We sip from bottles of Dos Equis, slurp mussels – and then take aim and throw. Bull’s eye. The mussel shells clatter into a bucket that sits on the floor of Bar Pilar. In the next half hour, the bucket fills up with emptied shells, and the bartender, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, upends it noisily, banging it back into place for the next wave of mussel eaters. By midnight, the bar has filled to capacity, and the crowd spills outside, continuing the party on the sidewalk like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
We’ve picked the right place to start the weekend in Spain’s third largest city, which is known for its fresh seafood – and fresh nightlife. Bar Pilar, one of Valencia’s most popular tapas bar, is the place to experience both. It’s easy to see why the city mantra is “Vivir sin Dormir” (“Live without Sleep”).
Either way, the morning light arrives early. The region is called El Levante after the rising sun – this is the part of Spain that wakes up first. Valencia has the Mediterranean Sea as its front yard, while the inland countryside is the most fertile in Europe, crowded with orange and lemon groves, date-palm plantations, and rice fields still irrigated by systems devised by the Moors. Paella originated here, and a juicy orange is named after Valencia.
These days, though, it’s the creative makeover of traditional cuisine, along with the wildly progressive architecture and a revamped waterfront, that’s establishing Valencia as the new Barcelona.
Architecture is powerful. One structure – just one – can define a cityscape: The Guggenheim in Bilbao; Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In Valencia, it’s the City of Arts & Sciences, a futuristic complex of snow-white structures rising over the dry Turia riverbed, designed by local architect Santiago Calatrava.
It’s not just eye-catching – it’s massive. CAC (as its commonly abbreviated) is Europe’s largest “culture and leisure center.” Start your explorations at the Hemisfèric, which is shaped like an eye, complete with lashes, and an eyeball that forms a huge concave screen used to project large-format movies.
Stroll the colossal Museo de las Ciencias (Science Museum), and then take in the newest show, Flying Dolphins, at Parque Oceanográfico, Europe’s biggest aquarium, featuring acrobats who leap from trampolines to join their bottlenose friends in the water.
But for many stylish Valencianos, it’s the fashion, not the fish, that’s the highlight at CAC. Every spring and fall, the glittering Valencia Fashion Week strides through, showcasing the region’s established and emerging designers.
At night, the choice is clear: Cocktails under palm trees at the CAC’s Umbracle, one of Valencia’s sexiest outdoor clubs. Graceful white arches frame the twinkling night sky; Spanish pop music pulses out of hidden speakers; and lavender lamps cast a warm glow – it’s the kind of sultry lighting that makes everyone look good. The sweet smell of apple tobacco trails into the air from Moroccan hookahs. Spring for their “Zona VIP” for prime seating, a personal waiter, and a private dance floor filled with leggy Spanish models, their friends, and their friends’ friends.
On the Waterfront
There was a time when Valencia turned its back on the waterfront. No longer.
In the same way that Barcelona transformed its waterfront from drab to dazzling, Valencia pumped in millions of Euros to spruce up its boardwalk and beach – and it has paid off. In 2007, Valencia became the first European port since 1851 to hold America’s Cup, and in 2010, they again hosted the tournament. The forgotten waterfront was transformed into a gleaming marina with a new harbor and the Veles e Vents (“Sails and Winds”) structure designed by British architect David Chipperfield. In 2011, Valencia was named Europe’s Capital of Sport, presenting both the F1 Grand Prix and, in October, the Open 500 tennis championship.
For a true Galavante night, stroll the breezy paseo that follows the curve of Playas Las Arenas and Malvarrosa and stop in at one of the beachside lounges for a vitamin-rich buzz from Agua de Valencia, the local cocktail of orange juice, cava, and a splash of the stronger stuff, gin or vodka. Afterwards, hit an open-air club like Las Animas Puerto and bailar the night way.
Eat with the Fishes
With the Mediterranean Sea lapping its shores, Valencia’s seafood practically swims its way into the local kitchens.
Eat with the fishes at the aquarium-ringed Submarino,where you can dine on creatively prepared catch, like fat red shrimp in a crustacean caramel, while fish dart past your table.
Valencia cuisine is taken to a high art at the new Michelin-starred Arrop, which shares excavated 12th-century Arab walls with the new Hotel Palacio de Caro, due to open later this year. Opt for the tasting menu, which reveals Ricard Camarena’s prowess in the kitchen, from flower petals draped delicately over shellfish to springy calamari bathed in it own ink, and topped with tender leeks.
Follow the crooked streets of the old fisherman’s quarter to Ca’ Sento, helmed by chef Raúl Aleixandre, a protégé of El Bulli’s Ferrán Adrià. Here, airy puffs of rice and an artful mound of cuttlefish and cauliflower arrive at the table. It’s only when the waiter pours black cuttlefish broth over it that the dish yields the unmistakable sea-scented, short-grain flavor of paella. Aleixandre also teases out seafood’s natural juices with unique pairings, like green-apple ice over oysters.
Feast on fragrant paellas, mussels, tangy olives and superb local wines at the graceful Palau Fesol, which dates back to 1909, and feels like you’ve stepped into a rich Spanish oil painting, with a colorful tile mosaic and a wood-beam ceiling.
Shop 'til You… Hit the Bars
Look Euro-chic for less: Valencia’s designers rival those of Barcelona and Madrid – but are often more competitively priced. Local names include Tonuca, with gypsy-inspired capes; Higinio Mateu’s frisky dresses; and jeweler Vicente Gracia, named by Vogue as one of the Top 20 new designers in the world, and whose antique brooches are worn by Spanish royalty.
There’s only one proper way to say goodbye to Valencia: By toasting the city (again and again) in the beautiful old town. If you’re a member of the “It’s five o’clock somewhere” club, Valencia is your kind of place – the bars open early, and close late.
Start in Plaza de la Virgin, which is cooled with the spray of fountains, and presided over by an impressive 13th-century cathedral – keep an eye out for the two Goya paintings inside. Venture into Barrio del Carmen, and ease into the night at the historic Sant Jaume, a former pharmacy where wine bottles sit in place of apothecary. Later, groove at the clubby Café Bolsería, where the tropical cocktails are as delicious as the Brazilian dancers writhing through the crowds.
But the biggest party of all? The annual Fallas in March, one of Spain’s most popular festivals. Giant, elaborate papier-mâché effigies, from smirking politicians to bare-breasted nymphs, are paraded through the streets. On the final night, in a daredevil spontaneity that seems to define Valencia, the painted giants are torched, going up in a whoosh of flames, lighting up the city like a giant stage. Viva Valencia!
Sleep & Siesta
Sleep like an aristocrat Hotel Palau de la Mar, a beautifully renovated 19th-century baronial mansion, with gleaming hardwood floors, gauzy white curtains, and bathrooms that could double as a Parisian pied-à-terre. The breezy rooftop features a pool and a glass-clad spa, inspired by the Romans, who celebrated Valencia as a place of health and well-being.
“Heaven on earth” is how one guest describes the spacious Hotel Las Arenas, Valencia’s only five-star hotel on the beach. The hotel maximizes its proximity to the sea: the morning light fills the cream-and-dark-wood rooms, while the soft sand lies just paces from the sun-warmed terraces.