As powerhouses Barcelona and Madrid duke it out for the title of Spain's most gay-friendly hotspot, a new contender has been quietly bulking up in the wings. Valencia, the country's number three city with about 810,000 people, may for now be a little-tasted tourist tapa, but it's a destination on the rise, poised and ready for the international attention it deserves. With its sensual blend of ancient neighborhoods, modern architecture, urban savvy, and a laid-back beach vibe, Valencia is warm and inviting, its citizens proud and charming.
Best known to the world for its lively annual Fallas Festival (a week in mid-March wherein hundreds of elaborate wood and papier mache sculptures are showcased throughout the city, then burned in one ultrabright town-wide midnight session) and its stunning City of Arts and Sciences (designed by homegrown architecture hotshot Santiago Calatrava), in recent years Valencia also became the home of the European Grand Prix auto race, as well as the first Euro city ever to hold the America's Cup sailing regatta.
Throughout its millennia-long history, sweet Valencia has endured crushing waves of both invaders (Romans, Moors, Goths, etc.) and water (via the too-often-bank-jumping Turia River), but it's always proven remarkably resilient. As a testament to locals' hardiness and ingenuity, following a particularly devastating 1957 flood they altered the very path of the Turia, and set about creating what's now the truly remarkable Turia Gardens along its former riverbed.
Valencia's gay scene is small and understated, but growing fast. Queers here mingle easily with the mainstream, and it's said that at least one high-ranking city official is part of the LGBT community. Pride events happen in late June.
Midway down Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast, Valencia is just over 200 miles from both Barcelona (to the northeast) and Madrid (to the west). From the U.S., Valencia Airport is served by Iberia (with connections in Madrid) via its several American gateway cities, and in summer by a direct Delta flight from New York's JFK Airport. Valencia's magnificent main train station, Estaci?n del Norte, stands right at the south edge of the old city center. RENFE trains from both Madrid and Barcelona are comfortable, efficient and scenic.
Since opening in 2006, Hotel Balneario Las Arenas (Eugenia Vines 22-24; +34 96 312 0600) has brought grand five star luxury back to Valencia's beachfront, on the former site of the elegant late 19th century Las Arenas thermal spa. Its 243 rooms and ten suites all have private balconies or terraces. For a similar situation at more affordable rates, Hotel Neptuno (Paseo de Neptuno 2; +34 96 356 7777) is just down the boardwalk. At the city center, the perfect blend of location and style is yours at Hospes Palau de la Mar [link to: hospes.com/en/hotel-valencia-palau-mar] (Av de Navarro Reverter; +34 96 316 2884), which overlays two 19th century palace buildings with its own sleek but warm contemporary imprint. For a more old-world feel, Ad Hoc Monumental (C/ Boix 4; +34 96 391 9140) retains a more austere vibe, with exposed brick and simple furnishings in its 28 rooms. Its setting between to the Cathedral and Turia Gardens couldn't be more central.