Valencia is a city on the cusp, if not of greatness, at least of grabbing attention from her sister cities of Barcelona and Madrid. However, it took a land-locked country to point out her best asset: the sea. When Switzerland won the 2003 America’s Cup it had to find a surrogate host for the next competition. Four years later, Valencia rose to the challenge, investing EUR500 million in transforming a neglected waterfront and polluted beaches into a sophisticated and sparkling port worthy of hosting the world’s premier yachting race. It’s not the first time that Valencia has created something out of nearly nothing. A few years earlier, a mass of disused marshland became the site of a fantastically futuristic construction: the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences). Valencians are justifiably proud of this dazzling attraction, especially as it was designed by a local architect, Santiago Calatrava.
But it’s not all gleaming white structures and shiny new marinas - wander through the fountain'd squares and mellow streets of Valencia’s small Centro Histórico to see the influence of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles, from the cathedral on Plaza de la Reina to the Unesco World Heritage site of La Lonja (the silk exchange). The late 19th-century Modernista movement, popularised by Antoni Gaudí, flourishes here too - the bustling Mercado Central, Europe’s largest covered market, is a wonderful example. Which brings us to food and, after oranges, Valencia’s most famous export: paella. From beachfront restaurants to pavement cafés, this tasty rice dish is best enjoyed in the sunshine with a glass of vino rosado
Further afield, don't miss the traditional villages and secret beaches of the Costa Blanca. Don't be put off by the dubious fame of Benidorm - yes, its resorts stand proud in all their tacky splendour, but head 1.5 hours north of Alicante and you'll discover a completely different scene: lush citrus valleys, quaint villages and the hidden gems of the Costa Blanca coastline.