Why go now?
To enjoy a Spanish city as spring brings it to life; to fly with Buzz before the airline closes down at the end of March; and to join in the preparations for Easter. Murcia's Easter celebrations culminate in the "Burial of the Sardine" on the Saturday after Easter. This distinctive fiesta – the product of the fertile imaginations of a bunch of students in 1851 – marks the end of Lent and abstinence (symbolised by the humble fish) with a very jovial sort of funeral procession, with floats (scattering toys and trinkets for children), flag-wavers, torch-bearers, musicians, ending in a great firework display – and the final burning of the sardine.
Until the end of the month, Buzz (0870 240 7070, www.buzzaway.com) is flying between Stansted and Murcia. Leaving next Friday, 21 March, coming back a week later, the fare is £173. From May, Flybe (08705 676 676, www.flybe.com) is starting a route from Southampton to Murcia, and GB Airways will be flying from Gatwick on behalf of British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com). But flying to Murcia is not quite what you expect: the airport is actually at San Javier, and the only direct means of transport to Murcia from there is by taxi (€40/£25 for a 40-minute ride). Alternatively, fly to Alicante – for example, on Monarch (0870 406 300, www.flymonarch.com) from Luton and Manchester – and then take an airport bus to Murcia (six times a day, an hour's journey; €16/£11 return). This deposits you at the Plaza Emilio Diez de Revenga .
Get your bearings
Murcia, a remarkably tourist-free and tranquil city hemmed in by mountains, is set in an area famed as La Huerta de Europa (the Orchard of Europe). The attractive 18th-century traffic-free centre is flanked on the west by the modern main street, the Gran Via Escultor Francisco Salzillo, named after Murcia's famous sculptor, and on the east by Calle Obispo Frutos, with its 19th-century bull-ring. To the south, on the banks of the river Segura is Glorieta , the elegant square at the hub of the old city's powerbase, containing the town hall and adjacent to the bishop's palace and the cathedral. The municipal tourist office is in Plaza Cardenal Belluga (00 34 968 35 87 49).
A brace of Hotel Hispanos in the pedestrianised area caters for all budgets: Hispano 1 at Traperia 8 is the simpler, though rooms are still en suite, and cost €34 (£22) for a double; Hispano 11, round the corner in Calle Radio Murcia, is more upmarket, and costs €55 (£40) for a double (bookings for both: 00 34 968 21 61 52, www.hotelhispano.net). Close by the cathedral, in Calle de Apostoles, is the 4-star Rincon de Pepe (00 34 968 21 22 39), with a good restaurant downstairs; a double room costs €136 (£90).
Take a hike
Start off by the mainly medieval cathedral, with its fantastical façade, a riot of niches and statues. Walk up Traperia, the main street of medieval times, past the Casino (no gambling den, but a gentleman's club founded in 1847) towards Plaza de Santo Domingo and beyond to Gran Via Alfonso X El Sabio, an esplanade with cafés and sometimes bookstalls. Or make your way through a network of squares and the narrow streets of the former Jewish quarter to the university – and envy the students who labour in this former convent of La Merced with its charming two-tiered cloister.
Take a ride
Find sanctuary from the city at El Santuario de la Fuensanta, about 5km south. Take a No 5 bus (€1/63p for a 20-minute ride) from the Gran Via to the church on the hill, home of the statue of the Virgin Mary that is taken out in procession each September. But the real point here is the splendid view of Murcia and of the huerta. Or take a bus from the bus station to the seaside at Costa Calida and the sheltered Mar Menor. A return trip to the resort of Los Elcazares costs €6/£4.
Lunch on the run
Tapas, the small dishes of food served in bars, is the natural option for lunch. There are bars all over the centre. One place with a wide range – and good carpaccio de saumon – is La Lizarran, in Calle Polo Medina, near the cathedral. Bocadillos, sandwiches which have many of the same ingredients as tapas, are widely available in cafés around the imposing Teatro Romea .
First stop, because it closes early on Saturday afternoons, should be the eerily devotional Museum Church of San Juan de Dios in Eulogio Soriano (00 34 968 21 45 41, open Tues-Fri 10am-2pm and 5-8.30pm, Sat and Sun 10am-2pm). A collection of largely medieval and Renaissance liturgical art and sculpture, it's a blend of the delicate and the gory. There is also a series of painted panels of the life of San Juan in the dome (with binoculars to see them by) and sublime music. More secular is the Museo de Bellas Artesin Calle Obispo Frutos, close to the bull-ring (00 34 968 23 93 46, open Mon-Fri 9am-2pm and 5-8pm, Sat 11am-2pm), displaying local art throughout the ages. But Murcians are proudest of Museo Salzillo in Plaza San Agustin (00 34 968 29 18 93, open Tues-Sat 9.30am-1pm and 3-7pm, Sun 11am-1pm), devoted to the work of their very own sculptor, the 18th-century Francisco Salzillo. Works include the nine paso – the sculptures on platforms which are carried through the streets on Good Friday – and more than 500 Nativity figures.
Most distinctive are the Nativity figures, or other religious images, in fascinating and sometimes lurid shops by the cathedral and in Calle Canovas del Castillo. The old thoroughfare Plateria, which bisects Traperia, and surrounding streets have elegant clothes shops. In Plaza Julian Romea there's an unusually sophisticated Oxfam shop, with carvings and handmade artefacts from around the world. Paparajote, beside the cathedral, is a souvenir shop with style, where you can buy good-looking crafts and local delicacies such as pan de higo (fig cake).
The most entertaining bars tend to be found near the university, such as the dim and candlelit El Ahorcado Feliz (The Happy Hanged Man) at Calle Canovas del Castillo 35 (00 34 968 21 47 49) and El Perro Azul (The Blue Dog) with its book-lined interior at Calle Simon Garcia 19 (00 34 968 22 17 00; it also has a pension attached). For a drink with live music, try La Puerta Falsa (00 34 968 24 86 51) in San Martin de Porres which has regular recitals.
Dinner with the locals
Murcia, as la Huerta de Europa, is famous for the vegetables produced in the region, so look out for the menus that emphasise them. Try Dona Lola (00 34 968 22 00 96, closed Sundays), a comfortable tavern in Plaza Christo del Rescate , or La Cana (00 34 968 91 54 55) in Calle Canovas del Castillo, which has a local speciality of zarangollo – eggs scrambled with courgettes, potatoes and onions. In the same street is La Rata Escarlata (The Scarlet Rat) (00 34 968 22 12 99), renowned for its cheese dishes.
Sunday morning: go to church
There are 23 chapels to choose from in the cathedral (open every day 10am-1pm and 5-7pm), though long-term restoration means that some may be closed. But to get a more local flavour, choose one of a pair of churches opposite each other at the top of Alfonso X El Sabio, each attached to a convent. Santa Clara has large and luxurious paintings; Santa Ana , has a flamboyant altar of golden twisted columns – and the nuns of this order are famous for their pastries.
Out to brunch
Devour hearty sausages and tortilla and a lot of local colour at Cafeteria Club Taurino de Murciain the Jardin el Salitre (00 34 968 28 59 76, open 8am-4pm). Trophy bulls' heads, as well as glamorous old bullfighting posters and a sign that the Club Taurino de Murcia was founded in 1887, indicate this is the Bullfighting Club; there's a museum attached.
A walk in the park
Cross the Old Bridge to the Jardin Floridablanca, the first public gardens to be opened in Spain (1848), with Moorish patterns of planting and 1,400 rose bushes. Or take a stroll on the north side of the river on the wide promenade of the Malecon, formed by a succession of flood protection walls, stretching alongside the botanical gardens. Walk far enough and you will be able to see the market gardens of the huerta.
Write a postcard
Settle for a while in Plaza de las Flores , whose picture is on postcards and many of the tourist leaflets, with its flower-stuffed balconies, fountains and canopied cafés. Or sit on the wooden benches amid the cupolas and bell towers of Plaza Santo Domingo and watch the children in pursuit of pigeons.
The icing on the cake
Unmissable is the Casino, with its Moorish-style entrance hall modelled on the Alhambra; a billiard room from Victorian England; Pompeii-inspired courtyard; and French 18th-century gilded ball-room. A trip to the ladies' powder room (men can go in too) reveals an extraordinary painted ceiling of women with butterfly wings, busy among the clouds. But best of all is the ball-room: place €1 in the machine outside the door, and the lights will blaze, a waltz will strike up and for a few minutes you can dance under the chandeliers.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies