There's never a bad time to visit, but it's now that Alicante starts to shine, with balmy temperatures nudging 24C. Visit around June 20 and you'll witness one of Spain's most exuberant festivals: the Fogueres de Sant Joan (hogueras.org). For four days the city is ablaze with bonfires and fireworks in a tradition dedicated to John the Baptist, celebrated since 1928.
Located on Spain's sunny south-eastern coast and lapped by the Mediterranean, Alicante is a bite-sized city, sandwiched between the capes of Cabo de las Huertas and Santa Pola. Rising to the east is Mount Benacantil, a 166m peak of white limestone that forms an impressive backdrop to Playa del Postiguet, a popular beach in the heart of the city.
To the west is the harbour and the parallel Explanada de España, a promenade of mosaic cobbles, palms and century-old fig trees. Dominating the harbour is the sprawling Meliá at Plaza del Puerto 3 (melia.com). The hotel's 544 rooms all have sea views and free Wi-Fi. Doubles from around €100, including breakfast.
The Hostal Les Monges Palace at Calle San Agustín 4 (lesmonges.es) provides a more intimate option. It is housed in a century-old mansion, and the 22-room property oozes character, thanks due in large part to its eccentric owner, Pedro Picazo. Don't miss the original Dalí sketch in the lobby. Doubles from €60, room only. Mediterránea Plaza at Plaza del Ayuntamiento 6 (eurostarsmediterraneaplaza.com) is a good budget option with friendly staff, spacious rooms and a rooftop terrace. Doubles start at €45, room only.
Take a view
Sitting atop Mount Benacantil are the ruins of Castillo de Santa Barbára (castillodesantabarbara.com; 10am to 8pm daily; free), an impressive ninth-century fortress. Take the lift from Calle Juan Bautista Lafora (€2.40; 10am to 7.30pm) to the El Macho area at the top of the castle for 360‑degree city views. Tours of the complex take place daily at 11am and 12.30pm from beside the second floor lift; €3.
Take a hike
It's a gentle 20-minute stroll back to town. At the entrance of the castle, look for a clearing on the first bend of the road and follow the rocky trail along the western walls and along a series of steps leading into La Ereta Park (10am to 11pm daily), with its pine trees and fine views.
Colourful houses appear at the bottom where the trail splits. Veer right down a series of zigzagging stairs to the Water Museum. Continue straight, passing the 18th-century Convento de las Monjas on Plaza de la Virgen del Remedio. Turn left on to Calle San Agustín, cross Plaza de la Santísima Faz, and pass under the archways into Plaza de Ayuntamiento, site of the Baroque Town Hall. It was bombed by the French in 1691; the Solomonic columns and 35m twin towers were built in the 1700s.
Lunch on the run
There's an abundance of tapas restaurants along Paseo Explanada de España; one of the best is La Terraza del Gourmet at No 2 (latabernadelgourmet.com). Jamón ibérico, hake tempura and montaditos – grilled sandwiches with fillings such as roquefort, cured beef and rocket – start at €3.50.
The main shopping streets are Avenida Maisonnave and Avenida de Alfonso X El Sabio. For fashion, head to Plaza Calvo Sotelo where you'll find Purificación Garcia at No 13 (purificaciongarcia.es) and Bimba & Lola (bimbaylola.com). Those with a passion for interior design will enjoy Azul Tierra (azultierra.es), around the corner at Angel Lozano 2 (most stores open 10am to 9pm Mon-Sat). On Sundays, head to the weekly antiques market from 9am to 2pm on Plaza de Ayuntamiento.
Dining with the locals
Hollywood stars have been won over by the rustic dishes at Piripi on Avenida de Oscar Esplá 30. Booking is essential. If it's full, try sister restaurant Nou Manolín at Calle Villegas 3 (noumanolin.com). For a more formal experience try Alderbarán at Muelle de Poniente 1 (www.maestral.es). Chef Roberto Jimemet specialises in paella-style dishes such as rice with cuttlefish and artichoke (€12). Closed Sunday night.
Go to church
Alicante's original place of worship is named after its patron saint. The Cathedral San Nicolás at Plaza del Abad Penalva 1 (concatedralalicante.com) has been welcoming devotees since the 1600s. Beyond its Spanish Renaissance façade of pale sandstone, excavated from the nearby mountains, is a striking Baroque interior. The colourful altarpiece is the handiwork of Nicolás Borrás. Open 7.30am to 1pm, 5.30pm to 8pm daily. Tourists are welcome at Sunday mass, which takes place hourly between 9am and 1pm.
The Archaeological Museum at Plaza Dr Gómez Ulla 3 (www.marqalicante.com; €3) has a collection of 15,000 pieces from 300 sites in the region with a special focus on underwater and urban archaeology (10am to 2pm Sunday, until 7pm Tuesday to Saturday, closed Monday).
Elsewhere, the Museum of Contemporary Art housed in a former prison dating back to 1685 at Plaza de Santa María 3 (maca-alicante.es; 10am to 2pm Sunday, until 8pm Tuesday to Saturday, closed Monday; free), displays pieces by Picasso, Gargallo and other artistic greats.
Out to brunch
The scrambled eggs with asparagus and freshly caught prawns (€12) at Ibéricos Luceros (ibericosluceros.es) are worth the detour across town. This cosy restaurant at Plaza de Los Luceros 12, run by the Alamo family, overlooks the circular plaza at the centre of which stands an ornate fountain based on four horses.
Icing on the cake
Escape the city and enjoy a little pampering at the Asia Gardens & Thai Spa resort, a peaceful resort on the outskirts of Benidorm (asiagardens.es). Rooms have touches of Bali and Japan, and hidden within the quiet landscaped gardens are waterfalls, infinity pools and more than 300 exotic plant species. The spa's therapists have all been trained at Bangkok's Wat Pho massage school. Pure bliss. Doubles from €240, B&B.
The 25-minute cab ride costs €60, and buses to Benidorm leave from the station all day (returns from €8). A taxi from Benidorm costs €10. (Nick Boulos/The Independent)