FOR the last decade, Valencia, best known as the birthplace of paella, has been steadily inching onto the radar of savvy travelers. Since 2005 - when work was completed on Santiago Calatrava's futuristic museum complex, the City of Arts and Sciences - and 2007, when Spain's third-largest city played host to the America's Cup, Valencia's Moorish-accented neighborhoods have been filling up with boutiques, restaurants and night spots. Last month, a new train line on the AVE, Spain's high-speed rail service, linked the city to Madrid, about 200 miles away, making it even easier for travelers to visit this seaside city, which is cooking up a lot more than rice.
In hilly Barrio del Carmen, the oldest part of the city and its creative center, bearded students and elegant urbanites trek over graffitied passageways where cafes and galleries spill onto medieval squares. The sprawling Mercado Central (mercadocentralvalencia.es) has recently become a high-fashion party locale, hosting shindigs for Prada and Aston Martin, among others. Stylish boutiques are tucked behind the 15th-century late Gothic Lonja de la Seda silk exchange. Two of the best, Bugalú (Calle de la Lonja 6; 34-963-918-449) and Madame Bugalú y Su Caniche Asesino (Danzas 3; 34-963-154-476; madamebugalu.es), carry clothing and accessories by Spanish, French and Swiss designers, as well as international labels like Paul Frank.
Valencia is the birthplace of horchata, a drink made from the juice of chufas, or tiger nuts, and said to date from the city's Islamic period, the 8th to 13th centuries. You can sample it at the Horchatería El Siglo (Plaza de Santa Catalina 11; 34-963-918-466) in the Carmen. Pair a glass (2.20 euros, or $2.80 at $1.27 to the euro) with a café cortado (1.30 euros) and another Valencian original: the farton (.50 euros), a fluffy pastry finger dusted in powdered sugar.
Valencia's once-middling restaurant scene is seeing the emergence of creative young talent. Carosel (Taula de Canvis 6; 34-961-132-873; restaurante-carosel.blogspot.com), a chic but unpretentious restaurant that opened in the Carmen in March, has become a standout. The Valencian chef Jordi Morera serves up delectable twists on traditional cuisine, like a mini cuttlefish stew with artichokes and almonds. The prix fixe menu changes weekly and is always a bargain at 22 euros.