Spain’s third largest city is the home of paella, fresh seafood, cured meats and lively bars.

From being very much in the shadow of its glamorous big sisters, Spain’s third-largest city is now, after an expensive, decade-long bout of cosmetic surgery, looking properly smoking hot.

It’s one of those cities that has grown up around a beach. We sit at El Tridente’s sleek beachside terrace watching glowing natives jog or cycle past. Us? Not quite so energetic - we’re wallowing in some of Valencia’s specialties: my new desert island dish is arroz meloso, a soupy rice concoction laden with seafood in intensely flavoured, dark stock, served with a special webbed fork so none of the precious juice is lost. And crunchy, caramelised pork rind – where have you been all my life?

The city’s favourite cocktail is Agua de Valencia, an innocent-tasting mix of squeezed orange juice and cava, plus a slug of something lethal. We slurp these in quirky Café de las Horas (1C/Cónde de Almodóvar; 00 34 9639 17336), with its arty clientele and gloriously camp, baroque decoration. We wend somewhat dreamily through the Ciutat Vella (old town), landing on decidedly curious Bodegas Baviera (40 Calle Corregeria). The wine merchant’s eccentric owner, Vicente, wraps our wines and bemoans the fact that his wife has left him because she prefers young boys. Er, oh dear.

I have to be dragged out of the turron shops, vintage lovelies heaving with piles of honeyed nut sweetmeats, or the horchaterias for the town’s beloved chufa (tigernut) milk drink, sold with – don’t snigger – fartons: long sugary buns for dipping. Horchateria Daniel in the ‘burbs is a lugubrious, enormous joint where the sweet, icy drink has refreshed generations of locals. There’s a pic of the eponymous Daniel on the menu, thick as thieves with one Salvador Dalí.

The old town is littered with tiny bars; there’s the famous Bar Pilar (Calle Moro Zeit, 13; 00 34 9639 10497) with its appallingly good patatas bravas and clochinas – fat mussels whose shells litter the floor, and lovely, antique St Jaume (C/Caballeros, 51; 00 34 9639 12401). But I like the laid-back grunge of Tasca Angel (C/Purísima, 1; 00 34 9639 17835), its window piled high with squirmy creatures – razor clams, snails and huge whelks – and its famed offal. The plancha-ed anchovies are smoky flavour bombs.

There’s so much to see: the swooping shapes and glittering architecture of the multi-million euro Cuidad de las Artes y de las Ciencias and the bewitching Art Nouveau Mercado Central. But I like the old fisherman’s Cabanyal district best. It’s truly astonishing to learn that this beautiful, evocative district is threatened by over-zealous town planners. What are they thinking? Apart from anything else, it contains Casa Montaña, strong contender for my favourite bar in the whole world. In this tiled, wood-lined treasure, the wine list numbers over 1,000. There’s a man whose only role appears to be carving ham. Owners, handsome Alejandro and his father Emiliano, ply us with wonderful things – 80-year-old vermut with a little skewer of olive, chilli and anchovy, tuna marinated in seven spices, smoked sardines, fried piquillo peppers – till I’m almost snivelling with pleasure.

Or maybe my favourite bar is local hero Quique Dacosta’s thrilling Mercatbar in Canovas? So, so chic, with its supermarket pastiche décor, the long, buzzing room is as much theatre as food: sea urchins blowtorched into frothy, savoury meringue – amazing; or ham with fat that tastes like truffled cream. There are no waiters, only chefs, and the beautiful people are out in force.

On grungier territory, there’s the wonderfully low-rent La Lonja del Pescado Frito (Calle Eugenia Vines, 243; 00 34 9635 53535) a cavernous hall draped with nets and suspiciously plastic greenery, where locals tick their piscine choices off a dim-sum like list, then sit back and bask as waves of the freshest fish – crisply-fried hake, weeny pulpitos, sardines alla plancha, and local specialties like esgarraet (roasted red peppers with salt cod) – pile up in front of them.

Did you think I wasn’t going to mention paella? Of course, the foodstuff that Valencia is most renowned for is top of our list of must-eats. But we’re heading out of town, to the wetlands of Albufera where the essential, stumpy Valencia rice is grown. Here, in the somewhat surreal town of El Palmar, every edifice appears to be a paella restaurant, or the car park of a paella restaurant. It’s a paella theme park. Thank the gods of scoffing we have insider scoop on Mateu (C/ Vicente Baldovi, 17; 00 34 9616 20270). We have a wonderfully aromatic paella, each grain of rice perfect, the socarrat – toasted rice crust – magnetically seductive; the real Valencia dish contains no seafood, nor red pepper. There are other very local dishes – all i pebres, for instance, (eels in piquant sauce), or arroz amb fesols i nap, (rice with beans and turnip) – but everyone’s here for the saffrony stuff. And who can blame them? If it was up to me, this column would come from Spain every month.

The article 'Postcard from Valencia' was published in partnership with BBC Olive Magazine.