I lived in Valencia, Spain for two years – two of the best years of my life. Here’s a brief overview of some of the essential things to do or see during your visit there. (Note: They are in no particular order.)
Festival: Las Fallas (Alternative: Museo Fallero)
If you’re still deciding when to go to Valencia, you should visit in March. This is when Fallas takes place, the greatest festival in the world. During this time, you can walk around the city and see intricate wooden and paper-mache sculptures that are made to (often satirically) represent politics, social trends, philosophy and more. They are expensive and well-crafted; it takes an entire year to finish one. After being on display throughout the city for a week, they are all burned in what is called La Crema. However, the celebration (including mascleta, fallera parades and more) takes place over the whole month of March, so it seems like there’s a never-ending party. For more details, see here.
If you go to Valencia outside of March, make sure to visit the Museum of Fallas (museo fallero). All the award-winning mini-fallas, called ninots, are saved from the fire and stored in this museum. You have to check it out!
Best Plazas: Plaza de la Virgen and Plaza del Ayuntamiento
Spain is known for its beautiful plazas, and Valencia is no exception. While I wouldn’t recommend eating at the touristy spots there, the outskirts are full of wonderful places to dine.
Plaza de la Virgin is a calm, historic plaza in the heart of the “old city”. Within the plaza lies a fountain of Neptune surrounded by women. Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, represents the now dry River Turia which runs through the city. There is also a beautiful 15th century Baroque basilica and an 18th century cathedral. The cathedral is home to the alleged Holy Grail, though many other places also believe they share this claim to fame. I would recommend climbing to the top of the Micalet tower attached to the Cathedral. This gothic bell tower will provide spectacular views of the city.
At the center of Valencia you will find the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. It is a large, bustling plaza for both pedestrians and cars, and consists of important government buildings and store fronts. This would be a great starting point for your explorations or shopping sprees. During Fallas, this is where all the action happens, including mascleta and Valencia’s biggest Falla display.
Shopping: Calle Colon
Just a 7-minute walk from Plaza del Ayuntamiento, you’ll find the largest shopping street in Valencia called Calle Colon. Here, you can shop Spain’s best brands like Zara, Mango and Massimo Dutti. For a list of other stores, see here.
Indoor Market: Mercado Central
One of my favorite travel ventures is visiting food markets. The Mercado Central is Valencia’s oldest indoor food market where you can buy fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, dried fruit, fish, meat, cheese, bread and probably anything else you could wish for. If you’re like me, you’ll want to eat a number of things, so make sure to bring cash and know how much your desired item should weigh in kilos. I recommend trying the dried strawberries here, they’re delicious! Lastly, a friend told me the market is now open for night hours. During this time tapas and live music are available.
Near the market, you’ll find the 15th century La Lonja de La Seda. This building used to be used for silk trading, but now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can walk through it quickly and enjoy the incredible gothic architecture; the ceiling is particularly stunning.
Bullfighting Ring: Plaza de Toros
Russafa used to be rough, but now it’s arguably the trendiest neighborhood in Valencia. It’s home to a ton of incredible restaurants, unique stores and pubs. I suggest grabbing dinner at Copenhagen, rich in flavor but minimal in design. Hipsters will feel right at home here.
It’s inevitable that you will spend time in the historic, central neighborhood of El Carmen during your stay in Valencia. While it’s incomparable to any other neighborhood in terms of beauty, the restaurants here tend to be a bit pricier. Try to eat at places you find on less crowded side streets. You can usually get a good deal with the menu of the day, which is often written on a board outside. The Carmen is also a popular nightlife spot for tourists and locals. However, I prefer L’Umbracle’s night life (see below).
Gate Towers: Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart
The “old city”, or the smaller area that used to be Valencia during the 14th century, used to be protected by a wall with twelve entrance towers. At night the doors would close, and those outside the city would be locked out for the night. While the wall no longer remains due to the expansion of the city, there are two entrance towers that persist, the Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart.
The towers are an iconic part of Valencia, and are definitely worth seeing. You’ll feel like you step back in time when visiting Torres de Quart because it still carries war wounds (aka cannon ball holes) from Napoleon’s invasion. I prefer the Torres de Serranos, which are used for La Crida, an official ceremony where the Fallera Mayor stands at the top of the tower and announces the start of Fallas.
Modern Architecture: City of Arts and Sciences
The City of Arts and Sciences is a massive complex of modern buildings designed by Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela. It cost nearly $900 million to make, and it really is an impressive architectural feat. If you enjoy a long walk, I suggest strolling along the dry river Turia Park until you reach it. You can allot an entire day or two to exploring the buildings inside and out.
There are numerous structures and buildings that comprise this “city”. The first is, L’Hemisfèric, an eye-shaped building that houses an IMAX theater, planetarium and laserium. Surrounding L’Hemisfèric is a large, shallow pool of water. If you’re looking for something fun to do and it’s not too hot outside, you can rent one of the clear, human-sized hamster balls and (try to) run around the pool area. Good luck!
L’Oceanogràfic is a essentially an aquatic zoo, housing the largest aquarium in Europe.
El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe is an interactive science museum, perfect for kids.
L’Àgora is a convention center.
L’Umbracle is a terrace botanical garden, with local vegetation.
Lastly, El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía is an opera house.
Valencia has yet to realize that the expensive real estate, at least by US standards, is by the beach. While there are homes in this area, it hasn’t been overly developed or taken advantage of. There are a few restaurants where you can enjoy a paella or some cake (at La Mas Bonita, see below). But there’s not much else. This makes it a great place to go and get away from it all. Head over to the beaches La Malvarrosa or Las Arenas, but don’t be alarmed if you see topless women- that’s the norm in Spain.
If you don’t like to just lay on the beach, you can rent a Valenbisi, a city bicycle, to ride on the sidewalks. Spain’s beaches have a lot of space, with long sandy shores. Their water is temperate and they don’t have any sharks! The only thing to watch out for are jellyfish, but I believe those are seasonal.
Day trip to Calpe
If you still want to get away from it all after your trip to the beach, then Calpe is a great option. Calpe is a small town one and a half hour’s drive from Valencia, so you’ll need a car for this one. There is a wonderful, slightly challenging little hike on the arid rock, Penyal d’Ifac.
The hike should take 2-4 hours, and as you go further up the trail you will enjoy the most random but adorable site of wild kittens sporadically located on the mountainside. Take care because the rocks are quite slippery (not suitable for children). There’s a part of the trail where you must use a rope to cross because of this. Also, don’t go midday in the summer due to the heat. There’s no protection from the sun, and trust me, you’ll be sweating. It will all be worth the effort when you see the breathtaking view at the summit. Penyal d’Ifac juts out between beaches, and below you’ll see bright blue water on both sides. It’s one of my favorite views to this day.
If you prefer not to hike, or if you still have energy after you do (how?), you can go paddle boarding. There’s a marina with a dive shop where you can casually rent paddle boards. The waters are calm here, so it’s easy to paddle out to the beach. The water is a clear blue, and there a few big rocks along the shore that are fun to climb.
Even though I lived in Valencia for two years, I’m having a hard time remembering where in the world I went out to eat!? My roommate reminded me of some restaurants, which I’ll list below, but mostly what I’ll tell you here are some essential Spanish dishes you should try. Side note, I was vegetarian in Spain, so I won’t have meat dishes listed.
Located at the beach, La Patacona, you’ll find the restaurant single-handedly responsible for 5 extra kilos I gained. La Mas Bonita is open from 8am to midnight, serving loads of desserts and normal meals. They always have a few different cakes to choose from, and I tried every one of them. They were all delicious, but you will die and go to heaven with their Nutella cheesecake. You may become addicted like me- you’ve been warned!
Al Pomodoro is an Italian restaurant located in the heart of Valencia, and for what it’s worth, it’s my favorite place to have dinner. Remember how I said there was an ancient wall surrounding Valencia? This restaurant houses a piece of it under protective glass, so you can walk over it in wonder. The decorations here are quirky, warm and inviting. Most importantly, they’ve mastered the perfectly sweet tomato sauce and delicious al dente pasta. That plus the deep, red wine will put you in an incredible food trance that keeps you there till closing.
Eating at Cien Montaditos is essential when you visit Spain. Cien Montaditos is a chain gastropub with various locations throughout Valencia. Here you can enjoy 100 different varieties of small Spanish sandwiches (or tapas) and sangria or beer. I would go with friends and get a jarra of sangria and some Nutella-Almond montaditos (seeing a Nutella theme yet?). This place is famous both for its cheap meals and the young crowd it attracts. I can assure you it will be packed around Spanish meal time!
Located in Russafa, the Black Turtle is the best place to grab a burger- even a vegan burger! Spaniards love to add egg to everything, so I suggest trying it on your burger here. If you’re feeling even more daring, then you will love their unique menu options. They offer things I’ve never seen before, like a pancake burger or a burger with mango and strawberries.
Paella is found all over Spain, but it originates from Valencia. You MUST try it while on your stay here because no one makes it better.
Paella is a rice dish slowly cooked in a large, shallow skillet called a paella (confusing I know). It’s always made with the saffron and typically includes veggies with chicken and rabbit or seafood. You can change up the type of ingredients and get a vegan friendly paella. Of course, I would recommend that one.
Fun fact: Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, coming in at over $500 an ounce. It is harvested by hand in Spain, and the whole process of cultivation is extremely labor intensive- hence the price tag.
Horchata originates from Valencia and is made of tigernuts, sugar and water. It’s like a cold, sweet milk- perfect for a hot summer day. If you see an horchata stand on the street, you should stop because there aren’t too many stands around town.
Tapas are small dishes that are bought with friends and shared. They often consist of bread and some savory topping. They can also be extravagant mini-meals or even something as simple as a plate of olives. If you haven’t had tapas before, then you are missing out on what it means to be Spanish.
If you’re 18+, make sure you try some homemade Sangria. People usually throw a mix of fruits in there with wine, a carbonated beverage, cinnamon, and probably some sugar. It’s so sweet and delicious you won’t even know you’re drinking alcohol, which can be a dangerous thing!
Try Tortilla de Patata
This isn’t tortilla in the Mexican sense. I guess you would call it a quiche, but I hate that word as much as I hate quiches, so I’m going to preserve a specific category just for this tortilla. This dish is just eggs, potato and onion cooked together in a disk shape. I’ve made this so many times that I finally perfected the art of flipping it over to cook the other side. I would recommend it with a bit of ketchup, because Heins always makes everything better.
Soccer Stadium: Mestalla
If you want a truly authentic Spanish experience, then look no further than the Mestalla stadium. Valencia, and all of Spain for that matter, is extremely passionate about its soccer. Valencia’s longtime rival is Levante, so if you can manage to make it to a match between those two, then you’re in luck!
Nightlife: Mya / L’Umbracle
Nightlife in Spain doesn’t start till late. And I mean late. We usually would go to a pub around 12am and then show up at the club (discoteca) at 3am, where you can dance until anywhere between 6-9am. By the time you’re headed home, you can just go get some breakfast and sleep the day away- assuming it’s the weekend.
If you’re investing that much time into going out, you should be blown away by the experience. That is what L’Umbracle will give you. This terrace was built as part of the City of Arts and Sciences (mentioned above). During the day, you’ll see it houses diverse plant life native to Valencia. At night, this is brought to life under the stars where you can rest on modern lounge chairs or dance the night away. This area is only open seasonally, but Mya, the underground club attached to L’Umbracle, is open year-round.
Museo Fallero (mentioned above)
The award-winning ninots that are saved from the fire during Fallas are stored in this museum. It’s definitely worth seeing!
Bellas Artes is home to 2,000 paintings from the 14-17th century. It proudly displays some of Spain’s finest work by Goya, Velazquez and El Greco.
Museo de Almoina
This is Valencia’s archeological museum, and a true gem for the city. You can see the excavation of ancient ruins here, as well as artifacts that date back as far as 183 BC. You will see remains of sacred burial sites, residential areas and more. It’s worth having an English guided tour of the museum, as the signs will be posted mostly in Spanish.
Museo Nacional de Ceramica
The Baroque palace of the Marques de Dos Aguas was formed into a ceramic museum. It is just as impressive on the outside as it is on the inside. The ornate 15th century alabaster entrance will catch your eye from down the street.
Park: Jardines del Turia
The Turia Garden is a dried riverbed that runs through the city. It once was a full-blown river, but when the city was flooded by its waters, they decided to redirect the water and create a park.
The park is huge with over 1 million square meters. There are sidewalks that run through the riverbed, with diverse species of trees surrounding them. If you have children, I suggest walking down to Park Gulliver inside the riverbed. It’s a huge playground in the shape of Gulliver’s Travels laying down. Kids love it!
Train Station: Estacion del Norte
If you plan on traveling to Barcelona or other Spanish cities, you should take a train out of the North Train Station. Even if you don’t need to take a train, the station is still worth a visit. This modern, beige building is decorated with ornate and descriptive scenes from Valencia’s past. Inside, you’ll see painted tile murals depicting traditional Valencian huertas or farms. You’ll also see Valencian oranges lined along the outside of the building. It’s an incredible sight.