Valencia (map) is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. While its two bigger sisters steal much of the tourism limelight, Valencia has quietly risen through the ranks and is now a worthy contender. The city has much going for it; a stunning medieval core, a multitude of architectural styles, urban savvy, colourful festivals, a vibrant nightlife and gastronomic scene, and a laid-back beach vibe. There are so many things to do in Valencia, making it an attractive destination for all sorts of visitors. What I particularly like about Valencia is the fact that many attractions in the city centre are within walking distance whilst the City of Arts & Sciences, beaches and marina are easily accessible via the city’s efficient public transportation network. Visit in the spring and you’ll be greeted by gorgeous floral scents as you stroll around the city and its parks. In the summer, its beaches and festivals take centre-stage whilst the famous Fallas Festival is the main attraction in late-winter (mid-March). Should you choose to visit, and I highly recommend you do, here are ten things to do in Valencia:
1. Explore the City of Arts & Sciences
The City of Arts and Sciences is a true architectural gem and a must see in Valencia. Consisting of a series of stunning, highly photogenic buildings strung along the old river bed of the Turia, the City of Arts and Sciences was designed by Santiago Calatrava (a native of Valencia) and Félix Candela. You can spend the whole day exploring the city, with its blue reflective pools, clean white surfaces and leafy parks. I recommend visiting the Oceanografic (Europe’s largest aquarium) and the Museum of Sciences. A wonderful place for a meal is the Submarino restaurant located in the Oceanografic – it’s not cheap but the experience of dining while thousands of fish swim around you is certainly unique!
2. Get lost in the Old Town
Valencia’s Old Town is a labyrinth of streets and alleys with something to see around every corner. Pastel and bold coloured façades mingle alongside ancient churches and bustling markets. There is a great variety of restaurants, cafés, art galleries and intriguing shops. My advice is to wander aimlessly through the maze of streets, admire the architecture and drop into any of the lovely cafés and shops. This is one of my favourite things to do in Valencia. You can also opt to join a historical walking tour of the old town.
3. Find the Holy Grail
I’m not sure why people are still searching for the Holy Grail. It’s right here… in Valencia. I won’t tell you where but it’s not hard to find. When you do find it, prepare yourself for a truly enchanting experience! Oh, and find out why the locals believe it’s the one and only Holy Grail.
4. Explore Valencia’s history and architecture
Of all the things to do in Valencia, this is probably my absolute favourite! Valencia can trace its past to the 2nd century BC when it was founded as a Roman colony. The city was later occupied by various powers including the Byzantines, Visigoths and the Moors. In the 15th century, Valencia experienced a time of rapid economic growth. Also known as the Valencian Golden Age, it was a period in which arts and culture fluorished in the city. In the early 1900’s, the city experienced another revival with many new buildings and monuments built. Remnants of this colourful past can still be seen, from the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum (at the Archeological Museum) to the beautiful 15th century Silk Exchange (Lonja de la Seda), the Cathedral, the medieval city gates and the stunning Art Nouveau buildings scattered around the city. The best way to get acquainted with the city’s history is to go on a walking tour and visit some of the world-class museums such as the National Ceramics Museum (with its breathtaking façade) and the Museum of Fine Arts San Pio V (located in a beautiful convent and home to a stunning collection that includes works by El Bosco, Goya and Velázquez). Make sure to look up when you’re at the Cathedral or the Silk Exchange – you’ll find some intriguing sculptures, some highly erotic, that adorn the façade. Oh, and find out why the bat is the symbol of Valencia!
Join a historical walking tour of Valencia.
Valencia boasts a multitude of architectural styles, from the Gothic medieval period to Renaissance and 20th century Art Nouveau. Some of the most beautiful medieval examples include the Cathedral and Silk Exchange (above) whilst Art Nouveau enthusiasts should visit the Estacio del Nord (the train station), the Central Market and the buildings around the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
5. Go square-hopping
The Old Town of Valencia is a maze of streets and while you’re out on a stroll, you’ll soon discover the many hidden squares, each with its own distinct character. What I truly enjoyed doing was going from one square to another – square-hopping – stopping for a coffee or a drink each time and watching local Valencians go about their daily activities. At the Plaza de la Reina, at the main entrance to the Cathedral, you’ll find a terrace that serves a fantastic sangria!
Valencia has many culinary treats. Being the home of the world famous paella, this delicious rice dish features prominently on many menus but Valencia has lots more to offer. From tapas/pintxo bars to Michelin star establishments, there’s a broad range of restaurants to choose from. My favourites include La Riua, a popular paella restaurant; Sagardi, a pintxo bar and grill; Alma del Temple (a contemporary, reasonably-priced restaurant in the Caro Hotel); La Lola (a quirky restaurant near the Cathedral serving modern Valencian cuisine); and Vertical (a Michelin-star restaurant with fantastic views of the City of Arts & Sciences).
Join a tapas tour of Valencia.
If you’re spending a day at the city’s beaches, I can recommend the paella at La Ferradura and the wonderfully atmospheric La Lonja del Pescado.
Two other Valencian treats you shouldn’t miss are horchata (a refreshing drink made of tiger nuts) – try the Horchateria Santa Catalina, near the Plaza de la Reina – and the fresh juices (Valencia is famous the world over for its oranges) at Zumeria Naturalia in Carrer de la Mar. If you’re looking for something a bit stronger at Zumeria, ask for the Agua de Valencia (orange juice with cava and vodka).
7. Tantalise your senses in Valencia’s markets
There are many markets in Valencia but there are two that are absolutely worth a visit: the Central Market (one of Europe’s largest) and the Cólon Market. The fresh produce, seafood, cheeses and meat are guaranteed to get your appetite going. In addition, these are two of my favourite Art Nouveau buildings in Valencia.
Another amazing attraction in Valencia is the Bioparc, a huge park that showcases Africa’s flora and fauna. You’re probably scratching your head and wondering if this is something you absolutely must do in Valencia. I had the same reservations when I heard about it but I’m very glad I went. The park is absolutely amazing, hence its mention in this list. The Bioparc is organised in accordance with the various eco-systems in Africa and the animals roam around freely. Some of my favourite sections include Madagascar (where you can get very close to the lemurs), the hippo area and the savannah. The Bioparc is easily one of the most beautiful zoos I’ve been to and I can definitely recommend it for a lovely morning or afternoon stroll. Buy your ticket for the Bioparc.
9. Hit the beaches
When you’re done exploring the city, head for the beaches! The city’s main beaches are Las Arenas and Malvarossa, both a short metro ride away from the city centre. The long boulevard that runs along the length of the beaches is a favourite spot for local Valencians to see and be seen. There is also a variety of cafés and restaurants along the boulevard. The main attraction, however, is the broad arc of white sand and the bright blue Mediterranean Sea. There are other gorgeous beaches situated just south of Valencia (an easy bus ride away) such as Playa Pinedo, Playa El Saler and Playa Devesa (an off-the-beaten-path nudist beach). These beaches are relatively less crowded than the city beaches and are more popular amongst the locals.
10. Stroll the length of the Turia River park
In 1957, Valencia was hit by a devastating flood that killed many and left the city underwater. As a result of the flood, the decision was made to divert the Turia River to the southern outskirts of the city. When the river was diverted, the dry river bed became a contentious issue for the city government. Plans to build a highway along the river bed clashed with the locals’ demands to create a park. The locals won and this is arguably the best thing to happen to the city in its modern history. The Turia park stretches almost 9 kilometers from the Bioparc to the City of Arts & Sciences at the southern end. Whereas a highway would have divided the city into distinct western and eastern halves, the park plays a pivotal role in uniting the city, bringing the locals together for all sorts of activities – there are cycling and jogging paths, water parks and facilities for a multitude of sports and cultural activities. Moreover, the rehabilitation of the river bed paved the way for the planning and construction of the magnificent City of Arts & Sciences. A stroll through the park (between the Alameda station and the City of Arts & Sciences) is a must-do, if only to enjoy the beautiful trees and flowering shrubs, and to admire the city’s historic bridges.
There you have it: my favourite things to do in Valencia! I hope these tips will help you to truly appreciate this fabulous city!
Note: A big thank you goes to the City of Valencia Tourism Board for hosting me in your wonderful city. All opinions expressed above are, as always, mine.