The Mediterranean city of Valencia has an astounding cathedral, brilliant beaches, renaissance churches, some of the most striking modern architecture in Europe, fabulous sea food and gutsy red wine.
The locals are intensely proud of their city, culture and language, a form of Catalan called Valencian.
They might not shout about it as loudly as the Barcelonians, but perhaps that’s because their city is – whisper it – even better than Barcelona.
Come and discover: Valencia is a fascinating city – as intriguing as better-known Barcelona
Who needs the whorls of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia when you’ve got the spiralled columns of the city’s gothic Silk Exchange? Even paella was invented here.
After the River Turia flooded disastrously in 1957, the government diverted its waters. Now the wide green riverbed snakes through the city, providing 9km of parkland and a home for the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, an eruption of futuristic pavilions, lakes, an Imax cinema, aquarium and botanic gardens.
All of this is overlooked by the tallest opera house in the world, Santiago Calatrava’s steel and concrete Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, an ancient Greek helmet-shaped building.
Take a glass of wine on the breeze-cooled palm terrace before the opera or come back on Friday evening when music students from the nearby Berklee College of Music give free concerts on a floating stage in the lake (April to October).
Valencia cathedral and the Micalet bell tower are must-sees, but be sure to look up when you are inside the cathedral.
The windows are filled with inch-thin alabaster instead of glass. This makes for a spectral interior rendered even more eerie by the presence of Francisco Goya’s 1788 painting St Francis Borgia At The Deathbed Of An Impenitent, where a figure of Christ on the crucifix spurts blood on to a sinner.
Step into the cathedral’s Holy Grail chapel, home to a revered silver chalice which, as it dates to the 1st century AD, might just be the real thing.
Making waves: The city also offers easy access to some of Spain’s loveliest beaches
You’ll find modern art at the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (El Ivam) and El Greco paintings at the El Patriarca museum.
ON THE TILES
The city is famous for its ceramics and tiles, a tradition that dates back to the long years of Moorish rule. But you’ll also find Picasso’s work at The National Museum of Ceramics in Ciutat Vella, housed in a baroque palazzo with the most famous decorated doorway in Spain.
Go to the marvellous antiguedades shop on Corretgeria street, where there are tiles in geometric patterns, or line drawings of doves from the 19th century and earlier.
After taking in the Napoleonic-era shell marks in the ancient masonry of the Ciutat Vella’s Porta de Serrans, have a restorative pitcher of Agua de Valencia. The madly baroque Cafe de las Horas (Comte d’Almodovar street) serves this super-charged drink with cava and spirits. There are also non-alcoholic cocktails. And cake!
HIT THE BEACH
Like Barcelona, Valencia has a famous city shoreline, but you’ll find fewer people on Malvarrosa Beach, a 15-minute bus or tram ride from the city centre.
Casa Carmela, set back from the Malvarrosa Beach, is the place for paella. Locals favour the rabbit offal, snails and chicken paella cooked on open fire pits.
TRAIN STATION SPOT
Take a morning cafe solo in the Estacion Del Norte, one of Europe’s best-preserved art nouveau railway stations, and marvel at the ceramic fruits hanging from columns and tile murals.
One hundred years old last year, Estacion Del Norte stands like a north African fort beside the city’s brick bullring.
There has been a resurgence in local cuisine, with new takes on staples like hake and pork.
The Mercat de Colom is a gastronomic destination with restaurants including Habitual, run by Michelin-starred chef Ricard Camarena.
In the Ruzafa quarter, the enthusiastic staff of 2 Estaciones serve tuna with peanuts, muscatel, lime and watermelon and Valencian wine to make it zing (2estaciones.com).
easyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Valencia from £41 return.
Rooms at Melia Plaza hotel (melia.com) cost from £81.