THE jewel of the Costa del Sol, the playground of the rich and famous, the Miami of Spain, Marbella has been labelled many things over the years… and there’s a good reason for each of them.
Sure, you’ll find celebrities sipping champagne in the most exclusive clubs and restaurants, sports cars rumbling through Puerto Banus and superyacht owners comparing the size of their, hmmm, boats, but you’ll also find beaches, history, culture, exciting gastronomy. Oh and breathtaking mountain walks – should you choose to seek them.
Just a few minutes walk from the seafront, you’ll find the charming old town of Marbella. This ancient walled centre retains nearly all of its original 16th century layout, even though chichi art galleries, fab tapas bars, quirky boutiques and ice cream shops populate its cobbled streets today – enough to keep you busy for hours!
At its heart is Plaza de los Naranjos, also known as ‘Orange Square’, named for its abundance of orange trees. Enclosed by an 11th century Arabic wall, the showpiece is the 16th century Old Governor’s House.
A tourist hotspot, the square’s bars and restaurants charge a little more but it’s worth it for the ambience.
Hidden in one of the corners is Galeria van Gestel, founded by Josephus van Gestel in 1966. A young Spanish and Italian couple – both artists – recently took over the gallery, bringing their own unique style to the space. The art is still as striking as ever: bold, colourful, thought-provoking. But there’s now also a small cafe and restaurant on the top floor balcony, serving an ever-changing, small menu of home-cooked delights from Italian-born chef and artist, Emilio Belvedere.
Not too far away from here, you’ll find Our Lady of the Incarnation, a 17th century church, which was formerly a mosque taken over by the Christians during the Reconquest.
If the heat gets too much, respite can be found within the cool stone walls while you admire the beautiful paintings, stain-glass windows, and enjoy the highly-efficient air conditioning!
Tributes paid, you can find Marbella monuments even older than this, dating from 1AD.
The first Roman bridge beside the Puente Romano hotel up on the so-called Golden Mile, between Marbella and Puerto Banus, remains a must see and some original Roman baths still stand in Guadalmina, not to mention a 6AD Romano-Cristo church in San Pedro.
When you tire of burning shoe leather, bag a park bench in the green shade of one of the exquisite public gardens. La Constitucion park and the Alameda Gardens in the heart of Marbella are particularly lovely, the latter always brimming with locals and surrounded by great cafes and bars.
Or if you’re looking to strictly chill, there’s a whole lot of beach waiting for you just a few paces away. Time it right, and you might land up in a beach yoga class.
Boasting 27 kilometres of coastline, and with San Pedro and Puerto Banus both proudly flying the prestigious Blue Flag, Marbella is blessed with a wonderful coastline.
There are some superb sandy beaches with dunes, to the east around Artola and Elviria, while central Marbella is frequently palm tree lined.
Grab a couple of sunbeds for the day, maybe a cocktail or cold beer from a local chiringuito, and enjoy the crystal clear waters.
If it’s glitz, glamour and designer shops you’re after, the celebrated resort of Puerto Banus lies ready and waiting. Just to the west of Marbella, this is a place where anything goes. From hen-doers trying their best to pull off ill-fitting fancy dress costumes after celebrating their last night of freedom, to members of the ‘1% club’ disembarking from mega-yachts and Ferraris, or treating themselves to a new bag from the likes of Gucci and Prada, Banus has become an unashamed melting pot for the rich, famous and wannabe Marbella Love Islanders.
Dressed in head-to-toe designer, they flow thick and fast around the port, home to exclusive nightclubs Le Suite and the extravagant Roberto Cavalli, from mid-afternoon. A round of drinks may blow your weekly budget, that’s if you haven’t already splurged it all on a swanky outfit – an essential if you want to mingle with the Who’s Who of Marbs.
For some of the best views in town, it’s worth making a stop at the four-star Benabola Hotel, which has the most amazing rooftop terrace. If you’re going to pay for expensive drinks, you may as well make it memorable – sunsets don’t come much better than this.
Along the elitist strip to the east (the Golden Mile) the likes of Lord Alan Sugar, Simon Cowell, Sean Connery and the Saudi Arabian royal family have invested in their own villas.
World leaders too, are magnetically attracted to Marbs, with David Cameron, Tony Blair and Michelle Obama having taken a visit over the last decade, while former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has a villa in Guadalmina.
But Marbella has always been a grand resort to visit, ever since German prince Maximilian de Hohenlohe-Langenburg and his son Alfonso ‘discovered’ it when they had to stop while having trouble with their Rolls Royce in 1946.
Alfonso liked the area so much he decided to buy some land and build himself a house, before selling plots to his pals, including the Rothschilds and Thyssens.
He soon turned his home into the Costa del Sol’s first luxury hotel in 1954 – The Marbella Club – which to this day remains a mainstay on the Golden Mile, welcoming guests like Lady Gaga and Lenny Kravitz over recent years.
The original crowd included Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Olivier were all hanging out there, raising the Costa del Sol’s international profile and attracting a wave of jetsetters and investment.
From a pure accident of fate the resort has gone from strength to strength, despite the economic and political woes that plagued Spain since the financial crash of 2008.
While it has no doubt suffered some losses due to the coronavirus crisis, tourists and prospective property buyers have already returned in their droves now life is returning to a ‘new normal’. In fact, many estate agents I have spoken to have been busier than ever.
According to Ulf, the managing partner at Andalucia Development, the market has ‘outperformed what he expected.’ “Last year, I wouldn’t have been so optimistic, but there’s definitely still a very keen interest to buy in Marbella, if our recent deals are anything to go by,” he adds.
And if the culture, beaches and thriving social scene don’t leave you wanting to buy a place in Marbella, maybe the culinary scene will.
Marbella now has the most Michelin stars per capita in the country, making it a must-visit for any one who labels themselves a ‘foodie’. From Nobu to Skina and Messina to El Lago, each restaurant sparkles for its own reason.
With incredible nightlife, a blossoming arts scene and the best food in the region, Marbella certainly lives up to its (many) names.
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