VALENCIA, Spain -- Valencia is a city of contrasts, where ancient buildings rub shoulders with 19th century palaces that rise next to modern apartments. Founded by the Romans in 138 B.C., Valencia has been the home of many cultures over the years, each of which has left its mark on the city in some way, whether through language, architecture or cuisine.

The Old Town is marked by two mammoth gates, the last vestiges of the medieval wall. The Old Town provides a wealth of things to see and explore, such as the coliseum-like bull ring, the Ceramic Museum, housed in one of the city's most impressive old palaces, or the 15th century Silk Exchange, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Stop by the Mercado Central, one of the largest markets in Europe, where over 900 stalls offer fresh seafood, produce and more to locals and tourists alike. Don't miss the Cathedral, built in the 13th century and housing a relic claimed by many to be the Holy Grail. Indeed, historians date the agate drinking cup to the 1st century B.C., though the base and the ornate handles are a medieval addition. Finish up the Old Town tour with a coffee at an outdoor cafe in the Plaza de la Virgin, site of the original Roman forum and still a gathering place for locals.

Tasting the culture
Every street corner cafe offers tapas where the small servings and low prices encourage sampling of various regional delicacies such as the famous cured ham known as "jamon Iberico." Valencia is also famed as home of paella, a rice dish served with a variety of toppings such as seafood, or the hearty chicken and rabbit. Be sure to sample a cool glass of "horchatta" a refreshing milk-like drink made from the chufas nut and dating back to the conquest of Valencia by the Moors.

Running through the heart of Valencia is Toria Park, a dry riverbed that was converted into a municipal park in 1957. Visitors and residents alike can stroll or bike along nine kilometers of paths past ancient walls, fountains, statues and sculpted gardens. Be sure and visit the Gulliver, a playground modeled on "Gulliver's Travels." Gulliver lays spread upon the sand after his shipwreck, and half tied down by the diminutive Lilliputians. The ropes, folds of cloth - indeed his whole body - provide one mammoth warren of slides, corridors and climbing opportunities, and a chance for young and old alike to burn off some energy.

Sampling history
Valencia has more to offer than its museums and 2,000-year-old history. Check out the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences, which looks like a giant set piece from a science fiction film. The complex houses such a variety of amazing attractions that it has become the fourth largest tourist destination in Spain.

At the Hemispheric, visitors can enjoy laser light shows, view celestial wonders in the planetarium or watch an array of special films at the IMAX Theater. Next door, the Science Museum provides hours of enlightenment exploring the natural sciences through hands-on, interactive exhibits. The museum also showcases various traveling exhibitions such as National Geographic's Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology, which features dozens of props from the four Indiana Jones films and runs through Sept. 16.

The complex is also home to the largest aquarium in Europe at the Oceanographic, where visitors can view over 500 marine species from an underwater tunnel that cuts through the tanks. Other highlights include a pair of beluga whales, and a delightful dolphin show.

Another innovative animal attraction in Valencia is the Biopark, a zoo that transcends the barriers between visitors and animals. With "invisible barriers" such as rocks, waterways and glass, the park gives guests the sense that they are walking through the actual habitats rather than viewing animals in a cage. Indeed, in the Madagascar exhibit, the seven species of lemur are running free, scampering inches from visitors' feet or studying them intently from a branch directly above their heads.

The park focuses on three distinct areas of Africa; the savannah, equatorial rainforests and the island of Madagascar, and also features a theater, two restaurants and a live show where visitors get a close up look at various animals and birds.

No visit to Valencia would be complete without a trip to one of its many beaches. Las Arenas beach near the port has easy access to the metro and features many restaurants, shops and bars along its boardwalk. For a more secluded experience, head north to Patacona beach.

Whether visitors prefer relaxing on the beach, studying ancient history, or viewing some of the most modern and innovative sites in Spain, Valencia has it all.