Spain’s bronze-medal city in terms of size, Valencia may not have the political prowess of Madrid or the cosmopolitan swagger of Barcelona, yet it in recent years it has emerged from its foundations as a former Roman military colony and indeed from the shadows of these two colossal destinations to offer an attractive and super-stylish, beachfront city-break destination in its own right.
Lauded as the ‘new Barcelona’, Valencia has undergone somewhat of a transformation in its recent history, largely thanks to two huge projects that have helped to put the city firmly on the short-break scene. In 1998 the city unveiled its formidable and futuristic architectural jewel in the crown, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencas (Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències), designed in the main by Santiago Calatrava, a Valencian native. This expansive, almost alien-esque complex is home to a wealth of attractions including the Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe, an interactive science museum; the Oceanogràfic, Europe’s largest marine park; L’Hemisfèric, an Imax cinema and planetarium; and El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, the city’s prestigious performing arts centre and opera house.
Added to that, in 2007, the America’s Cup – the world’s biggest and most prestigious sailing event – was staged for the first time in Europe in and around Valencia, transforming it into a globally-renowned, world-class centre for yachting. And whilst we’re talking about the (relatively) new, another couple of award-winning, architectural must-see sights on the Valencian skyline are Sir Norman Foster’s Palacio de Congresos, together with the Veles i Vents structure by David Chipperfield, residing beside the inner port, the perfect complement to the more traditional structures of the city’s Old Town.
By day, the atmospheric Centro Historico exudes charm and tradition in abundance with its cobbled alleyways and centuries-old buildings. The Catedral, a melange of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architectural style, dates back as far as the 13th century (completed in the 15th century) and represents the true heart of the city; climb the 207 steps to the top of the bell tower, the Torre del Miguelet, for far-reaching views over the city and coast beyond. By night meanwhile, the Old Town transforms into a hip hotspot for dinner and dancing, thronging with tourists and social wannabes; the Rufaza district, Barrio del Carmen, Calle de Caballeros, Plaza de Canovas and Avenida de Aragón, along with the stylish new port, are regarded as some of the hippest hotspots.
Famed as the birthplace of paella, it’s no surprise that Valencia has a reputation for tasty Mediterranean cuisine and there’s certainly no shortage of eateries vying for your custom – La Tassa District is particularly renowned for its abundance of tapas restaurants. On a foodie theme, be sure to take in the Mercado Central whilst in town, regarded as one of Spain’s most important markets with over 1,000 stalls selling all manner of gastronomic delicacies and the freshest, locally-sourced produce including seafood, meats, confectionary, fruits and vegetables (closed Sundays). And literally right next door you’ll find Valencia’s silk exchange, La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia, an exquisitely-beautiful Gothic building dating back to the 15th century and the city’s golden age, today – rightfully – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Valencia is not without its own extensive artistic heritage and the city’s Museo de Bellas Artes is in fact Spain’s second largest arts museum after the Prado in Madrid. Here you’ll find an eclectic mix of modern and traditional art, all the while showcasing some of Spain’s finest painters – El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, Goya and Sorolla (Valencia’s most famous artistic son) to name but a few. And if it is ‘proper modern’ you’re after, try the IVAM (Valencian Institute of Modern Art), home to over 400 artworks in a modernist genre.
A few other worthy points of note before finishing: the Plaza de Toros is one of the oldest (and active) bullrings in Spain and its Museo Taurino makes for an interesting visit if you aren’t too sensitive about the subject matter. If, however, live animals are more your thing, why not try the Bioparc, an innovative and forward-thinking zoological park, home to over 4,000 animals from Africa, South East Asia and the tropics. Or if you’re passionate about the beautiful game, why not soak up the thrills and spills of a La Liga match at Valencia Club de Fútbol’s home ground.
And finally, it goes without saying, once you’ve explored the eclectic classic and contemporary mix of the city, you’ve got the balmy sun, sea and sands of the Costa Blanca on which to kick back, unwind and truly savour this perfect Spanish short-break destination.