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You'll go gaga over Malaga

As the gateway to southern Spain, Malaga is a popular tourist route, but, as Gary Fennelly discovers, the city itself is well worth a visit

Málaga is often overlooked by tourists arriving at the city's airport and continuing their journey to resorts such as Torremolinos or Marbella. But those who pass it by are missing out.

This is a city full of cultural treats, gastrobars, cool cafés and great shops -- a place where you can wind your way through 3,000 years of civilisation, down the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter and take in the beautiful Moorish architecture, Roman ruins and Spanish churches.

In the heart of the city is Casa Natal ( 15 Plaza de la Merced ) -- birthplace of Málaga's famous son, Pablo Picasso. Here you can find artefacts from the beginning of the artist's home and cultural life as well as personal mementos of the Picasso family. With its marble staircases and intricate ceilings, the Picasso Museum ( Palacio de Buena Vista, Calle San Agustin ) is worth seeing for the elegant building alone. It houses an intimate collection of portraits, from the painter's earliest studies to some of his last works in the 1970s.

Close to the museum is Málaga Cathedral -- a strikingly ornate building that combines Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It is a majestic building with an impressive façade, notable for the fact that only one tower was finished, earning it the nickname of 'La Manquita', or the one-armed lady. A five-minute stroll from the cathedral is the impressive Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress built in the 11th century on top of the old Roman city. Inside are lush gardens, pools and intricately carved archways. Situated under it are the beautiful remains of an old Roman theatre.

Clambering up hills of the Alcazaba quickly works up an appetite, so make your way to the famous El Pimpi (Calle Granada 62) behind the Picasso Museum. This bar is as much renowned for tapas as it is for its wine. The walls of the bodega are filled with old wine barrels signed by celebrities, climbing plants and hundred-year-old posters. It makes for a quintessential tapas experience that's ideal for lunch. For an evening meal Restaurante Mariano ( Plaza del Carbón ) provides a memorable experience for the serious foodie, with delicious seafood and selected meats on offer.

Málaga supposedly boasts more bars than anywhere else in Spain. While Belfast's pubs and clubs are closing at 2am, busy tourists from Northern Ireland might be relieved to find most locals don't even venture out until 1am. Around this time the squares and side-streets begin to buzz with locals and visitors alike -- eating tapas, chatting and sipping cocktails.

La Malagueta beach is close to the centre and can be perfect for relaxing after a heavy meal or night's overindulgence. An alternative to lounging on sand is a trip to the botanical gardens ( Los Jardines de la Concepcion ) situated just 20 minutes north of the city centre. The stunning tropical paradise, created in 1855, is home to more than 50,000 different plants and can be the perfect place to recharge your batteries.

If a magical forest and romantic garden isn't your thing, then a trip to the Málaga car museum ( Museo Automovilístico Málaga , Av de Sor Teresa Prat) might get your motor running. Located in a former tobacco factory built in 1927, it houses one of the best vintage and classic car collections in the world. The museum also displays a collection of 300 high-fashion hats belonging to the owner's wife, making this a must-see for both car lovers and fashionistas. If the sight of all those hats whets the appetite for shopping, then head for the main retail street, Calle Marques de Larios , a wide, pedestrianised marble street filled with designer shops and boutiques.

Málaga is a city begging to be explored. It has impressive architecture, art, fine food and history wrapped up in a relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere and perfect climate. The fact that many tourists overlook it works in its favour, as it manages to retain the feel of an authentic Spanish town rather than a glitzy beach resort.


Getting there

Until June 10 low-cost airline bmibaby is offering flights to Málaga from Belfast City Airport, departing up to three times per week with fares starting from just £49.99 one way, incl taxes. For information or bookings, visit bmibaby.com .

When to go

Málaga enjoys a relatively warm climate all year round. In August, Feria de Málaga is an exuberant week-long street party with plenty of flamenco and sherry. At Easter, La Semana Santa (Holy Week) is one of the busiest weeks in Málaga's calendar, with glamorous processions and music filling the streets.

Getting around

Although most places of interest are within walking distance, taxis are easy to flag down and public transport is excellent. A bike tour ( malagabiketours.eu ) is an great way to explore the town, or you can opt for the bus tour if the legs are tired.

Related links and more information

Malaga Tourismo

In Pictures: Easter Holy Week parades in Malaga

In Pictures: Malaga Automobile Museum

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