So, you’re stuck deciding between Alicante or Malaga for your next Spanish holiday? Neither of these sun-soaked destinations will disappoint. Golden beaches, historic old towns, and family-friendly resort hotels abound in both. But they’re also not the same, which is where this comparison can come to the rescue…
On the one hand, there’s Alicante. The gateway to the sunny Costa Blanca is a regular family fav. It’s got an old-town center with winding alleys and charming cottages, plus beaches right on the doorstep. Then there’s Malaga, the home of Picasso and one of the finest Moorish-era towns in Spain. It’s hot, it’s lively, and it’s near amazing mountain ranges for hikers.
This guide will help you weigh up Alicante or Malaga by running through several of the major features of each place. It will look at the general atmosphere of both towns, compare the beaches and the nightlife, and even work in some accommodation suggestions for both. Let’s begin…
The General Vibe
Alicante is an international port city with an authentically Spanish feel. When it comes to vibe, it represents the epitome of a chilled Costa Blanca getaway and is a great place for city breaks and beach jaunts alike. The province is in the Valencian region of southeastern Spain and stretches almost 6,000 square kilometers with 220 kilometers of coastline.
With a nearby airport and tons of beach resorts in easy reach, Alicante is one of the most popular tourist spots on Spain’s southeast coast. The city itself has something for everyone, creating a perfect balance between relaxation and action.
From the broad public beaches, perfect for water sports, to the central old town, Barrio de la Santa Cruz, where you can spend hours wandering the narrow streets and climbing the steep steps to the medieval Castillo de Santa Bárbara, it covers a lot of bases.
Set along the sparkling Costa del Sol, Malaga is a city steeped in history, art, and R&R all at the same time. Ever so slightly smaller than Alicante, Malaga is flanked by a sandy coastline and comes complete with its own alluring old town.
Once a gateway to the glitzy resort towns of the Costa del Sol and the spectacular city of Seville, Malaga has shaken its reputation to become a beacon of culture and small city life in its own right. It’s the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and his art is interweaved in all the galleries and museums. The exciting culinary scene and youthful nightlife have also helped put Malaga on the map in recent years.
Alicante and Malaga are both gateways to two of the most famous costas on the Spanish Mediterranean. The first is a steppingstone into the Costa Blanca. The latter is the way into the legendary Costa del Sol. To be honest, whichever of those you pick, you can look forward to turquoise sea waters and white-tinged sands backed by palm trees. Plus, the weather in both regions is fantastic – think 300 days of sun and temps that peak above 20 degrees even in the middle of winter.
The Costa Blanca around Alicante is known as one of the best areas for family vacations. Resorts with big hotels on the shoreline but up to promenades and Blue Flag beaches that promise prime swimming conditions for little kids and adults alike. Some of the finest beaches here, include:
- Playa de Levante de Benidorm – A super-famous and lively run of sand that’s right in front of Benidorm town. If in doubt, come here with the toddlers to set up shop for a long day of sunbathing and swimming.
- Altea – The main beach in the resort of Altea sort of sums up the Costa Blanca because it’s got loads of facilities and has lifeguard stations in the summer, plus uber-clean sands and seas to match.
- Playa San Juan – The closest of all the above to Alicante itself, San Juan is only 5 miles to the northeast. It’s got a good array of eateries and bars, along with lots of water sports outfitters.
Malaga wins out here if you want to have beaches in the city center itself. That’s because the town has a duo of spectacular sands of its own, which kick-start the greater Costa del Sol in style. They are Playa de la Malagueta and Playa de la Caleta, both on the eastern side of the port. If you have access to a car or don’t mind traveling a little, you could also check out:
- Playa de los Álamos – Long, thin Playa de los Álamos is a great family escape, quieter than Malaga’s main beaches with shallow swimming areas. The waves can get bigger here in the winter, though.
- Benalmádena – Benalmádena has a beach that’s always lively and fun. It’s stacked with seaside bars and stylish marina areas and is wide enough to hosts the thousands of sun seekers who come each summer.
- Calahonda Beach – An idyllic little dash of sand below the whitewashed Andalusian fishing town of Mijas, Calahonda is just about as picture-perfect as they come here. This one will be busy in summer!
Winner: Draw. Alicante for families but Malaga for couples, jet setters, and solo travelers.
Alicante and Malaga are both brimming with enough nightlife to compete with Europe’s major party destinations. We’d stop short of saying they offer the same sort of hedonism you get in Barcelona or even Benidorm, but there’s still loads to keep you dancing all night long.
In Alicante, the El Barrio area is very much the focal point. It’s the historic core of the town; and, after sunset, a maze of rollicking tapas bars and cervezeria beer halls. Check out the open-air wine bars around the Central Market, where you can sip a Rioja Sangria before heading up Ruta de la Madera, where bigger clubs and dive bars both converge. Partiers should also know about El Puerto, which is the marina and beach area of the city. That has altogether cooler bars by the water, with sleek cocktail menus and the like.
But it’s Malaga that wins this one. It fizzes with not one, not two, but three major nightlife hubs. The first is the beachfront promenade along Playa la Malagueta, where you can drink in edgy sunset bars. The second is the hip, youthful arts quarter of Soho, tucked between the port and the center. Then there’s the old town, which brims with Irish bars, live-music cafes, and even all-night clubs. Of course, you also have the major Costa del Sol resorts within reach.
Things to Do
Malaga is the older of the two destinations and is packed with history. Still, slightly bigger, Alicante also has no shortage of things to do, though we’d probably say they are a touch less bucket-list overall. Let’s dig deeper.
Alicante artfully balances both the modern and the old. Simply wandering around the El Barrio district is probably the main thing to do. Don’t worry if you get lost – that’s part of the fun. You’ll happen upon centuries-old homes and tempting tapas bars aplenty. Then there’s…
- Castillo de Santa Barbara – Take the lift up to this 9th-century fort. The entire city is built at its base and the views are excellent.
- Explanada de Espana – Alicante’s colorful, tiled promenade, stretching along the Med with its bars and eateries. Good fun for all ages.
- Tabarca – You’ll need to take a boat out here. It’s the smallest inhabited island in Spain and has wonderful beaches.
Still, for us, Malaga comes out on top. That’s mainly because the history here is palpable. Dating back almost 3,000 years BC, it’s one of the oldest cities in the world, and the center is like an open museum, documenting the eras of the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and Christians. You’ll 100% want to see…
- The Alcazaba – The undoubted highlight. Built in the 11th-century during Moorish rule, these medieval fortifications offer impressive sea and city views.
- La Manquita – Dominating that city skyline is the towering Renaissance Cathedral, nicknamed “La Manquita” meaning “one-armed lady” because of its unbuilt spire.
- Picasso Museum – Masterworks of Malaga’s most famous artist sun await here.
Spain remains inexpensive to both vacation and live in, especially when compared to other countries in western Europe. The average cost to visit these two regions is largely similar. In fact, the average daily costs in Malaga and Alicante are just €4 apart, coming in at €106 ($116) and €102 ($111) respectively.
For accommodation in Malaga, you can expect to pay an average of €54 ($59) per person for one night, compared to €34 ($37) in Alicante. This is the biggest discrepancy between the two spots. We’d say the average is dragged up by Malaga’s resort towns, so you might not actually have to fork out all that much to stay in the center of the city.
Airport transfers from Alicante and Malaga airports to the cities cost much the same, at €30 ($33) on average each way. Naturally, flight prices are subject to change, but shouldn’t differ too much by region.
Where Alicante exceeds Malaga on cost is eating out. Travelers can get by on €27 ($29) a day in Malaga on food compared to around €57 ($63) for the same meals in Alicante. Groceries and alcohol also cost slightly more in Alicante, as does local transport and entertainment – ticket shows, entrance fees, and performances averaging at €25 ($27) in Malaga but €42 ($46) in Alicante.
If you’re looking to make a move to either destination, expect higher monthly utilities in Alicante, but 20% lower rental costs.
Winner: Draw – daily budget estimations for these two spots are almost identical!
Hotels and accommodation
There’s surely going to be a fantastic array of accommodation options no matter which of these destinations on the sunny, south Spanish coast you go for. The reason? Well…they’re on the sunny, south Spanish coast, and that makes them hugely popular with fly-in visitors during the peak summer months.
Malaga is particularly great for inner-city apartments and boutique hotels. That’s because it’s really suited to city breakers who want to spread their time between the beaches and the sights. Of all the options in town – and there are thousands of places – we particularly love:
- SUNSET MALAGA ($$) – Just on the outskirts of the Centro district, this aparthotel has three bedrooms and stylish interiors. It’s also perfect if you’re renting a car because there’s on-site parking.
- Malaga City Breaks ($$) – A set of stylish modern rooms and suites that get you right to the heart of the old city.
- Malagueta FreshApartments by Bossh! ($$) – These apartments are right on the main Malaga beach. Step out the door and you’ll feel the breeze coming off the Mediterranean.
Alicante probably wins out when it comes to family hotels and couples stays, which are often strung up and down the surrounding beaches of the Costa Blanca. In the city itself, you can also find a similar array of flats and B&Bs that promise all the atmosphere of the old town right on the doorstep. We like:
- Luxury Rental Spain ($$$) – A gorgeous rental property with real style, set inside an historic building within walking distance of Postiguet Beach. Just what you want if you’re the aparthotel type.
- Melia Alicante ($$$) – The honeymoon choice here. Pick this one for an infinity pool overlooking the Med, sumptuous breakfast spreads, and an on-site fitness facility.
- Eurostars Mediterranea Plaza ($$) – A great family hotel for sightseeing in the center. Comfy rooms, all modern, very well kept.
Winner: Draw. Both these towns have an abundance of hotel options for all sorts of travelers.
Spain benefits from a beautiful Mediterranean climate. With Alicante and Malaga both strategically located on the south coast, they get the best of Spanish weather, but they do differ ever so slightly.
Hot, muggy summers and long, windy winters are the norms for Alicante. The temperature basically never falls below 38 F (3 C) and you can expect regular highs of 90 F (32 C) in the summer. That makes it marginally warmer than the more southerly Malaga but not in a way you’re likely to notice.
Malaga experiences slightly more rainfall but also the most hours of sunshine in all of Spain. The heavy cloud might make Alicante the hotter of the two, but Malaga’s clear blue skies are arguably more alluring for holidaymakers!
Which is better Alicante or Malaga? Our verdict
Fantastic beaches, endless entertainments, and a charming old town all help Alicante offer a real Spanish city break that has something for sun-lovers, partiers, and families alike. The seafronts are less resort-heavy in Alicante than in Malaga’s Costa del Sol, but there are still plenty of commercialized areas with beach activities going on.
Overall, we’d say Alicante is more authentically Spanish than Malaga. However, Malaga has the history. Its ancient city is unrivaled in its appeal on the south coast. Then there’s the nightlife. You can dance away in Marbella’s beach clubs and shop along the promenades to your heart’s content!
To sum up: Malaga really steals the win for us with its heritage sights, architecture, and dozens of museums and galleries.
How much does one week in Spain cost?
The average cost for a seven-day trip to Spain is around €800 ($879) for a solo traveler and, on average, €1550 ($1,720) for a family of four. This can vary a lot by region, but hotels cost between €44 ($49) and €182 ($200), and vacation rentals come in between €136 ($150) and €455 ($500) a night.
Which part of Spain has the most ex-pats?
The Costa del Sol and the Costa Blanca are hugely popular with expats. That’s mainly because they have cheap housing, vibrant local communities, and fantastic year-round weather. Spanish state schools also have a wonderful reputation in these regions, but there’s no shortage of acclaimed international institutions following the British curriculum. Tenerife and Gran Canaria are Spain’s most popular islands for expatriates.