You want sunny beaches? Oh, silly me: as I’m writing for my fellow stoics here in the frozen tundra, it’s 22 degrees and snowing. Of course you do.

Mazatlan has beaches.

But unlike those Mexican resort towns purpose-built to lure tourists, Mazatlan has more. The Pearl of the Pacific, as it’s called, is a vibrant working city of 475,000, founded in 1531 by those original tourists called Spanish Conquistadors as a working port to send precious metals from the nearby gold and silver mines back from the New World to the Old.

Of course, those conquistadors required houses, and, to convert the locals, pretty churches. Today, the city’s Centro Historico is a landscape of those romantic stucco buildings, framed in graceful arches and balconies frilled with intricate wrought iron. They circle its centerpiece, Plaza Machado, shaded by swaying palms and a bandstand where musicians congregate at night. The GLBT also community receives a warm welcome in Mazatlan. Its prime gay bars include Banos Mazatlan Sodomas; Vitrolas; Pepe Toro; and CQ Open Mind, a disco club.

Add in a four-plus-mile ocean boardwalk called the Malecon—newly embellished with palms and streetlights punctuating the widened promenade—and the magic is made clear. By day, folks stroll pasts its majestic outdoor sculptures of dolphins and mermaids and dip toes into the crashing waves below, while at night it’s festive, with strolling guitarists and pop-up food stands serving families in their finery out to catch the breeze and the gossip.

For a 360-degree view of the harbor and the city clasped by the green Sierra Madre hills, head to the outdoor bar atop the classic ’40s Hotel Freeman anchoring the Malecon, then grab a bite at cosmo Casa Lucilla a few blocks further, where a breakfast of huevos rancheros and frothy cappuccino fuels a day’s delightful wander. While it’s still cool, discover the Plaza Republica, where shoeshine stands vie to buff up your Adidas before you inspect the Cathedral of 1856 with its fancy stucco façade and jewel-like stained glass. Then turn to Mercado Pino Suarez, teeming with indoor stalls selling gorgeous melons, pyramids of guavas and papayas, fancy pastries, aromatic spices and more, more, more—including brightly striped serapes, tacky souvenirs, and everything Frida, like the Frida Kahlo purse I didn’t know I needed, sporting a unibrow portrait of the famous artist.

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