I had to refrain myself from breaking into a sprint at Málaga’s train station. With only one day for exploring, sightseeing, and most importantly eating, I wanted to make sure I could cram everything in better than I can with my suitcase.

Málaga is the hometown of the famous artist Pablo Picasso (and Antonio Banderas too!). Naturally, the city attracts crowds of art types, history buffs, and people who like sand and don’t mind that it gets everywhere. After some quick research on my way to the city, I let out a huge gasp. There was much more to this place than just a museum and a cathedral and I only had 24 hours to explore it!

things to do in malaga inma lesielle
Photo by Inma Lesielle.

Cafe Central

But first, coffee. I found the neatly placed Cafe Central on the corner of the Plaza de la Constitución. It looked a lot like the kind of cafes you would find on the streets of Paris, but with much friendlier staff.

After a quick look inside, you couldn’t ignore the huge infographic displayed prominently on the back wall. It’s also featured across the cafe’s menus. The small illustrations paired with old-style calligraphy showcased the ten unique ways that Malagans order their coffee. A sharply-dressed waiter explained that it was painted during the 1950s to help customers make the right decision when it came to their brew.

I ordered the equivalent to an Americano (café solo) and sat in the outside seating area where I spent an hour or two feeling content that I had become a part of the cafe’s long list of clients. Knowing that it had been open for over 100 years, I began to wonder if Picasso himself had been a customer here.

Mercado Central De Ataranzanas

Anyone who enjoys eating would appreciate the huge industrial shelter of the Mercado Central de Atarazanas. It houses countless stalls of colorful, fresh vegetables, meat, and fish laid on beds of crushed ice.

The Mercado is a short walk from Cafe Central and is super easy to locate due to it being in an impressive 19th-century building adorned with gorgeous stained glass windows. You can’t miss it.

This vast space was filled with the sounds of shouting, and many people brushed past my shoulders as they purchased their needed items. It felt like being in the London Underground, but I was determined to eat. I was able to order some gazpacho, but it seemed as though it would have been a bit easier to with some knowledge of the Spanish language.

Gibralfaro Mirador

things to do in malaga meax
Photo by Meax.

Half of Malaga is shadowed by a huge hill with a castle perched on top. Even with limited time, it’s worth climbing that beast to see what the view is like.

On the way, you’ll see a bite-sized Roman Amphitheatre (Teatro Romano) that’s been beautifully preserved on the lap of the more youthful, but still crumbly fortress (Alcazaba de Málaga). It seems that Málaga has packed a lot of its history on this hill.

The walk up the Gibralfaro Hill in the scorching hot Costa Del Sol sun is long. I stopped only for sunscreen breaks and the occasional moan. I have to admit it was a struggle, but hearing the sound of the buskers’ flamenco and seeing the walls laced with flowers made it a little easier.

Once I had made it near the top, the views were like being inside a vintage postcard. I could see where the city poured in from the mountains and spilled out onto the sea. From that height, I could even take a peek inside the sleeping bull ring. It looked calm despite the chaos that happens during the fighting season.

Behind me was the 14th-century Castillo De Gibralfaro, which promised more panoramic views for a small entry fee. However, with the clock ticking and my belly reminding me that I was now minus calories, I thought the view from the mirador viewpoint was enough.

Malagueta Beach

I made a huge mistake. I wandered down the overgrown woodland side of the hill, thinking it would be much quicker. It wasn’t. I became increasingly worried that there may be snakes or unidentified creatures that will attack me on the way down–I highly recommend going the pathed route.

Thankfully, I did eventually meet the creamy sands of Malagueta beach and instantly forgot about my worries as the smell of a nearby barbecue reached my nose. You can find skewered fish all along the lengths of the beach. These skewered fish are called Espeto, and are a traditional Málagan dish that the city is known for. At this point, I could eat a small school, so I sat at a gingham-clothed table in Chiringuito Sicsu and ordered sardines.

The restaurant was affordable even though it was just a few short leaps to reach the sea. I happily munched on the Espeto de Sardinas (sardine skewers) that were subtly salty. It wasn’t easy to eat their little faces!

cathedral malaga meax
Photo by Meax.

La Manquita Cathedral

It would be a shame to leave Málaga without saying “hola” to the one-armed lady. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, and Màlaga has La Manquita.

La Manquita, the city’s most famous monument, is a Renaissance cathedral with a missing tower (hence the nickname). With only a few more hours to spare, I took a moment to bask in the architecture, take a few photos, and discover that the oranges from the surrounding trees were not edible.

The Picasso Museum

Despite there being no museum for Antonio Banderas (yet), there is one for Picasso. The city opened a museum dedicated to the famous artist with over 240 original pieces of his artwork housed in a beautiful mansion.

If you’re like me and don’t know anything about Cubism, you’ll be happy to find that an audio guide is included in the entrance fee. With its help, I navigated Picasso’s art, understanding a little more about his artistic transformation. I felt like I got to know Pablo, and by the time I was done, I felt like we were friends. Personally, I wish we had an audio guide for life. Maybe then I would understand the people who don’t own passports or the ones who dip their fries in milkshake.

Antigua Casa De Guardia

With just over two hours left, it was essential to make a quick pit stop at one of the wine cellars in order to experience some of Málaga’s popular wine culture. Antigua Casa De Guardia has been around since 1840, and it sure looks like it has been too. The eggnog-colored walls were lined with barrels pierced with taps and there were chalk stains on the wooden bar wedged in between a grey mustached bartender. He chatted with a local man with several wine cups before them.

I was fascinated by the many wooden barrels and tried to make out what the scribbles on them meant. The elderly bartender spotted me squinting and made a beeline over to me. He started joking in Spanish and I laughed as if I’d understood.

Each scribble, he told me, was the name of the wine and what year it was made. I picked one that was fairly young but with an interesting name. I’m not an expert on wine, but I wish I had known the word for dry (seco) and sweet (dulce). Being able to communicate which of these I liked would have saved me from choosing a super sweet number that made me feel like my teeth would fall out.

It was impossible to have only one glass with the vast melange of wines and the jovial bartender who proudly rang a bell every time he got tipped. Just as the sun started to disappear behind the terracotta buildings outside, I found a wine that I would elope to Málaga for.

As I drank, I realized that I had done a lot in the space of a day and I’m glad I didn’t sprint. Although there is so much more to see in the city (including some very gorgeous looking Turkish baths called Hammam Al Andalus), this was a great way to experience Málaga’s cultural past in just a single day.

Which cities have you only had a day to explore?

Header image by Christan Moller.