BASKING BESIDE THE MEDITERRANEAN, SUPERCHARGED WITH A SPACE-AGE CULTURAL CENTRE AND EUROPE’S MOST SPECTACULAR FESTIVAL, VALENCIA IS AN HISTORIC CITY TO TREASURE.
Spain’s third largest city is an urban treasure, basking in a new 21st-century image as a dynamic Mediterranean destination. A vibrant mix of old and new, combining a colourful history with outstanding modern architecture, with dynamic museums, Europe’s biggest aquarium, a flourishing restaurant scene, lively nightlife, great shops and miles of beach, Valencia bursts with Mediterranean exuberance.
Madrid and Barcelona – Spain’s two biggest cities – may grab the headlines, but Valencia happily gets on with being a wonderfully liveable city that is an absolute treat to visit. Largely pedestrianised, the city centre glories in buildings with Roman and Moorish origins, and great monuments of the Gothic and Renaissance periods. In this historic setting, hipness is invading the old alleyways with new shops, galleries, restaurants, bars and late-late nightlife.
The later architecture is also entrancing with fabulous Art Nouveau buildings from a century ago and brilliant modern structures at one of the world’s most stunning new cultural complexes, the City of Arts and Sciences, a brilliant creation of the world-famous Valencia-born architect, Santiago Calatrava.
Surrounded by the huerta, a fertile zone of market gardens and groves that grow the world-famous Valencia oranges, the city is renowned as the home of paella, but its buzzy dining scene offers plenty more besides; it’s a superb place for eating, supplied by excellent local produce and seafood.
In days of yore, Valencia was fought over for the agricultural wealth of the huerta. After the Romans and the Visigoths, the city was occupied by the Moors for over four centuries with a brief interruption (1094– 1101) when Christian Spain’s great warrior hero, El Cid, recaptured it. He died here in 1099, but his body, propped on a horse and led out through the gates, was still enough to cause the Moorish armies to flee in terror. Finally in 1238, King Jaime I of Aragón permanently wrested Valencia back for the Christians.
A great trading centre and seaport, Valencia has been one of Spain’s largest and richest cities ever since. Set beside the Mediterranean, it is also a major sailing centre which hosted the America’s Cup in both 2007 and 2010, and a beach resort with miles of golden sands hosting water sports – you can watch energetic young locals as they surf, windsurf, kitesurf and sail, year round. And amazingly, just to the south of the city spreads the wilderness of the Albufera Nature Park, a vast freshwater lagoon where birdlife balloons in autumn and spring when migratory species abound. Rice paddies surround it, and this is where paella – that marvel of simmered rice – was born.
Discovering Valencia has to begin in the historic city centre, packed with monuments, which is easily walkable. A good start to the day is a coffee at a terrace table in the atmospheric Plaza de la Virgen (Virgin Mary Square), the city’s most historic square, contemplating the chaotic Cathedral, a medley of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture. Venturing inside, you’ll find the so-called Holy Grail, a chalice claimed to be the one Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper; the patron saint’s withered arm, a relic that has terrified generations of Valencian children; two Goya paintings, one of them depicting a horrifying exorcism; and windows made from fine alabaster – because Valencia’s light was thought too dazzling for glass. If energetic, climb the 207 steps of the Micalet belltower for great views of the city.
Nearby in the Plaza del Mercado (Market Square) stands La Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange), Valencia’s most treasured building, a chamber of commerce built in the early 16th century to symbolise the city’s wealth and power and to impress visiting merchants from afar. A masterpiece of late Gothic architecture, this business facility possesses a splendour usually reserved for churches and palaces.
For a peep into today’s Valencian commerce, there’s no finer experience than Europe’s biggest fresh-produce market located on the other side of the square, a brick and iron structure in Spanish Art Nouveau style. Boasting more than a thousand stalls, the Mercado Central (Central Market) is still the place where many Valencians buy their groceries, choosing superb fresh produce grown in the huerta surrounding the city. A great, light-filled place, the market is wonderful to stroll around, checking out Spain’s wondrous varieties of ham, the day’s fish catch from the Mediterranean, or local favourites like habas – baby broad beans that are delicious cooked with ham and garlic.
Whenever you need a pick-me-up, Valencia has its own speciality, horchata. Resembling soya milk, it’s a sweet drink made from ground tiger nuts that is both nutritious and refreshing, and often consumed with finger-shaped sponge cakes called fartons. There are horchaterías all over the city, with the oldest and most atmospheric found in the Plaza Santa Catalina, named El Siglo and Santa Catalina, adorned with dazzling ceramic tiling depicting historical scenes.
Ceramics are a local speciality and lovers of Lladró will be in heaven here. Fabricated since 1953 in Valencia, Lladró porcelain figurines are the ultimate art of Valencian ceramics. You can go on a factory visit, following a figurine made from scratch, and each artisan will explain their part of the process. The complex includes a large exhibition shop where you can view and buy most works currently in production. Elsewhere in the city is the National Ceramics Museum, housed in a rococo palace with a brilliantly over-the-top façade, its doorway flanked by two muscular figures, with a statue of the Virgin Mary above.
Fine art lovers are also very well served in Valencia, which boasts Spain’s second largest art museum featuring works by notable Spanish artists. Museo de Bellas Artes, housed in a beautiful 17th-century convent, has works by Velázquez, El Greco and Goya, as well as some leading Valencian artists. For modern art, there’s IVAM, the first modern art gallery created in Spain, located in the El Carmen district.
For something totally Valencian, don’t miss the Las Fallas Museum. Las Fallas is the city’s great party, held during a week in March each year. The focus is on huge papier mâché figures created each year, representing everything from cartoon characters to politicians, often satirically. On the last night, all the ninots, as the figures are called, are put on bonfires all around the city, going up in flames in a party atmosphere – except the prizewinners, which are preserved and kept at this museum. Besides admiring these colourful figures, you get to learn about the festival’s history.
Valencia’s big bang, Las Fallas is truly spectacular. The festival opens with an absolutely deafening mass explosion of firecrackers in the huge City Hall Square. In total contrast, one day is given over to parades of thousands of local people dressed in 18th-century traditional costumes, with the women wearing long dresses of gorgeous finery. The participants proceed to Virgin Mary Square, bringing flowers which are attached there to a huge effigy of the Virgin Mary, which ends up as a glorious floral figure 20 metres tall.
Las Fallas is the biggest annual festival in Europe, drawing people from all over Spain and from around the world, up to a million in total. But it’s not the only time you get to see something truly spectacular in Valencia: all year round there is the phenomenal City of Arts and Sciences, a 21st-century creation that is the dazzling new symbol of the city.
On a former riverbed to the north of the city centre, there rise the strikingly futuristic buildings of the City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, or CAC). A mind-blowing vision formed by massive sculptural structures set around turquoise pools, the complex catapulted Valencia onto the world stage as a comprehensive venue for cultural experiences and events when completed in 2009.
Serving a wide mix of cultural functions, the aesthetically stunning complex spreads over 350,000 square metres. Not just open for events, the CAC is a kind of massive sculpture park open to public leisure for just strolling around, with multiple promenades and pools around the buildings, where you can hire bikes, paddleboards and various other contraptions to enjoy the place.
The breathtaking City of Arts and Sciences symbolises the local government’s quest to establish the city as a prime tourist destination. The giant complex – Europe’s largest cultural centre – consists of a series of dramatic edifices that seem to have landed from space or been created by CGI. Organic in appearance, these masterpieces of engineering create an other-worldly ambience while offering practical functions.
The white concrete Science Museum is by far the biggest building, stretching for 241 metres alongside a rectangular pool, its rib-like buttresses making it look like the sun-bleached skeleton of a gigantic beast. Enlivened with interactive exhibits about science, sport and the human body, it’s family-oriented with attractions like a 15-metre-high model of DNA’s double helix structure, a 34-metre-high Foucault Pendulum demonstrating the earth’s rotation, and a Mirage jet fighter plane hanging above.
The Hemisfèric is a striking eye-shaped structure, complete with lashes, whose eyeball forms a huge concave screen used to project IMAX movies and laser shows, and also functions as a planetarium. The Palace of the Arts (Palau de les Arts) looks like a huge cycling helmet floating on a vast pool. This high-tech performing arts venue has auditoriums of varying sizes that host ballet, opera and concerts. Looking like a colossally high helmet, L’Àgora is a multifunctional space for events, from sports to fashion shows.
The Oceanográfic is Europe’s largest marine park with 45,000 specimens swimming around in lagoons, a dolphinarium and huge aquariums. Divided into zones, beluga whales and walruses inhabit the Arctic area, Japanese spider crabs crawl about the temperate zone and a kaleidoscope of reef fish, sharks and turtles swim in the tropical zone, which you can walk through in a 70-metre-long tunnel. Boggle at the spooky disc-shaped sunfish, which looks like it’s swimming on its side. Go scuba-diving with sharks and try feeding Humboldt penguins. Dine at the underwater restaurant with fish darting past your table. Or if you just want to take a leafy walk, stroll along the Umbracle, a rooftop gallery of 18-metre-high parabolic arches towering over a path shaded with Valencian vegetation, including palms, honeysuckle, bougainvillea and, of course, orange trees.
STYLE AND TASTE
If you just have to shop, or want to eat, then Valencia has the goods for you in spades. The city has a rich and vibrant fashion culture, with home-grown creations that include the flamboyant, gypsy-inspired pieces of Francis Montesinos; the sexy styles of Alex Vida; the urban look of Alejandro Sáez de la Torre; Higinio Mateu’s frisky dresses; and the flouncy avant-garde threads of Tonuca. You can shop for both local and international designs in the city centre, especially the Eixample district between Calle Colón and Gran Vía del Marqués del Turia; and Calle Jorge Juan beside Mercado Colón.
If you just want to buy cloth for your own creations, there are textile shops that specialise in the gorgeous fabrics worn in the parades of Valencia’s great festivals like Las Fallas – Roa Textil is a good one. In general, though, Valencia is not a dressy place, more a place for partying and eating well – which is apt for the home of Spain’s most famous dish, paella.
Paella is Valencia’s signature dish, Paella Valenciana, a delicious concoction of local rice, rabbit meat, white beans and sometimes snails – but not seafood. For that, you order paella de marisco (shellfish paella). Cooked up with saffron colouring in an enormous shallow pan, paella can be found throughout the city, but the best paella restaurants are found by the beach. One of them, La Pepica, has been drawing customers ever since it was just a shack where the writer Ernest Hemingway – who adored Spain – used to eat. Now a rather elegant place, La Pepica has even been patronised by Queen Sofia.
Besides offering many restaurants with typical Spanish cuisine and foreign cuisines too, Valencia is a great place to tuck into that brilliant Spanish invention, tapas – small portions of dishes at low prices. To end a meal, the local dessert wine, Moscatel de Valencia, is ideal, sweet and aromatic. The Moscatel vineyards actually begin at the city’s western boundary.
For taking a chance on interesting bars and restaurants, the most atmospheric area is undoubtedly the maze-like Barrio del Carmen, which spreads north from the Mercado Central. Once neglected, this quarter is fast regenerating, as buildings are renovated and stylish cafés, bars and restaurants open up, making a really vibrant, alternative neighbourhood.
Whilst the most exciting time in Valencia is undoubtedly the phenomenal Las Fallas festival in March, this is a city where you can have a great time whenever you come. It’s been called “the new Barcelona” on account of its vibrant reinvention in the last decade or so – and for many visitors it’s more fun than its more famous sister up the coast. Unlike Barcelona people, the locals are not yet fed up with tourists and give you a friendly welcome. Give it a try!
From Southeast Asian capitals to Valencia, several airlines offer one-stop transfers in Europe. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies via Amsterdam Schipol, an airport with superb transit facilities; visit www.klm.com for details. Swiss International Air Lines flies via Zurich; for details, visit www.swiss.com. Turkish Airlines offers the shortest route, flying via Istanbul; for details, visit www.turkishairlines.com
It’s easy to walk around the historic centre. Valencia is flat and good for cycling too: Valencia Guías (www.valenciaguias.com) offers bike hire and bike tours in English. For free use of buses and the subway, plus a variety of discounts on entrance fees, shop and restaurant prices, and so on, get the Valencia Tourist Card at €15 for 24 hrs, €20 for 48 hrs or €25 for 72 hrs; full details are at www.valenciatouristcard.com. The seven-Day Valencia Tourist Card is a version that doesn’t include public transport.
- The Westin Valencia, Avenida de Saboya 16; T. + 34 963 625900; www.westinvalencia.com
Elegance and glamour combine to create a wondrous ambience.
- Caro Hotel, Calle del Almirante 14; T +34 963 059000; www.carohotel.com
Historic, palatial luxury in the heart of old Valencia.
- SH Ingles Boutique Hotel, Calle Marqués de Dos Aguas 6; T. +34 902 453015; sh-ingles-valencia.hotel-rez.com
Excellent three-star value in the old town.
- One Shot, Calle Colón 46; T. +34 963 146614; www.oneshothotels.com
Smart rooms, a central location, and affordable prices.
- La Pepica, Paseo Neptuno 6; T. +34 96 371 0366; www.lapepica.com.
Rated the best paella restaurant, facing the beach.
- La Salvaora, Calle de Calatrava 19; T. +34 963 921484, www.lasalvaora.com
Excellent Spanish cuisine at reasonable prices, midday and evening.
- Bodega Casa Montaña, Calle de José Benlliure 69; T. +34 963 672314, www.emilianobodega.com.
One of Valencia’s most characterful spots since 1836, midday and evening.
- Bar Ricardo, Calle de Doctor Zamenhof 16; T. +34 963 226949, www barricardo.es
Beautiful traditional bar with a fabulous array of tapas, all day.
- Horchatería de Santa Catalina, Plaza Santa Catalina 6; www.horchateriasantacatalina.com
- Horchatería Daniel, Avenida de la Horchata 41; www.horchateria-daniel.es
- La Casa de l’Orxata, Mercado de Colon; www.casadelaorxata.com
- Lladró City of Porcelain, Carreterra Alboraya; T. +34 961 860 421; www.lladro.com/en_us/visit-us
Exhibition and shop, Mon-Fri: 10am–7pm, Sat: 10am–2pm. Factory tours must be pre-booked.
- Artesania Yuste, Plaza del Milagro del Mocadoret, offers decorative ceramic tiles.
- Roa Textil, Calle Periodista Azzati 4 (www.roatextil.com), offers gorgeous textiles for gowns.
- Nela, Calle San Vicente Mártir 2, stocks exquisite embroidered silk shawls and handmade fans.
- Cathedral, Plaza de la Virgen, www.catedraldevalencia.es Open all hours.
- Cathedral Museum, www.museocatedralvalencia.com, Mon-Sat 10am-6.30pm, Sun 2pm-6.30pm.
- La Lonja de la Seda, www.valenciacityguide. com/tourist-attractions/ monuments/lonja-de-la-seda.html
- Plaza del Mercado, Tue-Sat 10am-2pm, 4.30-8.30pm, Sun and hols 10am-3pm. Mercado Central, Plaza del Mercado; www.mercadocentralvalencia.es; Mon-Sat, 7am-3pm.
- Estacio del Nord (North Station), Carrer de Xàtiva 2, open all hours. Valencia’s main train station is a major monument of Spanish Art Nouveau.
- City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias), T. +34 961 974686, www.cac.es Open daily 10am until dusk; entry price details at tickets. cac.es.
- Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes), Calle San Pío V 9; www.museobellasartesvalencia.gva.es, T. +34 963 870300. Open daily except Monday, 10am-8pm, free entry.
- National Ceramics Museum, Calle Poeta Querol 2; Tue-Sat: 10am-2pm, 4pm-8pm, Sun & hols: 10am-2pm.
- Las Fallas Museum, Plaza Monteolivete 4; T. +34 96 352 5478. Tue-Sat: 10am-2pm, 4.30-8.30pm, Sun & hols: 10am – 3pm. fallasfromvalencia.com/en/ fallas-all-year-round
- Las Fallas, fallasfromvalencia.com/en/ home, Europe’s biggest festival, held during March 11-19.
- Valencia July Fair, www.valencia-touristtravel- guide.com/valencia-july-fair.html. July is filled with special summer events, climaxing on the last day with floral floats and the Flower Battle (July 29, 2018). Region Of Valencia Day, 9 October. Fireworks, costumed processions, music and dancing.
WHEN TO GO
Winters (December to February) are mild, but with some cold days. Spring and autumn are best for cultural events and pleasantly warm temperatures. In July and August, it can get uncomfortably hot.
- Valencia Tourist Office, Plaza de la Reina 19; www.visitvalencia.com
- Spanish National Tourist Office: www.spain.info