Not long ago, Valencia was one of Spain's least interesting major cities.
Madrid and Barcelona were destinations, while Valencia was a pit stop surrounded by orange trees on the way to the beach.
Today, Spain's third-largest city on the eastern Mediterranean coast buzzes with excitement.
Valencia still starts with its original attractions, sun and sand. The city enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year, and temperatures in midwinter are comfortably in the 60s and 70s. It leveraged this Florida-like weather into hosting the 2007 America's Cup yacht race, an event which reinvigorated the industrial port.
Even though the boats have left, much remains to see and enjoy. Valencia has morphed into a major cultural center, with signature architecture by famed native son Santiago Calatrava and some of the continent's most exciting new museums and galleries.
The destination is easy to reach. Although no direct flights exist from the U.S., numerous connections are available from Madrid and Barcelona. Many of Europe's low-cost airlines, led by Ryanair and easyJet, have set up major bases at the airport just out of the city. There's also a local Spanish low-cost alternative called Vueling that flies to other major cities in Spain and Europe.
Despite its ultra-modern introduction, Valencia has a long history -- in particular, a golden age of commerce and arts during the 13th through 15th centuries. In the historic center, don't miss the cathedral, which blends Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque features, and the outstandingly beautiful silk exchange, the Lonja de la Seda, one of the most outstanding examples of secular gothic architecture.
The city offers top-flight shopping. In the central food market, nearly 1,000 vendors sell all types of authentic Spanish foodstuffs. Designer boutiques crowd the nearby crammed pedestrian streets. Spanish fast-fashion chains led by Zara and Mango offer couture clothes at everyday prices that even in these days of the weak dollar are affordable. Zara, in particular, sets its prices lower in its home market than elsewhere in Europe or the U.S.