With its warm winter sunshine, an impressive urban beach, vibrant nightlife and chic shopping, Gran Canaria’s capital is an alluring prospect for Matthew Hirtes
Why go now?
A bleak midwinter is conspicuous by its absence in Gran Canaria's capital city. Instead, Las Palmas offers almost guaranteed winter sun, with the city's 3km-long Playa de las Canteras — one of the world's great urban beaches — the al fresco destination of choice.
With a laid-back attitude and a love of surfing, the Canarians may well be the Australians of Europe. The weather is positively Southern Hemispherean too, with the winter offering clearer skies than the oppressive dark clouds of summer.
Fly to Gran Canaria from a wide range of UK airports with easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com), Monarch Airlines (0871 940 5040; monarch.co. uk), Thomas Cook Airlines (0871 230 2406; flythomas cook.com), Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomsonfly.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).
Las Palmas airport lies a convenient 18km to the south of the city centre. Global Buses (00 34 928 252 630; globalsu.net) runs two lines between the airport: the 5 and the 60. The 30-minute journey costs between €2.20 and €2.85 — depending on whether you stop at the main Parque San Telmo bus terminal or Parque Santa Catalina, which is closer to most of the hotels. A taxi costs about €30.
Get your bearings
Las Palmas was born in 1478 as Real de Las Palmas, growing out of a military settlement founded by the triumphant Spanish army on the right hillside of the Barranco de Guiniguada ravine.
Traces of the old settlement are scant, with the San Antonio Abad Chapel a rare extant artefact — the place of prayer for Christopher Columbus who visited Las Palmas on his way to discovering America. The main road linking town centre to island centre, Calle Juan de Quesada, bisects Barranco de Guiniguada, thereby dividing the historic quarters of Triana (the main pedestrianised shopping area) and Vegueta — housing the bulk of Las Palmas' sights.
The city markets itself as a short-haul Havana — and not only because the Avenída Marítima bears a resemblance to Havana's famous seafront esplanade, Malecón. The Avenída is as good a way of navigating the city as any — by bike, foot, or in-line skates — stretching as it does from Alcaravaneras beach to the former fishing village of San Cristóbal where the majority of Las Palmas' finest restaurants await.
Make like royalty at the Hotel Santa Catalina (00 34 928 243 040; hotel santacatalina.com) at No 227 on the tree-lined avenue León y Castillo, which links Avenída José Mesa y Lopez and Triana. You're handily placed to explore either of them — if you can drag yourself away from the impressive spa, that is. Doubles from €120, B&B.
For a beachside stay, aim for Reina Isabel (00 34 928 260 100; bull hotels.com) at Alfred L Jones 40. Not that you'll be inclined to leave the comfort zone of the sun loungers and umbrellas provided free of charge by the hotel. Doubles from €113, B&B.
Low on funds? Opt for Pensíon Perojo (00 34 928 371 387; myspace. com/pensionperojo) at No 1 on arguably Las Palmas' loveliest street, Calle Perojo. Doubles in this serene guesthouse from €26, room only.
Start early (or late): most shops in Las Palmas close for lunch from 1-4pm, reopening until about 8pm. Triana, with the neighbouring Vegueta, forms a Unesco World Heritage Site. As well as the main street, Mayor de Triana, there's a labyrinthine network of alleyways and avenues to explore, including calles Cano, Constantino, and Perez Galdós.
From the high fashion of Galerías Lorens (00 34 928 367 567; galerias lorens.com) at Mayor de Triana 56 to the haute cuisine of El Gabinete Gastronómico (00 34 928 380 443) at Torres 18, Triana's well-to-do surroundings are reflected in its well-dressed shoppers.
Take a hike
Start at surfer's paradise, La Cicer, in the shadow of the Auditorio Alfredo Kraus — constructed in 1997 by Catalan architect Oscar Tusquets. Resembling a lighthouse, it acts as a beacon, lighting up the Las Canteras shoreline at night.
Walk along the Paseo de las Canteras, then take a right into Calle Kant to reach Plazoleta Farray. This little square is a magnet for lingerers with bars and cafés offering plenty of outdoor seating. Join them for a spell, perhaps after purchasing something in Idiomatika (00 34 928 22 82 08; idiomatika.es), Las Palmas' premier English-language bookshop. Finally, head south-east, away from the beach to Mesa y López, the city's secondary shopping street.
Lunch on the run
Cool off and fuel your body with a helado de gofio purchased at one of the El Corte Inglés ice-cream kiosks. Gofio, a flour created by grinding roasted grains, is reputed to be the secret ingredient behind your average Canarian's Herculean strength.
Alternatively, head for the pedestrianised streets of Vegueta, which feature restaurants so popular that they spill out on the pavements. To best sample enyesques, Gran Canaria's version of tapas, head to La Buena Vida at Mendizábal 24 (00 34 928 335 864). Here, try creative cuisine such as sautéed eels served with garlic and spring-onion mayonnaise.
Take a ride
A 24-hour ticket on the red City Sightseeing Bus (00 34 902 101 081; city-sightseeing.com) will set you back €15, or €19 for 48 hours. The open-top upper deck affords panoramic views of the city, especially when the bus hits the heights of Escaleritas. Hop on and off wherever takes your fancy at the many stops throughout the city.
The thirst-quencher of choice on Gran Canaria is the caña, a less-than-half-pint glass of lager. Sup on one at Bodegón Lagunetas at Constantino 16 (00 34 928 363 094).
Dining with the locals
When in Triana, head to La Alquitara at Domingo J Navarro 9 (00 34 928 38 49 59; laalquitara.es). The tasting menu, crafted by head chef and owner Emilio J Cabrera López, is imaginative. Fusing Basque-country cooking with Canarian cuisine, La Alquitaria is a temple to cod — with the fish appearing in no fewer than 18 dishes on the set menu. There are also 1,200 wines to choose from.
Sunday morning: go to church
The city's cathedral, the Catedral de Santa Ana, dominates the plaza of the same name (00 34 928 331 430) and took four centuries to make. The Spanish started building it in 1500, soon after their invasion, employing a Gothic architectural style. The dramatic flourish employed by the Castilians to attract the natives to Christianity remains intact.
For a more intimate experience, visit the tiny hermitage of Ermita de San Telmo (00 34 928 367 970), which was rebuilt in 1694 after the original was ransacked by marauding Dutch pirates.
Out to brunch
One of the most popular imports from the Spanish mainland is the churro: an Iberian take on the doughnut, commonly dipped into a cup of hot chocolate. There are churrerias dotted throughout the city, but the oldest and grandest is La Madrileña, on Calle Secretario Artiles.
Alternatively, order a cortado (milky espresso) at the Hotel Madrid in Plaza Cairasco. This square, Las Palmas' prettiest, is an ideal setting to delve into your Sunday paper and the perfect vantage point for people-watching. Tuck into a vegetal (a toasted vegetable and tuna sandwich).
Las Palmas' futuristic art gallery, CAAM (20) (00 34 928 31 18 00; caam.net) in Vegueta, is open on Sundays from 10am-2pm. The Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno offers a rolling schedule of free exhibitions by African, South American and Spanish artists.
Next, step back in time with a visit to Casa de Colón (00 34 928 312 373; casadecolon.com), on Calle de la Herreria. This museum — dedicated to Christopher Columbus's discovery of America — is housed in his former residence. Open Sundays 10am-3pm.
A walk in the park
The green and pleasant Parque Doramas takes you away from the hustle and bustle. Located to the rear of Hotel Santa Catalina, it forms part of the plush Ciudad Jardin (Garden City) residential district, designed by the British in the 19th century. Its dragon trees provide much-needed shade and its tranquillity is a far cry from the fate suffered by the aboriginal chief from whom the park takes its name. A casualty of the 1481 Battle of Arucas, his head was later displayed on a stick in Las Palmas to deter the native population from resistance.
Icing on the cake
For a more relaxed option than Las Palmas' dizzying clubs, head out of town to The Witches or Las Brujas (00 34 639 71 74 74; lasbrujas.net). This 16th-century mansion is a joy to tour, drink in hand. A free minibus connects clubbers with the venue from Plaza Las Ranas.