Often overlooked in favour of Barcelona or Madrid, Valencia is the Spanish city break destination that is just waiting to be discovered. This port city on the Mediterranean has a fantastic mix of history, forward-thinking architecture, food heritage, child-friendly activities and a real sense of fun. Read on to find out how you could be spending your time if you book flights to Valencia.
Valencia dates back over 2,000 years and has seen the Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and Arabs all exert their influence over the city. The Old Town is awash with historic architecture and everything from gothic to baroque styles are represented. It’s easily navigable on foot and worth spending some time exploring, as you’ll get a deep sense of the evolution of Valencia over time.
The Quart and Serrano towers are two parts of the city’s defences that still stand to this day. Well-preserved, their crenulations bely their importance and you can climb to the top, where the flags of the nation and the city fly, for uninterrupted views across the rooftops.
Trade has always been important to Valencia and there are a number of buildings that attest to this. Most notably is the Silk Exchange, which has been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. Its gothic façade is complete with statues and intricately carved gargoyles.
Valencian life has long centred around the Central Market and that continues to this day. Not only is it worth checking out the pre-modernista style of the building, but the produce on sale shows the abundance that the area surrounding Valencia is known for. A weather vane in the shape of a fish atop the central dome hints at the activity that goes on inside.
The Colon Market, on the other hand, has changed its uses over the years, but still provides sustenance to the people of Valencia. It is home to a wide selection of restaurants and cafes, making it a great lunch spot. You can expect to enjoy a decent meal in Valencia for between €8 and €10 (£7 – £8.75).
All around the Cathedral Quarter there are interesting things to see, not least the Water Court, which convenes at noon every Thursday. This UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage practice is held at the Door of the Apostles in Plaza de la Virgin, just as it has been for more than a thousand years. Conducted in the Valencian language, it can be difficult to follow, but the rulings are all to do with the irrigation channels that provide the all-important water to the Huerta – the fields around Valencia used for growing crops.
Eight farmers are elected to the Water Court every two years and they wear the traditional black robes of the Huerta. The wooden and leather seats they sit on date back to the 17th century. Despite the decisions and rulings being made affecting the working lives of modern farmers, the process is deeply rooted in history and tradition.
When it comes to state-of-the-art architecture, it doesn’t get much better than the City of Arts and Sciences. This stunning culture and entertainment complex is located close to Valencia’s marina and can be reached from the Old Town by walking through the Turia Riverbed Gardens, which were created in 1957, when the waterway was rerouted. It makes for a pleasant 40-minute walk, complete with interesting planting and shady trees, as well as various bridges and children’s parks to discover along the way. Alternatively, you can catch bus number 95, which leaves from Valencia’s bus station and goes all the way to the City of Arts and Sciences.
Construction of the City of Arts and Sciences started in 1996 and it was designed by Valencian native Santiago Calatrava. While there are various different spaces located within the buildings, the complex is made up of six main structures: Valencia Opera House; Hemisferic; Prince Felipe Museum of Science; Oceanografic; and Agora.
As well as wandering among the buildings and admiring their forms, as well as the peaceful setting, complete with turquoise pools, there are many attractions to enjoy inside, as well as a constantly changing calendar of events. Whether you are keen to experience the laserium, planetarium and IMAX cinema; marvel at 500 species of marine life across nine underwater towers; or see a musical or theatrical performance, there is something to suit all tastes.
If you were in any doubt about the foodie credentials of Valencia, then just remember that this is the place that gave us paella. It is therefore an absolute necessity to try the famous rice dish while visiting the city and you’ll find there are plenty of options when it comes to paella restaurants. The most important thing to remember is that the dish cannot be rushed. Either order your meal in advance – even a couple of days – or sit and enjoy a few smaller dishes and some good conversation while you wait.
A traditional paella will be served in its huge flat pan and shared among several people. It should have that distinctive vibrant yellow colour and a consistency that varies between the rice, the sauce and the various ingredients that somehow all still work together. It is up to you what seafood or meat you opt for in your paella, as most restaurants have an exhaustive menu. One thing is for sure though, you’ll be fighting over the part that the locals call socarrat. This is the few grains of rice that have become stuck to the pan and become crispy. It is widely considered the best part of the paella.
For a dish with proven heritage, head to La Pepica near Malvarosa Beach, as it celebrated its centenary in 2008. Having more than 100 years of practice certainly makes for great food and it is said that Ernest Hemingway frequently dined at La Pepica. Having started out as a beachside shack, it has expanded to a fully-fledged restaurant, with both indoor and outdoor seating. It’s still difficult to get a table at the weekend, however, so be sure to book in advance.
Alternatively, dine at Raco del Turia on Carrer de Ciscar, which is located on a street a short detour from the Turia Riverbed Gardens. It’s a great place to stop off for lunch if you’ve decided to take a walk from the Old Town to the City of Arts and Sciences via this wonderful park. Raco del Turia has been serving up traditional Valencian food since 1991, including several delicious varieties of paella.
It’s not just paella that Valencia is famous for, but a drink called horchata that also has a strong history in the city. This sweet, milky beverage, made from tiger nuts, is the perfect pick-me-up in the hot Valencia sunshine and is served all over the place from little carts to restaurants, but Horchateria Santa Catalina in the Old Town has been in business for over a century.
As well as the delicious, thirst-quenching drink, be sure to add a curiously named farton to accompany it. These delicious baked pastries are incredibly light and come in the perfect shape for dipping into your horchata. Despite having your taste buds overwhelmed by such delights, take some time to study your surroundings, as the interior of Horchateria Santa Catalina is stunning, complete with intricate tiles and polished woodwork.
Among the things that Valencia is famous for is its festivals, with a packed calendar throughout the year. There’s one such event, however, that has really caught everyone’s imagination and draws thousands of people from across the world to experience it and that’s La Tomatina. Described as the world’s biggest food fight, it’s something everyone should tick off their bucket list at least once in their lives.
Dating back to 1945 and having begun with a few people throwing tomatoes at each other in the town square in Buñol, it has grown to include 40,000 people and some 150,000 tomatoes. Buñol is just a 40-minute drive from the city of Valencia and is well worth visiting if you plan your trip to coincide with August 30th. In recent years, La Tomatina has become a ticketed event to help control numbers, so be sure to get yours in advance.
As well as the tomato-throwing action, which lasts for an hour and begins and ends with water cannons being fired, there are several other elements to the festivities. These include attempts at getting a Spanish ham from the top of a greased-up that stretches as high as a two-storey building in the middle of the town square. Arrive early to see if teamwork can prevail and the ham be won.
If you are attending La Tomatina, wear clothes you don’t mind getting irreversibly red, enclosed shoes and take a little amount of money and very few valuables with you. The kindly locals will hose you down after the food fight, but your t-shirt will probably never be the same again.
While there are innumerable attractions in Valencia that appeal to adults, it’s safe to say that younger travellers have not been neglected either. For example, as you wander through the Turia Riverbed Gardens, you’ll come across the huge figure of Gulliver sprawled on the ground. This huge representation of the fictional character is kitted out with hidden steps, ropes, ladders and slides, making it an invitation to be climbed all over. From the nearby Guardian Angel Bridge, which crosses the park, you get a fantastic view of Gulliver from above.
Valencia is also home to many other places that will really appeal to the kids, such as Bioparc, with its gorillas, tigers and crocodiles; and Oceanografic, the biggest aquarium in the world. The tourist board for the city has also put together The Valencia Children’s Route, that take in 26 stops that will be of interest to the younger ones in your party. Follow the map on foot, bicycle or by public transport and discover everything from the Snow White Park to the El Marionetari puppet theatre.
Monarch flies to Valencia from July to October, making the most of the best weather in Spain at this time of year. The hottest month is August, when temperatures reach an average of 25 degrees C and rainfall is minimal. It’s a great for sun worshippers and the perfect time to take a dip in the sea. The months on either side of August are a little cooler and by October there tends to be more rainfall.