It might have a Brits-abroad image, but this very Spanish city is full of fascinating culture, says Alex Leith

WHY GO NOW?

Exactly 122 years ago today, Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born in Malaga, where he spent his first 10 years. On Monday, the Andalusian city will finally be able to celebrate the fact, with the launch of a new museum, the Museo Picasso Malaga , San Agustin 8 (00 34 95 260 4570, www.museopicassomalaga.org), the main building of which, the Palacio de Buenavista, is a national monument. The works, donated by Christine and Bernard Ruiz Picasso are the pieces which he gave to his family and which he kept for himself. The exhibition encompasses every period of the artist's extraordinary career.

BEAM DOWN

Malaga's Pablo Picasso airport is accessible from airports all over the UK, on charter, no-frills and full-service airlines. Scheduled carriers include easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyjet.com) from Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, Gatwick and Stansted; British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Iberia (0845 601 2854; www.iberia.com) from Gatwick and Heathrow; and Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 50 40, www.flymonarch.com) from Luton. A train takes you directly from the airport into the centre of town in 12 minutes, every half-hour from 7.15am to 11.45pm, for a fare of €2/£1.40.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The airport train arrives at Malaga-Alameda station (not the central station) on Avenida Comandante Benitez just off Alameda Principal, a busy tree-lined street which acts as the hub of central Malaga. The main tourist office is on Plaza de la Marina (00 34 95 212 2020; www.malagaturismo.com), and opens 10am-7pm daily. It is on your right where La Alameda ends; Paseo de los Curas continues eastwards past the busy port, leading to a stretch of sandy beaches eight kilometres long. Most of the city's main sights lie just north of the Paseo, in a web of crumbling 19th-century streets. You can't go far without coming into one of the two main squares, Plaza de la Constitucion and Plaza de la Merced , where Picasso was born clinically dead - his heart was soon galvanised into action by a lungful of his uncle Salvador's cigar. The spectacular cathedral ("la Manquita", with one spire missing), the Museo Picasso Malaga and the Moorish hilltop castles the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro are all a short walk from one another in this area. West of the Alameda, running north to south, is the dried-up river Guadalmedina. Cross the Puente de la Misericordia and go down Calle Cuarteles to get to the main rail station and bus terminus .

CHECK IN

The most spectacular place to stay in town is Malaga's 38-room parador, the Castillo de Gibralfaro (00 34 95 222 1902; www.parador.es) a modern hotel near the castle of the same name. It has fine views of the city and the ocean, and a roof-top swimming pool. A double room costs €119/£84. Even if you don't stay there, this is a good place to have a meal or relax with a cocktail. At the other extreme, the family-run Hostal Cordoba at Calle Bolsa 9-11 (00 34 95 221 4469) is clean and cheap: doubles €30/£21. For affordable comfort, try the Hotel Venecia at Alameda 9 (00 34 95 221 3636), where a double room costs €72/£51. Rates exclude breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

It's worth the walk up the hill to the 14th-century Moorish Gibralfaro castle . This opens 9am-8pm from April to October, 9am-6pm from November to March, admission €1.80/£1.30. A stroll round its battlements offers you an all-round view of the city, including a peek into Malaga's famous bullring , where young Picasso first enjoyed what became one of his big passions: la corrida de toros. The ocean view is particularly striking at sunset, when the myriad greens of the palms and banana trees in the port-side park are saturated by light, while the ocean glitters in the background, Africa lying just out of sight.

TAKE A HIKE

Walk down the marble-paved Calle Marques de Larios from Plaza de la Constitucion , turn left at the port and stroll though the park, past a savage-looking bronze tambourine man, the guardian of Malaga's party-going spirit. Walk down Paseo de la Farola to the lighthouse (the subject of Picasso's first oil-painting) keeping the port, with its mixture of cruise ships, industrial liners and fishing boats, to your right. You'll find the first sands of the city beaches on the other side of this spit. When you reach Plaza Malagueta, turn left into Calle Cervantes, which will take you up to the bullring . Beyond this, the tangled ceiling of fig-tree branches over Paseo de Reding offers welcome shade from the sun. The Avenida de Cervantes will take you past the yellow neo-classical town hall to the Museo Picasso .

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The Malagueño culinary speciality is fried fish, and there's no better place to try it than the Bar Los Pueblos at Calle Ataranzas 15 (00 34 95 223 3128, closed Sundays), whose proximity to the market explains the freshness of its wares. Try a bowl of sopa de mariscos (seafood soup) and a mezcla de pescado frito (mixed seafood fry-up), with half a bottle of house wine, followed by a coffee, all for €9 (£6.50.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The opening of the Museo Picasso Malaga (00 34 95 260 4570, www.museopicassomalaga.org; 10am-8pm Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-9pm Saturday, closed Mondays, €6/£4.30) was delayed by the discovery of Moorish, Roman and Phoenician ruins on the site of the museum. These are now on display inside. But the priceless collection of Picasso's work is much more exciting. It takes you from his early works to his old age via his famous experimentation with Cubism. Picasso's distorted view of the world mirrors the fragmentation of society in the 20th century.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Malaga is famous for its heavy golden or dark brown moscatel wines. There's a big difference between the young, sweet wines and the mature, dry ones - choosing your favourite variety is an enjoyable way to spend an hour. The most atmospheric place to do this is the Antigua Casa de Guardia at Alameda 18 (00 34 95 221 4680, 9am-10pm, closed Sundays) which hasn't changed much since Picasso's day. They serve you from huge barrels, write your bill on the bar in chalk and wipe it off when you pay (80c/60p a glass). You can leave with a bottle of the wine you liked best.

AN APERITIF

La Calle de Brusseles (a bar not a street) next to the Fundacion Picasso on Plaza de la Merced is a perfect spot to enjoy a lingering glass of vermouth, watching the square getting busier as the evening progresses. By midnight on a Friday and Saturday night, it becomes the hub of the city's frenzied movida (nightlife). You can muse on the cultural importance of your location - Picasso claimed he learnt his bold line-drawing technique from scratching in the sand of the square (which is now paved). For a quieter experience try the Bar Central on Plaza de la Constitucion .

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

One of the most popular restaurants is El Tintero on Calle Salvador Allende (00 34 95 220 4464), out in the seaside suburb of El Palo (bus 11 from Alameda Principal). It's a huge place, on the beach, with room for 500 diners. Waiters walk round with plates of seafood, shouting what they have; you beckon one over when you see what you want. A meal for two with wine costs around €30/£21. In the more central seaside district of Malagueta, where most of the city's top restaurants are situated, you can enjoy a rather more refined experience at Adolfo's at Paseo Maritimo 12, (00 34 95 260 1914, closed Sundays) with inventive seafood from Adolfo himself, who buys the fish in the market, invents the recipe, cooks it and serves it to you. Expect to pay at least €100/£71 for a meal for two with wine, and reserve well in advance. Otherwise try out one of the tapas bars around Calle Granada. Bar Pimpi at Calle Granada 68 is recommended.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The unsettling 19th-century Malagueño practice of burying non-Catholics vertically on the beach led to the foundation of an English cemetery in 1856 : it's a peaceful spot with a small Anglican church, St George's, which holds services every Sunday at 11am. The cemetery is open to visitors on weekdays from 10am to 1pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The first thing Picasso learnt to draw was a churro, a type of doughnut snipped into dunkable lengths, and eaten with a cup of thick hot chocolate. The best place to try this calorific Malagueño treat is the Casa Arandra on Calle Herreria del Rey, near the market.

TAKE A RIDE

Outside the cathedral there is a line of brightly coloured horse-drawn carriages: some of the carriages have been in use since Picasso's day. For €25/£18, up to four adults and two children can get a 40-minute ride around the city's major sights.

A WALK IN THE PARK

La Concepcion Park on Carretera de las Pedrizas (00 34 95 225 2148) is a 10-minute ride on bus 35 north of the city from Alameda Principal. It is a botanical garden with more than 500 different species of plants, including magical fig trees, skyscraper-high palms and eucalyptus. The park was designed 152 years ago by Amalia Livermore, who spent a year-long honeymoon collecting samples from five different continents. She also collected Roman statues, many of which are scattered around the park. It opens 10am-4.30pm daily except Mondays in winter, admission €2.85/£2.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Malaga's light is marvellous - the sunshine, which drenches the buildings and trees, filters through a sky of subtly shifting shades of blue. Picasso once said: "To be a Cubist you have to have been born in Malaga." He was distraught when, aged 10, his family left for rainy Galicia. The world does seem slightly monochrome when you leave this warm and sensuous city - luckily the young painter carried the colours in his head.

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