But there's another side to the region, one of small historic towns and beautiful white villages, of dramatic, unspoilt scenery and a still largely unchanged rural lifestyle that stretches back centuries. From the traveller's point of view, the even better news is that there are also some great small hotels. Here are just a few of the best of them...
Casa de las Mercedes, Malaga
If there's one place that typifies the unexpected side of the Costa del Sol, it's the smart capital, Malaga. With its streets lined with handsome 19th-century buildings, art galleries, excellent restaurants and shops as well as a recently revamped port area, it's one of Europe's most underrated cities. Like the town itself, Casa de las Mercedes has done a pretty good job of keeping under the radar. A little boutique B&B hidden away in the old centre, its handful of elegant rooms are housed within a lovely (and very typically Andalucian) townhouse with a plant-filled patio at its heart.
Calle Hinestrosa, 18, Malaga; tel. +34 952 06 01 52; Casadelasmercedes.com.
Hotel Palacio Blanco, Velez-Malaga
While geographically speaking it may be on the Costa del Sol, Velez-Malaga doesn't feel like it. An unassuming sort of place that owes its economy and its general sedate pace of life to agriculture (with the area's mangoes, olives, vines and, particularly, avocadoes being highly regarded), it has more of the feel of a dusty provincial town of the country's interior. Which means that this smart, modern boutique-style hotel is somewhat out of keeping with its surroundings. There are 10 spacious, well put together rooms extending out from a large central patio, while the highlight of a stay is having a sundowner after getting out of the rooftop dipping pool.
Calle Felix Lomas 4, Velez-Malaga; tel: +34 952 549 174; Palacioblanco.com.
La Seguiriya, Alhama de Granada
Just inland from the Costa del Sol, and up the road from Velez-Malaga (through the dramatic Zafarraya Pass) is Alhama de Granada. An atmospheric old town which clings precariously to a gorge, its best place to stay is La Seguiriya. Owned by genial flamenco singer Paco Moyano its handful of welcoming, homely rooms sit above a restaurant (where his wife cooks up a proper Andaluz storm) and open out on to a terrace with stunning views of the gorge. Both town and hotel are popular with cyclists, walkers and road-trippers for the mountains, high plains and winding roads that stretch away endlessly in every direction.
Calle de Penas 12, Alhama de Granada; tel. +34 958 360 636; Laseguiriya.com.
Hotel Claude, Marbella
In keeping with the swanky Marbella address, Hotel Claude is the priciest of this pick of small hotels in southern Spain. It's worth every cent, though. A bona fide boutique hotel, the rooms are done out in the very latest in designer chic and come well stocked with high-quality fixtures and fittings. At the heart of the old town of Marbella, you're not short of places to eat or shop, while the nightlife of Puerto Banus is only a short taxi ride away.
Calle San Francisco, 5, Marbella; tel. +34 952 900 840; Hotelclaudemarbella.com.
La Fructuosa, Gaucin
La Fructuosa is an inviting little hotel in the beautiful white village of Gaucin. While the five sensibly priced rooms are lovely (mixing the homeliness of a village house with a few stylish interiors-y touches), so good is the food downstairs that it's arguably more of a restaurant with rooms. Being served up high-class Spanish haute cuisine against a backdrop of the sun setting on the Pillars of Hercules and misty Morocco is a highlight of any trip. The owners also have a superb little antique shop that's well worth a potter round the next morning.
Calle Convento 67, Gaucin; tel. +34 952 151072; Lafructuosa.com.
Molino del Santo, Benaoján
Having been in the same hands for nearly 30 years, Molino del Santo is one of the longest standing family-run small hotels on the Costa del Sol. Inland in the hills above Estepona, and not far from Ronda, this hotel makes for a great jump-off point for walkers and cyclists looking to explore the stunning Sierra de Grazalema. In addition to the 18 inviting rooms, there are large gardens, a lounger-lined pool area and one of the best restaurants in the area.
Bda Estación s/n, 29370 BENAOJAN; tel. (+34) 952 16 71 51; Molinodelsanto.com.
Like our pick of a few of the best small hotels on the Costa del Sol? Plan your road trip in the region with our guide to a few of Andalucia's best towns.
Or, if you're looking for a more indulgent sort of place to stay altogether, check out our pick of the best luxury hotels on the Costa del Sol.