Valencia is a proud city. During the Civil War, it was the last seat of the Republican Loyalist government (1935–36), holding out against Franco’s National forces until the country fell to 40 years of dictatorship. Today it represents the essence of contemporary Spain—daring design and architecture along with experimental cuisine—but remains deeply conservative and proud of its traditions. Though it faces the Mediterranean, Valencia's history and geography have been defined most significantly by the River Turia and the fertile floodplain (huerta) that surrounds it. The city has been fiercely contested ever since it was founded by the Greeks. El Cid captured Valencia from the Moors in 1094 and won his strangest victory here in 1099: he died in the battle, but his corpse was strapped into his saddle and so frightened the besieging Moors that it caused their complete defeat. In 1102 his widow, Jimena, was forced to return the city to Moorish rule; Jaume I finally drove them out in 1238. Modern Valencia was best known for its frequent disastrous floods until the River Turia was diverted to the south in the late 1950s. Since then the city has been on a steady course of urban beautification. The lovely bridges that once spanned the Turia look equally graceful spanning a wandering municipal park, and the spectacularly futuristic Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences), most of it designed by Valencia-born architect Santiago Calatrava, has at last created an exciting architectural link between this river town and the Mediterranean. If you're in Valencia, an excursion to Albufera Nature Park is a worthwhile day trip.
Decorated—nay, festooned—with nautical motifs, this restaurant two blocks east of the bullring serves outstanding shellfish. The cooking is simple but makes use of the freshest ingredients; try the grilled lenguado (sole) or lubina (sea bass). Also top-notch are the eight different kinds of rice dishes, including paella with lobster and arroz a banda, with peeled shrimp, prawns, mussels, and clams. For a sweet finale, try the house special naranjas a la reina, oranges spiced with rum and topped with salsa de fresa (strawberry sauce). Lunch attracts businesspeople, and dinner brings in a crowd of locals and visitors.
A favorite with Valencia's well connected and well-to-do since 1982, this family-run restaurant a few steps from the Plaza de la Reina specializes in seafood dishes like anguilas (eels) prepared with all i pebre (garlic and pepper), pulpitos guisados (stewed baby octopus), and traditional paellas. Lunch begins at 2 and not a moment before. The walls are covered with decorative ceramics and the gastronomic awards the restaurant has won over the years.
Valencia's 13th- to 15th-century cathedral is the heart of the city. The building has three portals—Romanesque, Gothic, and rococo. Inside, Renaissance and baroque marble was removed to restore the original Gothic style, as is now the trend in Spanish churches. The Capilla del Santo Cáliz (Chapel of the Holy Chalice) displays a purple agate vessel purported to be the Holy Grail (Christ's cup at the Last Supper) and thought to have been brought to Spain in the 4th century. Behind the altar you can see the left arm of St. Vincent, who was martyred in Valencia in 304. Stars of the cathedral museum are Goya's two famous paintings of St. Francis de Borja, Duke of Gandia. To the left of the cathedral entrance is the octagonal tower El Miguelete, which you can climb (207 steps) to the top: the roofs of the old town create a kaleidoscope of orange and brown terra-cotta, with the sea in the background. It's said that you can see 300 belfries from here, many with bright-blue cupolas made of ceramic tiles from nearby Manises. The tower was built in 1381 and the final spire added in 1736. The Portal de los Apostoles, on the west side of the Cathedral, is the scene every Thursday at noon of the 1,000-year-old ceremony of the Water Tribunal: the judges of this ancient court assemble here, in traditional costume, to hand down their decisions on local irrigation rights disputes.
Estación del Norte
Designed by Demetrio Ribes Mano in 1917, the train station—declared a National Historical-Artistic monement in 1983—is a splendid Moderniste structure decorated with motifs of Valencia oranges. The tops of the two towers seem to sprout like palm trees. Calle Xátiva 24, Valencia, 46013. 902/240202.
Lonja de la Seda
On the Plaza del Mercado, this 15th-century building is a product of Valencia's golden age, when the city's prosperity as one of the capitals of the Corona de Aragón made it a leading European commercial and artistic center. The Lonja was constructed as an expression of this splendor. Widely regarded as one of Spain's finest civil Gothic buildings, its facade is decorated with ghoulish gargoyles, complemented inside by high vaulting and slender helicoidal (twisted) columns. Opposite the Lonja stands the Iglesia de los Santos Juanes (Church of the St. Johns), gutted during the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War, and, next door, the Moderniste Mercado Central (Central Market), with its wrought-iron girders and stained-glass windows. The bustling food market (at 8,160 square meters, one of the largest in Europe) is open Monday through Saturday 8 to 2; locals and visitors alike queue up at the 1,247 colorful stalls to shop for fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and confectionary.
Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas
This building near Plaza Patriarca has gone through many changes over the years and now has elements of several architectural styles, including a fascinating baroque alabaster facade. Embellished with carvings of fruits and vegetables, the facade was designed in 1740 by Ignacio Vergara. It centers on the two voluptuous male figures representing the Dos Aguas (Two Waters), a reference to Valencia's two main rivers and the origin of the noble title of the Marqués de Dos Aguas. Since 1954, the palace has housed the Museo Nacional de Cerámica, with a magnificent collection of local and artisanal ceramics. Look for the Valencian kitchen on the second floor.
Plaza de Toros
Adjacent to the train station, this bullring is one of the oldest in Spain. The best bullfighters are featured during Las Fallas in March, particularly on March 18 and 19. Calle Xátiva 28, Ciutat Vella, Valencia, 46004. 963/519315 Museo Taurino. This museum has bullfighting memorabilia, including bull heads and matador swords. Pasaje Doctor Serra 10, 46004. 963/883738.
Real Colegio del Corpus Christi
This seminary, with its church, cloister, and library, is the crown jewel of Valencia's Renaissance architecture and one of the city's finest sites. Founded by San Juan de Ribera in the 16th century, it has a lovely Renaissance patio and an ornate church, and its museum holds works by Juan de Juanes, Francisco Ribalta, and El Greco. Calle de la Nave 3, Valencia, 46003. 963/514176.
A small plaza contains Valencia's oldest church, once the parish of the Borgia Pope Calixtus III. The first portal you come to, with a tacked-on, rococo bas-relief of the Virgin Mary with cherubs, hints at what's inside: every inch of the originally Gothic church is covered with exuberant ornamentation. Calle Caballeros 35, Valencia, 46003. 963/913317. Free. Mon. 7:30 am–8 pm, Tues.–Sat. 9:30–11 and 6:30–8 pm, Sun. 10–1.
Casa Museo José Benlliure
The modern Valencian painter and sculptor José Benlliure is known for his intimate portraits and massive historical and religious paintings, many of which hang in Valencia's Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts). Here in his elegant house and studio are 50 of his works, including paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and drawings. On display are also works by his son, Pepino, who painted in the small, flower-filled garden in the back of the house, and iconographic sculptures by Benlliure's brother, the well-known sculptor Mariano Benlliure. Calle Blanquerías 23, Valencia, 46003. 963/911662.
Museo de Bellas Artes
Valencia was a thriving center of artistic activity in the 15th century—one reason that the city's Museum of Fine Arts, with its lovely palm-shaded cloister, is among the best in Spain. To get here, cross the old riverbed by the Puente de la Trinidad (Trinity Bridge) to the north bank; the museum is at the edge of the Jardines del Real (Royal Gardens; open daily 8–dusk), with its fountains, rose gardens, tree-lined avenues, and small zoo. The permanent collection of the museum includes many of the finest paintings by Jacomart and Juan Reixach, members of the group known as the Valencian Primitives, as well as work by Hieronymus Bosch—or El Bosco, as they call him here. The ground floor has a number of the brooding, 17th-century Tenebrist masterpieces by Francisco Ribalta and his pupil José Ribera, a Diego Velázquez self-portrait, and a room devoted to Goya. Upstairs, look for Joaquín Sorolla (Gallery 66), the Valencian painter of everyday Spanish life in the 19th century.
Palau de la Música
On one of the nicest stretches of the Turia riverbed is this huge glass vault, Valencia's main concert venue. Supported by 10 arcaded pillars, the dome gives the illusion of a greenhouse, both from the street and from within its sun-filled, tree-landscaped interior. Home of the Orquesta de Valencia, the main hall also hosts touring performers from around the world, including chamber and youth orchestras, opera, and an excellent concert series featuring early, baroque, and classical music. For concert schedules, pick up a Turia guide or one of the local newspapers at any newsstand. To see the building without concert tickets, pop into the art gallery, which hosts free changing exhibits. Paseo de la Alameda 30, Valencia, 46023. 963/375020.
Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències
Designed mainly by native son Santiago Calatrava, this sprawling futuristic complex is the home of Valencia's Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe (Prince Philip Science Museum), L'Hemisfèric (Hemispheric Planetarium), L'Oceanogràfic (Oceanographic Park), and Palau de les Arts (Palace of the Arts). With resplendent buildings resembling combs and crustaceans, the Ciutat is a favorite of architecture buffs and curious kids. The Science Museum has soaring platforms filled with lasers, holograms, simulators, hands-on experiments, and a swell "zero gravity" exhibition on space exploration. The eye-shaped planetarium projects 3-D virtual voyages on its huge IMAX screen. At l'Oceanogràfic (the work of architect Felix Candela), the largest marine park in Europe, you can take a submarine ride through a coastal marine habitat. Recent additions include an amphitheater, an indoor theater, and a chamber-music hall.
Institut Valèncià d'Art Modern (IVAM)
Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, this blocky, uninspired building on the edge of the old city—where the riverbed makes a loop—houses a permanent collection of 20th-century avant-garde painting, European Informalism (including the Spanish artists Antonio Saura, Antoni Tàpies, and Eduardo Chillida), pop art, and photography. Carrer de Guillem de Castro 118, Ciutat Vella, Valencia, 46003. 963/863000.
Plaza del Ayuntamiento
With the massive baroque facades of the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) and the Correos (central Post Office) facing each other across the park, this plaza is the hub of city life. City Hall itself houses the municipal tourist office and a museum of paleontology. Pop in just for a moment to marvel at the Post Office, with its magnificent stained-glass cupola and ring of classical columns.