The Best Costa del Sol Day Trips: Málaga, Marbella and Gibraltar

Beautiful beaches, glamorous visitors and perfect weather — when it comes to resort destinations, Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast has it all. See for yourself with these day trips from Costa del Sol.

When I was an expat living in southern Spain, I had the unique opportunity to thoroughly explore Costa del Sol.  While this stretch of coast may be most famous for its glitzy resorts, sunny skies and sandy beaches, I also discovered numerous destinations abundant in culture, natural beauty and history.

The next time you’re visiting Costa del Sol, grab your beach hat and camera and head to these fantastic day-trip spots.

Take in Andalusian culture in Málaga.

Málaga, home to the region’s airport, often gets overlooked as a vacation destination. When I spent a day there, though, I discovered the city is rich with southern Spain’s Andalusian culture.

For my first stop, I caught a glimpse of the area’s Moorish roots at the Alcazaba. The 11th-century fortress is filled with gorgeous courtyards, bubbling fountains and lush gardens. Walking through, I couldn’t help but imagine the intrigue that happened behind the citadel’s walls during this part of Málaga’s history.

From there, I headed to the Museo Picasso to relish in the success of one of Málaga’s own, Pablo Picasso. This museum is home to more than 200 of the artist’s works, arranged to give visitors a chronological overview of Picasso’s career and artistic phases. While I don’t consider myself an art buff, I enjoyed the thorough primer on Picasso, as well as the beautiful, Andalusian-style museum, complete with sundrenched square courtyards and lovely whitewashed walls.

I was hungry after all the touring, so I stopped by Málaga’s daily market, Mercado Atarazanas. I love how local markets all over Spain offer a taste of the regional culinary specialties and an opportunity to rub shoulders with residents. Mercado Atarazanas is an especially beautiful market; its facade features a massive and vibrant stained glass wall depicting the infamous Spanish Armada sailing into port. Exploring was delight for all the senses, with stalls and tables loaded with fresh fruits, pata negra (whole cured pork leg), saffron and more types of olives than I even knew existed.

Soak in the sun in Marbella.

Marbella is a popular beach vacation spot with an international vibe, rife with resorts and white-sand beaches. My first impression was that it was only for the glitzy and glamorous, with its designer shopping, golf courses and reputation for celebrity sightings. But after a friend and I spent a full day there, I changed my mind: Marbella is a great place for anyone to relax.

We spent the morning at the Puerto Banus Street Market, an outdoor flea market that offers everything from clothes to kitchenware to antique furniture. My favorite find was a gorgeous silver Italian stovetop espresso maker that I snagged for a few euros (after some haggling).

Afterward, we wandered into the Old Quarter, or Casco Antiguo, which feels like it’s in a different world from the modern luxury resorts less than a mile away. This small section of town is classically Andalusian, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets and white Spanish-tiled buildings.

In the evening, we strolled along the beach and ate dinner at one of the many casual beachside restaurants, or chiringuitos. I happily savored salt-roasted whole fish and sipped a refreshing glass of tinto (a wine-based drink similar to sangria).

Monkey around in Gibraltar.

Gibraltar isn’t technically part of Costa del Sol — or Spain, for that matter (it’s a British Overseas Territory). But it’s close enough for a day trip. So, when my parents came to Spain for a visit, we grabbed our passports and made the two-hour drive. The city, built on a dramatic outcrop of rock that overlooks the Strait of Gibraltar, is less than three-square miles. British influences are evident as you walk down the main thoroughfare, which makes it a fun departure from Spain.

Gibraltar is home to several oddities, including the stunning St. Michael’s Cave. Visitors can walk through the cavernous, two-level space, admiring the gorgeously lit stalactites and stalagmites. There’s also an amazing amphitheater where you can catch a concert.

After touring downtown, we headed for the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, a limestone formation where the city’s famous barbary apes reside. These adorable monkeys spend their days lounging in the sun and eyeing the gaping humans. If you visit, be careful: The primates aren’t shy. We had to stifle laughs as we watched one bold monkey steal a bag of chips straight out of a woman’s hand!

Quick Tip:

There are various ways to get to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, depending on your level of motivation. We chose the steep walk so we could enjoy the views; you can also take a tram or van from the town center.


Where to Stay:

Marriott’s Marbella Beach Resort

Marriott’s Playa Andaluza

Melanie W. is a writer living Denver, Colorado.