Sun, sex, glamour, history and a bevy of beautiful people—what’s not to love about Costa del Sol? As an established meeting place of the mega rich and the substantially pretty for decades, the legend of Spain’s sultry Costa del Sol precedes itself. However, in terms of its reputation as a gay-friendly mecca, this Andalusian treasure trove is just beginning to register on the radar for many, despite the fact that its gay nightlife scene—which clocks in third just behind Madrid and Barcelona—has been attracting those ‘in the know’ to its sexy shores for ages.
Upon arriving in Costa del Sol (which literally means ‘coast of the sun’ for the Spanish language-challenged), there were two things my unusually animated tour guide wanted to impress upon me most forcefully. First, he wanted me to know that Málaga, the epicenter of life on the Costa del Sol, was also the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, whose full birth name, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, I soon committed to memory after having heard it spoken thus repeatedly. However, even if my guide hadn’t reinforced the connection between Picasso and Málaga, it wouldn’t have taken a Rhodes Scholar or an art enthusiast to discover it. From the strikingly modern and expansive Málaga airport that bears Pablo Picasso’s name to the Picasso Museum (the Museo Picasso Málaga) that was established by the late artist’s grandson and daughter-in-law, Málaga reverently pays homage to its favorite son at every appropriate turn.
The other thing my guide wanted me to understand is that Costa del Sol, and Marbella in particular, is and will always be a premium destination for the “international jet-set,” or should I say “the A-list” to put it in more contemporary terms. Again, my eager host’s assessment of the sun-kissed stretch of sand along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, dotted as it was by glittering high-rises, mega yachts and high-end boutiques, would not have been difficult to discern by even the most casual of tourists. Make no mistake, the storied history of Costa del Sol as the playground of kings, lesser royals, rock stars, socialites and celebutantes alike is undeniably true. Even current First Lady Michelle Obama is a fan. In spite of the fact that her visit caused a Marie Antoiniette-sized wave of outrage in some quarters on American shores, Mrs. Obama’s tour of this chic destination is notably memorialized across the Andalusian municipality in shop windows and in the stories of the locals she engaged on her sojourn.
Those memorable and well-documented facts aside, the Costa del Sol’s most beguiling quality may well be the casual, easy elegance and welcoming vibe of the place relative to other Spanish hotspots. Málaga, for instance, has all the vibrancy of Madrid without all the hustle and bustle of the Spanish capital. In the painstakingly preserved streets of the historic city center, modernity and history collide as Roman ruins immodestly appear out of nowhere and intermingle with the city’s most popular watering holes, where locals and tourists alike while away lazy afternoons over tapas and cool libations.
Likewise, Marbella, the jet-set-attracting crown jewel of Costa del Sol, has the split personality of similar top-drawer destinations like the Hamptons or the French Riviera. It is simultaneously part nouveau riche glitz and glam, where labels and bling matter and part clubby old money retreat, where understated shabby chic and quiet anonymity are the order of the day (albeit with every luxury accoutrement available).
Then there are the gems like the charming Marbella Old Town village with its pristinely white buildings and terraces overflowing with colorful pots of flowers, where quaint restaurants, cafés and shops border the storybook-like Plaza de los Naranjos, which could easily have provided the set for an Audrey Hepburn classic romantic caper. Or there’s neighboring Ronda, the oldest town in Andalusia, which counts among its many charms the first bull-fighting ring in all of Spain (and yes, it is the very same one where Madonna filmed her “Take A Bow” video), the staggering 18th Century Puenta Nuevo bridge that stretches across a perilously rocky expanse over 300 feet deep and a klatch of the Moorish whitewashed architecture that belies the history of the village, which traces back to the 6th Century B.C.
In terms of gay life, the hubs in Costa del Sol are in Málaga and in Torremelinos, with the latter being the most happening in terms of a full-on gay nightlife experience. In Málaga, there are cruisy lounges like El Carmen, which attracts a more upscale mixed crowd of shiny, happy hipster types, and then there are dance clubs like Reinas, where studly boys dance on boxes while the young-ish crowd writhes in time with the music in the cavernous darkness of the space. That said, the gay party in Costa del Sol really gets started in Torremelinos, just a short 10-minute drive down the beach from Málaga.
Over 20 bars catering to a wide range of tastes are conveniently and centrally located within stumbling distance of each other in the Nogalera area of town. While each bar I stumbled into certainly had its charms, it was Home, the newest addition to the collection of bars in the Nogalera, that scored my highest vote, if only because the afterhours seemed to attract the most impressive crowd.
Whether you want to be sinfully decadent, play, explore, relax or just simply loll about and watch those who enjoy all of the above, Costa del Sol offers a full compliment of choices to suit your mood and your needs all within a very short and manageable distance. Some may say that much diversity of choice sounds a little schizophrenic, but I say that Costa del Sol is as a perfect hostess should be—welcoming, accommodating and amusing to all her guests. Who could resist such charms?
The Andalusia region, of which Costa del Sol is a part, is noted for its gastronomy and the following eateries lend credence to the destination’s well-deserved culinary notoriety.
La Moraga: Michelin-starred chef Dani Garcia has in La Moraga created one of the most sophisticated tapas experiences to be had in all of Spain. Be sure to try his take on foie gras—it is a revelation!
La Meridiana Restaurant: It’s not just a restaurant; during high season it’s also one of the hottest bar/nightclub venues in Marbella after the final dinner service. The décor is eye-popping and the menu is a celebration of Mediterranean flavors.
Paradores, Ronda: The Paradores Hotel in Ronda is notable for its spectacular views of the town’s 18th Century Puenta Nuevo Bridge and the massive gorge it traverses, as well as the imaginative cuisine that Chef Antonio Moya Bolance dreams up in the hotel’s celebrated restaurant.
Puerto Banus: Splashy yachts fill the harbor of this primo shopping destination, which has been blessed with more than its fair share of high-end designer boutiques. Smart cafés, nightclubs and restaurants also located in and around the harbor attract a mix of moneyed locals, European tourists and the Russian nouveau riche.
Cabopino Beach: Located in a nature reserve, Cabopina Beach is known as one of the best gay beaches in Spain. It is also well-regarded for its unspoiled nude beach and active cruising area.
El Carmen: Smart, sexy bar/lounge centrally located in Málaga’s city center. Perfect for pre- or post-dinner cocktails.
Reinas: Dance club with dancing boys, strong drinks and dark corners.
Home: The newest gay dance club in Torremolinos, Home is packed with a trendy crowd that only grows hotter as the evening wears on. The music is hot, and there’s a VIP section for those in the mood for a little bottle service and a more special night out.
To truly experience Costa del Sol, plunk down in a few of the distinct towns and villages that comprise the region and fully explore the unique flavor of each community.
Room Mate Lola Hotel: Sleek, hip and centrally located near nightlife hotspots, popular attractions including the Picasso Museum and Malaga’s vibrant city center, this gay-friendly hotel is perfectly situated at the very heartbeat of Malaga.
Hotel Puente Romana: Located along the stunning stretch of beachfront property known as the “Golden Mile,” the Hotel Puente Romano has the feel of an elegant adult playground. Rooms are spacious and many have private balconies, perfect for sunning or enjoying post-lunch or pre-dinner cocktails at sunset.
AC Malaga Palacia Hotel: From the 15th floor of this contemporary hotel in Malaga’s city center, guests sip smart cocktails poolside while taking in a 360-degree panoramic view of the city of Málaga, which includes unobstructed views of the Cathedral of Malaga, the Paseo del Parque and the picturesque port. Breathtaking as it is, it stands to reason that this hotel and its scenic patio have played host to many same-sex wedding ceremonies and celebrations in recent years.