The Costa del Sol, Spain’s sunniest corner, stretches out along the southern coastline of Andalucia. For centuries, the whole region was under Moorish occupation, the legacy of which remains today in glorious mosques, palaces, gardens and fortresses. As such, some of Spain’s biggest attractions are accessed from ports along the Costa del Sol.

An ornate archway leading to picturesque gardens at the Alhambra Palace in Granada cruise port

The Alhambra Palace, Granada

Granada, Seville, Cordoba and Jerez are all offered as shore excursions from Malaga and Cadiz, while the ports themselves have plenty of attractions, whether you want to gaze at the masterpieces in the Picasso museum in Malaga or ogle the megayachts in swanky Puerto Banus.

Andalucia packs in the cultural attractions but is also incredibly beautiful, with long, sandy beaches, rugged coastal mountains where tiny white villages are scattered across the hilltops like icing sugar, and inland, rolling fields where white thoroughbred horses and giant bulls are raised. Lush golf courses add splashes of emerald green. No surprise, then, especially with access from three major ports, that this is a busy cruise destination.

Ancient architecture and lush trees on the coast of Malaga cruise port

Malaga

Itineraries featuring the Costa del Sol tend to be variations on the Western Mediterranean theme – for example, round-trip voyages from Barcelona or Palma, or cruises that circle the Iberian peninsula, also taking in ports like Gibraltar and Lisbon. No-fly cruises from Southampton bound for the Mediterranean will almost always call at a couple of ports along the coast; it is a two-day sail from Southampton to either Gibraltar or Cadiz. The Costa also features on repositioning cruises as ships make their way between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, as either Malaga or Cadiz may be the last (or first, sailing eastbound) port on mainland Europe before heading out into the Atlantic.

The one thing that is slightly rarer is cruises that actually start or finish in Malaga, but these do exist, mainly among smaller lines. SeaDream Yacht Club, Star Clippers, Ponant and Voyages to Antiquity all have departures from Malaga. Small ships like those belonging to SeaDream Yacht Club and Star Clippers also call at Motril, which is closer to Granada and even Puerto Banus.

Seville Cathedral rising up above the skyline in Seville on the Costa del Sol

The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, Seville

The stunning courtyard of Plaza de Espana in Seville in Spain

Plaza de Espana, Seville

Not surprisingly, cruise lines offer a wide variety of excursions along the Costa del Sol. One of the biggest bucket list spots is the Alhambra Palace in Granada, a stunningly beautiful Moorish palace with exquisite gardens and, as a backdrop, the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains. Granada itself is gorgeous, with an old gypsy quarter, authentic tapas bars and places of historic significance like the Capilla Real, where the last of Spain’s Catholic royals are buried.

Seductive Seville is another big-hitter, either as a tour or on your own; it is relatively easy to wander round on foot, although the city gets extremely hot in summer. Tours visit the world’s biggest Gothic cathedral, where Columbus is buried, and where, if you’ve got the energy, you can climb the Giralda tower for amazing views of the city. Otherwise, there are beautiful squares, parks and gardens to explore and a tangled old quarter where street performers show off world-class flamenco.

Ronda is an easy day trip from Malaga, high in the mountains, straddling a dramatic gorge. Ronda is one of the most famous of Andalucia’s pueblos blancos, or white towns, although tiny Arcos de la Frontera, near Jerez, is just as dramatic. (‘De la Frontera features in many place names and means ‘of the border’, as these towns once formed the frontier of the Moorish kingdom.) Jerez itself, famed for its horses, bulls and sherry production, is a popular tour, with most visits incorporating sherry tasting and a show of dramatic horsemanship at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art.

A lighthouse reflected in the wet sand on a beach in Cadiz on the Costa del Sol

Cadiz

The ports themselves, though, shouldn’t be overlooked. There is no shortage of things to see in Malaga, from the Picasso museum to the 14th Century Gibralfaro castle, while Cadiz is possibly one of the most underrated cities along the coast, its port dating back 4,000 years to Phoenician times, the ancient walls pounded by Atlantic surf. Lose yourself in the atmospheric old back streets and tuck into some of the most authentic tapas to be found along the coast.

Gibraltar is a major port of call but it is, of course, British, and excursions here tend to focus mainly on activities local to the Rock, although some cross the border into Spain. If you’ve got your heart set on, say, Seville and Gibraltar is your only port of call along the coast, do check that you can get on the excursion you want.

A doorway leading onto a scenic balcony in the Alhambra Palace in Granada on the Costa del Sol

The Alhambra Palace, Granada

Any cruise in southern Spain presents an opportunity for activity and adventure as well as culture. From Cadiz, cruise lines offer 4x4 jeep tours across the countryside as well as trips to the long, golden beaches of the Costa de la Luz, while from Malaga, you can pick your way along the Caminito del Rey, a dramatic catwalk clinging to the side of a cliff overlooking the El Churro gorge. The pathway reopened a couple of years ago and is a real experience – if you have a head for heights! You could book a round of golf – most cruise lines can arrange this as an excursion – or join a tapas crawl.

Whatever you choose, though, you will quickly realise that although, superficially, a lot of the coastal towns seem geared mainly to tourism, you don’t have to scratch the surface far to find authentic Andalucia.

If you're looking to cruise to the Costa del Sol or have any questions about the destination, call our Cruise Concierge team on 0808 1234 118 for assistance with your booking and award-winning customer service.

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Sue Bryant
Sue Bryant
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer specialising in cruising. She is cruise editor of The Sunday Times and also writes for magazines and websites worldwide. She has written and contributed to several travel guidebooks, including the Insight Guide to Great River Cruises and the Insight Guide to Caribbean Cruising. In 2016, Sue was awarded the coveted ‘Contribution to Cruise Journalism’ award by CLIA for her coverage of the industry. She lives in west London with her teenage children and two dogs.

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