Malaga, Spain: A budget travel guide to Malaga

Overlooking Málaga. Photo: JH

The birthplace of Spain’s most famous artist, Pablo Picasso, Málaga is often a point of arrival — and little more — on visitors’ Costa del Sol itineraries, which is a shame really.

Why? Because past an outer ring of unattractive high-rise housing, the city boasts a pedestrianized city center packed with charming squares and lively terraces for a drink or a meal (seafood’s a local specialty), two historic citadels, and some of Spain’s best art museums outside Madrid’s Golden Triangle.

Luckily for Cheapos, Málaga, unlike some of the other destinations along Costa del Sol (we’re looking at you, Marbella) is also very budget friendly. Read on for our best tips to getting to know this southern city on the cheap.

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Málaga budget travel tips

Flights on budget airlines from major cities are cheap to Málaga. Photo: Alfonso

Getting There

While direct transatlantic flights aren’t available to Málaga from Toronto or New York, we recently found a round-trip fare from New York (JFK) with a long layover (12+ hours) in Casablanca, Morocco on Royal Air Maroc starting at €484.

Related: Sign up for airline newsletters to find airfare deals to Spain and all of Europe.

Another good option to save some cash? Fly into a major European point of entry (London, Paris, Madrid, or Frankfurt) and then hop a flight on a budget airline into Málaga’s main airport. Flights start at €30 each way depending on your dates. For the best prices, travel Monday through Thursday.

If you’re arriving from elsewhere in Europe or Spain, buses, rental cars, rideshares, and trains are also readily available, but for the most part, they’re hard pressed to compete with low-cost flights.

Prefer to travel overland? Your best bet to stay on budget is a rideshare or a bus. However, if you’re traveling in a group, you may be better off springing for a rental car. For example, at the time of writing, rideshares with Bla Bla Car from Madrid to Málaga start at €21 one way, buses start at €26 each way and vehicle rentals start at €55. Rail travel it is by far the most expensive option, starting at €55 per person each way.

Before you book that rental car, read through our tips for saving on a rental car in Spain.

The city center of Málaga is very walkable. Photo: Jerry D

Getting Around Malaga

Málaga’s airport, also known as the Costa del Sol Airport, is 15 to 20 minutes away from the city center. There are trains every 20 minutes and buses every 10 minutes. Both will set you back substantially less than a taxi ride with fares starting at only €2. Taxis into the city center run relatively cheap for €10-15, but even when the traffic cooperates, it will only shave a few minutes off your time in transit.

Málaga’s city center, where most of the attractions are located, is best explored on your on two feet. That said, the city also boasts a shiny new subway (finished in 2014, check out the map) and a citywide bus system if you’re far from your hotel and a little worn out to return on foot.

Tips for the metro and bus

There are two types of tickets on Málaga’s metro system that work well for visitors. Both can be topped up and used for multiple passengers and multiple trips, but a billete monedero has a €5 minimum with each ride costing you €.82 cents. A billete occasional has a minimum of €1.35, and that’s what each ride will cost you. Just remember, since these tickets are rechargeable don’t throw them out when your trips are spent and buy a new one, just top them up.

The metro runs Monday through Thursday from 6:30 am to 11 pm, Fridays from 6:30 am until 1:30 am, Saturdays from 7 am to 1:30 am and Sundays from 7 am to 11 pm.

Note: There’s not an integrated ticket system that works for both the bus system and the metro. EMT Málaga bus services are available around town and a one-way ticket costs €1.30.

The ancient Roman theater is free of charge in Málaga. Photo: Trevor

Free and Cheap Things to Do in Malaga

Among the top attractions in Málaga are its world-famous art museums and ancient monuments. Fortunately for budget travelers, all of them waive their entry fees for at the very least a few hours a week. And when you’re done with the museums, there are the numerous parks and outdoors spaces that are always open to the public and 100% free to explore.

Free Malaga Museums

Even if you’re not particularly interested in art, get an eyeful of Picasso over the years without paying a cent at the Picasso Museum Sundays from 5-7 pm March-June and September-October, 6-8 pm (July-August) and 4-6 pm (November-February).

Check out the Carmen Thyssen Museum’s impressive collection of 19th-century paintings for free Sundays after 5 pm.

Love modern and contemporary art? The city’s contemporary art center, the CAC is always free.

Another option is Málaga’s Centre Pompidou, the only one located outside of France (at the time of writing). Malága’s is housed in a colorful glass cube. Immerse yourself in 20th- and 21st-century art for free Sundays after 4 pm.

Free historic attractions

Looking for something truly ancient? Málaga has a Roman theater that’s in pretty good shape, all things considered, and it’s open to the public free of charge.

Entry to the equally historically important but slightly less ancient Alcazaba and Gibralfaro castles costs €3.50 daily or it’s free Sunday afternoons.

Or browse the traditional wares and pick up some tasty charcuterie and cheese at the Atarazanas Market — it dates back to the 14th century.

Outdoor recreation

Need some exercise and fresh air after taking in all that art and history? Head for the hills and take a hike on the trails in Montes de Málaga Natural Park.

Or stroll along the seafront among manicured hedges, fountains and flowers in the botanical garden at Paseo de los Curas Park.

Or if you’d rather just relax and watch the waves, soak up the sun on one of the city’s many beaches. Playa Las Acacias, Playa de la Malagueta and Playa de la Misericordia are all easily reached on foot or via public transportation from the city center.

For more ideas, check the official website of Málaga Tourism.

Fried seafood is a specialty in Málaga. Photo: JD

Inexpensive Eats and Drinks

Málaga is well known for its high-quality seafood. Unfortunately, unlike other Spanish destinations, it’s not known for its free tapas. Sure, the odd bar may offer you a smattering of olives or a small dish of nuts with your beer, but don’t expect the elaborate offerings you’d be likely to get in cities with old-school free tapas culture like Granada.

The good news is that around town it’s pretty easy to fill your belly and throw back a drink or two for €10 or less.

Affordable late-night eats: For a late night meal on the run, we like Mafalda (Paseo Maritimo del Pedregal, 71), a local institution popular with students because of its late opening hours and Málaga’s famous hot sandwich, a campero, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich for €4-8.

Hidden jewel of a restaurant: Want something cozy and a little quirky? Head to La Recova (Pasaje Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de San Juan, 5). This old pottery shop hides an authentic local treasure — a small kitchen serving up specialties like a delicious stew of spicy grilled chorizo sausage, octopus, and vegetables.

Fresh seafood: For local seafood (mostly fried) head to Marisqueria Casa Vicente (C/Comisario 2) or Hermanos Alba in the El Palo neighborhood for shrimp, mussels and fresh fish.

A private room at the Ibis Budget Málaga Centro.

Cheap Sleeps

Dorm rooms in hostels start at €10 per night, while private hostel rooms go for around €35. Basic rooms with a private bath in the city’s budget hotels are available from €40.

Ibis Budget Málaga Centro

We particularly like the very clean and centrally located rooms at the Ibis Budget Málaga Centro. Located right in the heart of the city and quick walk from the marina, rooms at this budget chain go for around $50 — even in the high season. Book early for the best deals.

Want more budget hotel options? Search over 1,000 hotels in Málaga.

Your Malaga budget tips

Have you been to Málaga? Share your best tips in the comments section below.