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Málaga or Marbella: Which to Choose?

Málaga or Marbella: Which to Choose?

If you are trying to decide between Málaga or Marbella for your next vacation, let us help you decide.

As a lover of the Costa del Sol, I don’t think you can go wrong with either one. But they are definitely very different places with two very different vibes.

One destination is best known for its glitz and glam and the other for its history and amazing beach bars.

Both are easy to get to from Malaga Airport and if you really wanted to, you could squeeze both into a single 2-week itinerary while also visiting some other nearby destinations like Ronda or Gibraltar.

Malaga and Marbella are only about an hour away from each other by bus. If you are driving in Spain, you can get between the two destinations in about 45 minutes by car.

Málaga vs Marbella at a Glance

Here is a quick look at what makes each of these cities along the south coast of Spain so special.

Málaga

  • Family-friendly restaurants and beaches
  • Tons of great art museums
  • Historical sights to explore
  • Fantastic beaches close to the city center
  • A long boardwalk and port area
  • Great public transportation and links to other parts of Spain
  • A medium-sized city with different neighborhoods to choose from
  • Affordable, mid-range, and luxury accommodation available
  • Restaurants and bars of all different kinds

Marbella

  • Beautiful old town that is pedestrian-friendly
  • Mid-range and upscale hotels, resorts, and self-catering apartments
  • Stunning beaches and luxurious beach clubs
  • High-end shopping in Puerto Banus
  • Abundance of great restaurants and cafes
  • Good base for day trips in the region if you rent a car in Malaga
whitewashed building with yellow painted windows and purple flowers climbing up the side in a place that looks like Malaga or marbella.

Downtown Marbella is a beautiful place to explore with whitewashed buildings and bright flowers everywhere, especially if you are visiting Spain in June.

Málaga or Marbella: Beaches

If you’re looking for family fun with options for restaurants nearby and kayaks and SUP boards to rent, then Málaga is one of your best options.

There are some fantastic beaches in Málaga.

Playa de la Malagueta is located only a few minutes from the downtown area and is easily reached by bicycle, a walk along the boardwalk, or by bus from the center.

It’s long, the sand is soft and there are beach bars where you can rent umbrellas and chairs. They have volleyball nets and tons of space to play different beach games. 

If you want to escape the main beach and the tourist crowd, you can head north of the city center to the stunning Pedregalejo neighborhood where you can have a fantastic lunch and then spend the afternoon sitting beneath the trees reading a book.

It’s all about the beach clubs in Marbella. These aren’t your party beach clubs in Ibiza. These are the lounge on the beach all day with rose and tapas kind of beach clubs.

These are the beach clubs where you can book a plush sunbed, have access to a swimming pool, or indulge in a tray of paella packed with seafood. Playa de la Fontanilla is the most popular and central beach in Marbella. 

As a personal preference, I think the beaches in Málaga are bigger, more comfortable, and more beautiful. Marbella has some beautiful beaches, but the ones closest to town are perhaps not as nice as the ones in Málaga. But if you want a bougie beach experience, Marbella is the place to have it.

trees creating shade on the beach with the ocean in the distance.

The beaches in Málaga are pretty special, especially if you head east along the coastline from the downtown area.

Marbella or Málaga: Restaurants

Restaurants in Marbella come with a higher price tag, in general, than restaurants of similar quality in Málaga.

The best local restaurants in Marbella can be found in the Old Town with Taberna La Niña del Pisto close to the top of the list. They have a huge selection of traditional dishes like salmorejo, pork cheek stew, Iberico ham, and different croquettes packed with flavor.

Other places not to miss in Marbella’s old town include Marbella patio and Bodeguita el Torero. If you want to dine along the beach, make a reservation at Los Tres Pepe

The restaurant scene in Málaga is much more varied. You can do your own tapas crawl around Málaga and still only just scratch the surface of the food scene here. It starts at the amazing Mercado Central de Atarazanas where you can have beers and fried seafood. 

Then there’s the famous El Tapeo de Cervantes for more seafood and some meat dishes. Casa Lola does simple yet delectable tapas that are much like pintxos from San Sebastian, usually served on a slice of bread.

Málaga once again gets my vote as the winning destination in this category. You can find tons of great restaurants serving everything from local Spanish cuisine to burgers, sushi, brunch spots, and more. 

Marbella does have a selection, but it isn’t quite as varied. 

plate of sardines with a lemon wedge on the side.

Espetos, or barbecued sardines, are a specialty in the whole Málaga region, so you’ll find them at chiringuitos or beach bars all along the Costa del Sol.

Málaga vs Marbella: Things to Do

Both Marbella and Málaga have tons of great things to do.

We have a full guide of things to do in Málaga which includes the Picasso Museum, Roman Theater, the Alcazaba Palace, and the fortress of Gibralfaro.

If you want to base yourself in one location and have culture, history, art, and beaches to explore all day, Málaga wins on that front.

But Marbella also has plenty of activities to keep you busy. You can get out on the water and take boat tours around the coastline.

Marbella has the Museo Ralli which is a fantastic art museum. It is home to one of the most important Latin American art collections in Europe as well as a permanent collection of European art as well.

For those who want to spend most of their Spanish vacation outside, you can find walking paths, parks, and plazas all over Marbella to soak up the sunshine.

sunset at the beach with clouds a pink-purple color but the sky above still pale blue and the water along the horizon.

The sunsets in both Marbella and Málaga are spectacular.

Marbella vs Málaga: Nightlife

Both of these cities offer great nightlife, but they are definitely different experiences.

Málaga is the city in Spain where people from other parts of Spain come for bachelor and bachelorette parties. So if you come to Málaga on the weekend and are looking for a low-key night on the town, you can find it, but you’ll be sharing the streets with a few not-so-low-key partiers.

If you want a fun night out at lots of tapas bars, drinking cold cañas al fresco with snacks until the wee hours of the morning, then you’ll love the nightlife in Málaga. 

There are also plenty of fun nightclubs in Málaga like Malafama, Bambu, and Barsovia Club for something a little bit more VIP.

Marbella has a much more upscale vibe in the evenings. Think cute cocktail bars, tapas bars that buzz all night with wine-drunk patrons spilling out in the streets, and some fantastic VIP nightclubs.

The nicest of the nightclubs are all located in the Puerto Banus neighborhood. Here you’ll find La Habana de Hemingway, Joys live bar, and Tibu Nightclub to name just a few of the top clubs in the area.

white building with bright pink flowers filling up all of the balconies falling from the top downward.

There are so many beautiful boutique hotels and fun apartments to rent in the Old Town of Marbella.

Málaga or Marbella: Accommodation

Marbella is known around Europe as a high-end holiday destination. You come here expecting luxury accommodation and that is what you will get.

If you don’t have a budget, then Marbella has some of the most beautiful hotels in the entire Costa del Sol. Indulge at Nobu Hotel Marbella with incredible views of the Mediterranean. El Fuerte Marbella is a family-friendly 5-star hotel with a spa, a beautiful pool overlooking the sea, and comfortable rooms and suites.

It’s not all about resorts in Marbella. You can also find cute boutique hotels in the old town like La Fonda Heritage Hotel and Hotel Claude

You can, of course, find more affordable and even a few budget-friendly hotels around Marbella. But you’ll have to book those well in advance and during the peak summer months, even those prices tend to rise into the triple digits.

Málaga certainly has a few luxury hotels like the Gran Hotel Miramar and Palacio Solecio. But there are tons of mid-range and budget options to choose from as well. 

You can stay centrally in Málaga at the Petit Palace Plaza, Room Mate Larios, and Hotel Vincci. All three come in at under €150 per night depending on how early you book.

two women taking a selfie in front of a mirror inside a store while deciding whether to go shopping in malaga or marbella.

Shopping with friends is fun wherever you are, but it is particularly fun when you’re on vacation in Marbella.

Marbella or Málaga: Shopping

If there is one destination that easily wins this contest it’s Marbella. Home to high-end designer brands and boutique shopping from local designers, Marbella is a place you can easily spend a few of your paychecks.

Some of my favorite shopping in all of Spain is located in the winding streets of Marbella’s Old Town. It’s impossible to walk past the cute boutiques that are hidden in the side streets around the Plaza de los Naranjos without stopping in. 

This guide to shopping in Marbella was what I used to explore all of the great shopping around the city and I came home with more than enough to fill a second suitcase.

Málaga has great shopping if you are looking for more mainstream brands. Málaga is where I first discovered one of my favorite stores in Spain, Sfera. Lining the streets of the city center you’ll find H&M, Natura, Zara, and smaller boutiques.

blue potted plants along a white wall on a building with red flowers sticking out of them.

Enjoy the colors around both Malaga and Marbella (and so many other small towns around Andalucia).

The Final Verdict

Guides like this can’t help but be a little bit biased. And I think it’s pretty clear which of these is my personal favorite. 

If I only had a few days and I had to choose between Marbella or Málaga, I would choose Málaga.

For me, Málaga just has a little bit more of everything that I love. The beaches are more varied. There are more good restaurants and bars at a price that I feel more comfortable with. 

There are more hotel options so even when I want to take a last-minute trip, I can still find somewhere affordable within walking distance. 

The museums in Málaga are unbeatable. This Picasso Museum is one of the best in the world and with the audioguide included is a fantastic way to spend a few hours escaping the midday heat.

If I had an endless budget, Marbella would probably top the list. Marbella is about splurging on beautiful hotels, spa treatments, beach clubs, and nightclubs. If you want to have an extravagant vacation, then Marbella is the place for you.