Spanish Vacation Towns Welcome Gays
It is something Americans do not hear often in Europe.
I was taking photos of the bustling street scene outside the gay bars and nightclubs in Torremolinos, on Spain’s famed Costa del Sol.
Two young Spanish men approached and asked me why I was taking pictures. I explained that I was a journalist from San Francisco and was writing an article on gay travel to Costa del Sol.
"San Francisco, California, USA?" one of the guys asked.
"Si," I answered.
They responded by cheering U-S-A, U-S-A, over and over again in the plaza until it was getting a little embarrassing.
If you are like most people from the USA, you probably have never heard of Torremolinos, but it is one of the gayest vacation towns in the world. With more than three-dozen gay bars and nightclubs, the city boasts that it has the most gay venues of any Spanish city outside of Madrid or Barcelona. Torremolinos is the only gay resort town in Europe close to a major airport, making it very easy to get away without driving for hours. The Malaga airport is just 10 minutes away from the heart of Torremolinos. Madrid is just 2.5 hours away on high-speed rail.
If you can make it to Torremolinos, you won’t run into many other American tourists. Most of the people who populate the gay scene are locals or tourists from other parts of Spain. It is also a popular getaway for Brits.
Costa del Sol’s abundant nightlife is only matched by its weather, with an average of 324 days a year of sunshine with mild winters, warm springs and falls, and hot summers. First lady Michelle Obama helped raise Costa del Sol’s profile when she visited with her younger daughter, Sasha, last year.
Costa del Sol has three gay beaches and is rich in culture and history. If you want to rapidly change cultures, you can do it in Costa del Sol and still make it back to your hotel in time for dinner. Boats will take you to Morocco and other parts of northern Africa in less than an hour. The British-owned Rock of Gibraltar can easily be seen on a clear day from Costa del Sol and the rock is an easy drive on the western end of the coast.
The first stop for most visitors to Costa del Sol is Malaga. With a population of 600,000, it is the area’s largest city. Malaga’s airport is the third busiest in Spain. Delta flies nonstop there from New York City except during the slower winter months. A number of other nonstop flights are offered from European cities including London, Paris, and of course Madrid, so you can make the connections relatively easy.
History can be found at every turn in Malaga but it may be best known as the birthplace of Pablo Picasso. A museum packed with the prolific painter’s works, the Museo La Casa Picasso, is one of the most visited attractions on the coast.
You don’t have to go to Rome to see a Roman theater. One was unearthed from beneath a library in the city’s downtown and has become one of the most photographed sights of the city.
Malaga’s Cathedral is best known for having just one steeple. Construction ended in 1782 after 250 years. But they ran out of money to finish the second steeple. Now, Malagans are very happy with having such a distinctive landmark.
Marbella began as a small fishing village. In the 1940s it blossomed into a resort destination for the rich and famous. Marbella’s new patron saint is Mrs. Obama. You can see photos from her August 2010 visit throughout the city’s shops. Strolling through Marbella’s Old Town is a wonderful window on the past. The narrow streets and white buildings were designed to minimize the sun and the heat during the hot summer months.
La Meridiana in Marbella is widely regarded as the finest restaurant in Costa del Sol. It features food prepared with local ingredients and is set in an Arabian-style building surrounded by a garden and a decorative pool with a glass, walkable top.
But if you really want to see how the rich and famous live, check out the ultra chic port town of Puerto Banus. It’s next to Marbella and showcases an incredible array of shops alongside multimillion-dollar yachts.
Ronda is another Costa del Sol highlight not to be missed. The town of 37,000 is on a mountainside 2,400 feet above sea level. It takes an hour and 45 minutes to drive the winding road to the town from Torremolinos. Along the way, you will get great views of the iconic white Andaluc’a villages that dot this part of the country. On a clear day, you can see Gibraltar and the north African coast. The town’s emblematic symbol is the bridge over the gorge that separates two sides of the city. It is like a mini-version of the Grand Canyon. There are no gay bars in Ronda but the park next to the bullfight ring is known to be very cruisy in the evening.
The Ronda bullfight ring, which first opened in 1785, is the oldest in Spain. They only host bullfights once a year but the ring is open for tourists every day. Admission is six euros or about $8.50. You can stand in the middle of the ring and get a sense of what it is like to be a matador.
The charming city of Mijas is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, about 11 miles west of Torremolinos. Bullfights take place almost every week, usually on Sundays, at the town’s small ring. The town has spectacular views of the coast. Be sure to check out the Mijas Wine Museum for a good history of the area’s wines or a great tapas meal in this historic circa 1839 building.
The Marbella Club Hotel and its next-door sister property, the Hotel Puente Romano, are among the finest resort hotels in Europe. They are situated along the so-called Golden Mile of Marbella, between the Old Town and the ultra chic Puerto Banus. Unlike most European hotel rooms, the rooms are quite spacious and most include balconies or patios. You can get a room there in the low-season winter months for less than $200 or as much as $6,000 for a suite overlooking the ocean. Amenities include tennis courts, pools, and a gym and spa.
If you have the budget and really want to splurge, you can stay where the first lady stayed, the Villa Padierna Hotel, part of the Ritz Carlton chain. The property includes two golf courses. You can sign up for a beginner’s course at the Flamingo golf course. The hotel’s spa features scented sauna and steam rooms.
The Melia La Quinta Golf and Spa resort in Marbella offers luxury at bargain rates which start at about $144. The gay-friendly Melia chain took over the hotel last year in the space once occupied by a Westin hotel. The hotel sits on a quiet hill just 15 minutes from downtown Marbella.
One of the best known properties of the 93-strong Paradores Hotel chain is in Ronda, next to the arched bridge and gorge that are emblematic with the city. It was a former town hall that was remodeled into a hotel in 1994. Rates start about $175, which is a bargain for the upscale quality and location of the property. The Paradores are owned by the Spanish government and are often situated, like the Ronda location, next to historic sights.
If you choose to stay in Torremolinos, you will save some dinero. It is among the more affordable cities in Costa del Sol and if you have had a little too much to drink, you will be a cheap cab ride or walk from your hotel. Hostal Guadalupe is the only gay hotel in Costa del Sol.
As mentioned, the biggest concentration of gay life is in Torremolinos. It is just 10 minutes from Malaga. The local tourist board estimates that about 80 percent of the city’s nightlife is gay. That amounts to more than two-dozen gay bars and nightclubs and a couple of saunas. The gay village, where most of the clubs are concentrated, is in an area known as La Nogalera.
The huge Home nightclub in Torremolinos doesn’t open until 1 a.m. but the crowds stay all night. Passion is another late-night mega club with space for over 2,000 clubgoers. If you want to go out earlier, check out the El Gato Lounge, which opens at 7 p.m. It boasts that it has the area’s "biggest gay terrace." The Torremolinos lesbian bar, Anfora, opens at 10 p.m. and stays open until a relatively early 2:30 a.m.; it operates on weekends only. Cafe El Atrio opens daily at 8 p.m. and is gay male and lesbian mixed. The bear bar, Bacchus, is open every day 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The trendy Parthenon disco always seems to draw a crowd.
As Costa del Sol’s most populous city, Malaga also supports an active gay scene. The El Carmen bar is busy earlier in the evening and it attracts a mix of gay men and lesbians, but it is mostly gay male. The bar’s logo is a gun that looks like it is firing a stick of lipstick. The Reinas bar is mostly gay male and attracts a late night crowd. It doesn’t get busy until after 1 a.m. and stays open all night.
Of the three gay beaches in Costa del Sol, the most popular is Cabopino Beach. It is in a nature reserve, near the five-star Don Carlos Hotel, between Marbella and Calahonda. Gays tend to hang out in the far end of the clothing optional beach. The bushes overlooking the beach tend to attract a very adventurous crowd.
Torremolinos has a gay beach called Poseidon Beach. It is about a 15-minute drive from the Cabopino Beach and right in the center of town, so it’s very easy to get to. Unlike the other two gay beaches, it is not clothing optional. The Poseidon is part of the Playamar Beach and is in the middle, near the tourist information center.
The Guadalmar Beach is the third gay beach. It’s between Torremolinos and Malaga. It is also clothing optional. Overall Cabopino has a more older crowd, the crowd tends to skew younger at Poseidon, and Guadalmar tends to be more mixed.
When to go
The busiest time for tourism in Costa del Sol is the summer. That is when tourists from other parts of Spain head to the beach. But you will also be faced with higher hotel rates. Most locals advise visiting in October and November and April and May. The weather is still warm. You can comfortably go to the beach and at the same time, it is not too hot to walk around to the historical sights of the region during the middle of the day. Even if you go in winter, you probably won’t be hit with unpleasant weather. January is the coldest month in Costa de Sol with an average low temperature of 45 degrees with an average high about 60.