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If you’ve ever thought Alicante was just an airport stop-off, then think again, writes Eddi Fiegel. Every year thousands of British tourists pass through Alicante on their way to holidays on the Costa Blanca, but only a few ever stop to discover the city itself.
It’s a mystery why, but it’s definitely our loss, as Alicante can easily hold its own with the best of Spain when it comes to superb tapas and rice dishes, top-notch fine dining, an unspoiled old town, impressive Baroque churches, fortresses and some wonderful beaches.
Whether you spend a few days there before or after your holiday up the coast, or head there for a weekend city break, it’s a great place to spend a couple of days. No wonder then that it’s long been a big favourite with holidaying weekenders from Madrid – and they certainly know a thing or two about tapas!
There’s nothing quite like seeing a town from above to really get the lie of the land. Looming high up above the city is the 9th century Castillo Santa Barbara – a sprawling fortress complex with ancient ramparts, tunnels and courtyards. On a cloudless day, there are stunning views out to the nearby island of Tabarca and along the coast.
You’ll get a wonderful bird’s eye view of Alicante’s Old Town immediately down below, and the Castillo also features the interactive Museum of the City of Alicante (MUSA), complete with caves and suits of armour which are guaranteed to amuse the kids. Be prepared to spend the morning here, if not longer, and there’s a café and shop in case you need refuelling.
The simplest way up to the top is by lift or, if you’re planning to drive further afield and have hired a car you can drive. Otherwise, if you’re feeling especially energetic, there’s a steep, winding path.
Walking back down from the hilltop you’ll end up in the Santa Cruz district which borders the Casco Antiguo (Old Town). These two areas are full of narrow, meandering streets which are perfect for getting lost in, and while there are tourist restaurants aplenty, there’s also no shortage of authentic bars packed with locals.
As you may know, Spanish lunchtime tends to start from about 1.30pm onwards, and this is the perfect time to tuck in. The Old Town is packed with excellent restaurants and tapas bars, so it’s hard to go wrong, and one of the most famous – both for tapas at the bar downstairs or for full meals in the grand dining room – is Nou Manolin (Calle Villegas).
Look out for local speciality rice stews called caldoso (like a Spanish bouillabaisse, usually served for two) which contain ingredients from super fresh prawns or tuna to rabbit and snails. Alternatively, try Cerveceria Sento, which is less than five minutes walk away.
After lunch there’s plenty to see in the Old Town. My favourites, which are all within a short walk of each other, include the blue-domed, 17th century Co-Cathedral of San Nicolás, the Iglesia Santa Maria church with its Baroque interior and MACA contemporary art museum, which features works by Dali, Picasso and Chagall.
You’ll probably stumble upon it anyway, but you should also keep an eye out for the impressive Plaza del Ayuntamiento square with its grandiose 18th century Town Hall.
Most locals won’t sit down for dinner until 9.30 or 10pm, so if you feel like freshening up or having a siesta, there’s plenty of time.
For a Masterchef-style fine dining take on Alicante classics, with spectacular views of the city, La Ereta, high up above the city in the La Ereta park, is the place to go (€50-€70 per head). Or, for similar elegance at unusually reasonable prices, L’Atelier is just the ticket (€28 per person for 3 courses) – the pork sirloin with Pedro Ximénez sherry, date chutney and bacon is especially good. If you fancy a nightcap, the Old Town has plenty of lively bars to choose from.
Alicante’s Old Town may be its beating heart, but no trip to the city would be complete without a stroll along the seafront promenade, Explanada de España, which is just a short walk from the Barrio. Lined with palm trees on both sides and filled with pavement cafes and street performers, the Explanada was built in the 19th century for residents to take their formal evening stroll and has a distinctive op-art-style, wave-effect mosaic floor made up of millions of red, black and white tiles.
Look out for Number 1, Explanada – aka the ‘Carbonell’ building – a frothy white palace built in the 1920s by a local industrialist.
Follow the Explanada along to the Marina where there’s a string of harbourfront restaurants – as you’d expect, seafood is obviously a big deal around these parts. Giant-sized red prawns are a local speciality, and you’ll find good local rice dishes pretty much everywhere.
Otherwise, for elegant tapas with a modern twist, Restobar Gema Penalva (Calle Canalejas 9) serves exquisite morsels like cheese mousse with rocket, sun dried tomatoes and pine nuts or caramelised foie gras with apple compote, as well as their refined take on classics like patatas bravas or Russian salad.
If all that salty sea air has whetted your appetite for the beach, walk along to Platja del Postiguet (the main beach). But rather than stopping there, pick up the tram for a short but spectacular journey along the coast, past the charmingly named Cabo de las Huertas (Cape of the Orchards) headland to Platja de San Juan, the city’s own favourite beach. With four miles of wide silky, fine sand, there are climbing frames for the kids, pedalos to hire and a string of cafes and restaurants lining the promenade.
Back in the city, head to the Marina and watch the sun across the yachts over coffee, ice cream or excellent G&Ts at the laid-back Soho Mar.
Round off your trip with tapas or dinner at the stylish Hospes Amérigo Hotel. This is smart, contemporary cooking, and star chef Patricia Dios whips up simple but tantalising dishes like hake with garlic cream or oxtail with a touch of bitter chocolate (mains around 24€). The hotel’s Penthouse bar also does a mean cocktail and has great views to Santa Barbara Castle and city centre.