Well Valencia managed to exceed all my expectations! It was more beautiful than I imagined, had more places to eat than my stomach was prepared for, felt more romantic than I anticipated, and with the exception of Berlin, held more street art than was possible to see in one trip.
There’s something for everyone in Spain’s 3rd largest city – a place where historical buildings merge beautifully with modern architecture, and where the heart of this city truly lies in its appetite for good food.
If you’re looking to learn more about Valencia, I’ve put together this summary of attractions which will hopefully inspire you to visit and do some of these things yourself.
1. Marvel at the City of Arts and Sciences
My jaw fell to the ground as soon as I clapped eyes on the spectacularly modern City of Arts and Sciences – a futuristic architectural delight comprising of an opera house, museums, an aquarium and more – designed by local boy and celebrated Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava.
The City of Arts and Sciences is Valencia’s most emblematic attractions and one of the 12 Treasures of Spain. Needless to say, you really cannot come to this city without exploring this imaginative feat of design and culture.
2. Potter Through the Old Town
In contrast to the City of Arts and Sciences is the Old Town. The centre of the Ciutat Vella is very well preserved, and looks something like an open air museum with impressive monuments and intricate facades. All the cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and eclectic architectural shapes tell the story of bygone years.
You will surely visit the main square, Plaza de la Virgen, made notable with the Fountain of Turia in the middle. When the crowds aren’t too big, this is a great place to come for photo opportunities since it encompasses the fountain and many of the city’s most iconic buildings: the Valencia Cathedral, the Miguelete Tower and the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados.
3. Get a taste of local life at Central Market
What better way is there to get an impression of local life than at the local food market? Upon entering the building, the first thing to notice is the sheer scale and size of the market itself, with ornate iron vaulted beams, hand painted patterned tiles of all hues, and so much light streaming in. Make sure to look up at the intricate glass domes 30 metres high with stained glass patterns depicting Valencian fruit, the main stay of the areas produce and international exports for hundreds of years.
This is the perfect place to come for gifts and to try the archetypal tastes of Valencia.
4. Step inside some churches
The Old Town has an incredible number of places of worship and many of them are stunning and worth a look inside, my personal favourite is the majestic Baroque building of Iglesia de San Nicolas, commonly regarded as the Valencian Sistine Chapel. Perhaps it doesn’t quite reach those lofty heights, but it’s definitely a vision to behold, you’ll find it hard to peel your eyes away from the ceiling.
5. Discover Street Art
The street art in Valencia is easily among the best in Europe. Sure, some are nothing more vandalism, but on the other spectrum you’ll find stunning wall murals from the likes of BLU, Erica Il Cane and local boy, Escif.
To see an abundance of street art head to El Carmen, it’s where you’ll find some of the most interesting examples too, especially by Plaça de Tossal and many of the nearby streets.
6. Find the Green Spaces!
You could say the lungs of the city lie in the parks that weave through the city outside from the Old Town. Enjoy yourself at the Botanical gardens, The Royal Gardens and the Turia Gardens which spreads all the way to the City of Art and Sciences. Also home in this futuristic culture complex is L’Umbracle, a striking 320m long and 60m wide landscaped walk with plant species indigenous to Valencia. Right next to this place you’ll also find The Walk of Sculptures, an outdoor gallery showing off contemporary sculptures by local and international artists including – the one and only – Yoko Ono.
7. Explore the Coastline
If you’re heading here in summer, then make sure you pack a bikini to work on your tan and enjoy cocktails by the beach. I can think of few combinations that beat city life and beach life. Just like Lisbon and Barcelona, what’s not to love about a big city located by the beach?
8. Join a Gastronomic Tour with Suzie!
Getting to experience Valencia through my taste buds was so much more than just an exercise for my stomach – not only did I try some of Valencia’s most famous specialities, I also learnt about the city’s history and how its culinary scene has evolved into what it is today.
There are many, but one highlight of the tour includes a visit to Horchateria De Santa Catalina to try Valencia’s most famous drink, Horchata, a deliciously refreshing drink made from tiger nuts. I have plenty more to say about this tour so I’ll be writing more about it soon, but for further information about Suzie’s food tours, check out her website in the meanwhile: www.toursinvalencia.com.
9. Hire a Bike!
One of the best ways to explore the city is by bike, and it’s certainly easy for you to do since bike rental shops seem to be the second most popular type of business after restaurants! If you really want to get to know the city, Suzie from Tours in Valencia also holds cycling tours for a truly personalised and entertaining way of seeing the sights and sounds.
10. Visit during Las Falles or La Tomatina!
The word ‘quirky’ describes both of these festivals but sadly I wasn’t in Valencia at the time of these festivals so I have a very good reason to return!
Las Fallas literally means “the fires” in Valencian. The focus of this four-day festival which finishes on 19 March is the creation and burning of ninots (“puppets” or “dolls”), made from huge cardboard, wood, paper-machè and plaster statues. The ninots are extremely lifelike and tongue-in-cheek, usually depict bawdy, satirical scenes and current events.
I’ve been wanting to go to Tomatina since my brother went a few years ago and I saw the photos of him covered head to toe in bright red juice after being pummelled mercilessly by tomatoes. Taking place in the small town of Buñol, just outside of Valencia during the month of August, the world’s largest tomato fight is all in the name of good, harmless fun!
11. Explore Nearby Sagunto
There’s a lot to like about this small town 30km north of Valencia. The main attraction is the remains of the castle that sits from the domineering position atop the hill. Heading up to the castle affords some breath-taking views, and I suspect during warmer months is a superb area for hiking as you’ll find lots of walking paths. Even walking along the houses you’ll spot quirky little things including a flight of rainbow stairs which needless to stay became a backdrop for a mini-photoshoot – even in the rain!
12. Drive to Denia and Playa de la Granadella
The great thing about hiring a car in Valencia is the ability to explore a little further afield if time permits. Why not spend a day exploring the pretty town of Denia, known for its ruined castle and picturesque marina before hoping back in the car and driving to Playa de la Granadella, a stunningly beautiful cove beach that appears after driving through winding roads and pine forests? When we arrived it was reaching darkness so we had this place to ourselves, but we really wished we had arrived earlier for the chance of going on a boat trip and during the summer months you can go snorkelling.
Tip: Make note of the beautiful views granted from Calle Virgen de los Angeles, one of the roads between Denia and Playa de la Granadella which also has several very precarious hairpin bends!