MALAGA VERSUS BARCELONA: WHICH IS BETTER FOR TRAVEL?
Spain: so many destinations and so little time. But you’ve finally narrowed it down to your two favorite cities: Barcelona and Malaga. So where should you go? Is Barcelona better than Malaga? Don’t ask me this question: I’m too biased. But I won’t let you down. Today I’m comparing the Barcelona vs Malaga highlights so you can choose which is the right destination for you.
Because no, Barcelona isn’t near Malaga or the Costa del Sol. They are about 10 hours drive apart. Or 1 hour 40 minutes flight. Think it this way: flying from Barcelona to Malaga is just 10 minutes longer than flying to Paris. So don’t plan to go from Barcelona to Malaga for the day. Unless you have at least two full days in each city, your trip will be too rushed. You’ll need to choose to go to either Malaga or Barcelona if your visit to Spain is less than 4 days.
But first, a few things to consider. Malaga is located in the South of Spain, and the weather there is warmer. The center of Malaga is smaller than Barcelona and most sites are located within a short walk from each other. Instead, in Barcelona you are more likely to be using subway or taxis to get to different tourist areas. But it’s easier to get to Barcelona because it features a busy international airport with direct flights to most top airports around the world, and the ride to the city from the airport is a mere half an hour.
Getting to Malaga is likely to require you at least one connecting flight, but once there a Malaga Airport Transfer takes you less than 20 minutes. Finally, the cost of living in Malaga is cheaper than in Barcelona, where prices resemble more those of Paris or London.
Let's compare the Barcelona vs Malaga highlights now:
Beaches: Costa del Sol vs Costa Brava
One of the big reasons to travel to Malaga are its beaches. Malaga is the main city in the Costa del Sol region, and Costa del Sol is one of the most famous beach resorts in Spain. You’ll find there long sandy beaches, mostly in urban settings, popular among Spanish and European inland people… as well as party goers. A typical thing to do there is to grill sardine skewers by the beach. East of Malaga, the Axarquia area offers a huge contrast with rocky cliffs and quiet coves, less than 45 minutes drive from Malaga City.
Instead, Barcelona is not a beach destination despite featuring 3 miles of a decent urban beach. And except for Sitges 30 minutes away, the other seaside towns around Barcelona aren’t specially known for their beaches either. But just over one hour drive North starts Costa Brava, a favorite destination, more secluded than Costa del Sol. Seaside villages that have preserved their authenticity feature rocky beaches and cliffs like those in Axarquia – just further away from the metropolis, and less crowded.
Picasso Museum of Malaga vs Barcelona
Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born in Malaga in 1881, and he arrived to Barcelona at the age of 14 years old. You can visit in Malaga the family manor of the Picasso, or follow the steps of a young Picasso in Barcelona with one of our Picasso Tours. And then, there's the Picasso Museums of each city.
The Barcelona one, created in 1960 thanks to the efforts of Jaume Sabartes, close friend of Picasso, and celebrated by the artist himself, who donated a large number of pieces to it. The Malaga one, opened in 2003 as a humble collection that has grown thanks to the contributions of Picasso’s grandson Bernard.
While the Barcelona Museo Picasso is much larger, the permanent collection includes over 4,000 pieces, versus the just over one hundred of the Museo Picasso in Malaga, they really complement each other well. In Barcelona you get a solid understanding of the origins of Picasso and how his art started. You follow his steps from his art school and bohemian years, through the Blue and Rose periods all the way to the Cubism. And then after a gap of over 2 decades, you see a mature Picasso that challenges masters such as Velazquez with his Meninas series.
The Picasso Museum in Malaga comes to fill up the blanks, to show you the Picasso that looks more like the Picasso you are used to think of, in an intimate and well curated way. And all this, without needed to go to Paris.
Architecture: Alcazaba vs Sagrada Familia
Architecture is what shapes the landscape of a city, revealing the important moments of its history. The Alcazaba of Malaga is probably its most important tourist site: a Muslim fortress, residence of the rulers of the city from 1000 years ago and for several centuries. That shows in the elegance of the arches, the harmony of the gardens with orange trees and fountains… The views over the city are a plus, as it is the proximity of two other top sites: the Roman Theater and the Gibralfaro Castle. If you don’t have an extra day to visit Granada, the Alcazaba is a fair alternative. Downsides? Cobblestone pavement and uphill slopes make it a bit hard for people with walking issues.
Much more recently, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, an architect called Antoni Gaudi transformed the skyline of Barcelona. His masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church, was a very ambitious project he knew would take several generations to be completed. And he was right: there’s still a few years to go before we see the last 10 towers finally crowned, even if the inside was completed in 2010. A church like no other church, it impresses from outside, and people’s mouths still drop as they set their foot inside. A massive forest of stone columns illuminated by bright stained glasses that mimic the colors of nature to worship God.
Malaga is all about fish. I quickly mentioned before the sardine skewers - "el espeto". But Malaga is also a great place to taste deep fried fish, calamari and other seafood. Coquinas, tellina shells, sautée with garlic and parsley, are another specialty you can't miss.
And if there in the Summertime, forget about gazpacho and go for almond and garlic ajoblanco, or fish gazpachuelo. Tapas are a must in Malaga – head to Moreno Monroy Street to find some of the most famous bars.
Barcelona’s food scene is also about fish, but you won’t find sardine skewers here (although… let me send you to Bar la Plata for great friend sardines). We have shrimp from Palamos in Costa Brava. And many many many codfish and monkfish specialties. Mushrooms, artichokes and other veggies have a place of honor that they don’t get in other areas of Spain. Rice dishes don’t end with paella (try squid ink black rice instead). And the high end restaurant offer is world-class. Plus no food lover should miss the spectacular Mercat de la Boqueria (sorry Malaga, the Atarazanas market can’t compete with it).
Do you have more than just a couple of days to visit Malaga or Barcelona?
Day trips around Barcelona and Malaga
Two days in Malaga are enough to cover all the top sites. And two days in Barcelona give you a good overview of the city: sure, there’s much more to explore, but you’ll have checked most of your bucket list already. Now if you have extra days in the city of your choice, you’ll want to consider going out of town. As I mentioned before, Granada is the top destination for a day trip, just around 1.5 hours away. Or equally spectacular, you can get to Cordoba by high speed train in just one hour. The next place to consider is Ronda, for some spectacular views and lots of history. If navigating the local roads on your own sounds too challenging, booking a Malaga transfer is a great idea.
Families with kids will want to check the stalactite caves in Nerja (1 hour drive), and then spend the rest of the day in the Nerja beaches. But my favorite excursion is only for people with no fear of heights. Caminito del Rey was a narrow walkway built against a cliff along a deep river gorge. Its bad state of conservation gave it a fame of being one of the most dangerous paths in the world until it was eventually forbidden to access it. But in 2015 it reopened completely rebuilt and with all the necessary safety measures, and it’s become a super attractive hike.
In Barcelona the most popular day trip is the mountain of Montserrat, where you can go for the hikes, or to visit the Monastery where is worshipped the Black Madonna of Montserrat. There’s also a boarding school with one of the oldest boys choirs in Europe, and you can hear them sign at the church every day except for Saturdays and school holidays. There’s also a stalactite cave, Coves del Salnitre in Collbató, but they are hard to reach unless you rent a car.
And there's more: the Roman ruins of Tarragona 1 hour south (if the Malaga Roman theater was a big point in your travel list, wait to see the Roman amphitheater of Tarragona and the rest of its UNESCO heritage). Or the wine and cava cellars in the Penedes wine country.
Both destinations are reachable by train (but combining them on the same trip requires changing trains, so rent a a car or book a private trip with us to do both in one day).
So Barcelona vs Malaga: who's the winner for you?
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