The Complete Guide To: Costa Cities

In winter months, travellers in the know migrate from Spain's beaches to the magnificent towns that stud the shoreline. Simon Calder and Mark Caswell pick out the very best places to wash up in
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The Independent Travel

In perhaps the Mediterranean's greatest metropolis: Barcelona, coastal Spain's leading city and the Catalan capital. It combines a beautiful waterside setting with superb restaurants and extreme nightlife - and world-class museums.

Pablo Picasso was born in another Costa city, Malaga, but spent the formative years between 1895 and 1904 in Barcelona, arriving in his mid-teens and leaving in his early twenties. Join the crowds at the most popular museum in Barcelona, the Museu Picasso, housed in a superb collusion of mansions at Montcada 15-23 (00 34 93 31 96 310; www.museupicasso.bcn.es). It opens 10am-8pm daily except Sunday, when it closes at 3pm, and on Monday, when it is closed altogether; admission €6 (£4.30). The collection ranges from pencil sketches to starkly expressive self-portraits.

Close by is the Hotel Banys Orientals at Argenteria 37 (00 34 93 268 8460; www.hotelbanysorientals.com), the nearest Barcelona gets to a budget designer hotel with stylish double rooms at €102 (£72), with breakfast an extra €10.30 (£7.40) per person.

The Columbus monument, planted close to the Mediterranean shore, marks the start of Las Ramblas - an ancient drainage channel that is now the pedestrian artery of Barcelona, a broad stripe separating the old town to the east from the steamy, sordid Barri Xines to the west. George Orwell wrote evocatively of a Barcelona in the throes of devastation in the Spanish Civil War, and described violent gun battles in the Ramblas. Bullet holes still perforate the fabric of some of the buildings, but Orwell would barely recognise the street today: as well as noise and dust, dirt and fumes, you find McDonald's and Burger King.

More attractively, just off the Ramblas is the Placa Reial, a typically lovely Spanish combination of cafés and colonades with palm trees in the centre. There are plenty of cafés for snacks, but for something more elaborate try Taxidermista (00 34 93 412 4536) at number eight, which occupies the old Natural Science Museum. The strong suit is seafood, with a decent bacalau (cod) at a reasonable €6.10 (£4.40).

Alternatively, you could pick up the Picasso theme at Els 4 Gats at Montsio 3 (00 34 93 302 4140; www.4gats.com). In this late 19th-century Modernista structure, the great early 20th-century artists met and drank - sometimes settling their accounts with works of art rather than cash. It trades on its history a little too keenly for some, but the monkfish stew (€21.35/£15.25) is good when it is on. Just around the corner, La Dolca Herminia at Magdalenes 27 (00 34 93 317 06 76), serves excellent Catalan cuisine in sublime surroundings.

SOUNDS HEAVENLY

If you aspire to heaven, then seek out the unfinished symphony in architecture by Antoni Gaudi. He's the man responsible for the meltingly beautiful structures that pop up around town - but most dramatically for the Sagrada Familia, the temple that remains unfinished after 123 years of building (or, mostly, not building). It opens 9am-6pm daily, admission €8 (£5.70); early evening is the best time to visit to avoid the crowds (00 34 93 207 3031; www.sagradafamilia.org).

To find a real, finished, cathedral, head south-west along the coast in search of the Holy Grail - said to have ended up in the biggest place of worship in Valencia. The cathedral contains the Chapel of the Holy Grail: the chalice used at the Last Supper, as verified by the late Pope John Paul II. Masses here are held on Sundays on the hour from 8am-1pm.

The beach is a tram ride away; tickets cost €1.40 (£1). Stop off along the way at Cabanyel, the gipsy quarter of town. Get off the tram at Dr Lluch stop, cross the road and walk up the Calle Pescadores and look for the remaining ex-fishermen's cottages that are painted in bright colours. It's a bit shabby, but has a completely different atmosphere from the centre of the city. Afterwards walk to the beach at Las Arenas.

LIGHT MY FIRE

The biggest festival of the year - arguably, anywhere in Spain - is Las Fallas of Valencia (www.fallas.com). This comprises a series of bonfires built on almost every street corner in the city in the week leading up to 19 March. On that night, they are all set alight amid a frenzy of fireworks and jollity. The tradition dates from the Middle Ages when the woodworkers of the town collected up their wood shavings and burnt them. As the custom developed, so did the tradition of creating effigies to burn on the fires. There is now great rivalry between communities in the city to create larger and more elaborate figures to burn. At any time of year you can get a taste of it by going to see the collection of ninots - the caricature figures - spared from the flames, at the Museu Faller (00 34 96 352 5478) in Plaza de Mont Olivet. The museum is open 9.15am-2pm and 5.30-9pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

I'M ON A PACKAGE HOLIDAY

Then you're probably flying into Alicante. Yet most of the 3 million or so Brits who touch down at the airport serving the Costa Blanca bypass the city on buses or in rental cars. A mistake: Alacant (as it is known in Catalan) is well worth an afternoon of anyone's inclusive tour. The main attraction is the Castillo de Santa Barbara (open 10am-8pm daily) which sits on a cliff high above the city. It is accessible by a lift built inside a mountain. It houses a sculpture collection, but the best sights are of the city below.

NEXT PORT OF CALL?

The old naval base of Cartagena, happily now easy to reach thanks to lots of new flights to "Murcia". Despite the name, the airport is much closer to the coastal city than to Murcia itself, a long way inland.

Until the last few years Cartagena has been a port worth avoiding, but it has blossomed into an enticing, atmospheric city - with a rich history. Cartagena was founded 2,300 years ago when Hasdrubal and his Carthaginian army marched into the Iberian settlement of Mastia. For a superb view, walk up through the Parque Torres to the Castillo de la Concepcion, a 14th-century castle overlooking the city and its bay. Further signs of its history are evident in the excavations of the Muralla Bizantina or Byzantine Wall (Tuesday-Saturday, free), which was built in the 6th century by the Romans.

Cartagena had links with Spain's colonies and the Cuban connection is still evident: it has strong resonances of Havana. Hotel Los Habaneros is a good city-centre base (00 34 968 50 52 50; www.hotelhabaneros.com), while for dinner La Mejillonera specialises in reasonably priced fresh seafood.

SOLDIERING ONWARD...

...and you reach Almeria, also a newish dot on the airline map of Spain. A gateway to the eastern Costa del Sol and the dramatic Cabo de Gata, but it is also a worthwhile weekend destination in its own right.

Like other Andalucian cities, it is dominated by the Alcazaba - an 11th-century fortress that was capable of holding up to 20,000 soldiers. Below the Alcazaba in the old quarter is Almeria's cathedral, itself built with the appearance of a fortress with six towers, which has examples of Gothic ceiling work (open daily 6-8pm, free).

The city is home to several regional seafood specialties, including gachas (spicy clam stew) and Esacabeche e Sardines (fresh sardines in a spicy sauce). For tapas, head to Casa Puga, with its rows of ancient wine bottles, and portions of grilled swordfish.

THE BEST COSTA CITY FOR ART LOVERS?

Whisper it quietly in Barcelona, but Malaga's claim is growing strongly. The hub of the Costa del Sol was the birthplace, in 1881, of Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Little has changed physically in the past century from the Malaga that Picasso knew, but the city as a whole has acquired an easy-going, indulgent style - largely funded by the tourist industry, which has brought wealth to a previously poor region. Pablo Picasso airport is a work of art in itself, a cathedral to aviation.

Two years ago the artist was finally accorded the status he deserves, with a superb museum devoted to his art. The Museo Picasso Malaga has already started to transform the city's image. It occupies the Buenavista Palace at Calle San Agustin 8 (00 34 95 260 2731; www.museopicassomalaga.org), and opens 10am-8pm daily except Monday, with late opening on Fridays and Saturdays to 9pm. It is a magnificently personal compilation of the artist's work. More than 200 pieces that he kept for himself or gave to his family are in the permanent collection.

Besides the works of the 20th century's greatest artist, you can also see the roots of the city; the remains of Phoenician, Roman and Arab structures, whose discovery delayed the opening, are on display in the basement. Admission to the permanent collection is €8 (£5.70) including entrance to the temporary exhibition.

To find out more about the artist, visit the house where he was born at Plaza de la Merced 15 (00 34 95 206 0215; www.fundacionpicasso.es).

If you can afford it, stay at the Parador de Malaga Gibralfaro (00 34 95 222 1902; www.parador.es). This government-run four-star hotel stands on top of the hill east of the city centre, which it shares with the Castillo de Gibralfaro. It has 33 twin rooms and five with double beds. Many of the rooms enjoy a spectacular view west across the city. Most guests reach the parador by taxi, but bus 35 serves the main gate. A room for two costs €135 (£96), with breakfast an extra €11 (£8) per person. The beautiful location is, however, inconvenient for the city, so if you choose to stay elsewhere, call in for a drink on the terrace or a meal in the restaurant.

At the foot of the hill, at least by road, is the area known as La Malagueta. Here, the Hotel Las Vegas at Paseo de Sancha 22 (00 34 95 221 7712) is useful if you want to combine a city break with a beach stay: it backs directly on to a perfectly adequate stretch of shore. A double room costs €85 (£61) per night, including breakfast.

AN ATLANTIC METROPOLIS?

Proceed west past Gibraltar to the Costa de la Luz, which faces out to the ocean. The great city on this stretch is Cadiz - beautifully self-contained on a citadel-shaped promontory. Its strategic value was first realised by the Phoenicians three millennia ago. Two centuries ago this autumn, Admiral Villeneuve set sail from here in command of the French and Spanish fleets - shortly to be humbled at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Today, the area's illustrious maritime heritage is showcased in the Museo de Cadiz (00 34 956 21 43 00; open 9.30am-1.30pm and 4-6pm daily except Monday, admission €5/£3.50). Cadiz even has a small beach on the western end - and also some excellent seafood restaurants.

AREN'T YOU FORGETTING SOMETHING?

Ah, you mean the northern shore - the Costa Verde (green coast) to the west, and the Costa Vasca (Basque coast) to the east. In terms of Costa cities, the appeal is limited; La Coruña and Santander are unappealing ports, while Bilbao is too far inland to qualify. Fortunately, close to the border with France is perhaps the most exquisite Costa city of San Sebastian (Donastia to the Basques).

The city meets the costa in dramatic fashion: San Sebastian has a dream location, perched on a bay that takes the shape - and the name - of a shell. La Concha is the centrepiece of the city in every sense, but just inland the atmospheric Old Town and sophisticated New Town have plenty to offer.

If you plan to visit during the summer, or while the annual film and jazz festivals are on, book accommodation well in advance; many people from Spain's inland cities holiday here. The place to stay is the Hotel Londres (00 34 943 44 07 70; www.hlondres.com), in pride of place on the seafront and just a few minutes' walk from the Old Town. A double room costs €118 (£84), excluding breakfast.

From here you can easily walk to the statue of Christ that guards the eastern end of the bay, or to the funicular railway leading up to a funfair on the western side (€1/70p each way). After dark, the Old Town becomes one big tapas trail, with fresh sardines the dish of choice.

HOW DO I REACH THE COSTA CITIES?

San Sebastian is the odd one out - it has its own airport, 12 miles east at Fuentarrabia, but this has links only with Barcelona and Madrid. The nearest international airport is Biarritz, about 40 miles north-east, served by Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. A taxi from the airport could cost €120 (£77); the journey by public transport is cheap but tricky, involving a train from Biarritz rail station (about a mile from the airport terminal) to Hendaye on the border with Spain, then a second train on the narrow gauge Spanish line from there to San Sebastian's Amara station.

Reaching other Costa cities from Britain is easy. A range of full-service, charter and no-frills airlines fly from many UK airports to Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Murcia (for Cartagena), Almeria and Malaga; Cadiz is close to the airport of Jerez.

MORE INFORMATION?

Spanish National Tourist Office, 2nd Floor, 79 New Cavendish Street, London W1W 6XB (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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