As a destination, Marbella presents an interesting duality. It is known for the fun loving, beautiful young things on its beaches in summer; for gastronomic dining; designer fashion; upscale nightclubs and unashamed luxury. Yet it is also a place of cultural and artistic treasures; of beautiful squares and historic churches; art galleries – and at its nerve centre the pretty Plaza de los Naranjos (Orange Square); where the scent of orange blossom wafts across the tables and chairs of its outdoor cafes in this ancient heart of the town.
A thriving annual film festival and summer contemporary arts programme feature on Marbella’s busy cultural calendar, and within the old town (Casco Antiguo) there is a Moorish castle, partial remains of impressive Arabic walls and numerous sights of interest with a cluster of 15th and 16th century buildings including several stunning churches. Orange Square dates back to the 15th century and was part of the Catholic reconquest in 1485, that saw the overthrow of the occupying Moors. A stone fountain in the old town dates from 1504 and was erected by the first Christian mayor, while another notable sight not to be overlooked is the 16th century Town Hall.
Some of the best beaches on the Costa del Sol
The coastline of Marbella stretches from the protected wild sand dunes of Cabopino in the east, past purpose-built Puerto Banus to spreading San Pedro in the west, with the shell-shaped La Concha mountain an iconic backdrop to the town. It encompasses some of the best golden sand beaches on the Costa del Sol, served by trendy beach clubs and restaurants of every calibre, from noisy beach chiringuitos to fine dining, and many luxury hotels. You know you have arrived at the internationally recognised holiday playground once you pass under the ‘MARBELLA’ arch spanning the highway; not quite as iconic as the famous signing of Hollywood maybe, but enough to raise the expectations of summer’s swarm of visitors.
And those expectations are the promise of a good time, living the vida loca on spick and span beaches and in the nightclubs, shops, bars and restaurants that, along with those of neighbouring jet set marina Puerto Banus, have given Marbella its lustre; making it the ‘San Tropez’ of southern Spain. For its young moneyed clientele, dancing till dawn and then emerging post noon to join friends enjoying latest dance sounds, chillaxing and ordering seafood and champagne at the latest vogue beach club, is what they have come for… but Marbella is rewarding on so many other levels.
The holiday destination of choice
Once a simple Mediterranean village, from the 1950s onwards it became the holiday destination of choice for many royals, aristocrats, stars of music and film… latterly these have been joined by British reality TV celebrities and with it an alternative, affectionately given designation in the UK tabloid press of ‘Marbs’. (George Clooney fans take note: he is one of the most recent ‘A’ listers to buy a home here!) However, on leaving the Paseo Maritimo (seafront promenade), with its souvenir and beachwear stalls, and strolling along Avenida Del Mar toward La Alameda Park, there is a remarkable collection of sculptures by Spain’s surrealist genius, the 20th century artist Salvador Dali, well deserving of attention.
La Alameda, a compact area with exotic plants and trees, is a focus for markets and other events and through it you arrive at the main Marbella drag: Avenida Ricardo Soriano; named after another eccentric Spaniard who was II Marquis of Ivanrey. He earned a reputation as a cosmopolitan playboy but also for creative entrepreneurship and had a hugely influential role promoting Marbella as a tourist destination to the world. His was a fabulously colourful and multi-faced life, but that’s another story! The Avenida is lined with shops and banks, as well as pharmacies, useful if you have been ‘living it up’ Marbella style!
Across from this busy highway, you enter the charming maze of lanes and whitewashed buildings of the old quarter. Here you’ll find more unusual boutiques, jewellery, gifts and shoe shops – all leading to its sweet centre, Orange Square; a lovely place to eat and drink. It’s easy to lose your way as you turn one corner after another, up one blind alley then another, but that’s just part of the fun as you make discoveries en route – such as the Museum of Modern Engravings housed in a former 16th century hospital and the Casa del Corregidor (House of the Magistrate) adjoining the Santiago Chapel. There is a tourist information office in Orange Square to help you and ensure you do not miss anything.
For a taste of luxury, the internationally famed Marbella Club Hotel, whose guests have included Laurence Olivier, Audrey Hepburn, Kim Novak, Cary Grant, the Rothschilds and Oppenheims and many modern day celebrities, politicians and business leaders, should be visited. The building of it in 1954 by Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, is an important landmark in the development of Marbella tourism. It is located on the privileged ‘Golden Mile’ and is also a prized venue for events.
From sunrise to sunset, then from sunset to sunrise, Marbella town exhibits its many facets like a twinkling diamond at the same time dazzling and delighting those who come here for whatever kind of holiday.
Picture credits: Montuno and HerryLawford