Best city for summer 2011: Valencia, Spain
The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. (Fernando Bustamante/Associated Press)
Often overlooked in favour of Barcelona, Valencia is a rich cocktail of impressive architecture, lively streets and nightlife, with a refreshing lack of tourists. The labyrinthine historic centre is a great place to drink horchata (a traditional drink made from tiger nuts, sugar and crushed ice) and eat paella – Valencia is Spain’s rice-growing centre, and paella was invented here.
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- Best city for winter 2011: Tallinn, Estonia
A summer wander through the old quarter reveals a Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance heritage, including the Unesco-listed 16th-century La Lonja (silk exchange), sheltered by a cobweb of Gothic arches. But even more exhilarating is the futuristic vision of Santiago Calatrava's contemporary architectural masterpiece, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences). Its IMAX cinema is like a closed robot eye, its opera house, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, like a Star Wars space station. For a summer weekend away, the clincher is the sandy beach, and the chance to slow down to the laid-back pace of a seaside town.
If you head to the city in late June, you might choose to join thousands of other revellers on Midsummer's Day at the Día de San Juan, when the year's longest day is marked by fireworks, street parties and bonfires on the beach.
The city also takes sport seriously, earning its status as the European Capital of Sport in 2011. Time a visit for the European Grand Prix (26 June 2011) to experience Valencia's 3.5-mile street circuit, a thrilling race through the town, including the port area with its gleaming marina.
British Airways, easyJet, Swiss, Iberia and Lufthansa fly direct from London to Valencia Manises Airport (from £70 return).
Place to stay: Hospes Palau de la Mar
Hospes Palau de la Mar is a boutique hotel occupying two elegant 19th-century mansions in downtown Valencia. Its clean, ultramodern design contrasts pleasingly with the old stone staircases and polished wooden floors. Eighteen doubles surround a scented garden and Senzone, the hotel restaurant, is as stylish as the hotel itself (rooms from £90; hospes.com).
Book for dinner: Casa Montaña
Polished Casa Montaña lies in El Cabañal, Valencia's shabby, historic fishermen's quarter. Ingredients for its extensive tapas list are sourced with care - anchovies, for example, come from Santoña, the fishery centre in northern Spain (meals around £35; emilianobodega.com).
Morning fix: Horchatería de Santa Catalina
The interior of Horchatería de Santa Catalina, covered in pictorial tiles, is as lavish as the sweets it serves. Café con leche (coffee with milk) is available, but don't neglect the local horchata, a drink made from tigernuts, or the traditional finger-shaped farton buns for dunking (drinks around £1.50; horchateriasanta catalina.com).
Lazy beach day: Las Arenas
Las Arenas is Valencia's main beach, closest and most accessible to the city. It serves as a sandy backdrop for events, activities and romantic sunset ambles. The beach is lined with restaurants, many with seafood paella a speciality, including La Pepica (see below, far right), so stop for a long lunch.
If it rains: City of Arts and Sciences
Mesmerising architecture aside, the City of Arts and Sciences includes the Hemisfèric IMAX cinema, the Príncipe Felipe Science Museum, the Oceanográfico (Europe's largest aquarium) and opera house Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía (combined ticket £28; cac.es).
Perfect picnic spot: Jardines del Real
Former royal gardens the Jardines del Real (also known as Los Viveros) are evocative of Valencia's Moorish era, even if the palace they once surrounded has since been demolished. With fragrant rose gardens, rhododendrons and scattered statues, plus pine-shaded green lawns, the gardens make an ideal spot for a stroll or a picnic (admission free, Calle de San Pio V).
Souvenir stop: Abanicos Carbonell
First opened in 1860, traditional fan shop Abanicos Carbonell is now run by the Carbonell family's fourth generation. Browse the incredible collection, buy a handpainted fan carved from pear-tree wood, commission a bespoke design, or learn about the language of the fan (laid on the lips, it means 'I do not trust you') from proprietor Guillermo Carbonell (fans from £13; abanicoscarbonell.com).
Outdoor drinking spot: Café Negrito
Bohemian, ceramic-tiled Café Negrito, in the colourful Barrio del Carmen district, has a neighbourhood feel. A mix of interesting regulars flirt, mingle and spill out onto the Plaza del Negrito, where alfresco tables and chairs turn the square into a sociable sitting room (drinks from £2.50; Plaza del Negrito, 1).
Beachfront lunch: La Pepica
Namechecked by Ernest Hemingway, La Pepica's beachside restaurant opened in 1898, and has been feeding up glitterati - from Ava Gardner to Antonio Banderas - ever since. Paella is a signature dish in Valencia, and old-fashioned La Pepica is the place to eat it, with myriad rice dishes on offer. The seafood paella is made with fresh lobster (meals around £30; lapepica.com).