One minute you’re cycling down a dried-up riverbed, the next you’re eating paella where Ernest Hemingway once did. Jacob Weber tells us why Valencia will delight and surprise you in equal measure, from the quaint old quarter to the bustling beach clubs.
Valencia is a harmony of the cultural and the cosmopolitan, of the historical and the high-tech, a brilliant balance of ancient and avant-garde architecture. It’s a fantastic destination for a city break; the third-largest city in Spain takes a bit of buzz from Barcelona, some magic from Madrid and blends it with its own distinct identity, a melting pot of Moorish and Mediterranean influences with plenty more besides. It’s got a great CV (curriculum valenciana?): one of the largest historic centres in the country with appropriately awe-inspiring attractions, a thriving social scene, miles of green spaces and sandy places, great food and great weather. If you’re short on time, most of the city’s sightseeing can be done within three main areas.
Read on for Jacob Weber's best bits and tops tips to guide you on a visit to this beautiful Spanish city.
Ramble Through Ciutat Vella (Old Town)
The historic centre of the city should be your base camp. Accommodation is plentiful and generally well-priced, and the smart money should go on renting a self-catered apartment. As much as you’ll want to eat out as often as possible, once you visit the Mercat Central, you’ll be dying to pick up as much local produce as possible and take it home to rustle up your very own Valencian dishes. The elegant and enormous ancient market is a typically bold example of pre-modernista architecture where most Valencianos still do most of their grocery shopping. It’s alive with the daily hustle and bustle of the community and a great starting point to soak up the atmosphere. Valencia is the home of horchata, a creamy drink made from tiger nuts, water and sugar. Served cold on a hot day, it’s one of the most welcome and refreshing sweet treats around and the Mercat is a good place to grab a glass.
Next door, La Lonja is well worth a look; the 15th century Silk Exchange is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the country (if not the continent) and designated a World Heritage site. From here, wander northeast through the winding streets to check out the Cathedral, a boisterous blend of Roman, Gothic, baroque and renaissance architecture. Inside, you can climb the 207 steps of the Miguelete tower for simply stunning views of the city. Reward yourself with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice just around the corner in the Plaza de la Virgen, where 21 centuries’ worth of history converge at the heart of the city. The Palau de la Generalitat and the Basílica de la Virgen are the showpieces here and if you happen to be there on a Thursday, you might spot the Tribunal de Las Aguas, (Water Court) - a thousand year old tradition which sees local farmers meet in public to settle any irrigation disputes within the wider Valencian community. It’s worth watching, if almost completely indecipherable; the court is conducted in Valencian (similar to Catalan Spanish) and the farmers discuss and decide things quickly. Perhaps other legal proceedings could learn a thing or two? The nearby Taberna El Olivo is a good option for dinner; it specialises in traditional tapas, served in the shade of the eponymous olive tree, and an ideal spot to rub shoulders with the locals.
By now, you might be after something a little stronger than orange juice. Thankfully, you’re on the doorstep to the bustling, bohemian Barrio del Carmen, the liveliest neighbourhood in the city. It’s alternative, atmospheric and dazzlingly diverse; relatively recent regeneration efforts have seen trendy bars and restaurants spring up along the cobbled streets next to old townhouses, presenting plenty of options to suit all tastes: think jazz bars, sizzling salsa, neon-lit nightclubs, retro reggae hang-outs, and much more, and no shortage of people from all walks of life to fill them. Radio City and Café Negrito are two excellent options, but really, as long as you follow the crowds (it’s quite easy to get lost after a couple of wrong turns and a couple more sangrias) you can find some great places to tumble in off the street.
There is plenty more to see in this part of the city: Plaza del Ayuntamiento, ground zero for the famous fallas celebrations in March, is home to elegant architecture and landmarks such as the Plaza del Toros as well as upmarket fashion boutiques and slick restaurants. It’s definitely worth heading back to Carmen by day to visit the Torres de Serranos, the breath-taking gothic towers that were part of the old city walls.
Explore Jardines del Turia & Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
For an amazing scenic cycle tour, rent a bike and ride down the Turia, the great green artery running nine kilometres through the centre of the city. Following a major flood in the 1950s, the River Turia was diverted away from the city and the dried-up riverbed has blossomed into a picturesque sunken park. Whizz under several beautiful bridges past flowerbeds, fountains and football pitches and pause to catch your breath at the Palau de la Música Valenciana (Valencian Music Palace).
Continue onwards to the easternmost end of the Turia and the iconic, Instagram-friendly Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts & Science). This is the defining image of modern Valencia, the stunning space-age structures rising from the riverbed. It’s Europe’s largest cultural complex, designed by internationally acclaimed (and local-born) architect Santiago Calatrava. The half-sphere L’Hemisfèric, resembling half an eyeball, houses an IMAX cinema and planetarium. Its reflection in the surrounding shallow glass-bottomed pools completes the ingenious illusion of the eye as a whole. Next door, El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe - a colossal structure resembling the skeleton of a whale and the largest exhibition space in Spain - houses interactive, educational and entertaining exhibits over three floors. L’Umbracle runs parallel; a series of high arches over a landscaped botanical garden featuring hundreds of plant species indigenous to the area.
By night, it turns into a fabulous open-air club and outdoor lounge, with a basement club downstairs blasting music into the small hours. A short hop over the road is L’Oceanogràfic, the largest oceanarium in Europe, home to 500 different species - including sharks, dolphins, sea lions, penguins and beluga whales - across ten zones reflecting different habitats and oceans. If you time it right, you can dance along to the dolphin show, set to orchestral music.
Paddle at Playa Malvarossa
On the way down to the beach, stop in to the beautiful Bodega Casa Montana, one of the oldest restaurants in Valencia serving up the best tapas in the city, with seafood dishes to die for, in an authentic artisanal setting. It’s all wooden wine barrels and rustic charm; be sure to ask your waiter to recommend a glass (or three) of wine from the extensive selection.
Valencia is hailed as the birthplace of traditional paella; the original recipe calls for rabbit, snails and butterbeans, with shrimps and mussels topping the seafood version. Top tip: never order ‘paella mixta’ (fish and meat) as you will likely be met with snorts of derision (or at least a loud tut) and watch out for anywhere advertising paella on gaudy colourful signs outside the door – any local will tell you it’s a sure sign that it is cooked from frozen, which is unthinkable for the paella purist. Thankfully, you’re near La Pepica, once a favourite haunt of Hemingway and regarded as the best place in town for seafood paella. Located at the southernmost point of Playa Malvarrosa, it’s a perfect pit-stop after paying a visit to the newly developed port area next door, with the stunning centrepiece structure Veles e Vents, the ultramodern America’s Cup Building constructed for the signature sailing event held here in 2007 and 2010. This landmark event saw a hefty investment into the waterfront area, where sleek super yachts now pack the docks in the shadow of historic port buildings.
Strolling up the long beach promenade works up a thirst, so it’s only right you quench it with a refreshing agua de Valencia, a local cocktail as luscious as it is lethal: a heady blend of cava, gin, vodka and of course, orange juice. Another tip: avoid sangria at the beach, as it is invariably mass-market stuff aimed squarely at tourists, of low quality and high price. There are plenty of trendy bars along the promenade, although most of the major beach clubs are only open during the summer months. If you’re there at the right time, Akuarela Playa is an excellent choice, a huge tropical nightclub with three rooms and a Caribbean flavour, where you can dance all night and watch the sun rise over the ocean from the awesome open-air, top floor terrace.
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