Málaga is one of southern Spain’s most welcoming and happening cities, and it more than justifies a visit. Visitor figures have soared since the Picasso Museum opened a decade ago and a new cruise-ship terminal opened in 2011, and much of the city has had a well-earned face-lift. Many of its historic buildings have been restored or are undergoing restoration; the area between the river and the port is being spruced up and transformed into the Málaga Arte Urbano Soho (MAUS Art District); and some great shops, and lively bars and restaurants have sprung up all over the center.

True, the approach from the airport certainly isn’t that pretty, and you'll be greeted by huge 1970s high-rises that march determinedly toward Torremolinos. But don’t give up so soon: in its center and eastern suburbs, this city of about 550,000 people is a pleasant port, with ancient streets and lovely villas amid exotic foliage. Blessed with a subtropical climate, it's covered in lush vegetation and averages some 324 days of sunshine a year.

Central Málaga lies between the Guadalmedina River and the port, and the city’s main attractions are all located here. The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo sits next to the river; to the east lies the MAUS district, slowly being hoisted from its former seedy red-light reputation to a vibrant art center with galleries and up-and-coming restaurants. Around La Alameda boulevard, with its giant weeping fig trees, is old-town Málaga: elegant squares, pedestrian shopping streets such as Calle Marqués de Larios, and the major monuments, which are often tucked away in labyrinthine alleys.

Eastern Málaga starts with the pleasant suburbs of El Palo and Pedregalejo, once traditional fishing villages. Here you can eat fresh fish in the numerous chiringuitos and stroll Pedregalejo's seafront promenade or the tree-lined streets of El Limonar. A few blocks inland is Málaga's bullring, La Malagueta, built in 1874, and continuing west, Muelle Uno (port-front commercial center). It's great for a drink and for soaking up views of the old quarter.