Costa del Sol in Spain is mainly associated with cheap drinks and beach holidays. However, there is so much more to this beautiful coastline. Just behind the beaches, there are intriguing mountain ranges and behind them you find stunning lakes and interesting forests and landscapes. After living 5 years on the coast, I have explored every corner of this intriguing part of Southern Spain. Now I will show you the best things to do in Costa del Sol including some off the beaten track activities.
Before we look at the top things to do in Costa del Sol, there are a few things you should be aware of before visiting. In general, they are things to think of where ever you choose to travel. Responsible tourism is becoming more and more important to help preserving our travel destinations with their people, wildlife and nature.
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
- 1 Overtourism in Costa del Sol
- 2 Where to stay in Costa del Sol
- 3 Keep nature clean
- 4 Respect the locals
- 5 Travel in low season and shoulder seasons
- 6 Avoid animal tourism
- 7 How to get to Costa del Sol
- 8 When is the best time to go to Costa del Sol
- 9 Things to do in Costa del Sol
- 10 Safety tips in Costa del Sol
Overtourism in Costa del Sol
Overtourism has started to become a problem in Costa del Sol the last years. Therefore, I will start by shedding some light into the things you should and shouldn’t do to contribute to the problem when you go. It is important to be a responsible traveler.
Where to stay in Costa del Sol
AirBnB has become a negative influence for the locals in Costa del Sol. As tourism increases in the area so does the need for holiday accommodation. As a consequence, prices rise.
As a result, more and more landlords choose to rent their apartments short term through AirBnB instead of renting out long term to locals. This way they can earn the same amount in a couple of months that they would do in a whole year. That’s genius! Who wouldn’t do that?
The problem is that while landlords earn a lot of extra money, the tenants suffer. First of all, because the prices become higher than what they can afford (Spanish wages are pretty low). Second, when the landlords decide to change from long term rental to short term rental, they kick out their tenants from their home. As more and more people do this, there are not many long-term rentals left for the locals and people struggle to find a place to live.
For these reasons I suggest you book into a hotel when visiting Costa del Sol so you don’t support this negative trend.
Note: AirBnB has a positive impact many places in the world, so I’m not saying you should ditch it all over. But in some destinations suffering from overtourism, like Costa del Sol, the consequences are negative. Therefore, make sure you check up the situation in your destination in advance so you can travel with a conscience.
Keep nature clean
This is becoming a regular. But we need to be responsible travelers, and especially in a place that is visited by large numbers of tourists every day. Rubbish is becoming a problem in many places in the world, and Costa del Sol is no exception.
All you need to do is to bring your own empties to the next rubbish bin instead of leaving it in nature. If we all do our part, together we will make a difference.
Respect the locals
It really shouldn’t be necessary to even mention this, but as I see the opposite happening every day, I will.
Remember that not all Spanish know English. Some know it to some extent, but they are not comfortable to speak it as they are not used to it. As Costa del Sol is used to getting a lot of foreign tourists, there is a larger part of the population that actually speaks it.
However, we should always be humble and ask if they know English before we expect them to understand. Most Spanish are willing to help if you show some respect.
Further, a gentle reminder of only wearing swimwear at the beach, pool, river, lake etc. It is not very pleasant for the locals to meet people in their bikinis on the streets or in the shops.
Altogether, you come a long way with a smile.
Travel in low season and shoulder seasons
To put less pressure on the destination, low- and shoulder seasons are the best periods to travel to Costa del Sol. It gets really crowded in the months of June, July and August.
Not only is it good for the locals that get less pressure of tourists at the same time, but you will surely enjoy your trip much more without the large amounts of tourists.
Avoid animal tourism
With increasing amounts of tourists, animals suffer more. Not only is it important to respect wildlife while hiking, but there are a few activities you should avoid too.
One of the most popular white villages in Costa del Sol is Mijas Pueblo. The most popular activity there is to ride a donkey around the village.
This is an activity that became popular in the 60’s as tourists walked past the donkey owners on their way back from work and paid money to take photos with the donkeys. Soon the donkey owners learned that they earned more money on tourists than on the hard work on the fields.
Donkey taxi became a synonym with Mijas Pueblo and even today donkeys are tied up by the “taxi stop” for children and adults alike to ride. The donkeys are tied up 24/7 and are never able to lay down or run and play.
Summary of donkey wellness:
- Donkeys should not carry more than max 50 kilos (that is for a big, strong animal) on their back.
- Donkeys need to run and move freely around
- Donkeys partner up two or three life companions who they do everything with (run, play, sleep, eat, rest etc.)
I do NOT recommend you to support the donkey taxis in Mijas Pueblo as they breach all the above basic needs of donkeys. I have seen grown-ups and overweight children on donkey back through the village more than a few times.
As of animal tourism, there is a zoo in Fuengirola and a butterfly park in Benalmádena. I don’t recommend paying to see captive animals as they get distressed by not being in their natural habitat, no matter how “much space” they are given. This is only one of several consequences of living in captivity.
How to get to Costa del Sol
Costa del Sol stretches 300 kilometers along southern Spain from the stretch of Gibraltar in the west to Nerja in the east.
Malaga Airport is situated in the middle of Costa del Sol and has good access to more than 100 destinations in over 60 countries.
There are numerous car hire companies at the airport. To get the most out of your holiday, I surely recommend to hire a car, as a lot of places are hard to get to, if not impossible, by public transport.
However, there are trains going between Malaga Airport and Malaga City, and Malaga Airport and Fuengirola. To travel with train further inland you have to travel from Malaga.
There are several buses going between the more populated cities and towns along the coast and Malaga is a major hub for day trips up and down the coast. Nevertheless, many must-visit places are hard to get to unless you book a tour.
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When is the best time to go to Costa del Sol
Costa del Sol has warm, humid summers with daytime temperatures normally ranging between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius between June and September. Nights are normally not much colder than 20 degrees Celsius in this period.
August, however, is the national holiday month, and most Spanish take their holidays. This makes it overly crowded as Costa del Sol is popular among the Spanish too, and consequently prices rise. I would recommend to avoid this month if possible.
The coast is said to have a micro climate that protects it from the extreme heat that can hit cities like Córdoba and Seville of 40 + degrees Celsius in this period. At the same time, winter temperatures are milder, which makes it a great winter destination for whoever want some winter sun.
The coldest months are December to February with an average of 20 degrees Celsius at daytime and night temperatures dropping to 5-10 degrees.
Between November and mid-March is the period with most chance of rain. And with rain I mean the sky opening up to buckets of water at the time, and no clothes are waterproof.
Not even the drains in the streets suck up all the water that comes at once and it is not unusual for streets to be flooded, cars to get stuck in the high-water levels and rivers of water flowing through the streets taking tables and chairs from bars with them.
If you choose to travel in this period, I suggest you check the weather forecast before you book your ticket. If it doesn’t rain, it can be extremely pleasant.
Shoulder season, when temperatures are nice, nights are not too cold and tourists are fewer is between mid-April and mid-June and September to October. It is normally between 22 and 26 degrees Celsius at day time and night temperatures around 15 degrees.
Check out this post: Best places for winter sun in Europe
Things to do in Costa del Sol
Barranco Blanco is an off the beaten path gem only half an hour from the coast. Frequented by locals all year around, a few expats have found their way there as well as the odd tourist.
This river walk gives you the opportunity to immerge yourself in thick bamboo forest divided by a charming fresh water river that clusters up in delicious swimming pools along the way. You can walk in the water or take the path along it.
The path does cross the river a couple of times. There is no place you are obliged to swim, though many people prefer to swim across the first deep pool as the path merges onto the steep hillside along the water hole and it might get slippery. If you walk the whole 4 kilometers you get rewarded by a beautiful waterfall at the end.
The trek goes one way, so you have to return where you came from.
Best time of the year to visit: The best time to visit Barranco Blanco is during the summer months. For less people, try to avoid August as most Spanish have their holiday then and places like this get packed.
September is probably my favorite month to visit this piece of paradise, though June and July are good months too. All these months have perfect temperature to wade in cool water and enjoy the shade of the trees covering the path.
The winter months are beautiful to go for a hike, but you might want to stay dry as the water can get pretty cold.
How to get there: The only way to get to Barranco Blanco from the coast is by car. If you put “Barranco Blanco” into the GPS it will take you past Coín and once you turn left into a dirt road you will see a sign saying that you are not allowed to drive through.
Continue driving past the sign and through the forest. Then you get onto a paved road again for a while before you meet a dirt road and a small dirt parking spot with space for approximately 10 cars. Park there.
Continue down the same dirt road a few hundred meters until you get to a bridge with a path into the right just before the bridge. There is also a sign by the path (don’t mix this up with the little bridge and sign where you park the car). You get to the river in no time.
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El Chorro is a small village about an hour from the coast. But what is really interesting is the nature scene around. With numerous hiking opportunities in the winter months and refreshing, turquoise lakes to swim in during the summer months, this is an all year-round place to visit. The most popular hikes from El Chorro are The Arabic Staircase and the world known Caminito del Rey.
I the summer, El Chorro Lakes are busy with Spanish families, groups of friends and scouts. There are several facilities on the lakes, and there are becoming more and more each year. Now you can rent canoes or kayaks which are excellent ways of exploring the lakes from the water. If you want some adventure you can also jump from the rocks and into the fresh water.
There are plenty of space. If you want some more calm, don’t worry. Just walk around, passing La Isla parking you can walk to areas where there are not many other people. The good thing about spending a hot summer day at el Chorro is that there is plenty of shade from trees and the water is delicious for a dip.
Best time of the year to visit: For hiking, the best time to go is between mid-September and May. For swimming, you can go whenever the weather is pleasant, though the warmest months are June to September.
How to get there: The best way to get to El Chorro lakes is by car. There is a train station in El Chorro town where you easily can get to the hiking routes. Note that there is only one train a day each way between El Chorro and Malaga. However, the lakes are quite far from the village.
Caminito del Rey
Note: It is necessary to book tickets in advance to do this hike. You can book guided tour with transport from Costa del Sol here.
In earlier days, Caminito del Rey used to be one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. After being closed for rebuilding, the trail reopened for the public in 2015. Before this, numerous adventure seekers had lost their lives on the trail as they climbed it illegally.
This has turned Caminito del Rey into one of the most popular hikes in Spain.
The start of the trail is quite innocent through lush green forest and following the river until the gorge starts to become deeper.
The most exciting part of the hike is the last bit where the walkway hangs more than 100 meters above the ravine floor, on the 700 meters tall vertical cliff wall.
Several patches of the old trail were missing. When they built the new Caminito del Rey, they built it above the old one, so you can still see the old, ruined trail hanging on the rock wall beneath you as you hike.
Best time of the year to visit: Caminito del Rey can be visited all year around. However, it can be extremely hot in the summer months between mid-June and mid-September.
How to get there: The hike is one way, so you will have to take the shuttle bus one of the ways. Many people choose to park at the start of the hike and take the shuttle bus back. To get to the start of the hike, put El Caminito del Rey into your GPS and it will show you the way, past Ardales. Ones you come to the restaurant El Kiosko, leave the car and walk to the tunnel with a sign to Caminito del Rey. Walk through it and continue one and a half kilometers before the start of the hike.
Guadalmina Gorge river walk
Note: This walk requires swimming to complete.
There are plenty of ravines to walk along the coast, but this is without doubt the best one and one of the most fun, free things to do in Costa del Sol. Also, there are not many tourists that find their way here. The majority go to Rio Chillar in Nerja, which is also a stunning hike.
Guadalmina Gorge does require swimming to complete, so make sure you have a waterproof bag to put your car keys and valuables.
The walk is spectacular from start to end with natural pools, natural slides into the water and high cliffs on each side. On the longest swimming part, the cliff walls are nearly closing up above you. Absolutely mesmerizing.
It takes only about an hour to complete this hike, but with swimming stops in pools, jumping off cliffs and eating your lunch on the way you can gladly spend half a day on this different natural activity.
Best time of the year to visit: I recommend going here in June, July or September when there are pleasant temperatures to be in the water over a long time. August is the national holiday month, and the gorge is normally packed with locals, especially during weekends.
How to get there: To get there, you have to drive towards Benahavís above Marbella. Passing the village, you get to a road with parking on the right and the left (among trees). Leave your car here and continue walking on the right side of the road. When you see a path going down to the right, this is where you will come up at the end of your hike. Continue on the road, across the bridge and you will see parts of the river on your right. The next place you can walk down to your right is where the walk starts.
You will get a fun start with a natural rock slide into the first water hole. This is also excellent for cliff jumping, so many hikers choose to stay a bit in this pool to play before they continue.
El Torcal de Antequera
El Torcal de Antequera is a stunning natural reserve just 45 minutes’ drive from the Sunshine Coast. The area of 17 square kilometers houses one of Europe’s most stunning karst landscapes.
The natural reserve has two hiking routes. One that takes about 45 minutes to complete and another one that takes about 2 hours. However, with a lunch break and several photo stops you can estimate half a day.
Wildlife is in abundance, and you will probably see mountain goats roaming around close or further away. Please respect that they are wild animals and observe them calmly from a distance without disturbing them. This is definitely one of my favorite experiences in El Torcal de Antequera.
Best time of the year to visit: The best time to visit El Torcal de Antequera is without doubt the cooler months between October and April. It becomes extremely hot in the summer months.
How to get there: The best way to get to El Torcal de Antequera is by car towards Sevilla past Antequera. You can use the GPS to find your way. Once you get to the parking lot, you can either start the hike upwards towards the start of the trails (it will take you about an hour with breathtaking views behind you) or you can take the shuttle bus. Make sure you bring coins for the shuttle bus.
Ojen is one of the cutest white villages in Costa del Sol, and not so much visited as many others. Situated in the mountains above Marbella, the village is also called the Lemon village for its overflow of lemon trees. They have even used lemon trees as décor on the church walls in the main square, cut flat to look like live yellow and green paintings on the white walls.
But Ojén is more than colorful lemon trees. Ojén is home to an interesting cave walk and on the top of the village you can climb the steps leading to a small cave with great views over the white village.
There are also a couple of shorter hiking loops you can take from the village. You find maps by the parking lot at the bottom.
When you have done that, get lost in the streets, eat tapas and breath in the Spanish village culture all around you.
Best time of the year to visit: Ojén is nice to visit all year around. Nevertheless, the summer months can get extremely hot at day time.
How to get there: To get to Ojén the easiest way is to take a car. Otherwise there are buses from Marbella. Just put the name of the village into the GPS and you will see signs on the way up the hills. If you drive, you can also stop by the view point that gives you an excellent photo opportunity of the village itself.
Istán is another stunning white village of costa del Sol. Not far from Ojén, Istán is also situated north of Marbella. The village is known for its surrounding hiking trails and natural drinking water.
There is a short trail in stunning surroundings just above the village in case you haven’t brought your hiking boots.
There are a few local bars and restaurants where you can enjoy tapas, drinks and people watch. If you ask the locals, they might show you the way to Istán Lake. It is not very easy to find by yourself, but just beneath the village, there is a dirt road leading down to the lake.
If you want peace, this is the place to go. It is not allowed with engines in the lake, so only canoes, kayaks and row boats circle around. If you are lucky, not even that.
Best time of the year to visit: Istán can be visited all year around. However, if you plan on hiking, you should go between mid-September and May.
Note: If you travel with dogs, you should travel between mid-September and December. There is a type of caterpillar, Pine Processionary Caterpillar, who comes out around December-February depending on the temperatures. They crawl down from the pine trees, and there are a lot in Istán. They can be deadly to dogs as well as it gives an allergic reaction to humans when in contact with the skin. So, with or without dog; be aware of these hairy caterpillars walking in a row. You can read more about them here.
How to get there: There is a bus running between Marbella and Istán a few times a day. If you want to travel from other parts of Costa del Sol, the best way to get there is by car. Follow the A7 and take off towards Istán, or just follow the GPS.
Safety tips in Costa del Sol
Is Costa del Sol dangerous to travel to? Definitely not. However, I will address some tips for safety as you should always take precautions where ever you travel. Spain is no exception.
There is in general no organized violent crime in Costa del Sol, but as there are a lot of tourists getting very drunk, there are often fights at late nights. There have also been reported muggings in the late hours.
Therefore, I suggest you don’t walk alone at night in dark places. Stay where there are more people. Instead of walking you could take a taxi.
A good rule is to be moderate with alcohol so you are always in control of your actions – and your belongings.
Also, pickpockets happen in crowded places. If you travel to Costa del Sol in high season, most places will be crowded, so make sure you watch your valuables.
If you have a rental car, make sure you don’t leave anything visible in the car when you park. Criminals breaking car windows to take visible items of value is not abnormal.
I have also heard about a few robberies when people take out money in the cash machines. So, if you see anyone around that you don’t trust, wait with your withdrawal for later or go to another ATM.
Altogether, follow your gut feeling and walk away if you are uncertain about people or situations. Costa del Sol has so much beauty and fun to offer, so stay safe and enjoy your trip!
This is a guest post by: Linn from the blog Brainy Backpackers.
Author bio: Linn Haglund is a self-proclaimed travel addict and the founder of Brainy Backpackers, a travel blog aiming to help people travel more responsibly. After traveling and living in different countries over the years, she has spent the last 5 years in Costa del Sol in Spain and traveled extensively through Andalusia. Her blog highlights how you as a traveler can avoid negative impact on the locals, wildlife and nature (+ your own travel experience) and instead make a difference. You can see more of Brainy Backpackers on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or Instagram.
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