After decades of being pointedly ignored, particularly by tourists to the coastal resorts, revitalised Málaga is now the Andalucian city everyone is talking about. Its 30-odd museums and edgy urban art scene are well matched by contemporary-chic dining choices, a stash of new boutique hotels and a shopping street voted one of the most stylish in Spain.
Costa del Sol
Regularly derided but perennially popular, Spain’s famous ‘sun coast’ is a chameleonic agglomeration of end-to-end resort towns that were once (hard to believe) mere fishing villages. Development in the last 60 years has been far-reaching and not always subtle, throwing up a disjointed muddle of urbanizaciones, each with its own niche.
Nowhere encapsulates the exotic drama of Andalucía’s past to more gripping effect than Granada. The provincial capital is home to Spain’s single greatest Islamic building, the Alhambra, and it retains a distinct Moorish air with its shadowy teterías (teahouses), winding alleyways and whitewashed cármenes (mansions with walled gardens, from the Arabic karm for garden).
If you think the Costa del Sol is soulless, you clearly haven’t been to Málaga. Loaded with history and brimming with a youthful vigour that proudly acknowledges its multi-layered past, the city that gave the world Picasso has transformed itself in spectacular fashion, with half a dozen new art galleries, a radically rethought port area and a nascent art district called Soho.
Drawn by the allure of the Alhambra, many visitors head to Granada unsure what to expect. What they find is a gritty, compelling city where serene Islamic architecture and Arab-flavoured street life go hand in hand with monumental churches, old-school tapas bars and counterculture graffiti art.
One building alone is reason enough to put Córdoba high on your itinerary: the mesmerising multiarched Mezquita. One of the world's greatest Islamic buildings, the Mezquita is a symbol of the worldly, sophisticated culture that flourished here more than a millennium ago when Córdoba was capital of Islamic Spain and western Europe's biggest, most cultured city.
Eastern Jaén Province
This part of the region is where most visitors spend their time, drawn by the allure and Renaissance architecture of the Unesco World Heritage towns of Baeza and Úbeda, and the picturesque villages, mountains and hiking trails of the Parque Natural Sieras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas, Spain's biggest protected area, for which Cazorla town makes a great starting point.
Southeast Cádiz Province & the Costa de la Luz
Arriving on the Costa de la Luz from the Costa del Sol is like flinging open the window and breathing in the glorious fresh air. Bereft of tacky resorts and unplanned development, this is a world of flat-capped farmers, grazing bulls and furtive slugs of dry sherry with lunchtime tapas.