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.
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.
Local currency Euro
Official languages Valencian and Castilian
Distance from Barcelona 220 miles (south)
Major airport Valencia Manises Airport, 20 minutes by taxi to the Old City (about $15)
Most popular attraction last year Museu de les Ciències Principe Felipe, with 2,640,569 visitors
Number of sunny days annually More than 300
City symbol The bat, or lo rat penat (winged rat). One theory why: When the Catalonian king Jaume I was about to capture the city from the Moors in 1238, a bat landed on his battle flag
One of Valencia's simpler pleasures is horchata (orxata in Valencian). Unlike the rice-based horchata found in America, this sweet, frothy milk-like drink made from the chufa (tiger nut) is said to have numerous health benefits. Vendors specializing in the drink are ubiquitous, but a prime spot is Horchatería El Siglo (11 Plaça Santa Catalina; 34/96-391-8466), which has been serving it up since 1836. True devotees can head to the Avenida de la Horchata, a whole street of horchaterías, anchored by Horchatería Daniel (41 Avda. de la Horchata; 34/96-185-8866), which many insist makes the best glass in town.
Curator at IVAM
RICE TO RICHES "For real paella go to Casa Roberto [19 Carrer Maestro Gozalbos; 34/96-395-1361; dinner for two $33] in the Ensanche quarter. I also love Ca'n Bermell [18 Santo Tomas; 34/96-391-0288; dinner for two $86], an easy-to-miss tapas bar beloved by gourmet-minded locals." SOUND CHECK "Don't miss renowned Spanish architect José María de Paredes's El Palau de la Música [30 Passeig de la Alameda; 34/96-337-5020; www.palaudevalencia.com]; all of the world's major orchestras play here." HOLY ART "One place that is overlooked by tourists is El Colegio del Patriarca [1 Carrer de la Nave; 34/96-351-4176], where you will find a Renaissance cloister and paintings by El Greco."