Spain’s third-largest city is a magnificent place, content for Madrid and Barcelona to grab the headlines while it gets on with being a wonderfully livable city with thriving cultural, eating and nightlife scenes. Never afraid to innovate, Valencia diverted its flood-prone river to the outskirts of town and converted the former riverbed into a superb green ribbon of park winding right through the city. On it are the strikingly futuristic buildings of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, designed by local boy Santiago Calatrava. Other brilliant contemporary buildings grace the city, which also has a fistful of fabulous Modernist architecture, great museums and a large, characterful old quarter. Valencia, surrounded by its huerta, a fertile fruit-and-veg farmland, is famous as the home of rice dishes such as paella, but its buzzy dining scene offers plenty more besides.
1. art and science city
Valencia’s most famous tourist attraction is the weird-but-wonderful City of Arts and Sciences complex. The complex consists of several buildings for cultural and educational activities, including a science museum, aquarium, planetarium and IMAX cinema. Designed by local celebrity architect Santiago Calatrava, it’s perhaps the most iconic symbol of the city. Inside the Turia river bed (now converted into a park), the City of Arts and Sciences towers over the city as this strange, alien-like series of structures. It’s free to wander around and great for a selfie, but if you want to see the inside, you’ll have to book a ticket to one of the different attractions.
2. Valencia Cathedral and The Holy Grail
One of the cities’ more controversial claims to fame is that it has what is supposed to be the Holy Grail, the actual cup that Jesus drank from at the last supper, the cathedral is a lovely old place and well worth visiting. You can actually climb to the top of the Miguelete bell tower and admire great views of the city. Inside the cathedral, the Holy Grail is one of the must-see attractions for those of a religious following. Legend has it that the cup traveled from Rome centuries ago. However, when the Muslim rulers took over Spain, it was placed into hiding for centuries and only returned to the city in 1427 by the gloriously named King ‘Alfonso the Magnanimous’.
3. La Lonja
This splendid building, a Unesco World Heritage site, was originally Valencia’s silk and commodity exchange, built in the late 15th century when Valencia was booming. It’s one of Spain’s finest examples of a civil Gothic building. Two main structures flank a citrus-studded courtyard: the magnificent Sala de Contratación, a cathedral of commerce with soaring twisted pillars, and the Consulado del Mar, where a maritime tribunal sat. The top floor boasts a stunning coffered ceiling brought here from another building.
4. Museo de Bellas Artes
Bright and spacious, this gallery ranks among Spain’s best. Highlights include a collection of magnificent late-medieval altarpieces, and works by several Spanish masters, including some great Goya portraits, a haunting Velázquez selfie, an El Greco John the Baptist, Murillos, Riberas and works by the Ribaltas, father and son. Downstairs, an excellent series of rooms focuses on the great, versatile Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923), who, at his best, seemed to capture the spirit of an age through sensitive portraiture.
This zoo devoted solely to African animals has an educational and conservationist remit and an unusual approach. Though, as always, the confinement in limited spaces of creatures like gorillas raises mixed feelings, the innovative landscaping is certainly a thrill. The absence of obvious fences makes it seem that animals roam free as you wander from savannah to equatorial landscapes. Aardvarks, leopards and hippos draw crowds but most magical is Madagascar, where large-eyed lemurs gambol around your feet among waterfalls and grass.
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