Whoever said you can't have it all hasn't been to the Costa del Sol. Skirting Spain's southern coast, it packs in the full spectrum of beach holidays. Take Benalmadena, for example. What families can’t do in here isn’t worth mentioning. The super-sized stretch of sand is the big draw, and then there’s the Sea Life Centre and theme park to think about. There’s no shortage of bars, shops and restaurants, either. And you can go traditional in its cobbled old town, Benalmadena Pueblo.
Torremolinos is another classic beach resort. Its sandy sweeps are dotted with ‘chiringuito’ bars, and the town itself is choc-full of shops and restaurants. The place really comes alive at night. For something a little more slow-paced, head for the old district, El Calvario, and you’ll find traditional markets and countless tapas bars.
Authentic Spain and City Life
If traditional Spain is high on your agenda, try the seaside town of Estepona. It’s still a pretty big resort, but it’s held tight to its whitewashed, Andalusian charm. Wander its steep cobbled streets and you’ll come across no end of unusual shops, pavement cafés and tapas bars. The original fish market is still going strong, too. And if you’re up for venturing away from the coastline, Andalusia’s big three – Granada, Seville and Cordoba – are all within daytripping distance.
Things to See and Do in Costa del Sol
With a name that translates as the Sunshine Coast, you can guess that this place does a nice line in beaches. All along the coast, from Nerja in the east to Estepona in the west, you’ll find wide ribbons of sand bordered by palm trees and swimmer-friendly waters.
The Big Beach
If we’re talking popularity contests, Torremolinos’ Playacar Beach would win hands down. Come summer this place is packed with sun-seekers. The slate-coloured sands stretch along the coast for a kilometre, though, so there’s always room to lay out your beach towel. There’s pretty much everything you could need here – sunbeds, showers, watersports, and even a playground for the kids. And when lunchtime rolls around there are shedloads of chiringuitos and beach bars serving up fried fish and ice-cold San Miguels.
The Secret Beach
If you prefer your sand with a bit more of a ‘do-not-disturb’ feel, Nerja’s Playa Carabeillo is a good shout. It’s a small, sand-and-shingle bay fringed by palms and bookended by jagged cliffs. It tends to stay pretty empty, as most holidaymakers settle down at Burriana Beach, Playa Carabeillo’s famous neighbour. You won’t find any noisy beach bars or cafés here, either, although there are a couple at the top of the cliff, so there’s not far to go if you’re peckish.
Puerto Banus, a 20-minute drive from Estepona, is the best place in the Costa del Sol for designer shopping. Its streets are lined with the likes of Gucci, Dior, Armani and Bulgari. If your budget allows it, head to the Golden Mile just behind the marina for the pick of top-end shops.
Fuengirola, a 15-minute car ride from Benalmadena, is a great place for high-street buys. Its central square, Plaza de la Constitucion, rolls out big names like Benetton, Pull & Bear and Zara. Over in Benalmadena, Avenida de Consitución and the streets spinning off it are the place to be for on-trend clothes and shoe shops.
Two of the best markets in the area are at Torremolinos' Recinto Ferial and Estepona's marina. They're held every Sunday and you can pick up souvenirs like handmade jewellery, leather bags and even the odd antique. As with most markets, the prices aren't fixed in these places, so barter for all you’re worth.
The nightlife doesn't really get going ‘til late on the Costa del Sol, so a quiet evening revolves around dinner and a drink in a bar. Estepona's old town has a good selection of bars that aren't too booming. Elsewhere, the La Carihuela area of Torremolinos still has a quiet, fishing-village vibe about it, with a slew of low-key bars and good restaurants along the prom.
Although Torremolinos still wears the nightlife crown when most people think of the Costa del Sol, Benalmadena is actually livelier. In both places the clubs start late – they don't open ‘til 11pm – and go on past dawn. In Torremolinos, head to Avda de Palma de Mallorca, and in Benalmadena go for the aptly-named 24 hour Square.
This rustic, tomato-based soup is packed with raw vegetables, garlic, vinegar and olive oil, and served with crusty bread. It was introduced to region in pre-Roman times and quickly became a favourite throughout the Spanish empire. Farmers used to eat it at lunch to cool off from the midday sun as, famously, it's served cold.
Like gazpacho, this soup is served cold, usually as an appetiser with grapes or melon. It's made of bread, crushed almonds, garlic, olive oil, water, and sometimes a splash of vinegar. You’ll find it on menus all over Costa del Sol, with a few interesting variations to keep things interesting. In Granada, for example, they like it with baked potatoes.
This is rumoured to be the inspiration behind British favourite, fish and chips, and apparently it originated in Torremolinos. The secret to its success lies in the batter – the fish is fried in a special mixture that keeps it nice and light. The type of fish may vary from place to place, but you’d be hard pushed to find a menu that doesn’t offer it.
Huevos a la Flamenco
Flamenco eggs, as this is better known, is a big favourite in these parts. Onions, garlic, peppers, and chopped tomatoes are made into a thick sauce and used as a base to poach the eggs in. It goes down well with crusty bread and a hearty red wine.
This alcoholic drink is a bit like sangria, but simpler. It contains an even mix of red wine and gaseosa, a low-sugar, lightly flavoured lemonade. There might sometimes be a dash of rum or a slice of lemon added, but the locals love it however it comes, especially on warm summer afternoons.