Spain’s third-largest city has enough surprises up its sleeve to challenge Barcelona and Madrid. As well as claiming urban beaches, a bafflingly futuristic arts complex and even its own Holy Grail, Valencia parties as hard as anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula.

The space-age City of Arts and Sciences  occupies a giant swathe of an old riverbed outside of the city centre. Its showpiece is Oceanogràfic – one of the world’s biggest aquariums, with polar zones, underwater tunnels and an underwater restaurant (Ave del Instituto Obrero de Valencia; aquarium admission £20).

Set in an 18th-century building, the Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia  ranks among Spain’s foremost art galleries. Highlights include works by El Greco, Goya and Velázquez (Calle de San Pío V 1683; admission free).

 The 13th-century Catedral de Valencia is a mish-mash of the city’s architectural past, which incorporates Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. An elaborate side chapel houses what’s claimed to be the true Holy Grail (Almoina Sq; admission with audio guide £3).

About 10 miles south of Valencia, the Albufera is a vast freshwater lagoon separated from the sea by sand dunes. It’s a popular place to escape the hubbub of the city (Calle Pintor Martí Girbés 23; admission free).

Valencia is spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches. Playa de la Malvarrosa and Playa de las Arenas form a promenade backed by restaurants and bars, but Playa El Saler, a few miles south of town, is a tad quieter. Autocares Herca runs buses from near the City of Arts & Sciences ( tickets £1).

Eat and drink
A lively and pretension-free tapas joint with dangling light fittings and a sturdy marble bar, Bar Pilar specialises in juicy, locally caught mussels. Ask for a platter of them in a spicy broth and dump the shells in the plastic trough at your feet (00 34 96 391 04 97; Calle de Moro Zeit 13; tapas from £4).

L’Hamadríada  is a local favourite hidden down an alley in central Valencia. The region’s traditional paella features, with varieties ranging from rabbit to octopus. There are also some more adventurous tapas dishes, such as the signature foie gras with apple and caramelised onion (; Plaza Vicente Iborra; tapas from £4).

Carosel  is a sprightly restaurant close to the Central Market, where diners feast on traditional rice dishes amidst minimalist interiors. Favourites include gazpacho, croquettes and Iberian sausage (Calle Taula de Canvis 6; set lunch £12).

A stalwart of the city’s gastronomic scene, SeuXerea  deftly blends Iberian and international influences in a smart minimalist dining room. Dishes might include fish tagine with pickled lemon (Calle del Conde de Almodóvar 4; set dinners £16).

Housed in the Neptuno Hotel on the beachfront, Tridente counts among Valencia’s swankiest destinations. Seafood is an obvious port of call in its sunny, cream-coloured dining room (Paseo de Neptuno 2; set menus from £26).

As the name suggests, Chill Art Hotel Jardín Botánico takes inspiration from its proximity to Valencia’s major art galleries – rooms are decorated with original artwork, while the candlelit communal areas feature exuberant patterns on the walls ( Doctor Peset Cervera 6; from £80).

Hotel Ad Hoc Monumental Hotel occupies a townhouse deep in Valencia’s old quarter. Sensitively restored rooms are replete with high-vaulted ceilings, exposed brickwork and patterned fabrics, and there’s also a splendid little restaurant on the premises (Calle Boix 4; from £90).

Petit Palace Germanias is a good-value hotel with an imposing balcony-lined façade just outside the centre of town. Interiors go heavy on contemporary flourishes, and hotel guests can borrow bikes for free (Sueca 14; from £95).

In a stylishly renovated and much-modified 200-year-old building, SH Ingles offers Sleep suitably aristocratic rooms with parquet floors, wooden bed heads and wrought-iron balconies. Some of the rooms overlook the Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas – an opulent 18th-century palace next door (Marqués dos Aguas 6; from £115).

Created by the merging of two 19th-century mansions, Hospes Palau de la Mar is decked out in a modish black, beige and white colour scheme. Inside there’s a regal marble staircase, a courtyard and fashionably minimalist, but nonetheless comfortable, rooms (Navarro Reverter 14; rooms from £135).

How to go
Ryanair flies to Valencia from Stansted and Bristol (from £80), with flights from Manchester commencing on 26 March. EasyJet flies from Gatwick (from £85). From the airport, Metro lines 3 and 5 reach downtown in less than 30 minutes (from £3).

Getting around
Valencia has an integrated bus, tram and Metro network – Tourist Cards entitles visitors to free travel as well as discounts at local attractions (£20 for 72 hours;). The city also operates a cycle hire scheme.

The article 'Mini guide to Valencia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.