Valencia was once better known as a jumping-off point for the region’s beaches, rather than a cultural rival to siblings Madrid and Barcelona. But all that has changed in recent years. The gothic old town has been spruced up, modernist neighbourhoods are peppered with independent boutiques and eateries, and futuristic creations by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava now sit alongside the more traditional buildings.
Turia Gardens, a nine-kilometre ribbon of greenery that winds its way through the city along the route of the now-redirected Turia River, is one of the biggest urban parks in Spain. Come for the art and design but stay for the beaches of golden sands and the fantastic cuisine, led by a clutch of exciting new chefs crafting contemporary dishes with products farmed locally.
Where to stay
The sleek Only You Hotel is the latest addition to Valencia’s collection of boutique boltholes. It welcomes guests into a buzzing art deco cocktail bar in the lobby, and even has an in-house florist and tailor. Rooms are bright and airy, all creams and shades of Mediterranean blue with gold accents and elegant balconies, while the top-floor restaurant serves paella with city views.
The Caro Hotel is another design favourite, situated in a historic palace with contemporary interiors, ancient artefacts and a restaurant set amongst the remnants of the city’s 12th-century Arabic walls. Gothic arches, Roman mosaics and columns discovered during the restorations were integrated into the scheme. Finally, surrounded by the exclusive boutiques of the Colón neighbourhood, the NH Collection Valencia Colón has an opulent cocktail bar that features wood panelling, floral motifs and burnished chandeliers.
Breakfast & lunch
The modernist district of Ruzafa is a favourite with foodies for its patio cafés. But for coffee with a side of style, head into the old town where the sleek, ultra-minimalist pine and polished concrete interiors of The Coffee have earned it a spot on Valencia’s Design Map, created to celebrate the city’s designation as this year’s World Design Capital.
For lunch, find a seat in the warm terracotta interiors of the Be Green salad bar. Foodies will also love the Central Market, a glass and wrought-iron art nouveau cathedral to local produce with a central dome of colourful tiles. After browsing the stalls of fresh fish and local wines, head to Central Bar. It’s an everyman eatery run by Michelin-starred Valencian chef Ricard Camarena, loved by locals for its gourmet tapas dishes made using ingredients grown outside the city.
Wine & dine
Embraced by fields and fringed by the Mediterranean, Valencia is not short of excellent regional produce. Down by the beach, in what was once the separate fishing village of El Cabanyal, La Sastrería is clad wall-to-ceiling in a fantastical display of ceramic tiles and serves exquisite fresh fish.
Then there is paella, the city’s star dish, best enjoyed with a view of passing yachts at the glass-fronted La Marítima. For drinks, locals head to the trendy Palau Alameda, where they can sit and sip Agua de Valencia (a blend of orange juice, cava, gin and vodka) under tasselled parasols at rooftop bar Àtic, overlooking the winding Turia Gardens.
Art & culture
At the easternmost point of Turia Gardens, the gleaming, futuristic buildings imagined by architects Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela rise up between pathways and palm trees. Surrounded by serene blue pools, the spectacular City of Arts and Sciences complex includes the opera house, a science museum and the largest aquarium in Europe.
Set to join them this summer in an equally extraordinary building is the modern art and exhibition space Caixa Forum. The grand, gothic Silk Exchange is a remnant of the city’s booming medieval silk industry and a Unesco World Heritage Site, while the Fine Art Museum is housed in a blue-domed former seminary and features works by Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla, who so effectively captured Valencia’s Mediterranean light.
The old town neighbourhood of El Carmen is a maze of streets hiding traditional artisans, independent boutiques and antiques shops filled with treasures. The concept store Simple sits behind a red and white-striped awning and is packed with everything from artisanal chocolate to kitchen accessories, while Kúbelik sells stylish, sustainable clothes made in Spain.
Beyond the city
The farmland that supplies much of Valencia is within walking distance of the city, and this green space is dotted with traditional restaurants set among the fields – try Alquería del Pou, a short stroll from the City of Arts and Sciences.
For a more back-to-nature experience than the city’s coast, peddle southwards on the cycle trails. Less than 10 kilometres from the centre of town you’ll find the sand dunes of El Saler beach, which are backed by fragrant pines. Just behind the beach itself, the vast Albufera Lake is perfect for a sunset boat trip, and the surrounding wetlands look more like Bali than the Spanish coast. This is where Valencia’s Denomination of Origin rice is grown for its famous paella, and the lakeside village of El Palmar is filled with traditional lunch spots to sample it.