Spain’s most populous autonomous community, Andalucía, also known as Andalusia, is abundant in history and culture. Flamenco was born here, emerging from a fusion of Moorish, Romani, and Sephardic influences. Every two years, Seville, the region’s capital, hosts the largest flamenco celebration in the world.

Two hundred and fifty miles to the east, the opulent and fortified Alhambra provides a glimpse into what paradise on earth looked like in Europe’s last Muslim state, the Emirate of Granada. Further north, Córdoba‘s Mosque-Cathedral recounts Islamic Iberia at the height of its glory, when it was regarded as a center of knowledge, learning, and enlightenment across all of Mediterranean Europe. Lined up against such a tableau, Andalusia’s easy, breezy southern coastline is often relegated to the backseat.

Seagulls on an empty beach
Seagulls enjoying an afternoon siesta on Playa de Calahonda, Nerja

Of the four costas that comprise the Andalusian littoral—Costa de la Luz, Costa del Sol, Costa Tropical, and Costa Almería—Costa del Sol is the most well-known. Like its name suggests, the Sun Coast is more adapted to a pleasantly idle type of traveling. But rays are not the only thing in store along this hundred-mile shore. Centered around the jacaranda city of Málaga, the surrounding small towns boast beaches, waterfalls, caves, dunes and even Europe’s largest stupa. Here are a few places along the Costa del Sol not to leave unexplored.

Stand on Europe’s balcony in Nerja

Under Moorish rule, Nerja was known as Narixa, which meant “plentiful spring of water.” Today, it is a quintessential Andalusian town of gleaming white. Flanking the old quarters is the Balcón de Europa, a rocky headland jutting out into sea with unobstructed views of Nerja’s beaches and the Mediterranean coastline.

A glass building atop a rocky promontory by the beach
The tiny beach of La Caletilla beneath the Balcón de Europa

On the subject of beaches, Nerja is blessed with several: the central playas of Calahonda, La Caletilla, and El Salón are all within a few steps from one another, while lively Playa de Burriana is the furthest and largest of them all. For a truly unique experience, take to the sea in kayak, row along the sparkling jade shoreline, and cool off with a crisp, freshwater shower directly under the waterfall of Maro.

I lay on tapestries of magic colors as sweet dreams closed my eyes. Narixa, my Narixa, sprang from among the flowers to bathe me in all her beauty.

Ibn Sa’adi, Arabian poet, 917

Explore enlightenment in Benalmádena

The town of Benalmádena is connected by a five-mile promenade to Torremolinos, the gay mecca of southern Spain and home to nude rooftop pools, bars, and beach clubs dressed like Pride Month all year round. What a coincidence that the largest stupa in all of Europe should be situated practically right next door. A stupa, Sanskrit for “pile,” is a Buddhist monument dedicated to a more traditional sense of enlightenment. Originally in what is now modern-day India, great teachers were buried in mounds. Over the course of millennia, these mounds grew in architectural complexity and religious significance, evolving to become vessels of dharma—the doctrine of the Buddha.

The shape of Benalmádena’s stupa represents the elements: the square base stands for the earth, the dome for water, the spire for fire, and the crescent moon for air.

Benalmádena’s stupa is constructed in the Bhutanese and Tibetan style and therefore also known as a chörten (མཆོད་རྟེན་). According to tradition, there are eight different types of chörtens, each representing a different event in the life of the Buddha. The Enlightenment Stupa of Benalmádena symbolizes the achievement of Buddha’s awakened mind. Between the structure’s ceiling and golden spire is a sealed treasure chamber containing sacred objects, including half a ton of prayer rolls, a fifty-foot Tree of Life symbolizing the cosmic axis, and six thousand tsa-tsas (ཚ་ཚ་)—clay votive tablets dedicated to the Buddha. Due to its size, Benalmádena’s chörten is one of the few stupas in the world with a hollow. Inside the meditation hall, one can ruminate over Buddhist principles such as the abandonment of desire, which, as a gay traveler in Torremolinos, may be as likely as separating the sea from its wetness.

Live the lush life in Marbella

Long strolls, beach time, and yachting—for those who have the means: they summarize the glamorous yet discreet vibe of Costa del Sol’s genteel Marbella. Up until the 1950s, Marbella was just a small village of nine hundred inhabitants halfway between Málaga and the Strait of Gibraltar. It was only until after the aristocrat Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg opened his Marbella Club that the rich and famous started descending upon the village. Over the decades, its luminous beaches, luxurious Puerto Banús marina, and gilded hilltop estates have attracted the likes of Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Michelle Obama.

The restaurant Tamanaco, located steps away from the hotel that started it all—the Marbella Club

Today, Marbella continues to be a playground for the world’s elite, although there’s also plenty of room for everyone else, too. Downtown is casual, chic, and cosmopolitan, with burger joints, poke diners, and açaí shops standing side by side next to traditional bakeries and Spanish tabernas. A walk along the seaside promenade, aptly named the Golden Mile, reveals the town’s true jet-setter flair. All along the waterfront, ritzy restaurants, sumptuous architecture, and romantic embarcaderos tantalize passersby with mirages of faraway escapes. As the Golden Mile winds to a close by the beach of Puerto Banús, pause for a moment above the Río Verde, where the tropical palm trees align under the conical La Concha just right, and watch marvelous Marbella transform into a lush South Sea atoll.

A stroll down Marbella’s Golden Mile at sunset feels like an excursion to the South Sea
Getting around the Costa del Sol

Rental cars aside, buses are the best way to travel along the Costa del Sol. Bus services are affordable and reliable, although lines run less frequently on weekends and holidays. From Málaga, a one-way ticket to Nerja with ALSA costs €5.35, while a one-way ticket to Marbella with Avanza costs approximately €6.75.

Since 2018, Uber also serves Málaga and the western stretch of the Costa del Sol, including Torremolinos, Benalmádena, and Marbella.

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