48 hours in: Valencia
Spain’s third-largest city is a delightful mix of ancient and futuristic architecture, culture and great food that spills into greenery and miles of beaches, says Chris Leadbeater
Why go now?
Early summer is the ideal time to explore Valencia, the nation's hidden urban gem that offers everything from high art to wide beaches. And from June 25-27, the city hosts the European Grand Prix -- although you will need a Formula 1-grade credit card to secure a good hotel room that particular weekend.
Valencia is linked from Dublin with Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com). The airport sits five miles west of the city at the end of metro lines 3 and 5. Either will take you to the centre in 20 minutes for a fare of €1.90. The most convenient stations are Xàtiva (2) and Colón (3).
A Valencia Tourist Card (valenciatouristcard.com) covers all public transport and admission to some museums, and costs €16 for 48 hours from the tourist office in the airport, open 8.30am-8.30pm Monday to Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm at weekends. A taxi to the centre costs €15 and takes 15 minutes.
Get your bearings
The bull ring (4) at Calle Xàtiva 28 (0034 963 519 315; plazadetorosde valencia.com), a 19th-century amphitheatre of brick and bloodshed, is an obvious spot for discerning your location. From here, the compact heart of Valencia ebbs north.
The old city is tucked into a loop of what used to be the River Turia. The ancient centre is bounded on the west by the 15th-century Torres de Quart (5), pockmarked by cannon fire from the French invasion of 1808; on the north-east by Torres de Serrano (6), almost unreal in its restored perfection; and in the south by the Estación del Norte (7).
The main square, Plaza del Ayuntamiento (8), is a mix of architectural styles, from the splendour of the town hall through Rococo, Spanish colonial and Moorish, to the plain Art Deco lines of the cinema. The tourist office (0034 963 524 908; turisvalencia.es) is here. It opens 9am-7pm daily (10am-2pm on Sundays). The long stretch of sandy beach is due east of the old city, around a 15-minute drive.
Valencia's most alluring hotel is also its smallest. La Casa Azul (9), at Calle Palafox 7 (0034 963 511 100; lacasaazulvinosandrooms. com), by the Mercado Central (10), has three rooms; from €80, room only.
The Petit Palace Bristol (11), a quick hop from the cathedral (1) at L'Abadia de San Martin 3 (0034 963 945 100; hotelpetitpalace bristol.com), is a three-star option; doubles from €86, room only.
The Astoria Palace (12) is the city's flagship retreat, huddled just north of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (8) at Plaza de Rodrigo Botet 5 (0034 963 981 000; hotelastoria palace.com). Doubles from €95, including breakfast.
If you prefer sea breezes to narrow streets, the port area has the Hotel Neptuno (13) at Avenida de Neptuno 2 (0034 963 567 777; hotel neptunovalencia.com).
Take a hike
Start at the Estación del Norte (7) at Calle Xàtiva 24. Built between 1906 and 1917, this is an Art Nouveau jewel complete with elaborately tiled entrance hall. From here, take the Avenida del Marqués de Sotelo into the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (8), and the Correos y Telégrafos building (Plaza del Ayuntamiento 24; 0034 963 512 370; 8.30am-8.30pm Monday to Friday, 9.30am-2pm Saturdays).
Exit the plaza to the north and follow Avenida Maria Cristina to La Lonja de la Seda (14) on Plaza del Mercado (0034 963 525 478; 10am-2pm and 4.30pm-8.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-3pm Sundays; €3 entry). A 15th-century mercantile hall (and Unesco World Heritage Site), you can still sense the swish of Renaissance-era trade.
On the far side of Plaza del Mercado, the Mercado Central (10) (0034 963 829 101; mercadocentralvalencia.es; 8am-3pm, Monday to Saturday) is a giant-sized delicatessen where 1,000 stalls sell everything from eels and deep-red chorizo to jars of saffron. Allow plenty of time; it gets rather busy.
Calle Poeta Querol (15) and Calle Colón (16) are the two main shopping streets, the former specialising in luxury brands, the latter the site of an outlet of department store El Corte Inglés.
On Calle Jorge Juan, the Mercado Colón (17) (0034 963 525 478; mercadocolon.com; 8am-1.30am daily) has fashion and coffee shops.
Lunch on the run
El Divan (0034 963 515 818), a café within the Muvim arts centre (18) at Calle Guillem de Castro 8, does a three-course 'midday menu' -- usually a salad, a bowl of paella (which originated in the city), a dessert and a drink -- for €11.
Muvim (18) itself (the Valencian Museum of Enlightenment and Modernity; 0034 963 883 730; muvim.es; 10am-2pm and 4pm-8pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-8pm Sundays; free) is an engaging exhibition space that has everything from shows by local artists to fragments of the lost Arabic Valencia of the 8th to 13th centuries.
Opposite, at Calle Guillem de Castro 118, Ivam (19) (the Valencian Institute of Modern Art; 0034 963 863 000; ivam.es; 10am-8pm Tuesday to Sunday; €2.10, Sundays free) guards 10,000 pieces of 20th-century culture.
L'Almoina (20) on Plaza de la Almoina (0034 962 084 173; valencia.es/almoina; 10am-2pm and 4.30pm-8.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-3pm Sundays; €2 entry) showcases the excavated ruins of Valentia.
And the Museo Taurino, adjacent to the bull ring (4) but accessed at Passaje Del Doctor Serra 10 (0034 963 883 738; museotaurino valencia.es; 10am-8pm Tuesday to Sunday; free), throws a light on the most divisive of Iberian sports.
Calle Caballeros is the main nightlife strip. Sant Jaume (21) (0034 963 912 401) at 51 is a convivial spot for al fresco people-watching over a vino tinto.
Dining with the locals
La Lluerna (22) is a trendy tapas bar at Calle Sueca 47 (0034 963 810 033, lalluerna.com) where four delicate fishburgers are €9.50. The streets around Calle Serranos (23) are filled with tapas bars and cafés serving stiff Spanish espresso. For a pricier feast, La Lola (24) at Subida del Toledano 8 (0034 963 918 045; lalolarestaur ante.com) does sirloin beef with foie gras for €25.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Catedral de Santa Maria (1) on Plaza de la Almoina (0034 963 918 127; catedraldevalencia.es) is Valencia's key religious landmark -- as was the plan in 1238 when it was plonked atop the existing mosque. On Sunday mornings it is open for services from 8.30am, but tourists are supposed to confine their visits to 2pm-6.30pm (10am-6.30pm on other days) and pay €4.50 admission. Most of note are the chalice that has a fair claim to being the Holy Grail, a pair of Goya originals and the view from the 207-step tower (an extra €2).
Three other great churches -- the Iglesia de San Esteban (25) at Plaza de San Esteban 5, the Iglesia de San Martin Obispo y San Antonio Abad (26) at Calle San Vicente Martir 11, and the Iglesia de San Juan de la Cruz (27) at Calle Poeta Querol 6 -- are in a state of temporary deconsecration as part of an exhibition that runs to the end of the year.
La Gloria del Barroco (0034 902 330 370; laluzdelasimagenes. com; 10am-9pm Tuesday to Sunday; €3) focuses on the trio's elegant 18th-century Baroque décor.
Out to brunch
Rivendel (28), next to a row of Roman columns at Calle del Hospital 18 (0034 963 923 208), opens on Sundays and serves salads for €4.50, sandwiches for €4.20 and omelettes for €3.50.
Take a ride
Take metro line 5 east from Angel Guimera (29). Admire Alameda station (a corridor of white mosaic) en route to Maritim Serreria, where you grab a tram to the terminus at Neptu in the maritime district (30).
Here, the beach runs north for three miles, the Formula 1 street circuit cuts a dash around the marina and the Port America's Cup still hosts the headquarters of the world's major sailing teams. You can try a catamaran tour of the latter (and then out to open water) with Mundomarino (0034 963 816 066; mundomarino.es; tours from €15 at 11.30am, 1pm, 4.30pm, 6pm daily, except Mondays).
A walk in the park
The Jardines del Turia, Valencia's main park, has quite a story: it is the dry bed of the Turia, the flood-prone river that, after one tantrum too many in 1957, was diverted around the city. What was water is now a sunken seven-mile ribbon of green that hugs the upper edge of the centre.
It is an odd playground -- cycle paths, orange trees, fountains, football pitches, swings and slides spanned by bridges semi-shorn of purpose -- but incredibly popular with the residents.
The icing on the cake
At the east end of the park on Avenida Autopista del Saler, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (31) (0034 902 100 031; cac.es; full ticket €31.60) is a striking vision.
A science and arts zone crafted by the celebrated Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, its space-age design has proved controversial.
It boasts an opera house and an Imax cinema, but the highlights are the vast Oceanografic aquarium (10am-6pm Sunday to Friday, 10am-8pm Saturdays; €23.90) and the Museo de las Ciencias Principe Felipe (10am-7pm daily; €7.50), a science museum of interactive gusto.
However, the real joy is the vista, not least at sunset when shadows lengthen on the skeletal architecture.