Spain's third-largest city is a captivating cultural mix of ultramodern architecture and mediaeval magic.
1. A MEDITERRANEAN RENAISSANCE
For years, Spain's third-largest metropolis lingered in the shadow of the country's "Big Two" (Madrid and Barcelona). But thanks to some snazzy new cultural draws, and rejuvenated old quarters, Valencia has emerged as one of Europe's most talked-about city breaks. A blissful Mediterranean climate – balmy summers and extremely mild winters – makes Valencia an alluring year-round destination.
2. FESTIVE SPIRIT
From elaborate Catholic processions to sangria-soaked street parties, Valencians love a good fiesta. The annual highlight is undoubtedly Las Fallas – an exuberant five-day festival that marks the arrival of spring. Hundreds of whimsical papier mache creations (called ninots and usually parodying mythical or famous figures) are paraded through the streets and squares, then set ablaze to a frenzy of fireworks. Each year, one ninot is "pardoned" by public vote and displayed at the city's Fallero Museum (Plaza Monteolivete 4).
3. THE CITY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Co-masterminded by Valencian designer Santiago Calatrava, this space-age cluster of architectural stunners wows visitors – inside and out. Shaped like a giant whale skeleton, the Principe Felipe Science Museum is jammed with hands-on exhibits that will win over even the most science-phobic kids. The Oceanografic is Europe's biggest aquarium, with species from the planet's major seas and oceans, and the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia hosts top-notch dance and opera. On steamy summer evenings, the Umbracle, a botanical garden-cum-terrace bar, is a place to see and be seen.
4. PARK LIFE
Calatrava's "city within a city" sprawls across Valencia's biggest green lung. "El Rio" to locals, the Jardin del Turia slithers nine kilometres along the former Turia riverbed (the river was redirected south of Valencia after its banks burst and flooded in 1957). A favourite with relaxing families and fitness-conscious souls, this fabulous park is studded with boating ponds, children's playgrounds and sports facilities (from soccer fields to baseball pitches), plus a loop of walking, running and cycling trails fringed by grassy lawns, shady trees and rose gardens.
5. MEDIAEVAL MAGIC
"El Rio" skirts the northern edges of Valencia's historic core – a mesmerising tangle of winding alleys and cafe-lined squares oozing old-world charm. Built over an ancient Roman temple and a Moorish mosque, Valencia's cathedral is a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, and shelters what's purported to be the Holy Grail (the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper). Next door, there's a basilica with a majestic ceiling mural, and the Miguelete Tower, a former minaret-turned-Christian belfry, which grants superb views of Valencia. Good panoramas can also be had from the Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart, Valencia's two remaining mediaeval city gates.
6. LA LONJA
Constructed between 1482 and 1548, during Valencia's "Golden Age", La Lonja de la Seda (the Silk Exchange) is World Heritage-listed and described by UNESCO as "an exceptional example of a secular building in late Gothic style, which dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities". Visitors can peruse the former trading hall, with its splendid spiral columns, and chill out in a courtyard sprinkled with orange trees.
7. CENTRAL MARKET
A stone's throw from La Lonja – beside the monumental 13th century San Juan church – the ornate Central Market is a feast for the senses. Housed in one of Valencia's loveliest modernist buildings, this riot of stained glass and decorative tiles resembles a giant deli, with almost 1000 vendors offering all sorts of tantalising goodies, from fresh fish and hocks of cured Spanish ham to herbs, fruit and veg grown on the Huerta (the green belt on the city's outskirts). Listen carefully and as well as Castilian Spanish, you'll hear Valencian (the local language, which is similar to Catalan).
Valencia proudly boasts it's the birthplace of this iconic Spanish dish (pronounced "pah-eh-ya", not "pie-ella"). While you can savour seafood paellas here, an authentic paella valenciana stays faithful to its peasant origins and comprises meaty ingredients such as chicken, rabbit and snails rather than shellfish. It's traditionally cooked on an open wooden fire with locally grown rice and only eaten at lunch. Valencians swear their mothers – and grandmothers – do the best paella, but many restaurants offer tasty versions with their 'menu del dias' (fixed-price, three-course specials).
9. THE WATERFRONT
You can also eat paella – and delicious seafood – by the sea, a 20-minute metro and tram ride from central Valencia. A string of eateries, including La Pepica – an old haunt of Ernest Hemingway – nudge a palm tree-lined promenade that stretches seven kilometres along Valencia's attractive golden sandy shores. The city's historic port and waterfront was upgraded before hosting the 2007 America's Cup, and its spruced-up marina is a hub of flashy yachts and sailing opportunities (such as sunset catamaran rides). The earthy backstreets of El Cabanyal, an antique fishermen's district, hide characterful taverns and colourful, crumbling houses.
10. FINE ARTS
Stocked with gems from Spanish masters Goya and Velazquez, plus eye-catching paintings from relatively unknown Valencian artists, the city's fine arts museum is touted as Spain's best after Madrid's El Prado. It's free to enter. Contemporary art aficionados may prefer the revolving exhibitions of the IVAM (Institute of Modern Art). Valencia has a rich ceramics heritage, and more than 5000 artfully decorated pieces are on show at the National Ceramics Museum, which is set inside a flamboyant Baroque palace.
11. STREET SMARTS
At times, Valencia resembles a huge open-air art gallery. Walls, buildings and even door shutters are laced with colourful murals and cartoonish graffiti. Some are bizarre and incomprehensible, others are bitingly satirical, Banksy-esque and begging to be photographed. Many reflect on Spain's nagging economic troubles, which have left the country riddled with debts and a 50 per cent youth unemployment rate.
12. BARRIO DEL CARMEN
Street art is one of the quirkiest features of El Carmen, the grittiest, but increasingly gentrified, chunk of Valencia's historic centre. Springing south from the pretty Carmen church and plaza, a warren of alleys bulge with clothes and curio stores, tapas bars, bohemian cafes, jazz lounges and cosmopolitan restaurants – plus scores of dishevelled buildings in need of TLC. By Carmen's western limits, at Calle del Turia 62, Cafe del Duende is an intimate spot with sensual live flamenco shows. Ole!
13. AGUA DE VALENCIA
Valencia's vibrant nightlife is partially fuelled by a potent local cocktail. Agua de Valencia fuses orange juice – squeezed from juicy Valencian oranges – with vodka, gin and cava ("Spanish champagne"). One of the smartest places to try it is Cafe de las Horas (Calle del Conde de Almodovar 1), an eclectic venue near the cathedral. Fancy something non-alcoholic? The ubiquitous horchata is a refreshing Valencian tipple made from tigernuts, water and sugar.
South of a bull ring that Hemingway used to frequent, the funky inner-city suburb of Russafa has been dubbed "Valencia's Soho". You'll find a jumble of Middle Eastern kebab shops, Chinese takeaways, down to earth market stalls, chi-chi fashion stores, interior design boutiques, pavement cafes and gourmet restaurants housed in graceful mansions. In the neighbouring Eixample district, leafy Calle Conde de Altea and chic Colon Market have heaps of stylish spots for lunch and dinner.
15. THE MESTALLA
Unveiled in 1923, this 55,000-capacity arena is the home of Valencia FC – one of Spain's leading football clubs. The Mestalla's steep terracing makes it one of Europe's most atmospheric sporting venues, especially when Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid and Lionel Messi's Barcelona are the visitors. Tickets for La Liga matches cost from €20 ($30), and behind-the-scenes stadium tours are also available.
Some Valencians call it "the zoo". But you won't find any cages at Bioparc. An exotic cast of African wildlife – think elephants, lions, zebras, gorillas and lemurs – are the stars of this innovative family-friendly attraction on Turia park's western edges. It's divided into enclosures that aim to recreate the animals' natural habitats (notably the Savannah, Equatorial Africa and Madagascar). The daily bird shows – starring marabous and pelicans – are spellbinding.
Birdlife buzzes at Albufera, a lake and nature reserve 10 kilometres south of Valencia. Cinnamon teals, northern shovellers and grey herons flutter above this idyllic wetland, which is surrounded by rice fields, citrus groves and golf courses. You can enjoy boat rides on the lake, roam the sand dunes of the nearby El Saler beach or wine and dine at El Palmar, a lake-side village packed with paella specialists.
18. WINE TASTING
Valencian vino isn't as world-famous as La Rioja's, but the region's viticultural history dates back more than 1000 years, with winemakers producing fruity reds made from the Monastrell, Bobal and Tempranillo grapes, as well as roses and cavas. Wine-tasting tours from Valencia call in at the bodegas (cellars) dotted around the former Moorish fortress town of Requena, 70 kilometres west of the city.
19. LA TOMATINA
For most of the year, Bunol, nestled between Valencia and Requena, is an easy-going place with an 13th century castle and bucolic mountainous surrounds. On the last Wednesday of August, things get very messy here. Ostensibly a giant tomato-throwing fight, La Tomatina is one of Spain's most raucous annual festivals. More than 20000 revellers paint the town – and each other – red with more than 100 tons of tomatoes.
20. FURTHER ADVENTURES
Valencia is a handy springboard, with Madrid 95 minutes inland via high-speed train and Barcelona three hours north – though it'll take longer if you're tempted by the secluded coves and popular resorts of the Costa del Azahar (Orange Blossom Coast). A highlight is Peniscola, where the 1961 movie El Cid, starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, was filmed. From Valencia's passenger port, overnight ferries shuffle to the bewitching Balearic isles of Ibiza, Mallorca and Minorca.
Steve McKenna's trip was supported by Valencia Tourism; visitvalencia.com