Valencia is sort of the "forgotten city" in Spain for tourists, which suited me just fine. In fact, there were times that we felt like we were the only people there...which we didn't realize how wonderful that was until we later visited Barcelona which is overflowing with tourists like in Times Square!
Valencia is a very sunny, warm, wonderfully liveable city with thriving cultural, cuisine and nightlife scenes. Situated right on the Mediterranean Sea, the weather, landscape, and climate actually felt like we were home in LA! Valencia is a very old city and dates back to pre-Roman times. Valencia is also just a ferry ride away from the famous party island, Ibiza...which I definitely want to go back to someday. Known as an innovative city, Valencia diverted its flood-prone river to the outskirts of town and converted the former riverbed into a long, ribbon of greenery and parks winding right through the city. At the end of the trail, you encounter the strikingly futuristic buildings of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, designed by local Valencian, Santiago Calatrava. Other brilliant contemporary buildings grace the city, great museums, and a large, characterful old quarter full of colorful restaurants and bars.
I could live in Spain, in fact, I plan on doing just that someday...not just because I love the Spanish language and the scenery, but because their culture and lifestyle is right up my alley! Every day they have multiple coffee breaks and siestas. Everything shuts down between 1-3pm to just chill and relax and everyone is happier in general because of it. You don't see anyone walking around with a Starbucks cup or "to-go" food because people actually take the time to sit and enjoy their coffee and food and have real interactions with each other. Another huge thing I noticed was that no one had their cell phones out at a café on the table. People were actually looking at each other and having conversations. It was something I thought was a lost art in the world, but alas no, JUST in America.
Valencia, famous for being the home of rice dishes such as Paella, is surrounded by its Huerta, a fertile fruit-and-vegetable farmland. This was the other part of their culture that I loved, their amazing food. Everywhere you go, you can find tapas and paella and some of the most delicious food. I felt like I was eating constantly, but that wasn’t a problem because people in this city walk everywhere! I also think this is a lost art here in America…just strolling around. So the key to happiness may just be, long walks, rich food and drinks, great conversations, and lots of rest. Yep, I think the Valencians are on to something!
Since we only had a few days to spend in Valencia before we left for Barcelona, I decided to find out what I thought would be the TOP 7 Things to do that gave you a well-rounded flavor of the city. We managed to do it all and I felt like I was on ZERO sleep and we walked for miles, but here is our "must-do" list:
1. Visit the Cuitat Vella, or the Old City of Valen
It is SO fun to get lost walking around the narrow, medieval streets of the Cuitat Vella and finding hidden plazas with great cathedrals and beautiful old buildings. You could almost picture what life was like back then in the 17th century and some buildings, like their huge market, still have the same purpose today, but have been perfectly restored.
Surrounding the ancient fountain of Turia, you can find nice places where you can enjoy a drink, or a local specialty, while admiring the square, with the Valencia Cathedral, the Miguelete Tower and the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados.
2. Walk through the Gardens of Turia
The Turia old river bed is another jewel of Valencia that shouldn't be missed. The garden is a long snake-like park 9 km long that circles the Ciutat Vella and then cuts across the city of Valencia almost to the Mediterranean Sea. Valencia grew up on the Turia river. However, the river had always been prone to floods and much of the city was devastated, so Valencia decided to divert the course of the river. Now, what used to be the River Turia is an empty, sunken riverbed covered with green grass, huge trees, sports fields, playgrounds, and is a great, calm way to cross the city by foot or bike.
3. Visit the City of Arts and Sciences
At the end of the long 9km walking trail through the Gardens of Turia that make you feel like you are back in time, is a futuristic cluster of buildings called la Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, or the City of Arts and Sciences. This seven building architectural wonder designed by Santiago Calatrava is so ridiculously awe-inspiring to walk around and photograph. I was a bit obsessed.
These buildings house a 3-d Theater, Opera House, Science and Art Museum, and a huge Oceanic Institute. We watched a short film about "Las Fallas" the huge Valencian Patron Saint Holyday that happens every year in Mid-March (I really enjoyed it), but to be honest the museums were not as spectacular as the architecture of the buildings themselves. You will be inspired by these futuristic buildings and how they somehow seamlessly work in this ancient city.
4. Go to a Corrida, or Bullfight
Since there is only a 3 month season of bullfighting, we did the next best thing: take a Tour of the Plaza De Toros. It was walking distance from our hotel and the Cuitat Vella and was really interesting. We actually caught real matadors practicing their moves with a fake bull, AKA a cart with horns attached to it. Not QUITE the same thing, but you could really appreciate the art and dance of what they do by watching them practice.
While we were there we checked out the bullfighting museum with all of the ornate matador outfits and learned all about the history of the sport.
5. Go to a Soccer game!
Another reason I LOVE Valencia is their great obsession with soccer! We made it a point to experience a couple of games in person and although the fans were way better behaved than the Brits at a game, they still sang and cheered non-stop for 90 minutes. It was amazing how loud the stadium got! I traveled with two great friends of mine, Paco and Sara. Paco is from Mexico and it was hilarious because every chance he got he would ask Taxi drivers or locals what they thought of the Mexico Soccer team, to which most replied, "Mexico has a soccer team?" Soccer here is like breathing and eating, so we had to do it. This game was so much fun and to be in the crowd is such an energizing experience. Way more intense than watching it on TV. We had hotdogs and baguettes, but we made sure to eat the REAL traditional tapas and paella before we left the city.
6. Enjoy some “Paella Valenciana"
Here in Valencia, you have the chance to try Spain's most famous food right where it was born. Valencia is known for its paella, but to get to the bottom of the city’s most famous dish, ride bus No.25 about 15 miles south to the village of El Palmar, around which the revered rice actually grows. Little more than a handful of sleepy streets and low-slung houses, this tiny town is packed with endearingly dated restaurants specializing in paella that locals swear beats any arroz in the city center. One solid choice is Restaurante Bon Aire, a two-story space that fills up with fun groups of friends enjoying long Sunday lunches centered on enormous shared pans of paella Valenciana made with chicken, rabbit, duck and snails. Afterward, visit one of the riparian outfits touting “paseos en barca” for a relaxing boat ride (about 5 euros) into the wetlands of Albufera National Park, and spend the postprandial hour peacefully floating amid tall grasses and wading birds.
7. Check out the markets and nightlife in El Carmen
El Carmen may be the barrio best known for its vibrant street life, but a new urban experiment is turning a pocket of the historic center into the liveliest place in town. Opened in 2013, the Mercado de Tapineria is essentially a permanent pop-up, with three retail spaces on two adjacent plazas that are completely overhauled each week. Browse the current incarnations of these so-called “Ephemeral Stores,” which have previously stocked everything from tailored turtleneck dresses by the Valencian label Uke to industrial light fixtures and costume jewelry from a local antique dealer. Adding to the market’s energy are two restaurants and regular events on the plazas, including live music, art installations, and public picnics.