Malaga may be the name on their boarding pass, but most visitors to the Costa del Sol turn the other way out of the airport and give this lovely city a miss. Big mistake...
Turn right out of Malaga airport and you hit the Brit-zones of Fuengirola and Torremolinos - but head left and you quickly reach an altogether more Spanish experience and wonderful year-round city-break destination.
Malaga isn’t so much maligned as largely ignored by the bucket-and-spade brigade, put off by the skyline of 1970s tower blocks that hide the historic centre. Many visitors to Majorca spend a day in its capital Palma but Malaga does not register in the same way for mainland visitors or attract Barcelona’s weekend crowds - good news for those wanting a less frenetic but equally authentic experience.
Malaga offers a stunning cathedral, Moorish and Roman remains, a maze of streets in the old town housing wonderful tapas bars, some stylish shopping and slick hotels. It also celebrates its most famous son, Picasso, with an excellent gallery and museum.
Getting to the city from the airport is a simple journey on bus 19. Alternatively, until the new airport train station opens in 2010, walk five minutes from arrivals over the bridge to the railway station. Both the bus and train (which takes you to the sparkling new Maria Zambrano station that houses the high-speed line to Madrid) will get you there in around 30 minutes.
Arriving at the bus or nearby train terminal does not immediately inspire the visitor, but walk east in the direction of the river Guadalmedina and things start looking up. This area contains some excellent hotels, including the NH Malaga (rooms from €79 + tax), which is on the banks of the river, as is the hip four-star Husa Guadalmedina (from €35), opened in 2008 on Pasillo de Matadero. Over the river, the newly opened three-star Hotel Atarazanas (from €60) occupies a 300-year-old building next door to the wonderful Central Market, whose 14th-century Moorish entrance is testament to its original role as an arsenal. Further into the centre near the cathedral, the four-star trendy Molina Lario is on the road of the same name.
All the major sights are in this eastern half of the city, within easy walking distance of each other. Malaga cathedral lacks the quirky additions by Gaudi that Palma’s boasts, but is nevertheless magnificent, and the suntrap cafes around it are ideal places to stop for a break, particularly on warm winter days. From here, either weave your way down to the port, a popular stop for cruise ships, or walk two minutes to the Picasso Museum, where 12 galleries contain over 200 works. Don’t confuse this with Casa Natal, the house where Picasso was born, which is in nearby Plaza de la Merced.
Dominating this entire city are the Alcazaba palace and Gibralfaro Castle. The Moorish Alcazaba dates from the eighth century, but immediately in front is a Roman amphitheatre, built 600 years earlier and discovered in 1951, where concerts are occasionally staged. Further up the hill is the 14th-century castle, which last saw action as recently as 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Both the views over the city from here and a scale model inside provide a great insight into how Malaga looked in ancient times. Nearby is the Parador de Malaga, a boutique hotel with a terrace that also overlooks the city and makes a great spot for a meal.
Back down in the centre, in the maze of alleys around the cathedral, there are numerous choices of elaborately tiled tapas bars where hams hang from the ceilings. However, it’s seafood that draws the plaudits in this port and fritura malaguena, a seafood platter, is the signature dish. If pushing the boat out a little, try Casa del Angel (Madre de Dios 29), a 19th- century townhouse covered in original artworks, which gives a modern take on traditional dishes.
After a long lunch, shopping may beckon, but bear in mind that the siesta still reigns here and many of the smaller shops close until early evening. Shoes, especially Camper (meaning “peasant”), the trendy Majorcan brand, are a good buy. A one-stop shop is El Corte Ingles (back near the railway station on Avenida de Andalucia), the city’s main department store, which long ago abandoned the siesta tradition.
Alternatively, you may just want to doze or swim, in which case, head for the Playa La Malagueta, past the port on the Alcazaba side. This fine sandy beach is where the Malaguenos come to chill out and where you can lie and reflect that, really, Malaga has everything you need.
Most of the major scheduled and charter airlines fly to Malaga, including British Airways, Monarch Airlines and easyJet. Flyglobespan offers services from Scotland and Jet2 and bmibaby from regional airports.