(West) Costa del Sol, Andalucia
Along 160 km of Spain's south-central coast, running from Estepona to Nerja, the Costa del Sol (Sun Coast) is the country's primo sun and sand destination, mainly because this coast boasts more sunshine than any other and partly because it used to be beautiful. Malaga claims to get 300 days of sunshine a year (though the sun is not reliable outside May-October).
Some people think the entire coast from Gibraltar to Cabo de Gata is one costa, but actually after Nerja it becomes Costa Tropical and then finally in the far east Costa Almeria.
The beaches of the Costa del Sol, protected from northerly winds by the Sierra Blanca mountains, offer extensive, rather coarse beige-fading-to-grey sands rinsed by warmish Mediterranean waters.
One of the best aspects of a holiday in this region - Andalucia - is that when visitors are tired of getting fried on the beaches they have easy access to Andalucia's stunning inland tourist attractions (a couple of hours in a rental car, or take a tour) such as Seville, Granada and Cordoba, and traditional white-washed, hill-top villages (known as Pueblos Blancos) such as Mijas (just 20 minutes away) and gorgeous Ronda. And then there's the mass of championship golf courses dotted around the area that trumpet this as the Costa del Golf...
This combination of sun, sand and sights is a big draw, enticing huge numbers of low-cost travellers and stuffing the beaches with boozy, burnt-to-a-crispy-pink Brits, Germans and Russians.
As a result of its dubious charms and excessive bribe-controlled development the Costa del Sol is Europe's most congested coastal strip, with a succession of world-recognised holiday complexes and overbuilt resorts such as Marbella, Torremolinos, Malaga and Nerja. Our choice of best beach resort on this Costa is Estepona.
From west to east, here's a summary of the Costa del Sol's biggest beach destinations:
Estepona's main beach, Blue Flag Playa La Rada (in April)
The town's La Rada beach is wide and 1.5kms long, with soft though dull coloured sand, backed by a fine promenade and all the usual facilities. The beach is much bigger than neighbouring Marbella's several offerings but the town is smaller and quieter and offers a more 'real' Spanish beach vacation with a charming old town and little late night action.
Estepona has a large and active fishing port that not only supplies the town with fresh fish, bars and restaurants but is also home to a regular Sunday market.
A few minutes west along the coast
is lovely little cove of Cristo Beach with lifeguards and a couple of beach cafés and bars, while further on is Spain's first nudist beach, Costa Natura.
Estepona claims a micro climate of over 325 days of sunshine a year.
It is only 45 kms from Gibraltar Airport but we can't recommend that route as 'immigration' queues to enter Gibraltar territory can be ridiculous, depending on how hostile the Spanish border guards are feeling that day. Malaga's excellent airport is 80 kms away, fastest via the A7 autopista (toll road).
Marbella's promenade, Paseo Maritimo, and Playa del Faro beach. More Marbella Pictures.
An hour's drive to the west of Malaga, Marbella is often referred to as the Miami/Monaco of Spain, where the rich, famous and beautiful people hang out. Pah! There may be some uber-expensive enclaves in the area, such as Puerto Banus, but central Marbella is inhabited mostly by depressed honeymoon couples, desperate housewives dragging kids along the promenade in search of cheap pizza (no problem there) and desperate husbands in search of a supercar sighting. Sorry guys, you'll have to make do with tired Seats.
Among its 24 beaches, out of town is best, such as relaxed Cabopino Beach, between Marbella (12 km away) and Fuengirola, offering expansive beige sand, dunes and shallow, clear waters, excellent for children and popular with nudists. It has a well-established beach bar with a lively atmosphere.
Nearby Las Chapas and Calahonda are also natural, soft sandy beaches.
The centrally located, grey-beige sands of Playa de la Venus, del Faro and de la Bajadilla are the most convenient and busiest stretches of sand while the best beaches are well out of the town centre, where Ferarris go for a whine, Nikki Beach in Elviria east Marbella, or Puerto Banus to the west.
The nearest airport is Malaga, 50km away. Although there is a good bus service between Malaga and Marbella, having your own car is the best option as Spanish public transport on the Costa del Sol is generally poor, though urban parking is a nightmare of absent signs, vehicle overdose and no room for the wicked.
Torremolinos' 9km of dark grey beaches are well maintained but dominated by high-rise hotels and apartment blocks; most tourists go to Torremolinos more for the vibrant Spanish nightlife than the dull beaches.
In the high season, both Playamar-Bajondillo in the east and Playa La Carihuela in the west are stuffed with packaged holiday makers, 70% of them from the UK. Party animals enjoy La Carihuela with its excellent beach bars. Torremolinos is 8 km from Malaga airport and 13 km from Malaga city centre. Buses are fast and cheap and you pay on entering to the driver.
Approximate time by bus or car, costoing from €1- €20, to:
Torremolinos - Granada, 3 hours.
Torremolinos - Ronda, 2 hours 25 min.
Torremolinos - Sevilla, 2 hours 30 min.
Torremolinos - Cordoba, 3 hours 30 min.
Torremolinos - Algeciras, 2 hours 40 min.
Torremolinos - Estepona, 1 hour 40 min.
Torremolinos - Marbella, 1 hour 5 min.
Torremolinos - Mijas, 1 hour.
Torremolinos - Fuengirola, 50 min.
Torremolinos - Malaga, 35 min.
Playa Malagueta, Malaga
The gray sand beaches and reasonably calm waters along the bay of Malaga are all well-maintained and well provided with facilities, ideal for families. The most popular is Playa de la Malagueta, a man-made, Blue Flag urban beach only 10 minutes from the Malaga city centre but parking is difficult, mostly along the roadside opposite, so a bike or bus would be a better way to get here. For watersports try the town beach of Playa Palo.
Malaga, by the way, is a sensational dining destination and not at all bad for culture and nightlife too, though a bit short in the interesting architecture department.
Some typically small but comfortable and convenient Nerja beaches (if you are staying in Nerja, otherwise parking is close to impossible).
50 km from Malaga airport Nerja's beaches are mostly small and tranquil but the sand is still coarse, light grey and tends towards pebbles despite the fortune spent by the local authority on importing fine sand. Nerja town is pleasantly white and walkable but somewhat dull and overbuilt. No change there then, business as usual on the Costa del Sol.
Nerja's largest and most commercial beach is Burriana, with many restaurants, cafes and watersports available while the longest (2km) and least crowded sand is on Playazo or El Salon, secluded, sandy bays.