You can't help smiling when a city is as Spanish as this

Valencia has sat in the shadow of Barcelona and Madrid for far too long. That's why it has got such an authentic atmosphere

Petrolheads the world over will be looking to Valencia today – but they won't see it.

Spain's third city will be a blurry backdrop to the eighth Grand Prix of the 2011 Formula One season, glimpsed through the blue haze of burning rubber and exhaust fumes. Motorsport fans are not alone. Mea culpa – I too have failed to see Valencia in more than two decades of racing around the major cities of Europe.

My friend Stephen has been living here for nearly three years and he is equally puzzled. "Valencia has a very low profile and I don't understand why," he says. "It's been all about the buzz of Barcelona, Madrid and other cities." Stephen and his partner, Claire, chose to move to the city on the basis of quality of life for their young family. "Obviously, No 1 is the micro-climate. Having the beach, the sea, 300 days of sun – you can't help but go around with a smile on your face."

The beaches are a revelation. The broad golden swathes of Las Arenas and La Malvarossa stretch for 3km up from the port, seemingly to the horizon. They have the sweep and generosity of Miami Beach. It is hard to imagine them becoming over-crowded. I can't think of a city beach in Europe that compares; up the coast, Barcelona's much celebrated Port Olimpic seafront is certainly popular but is largely artificial. Valencia's beaches are less showy, less developed and seem a more organic part of the city.

The string of bars and paella restaurants that fringe the beach are busy with families, getting their fingers stained with saffron as they pick though mariscos and chicken bones. An accordionist wanders by, scattering little melodies. Amid fits of giggles, a group of comfortably upholstered women egg each other on to dance in formation on the paved promenade.

Valencia has been slow to grasp the transformative effect that international sporting events can have. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics showed the way, but it was another 15 years before Valencia came looking for the sporting limelight. The city hosted the America's Cup in 2007 and has been home to Formula One's European Grand Prix since 2008. Though both events have contributed to raising profile and capacity, the past four years have also coincided with a general downturn in tourism to Spain. Valencia still awaits the gold rush.

However, all that simply means one of the great cities of Europe is still in astonishingly pristine condition. The most common riff I pick up from visitors, locals and foreign expats alike is that Valencia remains essentially Spanish. The Spanish way can, of course, be beguiling, but I learn soon enough it can also be bull-headed.

La Lonja de la Seda (the Silk Exchange), a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a stunning example of late Gothic exuberance – the Sala de Contratacion, with its soaring candy-twist pillars, is as imposing as the interior of any medieval cathedral. La Lonja is on every visitor's must-do list. I enter at 1.45pm and, after a few minutes in the grand Sala, I try to make my way to the rest of the building. A hatchet-faced official blocks my access. It's the witching hour – 2pm – siesta. She will not be moved. No pasaran. "It's bureaucracy; it's arrogance; it's typically Spanish," says Stephen with feeling. "There's still the 'I can't do this – it's siesta time. Come back at five'."

As it happens, I can't come back at five and have to be content with admiring the exterior – which has its consolations. The medieval stone masons were determined to prick the grandiosity of the architecture with a scatological sense of humour. One of the gargoyles flying off a corner of the building is pissing into a beer mug, while another is arse out, defecating on unsuspecting citizens below.

Cheerful irreverence is also on display in the Calle del Trench nearby. A shop called The Dog's Cojones (a wonderful example of Spanglish) is vending T-shirts two doors from a general store called Lovely Family. Across the road a shop front is occupied by multiple stockinged mannequin legs, while another offers devotional plaster cherubs and, er, water filters – it is retail anarchy.

Lunch is al fresco at Ocho y Medio in Plaza Lope de Vega – it specialises in superior paellas and surreal menus. One of the dishes is rendered in English as "Paella with Stroke". I play safe and opt for "Smooth Rice with Chick and Black Truffle", which turns up as a risotto with baby pigeon. There is so much to love in these Valencian improvisations and raw edges that I have forgotten my frustration.

Munching on baby pigeon (which tastes surprisingly livery) my reveries are interrupted by a large tour group from a cruise liner. The guide barks a commentary at them through a loud hailer completely leaching the little plaza of its sleepy charm. As they are marshalled out of the square, the group seems like a premonition.

Valencia suffered a great flood in 1957, when the River Turia caused havoc in the city. The authorities responded by re-routing the water course out of town. The dead river bed was finally reinvented in 1980 as a green ribbon running for 9km through the city. Locals still refer to it as the "River" – and in a sense it still flows, with formal gardens morphing into forested glades, playing fields, children's adventure playgrounds and picnic venues as it progresses through the city.

The Turia Gardens are bookended by two of Valencia's most striking attractions. At the eastern end is the City of Arts and Sciences, the sprawling cultural complex designed by the city's most famous son, the architect Santiago Calatrava. The buildings demand visual metaphors – a swan, an armadillo, a stegosaur, a giant eye, a whale ribcage, a grove of palms and a harp. It is a flamboyant theme park of civic space containing an opera house, a science museum, a planetarium and Europe's largest aquarium. It is a great adventure in itself and requires another weekend to see it properly.

At the other end of the Turia is the Bioparc; it is nominally a zoo, but that's like saying an F1 Grand Prix is just a car race. It occupies 100,000sq m and brings Africa to the heart of the urban sprawl. Not just African animals but entire ecosystems. Species are grouped together as you might find them on the great plains – zebras, impalas, blesbok, marabous, crowned cranes and giraffes all roam the one hectare savannah enclosure together.

Some vistas are engineered to make it appear as though predators are sharing the same spaces as their prey. Lions prowl within yards of impalas with no discernible fences or bars. To avoid tears before bedtime animals are kept in their enclosures through cleverly concealed ditches and "natural" barriers such as rock walls and water obstacles.

It may be the Bioparc's cleverest illusion that the animals seem extraordinarily content. A baby warthog leaps and jinks with joy before digging holes under a boulder; chimps are totally engrossed in grooming each other; elephants roll magisterially across a colossal enclosure featuring en-suite waterfall and a "forest" of concrete baobab trees; ringtailed lemurs are fascinated by the visitors wandering through their "Madagascar" – so much so it's hard to distinguish who is watching whom.

Feeding time is one of the undoubted highlights of life in the city. It is difficult to eat badly and only a brave foreign chef would consider setting up shop here. German incomer Bernd Knoller opened his first restaurant in the city nearly two decades ago. Three years ago, his Riff Restaurant received the recognition of a Michelin star. "I cook Valencian food," he insists, "but I cook my Valencian food."

The first course at dinner sets the bar high; chilled oyster served with a warm oyster mayonnaise topped with a granita of seaweed. I suspect it's designed to silence sceptics in one mouthful. Other dishes that lean on Valencian traditions include a salad of chipirones (small squid), aïoli, morel mushrooms and watercress and a course that is billed only as "Dirty Rice". The last is a delicate risotto flavoured with fish stock and locally sourced olive oil ("to sweeten it") and dusted with desiccated squid ink.

The fishy ingredients taste as if they were swimming around just hours ago. And indeed they were. "I buy at the fish auction down in the port," says Bernd with infectious enthusiasm. "It's late in the afternoon every day. It's very mad – like a school class with very upset kids. I like it very much."

The fish auction will no doubt be interrupted for a few days by the beasts of Formula One roaring around the port. But the city will return to its real mission when the circus has moved on. There will be sunshine, squid and siesta. And amid the clatter of lives being lived well, there will be an incipient smile on most faces.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Expedia (expedia.com/insidersselect) offers return flights to Valencia with easyJet and three nights' room-only accommodation at the Hotel Las Arenas Balneario Resort from £496 per person, based on two sharing.

Further Information

Valencia Tourism (turisvalencia.es/en).

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