Málaga from the rooftops. Photograph: Holger Leue/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image This formerly down-at-heel port has been transformed into a vibrant city with plenty to please culture vultures, plus exciting new places to eat and drink.For most visitors, M"laga is simply a gateway to the beach resorts of the Costa del Sol, with few venturing far from the airport or into the city. Well, they're all missing a trick because this once-shabby port has undergone something of a reinvention. There's a sparkling new waterfront and millions of euros have been pumped into the art scene, thanks to mayor Francisco de la Torre's vision to turn his city into a cultural hub, with a branch of the Parisian Pompidou Centre among the latest museum openings.
The Alcazaba fortress, M"laga's more modest answer to Granada's Alhambra, sits proudly in the historic centre " a maze of gardens and fountains " and above it 10th-century Gibralfaro castle stands guard over the coast. Round the corner lies the vast Renaissance cathedral, nicknamed La Manquita ("one-armed woman") because its south tower was mysteriously left unbuilt.
While the city beaches are nothing to write home about, the food definitely is. The subtropical climate and maritime location mean there's plentiful fresh produce, exceptional local wine, melt-in-the-mouth jam"n and top seafood " the locals are nicknamed boquerones (anchovies) because of the quantities they eat. There are countless great bars and restaurants, and more opening all the time, but eat late if you don't want to look like a tourist " Malague"os go out late, and dining after 10pm is the norm.
With dozens of low-cost flights a week, M"laga ticks all the boxes for an alternative city break or a stopover on the way to a beach holiday. It's just surprising more people haven't cottoned on yet.
You can't turn a corner without finding a museum in M"laga: there are over 30 here. The newly opened Pompidou Centre is that museum's first foray out of France. It's entered via a striking, giant glass cube and houses permanent and temporary contemporary exhibitions (""7, under-18s free, centrepompidou-malaga.eu).
The brand new Collection of the Russian Museum in an old tobacco factory is also impressive " five rooms tell the tale of Russian art over five centuries, with works from the state museum in St Petersburg (""6, under-18s free, coleccionmuseoruso.es).
Next door is the Automobile Museum, which is surprisingly fascinating even for non-petrol-heads as, alongside the vintage and modern cars, high fashion from the 1920s-50s is on display (""7.50, under-threes free, museoautomovilmalaga.com).
Of course, the city is proud of its links with Picasso, who was born here. Besides his childhood home, the Picasso Museum (""7, museopicassomalaga.org, under-18s free) in a restored palace is a must-visit with over 200 sculptures, drawings and ceramics by the artist. A temporary exhibition of Louise Bourgeois (noted for her giant spider sculptures) runs until 27 September, too. If that's not enough, the Carmen Thyssen (""6, carmenthyssenmalaga.org) showcases 19th-century Spanish art and, for cutting-edge curating, head to the brilliant Contemporary Art Centre (free, cacmalaga.eu) in the Soho district " shows by Brit urban artist D*Face and Korean street artist Shepard Fairey run until 27 September.
Besides the grand, marble-paved main shopping street Marqu"és de Larios, where shoppers can find high-street and designer names at bargain prices, thanks to the weak euro, M"laga is a treat for those who like discovering little independent boutiques. Calle Andr"és P"érez, in what was a run-down part of town, is also a good place to browse. The shops and restaurants clubbed together to clean up the street and pay for street lights. Top finds include organic clothing at ColorHueso (no 7), antiques at Patio Almanzora (no 5) and vintage goods at Quasipercaso (no 1). For beautiful handmade jewellery, try P&C in the old centre (Calle Santa Mar"a 13).
The newly hip Soho district is being turned into an open-air gallery by the Maus (M"laga Arte Urbano Soho) project which has invited big-name international artists to create artwork on the city's walls. There are giant animal murals by the Belgian Roa, pop-art style creations by D*Face and smaller works by local artists. More work to be added by Kenny Scharf, Aryz and Abraham Lacalle soon. Pick up a map and explore by yourself or join a guided tour by CAC (three free tours at 10, 11 and 12 on Mondays). For another alternative arty experience head to Plaza De Jesus de La Pasion, where artist Valerio "fishes for people" by dangling a rose and a note inviting guests to his studio to have their eye sketched for free for his "Eyecylopedia" or just to browse his work. Valerio is the man behind an alternative "art currency" circulating in the city " "the Valerio", notes made from his printed etchings are being accepted by a range of "wholesome" businesses, from yoga studios to cafes (valeriogentile.net).
Hammam Al "ndalus
In the old city centre, this new Arab-style hammam is exquisite " beautifully tiled with candle lanterns lining the corridors, marble floors and hot and cold baths. Massages include the traditional kessa with exfoliation and big bubbly rub down.
Entrance ""30, check website for special deals. Plaza de los M"rtires 5, +34 952 21 50 18, hammamalandalus.com
M"laga's coming into its own as a culinary destination and a tour (group or bespoke) with the recently launched Spain Food Sherpas takes foodies off the beaten track to discover everything from traditional crisp makers to the best churros (doughnuts) and hidden restaurants. From the buzzing Mercado Atarazanas (the main food market), to the specialist ultramarinos (traditional, family grocery stores), visitors learn about " and try " the best local fare.
Highlights might include a picnic of the best Iberian jam"n, cheese and local wine in the courtyard of the 17th-century Cardinal's House (lacasadelcardenal.com), now a high-end antique shop, or a stop at La Recova (Pasaje Nuestra Se"ora de los Dolores de San Juan 5, la recova.es), a ceramics and secondhand shop with a cafe where locals linger over breakfasts of bread, tomatoes, crema (delicious flavoured lard) spreads and coffee " all for ""2.20.
There's tasty tapas too " olives marinated with oranges and lemons, cheese with homemade marmalade and salchich"n salami, great paired with local Moscatel wine.
Three-hour Tapas Tour ""65, spainfoodsherpas.com
El Cabra, Pedregalejo beach
Ten minutes east of the city centre, the old fishing village of Pedregalejo is the place to eat fresh fish and seafood at one of many beachside bars. Cooked on embers in boats on the sand, the must-try is espeto de sardinas (just-caught grilled sardines on a stick, ""4.50). El Cabra on the promenade is a favourite for families for juicy mussels, clams in garlic and mixed fried fish " and great for people-watching. Afterwards, take a peek at the boat building workshop near the entrance to the beach.
Paseo Mar"timo Pedregal 17, Playa Pedregal, +34 952 29 15 95, restauranteelcabra.es
Bodega Bar El Pimpi
El Pimpi is a M"laga institution. With a big terrace right opposite the Alcazaba, it is a tourist hotspot, but remains authentic and popular with locals, too. Inside it's all old tiles, wood beams and barrels signed by visitors including celebrities such as local boy Antonio Banderas and Paloma Picasso. The food lives up to the hype " plates of the best Iberian ham, simple but delicious tomato salad and marinated fish (mains ""10). Finish with a glass of typical M"laga moscatel wine. The new section next door is all glass and white walls, attracting a younger crowd.
Calle Granada 62, +34 952 22 54 03
There are tapas bars galore but one that won't disappoint is Gorki, which uses local ingredients with a twist (small tapas ""3.50, larger plates are served, too). Seating is in stalls in the shabby-chic interior and dishes include tangy cheeses, smoked cod with crushed tomatoes and baked salmon with gherkins on mollete (soft white bread). It's all fresh and delicious, and there's an extensive wine list.
Calle Strachan 6, +34 952 22 14 66, (second branch at Muelle 1, Puerto de M"laga)
Los Patio de Beatas
Tucked away on a side street, two 18th-century mansions have been converted into this restaurant with tapas and wine bar, with original features such as a stained-glass ceiling making the setting rather special. There are over 200 wines " a four-course tasting menu pairing each course with a different vintage costs ""50 (""35 without wine). Head chef Christopher Gould (a UK Masterchef quarter-finalist) puts his own stamp on traditional Spanish fare with the likes of mushroom-and-truffle croquettes and suckling M"laga goat with couscous.
Calle Beatas 43, +34 952 21 03 50, lospatiosdebeata.com
There are lots of cool restaurants popping up in arty Soho. Mamuchis (meaning mother " owners Marcel and Leiticia want guests to feel like they're in "mama's kitchen") serves healthy sharing plates featuring such delights as courgette burger and dim sum, influenced by their travels around the world (from ""5). All mismatched chairs and upcycled furniture and paintings by Leiticia's father, it's like stepping into someone's front room.
Calle Casas de Campos 27, +34 951 99 45 17, no website
Nothing beats a breezy roof terrace and a gin and tonic after a day of culture, and there are plenty of places to imbibe high above the heat of the city. Some of the best are on the top of hotels, but open to non-guests. Try the two-storey La Terraza at Alcazaba Premium Hostel or the poolside terrace at Molina Lario (see where to stay, below, for details).
El Rinc"n del Cervecero
The craft beer movement has found its way to M"laga, and El Rinc"n, which opened a year ago, is the place to try Spanish brews. There are 185 beers there and owners David and Juan Francisco even make their own ales for Semana Santa and the August Feria. It's a bright, simple space with wooden tables and high stalls and offers tastings and beer-making workshops.
Calle Casas de Campos 5b, + 34 644 300 458, elrincondelcervezero
Opened last summer, this small bar (couple of tables inside, mostly standing) is a hit with younger locals, who spill out on to the streets until the early hours. Owner Sergio has 15 artisanal beers on the menu every week and serves very generous G&Ts and delicious Aperol Spritz.
Calle Muro de San Juli"n 1, +34 722 96 11 76
La Esquinita del Chupa y Tira
A favourite with local bloggers Pedro and Abby (elboqueronviajero.com), La Esquinita is a real find. Owner Jos"é Manuel bought the specialist grocery store he had frequented since childhood and turned the store room into a tiny bar. Local wine accompanies plate after plate of cheeses and meats brought out from the shop in the front " resulting in a tiny bill.
Calle La Victoria 31, +34 951 91 19 85
Odisea wine bar
It's on a bit of a main road but that doesn't put wine lovers off sitting on the front terrace of this long-established, family-run institution. Inside it's all dark wood and barrel-lined walls (with a cute, tiny patio). There are 200 wines from M"laga province. Don't leave without trying the homemade vermouth, as the secret recipe uses 47 herbs and spices and has been passed down for six generations. There's a great selection of tapas, too.
Subida Coracha 1, +34 659 56 08 38
In a great spot opposite the cathedral and a few minutes' walk from the waterfront, this 103-room, four-star hotel boasts a rooftop pool and two terraces with amazing views " perfect for a cocktail or two at any time of day. The decor is a bit safe but standard rooms are very comfortable, if a little business-like, while the deluxe rooms are in the 19th-century part of the hotel. There's also a decent restaurant and cafe (the patio garden's nice for breakfast).
Doubles from ""115, Molina Lario 20, +34 952 06 20 02, hotelmolinalario.com
Alcazaba Premium Hostel
Opened in February, this is a cool, central budget option. There are 24 rooms ranging from dorms of 10 to doubles " all spotless and comfortable with private bathrooms (a superior double has three balconies). Best of all is the stylish restaurant Batik (open to anyone) and the buzzing roof terrace, the latest place to have a drink and enjoy the views over the Alcazaba and the castle.
Dorm beds from ""15, doubles from ""69, Calle Alcazabilla 12, +34 952 22 98 78, alcazabapremiumhostel.com
Room Mate Larios
On main shopping street Marqu"és de Larios, this is a good, central option with art deco-inspired decor (grey palette, blonde wood furnishings and round mirrors). The junior suite has lovely views of Plaza de la Constituci"n and floor-to-ceiling shuttered windows. The stylish roof terrace has a cocktail bar and breakfast is a quality buffet, open until midday (""8.95). As well as rooms there are several apartments, including a two-bed duplex, and sister hotel Room Mate Lola has opened in Soho.
Doubles from ""90, junior suites from ""130, Calle Marqu"és de Larios 2 and Calle Casas de Campos 17, +34 912 17 92 87, room-matehotels.com
Right next to the hammam, this bijou hotel, which opened last year, has just eight rooms (one with two double beds), five with their own bathroom. Fresh cakes and muffins, delicious smoothies and other delights are sold in the bright cafe. It's all as sweet as its name suggests and it doubles as a gallery, showing local artists' work which changes monthly.
Doubles from ""42, Plaza de los M"rtires 6, +34 951 35 78 69, dulcesdreamshostel.com
Patio 19 Hostel
This slightly eccentric Aladdin's cave of a B&B in a 17th-century mansion is great value and near the old centre. Set around a tiled courtyard, it's full of antiques, old flamenco dresses, gilded mirrors and knick-knacks, but the rooms (doubles and one eight-bed dorm) are spotless.
Dorm beds ""15, doubles from ""40, Calle Mariblanca 19, 952 22 37 29, patio19.com