Nestled at the centre of Spain’s Costa del Sol, Marbella is one of the Mediterranean’s premier resorts, spread around a gently curving bay, set against the distinctive La Concha mountain.
Whilst the heady days of Marbella’s glamour and allure may have faded with the rise of low cost travel and its association with a rather well known reality TV programme, the city has evolved and matured into a sophisticated destination. With an agreeable climate, excellent infrastructure and countless golf courses, it is not difficult to understand the appeal of the city as a lifestyle destination. Not just a beach resort, the city has diversified with a number of year round events such as its own film and arts festivals as well as a tennis tournament. The arts scene in the city has developed substantially with the Museum Ralli and Muncipal Esposition Gallery among Marbella’s top art picks.
The Marbella of today can be traced back to several key pioneers who transformed this sleepy village into a resort frequented by European aristocrats and Hollywood A-listers. Ricardo Soriano (who lent his name to one of the city’s principal thoroughfares) and his nephew Prince Alfonso, were instrumental in the development of the resort, with the 1954 opening of the celebrated Marbella Club being the catalyst.
Over time, the city has attracted many personalities from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to Sean Connery. The city’s colourful and eclectic history has shaped the Marbella of today. The Banús family, who gave their name to the famous Puerto Banús, were personal friends of General Franco, and the city still reels from the maverick leadership of Mayor Gil during the 1990s, under whose tenure several questionable land deals were secured.
The city has grown and expanded to form a complex network of distinct districts from San Pedro to Nueva Andalucia to Las Chapas. A drive along the N340 coastal highway reveals the sheer sprawl of the wider Marbella conurbation. For a city that likes to make favourable comparisons as being akin to a European California – indeed Puerto Banús was designed by Noldi Schreck who had worked earlier in Beverley Hills – it certainly has parallels with the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Marbella, however, still retains a distinctive centre.
Any first time visitor will likely gravitate to the Paseo Marítimo. Framed by regal palms, this pedestrian seafront thoroughfare has an eclectic mix of cafes, restaurants and shops. Marbella’s equivalent of the Promenade des Anglais, is a favourite for those looking to soak up Marbella’s coastal setting and all the while escaping Northern European temperatures.
Beyond the Paseo lies the Casco Antiguo, Marbella’s Old Town. This well preserved and attractive network of streets is easily walkable from the main seafront, via the enchanting Parque de Alameda. A favourite of locals, visitors can often miss this part of the city which is a shame as it represents one of the best preserved old towns in this part of the Costa del Sol. The Plaza los Naranjos is its centrepiece. This delightful square, as the name suggests, it set around a small park of orange trees, with the grand portico of the Town Hall as its centrepiece. The narrow streets of the Old Town have a number of small intimate boutiques. The Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnacion is also worth a detour for its richly decorated interior. Adjacent to the Old Town lies the Avenue Ricardo Soriano, which is the commercial hub of the city. Here Marbella very much feels like a city rather than a coastal resort.
Further round the bay lies Puerto Banús. Walkable via the seafront promenade which connects with Marbella Centre, this is not just a marina. Much like the wider Marbella area, Puerto Banús has undergone rapid growth where previously there was nothing. This elegant resort is set round a marina of cruisers and superyachts, with its dockside bustling with Ferraris and Bentleys in the summer months. The high end marina boutiques would be equally recognisable in any of Europe’s high end fashion streets. It is somewhat of a paradox that this most authentic looking of Spanish resorts is, in fact, entirely artificial, testament to the architects of the day.
Marbella has been through downturns, both in its image and its property market. However, it has grown and developed into an increasingly dynamic urban area. It is architecturally stimulating and varied from the Arabic curves and bronze domes of the Gray D’Albion building in Puerto Banús, to the traditional Spanish white washed style of the old town to the Malibu-esque beachfront villas of the Golden Mile. Whilst the city is no longer frequented by Hollywood A-listers as it was during its golden age, the discrete high net worth individuals who reside in the exclusive Zagaleta district in the hills above the city are their modern day equivalents. There is far more to the city than its beach and summer clubs. It has developed into a year round destination, and those who venture from the beach will be rewarded by a surprisingly cosmopolitan and varied city. Marbella is not an ‘average’ Spanish resort: it warrants a closer look.
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