It’s easy to turn your nose up at the Costa del Sol, but don’t be so hasty – Malaga is quietly enjoying something of a renaissance 

And so, to Malaga… Forget the airport, with its associations of budget airlines, package holidays and hen-dos. Forget the journey from the airport – as like the outskirts of many towns, Malaga’s are anything but inspiring. But allow yourself to be transported to the elegant heart of this ancient city in Andaluzia on the southern coast of Spain. Picture this. Above you, the Alcazaba – a fine Moorish palace-fortress atop the hill, along the lines of its much more famous sibling, the Alhambra in nearby Granada (which makes sense, for in Moorish times, Malaga was the port of the kingdom of Granada). Below you, the sea, and beaches. All around you, beautiful gardens, and palm trees filled with parakeets – and stunningly handsome buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in assorted styles suited to the Spanish belle-époque. Of which one today is a classic reborn – the Gran Hotel Miramar, first opened in 1926 by King Alfonso XIII, and reopened this year as Malaga’s first proper luxury hotel.


It’s a gem, from its Moorish-style atrium (now a café and cocktail bar) to its seventh-floor ‘chill-out’ bar overlooking the beach, the sea and the nearby port, with a fine view of the hills behind you. And its revival (as part of the Santos group but affiliated to Leading Hotels of the World) is part of an ambitious plan by Malaga’s municipal authorities to make this fine city a destination in its own right, rather than a place we fly to on our way to Fuengirola or Marbella.


Their cunning plan? To build on Malaga’s art credentials, which for all the city’s ancient roots, are thoroughly contemporary. Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, so as well as the house he was born in – his Casa Natal, run by the Fundacion Picasso – there is the Museo Picasso Malaga, which like the artist himself, is compact but punchy. There is a permanent exhibition charting Picasso’s course from superb but conventional figurative art to the bold, innovative work we most associate with him. And there are visiting exhibitions. Coals to Newcastle, perhaps, for visiting Brits, but The School of London show (until September 17th) is a fascinating survey of art in London in the 20th century, with major works by Bacon, Freud, Kitaj and others – and well worth jumping on a plane for in its own right.


But Malaga punches above its artistic weight even beyond this celebrated museum. Here there are also satellite galleries of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza and St Petersburg Russian State Museum (the latter currently showcasing old Russia, in the form of an exhibition about the Romanov dynasty, and the Russia which replaced it, in the form of Kandinsky). Then just next door, a Museum of Automotive History and Fashion.


All this contemporary cool, along with an old city steeped in history that is delightful to stroll around and explore. So old, in fact, that in the basement of the Picasso Museum you’ll find the ruins of Roman Malaga, and even Phoenician Malaka, in the form of a house from the 6th century BC. What’s more there’s a very strong food culture. Just within strolling distance of the Gran Hotel Miramar, you’ll find two perfect examples, once again contrasting old and new. Aire (just along from the hotel in the tree-lined Paseo de Reding) is new wave fusion – expect suckling pig as you’ve never seen it before; while Restaurante La Bahia (on Calle Fernando Camino) is a superb, old-school, family-run restaurant (with excellent seafood, and an irresistible turon ice-cream for pudding).


What’s most heartening though is to see a great old hotel return to life – and in such style too, along with excellent service, delivered with professionalism and warmth. After its initial heyday, the hotel became a field hospital during the Spanish Civil War, and then for a while housed the local magistrate’s court. But its elegant lines, lush gardens and perfect setting are designed for pleasure, surely. So today it feels like things are back, just as they ought to be, and the local pride in this venture is a pleasure to see.

James Collard