The southern Spanish region of Andalucía usually conjures up images of three iconic cities: Granada, home of the Alhambra; Córdoba, with its famous mezquita (mosque); and Seville, an olé cliché of bullfighting, flamenco and Moorish architecture. But its fourth major city, Málaga, tends to be more mundanely associated with its airport (more than seven million tourists landed here in 2012 ) and the adjacent Costa del Sol beach resorts, where travellers typically head on package holidays.

But after decades of turning their backs on Málaga (literally – the Costa del Sol is to the west of the airport, the city to the east), travellers are starting to realise what they are missing. From a gritty Spanish working town, Málaga is transforming into a sophisticated hub of culture and cuisine, successfully combining the traditional with the contemporary. Numbers are still small, so visit soon before its integral Spanish character becomes choked with souvenir shops.

A city of museums
Fifteen years ago, there were no museums in the historic centre; today there are more than 20 – far more than any other city in Andalucía.

The museums were founded, in part, in response to Málaga’s bid to become a European Capital of Culture in 2016. They range from the inviting and informative Museo del Vino (Wine Museum) that opened in 2008 to the much-lauded Museo Picasso, opened in 2003 and housed in a former palace complete with Roman ruins in the basement. Picasso is the city’s most famous native son (along with actor Antonio Banderas), and the paintings were largely donated by his family. 

The equally prestigious Museo Carmen Thyssen opened in 2011. The only offshoot  of Madrid’s Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Málaga’s lavish collection concentrates on Spanish artists such as the 19th-century's Joaquin Sorolla and the 17th-century's Francisco de Zurbarán.

For edgy modern art, Málaga’s Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (Contemporary Art Museum) has a permanent exhibition of works by such pioneering artists and photographers as Damien Hirst, Thomas Struth and Thomas Hirschhorn, housed in a lofty warehouse-style space. The building is currently earmarked for expansion based on a design by Pritzker award-winning architect Rafael Moneo. 

Or head to the Museo del Vidrio y Cristal (Museum of Glass and Crystal) to see an extraordinary private collection of antique furniture, priceless carpets, pre-Raphaelite stained-glass windows and vast 16th-century ancestral portraits. There’s enough historic glass and crystal to keep a rampaging toddler happy for hours, ranging from 1st-century Roman glass to exquisite pieces from the 1930s to 1980s. Fascinatingly, the museum is situated on the historic site of Spain’s most important Moorish pottery district.

To see living history on the streets, Málaga’s Alcázar, a Moorish fortress, is an Alhambra in miniature, with the added bonus of a recently-restored Roman amphitheatre at its base. The city’s grand dame of a castle has also recently benefitted from a makeover, and while its cathedral may lack the lofty reputation of Seville’s, it also lacks the hefty entrance price and queues. Highlights here include exquisitely-carved choir stalls and an impressive stash of 18th-century art.

Raising the culinary stakes
Along with museums, there are countless tapas bars and restaurants in the city centre, many of which can easily compete with Seville in the contemporary culinary stakes. 

In July 2012, Michelin-starred chef Dani Garcia opened La Manzanilla (Calle Fresca 12; 952-226-851) just off Malaga’s marble-clad Calle Marqués de Larios. Tapas are given a zappy nouvelle treatment, with dishes including cherry gazpacho, oxtail mini-burgers and anchovies with basil. Tapeo de Cervantes, named after the nearby Teatro Cervantes theatre, has also attracted foodies with its unusual combinations such as porra Antequerana, a thick garlic and tomato soup typical of Antequera, a town to the north of Málaga, and served with quails’ eggs. Other stylish new eateries include La Rebaná, with its innovative snacks like duck mini-burgers, and Alumbre, which dishes up the sort of dishes, such as snail croquettes, that you might normally associate with experimental UK chef Heston Blumenthal.

Robert Dunn, who opened La Plaza restaurant in the city’s elegant Plaza de la Merced in 2012, believes this trend for innovative restaurants reflects the demanding and worldly expectations that stem from both younger Malagueños and an increasingly sophisticated class of traveller. “Even in tapas bars, it is not sufficient to dish up a slice of tepid tortilla or a saucer of olives any more. Locals increasingly expect plenty of cosmopolitan, as well as traditional, choice,” Dunn said. No surprise then that La Plaza’s menu includes a Lebanese platter of hummus and falafel; pumpkin risotto; and Moroccan lamb shanks, as well as that  Andalucían classic, Serrano ham with melon.

After dark
Post-dinner or tapas, entertainment in Málaga has also witnessed a sizeable crescendo over the last few years. Discos and clubs in the coastal resorts of Torremolinos and Benalmádena Port have dipped in popularity as revellers now opt for the urban-chic sheen of the big city. 

For a night out, do not miss Liceo, a rambling club housed in a sumptuous historical building with original tile-work and dusty chandeliers. A venue for live flamenco during the week, it morphs into a rollicking disco playing everything from house to salsa from Thursday to Saturday.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Francisco de Zurbarán as a 19th-century painter. This has been corrected.