Nerja and Estepona are two vacation resort towns on the South Mediterranean coast of Spain. The two cities are located on opposite sides of Málaga, the regional capital and international airport, at about equal distance from it.
Estepona sits about 35 miles West of Málaga on the Costa del Sol, while Nerja is located East of the city.
Though the Estepona has a population over three times the size of Nerja (67.000 vs 21.000), both are picturesque seaside towns and very popular with tourists and expats. So which of Nerja or Estepona should you choose for your vacation?
Nerja Or Estepona: what travelers say
- The town of Estepona has a long and flat beach and promenade with a Marina at one end.
- Estepona is more typically Spanish, while Nerja is more tourist-oriented and has a lot of places catering to foreign visitors.
- Estepona is very different from other resorts in the Costa del Sol strip: much less overdeveloped and with an authentic old town and square. Nerja is not part of the Costa del Sol, and like Estepona, it has charming pedestrian streets and no large resort buildings
- Estepona is a convenient location for accessing many places along the Costa del Sol and inland. Even if you don’t have a car, you can easily catch a local bus to Gibraltar, Ronda, Marbella, San Pedro etc.
- Nerja is unique due to its elevated seafront built on rocks and it “balcony”, as opposed to most other resorts with their flat promenades.
- Nerja is a favorite for many visitors, while others prefer Estepona. Travelers to Estepona tend to stay in or close to the old town as they appreciate the real town feel – as opposed to a resort feel.
- As a resort, Nerja has more choice than Estepona in terms of tourist accommodations, tourist restaurants and tapas bars, and tourist shops in the old town. Nerja typically has more tourist animation than Estepona during days and evenings.
- Nerja has several pretty coves and small beaches, while Estepona has a wide and long stretch of beach. Estepona also has a marina area with boats and restaurants, something Nerja does not have.
- Some travelers feel Nerja has lost some of its authenticity to tourism due to large numbers of UK visitors. Estepona has much more of a local Spanish feel.
- Estepona has a smaller old town area than Nerja but Estepona’s is more typically Spanish. Nerja is considered a charming resort namely because of the town’s beautiful views over the sea and mountains.
Nerja Or Estepona: access & transportation
From Málaga, you can easily catch a bus to Nerja (easy and reliable), about a 45-minute ride. Getting from the Málaga airport to Estepona center by car also takes about 50 minutes. Many buses from Málaga to Estepona take longer, about 2 hours, due to the many stops – the express ones take 75 minutes.
If you’re staying in the Estepona municipal area outside of the Estepona town, you’ll typically need to drive or take a bus to get to town, though you may have a beach nearby you can walk to. Renting a car can be a good and economical option vs taking taxis and buses for transferring to and from the Málaga airport and for getting around Estepona.
If staying in Nerja with a car, on the other hand, depending on the season (and most weekends) you may have a hard time finding parking space in the streets. Especially in high season, you should consider choosing a hotel with parking.
Otherwise, there’s a large car park in the center in Calle Los Huertos, behind Princess Hotel, and an underground one in Plaza de España – they can be quite expensive though.
Nerja Or Estepona: vibe & people
The Estepona municipal area is long and thin spreading 20 km along the coast, with tourist hotels, apartment complexes, bars, and restaurants, many of which have a British or German feel – particularly the Marina area.
The Estepona town, on the other hand, located in the center of the coastal strip, is the most Spanish nucleus of the Costa del Sol.
The Estepona old town is pretty and often referred to as the Garden of the Costa del Sol due to its recently renovated and white-painted streets and plazas and the thousands of colorful flower pots hanging everywhere, namely around Bermudez and Los Reyes streets (see photos).
Estepona does not have a “tourist trap” center with the usual tourist shops and pubs, it’s an authentic Spanish town where locals live and go out. The historical center is very pleasant with beautiful squares, restaurants, and small museums.
The people in Estepona are very friendly. The town is quiet with no nightclubs or loud bars except for small local crowds enjoying a drink or dining on terraces.
Estepona town has a long beachfront promenade (Paseo Maritimo), mostly flat including 4 or 5 streets inland (before reaching the hilly parts).
Nerja is quite different from Estepona. It has a unique setting, being built mainly on a rocky cliff above the sea. It’s also an attractive town to wander around and explore.
Nerja town offers a blend of a laid back resort feel (more so than Estepona town) and a local working town. It’s visited by a mixture of young families in their 30s and older people looking to relax in a familiar atmosphere with some international services.
The Balcon of Europa (Balcony of Europe) plaza overlooking the sea and coast is the focal point of Nerja. The associated pedestrian promenade (paseo) is lined with cafes and restaurants and offers a lot of animation in the summer.
Nerja is more cosmopolitan than Estepona town, though it still remains a Spanish town.
Neither Estepona nor Nerja is very lively during the winter, e.g. compared to other places like Fuengirola. In Nerja, most bars and restaurants close around the Christmas holidays, which for some travelers make the town too quiet.
Both Estepona and Nerja have occasional sewage problems along their beaches, e.g. in Nerja’s Playa Burriana and the central part of Estepona’s urban beach.
Nerja Or Estepona: sights & culture
The sights in Estepona include the historic old town, which has a few 15th and 18th-century landmarks, and the Orchid House and botanical gardens which host thousands of orchid species and a waterfall. The town also has astonishing gigantic street murals, more than 30, all around the town on the sides of high-rise building blocks outside the old town area (see pictures here).
The tree-lined beach promenade, marina, fishing port, and beaches, are also key parts of the Estepona lifestyle and experience.
As mentioned, Nerja also has a beautiful seafront promenade, connected to the renowned Balcon of Europa’s picturesque promontory and square with its magnificent views and animation – including new year’s eve fireworks, fiestas, concerts, and religious processions.
The Cueva de Nerja is one of the caves with astonishing rock formations (unusual stalactites and stalagmites) which are worth a visit. The area also has paleolithic paintings that can be visited through guided tours. Nerja has also picturesque cliffside coves with sandy beaches.
Nerja Or Estepona: food & nightlife
The restaurants in Estepona are mostly situated in 3 areas: mostly Spanish type places around the old town except for a few of Asian, Indian and Italian places, and a couple of Irish bars; international cuisine restaurants lining the Marina; and small clusters of restaurants around the Eastside developments.
Unlike Nerja, the Estepona town has no karaoke bars or clubs catering specifically to British visitors. Strolling along the long beachfront promenade and having an Andalusian dinner or a drink with some tapas in one of the many Spanish restaurants make up the primary nightlife.
There are many cafes and bars for having breakfast, as Spanish locals typically meet there in the morning all year for coffee and toasts (cheap at 2 – 2.5€). Many also like to have a drink before lunch and before dinner. There’s also the Wednesday town market as well as a Sunday market.
Nerja has a great tapas scene and a lot of restaurants of all types in the old town. To a greater extent than in Estepona, you can easily find British bars with animation to watch a match and socialize with Brits while having a beer.
Nerja Or Estepona: lodging
The best way to appreciate Estepona is to stay in the old town where you can walk everywhere. The hotels there, however, are relatively small with limited facilities, as opposed to the large tourist 5-star resorts outside of town and along the coast.
The very few hotels located in the center of Estepona offer good value but are relatively modest with no pool and large gardens for hanging out all day, however, they are within walking distance of the beach and promenade, restaurants and bars, and flower-ornated streets. Hotels Buenavista and Mediterraneo on the seafront, and hotel Caracas Playa, about 100m from the beach, are three major examples.
When booking, be sure to check the location of the hotel on the map as many places (often with nice pool and gardens) are listed as Estepona even though they’re actually 10 miles away from town, which means you’ll need to drive and look for parking in town every time.
One such resort travelers recommend just outside of Estepona town, is Villacana Resort – travelers usually rent a car.
Nerja, on the other hand, has quite a few hotels to offer in the center as well as a wide array of tourist apartments to rent – there are many more international visitors compared to Estepona town. While the old town of Nerja is nice and charming, many travelers find many other parts of the town overbuilt.
The upscale Parador hotel close to the center and Playa Burriana is a great central place to stay with parking – it’s quite pricey though unless you have access to discounts. Puerta del Mar is a more affordable central option but has no parking, which may end up being costly as well in high season.
Nerja Or Estepona: day trips
As mentioned, transport from both Nerja and Estepona to Málaga is frequent and reliable, so you can easily jump on the bus or train for a great day trip in Málaga with lots of amazing cultural and architectural sights, restaurants, and tapas bars.
From Estepona, you can easily visit Marbella, San Pedro, Benahavis, Sabinillas, or take a day trip to Gibraltar. You can also take a train from San Roque nearby to Ronda for spectacular mountains views and surrounding villages.
From Nerja, you can visit the nearby resorts of Almuñecar and La Herradura, two popular and lively holiday places, and Salobreña which has an interesting historic old town.
You can also day trips to the pretty white villages of the Axarquia, the less touristy inland region East of Málaga, including Frigilana and Comares. The latter was built in the 3d century BC and boasting a castle from the Moor era.
(1) Featured: “Nerja” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Damien RAMOS
(2) “Estepona” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Antonio Periago
(3) “IMG_5833” (CC BY 2.0) by hajono
(4) “Nerja” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Damien RAMOS
(5) “Malaga & Estepona” (CC BY 2.0) by jaycross
(6) “Calamares Fritos” (CC BY 2.0) by redazadi
(7) “Callejeando por Estepona” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Emilio__
(8) “Competa” (CC BY 2.0) by rasbcn