WHERE TO EAT Paella is still beloved here—there's even a Museu di Arroz—but a host of innovative chefs are raising Valencia's gastronomic standing. Intrepid gourmands venture into the less-polished Grau neighborhood to seek out Ca'Sento (17 Carrer Méndez Núñez; 34/96-330-1775; dinner for two $250), the intimate family-run haute temple now headed by Ferran Adrià disciple Raúl Aleixandre (named chef of the year in 2004 by the Academia Española de Gastronomía). Spain's most influential newspaper, El País, claims that Sento prepares the best seafood—salt-grilled cigalas (crayfish), oysters with green appleand-lime granizado—on the Mediterranean. Note: menus are not in English, and headwaiter Vicente Aleixandre is fluent only in Spanish and German, but the food speaks for itself in any language. • In the Old City, La Sucursal (118 Carrer Guillem de Castro; 34/96-374-6665; dinner for two $120) is a serene, polished hideaway within the Institut Valencia d'Art Modern that serves what it calls "common-sense cuisine." Chef Vicente Torres creates imaginative dishes like creamy rice with razor clams and octopus carpaccio—an intoxicating reinvention of paella—and the regional fish lubina (sea bass) served in a bouillabaisse of fennel and mussels. • Just off the Plaça Reina, hip Valencianos and tourists alike drink the bottles of Burgundy and other vinos tintos lining the walls of the inviting Burdeos in Love (4 Carrer del Mar; 34/96-391-4350; dinner for two $80). In a warm environment—Baroque accents combined with a modern interior—Irish-born chef Matthew Calwin revels in local inflections, from croquetas de jamón ibérico to cod with a pisto of eggplant and zucchini. • New City neighborhood favorite Riff (18 Carrer Conde Altea; 34/96-333-5353; dinner for two $100) is a calming white space segmented by gauzy screens that grant diners a sense of communal privacy. Black Forest transplant Bernd Knöller, who moved to Valencia 14 years ago, works the room when not in the kitchen, chatting with friends and offering the odd menu translation for dishes such as grilled lubina with orange blossom and canaillas (sea snails). • El Alto de Colón (19 Carrer Jorge Juan; 34/96-353-0900; dinner for two $120) attracts a refined professional crowd to its dining room (which has a mosaic-tiled ceiling and views of the Mercat Colón) for Mediterranean dishes such as tuna in green olive sauce.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO Visigoths, Arabs, and Romans, among others, have all left their cultural imprint on Valencia. Last year, the city's august heritage was further illustrated when workers restoring the city's 15th-century cathedral uncovered a set of frescoes by the Italian Renaissance masters Francesco Pagano and Pablo de San Leocadio, which had been obscured by later work. You can view the well-preserved paintings at the Catedral de València (Plaça de la Reina). • Housed in an 18th-century seminary with a distinctive blue cupola that is a Valencia landmark, the Museu de Belles Arts (9 Carrer San Pio V; 34/96-360-5793; www.cult.gva.es/mbav) boasts one of Spain's greatest collections—and with a mere fraction of the Prado's crowds. Wander among the vast array of altarpieces, then marvel at El Greco's Saint John the Baptist. • A more contemporary experience can be had at the 17-year-old Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, or IVAM (118 Guillem de Castro; 34/96-386-3000; www.ivam.es), Spain's first modern-art museum, which is planning a massive expansion by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Among the highlights: an exemplary exhibition of early-19th-century works by Valencian Ignacio Pinazo. (A public square here is named for him.) • No visitor to Valencia should miss the massive Ciutat de les Arts i de les Ciències (17 Avda. Autopista del Saler; 34/90-210-0031; www.cac.es), the monumental collection of museums and arts buildings designed by Santiago Calatrava. Taking his cue from Valencia's brilliant light, Calatrava created white expanses and shimmering tiles offset by blue sky and water. The complex will soon welcome the new Palau de les Arts, whose inaugural season is slated to begin next October. In the meantime, you can check out sand tigers (sharks) and exotic guitarfish at L'Oceanogràfic, the world's second-largest aquarium; Foucault's pendulum at the Museu de les Ciències; and stars at the planetarium L'Hemisfèric. • Medieval ribaldry is on display at La Lonja de la Seda (Plaça del Mercat; 34/96-352-5478), the city's unesco-listed 15th-century silk exchange (don't miss the rather risqué downspouts on the gutters). • At night, students and stylish young creative types gather in El Carmen at bars and cafés such as Radio City (19 Carrer Santa Teresa; 34/96-391-4151), where every Tuesday is flamenco night. • Cap the evening off at Café Sant Jaume (51 Carrer Cavalleros; 34/96-391-2401). Housed in a former pharmacy, the bar specializes in agua de Valencia, an orange-based drink that will cure all that ails you.
TOM VANDERBILT has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Gourmet.