Leave the gloom of British winter for the sand, surf and shopping of the Canary Islands' most exciting city

Why go now?

The build-up to Christmas has begun in the largest city in the Canaries. Las Palmas, which has a fair claim to be the capital of the Atlantic, celebrates the festive season vigorously. As the winter gloom in Britain intensifies, Gran Canaria, the island over which Las Palmas presides, offers excellent weather; it is midway between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Equator. The city continues in fiesta mood in the New Year with a big classical music festival (10 January-1 March) and carnival festivities (18 January-9 February).

Touch down

The main approach is from Gatwick: British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www. thomsonfly.com) offer frequent scheduled links. Flights also depart through the winter from other UK airports.

The big, efficient airport the aviation hub of the Canaries is 20km south of the city. An efficient tourist office is open in the arrivals hall when flights come in; the staff hand out a more detailed map than is possible here. Buses run at 15 and 45 minutes past each hour from the airport to Las Palmas' subterranean bus station at Parque San Telmo (1) and the overground bus terminal at Parque Santa Catalina (2) the latter is the one you need for the hotels recommended here. The bus fare is €1.90 (1.40); pay on board. A taxi to the centre will cost €25-28 (18-20).

Get your bearings

The special geography of Gran Canaria means that Las Palmas has an unusual shape. The city is at the "one o'clock" position on this circular island, with a peninsula sprouting to the north-east. The original site of the city is Vergueta, where Juan Rejó* founded the Real de Las Palmas in 1470. Just north is Triana, a historic area full of interest. The busy and mostly attractive modern area loosely known as Santa Catalina spreads west from the Parque Santa Catalina. To the north-west, the bay curls seductively away, punctuated by the dramatic Alfredo Kraus auditorium (3), named for the home-grown tenor and the venue for some impressively high culture by the seaside.

Take a ride

As the clusters of numbers on the map indicate, you will probably spend most of your time in Santa Catalina and the Vergueta-Triana areas. Walking between them is neither practical nor enjoyable: the waterfront is separated from the rest of the city by an eight-lane highway. Rather than spending a fortune on taxis, you should master the yellow municipal buses; numbers 1 and 12 shuttle frequently and quickly between the two areas for a flat fare of €1.10 (0.80).

Check in

Relative to its population, Las Palmas has fewer beds than the resorts in the south of the island. This means that prices can be high and availability scarce at busy times. Most of the worthwhile options are concentrated in the modern area in the north of the city.

For a decent, low-cost, Sixties two-star option, try the Hotel Valencia (4), overlooking the central market at Calle Valencia 64 (00 34 928 292 584; www.hotelvalencia.org). It is clean, welcoming and good value with doubles at 45 (32); breakfast is not available, but there are plenty of almuerzo possibilities nearby (or see Take a view, below).

The just-refurbished Hotel Cantur (5) at Calle Sagasta 28 (00 34 928 273 000; www.hotelcantur.com) is well located, close to buses and the beach. The rooms are simple but smart; plasma TV and LAN internet access are standard; and breakfast is usually included in flexible rates that go up to 134 (96) for a double, but are often much cheaper.

At the top of the town (in several senses) is the AC Las Palmas (6) at Calle Eduardo Benot 3 (00 34 902 292 293; www.ac-hoteles.com). This is the tall, cylindrical hotel that dominates the city. The "rack rate" for a big, comfortable, well-appointed double room is around 140 (100) excluding breakfast, but if you book ahead online you can sometimes find deals at half the price.

Take a view

Breakfast at the AC Las Palmas (6) is a spectacular affair again, in a couple of senses: the restaurant is on the 23rd floor, with big picture windows that reveal the scale and diversity of the city; and the €14 (10) buffet is a fresh, immaculately presented selection with unlimited coffee.

Take a hike

Start at the Plaza de España (7), the centre of the modern city. It is a roundabout that contains an ambitious tableau depicting the struggles of daily life; unfortunately, the swirl of traffic means it is not safe to approach the sculpture for a closer look.

Aim southwest along the palm-lined Avenida de Jos Mesa y López. Just before the pink apartment block on the left, turn right down the unprepossessing Calle Churruca towards the sea. Halfway down you will encounter a block at Calle Guatemala (8) that typifies Las Palmas before the developers took over. At the end of Calle Churruca, climb the steps and you will find your view transformed: this is the middle of the Playa de las Canteras, one of the finest city beaches anywhere.

From the well-kept prom you can see the kite-surfers performing aquabatics last Saturday a dozen were catching the wind and the waves. The main occupation, though, is to amble along, taking in the cafs (notably a pair of excellent ice-cream specialists), street sculpture and architecture, including a mosaic-strewn Modernista apartment block, El Charcol (9). At the end of the walk, where Calle Tenerife meets the prom, some temporary sand sculptures (10) have been created.

Lunch on the run

You might be tempted by the proximity of the waterside La Marinera (11) to lunch. But save that pleasure for dinner. Opt instead for a market feast either at the nearby Mercado Central (12), open 7.30am-2.30pm daily except Sunday, or (a bus ride south) the more attractive Mercato de Vergueta (13), which stays open later and where you can choose from numerous bars and cafs for tapas and a beer. Or, if the weather is fine, collect the ingredients for a picnic in the sun outside the handsome theatre (14).

Window shopping

The Mercato de Vergueta (13) is a colourful, exciting commercial venue. But for more sophisticated shopping, aim for the pedestrianised Calle Mayor de Triana, which runs from the theatre (14) to Parque San Telmo (1). This runs the retail gamut from "everything for €1" stores to high fashion, with plenty of individual and innovative boutiques along the way.

If you are intent on serious shopping for gastronomy, fashion or houseware, El Cort Ingls (15) straddles both sides of Avenida de Jos Mesa y López; it opens 10am-10pm daily except Sunday. Further north, the Centro Comercial El Muelle (16) is a vast mall.

An aperitif

The big "Pepsi" sign may put you off the Bodegon el Biberon (17) on Calle Pedro Castillo Westerling, but this welcoming barn is just the place for a beer and tapas.

Dining with the locals

To sit out on the bay, with the surf crashing outside, is one of the pleasures of dining out at La Marinera (11), which pokes out into the bay from Plaza de la Puntilla (00 34 928 468 802). It has a superb men de la casa for 19.50 (14). This buys an improbable sequence of dishes, from fish consomm via gofia escaldado a maize-based mush that is a Canarian speciality to a substantial salad, exquisitely fried fish, and ice cream, with bread and a glass of beer or wine included. You could instead try the local variant on mussels, called lapas, followed by simply served, and simply delicious, grilled fish. A good selection of Canarian wine is available.

Sunday morning: go to church

Santa Ana Cathedral (18) is the spiritual heart of Las Palmas. It was begun in 1500, but 70 years later work was halted due to lack of funds; it was only finished in the 19th century. The cathedral's twin towers dominate the neighbourhood of Vergueta. The ideal time to visit is around 9am on a Sunday morning, an hour before the first mass of the day (others take place at noon and 1pm); tourists are supposed to confine their visits to weekdays (9.15am-4pm from Monday to Friday, to 2.30pm on Saturdays), and pay 3 (2.20) for the privilege, but it is more appealing in the quiet of a Sunday morning. You can properly appreciate the vast interior, whose architecture seems to mimic the palm trees in the square outside.

Cultural morning

The Vergueta area is a blissful place to wander around: the quiet, cobbled streets, lined with pretty and sometimes galleried houses, are reminiscent of Andalucian villages or Cuban towns. Yet the historic core of Las Palmas is also home to a pair of outstanding museums both of them offering free admission.

First to open on a Sunday morning is the Casa de Coló* (19) at Calle Coló* 1 (00 34 928 312 373), which opens at 9am daily (to 3pm at weekends, to 7pm from Monday to Friday). Through pre-Colombian exhibits, models of ships, and works of art, it provides a remarkable mix ranging from rather dry maritime history to fascinating social insights all in a heavenly colonial mansion.

The Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM) (20) is close by at Calle Los Balcones 11 (00 34 902 311 824; www.caam.net; open 10am-2pm on Sundays, 10am-9pm from Tuesdays to Saturdays). As soon as you walk through the handsome old doors you realise that this is an astoundingly different location. The interior has been stripped out and refurbished in a stylish, spacious late-20th-century manner, where the only angles are 90 degrees and the dominant colour is white. Here, until 5 January, you can see an exhibition of Paul Klee's works entitled "Childhood in the adult stage", and an analysis of 1960s architecture in the Canaries.

Out to brunch

The Cafe Patagonia, close to the theatre (14), sprawls out on to the pavement and is the prime location for coffee, fruit juice and pastries in fine weather. If the sun is hiding, go around the side of the theatre to the chic Taberna Las Ranas.

A walk in the park

The Parque Santa Catalina (2) pulses at the heart of the city. Under its expansive palm trees, all manner of markets and events are staged and the elegant architecture can be appreciated at any time.

Icing on the cake

Take the prime bus in Gran Canaria, route 01, for the one-hour-plus trip to Puerto de Mogá*, in the far south of the island. Buses leave the subterranean bus station at Parque San Telmo (1) every half-hour at weekends, every 20 minutes from Monday to Friday. It takes you around half the island including a spectacular shoreline stretch at the end to a fishing port that has grown to become an attractive resort, with a good beach and plenty of excellent cafs and restaurants. This is the acceptable face of mass tourism in Gran Canaria.