See more of the story

“Look, Leo — helado,” a bespectacled man calls out to his companion, who is slowly trudging up the steep incline behind him. Helado, the Spanish word for ice cream, sounds awfully good right now. It’s about 90 degrees here in Málaga, and we’re all heading to Gibralfaro Castle, an ancient Moorish fortress built on top of a steep hill.

But the vendor’s shop lies a short hike downhill from our current perch, and my husband, Ed, and I are determined to reach the castle sooner rather than later. So while the two men discuss whether it’s time to break for helado, Ed and I continue skyward.

Eventually, we reach the “castle,” which is not really a castle at all, but rather the remains of one. That’s fine with us, though, because the solid ramparts that once protected it are intact, and impressive. You can walk along them and drink in sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the city of Málaga to the north, protectively encircled by the rugged Málaga Mountains.

Ed and I stroll along the ramparts, snapping photos of each new vista, including one that perfectly highlights the city’s red bullring far below. We learn that some people head up here during bullfights to take in a fight for free. An interesting idea, but we’re thinking a return trip at sunset would be magical.

Málaga is a southern port city on Spain’s famous Costa del Sol, or Sun Coast, a nickname derived from the fact that the sun shines here more than 300 days per year. Home to more than 500,000 people, Málaga is also Spain’s sixth-largest city. Yet for years, many travelers used its bustling airport as a gateway to more popular Costa del Sol destinations, such as Marbella and Gibraltar.

Then, in 2003, the Museo Picasso Málaga opened downtown in the city’s Buenavista Palace. Dedicated to celebrating the famous 20th-century artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso, who was born here, it contains more than 250 of his artworks, including paintings, ceramics, sculptures and prints. The museum quickly drew new visitors to the city which, in turn, spurred Málaga to open more museums, attractions, restaurants and hotels. So the visitors kept coming.

Between 2005 and 2018, Málaga’s annual number of hotel tourists increased a whopping 200%, from about 456,000 to 1.4 million, according to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics. This made Málaga the country’s leader in urban destination growth, with Barcelona a distant second. Clearly, the city had come into its own.

We hadn’t known too much about Málaga before deciding to visit. We knew it was on the Mediterranean, and that it was close to Granada, home of Spain’s famous Alhambra, another palace-fortress. When an acquaintance mentioned that a large contingent of people from my small hometown of Sun Prairie, Wis., regularly vacationed in Málaga, I decided we needed to check it out. So here we are.

Before Ed and I busted our quads hiking up to the Gibralfaro, we’d visited the adjacent Alcazaba, another Moorish citadel that connects to the Gibralfaro. This 11th-century palace-fortress is more intact, and features courtyards, gardens, caliphal arches, a well, dungeons and a carved wooden ceiling dating to the 16th century. Though both the Gibralfaro and Alcazaba were constructed by the Moors — the Muslims who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages — the structures are also famed because Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella laid siege to both in 1487, when they were inhabited by the Moors. The monarchs won, ousting the Moors, and King Ferdinand temporarily resided here.

We take 10 minutes to wander through a large archaeological excavation site sitting just below street level, at the Alcazaba’s base, featuring an expansive Roman forum, or theater. The Romans occupied Málaga several centuries before the Moors moved in, and the Moors used pieces of their deteriorated forum to help build the Alcazaba and Gibralfaro. Over time, the forum’s remains became totally buried. It wasn’t until 1951 that the theater was rediscovered; in 2011, it was opened to the public after a major reconstruction. Besides being open for visiting, the theater also hosts open-air performances.

Our Malagueñan itinerary

Today seems to be the day for history and scenic views, so after leaving the Roman forum we grab tickets for a popular rooftop tour at the nearby Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación. The stunning Renaissance-style Catholic cathedral boasts a 276-foot tower that can be seen from across the city, and which makes the church the second-tallest cathedral here in the autonomous community of Andalusia, after Seville’s Giralda.

Once again we find ourselves huffing and puffing, but this time up 200 steps, not sloping pavement. And when we eventually pop out on the rooftop, once again the views are incredible: an expansive, sapphire sea; hundreds of light-colored Malagueñan buildings framed by rugged mountains; and the mighty Alcazaba and Gibralfaro, muscling their way up a steep, green hill.

Ed and I make a point to inspect the cathedral’s massive tower up close. The building’s original plans called for twin towers, not just one. But when it was time to start construction on the second one, in the 18th century, Americans were fighting their War of Independence. And the Spanish government decided to give the money set aside for the tower to the Americans to aid their cause. So the cathedral was left with just one tower and the nickname La Manquita, or the One-Armed Lady.

Day 2 finds us scoping out the city’s food and arts scene. Our lodging at the Hotel NH Málaga turns out to be the perfect locale, as it lies within a mile or two of pretty much everything we’d like to see. Our first stop, just across the Guadalmedina River from our hotel, is the city’s popular central market, the Mercado de Atarazanas.

We pop in the bustling Mercado, a fashionable structure with colorful stained glass windows and a massive arched stone entrance that once served as the gateway to the 14th-century Nasrid shipyards. Turning down the first aisle, we’re greeted by colorful fruits and vegetables spilling out of baskets and bins. Another turn, and the stalls are piled with glistening silver fish, set atop mounds of ice. Soon competing vendors are encouraging us to sample the seasoned almonds they’ve set out on special plates. The nuts are delicious, and a Málaga specialty, so we purchase a small sack to fuel our meanderings.

Just south of the market is the Soho arts district. It’s sleepy today, but we enjoy wandering the streets to see if we can spot all of the graffiti created by international artists. One of our favorites depicts various celebrities who call Málaga home, including movie star Antonio Banderas.

Now heading east and back north, we hit the trendy section of downtown Málaga, where beautifully restored historic buildings, boutiques and restaurants abound. Knots of tourists move up and down the intertwined streets as heavily painted living statues leap to life, startling and amusing passers-by.

A woman near a display cart darts out to hand us paper cups filled with a white liquid. She says it’s “ajoblanco,” but I don’t understand that word. A quick sip reveals it’s white garlic soup, a popular cold soup in the Costa del Sol. Realizing we haven’t tasted too much local cuisine yet, I pull out my phone and quickly make reservations for an evening wine and tapas tour with Spain Food Sherpas, a newer regional business. Some earlier research showed it’s received much acclaim.

A random turn brings us to the Picasso Museum. We’re not huge fans of contemporary art, and neither of us has a particular fondness for Picasso. But he’s famous, and a native son, so we head in anyway. Good call. The exhibits are well curated, and the audio tour is well paced, informative and rather fascinating.

Later, as we head back into the sunshine, Ed spies a souvenir shop and picks up a purple refrigerator magnet featuring a Picasso work of art. “I want this for our fridge,” he says, handing the woman three euros. I’m surprised at his purchase, and surprised that I approve.

A tapas tour

That night, we join a group of five women from England and a couple from Scotland on our Food Sherpa tour. Felipe Álvarez is our host. Felipe leads us to four establishments, where we sample a variety of tapas and wines, all of which are local favorites. Our first tapa combines olives and sardines, sardines being especially popular here. Next up: some cheeses and Iberian ham, the latter a coveted and pricey cured meat made from acorn-fed black Iberian pigs.

We groan when we learn there is no more “berenjenas con miel,” or fried eggplant with honey, at our third stop. Álvarez was sure we’d love this popular, sweet dish, but the restaurant’s supply was wiped out by a group of rugby players who are just leaving. The owners reward us by serving plenty of other tasty tapas, all accompanied by some of Málaga’s famous sweet white wines and sherry.

Stuffed and sleepy, we nevertheless take Álvarez’s advice to stop at a nearby bar for one last drink. The bar sits on an upper level and features an outdoor patio overlooking the Alcazaba, now beautifully lit for nighttime enjoyment. As we sip on our drinks, Ed pulls the little purple Picasso magnet out of his pocket, gliding his finger over the word “Málaga” stamped on the bottom.

“I’m really glad I got this,” he says. I am, too. But I’ll wait until we’re home to tell him that our new stainless-steel refrigerator does not have magnetized doors.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a travel and adventure writer. She lives near Madison, Wis. Find her online at thethousandmiler.com