Living in Malaga: An expat guide

The Andalusian city of Málaga offers a tranquilo lifestyle of parties, good food and multi-lingual chat – here's what you'll need to know to get started...

Feature by Roxanne Sancto | 24 Apr 2018

I moved to Málaga more than eleven years ago and, like many before me, I arrived feeling hopeful and somewhat cocky about the many opportunities that would open themselves up to me solely for being trilingual. Little did I know that the Costa del Sol is practically made up of foreigners speaking up to six languages fluently, so I really wasn’t all that special. There are plenty of jobs available for eager expats, but you’ll quickly come to realize that many of them are scams – all I can say is steer clear of telemarketing gigs, and approach real estate companies and timeshare cults with the highest caution. Life on the coast is a persistent struggle for expats who choose against engaging in dodgy business endeavours, but if you’re willing to put in the effort – i.e. necessary hours of intensive Spanish language courses – Málaga can offer you the tranquilo lifestyle you always envisioned. As long as you’re not having to navigate the city during rush hour, that is.

Málaga is the second most populous city of Andalusia and has established itself as the coast’s commercial and cultural hub. Famous for its museums, restaurants and ferias (traditional festivities), Málaga’s new, modern port (Muelle Uno) has also become the docking ground for large cruise ships, inviting thousands of passengers to explore this historic city feeling the solid ground beneath their feet, before ruining carefully maintained diets over a spread of delicious tapas and generously flowing Tinto de Verano. While tourists love the hustle and bustle of typical Malagueña summer nights, if you’re a resident of the city, you will come to hate the summer period in no time.

Yes, there is plenty going on – the main shopping street, Calle Larios, is buzzing, and cute little market stalls selling handmade goods and flowing, summery skirts are open way past midnight. But all that basically translates to even fewer parking spaces, steering-wheel-head-banging-traffic, high prices, busy streets and long, long hours should you happen to work in the restaurant or tourism sector. Oh, the joys of summer!

If you’re looking to move to Málaga, the best time to do so is in the spring – after the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations – or in the late fall, between October and November. May, June, July, August and even September count as the high season here in Spain, meaning rent prices go up immensely. Many properties only offer short-term rent contracts, usually from October until April, after which you will be forced out on a house-hunt again. With the rise of Airbnb rentals in the region, it has become increasingly difficult to find cheap, long-term apartments as owners are favouring holiday-letting for a higher profit. It is highly advisable to secure a job before you make the move to Málaga, as steady employment is very hard to come by unless you have an established position within a company.

Working in Málaga

When I came out here I spent the first two years job-hopping and was surprised to see that, in many cases, qualifications and resumes weren’t even skimmed over. Many employers are far more interested in you, and how you sell and present yourself, than they are in reading about your past experiences. I blagged my way into various jobs I never would have got without the right qualifications in other countries, and now have quite the colourful resume – I’ve worked as a dental assistant, a real estate agent and a decorator for a popular radio station, with no prior experience whatsoever.

The first thing you need to realize about working in Málaga – or anywhere else on the coast – is that you’re going to have to wing it 60% of the time. If you’re not working for an established company, get used to short-term contracts, ever-changing work-environments and working in sectors you are over or underqualified for. Bar and restaurant work is probably the most consistent, but expect minimum pay unless you work for big players such as Marbella’s Nikki Beach resort.

Apartment Hunting

My monthly rent in Málaga used to be the envy of all my friends back in the UK and Scotland – at 450 Euro a month for a 2 bed, 2 bath apartment, there really wasn’t much to complain about. But times are rapidly changing and it is becoming harder to find flats in this price range, especially in Málaga’s city centre. Fortunately, there are many interesting districts outside of the city centre where you can still find affordable housing and, unlike most coastal towns, Málaga’s public transport services are reliable and will get you from A to B in an timely manner (by Andalusian standards).

Málaga’s university district, Teatinos, is particularly popular among students and young families, and is full of eateries offering tapas and the menu del día (daily menu) at cheap prices. Many people opt to live on the outskirts of Málaga, in towns such as Benalmádena, Fuengirola and Mijas, but the cheapest rental options by far can be found inland. In places such as Coín and Alhaurín el Grande – around a 40-50 min drive from Málaga – you can still find typical Spanish country houses (fincas) with a small plot of land and even a pool for under 600 Euro.

Spanish, Spanglish and Andalú(z)

I wouldn’t go as far as to say my Spanish is fluent, but I can keep up in conversations and understand pretty much everything – unless I’m speaking to someone from some remote Andalusian pueblo in the mountains. That’s when, nine times out of ten, you’ll see a giant question mark appear on my forehead and a polite smile on my lips as I nod along to god-knows-what I’m being told. The Andalusian dialect is a whole other language in itself – even my fiancé’s grandfather, who was from Madrid, couldn’t understand the Malagueño banter. To the foreign ear, it sounds even faster than regular Spanish and half of almost every word is swallowed, leaving you to guess what its original state could have possibly been. For example: hasta luego (see you later) becomes talego, nada (nothing) becomes na’. Learning Spanish in Málaga definitely isn’t an easy feat.

In places with high tourist populations such as Málaga, Fuengirola and Marbella you can just about get by with a bit of Spanglish – an art naturally mastered by Gibraltarians – but don’t count on small villages and your local shopkeeper being able to help you out when you get lost in translation. Learning the language should be your top priority upon moving to Málaga – don’t go giving us expats a bad name by refusing to learn more than the basics. You’ll make life, work and play a lot easier on yourself by learning Spanish – you’ll be treated with more respect and will be granted more work opportunities you wouldn’t receive otherwise.

Going Out in Málaga: Boquerones, Botellones & Bares

If you live your Málaga life by the three B’s, you’re bound to make new friends quickly! As far as food is concerned, you can’t really go wrong with any of the many typically Andalusian bars and restaurants in Málaga – and the city has a lot of them. The best way to start any afternoon or evening tapas delight is with an order of boquerones (anchovies) or sardinas (sardines) straight from the spit. Eating is a communal affair here in Spain and, if the menu del día and a generous copa (drink) won’t get you chatting to everyone at the bar, little else will.

Once you’ve filled up on the catch of the day, it’s time to venture out to the nearest supermarket or off-licence for a bottle (or five) of your preferred booze to take to the botellón – an unofficial meeting of night-dwellers and party-goers getting drunk on the cheap before heading out to bars and night clubs. Botellones usually take place in big plazas or at the beach, and are frowned upon by residents yet widely accepted as a weekend-norm. If you’re looking to join a botellón on a Saturday night, head down to the city centre to find where it’s at – you’ll be sure to meet people from all walks of life. The only thing that’s left to do now is hit the bares with your new amigos!

En fin…

It’s not easy starting a new life in Málaga but it is worth the struggle. You will come to know a quality of life that is hard to find in most other European cities and the warm climate is only a small part of it. Things move a lot slower on the costa and, while this laid-back approach to everything (and by everything, I mean everything, especially anything bureaucratic, including the postal service) can be frustrating at first, it will teach you a lesson that will become difficult to unlearn: there really is no need to rush through life. As long as the sun’s out, we have food in our bellies, a home to eat it in, and flamenco in our hearts, todo va bien (it’s all good).