Spaniards have always adored Valencia, their irrepressibly flamboyant, third-largest city that blends Seville's sultry allure—300 sunny days, endless orange trees—with Barcelona's passion for design. It's the latter, kindled by Valencia's ambitious mayor, Rita Barberá, that recently propelled this Mediterranean port into a state of intense Bilbao-style renewal. In fact, Valencia has its own answer to the Guggenheim: Santiago Calatrava's jaw-dropping City of Arts and Sciences. "The building has put Valencia on the international map," says Rafa Marí, cultural editor of the newspaper Las Provincias, adding that the city's hosting of the 2007 America's Cup will further raise its profile.
Poised on the southern end of the Turia Gardens (a dried-up riverbed converted to a lush four-mile-long park), the complex swaggers into view like some futuristic apparition. Here, the shiplike Opera House—still in progress—with its dramatic retractable roof stands beside Calatrava's skeletal silhouette of the science museum. The nearby L'Hemisfèric planetarium resembles a giant eye about to blink. Connecting the structures, reflective blue pools lend the complex an ethereal, aquatic grace.
One could spend forever gazing at this spectacle of steel, glass, and white concrete. But that would mean missing Valencia's trove of late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture. A few years back the ornamented façades and grand staircases were obscured by dust and soot, emblematic of the city's state of disrepair post-Franco. But after a recent multimillion-euro makeover, buildings all over town have been reborn—and none more so than the 1914 Mercado de Colón. Today this Gaudíesque fantasia is a buzzing hub of shopping and café life, centering around the superb food shop Manglano. The streets around the market, resplendent with their fin de siècle details, also draw well-heeled crowds with chic shops like chocolatier Cacao Sampaka (try a balsamic-vinegar bonbon). Even the Central Post Office, with its restored stained-glass dome, and the 1917 Estación del Norte are masterpieces. I nearly missed my train at the Vienna Secession-inspired station, absorbed as I was with the beautifully cleaned ceramic tiles depicting farmers and orange growers.
Art is everywhere in Valencia—and not just in the museums. "We have a new biennial and the city center has been reborn as an art destination," says Lupe Frígols, whose gallery, La Esfera Azul, is in the Barrio del Carmen, the old neighborhood that has been reclaimed by artists and hipsters who pose at outdoor cafés and cobblestoned plazas. On the barrio's edge is IVAM, the contemporary art center that jump-started the city's art renaissance. Its permanent collection focuses on such Spanish artists as the sculptor Julio González, and its revolving exhibits include works by luminaries like James Turrell. The museum also moonlights as a culinary destination. At its sleek minimalist restaurant, La Sucursal, the modern Spanish aesthetic is played out in dishes like cauliflower mousse with shellfish "air" (a sort of lather), vacuum-cooked bacalao in an anise-spiked broth, and beet compote with fresh cheese ice cream and berries.
The Valencia region's superb Mediterranean cooking was always easy to love but hard to find within city limits. While tourists attacked the paella at Hemingway's old beachfront hangout, La Pepica, locals escaped to the countryside for authentic fare. These days, those in the know stay in town, gathering at smart spots like Albacar, whose updated Mediterranean specialties include a dramatic pasta paella jet-black with squid ink, a rosy lamb loin with honey and rosemary, and pineapple ravioli filled with coconut and white chocolate. Reservations are nearly impossible to get at the tiny Ca' Sento, where Raúl Aleixandre, a protégé of Ferran Adrià's, applies the alchemy he perfected at El Bulli to spectacular seafood dishes. The restaurant has made a big splash, even beyond Valencia (José Carlos Capel, food critic for El País, Spain's largest daily, claims that it has "the best ingredients in the country"). And now food snobs from Madrid and Barcelona make pilgrimages here to enjoy the rare "sea dates" trapped in a gelée of the bivalve's own marine juices, majestic salt-grilled langoustines, and pristine turbot accented with lemon confiture.
With the culinary standard now so high, even the neighborhood tapas bar has taken on a more refined sensibility. At Casa Montaña, an old cellar done up with weathered wine barrels, the nibbles include impeccable fat anchovies, pedigreed cured hams, and boutique cheeses—all to be washed down with the owner's ambitious selection of wine. Some Pétrus to go with your wood-roasted peppers? Sin problemas.
Visitors to Valencia used to be mainly northern Europeans headed for the beach and hard-partying Spaniards who crashed with friends. Hotels were beside the point. That trend is reversing, though, led by the new Palau de la Mar, a stylish 66-room retreat now the city's choice place to stay. In a restored 19th-century palacio in the town center, the hotel has heavily carved doors and intricate ironwork concealing interiors of glass, steel, white textiles, and dark wood. This subtle play between antique and modern is pulled off perfectly by a troop of fashionable designers. Palau is already attracting the attention of a sophisticated breed of traveler who is touting Valencia as the new Barcelona. Are Barcelonans worried? Hardly. Valencia, you see, is their favorite weekend playground.
CITY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES At 1-7 Avda. Autopista de El Saler; 34-90/210-0031; www.cac.es
IVAM $ At 118 Avda. Guillem de Castro; 34-96/386-3000; www.ivam.es
ALBACAR Dinner, $100. At 35 Calle Sorni; 34-96/395-1005
CACAO SAMPAKA $ At 19 Calle Conde de Salvatierra; 34-96/353-4062
CASA MONTANA Tapas, $4. At 69 Calle José Benlliure; 34-96/367-2314
CA' SENTO Dinner, $170. At 17 Calle Méndez Núñez; 34-96/330-1775
LA SUCURSAL Lunch, $130. At 118 Avda. Guillem de Castro; 34-96/374-6665.
MANGLANO At 5 Mercado de Colón; 34-96/352-8854
PALAU DE LA MAR Rates, $340-$680. At 14 Avda. Navarro Reverter; 34-96/316-2884; www.hospes.es
About 40 minutes from town, CASA SALVADOR (L'Estany de Cullera; 34-96/172-0136; www.casasalvador.com) is worth a trip for textbook paella served at an idyllic lakeside setting.
The place to try Valencian horchata, the city's famous drink made with ground tiger nuts, is the gilded and frescoed HOCHATERIA EL SIGLO ($ 11 Plaza Santa Catalina; 34-96/391-8466).
For agua de Valencia, the city's best-known cocktail—a mix of fresh orange juice, Cointreau, and cava—head over to CAFE SANT JAUME (51 Calle Caballeros; 34-96/391-2401), a former apothecary in Barrio del Carmen.
The NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CERAMICS ($ 2 Calle Poeta Querol; 34-96/351-6392; mnceramica.mcu.es) has a fantastic collection of Arab pieces from Manises, outside Valencia. Even more impressive is the stunning Baroque alabaster façade designed to look like flowing water.
Excellent Spanish crafts are a Valencia speciality: Bring back an intricate hand-painted fan from NELA (2 Calle San Vicente; 34-96/392-3023) and collect some antique ceramic tiles and socarrat pottery from TALLER ARTESANIA YUSTE ($ 5 Plaza del Miracle del Mocadoret; 34-96/371-8713).
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.