When I lived in Madrid, more than a decade ago, Valencia was rarely on anyone's radar. Spain's third-largest city was casually known for its oranges and its paella and for Les Falles, the boisterous, pyrotechnical festival that takes place each March, but it hardly felt like a destination. Ten years on, Valencia has arrived. Its population has boomed; once-derelict districts like El Carmen have become hip enclaves; innovative restaurants and boutiques have sprouted; and the valenciano skyline has been embellished with everything from an impressive contemporary art museum to the sprawling Ciutat de les Arts i de les Ciències, Santiago Calatrava's swooping collection of white, organically contoured museums and theaters. The 2007 America's Cup, the first held in Europe, will only bring more attention, more discoverers.
For now, however, this orange blossomscented regional capital—for which only two small dedicated guidebooks in English exist—is blissfully free of the postcard racks and United Nationsstyle polyglot menus that haunt some of Spain's more famous destinations. Sure, it has the crowded cafés and tree-shaded plazas of Seville, the Moorish traces and ancient monuments of Granada, the tumultuous movida (nightlife) of Madrid. Yet this old city by the sea also has an identity all its own, as just one spin around town will attest.
WHERE TO STAY Valencia has never been thought of as having stylish hotels, and when it won the bid for the America's Cup there wasn't a single hotel on the waterfront near where the races will be held. Now, construction crews are hammering away on an old textile factory near the beach, converting it into a luxury property to be managed by Westin. And this is only the latest in the spate of new upmarket designer hotels that signals Valencia's change in fortunes. The Palau de la Mar (14 Carrer Navarro Reverter; 34/96-316-2884; www.hospes.es; doubles from $192), housed in an adjoining pair of elegant 19th-century mansions, mingles grand marble entryways and staircases with 66 sleek rooms. The white walls, chocolate-brown floors, and antique tubs provide a tranquil respite from the clamorous streets. • Those with more nautical tastes would do well to head for Hotel Neptuno (2 Passeig de Neptuno; 34/96-356-7777; www.hotelneptunovalencia.com; doubles from $170), located on the Platja de Malvarrosa cheek by jowl with longtime paella redoubt La Pepica. With its retro signage, Neptuno's exterior is evocative of Modernist Miami; its interior, meanwhile, is pure Spanish design, with a dramatic glass elevator surrounded by a cascading waterfall. • Located halfway between the Ciutat complex and the center of the city is Puerta Valencia (28 Carrer Cardenal Benlloch; 34/96-393-6395; www.hoteles-silken.com; doubles from $88). Its aesthetic is crisp and colorful, courtesy of Javier Mariscal, the Barcelona-trained Valencia native who most recently designed a floor at the Puerta América Hotel, just outside Madrid.
WHERE TO SHOP Whether it's young señoritas thronging at Zara or their parents haggling with fish vendors at El Mercat Central, the fantastical wrought-iron and glass modernista central market in the Old City, shopping is pursued with gusto. Clustered on or around the street Poeta Querol are scores of luxury retailers like Hermès, Santa Maria Novella, and Loewe, as well as a few Spanish favorites. Valencia-born fashion designer Francis Montesinos (25 Carrer Conde de Salvatierra; 34/96-391-2844), whose own collections draw on everything from bullfighting costumes to camouflage, carries designs that are as vivid and flamboyant as an Almodóvar film. • A few doors down, Maison Parfum (25 Carrer Conde de Salvatierra; 34/96-394-0692), the newest outpost of Barcelona-based olfactory wizard Ramón Mo-negal, offers a wide range of evocative scents, from Herbe Juste Coupée (fresh-cut grass) to Orange Pressée du Matin (morning orange juice). • Locals and chocoscenti are flocking to Cacao Sampaka (19 Carrer Conde de Salvatierra; 34/96-353-4062), another Barcelona import, which offers cutting-edge bonbons infused with ingredients like black olives and lavender. Well-heeled shoppers from the neighborhood drink sparkling cava and eat panini in an inviting café in the back of the shop. • Americans would be remiss to visit Spain without stopping by Zara Home (15 Carrer Jorge Juan; 34/96-351-3252), the interior design outpost of the country's popular clothing chain. Load up on Moroccan poufs, Chinese painted mirrors, and stylish linens. • Foodies have embraced Riff Tienda (14 Carrer Almirante Cadarso; 34/96-316-1146), a pastry and wine shop adjoining the popular restaurant by the same name. • In the trendy El Carmen neighborhood, a festive range of skirts and tops from young Spanish, Italian, and Swiss designers is curated by Angela López Santa-Cruz at Madame Bugalú (3 Carrer Danzas; 34/96-315-4476). • Shop-Suey (6a Carrer De la Lonja; 34/96-392-6406) offers an irresistible selection of housewares, books, and objets, including a bespoke Italian foosball table with players from local soccer team Valencia CF. • Art galleries abound in Valencia, but two of the best, My Name's Lolita (7 Carrer Avellanas; 34/96-391-1372) and Galería Valle Ortí (22 Carrer Avellanas; 34/96-392-3377), are within walking distance of each other on a street filled with antiques dealers. • A few blocks away is Galería Rosa Santos (21 Carrer Bolsería; 34/96-3926-6417), a multistory aesthetic laboratory brimming with the experiments of young artists.