Spain's third-largest city is a delight of ancient and futuristic architecture, high culture and great food that spills into a ribbon of greenery and miles of beaches.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

May and June comprise the ideal time to explore Spain's third-largest city. Valencia is the nation's hidden urban gem, offering everything from high art to wide beaches. On the second Sunday of this month, 9 May, the feast of the Virgen de los Desamparados (Virgin of the Forsaken – the city's patron saint), will see the Plaza de la Virgen outside the cathedral (1) filled with flowers. And late in June (25-27), Valencia hosts the European Grand Prix – although you will need a Formula One-grade credit card to secure a good hotel room that particular weekend.

Touch down

Valencia has excellent links from the UK; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ) flies from Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands and Stansted, while easyJet (0905 821 0905; ) flies from Gatwick. 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 ( ) 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 (00 34 96 3519315; ), 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 in 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 Estació*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 (00 34 96 352 4908; ) 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 15 minutes' drive.

Check in

Valencia's most alluring hotel is also its smallest. La Casa Azul (9), at Calle Palafox 7 (00 34 96 351 1100; ), by the Mercado Central (10), has three rooms ("baroque", "eastern", and "modern") – from €80, room only.

The Petit Palace Bristol (11), a quick hop from the cathedral (1) at L'Abadia de San Martin 3 (00 34 96 394 5100; ), 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 (00 34 96 3981000; ). 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 (00 34 96 356 7777; ).

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the Estació*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; 00 34 96 351 2370; 8.30am-8.30pm Monday to Friday, 9.30am-2pm Saturday).

Exit the plaza to the north and follow Avenida Maria Cristina to La Lonja de la Seda (14) on Plaza del Mercado (00 34 96 352 5478; 10am-2pm and 4.30-8.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-3pm Sunday; €3 entry). A 15th-century mercantile hall (and Unesco World Heritage Site), you can still sense the swish of Renaissance-era trade.

Window shopping

On the far side of Plaza del Mercado, the Mercado Central (10) (00 34 96 3829101; ; 8am-3pm, Monday-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) (00 34 96 352 5478; ; 8am-1.30am daily) has fashion and coffee shops.

Lunch on the run

El Divan (00 34 96 3515818), 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.

Cultural afternoon

Muvim (18) itself (the Valencian Museum of Enlightenment and Modernity; 00 34 96 388 3730; ; 10am-2pm and 4-8pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-8pm Sunday; 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; 00 34 96 386 3000; ; 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 (00 34 96 2084173; ; 10am-2pm and 4.30-8.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-3pm Sunday; €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 (00 34 96 388 3738; ; 10am-8pm Tuesday to Sunday; free) throws a light on the most divisive of Iberian sports.

An aperitif

Calle Caballeros is the main nightlife strip. Sant Jaume (21) (00 34 96 3912401) 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 (00 34 96 3810033, ) where four delicate fishburgers are €9.50.

For a pricier feast, La Lola (24) at Subida del Toledano 8 (00 34 96 3918045; ) does sirloin beef with foie gras for €25.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The Catedral de Santa Maria (1) on Plaza de la Almoina (00 34 96 3918127;, 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 2-6.30pm (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 (00 34 902 330370;; 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 (00 34 96 392 3208), 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 (00 34 96 3816066;; tours from €15, 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) (00 34 902 10 0031;; 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 Saturday; €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.