Not even 12 hours into my 36-hour stop in southern Spain this month, and I had run through most of my food budget, so I forbade myself to eat in restaurants for the rest of my stay. Fortunately I found other, cheaper ways to entertain myself in this Mediterranean city.

Málaga has an old downtown of twisty streets and plazas and cafes of a certain workaday charm, the requisite Moorish fort, but by most reports is a shadow of its fellow Andalusian cities, Seville and Grenada.I had chosen it for the simplest of reasons: it was (relatively) warm, I could get there, and get there cheap. EasyJet had flights (27 euros each leg) from London and out to Paris on precisely the dates I needed.

I ended up being very dependent on the advice of strangers.A key bit of advice came from the owner of a “hostal,” which in Málaga apparently means “dreary, low-end hotel” rather than “youth hostel.” She explained that the nicer hotels in town had lowered their rates. “If someone has the choice between a four-star hotel for 50 euros a night and a hostal for 30,” she said, “which would you choose?”

So I hunted down a place I had ruled out during online research as slightly too pricey: El Riad Andaluz, which actually costs 45 euros a night. It is a guest house run by a French couple, Florent Collobert and Anne-Florence Houriez, known around town as Flo and Flo. It was the female Flo who not only sent me to Tapeo de Cervantes, but also planned my next day brilliantly.

After a perfect first night’s sleep under my pink bedspread, I set off for Málaga’s main market, the Mercado Central de Atarazanas – built in the 19th century but all sparkly from recent renovations. (After all, I couldn’t afford another feast at a restaurant.) What I found was a picnicker’s paradise. I loaded up on Ibérico ham carved before my eyes, added bread, clementines, a wedge of nutty sheep’s cheese called ronkari, a can of lemon soda and a chocolate-covered palmier for about $10.