City guide: Málaga (2021)

My previous guide to Málaga, from over two and a half years ago, was written at a very different time, after a holiday to the Spanish city with friends. It was, I enthused, a mini Barcelona that had it all: history; architecture; museums and galleries all over the place; a cracking food market; a beach; and food and drink that rivalled anything I’d had elsewhere.

I liked it so much that eight months later, while Zoë was on a beer drinking holiday with a group of her friends affectionately referred to as the “beer wankers”, I tried something I’d barely ever done before: I booked an Airbnb, booked some flights and took myself off there for a solo holiday. Zoë sent me pictures of her merry band, drinking lambic after lambic in cosy-looking bars or shivering in the town square, layered up to the max and probably turnt up to the max as well. I responded with well-lit pictures of sun-dappled tables, cold cañas of the local lager and fetching-looking food. It was November, it was twenty degrees and my shorts and walking sandals were enjoying one final hurrah before being packed away for six long months: what could possibly be bad about that?

Fast forward two difficult, turbulent years, and when we were picking the destination for our first holiday in aeons choosing Málaga was a quick and unanimous decision. And an excellent one: I don’t want to bang on about the C word too much, but there was something hugely comforting about spending four nights in a country where Covid rates were a tenth of what they are in the U.K., one where people wear masks indoors all the time without wanking on about being exempt or subjecting Twitter to their edgelord ramblings. They just do it: you know, because they’re not arseholes. 

On our first night in a bar, the woman sitting along from us replaced her facemask between sips of her drink. Even I thought that was a little hardcore, but it did suggest that she at least gave a shit about the rest of us. Anyway, I had four brilliant days eating and drinking in the sunshine in the company of good friends, living as free from fear as I can remember, and I returned fatter, slightly more tanned and with plenty of photographs, most of them of food. 

Originally I wasn’t going to write up this trip, but a fair few people have told me that they wanted to read this one and given that a few places have either closed or relocated since my last guide it felt like a good time. If you’re trying to work out where your next city break will be, this may help. Filling out the forms to get into Spain right now is relatively stress-free, and booking a Day 2 test for my return was surprisingly painless. 

And if you don’t fancy a trip to Málaga, I’m awash with tips for my next destination following last weekend’s fabulous readers’ lunch: the most difficult decision is whether to prioritise the beauty of Potenza, the food of Montpellier or the craft beer of Kaunas. Every table seemed to have a different suggestion for the best city break you’ve never had. It might, with hindsight, turn out to have been a deeply expensive meal.

Where to eat

1. Taberna Uvedoble

Still arguably the single best place to eat I’ve found in Málaga, Uvedoble has relocated this year to a bigger site, still close to the cathedral but just around the corner from its previous home. The menu is clever, modern and almost ridiculously easy to adapt to any group size or any event: nearly everything comes in small, medium or large so you can have one all to yourself or share it with your companions (or, for that matter, order a large and have it all to yourself).

The classics were all waiting for me on my most recent visit so I got to reacquaint myself with oxtail albondigas, the meat rich and falling apart, served on a bed of skinny chips. I also revisited the suckling pig brioche, topped with aioli and served like the most decadent savoury éclair imaginable. Asparagus came jenga-style with an artful smear of romesco, and little pucks of compressed, rolled lamb shoulder were phenomenal with couscous.

But my favourite dish there remains the fiduea, a dish Zoë simply refers to as “the nest”. A heap of squid ink noodles, as black as night, topped with gorgeous, pert baby squid and served with a pungent puddle of honking aioli. The first mouthful was close to a religious experience and I realised, sadly too late, that this was the dish where you should order a large and have it all to yourself.

Taberna Uvedoble
Calle Alcazabilla, 1
https://www.uvedobletaberna.com/en

2. Meson Iberico

Meson Iberico, in the Soho district near the modern art gallery, is almost the polar opposite of Uvedoble – a more traditional room, a more classic, less experimental menu – except for one thing: they both serve exceptional food. Meson Iberico’s menu is bigger and most things either come in a media or a racion.

It has a conventional dining room that you can reserve, and the four of us ate there on our last night having a really fantastic time surrounded by tables all occupied by Spanish speakers. But I had just as much fun on our first night, when it was just me and Zoë, standing outside when they opened at half eight and making our way to the bar (and if you don’t do that, good luck getting a seat). There you see all the bustle, watch the staff hard at work and really feel part of the spectacle, get an insight into how a great restaurant is a living, breathing thing.

Most of the food there is amazing, but I had a real soft spot for particular dishes. Spiced skewers of suckling lamb, served stunningly tender, came with a little pile of impeccable chips for a crazy four Euros. Morcilla was fragrant and perfect for grazing. And I absolutely adored the wild mushrooms, cooked simply in oil and garlic, the perfect advert for buying something good and mucking about with it as little as possible. On the second visit we ordered a huge plate of prawns, so sweet and plump, and made short work of them between the four of us. And the tortillitas de camarones, fritters studded with tiny shrimp, were the best I’ve eaten in the city.

Meson Iberico
Calle San Lorenzo, 27
https://www.mesoniberico.net

3. Gastroteca Can Emma

The find of this visit was Gastroteca Can Emma, a small unsung restaurant close to Málagueta which was recommended to me by Owen Morgan, one of the owners of the Bar 44 chain which serves terrific Spanish food in Cardiff and Bristol. Morgan has been to Málaga often (I imagine research is one of the most enjoyable parts of his job) and if he says somewhere is good, you try it out. I’m so glad we did, because a two hour boozy lunch there became one of my happiest memories of the holiday.

As with Meson Iberico, we were the only non-Spaniards there and we were treated to a knockout meal with many, many highlights. Tortilla with wild mushrooms and a whisper of truffle was an earthy delight, and a plate of miniature jamon croquetas was a magnificent – and eminently shareable – treat. I surprised myself by ordering something close to paella as a main – arroz mar y monte – and I’m so glad I did because that rich, sticky rice, bursting with meat, squid and prawns, was the standout dish among standout dishes. But we also had a quartet of mollete de calamares, simple fried squid sandwiches which were as good as anything I have eaten this year.

When we arrived, a group of Spanish ladies had got there before us and were already starting on the wine. When we finally got up and waddled away hours later, more than replete, they were still ordering more food and more drink. We had a theory that they replaced one of the women every thirty minutes when we weren’t looking until, like culinary Sugababes, none of the original lineup remained. Be that as it may, they were lunching legends: can I be them when I grow up?

Gastroteca Can Emma
Calle Ruiz Blaser, 2

4. Casa Lola

Deep in the old town, Casa Lola is a bit of a staple: I went there on my first ever visit to Málaga, and I’ve gone back every time since. We went for an early lunch on my first day and the place had completely filled up within half an hour, so it’s clearly built up a reputation.

It’s completely deserved. As usual we had a selection of pintxos which were quite delicious (any meal which features bacalao is on to a winner in my book). But on this occasion we wandered more into the outer reaches of the menu and were richly rewarded – with spot on miniature veal burgers in little tiger bread buns, and with chicharrones, crunchy, chewy nuggets of belly pork which made pork scratchings look distinctly two-dimensional, whiskery and sad. As I took the first sip of my rebujito I was wishing I could never leave: by the end of it I was frantically Googling whether I could somehow claim asylum.

Casa Lola
Calle Granada, 46
https://tabernacasalola.com

5. El Tapeo de Cervantes

El Tapeo de Cervantes was one of my favourite restaurants in recent visits to Málaga, and if it didn’t quite reach that standard on my latest trip, it still got pretty close. The original dining room is snug and cosy, and if you eat there you really feel like you’re in on one of the best secrets there is. On our latest visit we were in the larger, less charming dining room next door, although if I’d never been to the restaurant before I’m sure I would have been enraptured.

The food is still excellent, although they do that confusing thing of having a main menu and a sizeable specials menu with a degree of overlap between the two. Everything comes in medium or large, and some of the dishes were marvellous – secreto iberico with pineapple is combination you shouldn’t love as much as you do, and pig’s cheek stew on chips is like an Andalusian take on the Belgian classic stoverij. But a couple of the dishes – sweetbreads and octopus – were served a little too similarly on smoked mash, and some of the things we tried felt lacking in heft, tasty though they were. It’s still worth a visit, especially if you’re in Málaga for long enough, but perhaps no longer the first name on the list.

El Tapeo de Cervantes
Calle Cárcer, 8
https://eltapeodecervantes.com/en/

6. Meson Mariano

Meson Mariano is a traditional, family-run restaurant, all dark wood and beams, a million miles away from the clean contemporary look of Taberna Uvedoble. My holiday companions were a little (well, a lot) younger than me and when we went to Meson Mariano they were in a state best described as “visibly impaired”. Regrettably, that meant we didn’t order the full three courses – but it also means that they were so full that I managed to try a little bit of everybody’s meal and confirm my suspicion that Meson Mariano was a very good restaurant indeed.

The salt cod was beautiful, either served fried with tons of garlic or cooked in tomato with potato, but the meat was the real high point, whether it was shoulder of lamb on the bone (though so tender that it didn’t stay there for long) or bang-on sirloin with an astonishingly good goats cheese sauce. When I go back, I’ll try the deep-fried goats cheese starter: I remember it fondly from a previous visit.

Restaurante Meson Mariano
Calle Granados, 2

7. Mercado Atarazanas

Not content with being a mini Barcelona, Málaga also boasts a mini Boqueria in the shape of the handsome and hugely likeable Mercado Atarazanas. You can buy pretty much anything there – from just-landed fish to pig’s trotters, from freshly sliced jamon to salted almonds shining with oil. 

But the real draw, for me, is Central Bar in the corner of the market. There you can stand up at the bar, drink your vermouth or your caña and get stuck into the incredible array of fresh fish and seafood under the counter, or have charcuterie, cheese and all the other main Spanish food groups. On my most recent visit we had tuna steaks, cooked simply, scattered with salt and served up with sensational tomatoes and padron peppers, another exemplary illustration that less is often more.

But it wasn’t just about the fish: chicharrones de Cadiz were utterly delicious but a completely different kettle of pork to their Casa Lola cousins – less scratchings, more a high definition porchetta with fat that practically dissolved in the mouth. The four of us lunched like kings for just over a hundred Euros, and my only regret is that I didn’t find a way to go there every day.

Mercado Central de Atarazanas
Calle Atarazanas, 10

8. Heladeria Freskitto

A lot of guides to Málaga single out Casa Mira, the legendary ice cream parlour on Calle Marqués de Larios which has been keeping Malagueños cool for over a hundred years. And don’t get me wrong, it’s dead good, but my preference is Freskitto, a stone’s throw from the Picasso Museum. It’s a hole in the wall which does ambrosial helado the equal of anything I’ve tasted in Italy.

I love their dark, intense chocolate, their dulce de leche is a smooth buttery caramel without any salt muddying the waters, I have fond memories of their cinnamon ice cream and on this visit I heard good things about their Nutella and pistachio flavours from my companions. The texture has that splendid elasticity that marks out continental ice cream from its British sibling, and the taste is phenomenal. That Málaga is a city where you can eat and drink outside, have ice cream and pick up insect bites in November is as good an advertisement for the place as I can think of.

Heladeria Freskitto
Calle Granada, 55

Where to drink

1. La Tranca

La Tranca remains one of my favourite bars in the whole wide world, a scruffy and vibrant place which welcomes anyone who wants to drink vermouth or beer, eat good food and enjoy people-watching amid a crowd who all have the same laudable priorities. The music is Spanish, and the LPs behind the bar are a retro anorak’s dream. I can honestly say that this is a happy place at the epicentre of a happy place, and both my visits on this trip were superb fun.

Although you can drink beer or vermouth here my preferred drink is the aliñao, a mixture of vermouth, gin and soda which slips down dangerously easily. After a couple of them, you find your life goals slowly shifting from whatever they were before to “how can I buy an apartment within stumbling distance of La Tranca?” And that’s without talking about the food – wonderful four cheese empanadas with a tang of blue cheese or some of the best jamon I had on my holiday, sliced there and then and presented glistening on a board, waiting to be pinched between fingers and devoured.

On a previous visit, we’d bumped into an Italian singer-songwriter who had a long and fascinating story of jet setting from one European city to the next, la dolce vita in action. A tad randomly, we all follow one another on Instagram now, so Zoë took a goofy selfie of the four of us and sent it to him. “That’s really sweet of you!” came the reply from elsewhere on the continent in next to no time. “Enjoy the journey in beautiful Málaga. I miss it.” It has that effect on you, you see.

La Tranca
Calle Carreteria, 92
http://www.latranca.es

2. Antigua Casa de Guardia

This has always been, for me, the other place in Málaga to stop for a drink – a long thin room with a long thin bar where you pick from the sweet wines, sherries and vermouths in the barrels behind. They keep a running tab on your bar in chalk and as barely anything you can drink tops two Euros you do feel it’s rude not to stay for another, and another.

It’s standing room only, with only a few high tables, so settling in for a prolonged session is probably beyond most people, but to stand there sipping from your copa and watching the bar staff, all of whom feel like they’ve been doing this for years, is a quintessential Málaga experience.

Antigua Casa de Guardia
Alameda Principal, 18
https://antiguacasadeguardia.com

3. Birras Deluxe

Málaga has a surprisingly strong craft beer scene, and Birra Deluxe up on Plaza de la Merced became a firm favourite on this trip for a post-dinner beer or two. It used to be called something else, but it came under new ownership recently and they’ve properly spruced the place up, making it a decidedly agreeable place to try beers and shoot the breeze.

The staff are really friendly and full of recommendations, which meant that we got to try draft beer from local brewery Attik Brewing and some cans from their superb selection which features prominent Spanish breweries like Basqueland Brewing and Barcelona’s Garage Beer Co, along with other beers from harder to find breweries like Zagreb’s The Garden Brewery. My beer of the entire holiday was a chocolate macaroon imperial stout from Basqueland which will live long in the memory – chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate, the perfect liquid dessert. 

Birras Deluxe 
Plaza de la Merced, 5
https://www.birrasdeluxe.com 

4. Café Central

Many people think the best churros in Málaga are to be had at Casa Aranda. And I tried them on this trip, and they have a point. But my heart is still with Café Central, on Plaza de la Constitucion, which does almost-salty churros which are crying out to be eaten – either the purist way by rolling them in sugar, or by taking the more indulgent route of dipping them in Nutella or dulce de leche. Either is great, both is better.

Café Central is another of those places that is perfect for a certain kind of people watching, sitting outside as people drift past, shopping or loafing or just enjoying the sunshine. But the people watching inside is its equal, because Café Central is up there with all those grand cafés in which European cities seem to specialise. A little plaque on the wall gives you ten different ways to have your coffee, from jet black through to practically all milk, although if you ask for something on that scale you do seem to get a blank look, so it’s probably best to ask for a cafe con leche like everybody else.

Café Central
Plaza de la Constitucion, 11
https://cafecentral.es

5. Mia Coffee House

If you want a “proper” coffee, by which I suppose I mean a Workhouse/C.U.P. cup of coffee, Mia does the best coffee I found in Málaga. It’s essentially another hole in the wall, with only a handful of tables inside, but the coffee is sublime, made with care and precision and served in attractive cups, sunshine-yellow to match the awning outside. It’s in a lovely little part of the city, opposite an exquisite church and right next door to the hammam, and it’s the perfect place to watch the city come to life in the morning.

I wanted some coffee to take home with me, and when I told the member of staff that I brew with an Aeropress she lit up enthusing about the Aeropress method. It turns out that the Spanish heat of the World Aeropress Championships takes place next week, and a barista will be there flying the flag for Mia Coffee House. Based on what I’ve seen, I fancy their chances: I left with a nice warm glow and a bag of beans for later on.

Mia Coffee House
Plaza de los Mártires Ciriaco y Paula, 4
http://miacoffeeshop.com

6. El Pimpi

El Pimpi is a Málaga institution, and I’m ashamed to say that I’d never visited it prior to this trip. A huge, sprawling bar with lots of little rooms and corridors, and a lot of outside space looking out on the Alcazaba, I surprised by how much I liked it. It was touristy, but not to its detriment, and it had all the things Antigua Casa de la Guardia was lacking, like seats, and toilets you could actually bring yourself to use.

My glass of Pedro Ximenez had that sticky, syrupy quality and the richness of thoroughly coddled sultanas and I would happily have stayed for more. There’s always next time, as I increasingly told myself as my holiday drew to a close. Antonio Banderas, a native of Málaga, is a big fan (he allegedly owns an apartment overlooking the bar), so there are a lot of pictures of him on display. A lot.

El Pimpi
Calle Granada, 62
https://elpimpi.com/en/

7. La Madriguera

La Madriguera is the other Spanish craft beer place in Málaga, on a street full of surprises. The bar two doors down called “Jamones”, with a logo based on the Ramones, seemed to have shut down since I last visited, and on the other side of the road there was a kiosk selling empanadas and an ice cream joint called “Dick Town” which specialises in genitalia-themed ice creams and, err, labial waffles. That’s nice.

Anyway, I was delighted to see La Madriguera thriving, and it gave me the opportunity to try yet more local beer with interesting stuff on tap from Spain and beyond. I managed to check out an IPA from local brewery Attik Brewing, technically based in Torremolinos, and another from even more local Bonvivant Beer. I even sampled a very drinkable DIPA from an Italian brewery called CRAK: I’ve never heard of them, but it’s only a matter of time before they cook up a collaboration with Dick Town. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to try La Madriguera’s food, too: their selection looked appealing and they’re all over their social media, so you can get a pretty good idea on Instagram just what I missed out on.

La Madriguera
Calle Carreteria, 73
https://www.lamadriguerabar.com/en/home/

8. El Ultimo Mono

Last but not least, El Ultimo Mono, which translates as “the last monkey” for reasons I still haven’t managed to figure out since I last visited Málaga. This was my go to place for coffee on the move on previous visits to Málaga, but like other venues in this guide it has moved location since I was there last. Its new home, tucked off a main street with no outside space, slightly lacks the charm of its old one, but the coffee is still rather nice and a sensible size for drinking on the go. A final reminder of some of the stark differences between England and Spain came when I paid: even with the pound hardly storming against the Euro, two coffees here cost about the same as a single coffee from the likes of Workhouse.

El Ultimo Mono
Calle Duende, 6

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