Looking up: the Malaga skyline

The gateway to the Costa del Sol is a fascinating destination in its own right, says Nick Boulos. With festivals and guaranteed sun, now’s the time to visit.

Travel essentials

Why go now?

With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, this fine Andalucian city is a natural choice for sun-deprived travellers seeking a cultured city break. As well as an average temperature of 25C, summer brings another tempting reason to visit: Feria de Malaga (feriamalaga .com), the Costa del Sol's most exuberant festival. The city-wide celebration dates back to 1487, when Christian forces brought an end to 800 years of Moorish rule. For a week starting from 13 August, the streets of Malaga will be filled with flamenco and fireworks.

Those who linger for a few days soon realise that Malaga is far more than just the gateway to the Costa del Sol.

Touch down

Malaga has more links with Britain than any other Spanish city. Airlines include easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com).

Malaga's airport is 8km west of the city centre, with good connections by bus and train. Bus A departs from outside the terminal every half an hour between 6.30am and 11.30pm. The journey time to the central bus station is 30 minutes, and services continue along Alameda Principal to Plaza de la Marina (1), close to most hotels. A one-way ticket is €2.

The airport train station is tricky to find, but once there the C1 suburban rail line will whisk you to Centro-Alameda station (2) in 12 minutes for €1.70, from 7am to midnight. Taxis cost around €20.

Get your bearings

Founded by the Phoenicians, Malaga is set against the Mediterranean Sea and the pine-clad mountains of southern Spain.

The main points of interest are concentrated around the walkable historical centre. At its heart is the Plaza de la Constitucion (3), the city's main focal point since theMiddle Ages.

Malaga has also moved with the times. Last year saw the regeneration of the harbour and the opening of Muelle Uno (4) a complex of trendy shops, bars and restaurants (muelleuno.com).

The main Tourist Information Centre (5) is at Plaza de la Marina (00 34 951 926 020; malagaturismo.com; open from 9am to 8pm daily.)

Check in

The AC Hotel Palacio (6) at Cortina del Muelle 1 (00 34 952 215 185; marriott.co.uk) is one of Malaga's finest hotels. Rooms are slick, with hi-fi systems and bathrooms of black marble, and there's a roof-top pool and restaurant on the 15th floor. Best of all, the mini-bar is free. Doubles from €100, including breakfast.

In the new town, just across the Puente del Perchel, is the four-star Husa Guadalmedina hotel (7) at Pasillo del Matadero 16 (00 34 952 365 146; husa.es). A contemporary property with modern furnishings, it offers doubles from €70, room only.

The 57 rooms at the Astoria Hotel (8) at Comandante Benítez 5 (00 34 951 014 300; eurostarhotels .com) are simple but comfortable, while the attentive staff and its proximity to the Old Town make this a recommended option. Doubles from €45, excluding breakfast.

The gateway to the Costa del Sol is a fascinating destination in its own right, says Nick Boulos. With festivals and guaranteed sun, now's the time to visit

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the bronze monument to Manuel Domingo Larios (9), who helped plan the city, at the eastern end of the fig-tree-lined Alameda Principal. Pass the harbour and Plaza de la Marina and cross the road, turning right on Cortina del Muelle. Continue past the Palacio de la Aduana (10), the Neoclassical former customs building that is due to house the Fine Arts Museum, when it opens next year. Veer left on Calle Alcazabilla for the ancient Roman Theatre (11). Open 10am-2pm Wed-Sun. Free.

Next door is Alcazaba (12), an 11th-century fortress palace (00 34 952 225 106; 9.30am-8pm daily except Mon; €2.20). Don't miss its limestone courtyards, Roman columns and carved wooden ceilings, or its collection of Islamic pottery. End the hike at the hilltop Castillo de Gibralfaro (13), built in 929, and expanded 400 years later (00 34 952 227 230; 9am-8pm; €2.20)

Take a view

From Gibralfaro, 130m above sea level, Malaga shines in all its glory: take in sea, mountains, and the city's red rooftops and Neo-Mudéjar architecture.

Lunch on the run

Get a taxi (around €10) or bus 35 (€1.20) back to town and head to rustic La Abaceria (14) for tasty tapas, at Niño de Guevara 5 (00 34 952 216 737). Dishes (from €2) include platters of Iberian hams and cheeses.

Window shopping

Beyond the perfumeries and familiar brands along Marqués de Larios (15), are a number of independent shops on Calle Granada (16). Quirky T-shirts by Spanish illustrator Oscar Casla are stocked at Callate La Boca at no 48 (00 34 952 226 314; callatela boca.com) while the designs at fashion boutique Sharma at no 49 (00 34 952 219 190) have been inspired by owner Juan Carlos's trips to India and Nepal. Phineas at no 4 (00 34 952 602 655) sells more subdued womenswear and tribal art from Benin and Nigeria. Most shops are open 10am-8pm, Mon-Sat .

An aperitif

Gorki (17) is one of several bars and restaurants along the new quayside development. Overlooking the boats and the Old Town, Gorki (00 34 952 227 623; gorki.es) serves a mean sangria, with rum, vodka, martini and orange liqueur for an extra kick. From €3 a glass.

From new to old, Casa de Guardia (18) at Alameda Principal 18, is Malaga's original drinking den (antiguacasadeguardia.net). Founded in 1840, it offers a glimpse of Andalucia from days gone by. There are no tables or chairs; locals prop up the "bar", behind which stand 20 large barrels of Malaga's famed sweet wine. Glasses from €1.

Dining with the locals

The Viñolos have served traditional cuisine at their small family restaurant, Mesó* Antonio (19) for 32 years (00 34 952 223 397; mesonantonio.com) at Calle Fernando de Lesseps 7. Diners can expect fresh anchovies , and oxtail. Main courses from €9.

Elsewhere is El Pimpi (20) at Calle Granada 62 (00 34 952 228 990; bodegabar elpimpi.com). Dishes include veal in Pedro Ximénez (€11), served in vine-clad patios and dining rooms decorated with 1920s flamenco posters. Antonio Banderas is said to be a regular.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Three centuries in the making, Malaga's magnificent Cathedral (21) was finished in the 1700s. It stands on the site of an old mosque, and boasts 14 chapels, the most splendid of which is richly decorated with marble, from the nearby white-washed village of Mijas. It boasts Corinthian columns and sculptures of Malaga's patron saints, Ciriaco and Paula. The wooden choir stalls were carved by Pedro de Mena in the 17th century. Tourists are not allowed on Sundays; you can visit only if you attend one of the four Masses conducted between 9am and 1pm. The service at 11.30am incorporates the 4,000-pipe organ.

Out to brunch

Only a year old, Noviembre (22), Alamos 18 (00 34 952 222 654; restaurante noviembre.*-city.org) favours organic ingredients and a quirky sense of style (mismatched furniture and a neon-pink staircase). The omelettes are delicious, bread is baked in a clay oven, and there are 10 fruit smoothies to choose from.

Cultural afternoon

The Picasso Museum (23) is housed in a Renaissance palace at Calle San Agustí* 8 (00 34 952 127 600; museo picassomalaga.org). It is a celebration of the local hero, and houses 225 original works spanning the artist's career. It opens 10am to 8pm daily in July and August (to 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays), admission €6.

Then go back to where it all began, to his childhood home. Pablo was born on the first floor of Plaza de la Merced 15 (24) in 1881 (00 34 951 926 060; fundacionpicasso .malaga.eu; 9.30am-8pm daily; €1). Inside is more art plus photos, documents and items belonging to the prolific artist and his family.

A walk in the park

Squeezed between the two busy roads of Paseo del Parque and Paseo de los Curas is a shady strip of exotic plants and trees that could almost pass for sub-tropical rainforest if it weren't for the wide pathways, benches and hum of traffic. Among the botanical wonders of Parque de Malaga (25) are Asian bamboo forests, Mexican palms and Australian rubber plants. Look out for the statue of a man in traditional dress playing the tambourine – a tribute by Miguel García Navas to the music and dance of the surrounding mountains. Open 24 hours.

Icing on the cake

You don't have to go far in Malaga to feel the sand between your toes. The closest beach is a stone's throw from the centre. Malagueta (26), a 1.2km stretch of prime sunbathing and swimming territory, has a number of cafés, and sun loungers for rent (two for €8). You are on the Costa del Sol, after all.

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