Six of the best Andalusian towns, southern Spain

SEVILLE

Loot from the newly discovered Americas made Seville wealthy in the 16th century, paying for monuments, monasteries, palaces and a staggering cathedral, the world's largest Gothic building. Its belltower, La Giralda, a former minaret, provides fabulous views into old-town alleys. Despite the city's baroque embellishments, medieval Barrio Santa Cruz and Juderia (plus a taste for honeyed pastries) remain from Islamic days. Seville's Moorish palace has magnificent decoration and walled gardens perfumed with roses. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through grand squares, and tapas bars are convivial. Seville also provides all the archetypes we associate with Spain: flamenco, bullfights and fiestas. See visitasevilla.es

CORDOBA

In the 10th century Cordoba was the scientific centre of the known world and cultured capital of a great Islamic caliphate. Its famous Mezquita mosque is a stunning example of Arab design, with pillars candied in red and white stripes and a courtyard shaded with orange trees. It now has a baroque cathedral buried at its centre. Around lie the alleys of the former Arab and Jewish quarters, with their overhanging balconies and tiled patios hung with flowers. Stone saints wave from bridges spanning the river. The surrounding new town, with its tree-lined streets and prosperous air, is also pleasant. See cordobaturismo.es

MALAGA

Coastal Malaga is a fine working-class city overlooked by an Arab fortress, and provides a very agreeable slice of everyday Spanish life, with a pedestrian shopping street cutting through its old town, stylish shops, palm-studded parks and great restaurants and beach bars. Promenades and parks that erupt in palm trees line the waterfront. But Malaga also has 3000 years of history – Phoenician and Roman ruins dot the city centre, and the cathedral piles Renaissance walls on Gothic foundations – and thrives as a centre of contemporary culture, with an outstanding Picasso museum and a recently opened branch of Centre Pompidou. See malagaturismo.com

RONDA

​Sitting atop a steep hillside split by a deep gorge and surrounded by ramparts, aristocratic Ronda gazes over rolling brown hills and olive groves and provides an agreeable small-town alternative to Andalusia's big-name attractions. The old town is lovely, especially when almond and orange trees flower. Fine mansions such as Casa Del Rey Moro and Palacio Mondragon mix Moorish and baroque styles and provide sweeping terrace views, while churches and monasteries are shadowy and enclosed. The newer part of town features Spain's oldest bullring and a lively warren of restaurant-lined streets where locals congregate in the evenings. See turismoderonda.es

CADIZ

Despite its laidback, weather-beaten, historical charm, Cadiz gets relatively few tourists. This raffish port city was key to colonial-era shipping between Spain and its possessions in the Americas and retains an energetic, outward-gazing personality that contrasts with Andalusia's secretive inland towns. It might well be Europe's oldest continuously inhabited settlement, though much of its architecture dates from its 18th-century golden age. Sitting on a heavily fortified and thankfully mostly car-free peninsula surrounded on three sides by sea, the old town crams in churches, crumbling mansions, fish restaurants and buzzing cafes where retirees sit in the sun eating churros. See cadizturismo.com

GRANADA

This city, backed by the snowy Sierra Nevada, was the last Islamic stronghold in Spain. The fortified Alhambra palace complex includes a series of delightful, ornate courtyards that form one of the supreme manifestations of Islamic architecture. Surrounding gardens are a delight of splashing fountains and lavender-flanked walkways. Below, the city's Albaicin old quarter is a tangle of alleys lined by whitewashed houses with garden courtyards. Elsewhere, you'll find gold-laden churches, elegant baroque squares and tapas bars galore. Zacatin, Mesones and Alhondiga streets around the menacing cathedral provide good shopping, especially for leather goods, ceramics, inlay and silver jewellery. See granadatur.com

The writer was a guest of Spain Tourism Board, Viking Cruises and APT.

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