Southern Spain: Ronda, Mijas, Marbella and Arcos de la Frontera

We visited Granada, Mijas, Marbella, Ronda, Arcos de la Frontera, Seville and Cordoba during our trip to Southern Spain. While Granada, Seville and Cordoba will get their own full reviews, this trip summary will cover Ronda and the other villages. For those that don’t want to read the details or see pictures, here are bullet point recommendations:

Go!Go!Go! (A peak travel experience; bucket list)

  • Places.
    • Ronda. The bridge, the drive to get there, the hike down into the valley, exploring the town, the food, the atmospheric streets, and the views all add up to my highest recommendation!
    • Ronda river valley hike. If you go to Ronda, you’re going to see the view from all points on the bridge, so you don’t need me to add it to the list. However, of equal importance is taking the trek down to the river to get the view up at the bridge and the buildings hugging the cliffside. Start your hike at the Plaza de Maria Auxiliadora. Don’t miss it!
  • Eat and Drink.
    • Jamon Iberico Bellota. This stuff is crack. Meat crack. Seriously, it’s maybe the gold medal winner in the dead animal category for me. It’s not like any ham you’ve ever had in the US and if you don’t try it while you’re in Spain we can’t be friends.
    • Salmorejo. You have to try salmorejo while in southern Spain. Food truck operators take note, salmorejo is rare at best in the US, but mark my words it’ll someday be on every trendy US farm-to-table restaurant menu. While it gets compared to gazpacho, salmorejo is much richer, creamier and tastier, and it doesn’t hurt that they typically throw in some Jamon Iberico along with diced up hard boiled egg. A little truffle helps, too. It’s a must try! The very best salmorejo can be found in Cordoba, but it’s available throughout Spain.

Go!Go! (Amazing and highly memorable, you won’t regret it)

  • Places.
    • Marbella Old Town. While the beach and beachfront didn’t impress us at all, the old town is quaint and beautiful, full of orange trees and picturesque streets.
    • Mijas. The views, the whitewash architecture, and just the overall preciousness of this village makes it a must-stop if you’re in the area.
  • Eat and Drink.
    • Tragata. Wonderfully creative and tasty tapas bar right in the heart of Ronda. We ate here twice, which we hardly ever do, but the food was that delicious.
    • Santa Maria. With over 1500 reviews on TripAdvisor and 98% positive reviews, you know this place will be memorable.
    • Restaurante Almocabar. Just outside the walled gate leading into Ronda is an extremely pleasant little square and park with a few excellent restaurants. We enjoyed a snack and drink at Bodega San Francisco, but our meal at Restaurante Almocabar was memorable and introduced us to two dishes we still love to seek out to this day. This was where I first fell in love with Spanish olive oil – in fact it’s the only olive oil I buy at home. The grassy, earthy and lemon notes are so noticeably different and tastier than Italian or Greek olive oil, it’s no comparison! As a lover of most soups, I also ordered salmorejo here, which blew my mind (see above).
  • Stay.
    • Hotel Montelirio. See full review below.

Go! (Definitely worth it, fully met expectations)

  • Places.
    • Arcos de la Frontera. If you’re a photographer, or if you want an eye-catching Instagram post, then the gravity-defying town of Arcos is a must-do. As a friend of mine once said, “it looks like a picture of the Bible”. The only reason I have it listed as a “Go!” and not higher is because it’s not too easy to reach and if your time is limited you may not want to make the trip.
    • Plaza del Socorro. A Picturesque and romantic square in the heart of Ronda. Surrounded by tapas bars and places to grab a drink, it’s very atmospheric. I wouldn’t recommend a meal, but it’s a great place to chill for a bit.
    • Ronda city walls and gates. if you’re a sucker for medieval walls and architecture like we are, you’ll love exploring the old walls and gates in Ronda.
  • Food and Drink.
    • Churros and Chocolate. Another must try while visiting Spain. While the best churros we had on our trip were in Madrid and Granada, they are everywhere so definitely give them a try in Ronda. We did enjoy our churros in Ronda, but unfortunately the place were we went has since shut down.
    • Sherry. Southern Spain is full of Sherry bodegas, and it’s known as the oldest wine-producing region in Spain. Unlike the sherry you might be thinking of – the kind you’ve cooked with – the sherry in Southern Spain is dryer and not sweet. There are plenty of places to do tastings or you can easily make a pilgrimage to Jerez from Ronda, if you find you really love it. For us, it was good, a little strong, but I enjoyed a glass or two while in Ronda. I always recommend trying the food or drinks a place is known for, and this is no exception.
    • Restaurante Don Miguel. Another place I wouldn’t recommend eating, but Google “Don Miguel Ronda View” and you’ll see why we loved the glass or two of sherry we had here on our final evening.
    • Bar la Carcel. A solid choice if needing a lunch stop in Arcos.

FULL REVIEW AND TRAVEL TIPS FOR RONDA, MIJAS, MARBELLA and ARCOS:

(Lots of pictures below…)

After you cross off a few of the most popular European cities, the ones that everyone knows and most have visited, you find yourself looking for spots that offer a more original experience. In other words, if you go to Paris, without even doing any research you pretty much know you’re going to visit a few museums, sip a latte outside at a café, drink some wine, eat a few croissant and eclairs, and of course go to the Eiffel Tower. Pretty typical for everyone’s first few days in Paris. What about the places that you haven’t already seen a hundred times in movies or on Instagram? If I told you that tomorrow you’d be in Ronda, Spain, would you know what that place looks like? Would you know what to do? Would you even know where it is? There is satisfaction in visiting somewhere beautiful, posting a photo, and getting the reaction of: “Where is that!? It’s amazing!”. Ronda, Spain, is that kind of place.

We often like to travel over the Thanksgiving Holiday, but it’s challenging to find places in Europe that don’t have a high risk of rain or even sleet at that time of year. Southern Spain is the perfect destination for a Thanksgiving trip to Europe. The weather is pleasant, the crowds are gone, and the prices are (even) lower. In addition to visiting Seville, Cordoba, Granada, and Madrid, we spent a couple of days in the lesser known, smaller, white-wash villages in the far south of Spain.

We made it to Ronda by renting a car in Granada and driving. Driving in Southern Spain is one of the less intimidating areas to drive in Europe and we highly recommend renting a car. Not only are the roads in good shape, but traffic signs are in English and the scenery is truly special. Further, Southern Spain is dotted with quaint little villages that you can only enjoy if you get out on your own and explore. We left Granada and spent a long day driving to Ronda, stopping in Mijas and Marbella. After 3 nights in Ronda, we stopped for lunch and a quick walk through the remarkable town of Arcos de la Frontera while on our way to Seville.

Ronda turned out to be one of the most memorable, breathtakingly beautiful, and enjoyable places we have ever visited. It’s a place with landscapes that charge your imagination, along with wonderful food options and romantic Spanish architecture wrapped around quaint cobblestone streets. Then, of course, there is the bridge.

If you like food, wine, hiking and views, Ronda should vault up your bucket list and will likely end up as one of your favorite destinations. You’ll love the journey there, the surrounding area, and the destination itself.

HOTEL: Go!Go! Hotel Montelirio

For me, when it comes to hotels, nothing justifies going over budget more than an amazing view. Views are always worth paying extra for when traveling. Impressive lobbies and robust amenities are nice, luxurious or historically appointed rooms are always fun, breakfast is important, and a large shower with great water pressure is coveted, but it’s always the views that I remember the most. There is nothing like waking up in the morning, opening the curtains, and being immersed in a post card vista. Ronda has a handful of quirky boutique hotels, some luxury B&B’s, and one of the more impressive and well located Paradors (government subsidized historical hotels) in all of Spain. However, because of the view, booking the Marbella Suite at the Hotel Montelirio is a no-brainer. The hotel is perfectly located right at the town’s remarkable, landmark bridge. It has charm, clean rooms, and the Marbella Suite was quite inexpensive considering the unique amenity. The reason you need to stay here is because you can start and end each day with this view:

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View from Marbella Suite at Hotel Montelirio
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A glass of wine, a balcony, some jamon… perfect way to enjoy the view.
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Our last morning, the sun came out, simply breathtaking. Go. See. This. Place. In. Person.

TIP: If you stay at the Hotel Montelirio, stop at the Queso y Jamon Boutique store in the main square (Plaza Espana) just as you cross the bridge going north. Buy some cheese, jamon and a bottle of wine to take to your room. In the evenings, instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with all the tourists to see the sun set from/on the bridge, you can relax in your room and enjoy the best view in town.

Any time we drive from one destination to another, I always take some time to research towns and attractions that are along the way. One of my fears is to realize that I was 15 minutes away from a country’s best brewery, or an amazing winery, or a spectacular view, or a memorable hike, or even just a really cute little town, and we miss it. When looking into the drive between from Grenada to Ronda, I came across a number of enticing, storybook little villages and while I wanted to explore them all, it appeared that the hillside town of Mijas was the one most worth stopping in for lunch and a walk.

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Spectacular view from Mijas toward the Mediterranean

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Mijas is one of the many little whitewall towns with little iron balconies and tile accents. Anyone that enjoys the charming, little villages sprinkled throughout Europe that feel more like a movie set than a travel destination will love Mijas.

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For lunch, we stopped at Oscars Tapas Bar. Oscars is highly rated on TripAdvisor, has a great view, and their sangria is superb. We had the shrimp in garlic sauce, which was delicious, and we were pleasantly surprised when it was served without the shrimp heads. That never happens in Europe! We also had to order their paella, because it’s Spain, which was perfectly spiced and tasty, but it did have shrimp with heads. All the aforementioned courses and drinks were enjoyed on the lovely terrace enjoying a magical view of the hills and the Mediterranean. Also, as it was November, we had the entire balcony to ourselves.

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After walking off a little of our lunch (and our sangria), we headed out toward Marbella, the infamous party town of the jet set crowd. As we had neither the funding nor the time to truly experience Marbella, we opted to spend the hour or so we had strolling around their old town with a quick peak at the beach. While the beach – at least the part where we ended up – felt like Cancun or any other touristy Spring Break beach, Marbella’s old town was romantic and wonderful. The old town in Marbella is full of narrow cobblestone streets, quaint cafes and restaurants with beautiful orange trees and medieval architecture.

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To give you an idea about the distances, from Mijas to Marbella is only a 30 minute drive, and Marbella to Ronda is just over an hour. Further, the drive to Ronda will float by as you wind your way over the mountains on the beautiful A-397.

All roads in Ronda lead to their iconic and breathtaking bridge. We checked into our hotel, enjoyed the view from our living room as shown above, and then walked over to the bridge to see the views from each possible vantage point.

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All of the above were taken on or around the Ronda bridge, and represent about 1% of the photos I wanted to use. The views from and of the Ronda bridge and surrounding cliffs are hypnotizing, inspiring, and humbling. The fact that you haven’t already seen these pictures throughout television, travel guides, or other media just adds to the allure and amazement. For us, this is the most rewarding type of travel.

Our first morning in Ronda we decided to take a hike. We took a short walk from our hotel to the Plaza de Maria Auxiliadora. It’s a beautiful square, and we enjoyed seeing a few of the elderly locals sitting in the square, reading, and visiting. We wondered how many of their days started out the same way. On the far south side of the square, there is a gate that in essence lets you escape from the town and follow a wide, paved path down to the bottom of the valley. I can’t recommend this hike enough. It only takes about 20 minutes down and maybe 30 minutes back up, but the views and perspective of the bridge and valley are jaw-dropping. Unfortunately we had grey skies, so the pictures we have don’t quite do it justice, but trust me, this is a bucket list view!

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We had already discussed how the bulging cliffs resembled sleeping giants from a fairy tale, then we come across this arm reaching up from the earth to further prove our theory.

In addition to the natural beauty, the town of Ronda itself is quaint and romantic, with plenty of wonderful drinking and dining options. It’s rare that we eat anywhere twice while traveling, as we like to try as much as possible, but our tapas meal the first night at Tragata was so eye-roll amazing we just had to go back for a few more plates on our final evening. One of the great things about the tapas culture is you can always try a few plates at one place, then hop around to a few more, and we made sure to hop back to Tragata. They had a slow-cooked osso buco with mashed potatoes and truffle that was so delicious your mouth would water for more as you were chewing it. The beef tartare was as good as any I’ve ever had. All of their plates were creative, nicely plated takes on traditional Spanish dishes or local favorites.

Our other favorite meal in Ronda was at Restaurante Almocabar. We took a lovely walk from our hotel, about 10-12 minutes down the cobblestone streets lit up with a hazy yellow light from the lampposts, and we found Restaurante Almocabar just outside the remains of the old town walls and gate. We didn’t have reservations, but they sat us at the bar, which was perfect. As mentioned above, this is where I first fell in love with both salmorejo and Spanish olive oil (see pics below), but the entire meal was excellent and Almocabar is a great pick for a nice dinner while in Ronda.

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The walk to Almocabar
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Anytime you’re in Spain, don’t forget to order Iberico Jamon!
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Ronda is where I first tasted, and loved, salmorejo

We spent much of our last half-day just walking around Ronda, stopping in a few local places to grab a drink and a snack. We walked by and marveled at the old medieval walls and city gates, as well as soaking in the romantic charm of the narrow streets. We found a nice, outside table at the Plazza del Socorro to enjoy a drink or two and even played a little impromptu soccer with some locals.

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Calle Nueva is a must walk
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wonderfully romantic streets nearby our hotel
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Lovely Socorro Square with plenty of places to enjoy the sites and a drink or two…

Wrapping up our final day, we tried a few glasses of the local sherry on a lovely balcony at Restorante Don Miguel. It didn’t have high enough reviews for us to have dinner there, but we enjoyed the drinks and the view is marvelous.

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View from Don Miguel
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Have to try the local Sherry

After leaving Ronda, we had one more stop before making it into Seville. I had seen pictures online of Arcos de la Frontera, and I just had to stop to see it with my own eyes. We navigated the narrow streets and were able to park right in the center of town by the church, which was wonderfully convenient and only steps away from this view:

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We only had an hour and a half, and we needed to eat lunch, so we set-off on a quick stroll through town. The narrow streets were just what we expected, and they were no match for this truck driver:

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Yes, he did make it through, with what I would say looked like less than an inch on each side. I made a mental note not to turn down that street as we left town. If you are looking for a place to eat, Taberna Jovenes Flamencos is highly rated. Even if you don’t eat there, you’ll want to walk by to enjoy the cute, red tables and chairs they have sitting outside their entrance. We chose to have lunch at Bar la Carcel, which also has excellent scores on TripAdvisor. We liked it’s atmosphere and the eggplant with goat cheese and balsamic was delicious.

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Finally, if you do make it to Arcos, don’t miss the best view of the town! This is your ticket to social media jealousy! It’s hard to explain how to get there, but the address given on Google Maps is: Calle Salida del Puente, 10-22, 11630 Arcos de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain. Enjoy…

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(C) Abram Gordon, all rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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