Andalucía is the southernmost region of Spain; rich in centuries of history and culture, where Southern Europe merges with North Africa, and where the arid, dusty hills meet sandy beaches and deep, blue sea. Andalucía is vast, and if you want to explore the great cities, you will really need to stay for ten days or a fortnight to have time to do everything. It is quite often a 2-3 hour drive, sometimes more, from one part of the region to the next and one can easily spend at least a full day in each of these important sites. Andalucía is the land of flamenco, sherry, Moorish palaces, glitzy beaches and centuries of rich history to discover.
I recently spent a week in Andalucía, discovering the must-visit cities and places to eat. Generally, the standard of food in Spain is very good. I’ll always look for fresh, good quality ingredients and a small, daily menu which often gives an indication of the quality of an establishment. Here are my recommendations.
Marbella is famous for its beaches, which are generally very good – Nikki Beach is my favourite – and it’s characterful Old Town. It is very much worth spending an hour exploring if you are in the area.
La Alameda square is a delight, just a few steps up from the beach. To get to the Old Town, cross over the road, and head up Calle África into the winding streets, which run right up to the castle. To eat, I cannot recommend a visit to Puente Romano more highly. It is a truly magical and luxurious beach side resort, which has a number of smart restaurants offering the glamorous experience many come to Marbella to enjoy.
We were due to visit UNI, their very well regarded Japanese restaurant. However, the weather took a turn for the worse, with heavy rain and wind forecast, so we were relocated to Sea Grill, their seafood restaurant, safely indoors. It was a rough night, which was a shame – I can only imagine how lovely it is to dine outdoors on a balmy night. The weather did not detract from our experience though – we had a really gorgeous evening. The Sea Grill dining room is seriously elegant, with a live band playing as you dine to set the scene. Service is very efficient and charming, in both Spanish and English. To start, we shared some really memorable salads – a stunning tuna tartare with avocado and sesame seeds and an equally special lobster tail salad with beautifully dressed leaves, seaweed shreds and avocado.
As you might guess with the name Sea Grill, the menu revolves around freshly caught fish and grilled meats. The menu offers plenty of choice from familiar favourites to catch of the day fish from the market cooked in a variety of ways. Unable to choose between meat and fish, we went for the unoriginal yet superbly executed surf and turf. The steak was really special; a subtle coating of spices gave the steak a delicious layer of umami, which combined with a charcoal-grilled exterior and cooked-just-to-my-liking pink interior made for a delicious and memorable meal, especially as it was accompanied by a glass of Bodegas Muga Selección Especial Muga 2011, which was really special.
Further along the coast, there are some excellent places to eat in Fuengirola. Los Marinos José is excellent for fresh fish, and is usually packed out with locals. Palangreros is also fantastic. The food is very seasonal and fresh, and the welcome is warm. Whilst Fuengirola may not be everyone’s cup of tea – to be honest, it’s not mine – it’s really worth an evening visit to eat.
World famous for its sherry, Jerez is a truly gorgeous small city in the west of Andalucía, with a rich history and long tradition of fortified wine making. Its elegant boulevards make for a relaxed few hours strolling around the city.
The Cathedral is worth a visit and a 5 Euro entry ticket to the Alcazaba is essential. It is really interesting – allow one to two hours to explore the shady courtyards, richly planted patios and to climb up on the walls to enjoy the best views in the city. A sherry tour is very worthwhile. Tio Pepe is right next to the Alcazaba, and the Lustau tour is particularly recommended for wine enthusiasts. Stop at El Gallo Azul for a drink – try a fino and an amontillado to taste – and watch the world go by.
Malaga was one of the great discoveries of this trip. So many people have told me to skip a visit to Malaga, and I hadn’t actually been before. I couldn’t help thinking how wrong they were. The city centre is so elegant – palm tree lined boulevards and squares and a rich, cultural fell to the city, home to an incredible array of art museums and galleries.
As you stroll around town, stop for ice cream at the exceptional Casa Mira on Calle Marqués de Larios (there is one in Marbella old town, too), and ensure you get to the Cathedral, the exquisite Alcazaba – SO worth the 2 Euro entry fee – and if you can, trek up to the Mirador to watch the sun go down and enjoy the unparalleled views.
To eat, El Pimpi is really excellent. Traditional Spanish food, served in magical surroundings opposite the Alcazaba. It would be perceived as a touristy haunt, but the food is really excellent, service extremely proficient and atmosphere vibrant. We liked it so much, we went for dinner twice. There is a huge menu, and everything we tried was excellent, both in terms of food and drinks. The jamón and selection of cured meats was simply sublime – of the very highest quality. The soups were excellent, especially the ajo blanco, which is a chilled almond soup, and the grilled meats with peppers and eggs excellent, too. Look out for the barrels signed by famous visitors at the back of the restaurant.
Ronda is another must-visit if you are in Andalucía. It is a truly delightful city, famous for it’s dramatic bridge. Ronda is a small town that does draw the tourists in, but it still retains a wonderful friendly atmosphere.
Stop for a good coffee in town at Granier, and try some good, fresh cakes, such ensaimadas and fartons (good gluten free bread, too), and stroll down into town and over the bridge, allowing plenty of time to walk around to the amphitheatre. The Parador Hotel is perfectly placed for a glass of something cold and alcoholic on the terrace,
Where to stay
When planning our visit to Andalucía, we decided that we would probably want to travel around and visit some of the many interesting cities dotted throughout the region. The distances between many are quite significant, so we wanted to base ourselves near to a major road so that we were able to get about quickly and easily. It is worth considering this when booking your accommodation – whilst the idea of a rural hilltop location can be heavenly if you are planning on parking yourself next to the pool for a week – it can be a pain if you want to explore and have to add 45 minutes to each journey to travel down to a major road.
We decided to stay near Mijas on the Costa del Sol, in a great self-catering villa, which seemed to offer the perfect balance of space, our own swimming pool, close proximity to the beach and being well connected, allowing us to explore by car relatively easily.
Our villa was booked through Spain-Holiday, who were delightful to deal with – really helpful, friendly, organised and efficient. I would recommend them wholeheartedly. They have a really wide range of properties, in size, style and across a wide range of areas. We opted for a self-catering villa to give ourselves space, privacy and flexibility. So many bars in Spain offer breakfasts so it is very easy to stay in a villa and not cook at all – if that’s what you want. Freshly squeezed orange juice, milky coffees and juicy, ripe olive oil drenched tomatoes on bread can be found in every small town or street corner for breakfast.
How to get there and get around
We flew from Gatwick to Malaga with Monarch, and I’d really recommend them. Our flight experience was so much better than recent European flights we have undertaken with other airlines. Staff on board were very friendly and helpful and the planes were very comfortable, clean and with more legroom than other carriers. We did opt for extra legroom seats, which were even better still, with plenty of room to stretch out and store bags under the seats, too. For around £20 extra per way, I’d say it was well worth it.
On arrival in Malaga, I’d really recommend hiring a car. There are a number of excellent local taxi companies I have used, but it is quite nice to have complete freedom with your own car, rather than having to plan everything in advance and booking taxis. We drove ourselves around from city to city and it was pretty straightforward. The rail network in Spain is quite limited. There are trains running along the coast, and from one major cities to another, but you may not find there is a suitable route for you.
With thanks to Spain-Holiday for kindly inviting us out for the week, to Monarch for the flight discount and to Puente Romano for the dinner invitation.