There’s no doubt that both Malaga and Granada are wonderful Spanish vacation destinations, renowned for their glorious climates, incredible historical sights, and delicious food. But if you can only visit one, which should you choose?
Malaga is no longer just the gateway to the Costa Del Sol, but a vibrant, modern city of culture. It boasts an elegant marina, a multitude of museums, its very own contemporary arts district, and Michelin-starred restaurants. And that’s without mentioning its beaches or historical charms!
Granada, meanwhile, holds some of Spain’s most fascinating history, plus one of the country’s most incredible landmarks: The mighty Alhambra de Granada. It’s also a city of blended cultures, of Spanish bars and Moroccan tea shops, flamenco shows and Arabian bazaars. It’s going to be a tough decision, but our guide is here to help…
Malaga or Granada: City highlights
It’s no secret that most visitors to Malaga plan to do little other than sunbathe. But there’s plenty more to do in this city than just lie on the beach!
- Explore the Alcazaba – This 11th century fortified palace is the most recognizable landmark of the city and it’s connected to the remains of Gibralfaro Castle, from whose ramparts you can enjoy spectacular views of the city and coast.
- Rich historic architecture – Architecture lovers should visit Malaga’s many churches and cathedral, which showcase a blend of Christian and Islamic influences.
- Roman ruins – Visit the ruins of the recently discovered Roman amphitheater.
- The new marina – Wander the redesigned marina area which is now a stylish hub of shops, bars, eateries, and galleries.
- Street art and galleries – Soak up some culture at the many museums and galleries. Don’t miss Pablo Picasso’s birthplace and museum and the funky street art project MAUS.
Most visitors to Granada come for the Alhambra (the great fort on the hill – you can’t miss it!), but they might not know quite how many other wonders this Andalusian city has to offer, including…
- The Alhambra – This site contains many more sights than we could possibly list, including several palaces and endless intricate architectural details. Don’t miss the Generalife, the summer palace in beautiful gardens where Moorish rulers went for a tranquil retreat.
- The variety of neighborhoods – Wander the city’s distinct neighborhoods like the Arabic quarter Albaicín, with its maze of alleys and squares. Or Sacromonte, where whitewashed cave houses are carved into the cliffs, and flamenco music can be heard at all hours.
- Religious sites – Visit the many churches and cathedrals constructed over remnants of mosques and Islamic monuments.
- Art – Get your art fix in one of the city’s many art galleries or by hunting out the gritty street art in Realejo, the Jewish quarter.
- Markets – Go shopping at Bib-Rambla square and Alcaiceria market, you won’t know if you’re in Spain or Morocco, but you’ll leave with beautiful souvenirs.
Winner: Granada. This town’s UNESCO-listed Alhambra is the biggest highlight of them all and arguably the highlight of Spain!
Malaga or Granada: Natural wonders
When you think of the Costa Del Sol, it’s beaches that spring to mind, and Malaga has plenty of those. Whether you’re looking for a vibrant strip lined with cafes and bars, a rugged surf spot, or a quiet cove, one of Malaga’s 16 beaches will be perfect for you.
But it’s not all sand and sea. You can also explore the majestic Montes de Malaga park. This vast expanse of pine forest, mountains, and valleys is a hiker’s, cycler’s, and birdwatcher’s paradise. Nature-lovers should also visit the urban botanic gardens, where they can wander amidst palm trees, black bamboo groves, and waterfalls.
It’s impossible to visit Granada and not notice the imposing Sierra Nevada mountains. They form an incredible backdrop to the Alahambra and provide a veritable playground for walking, mountain biking, climbing, paragliding, and wildlife watching. And if you visit in winter, you’ll find a ski resort in those mountains, too!
Within the city, explore the varied gardens of the Alhambra, stroll along the banks of the Darro River or visit the beautiful Carmen de Los Martires Gardens. For those craving the coast, there are beaches less than one hour from Granada, and while they might not contain the buzz, bars, and crowds of Malaga’s, they are dramatically beautiful thanks to the mountains whose rocky arms stretch right down to the coastline.
Winner: Draw. Malaga for beach lovers, Granada for mountain lovers.
Malaga or Granada: Food and dining
Malaga is known for serving some of the best tapas in Spain. You’ll find all manner of venues and varieties here, from old-fashioned tavernas serving traditional fare to Michelin-starred eateries where fusion is the name of the game. The town is also a hotspot for some of Andalusia’s most iconic dishes, including…
- Espetos – Skewered fish, most often sardines, cooked over open flames at beachside restaurants.
- Malaga Salad – A unique and refreshing dish made with potatoes, cod, and oranges.
- Paella – Can you visit the Costa del Sol and not sample this signature seafood dish?
- Ajoblanco – This cold white soup made with bread, almonds, garlic, and olive oil is a delicious traditional dish.
- Tarta Malaguena – Almonds and sweet wine are specialties of the region, and they both feature in this delicious cake, best enjoyed with a strong afternoon coffee by the sea shore.
One of the best ways to spend your time in Granada is by exploring the many tapas bars. There are oodles where the little dishes even come free with each round of drinks. You’ll find Granada’s complex cultural heritage at play in the food, which is unlike that found elsewhere in Spain. Look out for:
- Habas con Jamon – A simple, hearty dish of ham and beans sauteed in olive oil, garlic, and onions.
- Tortilla del Sacromonte – This might not appeal to everyone since it’s an omelet made with lamb brains. Still, it is one of the most traditional dishes of the region.
- Jamon de Trevelez cured ham and Queso Montefiore goat’s cheese – Both of these specialties are made in high-altitude villages above Granada, and sampling them is a must.
- Quisquillas de Motril – Tiny shrimps caught off the Granadan Coast in Motril. Look for them grilled for tapas or cooked in a traditional Spanish shrimp stew.
- Arabic sweets – Treats made with puff pastry, pistachios, almonds, and honey and served with fresh Moroccan mint tea. Head to La Calle de Las Teterias – the street of tea houses – to sample these in atmospheric surroundings.
Winner: Granada. The tapas and the mix of mountain and marine cuisines wins out!
Malaga or Granada: Events and nightlife
There’s always something going on in Malaga. The city’s annual events calendar is filled with celebrations. One of the most spectacular of these is Holy Week, a Roman Catholic festival that’s taken place for the last five centuries! But Malaga also has shindigs for food, music, art, and film. To put it another way: Not many months go by without a party or two.
Perhaps most notably, Malaga has a seriously vibrant nightlife scene. Head to the atmospheric Old Town, the sleek marina, artistic Soho, or beachfront La Malagueta for the liveliest bars, starting with sand-side sunset spots and ending in late-night live music venues underground. The main party season is the summer, but the students bring energy during the terms and winter to boot.
When it comes to Granada, the city hosts festivals for tango and jazz that are pretty famous throughout Spain. Most notably, though, there are classical concerts that take place actually inside the Alhambra’s palaces. And of course, a visit to Granada is not complete without seeing a flamenco show or two!
The town also boasts a youthful, vibrant nightlife scene thanks to the large student population. Head to University Square or Calle Pedro Antonio for a night out on a low budget. Or stick around the center near the Cathedral and at Plaza Nueva for the best late-night tapas bars and clubs with a distinctly Spanish flair.
Winner: Malaga steals this one because of its bumping nightlife and 500-year-old religious festivals.
Malaga or Granada: Climate and weather
Andalusia is one of the warmest regions of Spain. It’s home to both Malaga and Granada, so these two towns enjoy a glorious climate with hot summers and mild winters, but there are some differences you might want to note.
Summers in Malaga are long, with warm temperatures stretching from April to October. It gets truly hot in June to September, when daily high averages are in the low to mid 30’s, sometimes peaking well above 40°C.
Granada enjoys a similar summer climate, but its inland location can make it feel hotter since there’s no beach to cool off on and no tempering sea breezes. Many locals will head into the Sierra Nevada mountains during mid-summer, seeking the cool of altitude.
In the winter, Malaga is one of the warmest cities in Europe, with average daily temperatures sitting at a balmy 17°C. In Granada, the winter days are mild but cooler than Malaga, with temperatures sitting between 8°C and 13°C in the day. But the nights can be cold, seeing things plummet to 0°C or below overnight – hence why there’s a ski resort nearby!
Winner: Malaga just about, simply because you can get beach days even in the height of winter.
Malaga or Granada: Ease of travel
Part of Malaga’s appeal has always been the easy access afforded by its international airport, which has regular, cheap flights coming in from all over Europe. It’s actually known as the gateway to the whole of the uber-famous Costa del Sol region. So, expect oodles of incoming connections with a whole host of airlines, both premium and low-cost – Ryanair, BA, eastJet.
Arriving into Malaga by train has also become a whole load easier in recent years. That’s down to all-new high-speed RENFE lines linking the town to Cordoba, Madrid, and a whole host of other Spanish cities. There’s even a spanking new train station to go with it: The María Zambrano station, which is less than a mile from the city center and easy to get in from with an Uber.
Arriving in Granada is a little trickier. Its small airport mainly deals with domestic flights and only a few costly international ones. The most common way to get in is to connect through Madrid or Barcelona, or fly into Malaga and then transfer via train, bus or taxi, which takes between 90 minutes and two hours.
The trains to Granada will also be less frequent and less speedy than the ones into Granada. But they can be pretty – especially that connection through the mountains from the coast via the gorge-sided city of Ronda. You can also choose from daily arrivals in from Barcelona and Madrid.
Winner: Malaga wins this. It’s generally more accessible than Granada.
Malaga or Granada: Hotels
We’re going to go out on a limb and let Granada steal this one from the off. The reason? There are few cities in Spain that can offer the same high-quality boutique lodgings in seriously enthralling locations. Yep, this town has some very special hotels wedged into 500-year-old Moorish palaces and whatnot. Here’s a look at some of the best:
- Hotel Santa Isabel La Real ($$) – A charming hotel in the atmospheric Albaicin neighborhood. We love the breezy courtyard and terracotta floors.
- Arte Vida Suites & Spa ($$) – Relax in the hot tub between reading sessions in the chilled courtyard at this lovely hotel.
- Seda Club Hotel – Small Luxury Hotels ($$$) – The splash-the-cash option in Granada, this hotel has a beautiful indoor pool and manicured gardens that mimic the Alhambra itself!
Where Malaga shines on the accommodation front is in midrange and low-cost group pads and aparthotels. The town has boomed as an option for stag dos, hen dos, family getaways and weekend breakers in recent years, and there are lots of options to suit those types of trips. There are also one or two lovely beach hotels if morning swims in the Med is your MO. Check them out…
- Diana Suites 23 ($$) – Very highly rated suites for up to five people at once, all plonked right in the middle of the Malaga city center.
- Soho Boutique Los Naranjos ($-$$) – Nothing overly fancy here but solid, clean, comfy rooms and great proximity to the urban beaches of Malaga.
- ICON Malabar ($$$) – Drop a bunch of euros to vacay in style in Malaga. Victorian hot tubs, a gorgeous al fresco cafe area, uber-stylo interiors – it’s all there.
Winner: Granada. The town has some of the coolest boutique lodgings in Spain.
Malaga or Granada: Price
When it comes to budget, the cost of a week’s holiday is actually pretty darn similar in both cities, although we’d say that Granada is just a touch more expensive. What’s great is that both towns cover the gamut of accommodation options (see below), dining, and activities, so you can choose to do either on a shoestring budget or splash out with fancy hotels in old Moorish palaces.
The major outgoing is likely to be your hotel and they’re what make the mountain town the slightly more dear option here. You’ll be looking at spending around $100/night for a 3- or 4-star pad somewhere in the city center. Down in Malaga, that drops to about $70-80/night, though rates do equal up a bit during the peak summer months, when trips to the Costa del Sol become much more popular.
The cost of food is generally very affordable no matter where you choose to go in Spain. We’d estimate a spend of about $3-6 per tapas dish in Malaga and maybe $4-7 in Granada, which equates to an average per person spend of around $30-40 each day. Finally, the cost of travel to Malaga will likely be less just because there are way more flight and train options to get you there.
Winner: Malaga, though there’s hardly anything in it, so don’t let price be your deciding factor here!
Malaga Or Granada: Conclusion
Hopefully, you’ve noticed that although these two cities have a lot in common, there are several key differences. The most obvious is that coastal Malaga remains the best destination for beach lovers, while inland Granada holds more of a city-break vibe.
We would also recommend Malaga for those who like their cities to have sleek modern areas and anyone with a penchant for Picasso, a love of high-end food, or an urge for wild nightlife. It should also be the choice for anyone wanting an easily accessible winter warmth destination.
We would recommend Granada to history and architecture lovers. Although Malaga too has hilltop fortresses and Christian-Islamic monuments, Granada’s examples are basically unrivaled in Spain, and the Alhambra is simply phenomenal.
We’d also suggest it for anyone wanting to experience the Arabic-Andalusian culture or explore the old neighborhoods, flamenco lovers, and foodies who want the best traditional tapas experience. Oh, and anyone who wants to ski in the Sierra Nevada Mountains!