Seville, Andulucia, Plaza de Espania

With strong Islamic roots and a history of unrelenting poverty, Andalucia is perhaps the least European part of Western Europe. But the region's heritage is Spanish as well as Moorish. It gave us Velazquez, Picasso, and Federico Garcia Lorca, and is also a hotbed of flamenco, fiesta and the bloody local sport, bullfighting. The Islamic palaces, picturesque little villages, ragged mountains and endless coastline make it an exotic and stunning place. Happy hours start at midnight and the cities of Seville and Malaga have a kicking nightlife. You can party, hike, sunbathe and sightsee. No wonder Andalucia is such a holiday hotspot.

Malaga
Don’t be put off by the high-rise hotels and apartment blocks that mark the Costa del Sol: Malaga is a vibrant, Spanish city with a real southern port atmosphere. It’s the second largest city in Andalucia and first stop in the region for many. With pretty old streets, leafy boulevards and lush gardens the city is a lovely place to explore.

A walk along the main boulevard, Alameda Principal, will take in the elegant 18th-century Palacio de la Aduana, the early 20th-century Antiguo Correos and the stunning 20th-century neo-baroque City Hall. For earlier history check out the baroque/Gothic/Renaissance cathedral, built on the site of the former main mosque. It’s called La Manquita, as the southern tower was never completed. Alcazaba was the palace-fortress of Malaga’s Muslim governors.

Picasso was born in Malaga, and the brand spanking new Museo Picasso (Picasso Museum) is due to open in 2002. Until then, visitors can check out the Casa Natal de Picasso, a research centre that holds temporary exhibitions.

Seville
The largest and most culturally exciting city in Andalucia, Seville is a historical masterpiece packed with people who know how to party. With Islamic monuments, beautiful gardens, flamenco and bullfights, there’s no shortage of things to see and do.

You can’t miss the unfeasibly large cathedral, built on the site of the main Almohad mosque, and the famous 90m-high (295ft) Giralda brick tower (the former minaret). Atop the Giralda is a bronze weathervane representing Faith, the symbol of Seville. It’s actually a copy; the original had too much weather and had to be removed.

South of the cathedral stands Alcazar palace, former home to many of Spain’s rulers. The Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) exhibits paintings from Spain’s Golden Age. If you’d rather absorb the culture outside, explore the tangle of winding streets in Barrio de Santa Cruz, Seville’s medieval Jewish quarter. Triana used to be the gitano quarter, but the gitanos (also known as Roma or, impolitely, gypsies) were removed; the area is now a trendy strip of bars and cafes.

Granada
This modern city may seem a little disappointing at first, but if you look beyond the tower blocks and traffic fumes, Granada has plenty to offer the visitor. The Alhambra palace is a must-see. Set against the stunning Sierra Nevada, and surrounded by cypress and elms, it’s an escape into Granada’s Moorish past. There’s a lot to see, including the Alcazaba, the Palacio Nazaries (Nasrid Palace) and the Generalife gardens, so allow at least an afternoon.

Back in Granada itself is Albayz?n, the old Muslim quarter. Islamic ramparts, cisterns, gates, fountains and houses remain, and many of the churches are built on the sites of Islamic buildings. The gothic/Renaissance cathedral has an interesting and roomy interior. Various Catholic monarchs are buried in the adjoining Capilla Real (Royal Chapel). If you fancy shopping, the former Muslim silk exchange, Alcaicer?a, just southeast of the chapel, is full of temptations.

Cordoba
At its political and cultural peak, Cordoba was capital of Al-Andalus, and the city today is both polished and provincial. Between mid-April and mid-June it’s like colour-by-numbers, with beautiful blooms hidden behind heavy wooden doors and iron railings. The gardens of the Alc?zar de los Reyes Cristianos, full of fish ponds, fountains, orange trees and topiary, are particularly spectacular at this time of year.

The city’s star attraction is the Mezquita mosque, one of Spain’s most opulent examples of Islamic architecture, with stripes of red brick and white stone, elaborate arches and domes. The old Jewish quarter, Juderia, has plenty of appealing little squares to explore.
Medina Azahara, 8km (5mi) west of Cordoba , was built by Abd ar-Rahman III between 936 and 945. Less than one-tenth of the city has been excavated and opened to the public, but it’s still the most impressive archaeological site in Andalucia.

Jerez de la Frontera
This city, located 36km (22mi) from Cadiz, boasts a variety of interesting attractions. It’s famous worldwide for its sherry, it’s the horse capital of the region, and considers flamenco serious business. While the bourgeoisie grew fatter and richer from the fruits of the vine, gitanos danced flamenco, creating the quickest and most festive form, buleria.