Marbella or Malaga: Which Spanish City to Visit?

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by Maggie Turansky

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When you’re planning a seaside holiday to the Costa del Sol, it can be a bit of a quandary to decide between basing yourself in Marbella or Málaga. Both cities are located within easy reach of each other and seemingly offer the same things – perennially beautiful weather, beautiful beaches, excellent tapas and a delightful, laid-back culture.

However, they also both offer different things that can appeal to different kinds of visitors. And though they’re very close to each other, you can have two completely different trips if you end up choosing Málaga over Marbella or vice versa.

In general, Marbella is an excellent choice for those looking for a relaxing beach holiday in a compact city with a small-town atmosphere. On the other hand, Málaga is a good choice for those looking for a big city with lots of things to do along with a great beach to enjoy.

So if you’re planning a trip to Southern Spain, are looking for the perfect seaside city and are wondering the difference between Marbella and Málaga, then this is the guide for you.


Located on the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun) between Málaga and Gibraltar, Marbella has long been a popular destination for holidaymakers and travellers looking for a seaside getaway. Boasting a charming old town and beautiful beaches, Marbella has a lot to offer visitors and a lovely small-town charm to enjoy, as well.

Plaza de Naranjos
Plaza de Naranjos


How easy it is to get to and around a city is a great determining factor when deciding between Marbella or Málaga.

If you’re arriving from abroad, Marbella is served by Málag-Costa del Sol Airport – which is the fourth busiest airport in Spain and has countless connections across Europe and beyond. It’s located about 60 kilometres from Marbella, so make sure to factor that in when visiting.

You can access Marbella by driving from Málaga airport in under and hour. There is also a direct bus that operates from the airport to Marbella’s central bus station which runs frequently throughout the day from around 9AM to 9PM.

If you don’t want to hire a car or take the bus, you can also organise a private transfer, but know that this is going to be the most expensive option.

Once in Marbella itself, you can easily get around the city centre on foot. The old town is incredibly pedestrian friendly and very walkable. There are also city buses available should you need to get anywhere further afield.

Though Marbella itself is quite manageable without a car, you may find it helpful to have your own vehicle (browse for options) if you happen to be staying outside of the city centre, if you want to visit some further-flung beaches or if you want the flexibility to go on some day trips or visit other towns along the coast.

In general, if you’re trying to choose between Málaga and Marbella and accessibility is a key determining factor, you will find that Málaga is a bit easier – especially when arriving via the airport.

Exploring Marbella
Exploring Marbella


Is Málaga or Marbella more expensive to visit? Spain, in general, has a reputation for being quite an affordable destination to visit and this tends to hold especially true in Andalucía.

When comparing these two Costa del Sol cities, however, it’s hard to say whether one is significantly more expensive or cheaper than the other.

Both Málaga and Marbella are relatively similar when it comes to affordability and you will generally find prices for things like restaurant meals, activities and accommodation to be around the same in both cities.

However, it’s worth noting that Marbella is a much smaller city and therefore doesn’t have all of the options that Málaga has to offer – meaning that it may be more difficult to find ultra-budget options in Marbella. That being said, if you’re travelling on a mid-range budget or above, you’re unlikely to see any major differences between these two cities.

Inside Marbella's Mercado Municipal
Inside Marbella’s Mercado Municipal

Things to do in Marbella

Now what is there to do in Marbella and how is it unique to those things to do in Málaga?

Well, they are both different cities and offer different things. Marbella, in particular, is much small and has a much more small-town vibe than Málaga. There aren’t as many specific things to do in Marbella, however, if you’re after a relaxing beach holiday – is that such a bad thing?

That being said, it’s very much worth taking the time to explore the highlights of central Marbella and its lovely old town. It certainly looks a lot different than Málaga’s and is much smaller, quieter and more compact.

One of the highlights of any Spanish city is visiting the main food market, and Marbella is not different. The city’s Mercado Municipal is a great place to check out some local produce and maybe even pick up a little snack or a picnic for the beach later on.

You also absolutely need to explore the whitewashed old town. The historical centre of Marbella more resembles the old town of Estepona than it does Málaga – it’s full of little winding streets, tons of flowers and plans and there is really a beautiful treat around every corner. There are also plenty of tourist shops and boutiques to pop into, if you wish.

Make sure not to miss the lovely Plaza de Naranjos – Marbella’s main square – which is filled with outdoor cafes. And just outside of the old town en route to the Playa de Venus is the lovely Parque de Alameda, which is a beautiful tranquil escape filled with palms and fountains.

It’s also worth seeing the Dalí sculptures while wandering over to the beach. These are a series of sculptures designed by Salvador Dalí that depict various Greek myths.

And of course, the city’s central Playa de Venus – Venus Beach – is absolutely beautiful and well worth spending a number of hours soaking up the rays. And if you want a break from that, you can always enjoy a leisurely stroll along the beachside promenade.

All in all, you can easily see and do all of the top things in Marbella within one day, and even in half a day. However, if you’re looking for a relaxing holiday rather than a destination jam-packed with activities, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Dali sculptures in Marbella
Dali sculptures in Marbella

Where to Stay in Marbella

Villa Palma – This bed and breakfast is an excellent choice for those looking for a mid-range option when visiting Marbella. They have several clean and comfortable rooms, are centrally located and there is also a shared lounge and garden for guests of the hotel to enjoy.

Hotel Claude Marbella – This boutique hotel is located in a historic building right in the centre of Marbella’s old town. They have a number of wonderful rooms available, breakfast every morning, a bar on premises and a gorgeous rooftop terrace for you to enjoy in the evenings.

Hotel El Faro Marbella – If you don’t want to walk too far to get to the beach then this might be the hotel choice for you! They have a range of plush rooms to choose from, a gorgeous pool to enjoy, a cafe at the hotel and a continental breakfast each morning is available.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Marbella hotels!

Playa de Venus
Playa de Venus


Spain’s sixth-largest city serves as the gateway to the Costa del Sol and it is a wonderful destination in and of itself. A thriving, large city – Málaga has a lot to offer visitors and it is never a bad idea to spend time in this lively coastal metropolis!


As mentioned in the Marbella section above, the city of Málaga serves as the main entry point (by air) to the region and it is home to its own high-traffic airport. The airport connects the city to a range of cities both in Spain and throughout Europe.

Málaga airport is also located quite close to the city centre and you can opt to take a train or bus from the airport to the centre of the city.

Málaga is also far more easily accessed across Spain than Marbella. While the latter does have bus connections to and from nearby cities, Málaga is also well-served by Spain’s high-speed rail network (Ave).

This means you can reach Málaga via direct train from Madrid in about 2.5 hours and the city is also well-connected by direct train to many of Spain’s other major cities such as Barcelona and Seville. You can browse train schedules here.

Once in Málaga, you will find that the city centre is easily navigable on foot and most of the city’s neighbourhoods can be reached via walking alone. However, there is also an extensive bus network that you can use should you not want to walk absolutely everywhere.

If you’re planning on spending time just in Málaga itself, there is no reason to hire a car – the city is easiest to get around on foot and using the public transport system.

However, you may find it helpful to have your own vehicle to go on some day trips – such as to Ronda, Gibraltar and Granada – but even these places can be accessed using public transport links.

In general, Málaga is a more accessible city than Marbella.

Malaga Cathedral
Malaga Cathedral


Though there isn’t a huge difference in price when comparing Málaga vs Marbella, if you’re travelling on a tight budget, you may find that there are a few more options available to you in Málaga.

Just because it is quite a large city, there are more choices available for travellers of all stripes. You will be able to enjoy a number of options for things like budget accommodation and meal options – Marbella just doesn’t have the space nor the demand for things like that.

Mercado de Atarazanas in Malaga
Mercado de Atarazanas in Malaga

Things to do in Málaga

There is very little denying that Málaga has more to do and see than Marbella – so if you’re after a big city break, Málaga is going to be the right choice for you. Málaga is bigger and has a lot more museums, historic sites and points of interest to explore that can easily fill 2 to 3 days (or more) should you wish.

Some of the top things to do in Málaga include touring the imposing Alcazaba complex and enjoying the Roman theatre – you can book a guided tour here. You should also make sure to take in the beautiful Málaga cathedral and a number of the city’s top museums.

For instance, head to the Picasso museum to take in incredible works of art in the artist’s birth city. You can also opt to head to the Museo del Vino (the wine museum) to learn all about (and taste!) Málaga’s wine region and unique wines.

Málaga is also a very artistic city and a wonderful place for street art lovers – neighbourhood streets in the city are like wandering through an open-air gallery and is a delightful part of this vibrant town.

And foodies will love Málaga’s central market, the Mercado de Atarazanas. This market is larger than Marbella’s Mercado Municipal and it isn’t even the only market in the city – each neighbourhood has its own market hall to explore.

Of course, Málaga isn’t only city sites – it’s also home to its own beautiful beach. There are a few beaches within easy reach of the city centre but the main beach in Málaga is Playa de Malagueta and it is absolutely lovely and perfect for lounging and working on your tan.

Finally, if you’re looking for a night out in either of the cities in question and are wondering about the Marbella or Málaga nightlife – Málaga has far more options and variety to choose from.

Street art in Malaga
Street art in Malaga

Where to Stay in Málaga

Hotel Sur Málaga – Mid-range travellers will love this basic yet comfortable hotel in the centre of Málaga. Located within walking distance of the city’s top attractions, there are a number of rooms to choose from and breakfast is available in the mornings.

Vincci Larios Diez – If you’re after a little bit of luxury on your trip to Málaga, then this is the place for you. They have a number of beautiful rooms to choose from, an on-site bar and room service, and a fantastic breakfast available each morning.

Malagueta Beach Studio – This studio is an excellent choice for those who’d like their own space while visiting Málaga. It comes fully furnished with everything you may need and it is incredibly well-located within easy reach of the city’s top attractions.

The Lights Hostel – Those travelling on a budget, solo or after a great social atmosphere will love this cool hostel as a place to stay in Malaga. They have both dorm and private rooms available and breakfast available at an additional cost. They also organise social events in the evenings.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Málaga hotels!

Málaga's tranquil Playa de Malagueta
Málaga’s tranquil Playa de Malagueta

Marbella vs Málaga: Which is Better to Visit?

So with all the above points being made – is Málaga or Marbella a better choice for your Spanish vacation? Obviously, this depends on what you’re after as both cities are great to visit in their own right.

Marbella is a great choice for those who are looking for a relaxing beach holiday, aren’t too fussed with a lot of major sites and are looking for a quaint, small-town feel. It’s not as easy to reach nor well-connected as Málaga, however, you can easily access Marbella from the aforementioned city.

Málaga is a great option for those who’d like a big-city vibe with a wealth of things to see and do. It’s an excellent choice, as well, for those who want a mix of traditional sightseeing and a laid-back beach holiday. It’s also incredibly well-connected across Europe and within Spain by air, train and bus.

Roman Theatre & Alcazaba
Malaga’s Roman Theatre & Alcazaba

Whether you choose to visit Marbella or Málaga, you’re sure to have a wonderful time exploring these delightful Spanish cities. There really isn’t a bad choice!

Are you deciding between Málaga and Marbella? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

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