This Costa Blanca city is much more than just a gateway to some of Spain's busiest resorts — it offers the weekend visitor a fascinating mix of antiquity and elegance.
Why go now?
The capital of the Costa Blanca has come alive this spring. Besides the exquisite Old Town and fabulous city beach, in the past few weeks Alicante has acquired a superb modern art museum, a grand new airport terminal and an overhauled express lift to a 1,000-foot fortress. With Easter approaching, the Holy Week celebrations will begin next weekend. And due to Spain's economic woes, prices for everything from beds to beer are falling.
You can fly from two dozen UK airports to Alicante. The main carriers are easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), with other services on Jet2 (0871 226 1 737; jet2.com) and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com). In such a competitive market, fares are low; booking just three days ahead I paid £82 outbound from Stansted on easyJet and €46 returning to Gatwick on Ryanair.
When you arrive at Alicante's vast but relaxed airport, El Altet, ignore the signs indicating that buses can be found on level -2; the regular SuBus connection to the city centre, number C6, leaves every 20 minutes from level +2, fare €2.60. The main stops are at Plaza de los Luceros and Plaza Puerta del Mar — which should take no more than 30 minutes, and probably a lot less.
A taxi into town costs around €15.
Get your bearings
Stay on the airport bus to the last stop at Plaza Puerta del Mar, dominated by a huge Spanish flag, and you will be poised adjacent to the beach and on the southern edge of the Old Town. You will also find the most useful tourist office, open 10am-8pm on Saturdays, to 2pm on Sundays, and 9am-8pm weekdays.
The city is dominated by the Castillo de Santa Bárbara, with the picturesque Santa Cruz district tangled in her skirts. It merges with the Casco Antiguo, or Old Town, which is hemmed in by the two main avenues that meet at the Plaza de los Luceros. The most notable landmark beyond these bounds is the main railway station, with Valencia 90 minutes away and Madrid a three-hour ride.
For a shimmering, stylish beachside stay, the four-star Meliá Alicante perched on the harbourside (00 34 965 205 000; meliaalicante.com) is ideal. Every room has Mediterranean views and chic furnishings, making the double-room rate of €142 (with a buffet breakfast an additional €15) an excellent deal.
The location of the pleasant Pensión La Milagrosa at Calle Villavieja 8 (00 34 965 216 918; hostallamilagrosa.com) has just become even better, because it is right opposite the new MACA contemporary art museum and adjacent to the beautiful Basilica de Santa María. A double room costs €30 without breakfast.
The only backpacking option in the Old Town is the Hostal de Sal at Calle Carmen 9 (00 34 965 211 720; boutiquehoteldesal.com). This is a newly refurbished 19th-century property that has individually designed rooms — some of them with up to six beds (€18 each), others that are four-person apartments for €110; rates include breakfast, use of the roof terrace and free Wi-Fi.
Take a hike
Begin inside the 1940s bus station, which has spectacular murals at either end. Walk south to the harbour, and enjoy the shade of palm trees as you walk along Alicante's prom: the Parque de Canalejas, which extends into the Explanada de España. Super-yachts gleam in the port to the right, bars and restaurants (including three fast-food franchises) spill out from the left, as you walk over wavy tiles that resemble a dodgy 1970s carpet.
At Plaza Puerta del Mar look down the steps to the right to see the statue of a naked Icarus, complete with surfboard, then cross to the tourist office. Walk inland from here, and you'll find the city's heart, a square presided over by the magnificent Ayuntamiento. Pop inside to see the first stair, from which all heights in Spain are measured; the Dali sculpture beside the staircase; and, on the first floor, some spectacular reception rooms. Then zig-zag north through the narrow streets to the handsome city market.
The market opens 7.30am-2pm daily except Sunday for the sale of charcuterie on the main level, fish and fruit in the basement, and flowers out on the northern side.
For more nutrition, the branch of the Corte Inglés at the west end of Avenida Maisonnave has an excellent food hall downstairs. If you are in the market for designer stuff, this is the main retail street — but beware Spain's king-sized lunch breaks (typically 1pm to 4.30pm) if you want to check out the bargains stretching along to the second Corte Inglés at the eastern end.
Lunch on the run
The market also has a splendid pavement café on its north side, offering fresh, cheap bocadillos with flavoursome fillings. For something more substantial, a three-course menu del día is available at almost every Old Town restaurant for €10 or less, including a beer or glass of wine.
After lunch, climb many hundreds of feet from sea level — effortlessly. Opposite La Marina tram station, a tunnel disappears into the rock. Follow it to the end, and you will find a lift (open 10am-8pm daily). It re-opened this week and to celebrate there is no charge until June. Alight at level 1, just above the entrance to the remarkable Castillo de Santa Bárbara — a rambling series of fortifications that has grown up since Moorish times. Even the British had a look in, when they occupied the city during the War of Spanish Succession.
Some of the fortress's caverns and courtyards are occupied by MUSA, the city museum, but what is more appealing is the way you can roam freely around on raw rock and stone steps. On a clear day you can see almost to Benidorm, and the Old Town looks lovely as you clamber to the summit (though it supports an ugly forest of radio masts).
Either take the lift back down or descend to the castle's main entrance and follow the footpath and steps to the city — with more great views along the way.
If you walked, you will certainly be ready for a drink — and the clump of tapas bars at the top end of Calle Labradores are ready for you: the welcoming place opposite Meson de Labradores has a caña (small beer) and tasty tapas for €1.80. For the cheapest aperitif in town, though, head for the Ria de Vigo on Calle Lozano in the newer part of town: €1.20 buys a beer and a pincho (snack).
Dining with the locals
As with lunch, it is difficult to go wrong in the Old Town — but for the city's most excellent food, check out the Restaurante La Ereta at the top of the park of the same name. Book ahead (00 34 965 143 250) because it opens for dinner for only two hours (9-11pm) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
The best venue to appreciate the morning sun sparkling on the Mediterranean is the breakfast room of the Meliá Alicante, where non-residents can feast from the buffet for €21, 7.30-10.30am.
Go to church
Mass at the austere Co-cathedral of San Nicolás is celebrated on the hour, every hour, from 9am to 1pm on Sundays. Little evidence remains of the mosque upon which this 17th-century structure was imposed; the most impressive sight is the mighty cupola.
You'll have struck lucky to find the heavy iron doors of the Basilica de Santa María open, but that hardly matters: the façade drips with Baroque extravagance in stone, notably on the twirly columns. Opposite the church square, check out MACA — the contemporary art museum (10am-2pm on Sundays, closed Mondays, 10am-8pm other days; admission free).
The structure blends a handsome 17th-century townhouse, the Casa de la Asegurada, with a zany steel and glass extension. Dalí, Miró and Picasso are all represented inside.
A walk in the park
You are close to the Plaza del Carmen, where the gradient starts to steepen. From the mustard-coloured building in the north-west corner, follow the alleyway and you will soon start climbing steps between whitewashed cottages festooned with flowers. This is the Santa Cruz quarter, a medieval district named after the Santa Cruz hermitage. Follow the path from here to the entrance to the Parque de la Ereta (10am-11pm daily), a 2003 creation that blends paths, fountains and sculpture with the natural beauty of the hillside.
The icing on the cake
Alicante's beach is popular from now through to October, but for an even better crescent of sand head for Benidorm. The biggest Costa Blanca resort is easily reached by tram L1 (a train, really) from the terminus at Plaza de los Luceros, the station of Mercado, or La Marina tram station; €3.35 one way. If you are finishing your trip in Benidorm, there are frequent direct buses to Alicante airport.