There's More to Southern Spain Than the Beach
The Costa del Sol is famous for its sun, beaches and party lifestyle geared towards the expat (British, German and Scandinavian) community. Though there are some attractive Spanish towns in the area, for the true Andalusian experience, you need to head inland.
But where should you go?
Getting Around Andalusia from the Costa del Sol
There are no train stations along the Costa del Sol, apart from the commuter route from Fuengirola to Malaga. Most buses are run by the Portillo/Avanza company. You can find their timetable information here: Bus Timetables from the Costa del Sol
However, more so than in any other area of Spain, hiring a car is the best way of getting around.
Where to Base Yourself
Not all Costa del Sol towns were created equal when it comes to public transport. Marbella and Malaga have the best public transport connections. Between Fuengirola and Malaga there is a train, good for connecting in Malaga (also on this train line are Benalmadena and Torremolinos). If you're staying as far west as Estepona, you're going to have more limited options: Cadiz isn't too far away.
If you plan on visiting Seville, we would suggest basing yourself there for a few days, as it is much easier to get to Cordoba, Cadiz, and Jerez from there than from the coast.
Short Day Trips From the Costa del Sol
These are the trips that are the easiest to make as they are quite close to the Costa del Sol.
- Ronda The number one day trip on the Costa del Sol, just over an hour's drive from Marbella and with good bus connections along the coast.
- Nerja Visit the prehistoric caves and check out the cute fishing village. Close enough to visit in half a day.
- Jerez and Cadiz Fried fish in Cadiz and sherry in the city it was invented, Jerez. Just over an hour-and-a-half from Estepona.
Visit the Classic Three Cities of Andalusia
These three cities are the most emblematic of what people consider to be classic Spain. Flamenco, tapas and (if you like that sort of thing) bullfighting.
Yes, you can pop over to another continent from the Costa del Sol. Visit Tangiers in Morocco on a day trip or explore the country over a few days.
Short Tours to Ronda, Nerja, Jerez and Cadiz
The following tours require the least travel time and so are great for those who want to spend less time traveling and more time sightseeing.
Ronda is the most obvious place to visit from the Costa del Sol, as it is so close. It is easy to get there by car, bus or guided tour.
Situated high above the Tajo gorge, Ronda's natural defenses meant it was one of the last Moorish strongholds to fall to the Christians. It is a classic Pueblo Blanco, with historic bridges crossing the gorge and beautiful views of the landscape from all around the city.
Ronda also said to be the birthplace of bullfighting.
How to Get to Ronda by Public Transport
It is around an hour's drive from San Pedro de Alcantara, near Marbella and Puerto Banus, to Ronda, along the terrifyingly windy A-397, referred to locally as 'the Ronda road'.
There are also regular buses, run by Portillo/Avanza. There is no train.
Guided Tours of Ronda
Though Ronda is the easiest day trip to take by yourself from the Costa, a guided tour is a great way to take the stress out of the logistics, especially if you aren't staying so close to Marbella.
A bonus for this tour is that it is particularly cheap, and it includes a great wine tasting at a local wine cellar which you wouldn't be able to do by yourself.
Jerez and Cadiz
Jerez and Cadiz are two cities to the west of the Costa del Sol, just half an hour apart by train.
If visiting these cities by car or bus on a day trip, we recommend an afternoon in Cadiz and an evening (with a designated driver) in Jerez.
Cadiz is a port city, situated on a sea-cooled peninsula that can be a welcome respite from the heat suffered by the rest of Andalusia in the summer. It is famous for its fried fish. The beaches here are nice for a city.
Jerez is the home of sherry. This fortified wine is a lot more varied than the stereotypical sweet wine your grandmother drinks. Check out the full gamut of sherry styles - from dessert sweet to extra dry - at a tour of a sherry bodega or visit one of the classic sherry bars found throughout the city.
Jerez is also famous for its horse shows.
How to Get to Jerez and Cadiz
As the bus is slow and there is no train, we would recommend either taking a guided tour or driving. The quickest way to Jerez and Cadiz is on the A-381 road. However, this route has tolls. A cheaper way is via Ronda.
The journey takes around an hour-and-a-half from Estepona and a little over two hours from towns further east, closer to Malaga.
There are buses from Marbella to Cadiz, taking around three or four hours and costs between 12 and 25 euros. Book from avanzabus.com. There is also a quick and easy train from Cadiz to Jerez.
Guided Tours of Jerez and Cadiz
Enjoy a sightseeing cruise of Cadiz Bay, then visit a sherry winery and see a horse show in Jerez.
Fitting in two cities into a single day trip is a bit difficult when you don't know the area, so a guided tour is probably the best way getting everything in, especially when you want to include sherry and horse shows.
Having said that, it really isn't difficult to get around the two cities by yourself, and a guided tour does mean you miss the opportunity to visit the old sherry bars in Jerez.
An easy day trip, especially from Malaga. Nerja is famous for its fishing, as well as its caves.
The only public transport to Nerja is the bus from Malaga. Catch the bus from the port area of Malaga, not from the bus station (travel time is a little over an hour). Driving from Malaga to Nerja takes under an hour, via the A-7 road.
Guided Tours of Nerja
Visit Nerja and the nearby village of Frigiliana on a short, half-day trip from Malaga. In Frigiliana, you'll visit the medieval Moorish fortress, while in Nerja you'll get to visit its famous caves.
Pick-up is from Torremolinos or Fuengirola.
Seville, Cordoba and Granada
Seville, Granada, and Cordoba are the famous triumvirate of classic Spanish cities in Andalusia. Each one is around two-and-a-half hours from the other (though Cordoba and Seville are connected by the faster AVE high-speed train).
Granada is the easiest of these cities to visit from the Costa del Sol, especially if you are staying close to or in Malaga. Seville can be visited in a day trip too, but it deserves more than a day to fully appreciate it. Cordoba is difficult - and perhaps inadvisable - to do on a day trip unless you take a guided tour.
There's no need to return to the Costa every day if you want to visit all three of these cities. Here are our suggestions for how to visit these three destinations on your Costa del Sol trip.
Seville, Granada, and Cordoba Under Your Steam
Visit Granada first: it's the closest to the Costa del Sol. Stay at least a day in Granada in order to visit the Alhambra (remember to book tickets in advance) and to sample the excellent local tapas. Add in a day to really explore the city, particularly the Moorish Albayzín and Gypsy Sacromonte areas, and a further day to take a day trip to the Alpujarras mountains.
Then head over to Seville. You need at least two days to experience Seville properly, plus half a day to visit Cordoba on the high-speed train and another day to visit Cadiz and Jerez. Because of the fantastic drinking culture of Jerez, I'd actually recommend not making the return journey that day but to head out late in the city and stay locally.
To see the highlights of Cordoba, Seville, and Granada quickly and easily, we'd recommend a guided tour. There is no short budget option from the Costa del Sol, but there are some great options starting in Granada. Obviously, these require that you get to Granada first.
If You Can Only Visit One...
Though Seville is the more famous of the cities in Andalusia, we might choose Granada if we could only visit one city.
Seville is the finest microcosm of the Spanish experience that has seeped its way into our consciousness. But, you'll get many of the same experiences in any Andalusian city. However, Granada's Alhambra and fascinating tapas culture are incomparable and could be a better option. Plus, it's easier to get to Granada than Seville from the coast.
Cordoba is a fine day trip from Seville, but not really worth being your top choice in Andalusia.
What to Do in Granada
The Moorish Alhambra fortress and garden complex is the finest symbol of Spain's Islamic past and a beautiful building in its right, regardless of its history.
Granada is one of the few cities in Spain where you can still get ample-sized portions of free tapas with your drinks in most bars.
How to Get to Granada
Granada is to the north-east of the Costa del Sol: it takes around an hour and a half from Malaga and two hours from Estepona, by car.
Guided Tours in Granada
If you only have a day to visit Granada, a guided tour is especially convenient because of the guaranteed entry you get to the Alhambra. (If you don't take a guided tour, you really need to book your Alhambra tickets in advance if you want to ensure you get in).
Your tour will also give you time to visit central Granada by yourself, including the opportunity to visit the famous tapas bars.
What to Do in Seville and How to Get There
Seville is where you go for the eternally classic Spain of flamenco, tapas, sherry, wine and bullfighting. It has a world-renowned mix of Christian and Moorish architecture and some of the best day trips in the country.
There are several buses per day from Marbella and Fuengirola, but none from Estepona. Check out the Avanza website for departure times from where you're staying.
Driving from the Costa del Sol to Seville takes around two-and-a-half hours from anywhere along the coast. Consider taking a detour via Ronda and then staying a few days in Seville, taking further day trips (to Cordoba, Jerez, and Cadiz) from there.
It's almost unrealistic to visit Seville as a day trip unless you take a guided tour.
Have a local guide take you around the famous neighborhoods of Triana, Macarena, and Barrio Santa Cruz and visit the famous cathedral, one of the largest in Europe. You will also have some time to explore by yourself.
This is an excellent value tour and well worth taking if you only have a day to spare to visit Seville. As it takes five hours of travel to make the return journey, you really need the knowledge of a guide to ensure you get the most out of your day.
What to Do in Cordoba and How to Get There
Today, the Great Mosque of Cordoba is the city's cathedral, converted to a Christian place of worship in the 16th century, when there was evidently a lot more pick-and-mix involved in choosing where to worship your preferred version of God. There is also a picturesque Jewish quarter.
Though Cordoba is a great place, it definitely comes third out of these Andalusian cities. It is also the furthest away from the Costa del Sol. As a result, I wouldn't recommend it as a day trip unless you've already been to Seville and Granada.
Cordoba is best visited as a day trip from Seville, as there is a high-speed train that connects the two cities in 45 minutes.