PREPARE to be dazzled if you are planning a trip to Europe's latest must see' destination this summer.

Valencia is Spain's third largest city and for years it has presented a demure image to the rest of the world.

But not any more.

The Valencia of the new millennium is a brash, dynamic destination where the ultra modern mingles with the legacy of centuries as a major trading port.

Millions of euros have been spent attracting the America's Cup and the newly-introduced European Formula One Grand Prix. These two world-class sporting events have transformed Valencia into one of the Med's major venues.

But the most dazzling aspect of the city is provided by its new City of Arts and Sciences featuring an opera house in the shape of a gigantic knight's helmet.

You could be forgiven for thinking you had wandered onto the set of a futuristic Hollywood sci-fi movie. Designed by the architect Santiago Caldaria - himself a Valencian - it is simply magnificent; with rounded walls clad in millions of brilliant white ceramic shards reflecting the dazzling rays of the sun - and Valencia boasts 300 days of sunshine every year.

This huge new development stands at the seaward end of a five-mile long green artery' which was once the bed of the Turia river.

Until the 1950s, the river regularly burst its banks and caused havoc. In 1957, after 52 people drowned, the city fathers decided to channel the river around the outskirts and replaced it with an inner city garden offering sports facilities that everyone could enjoy.

They even defeated General Franco's plans to put an eight-lane motorway along the river bed - and now they have a five-mile long green artery running from east to west across the city where joggers, cyclists, horse riders and athletes exercise daily.

The Valencia of today is a flourishing, modern port with a rich background of noble architecture - a true place of contrasts and as much a city of the past as the future.

Its oldest quarter comprises a vast a flourishing, modern port with a rich background of noble architecture - a true place of contrasts and as much a city of the past as the future.

Its oldest quarter comprises a vastange of architectural styles ranging from Moorish to art nouveau.

The city's Bull Ring, echoing the style of the Roman Coliseum, sits harmoniously alongside the art deco Estacion Del Norte - the North Railway Station - now fabulously restored to the glory it originally enjoyed before becoming encrusted with the soot of a million steam trains.

And, almost everywhere you turn in Valencia's maze of crowded little streets there's a new wonder to grab your attention.

For example, the 15th century Gothic Silk Exchange - the Lonja de la Seda - was made a Unesco World Heritage Site 12 years ago and is now one of the city's main tourist attractions.

Look inside and be amazed by its beauty. Stand outside and look up towards the gargoyles and be prepared for a shock. The sculptors of 500 years ago created an obscene masterpiece when they crafted one particular waterspout high above street level.

Across the road from the Silk Exchange you will find the newly-restored central market, or Mercado Central. It is the biggest retail market in the whole of Europe, housing 1,500 stalls selling anything from freshly-picked carrots to pigs' feet and chitterlings.

The fish section is probably the biggest I have ever seen - and certainly boasts the widest selection of choice catches.

But there are more fascinating markets. The Mercado de Colon is built in a Gaudi-esque style with a stunning ceramic exterior. The tiny, circular lace market, hidden away down a narrow alley, displays a wonderful selection of hand-crafted goods and stands around a central fountain - a reminder of its own time as a fish market in Moorish days.

If it is museums and art galleries that particularly interest you, you will not be disappointed by Valencia. The city houses 34 museums and the Museum of Fine Arts houses the second largest collection of paintings in Spain after the Prado.

There are several works by Goya in the collection and more are on display in Valencia's highly individual cathedral of St. Mary, made up of a combination of Gothic, Romanesque and baroque architecture. Its alabaster windows bring an added air of peace and tranquillity to the cathedral's interior.

Shopaholics should make for the area around the Mercado de Colon with its seemingly endless array of designer stores.

Loewe, Louis Vuitton, Lladro and Armani are there in abundance alongside a further host of international names. The ubiquitous El Corte Ingles - Spain's largest department store chain - seems to have a branch on almost every street corner.

Then there is the food. Valencia is the home of paella - hardly surprising as the majority of paella rice is grown in the paddy fields surrounding the city.

Valencia now houses more than 8,000 bars and restaurants offering innovative Valencian and international cuisine and the citys tourist office produces a handy guide to the best of the famous tapas bars.

What makes Valencia an ideal short-break destination is its proximity to the UK. Our flight from Liverpool John Lennon arrived just two hours and five minutes after take-off.

But for those planning a longer stay there is no shortage of facilities. The number of hotel rooms in Valencia is growing by the day.

I stayed at the futuristic five-star Hilton Hotel on the outskirts of town - so new that even my taxi driver did not know how to get there.

And, although the coast around Valencia may not have the attraction of some of the better-known Costas, it nevertheless boasts some five miles of broad sandy beaches to attract sun-worshippers.