(CNN) — For many, the words "vacation in Mazatlán" provoke an idea of the heyday holidays of the '70s, of cocktails decorated with umbrellas in the Golden Zone and hotels called Paradise frequented by the movie stars of the time.
While Mazatlán has spent many years perhaps dreaming of the old travel days before the Riviera Maya pulled international tourism away from its shores, it has always remained popular with national holidaymakers in Mexico.
Isla Mujeres is only 13 miles from the coast of Cancún, but its beautiful beaches and serene vibe make it seem like another world entirely.
In the past few years, a huge drive to improve infrastructure, modernize outdated hotels and restore the city's colonial center is putting Mazatlán back on the map and making it an attractive option for those who like a little culture with their beach vacation.
The second-largest city in the state of Sinaloa, founded by the Spanish in 1531, Mazatlán has a rich and intriguing history.
A port town in a time of abundant mining, it attracted immigrants from around the world. Germans who settled in the area started a brewery that created Mexico's well-known Pacifico beer and played a role in the creation of Sinaloa's famous banda music, which has its roots in German polka beats.
Mazatlán's rise during the early 1900s under President Porfirio Díaz can be seen in the French-style architecture he favored in the city's picturesque and colorful historic center.
While the beach in the hotel zone is located directly in front of the properties, it is nice to explore a little further afield, and there are a number of quiet islands to choose from.
Isla de la Piedra (Stone Island) is a short water taxi ride from the mainland. Here you can take a horse ride along the beach or jump on a quad bike to explore. You can also just lie back on the sand with a coconut water and some locally caught seafood before taking a dip in the tranquil seas.
Isla de Venados (Deer Island) is part of an ecological reserve and can be reached directly from the hotel zone in around 20 minutes by boat.
If you are feeling flashy, hire a private yacht to take you around the islands, spotting sea lions, marine birds and enjoying the sea breeze. Ending up at Isla de Venados, you can take out a kayak on the calm waters, snorkel in the bay or swing in a hammock in the shade.
Aries Ocean Adventures, Marina El Cid, Av Camarón Sábalo 1705, Zona Dorada, 82110 Mazatlán +526699163468
A cultural cycle
A colorful street in the city center.
Taking a bike ride along the promenade and into the historic center of Mazatlán is a great way to get a feel for the city. Feel the wind in your hair while enjoying a guided bike ride with Blue Foot Tours. The guides are young and relaxed so you will learn about how locals live and maybe even pick up a little Sinaloa slang along the way.
Cycling through the colorful streets of downtown Mazatlán is a treat, and exploring the market, trying locally made coconut marshmallows and "ash tamales" is a tasty extra. Ask to see the cliff divers too and you will watch the local clavadistas dive off a 50-foot-high cliff into waters far below.
Blue Foot Tours, Hotel Don Pelayo Avenida del Mar #111 Colonia Flamingos, 82149 Mazatlán +52 669 270 8212
Not just a beach
The historical center is also great for a stroll, snapping photos of the colorful buildings or sitting in the tranquil Plazuela Machado with the locals. Culture vultures can take in a play at the Angela Peralta Theatre, which has a regularly changing program.
One of the best dance schools in Mexico, La Escuela Profesional de Danza Mazatlán, is also found in Mazatlán, so dance fans are in for a treat.
Also close to the historic center is a swimming pool within the sea. Once part of a swimming pool, bar and restaurant owned by Chilean Antonio Olivera, Carpa Olivera was destroyed by two hurricanes that hit the coast in 1957 and 1975.
What remained was restored and is now a popular swimming spot upon the Olas Altas Beach. Keep an eye out for passing fish and octopus that get washed into the pool with the seawater.
Mazatlán is all about seafood. For lovers of spice, the local dish aguachile, a kind of shrimp ceviche, is fresh, citrusy and packs a spicy punch. It makes the perfect dish to enjoy accompanied by an ice-cold Pacifico or even the vanilla-infused local refresco, Tonicol.
Pick from any number of the beachfront eateries for the freshest seafood options or head to a local favorite, Los Arcos, set back a block from the beach.
The historic center also offers a few high-class dining options for that special vacation treat.
El Presidio's food is as good as its dramatic decor.
Casa 46 is found in what was once the city museum and offers interesting and creative dishes enjoyed with a view over Plazuela Machado. It is beautiful at night when the square comes to life with craft stalls and families taking a stroll.
For those who love old haciendas that have been brought back to life, El Presidio offers probably the most stunning setting for dinner that you can find. The open-air central courtyard is full of old trees with roots climbing down the walls. The food is high quality with large portions. Try to save room for one of their tasty desserts.
Los Arcos, Av Camarón Sábalo 1019, Zona Costera, 82110 Mazatlán, +526699140999
Casa 46, Constitución 79, Centro, 82000 Mazatlán, +526691360545 El Presidio, Blvd. Niños Héroes 1511, Centro, 82000 Mazatlán, +52 669 910 2615
Resting your head
Casa Lucila only has eight rooms, perfect for relaxing.
If you want beachfront lodging, and who can blame you, your best option is The Local in Mazatlán's Zona Dorada.
The multi-tiered infinity pool that looks over the ocean makes this modern option stand out.
Also watch this area for The Inn at Mazatlán, an old favorite that will have completely modernized rooms by the end of 2019.
For those who prefer to be close to the historic center, Casa Lucila is a boutique hotel in what was once a jazz club frequented by the likes of Robert Mitchum and Ernest Hemingway. Six of the eight rooms have ocean views, so you can have the best of both worlds.
The Local, Av. Camaron Sabalo 905, Zona Costera, 82110 Ciudad Mazatlán, +526691959494 Casa Lucila, Avenida Olas Altas 16, Centro, 82000 Mazatlán, +52 669 982 1100
When to go
Dusk in Mazatlan is a beautiful time for a walk.
Getty Images/Matt Mawson
The best time to visit is between November and April when the weather is beautiful and not too humid.
A number of different cultural events between November and January culminate in Mazatlán's carnival in February, which attracts big crowds, bringing the port city to life with street parties and parades.