Málaga is the aerial gateway to the Costa del Sol, and the city itself is often bypassed by visitors heading for nearby resorts. If you do take the time to explore, however, you’ll find that those sprawling industrial suburbs hide a small but exquisite historic core. Here, restaurant-lined lanes and grand boulevards fan out from the unfinished Gothic cathedral – Málaga’s beautiful and bizarre centrepiece. With a spate of recent museum openings and a glossy new port area, this feels like a city on the up. And if you fancy a break from urban life, some of Spain’s best beaches are just a short stroll away.

Summer highlights

During the summer months, temperatures in Málaga can rise to a sizzling 40°C. Alfresco dining in one of the city’s character-packed tapas bars is the best way to while the time away during those sultry evenings, and marble-paved Calle Marqués de Larios is home to some of the best eateries in town. The landscaped grounds of La Concepción botanic garden (Camino del Jardín Botánico 3) and St George’s Cemetery (Avenida Príes 1) offer a shady refuge from the heat, and if it gets truly sweltering you can always retreat to the Playa de la Malagueta beach. The highlight of Málaga’s summer season is the Málaga Fair in August, which features everything from bullfights to dancing and live music.

Getting around

A new metro system is set to open in Málaga in 2014, but until then the local buses provide a cheap and easy-to-navigate service. Trains run to local destinations from Alameda on the Explanada de la Estación, and a service also operates every half hour between the city and the airport. Driving and parking are both relatively straightforward, and car hire is readily available at the airport and at the train station – bear in mind, however, that the underground car parks charge around €20 per day. Málaga is easily navigable by foot or by bike, and bike taxis (‘trixis’ in the local lingo) can always be commandeered by footsore visitors.

Top cultural sites

It might not boast the knockout architecture of nearby Granada, but Málaga still has some real gems hidden away in its cultural closet. The 16th-century cathedral (Calle Molina Lario 9) combines Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque influences, and sits in total contrast to the ancient Moorish Alcazaba (Plaza de la Aduana, Alcazabilla 2), which overlooks the city and the sea. The Alcazaba shares its panoramic views with Gibralfaro Castle (Camino Gibralfaro 11), where you’ll find a permanent exhibition focussing on Málaga’s history. In the downtown area a cluster of museums, including the CAC Contemporary Art Centre (Calle Alemania) and the Picasso Museum (Calle San Agustín 8), lend cultural distinction to the city.

Best for families

Málaga is second only to Florida when it comes to family fun in the sun – and the Disneyland of the Costa del Sol is Tivoli World (Avenida de Tivoli). This sprawling amusement park has over 300 rides and runs a year-round calendar of colourful events in its giant auditorium. Magic Park (Calle Trinidad Grund 29) is smaller but more central, while waterpark Aqualand Torremolinos (Avenida de Cuba 10) offers a perfect retreat from the heat during the summer months. There’s more marine-themed fun to be had at the Selwo Marina Dolphinarium (Parque de la Paloma). Finish up with an educational visit to the Maritime Museum (Avenida Manuel Agustín Heredia 35), where you’ll discover more about Málaga’s marine life and history.

Best for couples

Málaga’s Plaza de la Merced square inspired some of Picasso’s most classic paintings, and a sculpture of the great artist himself can be found sitting quietly on one of the benches. It’s a nice spot to enjoy a romantic stroll, before heading to the leafier environs of the Puerta Oscura and Pedro Luís Alonso gardens adjoining Málaga Park. If you have a little more time on your hands then Gibraltar, Granada and Marbella are all within day-trip distance. And when nothing but the best will do, splash out on a dolphin-watching expedition or a wine-tasting trip around the stunning Ronda and El Tajo Gorge area.

If you love a thrill

The Costa del Sol isn’t just a beach bunny’s dream destination – it also draws adventure addicts from around the world with the promise of climbing, potholing, horse riding and a host of other outdoor activities. Hikers up for a challenge can take on the 1,779m Cerro Lucero, a rugged mountain just a short drive from central Málaga. The cliffs off Nerja-Maro are magnets for sea kayakers, while the village of Canillas de Albaida is the starting point for the best caving in the area. Down by the coast, a selection of adventure operators offer tuition in sailing, kite-surfing and waterskiing, as well as plenty of less demanding watersports.

Best hidden gems

Venture a little way outside the confines of the city and you’ll find the heritage towns of Comeres and Cómpeta. The whitewashed Moorish buildings of these two traditional Spanish communities are decorated with pots of riotous geraniums and the overall effect is a true feast for the eye. Comeres and Cómpeta are protected by their isolation, and the same is true for the Ermita de la Virgen de los Remedios Church in Vélez-Málaga. It’s worth the uphill slog to reach this 17th-century place of worship, which has been painted with frescoes by Andalusian artist Evaristo Guerra.