Although packed with visitors and only slightly less popular than Torremolinos, Marbella is still the chicest resort along the Costa del Sol, with some of the region’s best upscale resorts coexisting with more affordable hotels. An Andalusian port at the foot of the Sierra Blanca, Marbella displays traces of its past in its palatial town hall, medieval ruins, and ancient Moorish walls. The biggest attractions in Marbella, however, are El Fuerte and La Fontanilla, the two main beaches. There are other, more secluded beaches, but you need your own transportation to get there.
Marbella’s chic reputation dates from the beginning of the Eisenhower era. The Marquis don Ricardo Soriano and his nephew, Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, started spreading the word in 1953. Soon the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and lesser mortals began arriving to see what this sleepy coastal town was all about. The Rothschilds heard about it, as did Saudi emirs. Marbella was on its way; its discovery by jet-setters brought long-overdue prosperity.
Marbella is known as a glamorous resort town and is a favourite location with the rich and famous, boosted by foreign residents who are seduced by the lifestyle. But there’s plenty for ordinary folk to see and enjoy too in southern Spain’s answer to Saint-Tropez.
One can only regret not having seen Marbella in the 1960s and 1970s, even though Franco was in power. Those were the days before ugly concrete tower blocks grew up around its old quarter and fishing port. Fortunately, old Marbella, with its flower-filled balconies and whitewashed houses, remains delightful. Make the Patio de los Naranjos (Court of the Orange Trees) your focal point for a night wandering the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. Here you can enjoy the fountains and cafes with sidewalk tables where you can sit back and watch the world go by. The old town with its narrow cobbled streets and flower-filled plazas is packed with delightful shops and art galleries selling pretty clothes and accessories, and handmade wares.
You will find many international brands in this upscale town, but the Nueva Andalucía Flea Market, Avenida Manolete, next to the bullring in Puerto Banús, is of much more local interest. It’s one of the largest and most colorful flea markets on the Costa del Sol. More than 120 vendors offer their merchandise on Saturdays. If you’d like to purchase some of Andalucía’s regional ceramics, a good bet is Cerámica San Nicolás. For a serious piece of art, Galleria d’Arte Van Gestel, in the Old Town is one of the most established galleries in Marbella. It’s worth stopping in just to see how harmoniously contemporary art fills the spaces of a historic home.
You will need to pack more than a bathing suit and flip-flops if you want to join the nightlife scene. There’s more international wealth hanging out in the watering holes of Marbella, and a wider choice of glam discos than virtually anywhere else in Spain. Foremost among them is Discoteca Olivia Valere, which can hold up to 1.000 people. If you are in the heart of historic Marbella, you can enjoy a more low-key night in the bodegas and taverns.
Although hardly authentic, Marbella’s best flamenco is offered at Tablao Flamenco Ana María. It’s a good start for foreign visitors who speak limited Spanish. The long, often-crowded bar area sells tapas, wine, sherry and a selection of more international libations. Seven kilometers west of Marbella, near Puerto Banús, Casino Marbella, is a favorite with visitors from northern Europe.