City guide: Montpellier

I never expected to find myself in Montpellier last month, as spring finally came to everybody’s rescue. Initially I was booked for a trip back to Malaga, a regular stomping ground, for warmth, sunshine and the kind of relaxation that comes from going back to somewhere you know well – no disorientation, no spending the first day finding your bearings, just the ease and delight of good meals in familiar haunts and lazy walks down well-remembered streets.

Anyway, a couple of things happened. The first was that Malaga was hit by unseasonal torrential rain, and Europe’s sunniest city became a cocktail of downpours and Saharan sand. Every day we checked Dark Skies but the forecast for the week we were there resolutely refused to improve. Granted, we’d probably have spent a fair amount of time sitting in restaurants and bars but the prospect of not getting any vitamin D hardly appealed, especially as at the time the U.K. was bathing in something of a mini heatwave.

The second was that I remembered a conversation I’d had at my readers’ lunch last November in the Lyndhurst. I was freshly back from Malaga that weekend, as it happened, and I got chatting at one of the tables with Phil and Kath about city breaks and how much we’d missed them since the start of the pandemic. And that’s when Phil and Kath let me in on the secret of Montpellier. It was a city they’d discovered by accident, on a stopover from Bordeaux to Marseille, but on discovering it they fell accidentally in love.

Phil and Kath went most years, they told me, and the more they talked about it the more indelible my mental note became. They’d never had a bad meal, they said: everything was beautiful and the city was a maze of tiny old streets, alleyways, squares and cafés, perfect for getting gloriously lost. So the week before my holiday I idly checked flights and accommodation and found that Montpellier was both easy and affordable to get to: less than two hours, direct, from Gatwick. I’ve had an idea, I said to Zoë. Half an hour later, everything was booked.

I’m extremely grateful that Phil and Kath came to that readers’ lunch, because Montpellier was everything they promised and more – a gorgeous city with loads to see and do (although I scratched the surface of that, because there were restaurants, cafés and shops that needed my urgent attention). The old city, L’Écusson, is indeed a wonderful maze of little lanes and sidestreets, with a tempting boutique, little square or sun-dappled restaurant terrace around every corner. But I also loved Les Arceaux, the area we stayed in, a little neighbourhood in the shadow (literally and figuratively) of the impressive aqueduct that looms over the west of the city. On our first morning there we went the market held under its arches, and wandered almost in a euphoric trance from stall to stall, wondering what it must be like to have regular, easy access to all that cheese, charcuterie, olive oil, wine and cider.

I don’t normally talk about accommodation, but the place we stayed was so agreeable that I must. Les 4 Étoiles is a grand 1930s house in Les Arceaux, and although it’s owned by Pierre it has been in his family for generations. The piano in the dining room belonged to his grandmother (there’s a framed picture of her over it) and Pierre encourages guests to play it: I didn’t, but I did hear notes shimmering through the house more than once. And our room was a luxurious but calm space, with a giant bed you could sink into. It had a little balcony and every morning I went out and looked down on the street outside, ecstatic to be elsewhere and, I suppose, somewhat at peace.

Pierre – chic, soft-spoken and unbelievably polite – was the perfect host, and breakfast in the dining room every morning was a delight, with good coffee, great bread from the bakery round the corner, local honey, fruit salad and pastries which I chose to consider mandatory. Our fellow guests were a real mix – from France, from Germany and from Belgium – and once I’d apologised several times for the English we had some fascinating conversations. It was interesting to get a different perspective: although I might consider the political situation back home tragic and rage-inducing, they were mostly amused by it. I expected them to be glad to be shot of us, as a nation, but if anything they were sad, and more than a little bemused.

Anyway, I had a fantastic week eating, drinking, shopping and generally being a flâneur, taking pictures with my new camera and enjoying a proper break for the first time in what felt like a long time. The food and drink scene in Montpellier was too big for me to even scratch the surface in four days, but every time I ruefully recognised that I wouldn’t get to visit everywhere on my list I mentally nudged items onto a different list, marked Next time. So with all that said, here’s my list of places to eat and drink in Montpellier – if it’s even half as effective as Phil and Kath’s sales pitch was to me, I’ll have done them proud.

Where to eat

1. Reflet d’Obione

Reflet d’Obione, near the Botanical Gardens (which, incidentally, I highly recommend) was a suggestion from Pierre and I’m so glad we took him up on it because our dinner at this Michelin-starred restaurant was the best I’ve had this year, and for that matter one of the best I can ever remember. 

The Michelin Guide does such a bad job of selling the place that we nearly picked somewhere else. It says that it “unobtrusively reconciles gastronomy and gluten-free cuisine, cutting the levels of fat and sugar”. How dreary does that sound? But in reality, their nine course tasting menu was a magical experience. Everything was clever, precise and beautifully judged, each course was completely driven by the area and the seasons and the wine pairings – again, all of them local – were an absolute dream. We were in that hushed, conspiratorial space for something like four hours, the pause between every course just right, and I never felt rushed, turned or an inconvenience.

The good dishes were too many to mention, but the very best of them will stay with me for a long time. Chicken came served simply with salsify, but accompanied with a miniature tart made with offal and one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever tasted, a smoked chicken broth like an intensely savoury latte, the rim of the glass dusted with lapsang souchong. Fish with an orange blossom butter was a beautiful surprise, as was a lake of Vieux Rodez cheese with gnocchi and truffle.

I was struck that here, dishes used a few ingredients in different ways but without overcomplicating things, so different from the almost needy parlour tricks you sometimes see in the U.K.’s starred restaurants. My last Michelin starred meal in this country was at the Woodspeen, and I feel like I’m sullying Reflet d’Obione a little by even mentioning the two in the same paragraph.

Reflet d’Obione
29 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
https://www.reflet-obione.com

2. Pastis 

Pastis, also Michelin-starred, is a simple but superb restaurant in the old city. I had lunch there, in a very tasteful dining room that I would say is possibly the most beautiful beige space I’ve ever seen, the acceptable face of taupe. The menu here’s a surprise one (no swaps, unless you have allergies) but every one of the surprises was joyous. My highlight here was a dish made with local duck, served simply – that less is more thing, again – but accompanied with a bread roll hollowed out, stuffed with coarse, herby confit duck and then liberally soaked with rich, sticky jus. I left full and happy (and slightly smudged, after also putting paid to a knockout bottle of white Corbieres).

Pastis
3 rue Terral
https://pastis-restaurant.com

3. Terminal #1

Street food’s yet to hit Montpellier in a big way – possibly because the regular food is simply so good, possibly because they have two rather grand food halls which meet that need. But out past the edge of the city, past an architecturally interesting area called Port Marianne (think Montpellier’s answer to Kennet Island, only more glam) you find the Marché du Lez, a gentrified street food market with lots of permanent traders. It’s sort of like Blue Collar Corner after a few hundred protein shakes. 

It feels like they built the infrastructure before the demand was there, because it was pretty empty when I visited, but just round the corner was the beautiful and buzzy Terminal #1 where I had an excellent lunch. It was worth it for the starter alone – a clean, almost mineral tuna tartare topped with avocado and what can only be described as the world’s best crisp, and an equally fine tuna tataki, only just seared on the outside. Lamb three ways – chop, slow-cooked shoulder and samosa, accompanied by a lavatorial smear of sauce – was less successful, but it was still well worth the trip out of the centre.

Terminal #1
1408 Avenue de la Mer
https://www.terminalpourcel.com/en/

4. Braise

On our last night, we headed out on Montpellier’s fantastic tram network to Beaux Arts, apparently the bobo suburb of the city. I didn’t get to see it in daylight (a great shame: apparently the street art is amazing) but I managed to eat at Braise, a restaurant and wine bar with over 500 different wines, an open kitchen and a wood fire.

And if not every dish completely hit the mark, the best of it was memorable: grilled, smoked mackerel with cauliflower purée and sharp little florets of pickled broccoli; short rib of beef cooked deftly, soft and indulgent with a nicely astringent coleslaw; a cheese course featuring some of the best Comte I can remember. This was simultaneously the smallest and busiest restaurant I visited, and a completely tourist-free zone, so this is the place for you if you want to try something more cutting edge.

Braise
42 Avenue Saint-Lazare
https://www.braise-montpellier.com

5. Le Bouchon Saint Roch

A recommendation from Phil and Kath, Le Bouchon Saint Roch was our choice for our first meal in the city. And it was a really good one – the restaurant practically glows on corner of a square in the old city, a warm inviting place it’s difficult to resist. Inside, the decor was a quirky celebration of pigs and pork in all their forms and the barrage of quirky French 80s pop had Zoë reaching for Shazam pretty much every four minutes.

The food was robust, earthy, unpretentious and absolutely perfect for the first night in a new city. I went to town on a very generous plate of charcuterie and then got stuck into a crumbly, almost-sweet boudin noir with a caramelised slice of apple. Dessert was all about the classics – a rich chocolate mousse loaded with cream and a rum baba so booze-soaked that even Zoë couldn’t handle it.

Le Bouchon Saint Roch
14 rue du Plan d’Agde
https://www.le-bouchon-st-roch-montpellier.com

6. JB & Co

A little hole in the wall on rue des Étuves with a solitary table outside, JB & Co is a great example of how to succeed in business doing just one thing very well. It’s all about the jambon beurre here, and all you have to choose is which bread you want and which of their hams you want in it. The bread, as everywhere in France, is phenomenal. The ham, prominently displayed and sliced wafer-thin for you, is a joy. And of course there are just enough sharp, crunchy cornichons to bring the whole thing together. Yours for something like five Euros, and a better lunch on the run is difficult to imagine: I chipped a filling eating mine, but it was still worth it. Afterwards, they brought out a coffee and a little piece of freshly baked cake for us on the house, a lovely little touch. 

Back in Blighty a couple of weeks later I picked up a jambon beurre from Pret on the run for my train. I always used to enjoy them, but Montpellier has ruined them for me.

JB & Co
17 rue des Étuves
https://jbandco.fr

7. Des Rêves et des Pain

Just at the edge of the old city, near Montpellier’s copy of the Arc du Triomphe, this bakery was my go-to for a morning pain au chocolat. A little place which currently only admits two customers at a time, the queue stretched up the street. But it was always worth joining – even compared to the pastries at breakfast this was next level, with world-beating buttery lamination. Everything in there was beautiful – cakes, pastries (sweet and savoury) and even the granola: if I’d had more room in my case, I’d have brought some home with me. Montpellier, like the rest of France, has the same density of good bakeries as London has Pret A Mangers. Where did it all go wrong for us?

Des Rêves Et Du Pain
10 rue Eugène Lisbonne
https://desrevesetdupain.com

8. Les Glaces MPL

Les Halles Laissac is one of Montpellier’s two covered markets, and although it has a plethora of food stands selling wine, charcuterie, cheese and all the good stuff I was drawn to Les Glaces MPL which sells profoundly good ice cream. A massive array of flavours is on offer, and I can personally vouch for the salted caramel and my personal favourite, a stunning black sesame ice cream. Zoë went for chocolate and Nutella, although I think she slightly envied my more leftfield choices. The big names also have a foothold in Montpellier – I saw a branch of Amorino on my travels in the city – but I’d pick this place any day.

Les Glaces MPL
Place Alexandre Laissac
https://www.lesglacesmpl.fr

Where to drink

1. O’Petit Trinque Fougasse

This was a brilliant spot for a few glasses of wine, some cheese and charcuterie and a spot of people watching, along with a welcome opportunity to rest our feet after an afternoon of retail therapy. There are something like four reds and four whites available by the glass, ranging from thoroughly decent to bloody marvellous, and the small plates include sliced saucisson with a mild hum of offal, a gorgeous burrata with pesto, all manner of local cheeses and of course the eponymous fougasse studded with olive, which is flaky, indulgent and worth the price of admission alone. For beer lovers there’s a wonderful shop a few doors down called Deli Malt which proved to be an invaluable introduction to Montpellier’s budding craft beer scene.

O’Petit Trinque Fougasse
12 Boulevard Ledru Rollin
https://www.trinquefougasse.com/petit/home

2. Latitude Café

Of all of Montpellier’s little squares, one of my favourites was the almost ludicrously beautiful Place de la Canourgue. It’s more about the square than the bars on it, but on my first night I had a marvellous time sitting outside Latitude Café with a glass of pretty anonymous red enjoying those first sights and sounds of somewhere new. It wasn’t the warmest of weeks in Montpellier, but I can imagine that once summer is in full swing this would be a beautiful place for a morning coffee or to while away an hour with a drink and a good book. I did hear more English (and yes, I’m afraid, American English) at neighbouring tables here than anywhere else, so bear that in mind if that’s not your thing.

Latitude Café
5 Place de la Canourgue

3. Le Réservoir

Many cities have some kind of craft beer scene, and the template is a well-trodden one: some big warehouse either in an industrial estate or near the docks, on the edge of town, usually requiring a taxi to get to (our own Double-Barrelled follows in that proud tradition). Le Réservoir is not quite like that. It’s on the outskirts of the city, and our Uber driver, who turned up in an impressively over the top lipstick-red Tesla, had never heard of the place. But it feels properly in the middle of nowhere, with the distinct whiff of agriculture from its neighbours. 

It’s relatively new – another example, like Marché du Lez – of being built in anticipation of the demand, rather than because of it. But inside it’s positively splendid, with twenty taps nearly all of which are devoted to local beer. The space is shared by two breweries – Brewing Bears, which does more conventional IPAs, and Sacrilege who specialise in mixed fermentation beers and saisons with all sorts of interesting fruit and weirdness going on. We tried a bit of both, and had a really fantastic afternoon doing it.

Le Réservoir
55 rue de Montels Saint-Pierre
https://www.instagram.com/lereservoirmontpellier/?hl=en

4. Le Discopathe

The walk from the old city back to our B&B went down Rue de Faubourg du Courreau, a scruffy, lively street reminding me of Waterloo’s Lower Marsh, and it quickly became one of my favourite parts of the city. Much of that was down to Le Discopathe, a vinyl and craft beer shop that sold records by day and served more of that excellent local beer by night. 

You grab a spot at one of the trestle tables outside, get yourself a pint of something hazy, a bière d’ici, and just enjoy that feeling of being part of a buzz and bustle bigger than you. Sacrilege and Brewing Bears are well represented, but I also had a beautiful IPA from Brasserie le Détour. We became regular visitors during our holiday, and it was one of the happiest places in a city full of happy places. Opposite is a fantastic-looking rotisserie which immediately made it to the top of my list of restaurants to try on my next visit.

Le Discopathe
28 rue du Faubourg du Courreau
https://lediscopathe.com

5. Couleurs de Bières Nord

To complete our little beer tour of Montpellier, Couleurs de Bières Nord is a lovely little bar. It’s opposite the exotically named Stade Philippidès, and there’s something about watching people running round the track that really puts you in the mood for a cold, crisp beer. The list here skews little more Belgian, but there were a couple of beers on tap by ZooBrew, (yet) another local brewery, and it made for a excellent pre-prandial spot.

Couleurs de Bières Nord
48 rue du Faubourg Saint-Jaumes
https://www.couleursdebieres.fr/front-page/cdb/nord

6. Café BUN

Cafe BUN was probably my favourite coffee place in Montpellier with a great spot just off Place de la Comédie and plenty of outside space for watching the world go by. It was the trailblazer (Montpellier’s answer to Workhouse, I suppose) opening in 2013 as the city’s first speciality coffee house, and I grew very fond of it during my trip. They roast their own coffee – I brought some home with me – and their latte was the nicest I had on my holiday. 

Café BUN
5 rue des Étuves
https://cafebun.fr

7. Coffee Club

I also enjoyed Coffee Club, a tiny place on rue Saint-Guilhem with a little space inside and a nice spot at the top of the hill. This felt a little more expat than Café Bun – it’s owned by a Brit, which may explain that – but it was still a really good choice if you wanted a morning off café au lait and to try something similar to coffee closer to home. Also worth mentioning, further down the hill, is the splendidly named Maisons Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir, which has a faultless selection of local wine, beer and other delicacies so you can take a little bit of the Languedoc home with you when you leave.

Coffee Club
12 rue Saint-Guilhem
https://www.facebook.com/coffeeclubmontpellier/

8. Coldrip

Coldrip, on the northern side of the old city, is in another absurdly pretty little square and also gets plaudits online for its coffee. Having perched at a table outside I can completely understand why – my latte was wonderful, and Zoë reckoned her mocha (complete with a little ramekin of Chantilly cream) was up there with C.U.P.’s: high praise indeed.

The brunch menu owes more to Australia than France – lots of smashed avocado, halloumi and the like – and watching it turn up at other tables did test my resolve. But they had a crispy chicken burger on their specials menu that day and it turned out to be a perfect final day lunch, really nicely done with a deceptively tasty coleslaw full of brightness and crunch and a delightful seeded brioche bun.

Coldrip
4 rue Glaize
https://coldrip-food-and-coffee.business.site

City guide: Málaga (2021)

I was lucky enough to visit Malaga again in May 2022, so this guide has been updated to reflect that visit.

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.

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 relocated in 2021 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 when I returned, 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 our second trip there 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. On my most recent visit in May 2022, the highlight was tender belly of tuna draped artfully across sweet roasted red peppers – quite possibly from a tin and a jar respectively, but no less delectable for that.

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

3. Gastroteca Can Emma

The find of my visit in 2019 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 in 2021 and the place had completely filled up within half an hour, so it’s clearly built up a reputation – a fact borne out by the presence of a couple of other Casa Lola spin-offs across the city.

Its success is 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. La Cosmopolita

La Cosmopolita was the highlight of my most recent visit in May 2022 – a place I’d never been to before which quite won me over. Most of the restaurants I eat at in Málaga are fully paid up members of the “pick small plates and keep ordering in waves until you’re full up” school of thought, so to go somewhere like La Cosmopolita with a more conventional starters/mains/desserts model felt strangely grown up and classy.

But honestly, the dishes were as lovely and sophisticated as anything I’ve had in Málaga, and quite possibly more so. Tempura bacalao was a world away from anything else I’ve eaten in the city – the batter feather-light, the fish inside translucent, just-cooked and perfect. A crab omelette was more crab than omelette, all earthy, sweet and positively divine. Their run of form continued without any let up, and my main course – tender squid in a sauce with just enough sweet onion – was another high point of the trip.

But the best dish I had there, and possibly my best dish of the holiday, was a cheesecake made with payoyo, simultaneously sweet, salty and hopelessly compelling. I didn’t order it, so I just had a forkful of Zoë’s which filled me with equal parts ecstasy and regret for the rest of my time in Andalusia.

La Cosmopolita
Calle Jose Belgrano, 3
https://lacosmopolita.es

6. 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 this time around, 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 my 2021 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/

7. 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

8. 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 2021 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

9. 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 all my visits in 2021 and 2022 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. And fried olives – did you know fried olives were a thing? Me neither, and now I feel quite devoutly that they should be a Thing everywhere.

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 when we returned to La Tranca in 2021 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. Casa Aranda

My favourite place for churros used to be Café Central on Plaza de la Constitucion, which was one of those grand old cafés that feels like it’s always been there and will always be there. So I was positively shocked to arrive in Málaga in May 2022 to find that the place had closed in January after an incredible 102 years of trading. The usual story of capitalist greed, I’m afraid – the man who had run it for most of his life was ready to retire, and fell out with the other two owners of the building. Rumour has it it might become a McDonalds, yet another reminder that capitalism is very far from a good thing.

So where to go instead? Well, the other big name for churros in Malaga is Casa Aranda, a whippersnapper that’s only been around since 1932. It seems to have expanded further every time I go to Málaga – aided no doubt by the demise of its nearest competitor – and now seems to take up the majority of Calle Herreria del Rey, either with tables out on the pavement or little rooms inside where you can get your churros fix.

None of it is a natural sun trap the way Café Central was, but over a couple of trips there it won me over. The churros are every bit as good (especially dabbed in sugar for the perfect combination of sugar, salt, crunch and grit), the cafe con leche – milk poured at the table, as it should be – is excellent and the whole experience is oddly comforting. I wish them many years of strong trading and kind landlords: I don’t think I could face having to change churro supplier twice in a lifetime.

Casa Aranda
Calle Herrería del Rey, 3
http://www.casa-aranda.net

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, but the coffee is sublime, made with care and precision and served in attractive cups, sunshine-yellow to match the awning outside. They appeared to be renovating the place when I visited in May 2022 which meant there were limited tables inside. But no matter – it’s in a lovely little part of the city right next door to the hammam, and you can sit on the steps of the beautiful church opposite and watch the city come to life in the morning.

I wanted some coffee to take home with me, and Mia stocks coffee from Barcelona’s excellent Nomad (and, on my most recent visit, their own blend). 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 was taking place the following week, and that a barista from Mia was going to be there flying the flag. Based on what I saw, I fancied 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 when I went in November 2021, so I was delighted to see that it had reopened when I returned six months later. Conversely, the ice cream joint called “Dick Town” which specialised in genitalia-themed ice creams and labial waffles was open last November but, in a triumph of taste and decency, had closed by the following May. Thank heavens.

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 IPAs from a variety of Spanish breweries – Bonvivant who were local, Attik Brewing from Torremolinos, Cerveza Espiga from Catalunya and Bilbao’s Drunken Bros. On my previous visit to La Madriguera I’d been really sorry to miss out on the food – it all looked great, and their chef has worked in some of Málaga’s best known tapas places, including KGB. So this time I made sure I ordered some fried chicken to accompany my pre-dinner beers, and it was predictably brilliant. Next time I plan to make an evening of it there.

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

8. El Ultimo Mono

El Ultimo Mono 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, slightly lacked the charm of its old one, but it’s got a little outside space and actually it had developed quite a nice cosy feel in the time between visits.

Anyway, the coffee is still rather nice and a sensible size for drinking on the go. And if you have it in, it comes in the most beautiful cups: I very nearly went up to the counter and asked where they’d got them from. A 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

9. Santa Coffee Soho

Soho, the triangular district south of the Alameda Principal, east of the river and west of the sea, is one of my very favourite parts of Málaga – full of good bars, restaurants and street art, home to both Meson Iberico and CAC, the modern art gallery. And Santa Coffee’s outpost there is a brilliant place to drink a latte and watch the great and the good bustling past. There’s also a branch close to the Mercado de Atarazanas, but the one in Soho captured my heart.

Santa was Málaga’s first micro-roastery, so you can buy beans on the premises, and lattes are a ridiculously affordable two Euros apiece with coffee from El Salvador, Ethiopia and Rwanda on my most recent visit. The food is also surprisingly good. I had a cracking savoury crepe with jamon iberico, parmesan and rocket on my final morning in the city but by then I’d become positively hooked on their alfajores – a sort of chocolate-coated dulce de leche biscuit slash cake which is what a Wagon Wheel would taste like in heaven.

Santa Coffee Soho
Calle Tomás Heredia, 5
https://santacoffee.es

City guide: Bologna

Bologna is the city where I ran out of superlatives.

I’m used to picking city breaks on food and drink alone, doing plenty of research, booking restaurants and planning exactly where I’ll eat. I love traipsing round a cathedral, I like a gallery and I don’t mind a museum, but the food’s the thing I really make a pilgrimage for. And many of the cities still on my to do list are famous for their gastronomy – Lyon, for example, or San Sebastián. Bologna is in the same league, I think, and is a truly extraordinary place to eat and drink.

It’s beautiful, too. Miles of porticoes run throughout the city – some grand, some tatty but all offering shade when it’s sunny and shelter when it’s raining. The colour palette is like nowhere else I’ve visited – all reds, burnt oranges and dusky pinks. It’s a ridiculously photogenic place, but not picture-perfect and not remotely interested in being so pristine. It has far too much incredible life to it for that.

Bologna has many nicknames – la rossa, the red one, because of its red rooftops and communist history. La dotta, the learned one, because of its university, older even than Oxford. But more importantly, it’s called la grassa, the fat one, because it’s widely thought to be the gastronomic capital of Italy.

It’s in Emilia Romagna, the province of northern Italy responsible for Parma ham, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar. Bologna is also the place for pasta, whether that’s tagliatelle (never spaghetti) with rich ragu or tortellini in broth. And then there’s the local cheese, the mortadella, the wine, the growing craft beer scene; I’ve never been anywhere where food felt quite so front and centre in daily life, or anywhere where it was quite so easy to eat well.

It’s a real challenge to describe it without lurching into hyperbole, but what else can you do when you’ve eaten so many of your desert island dishes on one holiday? The best gelato, the best pasta, the best coffee… you come home feeling a little like you’ve gone from Technicolor to monochrome.

It’s not – at the moment, at least – a huge tourist destination: Rome, Florence and Venice are all far more fêted. But I loved it so much when I went last year that I went again this summer, and I loved it so much when I went this summer that I’m going again before the end of the year. If you’re considering a trip, I hope this list gives you some inspiration. Of course, once I come back from my next visit I might just have to add to it.

Where to eat and drink

1. Drogheria Della Rosa

I visited Drogheria Della Rosa on both my visits to Bologna and loved it both times although, on paper, it’s the kind of restaurant that could give buttoned-up Brits a panic attack. It’s a converted pharmacy, although generally you sit outside in the street enjoying the food, the buzz and the people-watching. The proprietor still stops at your table and asks what you want and – this is the bit which I found unnerving the first time – there’s no printed menu, wine list or prices anywhere to be seen.

Anyway, you soon get past that and everything I had there was terrific, from the ubiquitous tagliatelle al ragu to a veal dish my friend Al and I still rhapsodise over two years later (it wasn’t on offer on my second visit, to my eternal disappointment).

When you ask for a dessert wine they just bring over a bottle of Marsala and some glasses and leave you to it, another experience which is more fun the second time when you have a good idea how much the bill is going to be. But perhaps the best thing about Drogheria Della Rosa was the dessert – one of the simplest and cleanest I’ve ever eaten, a shallow bowl of pure, fresh mascarpone topped with top-quality grated chocolate. I daydream about that from time to time. I was having far too much fun to remember the size of the bill either time, but with a bottle of wine I don’t think it was far north of fifty Euros.

Drogheria Della Rosa, Via Cartoleria 10

2. Osteria Bottega

Osteria Bottega was probably the best of the many old-school restaurants I’ve tried in Bologna. I felt less likely to run into a group of Americans at an adjacent table (and they only had one person on the wait staff who spoke English) but if anything that made the whole thing more of a treat. It’s a nice, tasteful, reasonably basic room but the food is what stayed with me about my visit.

I picked this restaurant after a writeup on Andy Hayler’s blog. He’s an idiosyncratic reviewer – I always feel like he’s auditing rather than reviewing a restaurant – but he indisputably knows his onions and Osteria Bottega didn’t let me down. We started with a plate of aged culatello which could have matched any jamon iberico in Spain, served with slices of apple (a revelation) and plenty of Parmesan, because Parmesan is in plentiful supply in Bologna.

They just leave the bowl at your table, in fact – so unlike the stinginess here in Blighty – which enables you to finally work out the answer to the question how much Parmesan is too much Parmesan? (not that I ever reached a conclusive view on that).

It comes in especially handy with the tagliatelle al ragu, which was the best I had in Bologna – so intensely savoury, so rich, over so soon. Hayler says it’s a mixture of beef and pork leg that’s been cooked over an open fire, and he is the kind of man to check that sort of thing. Either way, I thought it was magnificent. The rest of the meal, for me, was marred by veal envy – my dining companion committed the unpardonable sin of ordering better than I did – but my rabbit porchetta was still a beautiful thing, even if it didn’t quite live up to the promise of the juxtaposition of those two words.

Osteria Bottega, Via Santa Caterina 51

3. La Verace

Another tip from Andy Hayler, La Verace is right on the edge of the city centre, not far from MAMbo, the modern art gallery. The gallery, like so many modern art galleries I’ve experienced on my trips to European cities, puts the f into art and isn’t necessarily worth visiting. La Verace, on the other hand, is well worth a detour.

I came for the pizza and it truly was one of the finest I’ve had, with a perfect crust and a rich, almost fragrant tomato sauce. But actually, all the other dishes were even better – especially shedloads of tender squid served on a deep, earthy chickpea purée. I still occasionally go on – to anybody who will listen – about the oven roasted potatoes, salty and fatty with a slightly medicinal tinge of rosemary: one of the cheapest things I ate in Bologna and easily one of the most memorable.

Next time I’ll keep away from the pizzas and explore the rest of the menu: I suspect there are more works of art in it than you’ll find round the corner.

La Verace, Via Cairoli 10

4. Scacco Matto

It’s very difficult to have a bad meal in Bologna (I never managed it), and the majority of restaurants I ate in were brilliant and accomplished but resolutely unshowy. There’s an awful lot to be said for that, but if you do want to try something more cheffy and ambitious Scacco Matto is the place for you.

I went there after watching Rick Stein, on his Long Weekends programme, eating Scacco Matto’s plin, ravioli filled with sweet onion and Parmesan, glossy with butter and served with thick slices of wild mushroom and hazelnuts. I’ve ordered it on both my visits to Scacco Matto and it’s a death row dream of a dish, a dish with a half-life where you eventually keep eating half of what’s left, hoping you can somehow cheat the laws of the universe and make it last forever.

But other dishes are available, and they’re every bit as good. On my last visit I ate a single squid, scattered with peas and broad beans, resting on a thick slab of pork, in the same breathless rapture. I finished off with two beautifully rare tranches of tuna with ginger and mange tout, a dish with roots a long way from Emilia Romagna but somehow completely at home here.

When my friends and I all ordered the plin the waiter smiled and said “Rick Stein?” and I thought how nice it was to take someone else’s restaurant advice for a change. It’s hard to imagine a visit to Bologna where I didn’t eat at this restaurant – and if you want a pre or post-dinner drink Birra Cerqua, one of Bologna’s preeminent craft beer brewpubs, is two minutes down the road.

Scacco Matto, Via Brocaindosso 63

5. Sette Tavoli

I heard lots of recommendations for Sette Tavoli but, shamefully, the main reason I chose it was that it could be booked online (not all Bologna restaurants have embraced the Internet). It gets its name from only having seven tables inside, although on the day I ate there it was hot as balls (during mini heatwave at the end of June) so we were out on the portico, trying to look unruffled, John Lewis portable fans whirring away like billy-o.

It has an attractive, short a la carte menu or you can pick one of two tasting menus centred around meat or fish. We went for the latter, accompanied with a very cold and crisp local white wine, and it was a properly lovely meal.

I enjoyed the fish encrusted in pistachio, served with a sweet and crunchy fennel salad, a clever bit of cooking on a dish delivered with minimum fuss or fannying about. But my absolute favourite was smoked salmon with ultra-caramelised onions and spuma di patate – the texture of creme fraiche but the distilled taste of spud at its most elemental. Nothing especially Italian about it, but who cares? It was nothing short of a magic trick, and yet another dish (Bologna is packed with them) that we talked about for days.

Sette Tavoli, Via Cartoleria 15/2

6. Simoni

One of the best things in Bologna is the Quadrilatero, the grid of streets just off Piazza Maggiore full of stalls selling pasta, cheese, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. And, for me, one of the best things in the Quadrilatero is Simoni – if you get there early enough at lunchtime you can grab one of the tables outside, order a bottle of Lambrusco (the local wine which is red, chilled and therefore nothing like any Lambrusco you might have experienced at home) and make inroads into a menu full of cheese, charcuterie and bread. It truly is a happy place for me.

On a previous visit my friends and I demolished a selection of charcuterie and cheese – salami, Parma ham, a bunch of delicious cheeses whose names escape me and mortadella, the signature meat of Bologna which you have to try even if, like me, you have a vague suspicion of unreally-pink mystery meat. But on my most recent trip it was all about bread – first, squares of focaccia filled with beautiful scquacquerone, a gooey fresh local cheese a bit like the shapeless heart of burrata.

Even better was the porchetta panino, a beautiful thing stuffed with salty, fatty pork and studded with caperberries adding just enough acidity for contrast. Panini in the U.K. are just the way our awful coffee chains flog you a gooey, unremarkable toasted sandwich: having the real thing in Bologna was a true revelation. Either way, make sure you keep room for the tasting selection of Parmesan so you can try it aged for 18, 24 and 36 months: if nothing else, it will help you decide which kind to buy and cram into your suitcase on the way home.

Simoni, Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3/b

7. Cremeria Cavour

Pretty much any of the gelato you can eat in Bologna will ruin most U.K. ice cream for you for life (although I still have a soft spot for Jude’s salted caramel – available at Fidget & Bob and Nirvana Spa, fact fans). I made it a personal crusade to try as many places as I could: I loved Sorbetti Castiglione, just up the road from my Airbnb which did a fantastic gianduja gelato. I adored Il Gelatauro, where I managed to eat gelato and then follow it up with an affogato which was both enormous and itself 90% gelato – either a career best or a new low, depending on how you feel about gluttony.

But my favourite was the chi-chi Cremeria Cavour (which, confusingly, had changed its name since my first visit last year). Every single flavour I had was beautiful, from pistachio to fior di panna – pure cream, unadultered with vanilla or anything else. On my last visit I developed a serious addiction to their rum and chocolate gelato, one which can only be managed with further visits to Bologna. Sitting on a bench in Piazza Cavour eating gelato would, in most cities, be the standout gastronomic experience of a holiday but in Bologna, it has to settle for being first among equals.

Cremeria Cavour, Piazza Cavour 1D

8. Aroma

You’re not going to struggle for good coffee in Bologna, wherever you go. My weakness – which I was introduced to by my friend Al – is caffè al ginseng, which is hot, sweet, milky, comes out of a machine and would probably offend coffee purists everywhere.

Personally I often think the most fun you can have with a purist comes from irritating them. But if you are in the mood to try a more rarified coffee, head to Aroma. The interior is dark and, dare I say it, a tad dated, but the staff are fantastic and friendly, speak brilliant English and serve possibly the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. My friend Al sipped his espresso, gave a sigh which was 50% whispered prayer and 50% happy finish, and immediately ordered a latte so he could check whether it was as good. It was.

Aroma, Via Porta Nova 12/b

9. Camera A Sud

Pubs are wonderful things, but there is something about a properly great bar that is truly transcendental. I’m always on the lookout for them on the continent and some of my favourites – Ghent’s Gitane, Granada’s Potemkin, Porto’s Café Candelabro – are, to my mind, reason enough to visit their parent cities.

A truly great bar is a little scruffy and bohemian but never dirty. It has a hangdog charm that you simply can’t manufacture or fake, and we aficionados can always sniff out a fake (we get lots of practice in Britain, which so rarely gets bars right). It feels like a place you could nurse a coffee in the morning, enjoy lunch, drink before dinner or booze late into the night.

In Bologna, Camera A Sud was that bar. It was perfect for aperitivi, whether that was a perfectly cold beer, a glass of white or countless day-glo Aperol spritzes. The inside was scuzzy but uncalculated but sitting outside, as the shadows lengthened and people wandered past, was the perfect place to be.

Not only that, but the food was brilliant. Not a lot of cooking was involved, but the selection of salumi and mortadella wasn’t a million of miles from the quality at Simoni. The bruschetta – mozzarella and anchovy elevated by the genius addition of orange zest – was the kind of bar snack only a bar in Bologna would think of: I sent a picture to my friend Al and he recreated it at home the very next day.

The area around Camera A Sud is full of street art and intimidatingly fashionable, dishevelled people, beautifully boho and worth a wander, either with a camera or just with your eyes wide open. Just round the corner is another terrific-looking place called Caffè Rubik: I’ve made a note of it and I’ll try it next time, just in case it’s even closer to the Platonic ideal of the perfect bar.

Camera A Sud, Via Valdonica 5

10. Astral Beers

Both times I’ve visited Bologna I have been in the company of craft beer enthusiasts: Bologna is also at the centre of Italy’s burgeoning craft beer scene, and so there are plenty of places to try. More, in truth, than I have the stomach for, so I slightly lost interest in sitting on the pavement outside a place called Beer For Bunnies surrounded by the bearded and tattooed drinking something expensive and agricultural when I’d rather have been enjoying a really good glass of wine.

That said, some places were more my kind of thing. Birra Cerqua, which I mentioned earlier, was very nice indeed and Birra Baladin (which has a bar inside the Mercato Di Mezzo) makes some beautiful and unusual stuff. But my favourite was Astral Beers, not far from the famous towers, which felt a bit more grown up, a little less chin-strokingly post-rock and a lot more interested in being a bar where everybody could find something to enjoy.

The staff at Astral Beers have more than enough enthusiasm for their stuff to bridge any language gap, and I really liked all of the Italian beers I had there, whether they were more conventional Pilsners or some very striking sours. It has some tables outside but the inside feels more grown up than many craft beer places I’ve been to – which, like craft coffee places, can sometimes feel like a temple to chipboard. They also did some lovely, affordable and in some cases biodynamic wines.

I never ate there, but the dishes I watched arriving at other tables looked good enough to give me pre-dinner food envy. Happily, it only ever lasted as long as my walk to the next restaurant.

Astral Beers, Via Castiglione 13/B

11. Osteria Del Sole

Confusingly, Osteria Del Sole isn’t really an osteria and doesn’t do any food. What it is, quite magnificently, is Bologna’s most venerable bar and dangerously close to an Italian take on an old man pub. The wine by the glass is perfectly pleasant – it’s a good place to try Pignoletto, the local sparkling white – and the Menebrea by the bottle is also serviceable, but really the atmosphere is the thing here. There’s also a little courtyard, although it lacks the battered grandeur of the interior.

Every time I’ve been, confusingly, many of the tables have been reserved (something which would never catch on in a British pub), but you can usually find some space. It has to be done, if just the once, and makes for a nice early afternoon pit stop before returning to the bustle, sights and sounds of the Quadrilatero.

Osteria Del Sole, Vicolo Ranocchi 1/D

12. Mercato di Mezzo and Mercato delle Erbe

A bit of a cheat lumping both these markets in the same entry, but both are absolutely worth a visit.

Mercato di Mezzo, in the Quadrilatero, is more like Market Halls Victoria (or what Reading’s own Market House desperately wishes it was), an indoor market with food vendors along both sides and communal tables in the middle. Everything I’ve eaten from there has been brilliant, whether it’s pasta accompanied with a local beer from Baladin, a slice of pizza grabbed on the run to munch on the way through the streets or a caffè al ginseng and a croissant packed with indulgent pistachio cream first thing in the morning. Visit, if only to see how far Reading has to go to even attempt to recapture the buzz of such a place done well.

By contrast, the Mercato delle Erbe – on the splendidly named Via Ugo Bassi – has a conventional market at its heart selling all sorts of wonderful fruit, vegetables fish and what have you (I picked up some fantastic truffle sauce on my first visit) and then, around the edges, there are lots of little restaurants with their own seating. I enjoyed a fantastic range of bruschetta on one visit, on another I went to Polpette E Crescentine, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

There are also some lovely bars where you can sit with a pre-dinner spritz, wondering whether snaffling a square of pizza would ruin your appetite and, just as importantly, whether it would be worth it (on balance, probably not, but you usually work that out the hard way).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a holiday without a souvenir. I always make sure I head to Formaggeria Barbieri in the Mercato delle Erbe, where they are wonderfully helpful and will vacuum-pack you massive pieces of Parmesan for your flight home. I managed to bring back two and a half kilos on my last trip (twenty-four month aged for everyday grating and forty month aged for best) and they even gave me a snazzy red tote bag which I prize far more than I probably should.

Mercato di Mezzo, Via Clavature 12
Mercato delle Erbe, Via Ugo Bassi 25

City guide: Granada

Everybody has their happy place, and the Spanish city of Granada is mine. I first went there around twenty years ago: I was visiting my old schoolfriend Mike (who actually crops up in this blog from time to time) getting over a disastrous relationship. He lived in Madrid, but for some reason we decided to take a very long coach trip all the way across the country to spend a couple of days in Andalusia. It’s the sort of thing you do in your twenties, I suppose, like sleeping on somebody’s floor or deciding that Batchelors’ Savoury Rice and a bottle of Mars Energy Drink constitutes an acceptable diet.

Anyway, I don’t remember much about that visit but I do remember Granada. Bar after bar, beer after beer, and free tapas with every one. Beyond that, my evening was a blur – we wandered through the winding lanes of the Albaicin, the city’s Moorish quarter up on the hill, and ended up in a nightclub in a cave until the small hours of the morning. Even in our mid-twenties we were probably too old for that sort of thing, and as the sun came up we sat outside Cafeteria Lisboa on Plaza Nueva (it’s still there) and had a beer for breakfast for the first and probably only time of my life. What a city! What a place!

Since then I’ve been back many times and what began as a passing infatuation has blossomed into a love affair. I worked out recently that I’ve gone on holiday to Granada more times than anywhere else – including four times in the last five years, believe it or not – and I never tire of it. It’s not the most beautiful of Spanish cities, I’m sure. It has a certain scruffy energy (which comes partly from its student population, I suspect) and it seems to attract a lot of day trippers who come to see the Alhambra and then sod off. You get a lot of American tourists at neighbouring tables, and I think it’s quite popular on the hippy trail – lots of white people with dreadlocks, if you catch my drift. But none the less, it remains my favourite city on earth.

It’s hard to put my finger on why, but tapas is doubtless a big part of it. On my first visit Mike told me that although tapas was an Andalusian invention it was only really in Granada that the bars prided themselves on providing it free of charge. Some of the tapas is really inventive, and the bar staff always seem to remember whether you’re on your first, second or third drink, bringing out a different dish to accompany each one. Once, on a night out in Granada with my old friend Dave, we ordered a couple of glasses of sweet, gloopy Pedro Ximenez only for the staff to bring out dessert tapas – two beautiful, perfect squares of cheesecake and two tiny forks (they may have thought we were a couple: it sometimes happens).

But there’s so much more to Granada than the food and the bars – lovely, sun-flecked squares perfect for sitting, drinking coffee and watching people, stunning buildings, bazaars and tea rooms, spellbinding Moorish architecture and whitewashed churches. I’ve been threatening to write a guide to Granada for years, and given that my most recent visit was on holiday back in May I’ll probably never have a better opportunity than this. I hope it tempts you – because there are few better feelings than getting off the plane and walking across the tarmac at Federico Garcia Lorca Airport knowing that you have lazy days of sunshine, tapas and relaxation ahead of you.

Where to eat and drink

I’ve grouped these together because, really, in Granada they go hand in hand so my recommendations tend to be tapas bars. Some of them do have tables you can sit at, or even book, but more often they are stops on a magnificent barhopping journey, joining the dots across the city and having a couple of drinks and some tapas in every one. If you do want a sit-down, starters-mains-desserts kind of place, Ruta del Azafran looks out on the Alhambra, has a lovely outside space on the Paseo de los Tristes and can be booked online: I very much enjoyed my chicken pastilla last time I was there. Or, if you want a proper gastronomic treat, book a table at El Claustro and enjoy the Andalusia-inspired tasting menu there.

Both have their place, but I’ve always found my best food experiences in Granada have involved using my elbows, standing up at the bar and being in the heart of proceedings. I thoroughly recommend giving it a whirl.

1. Bodegas Castañeda

I visited Bodegas Castañeda on my very first trip to Granada and I’ve been back on every single visit, frequently more than once. It’s now become the first place I eat when I get to the city, the gastronomic equivalent of Pope John Paul II kissing the tarmac. Confusingly, there are actually two Castañedas – the original bar was apparently split in two as the result of a family falling out – but the one on Calle Almireciros is the one you want. Stand at the bar, order a beer from one of the staff (who, incidentally, work like Trojans) and wait for your first tapa to arrive. Then, when you’re ready, dive into the menu: there’s manchego as gritty and crystalline as any Parmesan; broad beans with big chunks of super-savoury jamon; thick, salty slabs of bacalao swamping slices of bread; mojama (sun dried tuna) drizzled with olive oil and scattered with almonds.

On the last full day of our holiday, we managed to grab a table in the sunshine outside amid all the bustle and feasted on platters of cured fish with asparagus, capers and caviar, patatas a lo pobre with sweet onion and several glasses of cold, crisp beer. We experienced one of the great uncharitable pleasures of eating in restaurants, namely watching people being turned away from the place where you’re eating because there’s no room left. Even without taking that into account, I felt like I was at the very epicentre of my happy place.

Bodegas Castañeda, Calle Almireciros, 1-3

2. Taberna La Tana

La Tana is the place to enjoy wine in Granada, a beautiful little place on the edge of the Realejo, the city’s liveliest and scruffiest district. It’s a tiny room, and people often spill out onto the street outside, but if you can get there early enough to grab its only table you do feel like you’ve won the lottery.

All the wines by the glass are quite outstanding but, as so often, the food is what transforms the experience. I still dream about the black pudding here – sweet, fragrant morcilla de Burgos served hot and topped with pine nuts. They also, incongruously, do some of the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted: you often get it as a tapa with drinks but if not it’s well worth ordering it in its own right. La Tana isn’t an unsung a place as it was when I first started going there, so prepare to hear a lot of American accents. It’s worth it, though.

Taberna La Tana, Placeta del Agua, 3

3. Saint Germain

Saint Germain always feels to me like what would happen if Granada and Paris had a beautiful child – it’s a tapas bar, yes, but with an impressive range of wine and, oddly, a Marcel Proust theme which extends all the way through to the menu. Much of the food is good enough to induce a madeleine moment many years later, too – on my last visit I really enjoyed the chorizo in honey (not a combination I’d had before) but I absolutely loved the blue cheese and wild mushroom risotto: even typing this makes me remember that divine combination of salt, starch and tang.

The staff here were lovely and friendly in the face of my stumbling Spanish, too – even more so than elsewhere in Granada. The tables outside are terrific, and badly needed in summer, but the interior is wood-panelled, conspiratorial and definitely lends itself to conversations, even ones not about À la recherche du temps perdu.

Saint Germain, Calle Postigo Velutti, 4

4. Bar Aliatar Los Caracoles

I always make time to explore Granada’s Albaicin when I visit the city (see Things to see and do, below, for more about the Albaicin) but in the past I’ve always struggled to find somewhere nice to eat around there. Los Caracoles on Plaza Aliatar was a very welcome discovery on my last visit – a lovely dappled square and an appealing menu made for a perfect lunch spot.

Caracoles means snails, and they are on the menu (many tables seemed to be having them as tapas) but if, like me, you’re not a fan there’s plenty to enjoy. I had some gorgeous hand-carved jamon and a big bowl of broad beans with (more) jamon, served with an egg on top, waiting to release its yolk into the rest of the dish. This was also my favourite people-watching spot: I became fascinated by a pair of dapper old gentlemen – Panama hats and all – at the next table eating, drinking and waving their hands around. I couldn’t decide whether I wished I could eavesdrop on them or whether knowing what they were saying would have killed the magic.

Bar Aliatar Los Caracoles, Plaza Aliatar, 4

5. Mercado de San Agustin

Although less developed than, say, Malaga’s market, I really liked the Mercado de San Agustin. There are plenty of stalls inside selling meats, cheeses, wine and all the other usual suspects, but I loved sitting outside and ordering from a menu in the sunshine.

I ended up eating there twice, so much did I enjoy it, and everything I had was near perfect – whether it was swordfish or bacalao straight off the plancha, perfectly cooked and drizzled with oil and herbs or baby squid piping hot and waiting to be dressed with freshly squeezed lemon juice. But the revelation was tomatoes aliñado, huge things cut into slices like steaks, beautifully sweet and dressed with olive oil and big salt crystals, one of the most magical things I ate on my tip. It made the bland polytunnel tomatoes we get in the U.K. feel halfway between a disappointment and a national embarrassment.

Mercado de San Agustin, Plaza de San Agustin

6. Potemkin

Potemkin, a little bar in the Realejo district opposite the modern language school, was a real find on my last visit. It’s in a pretty square, the service is excellent and best of all, on Wednesdays they serve sushi – and that means sushi tapas, too.

When my caña arrived with some beautifully made avocado maki, I was both baffled and delighted. By the time the next one was brought to the table with some salmon nigiri, I was convinced that sushi and tapas was the combination the world had been waiting for. The tapas was more conventional, but no less delicious, on a return visit: by then I was daydreaming about living in a world where a bar like Potemkin was just around the corner.

Potemkin, Placeta del Hospicio Viejo, 3

7. Café Futbol

Breakfast in Granada means churros, and churros means Cafe Futbol (although Gran Cafe Bib-Rambla, in the more central and splendidly-named Plaza Bib-Rambla, is also worth consideration). Sitting in the square outside with half a dozen churros, a zumo de naranja and a café con leche sets you up perfectly for the day, and Café Futbol does them better than anywhere else I’ve found. The batter is perfectly sweet yet salty, and although lots of people like to dunk them in thick, gloopy chocolate I prefer to empty the contents of a sugar sachet onto my unused saucer and gently dab them in that, giving just a little crunch and sweetness. It’s not infra dig to dip them in your coffee, either, if you ask me.

Cafe Futbol, Plaza de Mariana Pineda, 6

8. Los Italianos

Only open during the summer months, Los Italianos is Granada’s legendary gelataria, conveniently located on Gran Via, pretty much opposite the cathedral. It says something about the time of year I usually visit Granada that my recent trip was the first time I’ve ever gone to Los Italianos (and the second, and the third). It’s proper old-school cool: I suspect they have been operating pretty much the same way for decades and the gelato, although maybe not hitting the heights of Italy, is still bloody marvellous and deeply welcome on a hot day (when not in Rome, and all that). I loved the gianduja gelato – enough to have it more than once – but the salted caramel was also very nice indeed.

Los Italianos, Calle Gran Vía de Colón, 4

9. Noat Coffee

You can get a café con leche or the like pretty much anywhere in Granada, and I’ve always thought they’re one of life’s great pleasures when you’re on holiday in Spain. But if you do find yourself craving a more refined, delicate coffee more reminiscent of a Tamp or an Anonymous, Granada has a few really good options.

La Finca near the cathedral is excellent, and I rather enjoyed Dulcimena Coffee in the heart of the Realejo, but my favourite was Noat, a really sweet little café also in the Realejo. They are really friendly, they serve superb latte and although they only have a handful of seats inside there’s a bench out front where you can drink your coffee and watch the city beginning to wake up from the night before. Highly recommended.

Noat Coffee, Calle Santa Escolastica, 7

10. Capitán Amargo (previously Colagallo)

Granada’s craft beer scene is very much up and coming, but Capitan Amargo, in the Realejo, is at the heart of it (it’s the only bar in Granada on Untappd). It’s more polished than some craft beer pubs I’ve been to in Spain, and it had an impressive array of beers from Spain and beyond (Belgium and the U.K., unsurprisingly, also get a look in). We tried a couple, from Basqueland Brewing and local brewery Sacromonte and loved them both.

Craft beer must be a tough sell in Granada of all places, where an Alhambra is not only as cheap as chips but usually accompanied by free food, but the tapas in Capitán Amargo were also substantial and very tasty, especially the empanada I had. Service, as it nearly always is in craft beer places, was really charming, engaging and enthusiastic. He wanted to know what we made of the beers and once he had established that we were English he wanted to talk about our dealings with Europe (Liverpool FC, thankfully, rather than fucking Brexit).

Capitán Amargo, Calle Molinos, 28

Things to see and do

1. The Alhambra

The Alhambra is probably the single reason most people visit Granada, and it’s quite possible that many tourists bus in, visit the Alhambra, get back on the coach and head on elsewhere without ever seeing the city. It’s a whole complex of palaces, gardens and fortifications and you really do have to visit it if you ever go to Granada (and if you do, be warned: you need to buy tickets online some way in advance). Although the gardens are beautiful and peaceful and some of the other palaces are either grand or charming, the real attraction here are the Nasrid Palaces, a succession of increasingly beautiful courtyards and halls, patios and fountains.

Many words have been written about the Alhambra by many people, and I don’t think a couple of lines by a restaurant reviewer are going to do the place justice – none of my photos of the place, taken over the course of over a decade, do either. All I would say is that every time I go I see something new, and get lost in it all over again, from the beautiful, intricate carvings to the gorgeous tile work, the breathtaking ceilings and the stunning arches. The views out across the Albaicin are amazing, and even the tourists crawling round every inch of it can’t detract from its majesty. I’ve been to very few tourist attractions in my life that even come close to living up to the hype. The Alhambra easily does all that, and more besides.

2. The Albaicin

The Albaicin, the old Moorish quarter of the city, is on the hill opposite the Alhambra and is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a lovely place to wander and explore, all winding steep lanes and whitewashed houses with courtyards resplendent with flowers. One of the focal points is the Mirador de San Nicolas, with its iconic view out across to the Alhambra (and, usually, quite a lot of people selling beads/sporting dreadlocks/playing Bob Marley songs on a guitar). If you want a better view of the Alhambra the trick is to nip next door to the tranquil mosque, where you get the same vista but with a welcome added dose of dignity.

Half the fun of the Albaicin is getting lost in it, but it’s also worth checking out the gorgeous whitewashed church of San Miguel Bajo (and having a beer in one of the places in the square outside) and picking your way through the streets leading off the buzzing (if unfortunately named) Plaza Larga. It’s also worth mentioning the streets which lead up into the Albaicin from the city centre, Caldereria Vieja and Caldereria Nueva, because they are lined with tea houses or teteria. It’s well worth stopping in one for a fresh mint tea, poured into tiny glasses with some ceremony from a great height, or té Pakistani which is sweet, perfumed and milky like chai. As Sirat is my favourite teteria, but any of them is worth a visit.

3. The Monastery of Saint Jeronimo

The most famous monastery in Granada is La Cartuja, the Carthusian monastery quite a way out of the city. But I have a real soft spot for the monastery of Saint Jeronimo, which is a ten minute walk from the cathedral. It’s unassuming and modest at first, and walking round the cloisters, smelling the orange trees in the courtyard, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. But the chapel, and more specifically the altarpiece, is one of the most incredible and overblown things I’ve ever seen. The photo above doesn’t come close to doing it justice and even after countless visits it never loses its power. One of my favourite things about introducing new people to Granada is taking them to the monastery, showing them the chapel and watching them try not to swear in a house of God.

4. The Alcaiceria

Not far from Granada’s handsome cathedral (also worth a visit, come to think of it) the Alcaiceria is a little maze of passages offering a miniature equivalent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It’s a nineteenth century replacement for the fifteenth century original, which was destroyed by fire, and although many of the shops sell very similar goods (lots of lanterns, leathergoods and marquetry – wooden inlaid boxes) it’s a very pleasant way to amble and window shop. You don’t get hassled or invited to haggle as you would in the Grand Bazaar, either.

5. Patio de los Perfumes

Granada isn’t rife with shopportunities, although I always love a pootle round its branch of El Corte Ingles, complete with its slightly preposterously named Club Del Gourmet in the basement (you can imagine Frasier and Niles buying their sherry there). I do love Rafael Moreno Orfebre, an old-school shop that sells silver jewellery inspired by the intricate designs of the Alhambra. But my favourite shop in Granada is Patio on the picturesque Carrera del Darro, a museum of perfume which also sells beautiful fragrances based around the signature aromas of the city – so you can expect plenty of jasmine, orange blossom and pomegranate. I came away with a bottle for me and a couple extra for my friends.

Patio de los Perfumes, Carrera del Darro, 5

City guide: Málaga

A more up to date city guide to Malaga, from 2021, can be found here.

I first visited Málaga in late 2016, on an unsuccessful holiday with a vegan girlfriend. Going to Spain with a vegan was almost as bad a decision as going out with the vegan in the first place, but even as I returned home, lessons learnt, I had a feeling Málaga and I had unfinished business. The thing I’ve since discovered about Málaga is that there are two kinds of people: people who’ve never thought of visiting it, and people who have been, loved it and are keen that not too many people find out about it.

I should start with an apology to the second kind of people, because it really does deserve to be better known. It’s compact, it has a beautiful historic centre, loads of art galleries (covering traditional and more modern forms), a waterfront with a beach close by, excellent shopping and terrific street art. Returning this month with my other half and some friends, enjoying temperatures of nineteen degrees in March and seeing the sun again, I got the feeling of barely scratching the surface.

It’s almost like they plonked a miniature Barcelona in Andalusia, with all the gastronomic benefits of being in that blessed region. And my goodness, the food! I ate better than I can remember on any holiday – not just the obvious stuff like jamon, queso and churros but beautiful, inventive tapas, fresh, superbly-cooked fish and seafood, stunning burgers (yes, burgers) and so much more. I’ve always thought any day where you get to eat octopus is a good day: on one day in Málaga I managed to eat it for lunch, dinner and an afternoon snack, and that felt pretty unbeatable to me.

My other half is not known for her delicate language, but I lost count of the number of times she tried her first mouthful of a dish and said “fuck!”, almost involuntarily. My friend James, a fellow Málaga fan, has been every year since 2016 and even before heading home I think both of us were mentally planning our next visit. I hope this piece persuades you to consider it next time you’re planning a city break of your own.

Where to eat

1. Taberna Uvedoble

I spent my birthday in Uvedoble this year, and a better place to celebrate is difficult to imagine. It’s a modern tapas restaurant close to the cathedral and the vast majority of the menu is available either as a tapa, media or racion depending on how hungry or inquisitive you are and how many of you there are. On our visit we swooned over baby squid served on a nest of squid ink fideua, a giant lake of aioli on the side. Oxtail albondigas were also phenomenal, the juices soaking into a bed of skinny chips.

But the small dishes were every bit as astounding – individual hamburgers cut with foie gras, lending a powerful punch like nothing I’ve eaten before, or miniature brioches hollowed out and completely crammed with shredded suckling pig. The truffled tortilla was so big we had to take half of it back to the apartment with us, and the red wine (Seis y Seis, from nearby Ronda) was magnificent – and ridiculous value at eighteen Euros. Dinner for three, in fact, came to less than a hundred Euros between the three of us – and if you need any more incentive to go to Málaga, bear in mind that this was easily the most expensive meal of the whole holiday.

Uvedoble was so good that we returned for lunch on our final day, so that Liz (who had arrived late) didn’t miss out on the food. Determined to try other dishes, we devoured stunning grilled asparagus with romesco, clean delicate ensaladilla Rusa, flamenquin all crisp with breadcrumbs and oozing with cheese, and so many other amazing dishes. We got there at 1, when they opened, and within about half an hour the place was rammed. “More 10 out of 10s than anywhere else we’ve been” was James’ verdict. My other half’s verdict? “Fuck.”

Taberna Uvedoble, Calle Cister, 15

2. El Tapeo de Cervantes

Easy to be confused – there’s also La Taberna de Cervantes, Vineria Cervantes and El Meson de Cervantes – but El Tapeo de Cervantes is the one you want, a small, intimate place with high tables, a regularly changing menu and absolutely charming staff where I had one of my very favourite meals of this or any year. You order lots of dishes – easily two per person, more if you’re greedy – and they pace your meal perfectly, bringing them out one at a time like a gastronomic firework display.

This was James’ suggestion, and he evangelised about it from the off before getting nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the hype (a feeling I know better than he realised). But he needn’t have worried – everything was so good that it was difficult to pick out highlights. Duck cooked so expertly that it was more like fillet steak, slow-cooked pig’s cheek in a rich stew topped with fiery guindilla chillies, intense sweetbreads with the crackle of salt crystals served on crisp cubes of potato, soft tender octopus offset with smoked mash, every single dish every bit as good as the last.

But the humdinger, a dish which reduced James to wordless rapture, was secreto iberico: pink and tender, scattered with salt and served with a sweet pineapple relish which shouldn’t work but did. Boy, if only Hawaiian pizzas were like that. We had everything with a couple of bottles of Orben, a magical rioja which, I’m told, you can get on Amazon Prime (what will they think of next?). It was a meal I’ll remember for quite some time, and it cost just shy of thirty Euros per head.

El Tapeo de Cervantes, Calle Carcer, 8

3. Wendy Gamba

Processed with RNI Films. Preset 'Agfa RSX II'

We had lunch at Wendy Gamba, in the heart of the old town, and I could happily have eaten there again for dinner, lunch and dinner again. In a gorgeous, tiled, relatively traditional room we had some of the finest dishes of the entire trip (but for the fact that you could also say that about all the other places on this list). The signature dish here is the bull burger, a miniature burger with slow-cooked oxtail which matched any burger I’ve ever had, but other dishes gave it a run for its money. I especially loved the octopus with plenty of char and salt, prawn and avocado pinchos topped with strands of saffron and gambas pil pil in a brick red oil steeped with sweet slices of garlic. A generous lunch for four came in at under eighty Euros. We walked past the following evening and, unsurprisingly, the place was completely packed: best to reserve a table if you’re going there for dinner.

Wendy Gamba, Calle Fresca, 10

4. Meson Mariano

Meson Mariano is a very 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, quite a lot) younger than me and when we went to Meson Mariano they described themselves as “turnt up to the max”, whatever that means. Regrettably, this means 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 really 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 beautifully tender that it didn’t stay there for long) or spot-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

5. Mercado Atarazanas

Málaga’s food market is simply something else. An impressive structure (very striking stained glass, and a gorgeous arched entrance) housing every kind of delicacy you care to name – fresh fish of every size and shape, cheese, meat, jamon, almonds shiny with oil and studded with salt, wine and sherry, seemingly endless arrays of fruit and veg. That’s all in the middle, and then around the outside are all the places where you can stand at the bar, drink a caña or a vermut, order food and watch the world go by (there are also seated areas outside the market, but I far preferred being in the bustle).

For all I know there may not be that much to choose between them all, but I developed a huge soft spot for Central Bar, in the corner of the market, and went there several times. Over the course of a couple of visits I had baby squid, coated, fried and dished up piping hot with nothing but a spot of aioli and a lemon to squeeze, octopus served in a similar fashion, chorizo pinchos plump and crying out to be eaten with your fingers. Best of all was rosada, a white fish cooked on the plancha and plated simply with a drizzle of oil and herbs, glorious fresh tomatoes and a few spots of that aioli. It was the only other dish to render James speechless (and that’s no mean feat): we had it twice during the holiday.

When I go back I’ll try the tortilla de camarones, fritters made with flour and tiny shrimp which kept turning up on the bar for other people: they looked delicious, but I didn’t figure out what they were until it was too late. But then I could happily have spent an afternoon at that bar, drinking and eating, little and often. The most expensive bill we had was forty Euros between three, reinforcing what insanely good value Málaga is.

Mercado Central de Atarazanas, Calle Atarazanas, 10

6. Casa Lola

Casa Lola was the first place I ate at on this trip, and if everything that came after was even better that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it was a lovely place to go for afternoon snacks. The interior looks much more polished and curated than many of the other tapas bars in Málaga (almost, dare I say it, chainlike) but sitting at a high table with a caña and some food, watching the world go by is still an excellent way to spend an afternoon. The high point for me was the extensive range of pinchos, all of which were downright delicious. A spot of smoked bacalao here, some black pudding topped with quail’s egg there, that first taste of holiday octopus: all were present and indisputably correct.

Casa Lola, Calle Granada, 46

Where to drink

1. La Tranca

La Tranca, Málaga’s almost legendary vermouth and wine bar, was firmly on all our lists to visit: I’d been and loved it, and I’d bonded with James and Liz over their devotion to it. I remember going in 2016 and wishing I could stay there all evening, and that’s before Liz told me how good the empanadas were. Walking past it on our first night, something about it didn’t seem right: the inside was somehow different, the bar felt different, the vibe somehow changed. “It’s closed!” said Liz, crestfallen. Later that evening we realised it had relocated to bigger premises just up the road, and when we went in all scepticism was immediately dispelled: it was different, but recognisably La Tranca right from the off.

La Tranca is one of the world’s great bars (and I’ve researched quite a few in my time): lovably scruffy, full of bustle, serving brilliant drinks and full of people who just want to have a good time and enjoy being somewhere magnificent. Put that way, I can’t help but wonder if it shares DNA with Reading’s beloved After Dark. We went back a couple of times during the trip, jostling to find a space to set ours drink down, stand around and talk nonsense. We got into a random conversation with a lovely Italian chap, a musician, who had let his apartment in Berlin out to a woman from New York days ago and just got on a plane to Málaga to take his life in a different direction: well, Málaga is that kind of city and La Tranca is the perfect bar for conversations like that.

The drink to have here is aliñao, vermouth with gin and soda which makes the world, even at times like this, feel like a softer, more comfortable place. The tapas is also well worth trying – you order at the bar and hope you can find your way back up there through the crowd to collect it when they call out your name. The four cheese empanadas, rich with blue cheese, were things of beauty but my personal favourite was the habas con jamon, a little dish of broad beans and ham which was damn near perfect bar (or anywhere else) food.

La Tranca, Calle Carreteria, 92

2. Antigua Casa de Guardia

Another Málaga institution, this long thin bar has barrels of every sweet wine you could possibly hope to drink. You go up, order a copa and they chalk your bill up on the bar. I tried a number of the options, from moscatel to pedro ximenez, from the “Pajarete 1908” (the thing to order here apparently) to the Guinda and the Lagrima Añejo: you may well have a better palate than me but they all tasted dangerously similar and remarkably moreish. A little glass of wine here costs less than two Euros, so if you go you can try them all and tell me what I’m missing. We were there on a lazy Friday afternoon, but I imagine evenings can be quite a free-for-all.

Antigua Casa de Guardia, Alameda Principal, 18

3. La Madriguera

Málaga has a small craft beer scene, and as I was there with some real beer fans it was only fair to check it out. I suspect James preferred Cerveceria Arte & Sana on Plaza de la Merced, but my favourite was La Madriguera, which struck me as reminiscent of Bristol’s tremendous Small Bar. La Madriguera had nine beers on tap when I visited including a few from local microbrewery Bonvivant, and I really enjoyed their fruit IPA El Increible Hombre Menguente (that’s the incredible shrinking man to you and I). I was sad to move on when duty – by which I mean dinner – called, although I also found it difficult to walk past a bar called Jamones next door, which went straight on my “next time” list.

La Madriguera, Calle Carreteria, 73

4. Cafe Central

A lot of people will tell you to go to Casa Aranda, where they do huge churros, giant tubes of batter just waiting to be dunked in thick gloopy chocolate (the same people will recommend El Pimpi, Málaga’s iconic bar which I still haven’t tried). But my heart belongs to Cafe Central, where the churros are piped, have just enough salt and are crying out to be rolled in sugar from the sachet and popped in your mouth. The seating outside is perfect in the sunshine but I have a soft spot for eating inside, where it reminds me of so many grand cafes and where you can always spot some great characters, old ladies and dapper gentlemen, enjoying their “second breakfast” (it’s a thing in Spain, and really should be a thing everywhere else).

Coffee at Cafe Central truly is an art – you may have a cafe con leche elsewhere in Spain, but in Cafe Central you pick from nine different types of coffee depending on just how much milk you want in it, an idea that really could catch on here with tea (I’ve long thought that if we ever do have a national identity card it should have a swatch on it showing the exact colour you like your tea). Mine was always a mitad, half and half, and going to Cafe Central became a thoroughly enjoyable morning ritual.

Cafe Central, Plaza de la Constitucion, 11

5. El Ultimo Mono

El Ultimo Mono (the last monkey, apparently, which I assume makes sense to someone) happened to be right next to our apartment. But even if it hadn’t, I imagine I would have been there quite a lot. The interior was just the right side of the quirky/zany divide, the service was great, and the coffee – for when you want a latte or a mocha rather than the traditional strong black coffee or cafe con leche – was very nice indeed. There was a shop opposite which sold little statues of Jesus: we repeatedly had to talk James out of buying one, for shits and giggles apparently.

El Ultimo Mono, Calle Sta Maria, 9

6. Mia Coffee House

One morning I was up and about earlier than my travelling companions, and keen to go exploring. A little research and some good fortune (and tricky navigation) got me to Mia Coffee House, a wonderful little cafe in a quiet square opposite the very impressive Church of los Santos Martires. I was drawn to the canary-yellow awning, and it was lovely and serene to sit outside, warmed by the sun and watch the city slowly wake up.

Mia’s is top-notch coffee – the best I had in Málaga – made with painstaking love and care in the perfect little spot. Even the cups, little bowls without handles, are pared-down and somehow ascetic. Less pure was the pain au chocolat, the filling made even more indulgent with a spot of something like Nutella. The others joined me about half an hour later, and I did allow myself a moment of “look at this brilliant place I found!” while they very kindly humoured me. Well, I suppose it’s what I do – or try to – and what I’ve just been doing about Málaga on this little gastronomic tour. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.