside show different stages of building, and differing materials, with the right side still unfinished.
From this point, you’ll also get a clear view of Peña de Los Enamorados, a mountain near the city of Antequera that reaches a height of 880 metres above sea level and making it visible to the surrounding countryside. Looking like a sleeping giant, it has been a home to people since the Neolithic period, and even now it is an impressive sight. It was named Peña de Los Enamorados (“lovers leap”) after the story of a Christian man and the ruler of a nearby castles Muslim daughter. They ran away together and were chased by Moorish soldiers to the top of the rock, where, rather than renounce their love, they hurled themselves over the edge holding hands – together till the end.
Opposite from the church is another of those quaint white streets that takes you back down to the town square by a different route to the one you took up. And from here you can explore the numerous restaurants serving local specialities.
Antequera is well connected to Malaga with regular train and bus services should you prefer not to drive, letting you see all the scenery without any worries.
Traversing the Caminito del Ray
One of the biggest tourist landmarks and something you must do when you are visiting the Costa del Sol region is the Caminito del Ray (King’s Pathway), a spectacular wooden and iron pathway located 100m high up the side of the Desfiladero de Los Gaitanes gorge.
The view from the Caminito del Ray at any point is stunning.
The walkway was originally built in the early 19th century to allow workers to commute down the valley to maintain the newly installed hydro-electric plant and the canal elements of the flowing waters in the gorge below. Still described as one of the most dangerous walkways in the world, it has recently been reopened after a 15-year close and repair.
It is a 7.7km walk (over 15,000 footsteps I was told) that takes about 3 hours. But if this is something you are planning to do when you visit Costa del Sol you need to allocate much more time than that so you can stop and admire the awesome views. Photography is encouraged, but selfie sticks are banned to discourage people leaning over the edge.
Everyone is given a white hard-hat when they enter the tour (the orange ones are for guides), as protection from the occasional falling small stone. Fortunately, we saw none on our walk. Although the walkway is narrow, it is easy to pass people, so it never becomes cramped or bunched up. This, however, made the walk feel very open and enhanced the aerial feel of the walkways. In certain places, you can see remains of the original, much narrower, walkway and can only imagine how terrifying and dangerous it would have been.
Caminito del Ray is a major tourist attraction with only a specific controlled number of visitors allowed per day to prevent overcrowding, so be aware you need to buy tickets in advance if it’s something you want to do when you visit Costa del Sol
Explore the Copper Forest
Located in the Genal Valley, the largest section of the Serrania de Ronda, to the East of Ronda, the Copper Forest has a distinctly mountainous character. The mountainsides are covered with chestnut trees, in plantations interspersed with typical Spanish white villages. Wherever you are, the view down the valley is spectacular and the colours change as a reflection of the season. Called the “Copper Forest” by local people it’s in autumn that the chestnut trees are at their finest, full of browns, yellow, gold and orange.
Chestnuts grow in vibrant green prickly pods, which look pretty but are too sharp to handle. When they are ready to be harvested, the pods change to brown and split open to reveal the nuts inside. They are normally harvested in early November and at that time the forest is full of people with baskets picking by hand.
The whole forest is intertwined with pathways and is popular with hikers and cyclists. It’s a good place to come for a walk before moving down the valley to one of the small villages or the provincial capital, Ronda.
On our way down we stopped at the white village of Benalaura, a pretty place with just 150 inhabitants on the side of the Genal Valley, tucked away under a chestnut grove. The streets here are well kept, although too narrow for cars, which are not allowed in the village.
There is an open museum here showing how olive oil was milled in earlier times, olives being the second commonly grown crop in the region.
You’ll also find the smallest winery in the world here, tucked away in part of a house. It is called “28 Meters” denoting the size of the vineyard and was set up in 2016. Even with such a small plot size, a press and fermentation tank was bought and is on display. When we visited a delivery of just-harvested grapes were arriving to start their journey to become wine.
We stayed and sampled some of the yet un-labelled white wine along with local Payoyo cheese (goats cheese voted the best in the world by the World Cheese Awards) and some chestnut sauces. This was a rare find, unique to this village and exactly the kind of thing a true traveller relishes discovering. Thanks, Jet2, cheers.
What do to in Ronda, Costa del Sol:
The town of Ronda is split either side of a 120m deep gorge, the El Tajo, which helped defend it from attackers and has made the town an important multicultural historic location. The gorge itself has been created by the natural erosion from the Rio Guadalevin, a river flowing from the Sierra de las Nieve mountains which also provides fresh water to the town.
Although deep, the gorge is only 60m wide and after an initial single-span bridge fell down in 1750, the current “New Bridge” or “Puente Nuevo” as it is called, was built and completed in 1793 after 43 years of construction work. It was only after this period that the northern side of the town started to be fully developed.
There are plenty of access points to take great pictures of the bridge and the gorge, and even better viewing can be had from many of the hotels around Ronda. Given its striking view and sense of scale, it is no wonder the New Bridge at Ronda is one of the top 5 most photographed icons in Spain. The side roads in Ronda, the bridge and the open spaces are still paved in cobbles, so you really are walking on centuries of trodden paths.
Most visitors start on the North side of the bridge, with the friendly Andalucía Tourism Board office, station, the towns commercial centre and the Plaza de Toros Bullring. Ronda is known as the birthplace of modern bullfighting, and although even the locals are losing a taste for it, the history and heritage within the town are worth exploring. The bullring itself is still used occasionally but has been maintained in its original style and is much more of a living museum now, as well as an equestrian centre.
Crossing the bridge to the southern side takes us to “Old Ronda” or La Ciudad of Ronda and it is a photographers delight. Ronda is one of the oldest cities in all of Spain having been settled by Romans, Moors, Christians, amongst others. Parts of the town still have the medieval walls and supporting portals along with an entire covering of cobblestone streets. Numerous centuries-old palaces, churches, plazas and official buildings can be seen here, almost all of which can be visited freely or for a nominal fee.
A walking tour of Ronda is a pleasant and enjoyable way to spend a few hours, with almost everything you could want to see no more than 300 metres from the bridge. However, there is so much to explore in Ronda, the Arab Baths, the Museum, and the ability to descend into the gorge to explore, that it is worth stayed in one of the many top hotels here for a night or two.
What to do in Malaga, Costa del Sol:
Malaga is the capital of the Costa del Sol, a lively, vibrant city, and with regular Jet2 flights to Malaga Airport its never been easier to visit. It has a beautiful and practical pedestrianised centre which is amazing at night, a range of quirky museums, innovative restaurants and stylish hotels, many featuring fashionable rooftop terraces with bar, pool and the obvious stunning views. There is even a new retro district bringing a bohemian edge to the city. Visitors come to Malaga because of the easy access (by Jet2 plane or boat), excellent internal transport systems, top-class cuisine and historic monuments, from Moorish and Roman times through to modern day. Yet the city retains an authentic Andalucian feel. Oh, and of course one of the main reasons to visit Malaga, the warm weather!
Malaga is home to The Museo de Málaga, which opened on 12 December 2016 in the impressive Palacio de la Aduana. It brought together the former Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes (Provincial Museum of Fine Arts) and Museo Arqueológico Provincial into what is a large working museum, with space for both visitor and scholars to work. The 18,000 square metre museum has 8 large segmented rooms, five dedicated to archaeology the other three to fine arts. There are just over 2,000 pieces in the fine arts collection and more than 15,000 in the archaeology collection.
It is also known as the Picasso museum as it has many of his works, and the gallery rooms are set out to explore his evolution in art. Layed out by date, you can see the influences Picasso had as he was starting out, through to the artists he influenced at the end of his life. Even for non-museum lovers, it made for a very interesting and understandable exhibition.
The museum has a fabulous rooftop restaurant with views inland across Malaga and up to the Castle walls. The food is amazing and it is a destination for many in its own right.
If you want a fun way to nip around town, you can hire a Segway, and go around on your own or with a guide. It’s a great way to quickly skirt across the town, from the Castle walls to the beachfront. The Segway shop is in the centre of Malaga, with helpful staff to show you how it works if you haven’t used one before. Segway is for all ages too and surprisingly many older people seem to find it easier than the younger generation. We took an hour ride around, just long enough to get our bearings and identify things we’d like to see again, although it was so much fun we could have spent much longer.
Food and Drink in Costa del Sol:
Whilst there are so many things to do in Costa del Sol, there are even more things to eat and drink along the way! The centre of Malaga is car-free and it is also the heart of the dining area, with bars and restaurants setting their tables out on the streets. It is a real centre of gastronomy and almost impossible to go anywhere in the town and be far from a restaurant.
Food in the Costa del Sol region has developed at a fast pace, with bars and restaurant improving their service, offerings and presentation to exceed the expectations of diners. Locally sourced produce is used whenever possible, with both fish and meat brought in from sustainable sources. In the modern world where most people Instagram their food, Costa del Sol gastronomy is up there with the best.
For a pre-meal nibble or post-meal tipple, the wine and tapas at Antigua Casa De Guarida in central Malaga is hard to beat. It is based in the old station building which gives it added historic charm. Barrels of quality dessert wine and sherry are ready to be sampled at only 1.20 euro per glass. Optional light tapas include smoked skewers with salmon, tuna and cheese or a plate of steamed mussels with lemon for only 6 euros. It is usually busy with a complete cross-section of ages and reflects how wine and tapas should be taken – socially with friends.
Even provincial bars and restaurants have upped their game with food. The pretty Almocabar Restaurant, on the edge of Ronda, with tables laid out in the open town square is the epitome of a Spanish village bar, yet the food is modern gastronomy, mixing local produce with flair. The popcorn with Snapper was a perfect example of modern flair on traditional food, delivering a meal that worked perfectly with flavours and presentation.
To further enhance the culinary ability of both restaurateurs and visitors alike, you can visit the Spain Food Sherpas cookery school. Located in the heart of Malaga, it runs courses that visitors to the Costa del Sol can take to learn about specific Spanish dishes. I spent a few hours there on a half-day workshop learning how to make a proper Spanish Paella.
I learnt, cooked, and then ate my own cooking for lunch (I didn’t burn it!). It was a friendly way to learn and a great activity to do if you want to learn more about authentic Spanish cuisine and cooking methods. They also do food and tasting tours of Malaga, so if you want to go on the gastronomy equivalent of a pub crawl in a safe environment, these are the guys to see.
Where to stay in Costa del Sol – Hotels:
Jet2holidays showed 2 of the hotels they recommend when going to the Costa del Sol, each aimed at a different market and ideal for winter sun escapes.
The Barceló Málaga Hotel is a 4-star modern business hotel located in the quieter business section of Malaga in the city of Malaga and is recognised by the magazine Wallpaper as one of the top 50 business hotels in the world. Although a business hotel, it is just a short walk from the city’s main pedestrianized area, full of restaurant and cultural exhibits.
The hotel has an exclusive and avant-garde design and boasts one of the most spectacular receptions in the country due to an enormous steel slide that directly connects the first floor to the lounge below. It’s a great way to make an entrance (or exit) by getting out of the lift on the 1st floor and sliding down to meet your friends in reception below. The use of colour at night made the whole experience feel upmarket and intimate.
Located on the 8th floor of the hotel and with views across the Malaga skyline is the B-Heaven Relax & Ambience space, with a solarium area, pool and cocktail bar. I wasn’t able to spend much time there, but it was fun when I did. For a stylish and functional business hotel that offers a great location, the Jet2holidays break at Barcelo Malaga Hotel gives you it all.
If you want more of a beach-based hotel then the Iberostar Marbella Coral Beach with Jet2holidays delivers everything you could want. The Iberostar Marbella Coral Beach is a high-grade 4-star all-inclusive beach hotel, that anyone wanting sun, pool and sea would enjoy. It has a private pool which leads to their own beach restaurant and then to the beach and sea.
The rooms have views of the sea, pool or gardens, with free Wi-Fi, a decent amount of power sockets (and USB chargers), flat-screen TVs and furnished balconies. There is a range of room types available, adding separate lounges for the large families and rooftop hot tubs for the more fun and decadent.
The hotel runs bespoke activities for guests, one of which is a “Mindfulness and Meditation” yoga session on the beach. With minimalist yoga and more focus on listening and breathing, this is a course anyone could enjoy regardless of fitness. With the beach to yourself and only the sounds of the waves, you couldn’t find a better spot to truly unwind.
With so many things to do in Costa del Sol, no two holidays will be the same. Jet2 make it easy to fly there directly from Manchester, Leeds, Stansted and other regional airports. So now’s the time to plan your winter sun escape to the Costa del Sol with Jet2Holidays.
Thinking of going? Why not pin this for later!