With its fragrant orange groves and song-filled carnivals, the Mediterranean city of Valencia is a land of happy people which offers peerless beauty in every season and allows you to forget the passage of time.
Although it is often overlooked by travelers in favor of Barcelona and Madrid, two cities that come to mind first when talking about Spain, Valencia glitters with its colorful life in the eastern part of the country. It promises both a lovely vacation and fun with its rooted history and monumental structures, vibrant streets, local climate warmed by the Mediterranean sun almost all year round, and orange-scented parks and gardens.
I’m in the district of El Carmen, i.e. the Old Town. With its cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, I feel as if I’m in an open-air museum. What gives it this unique charm is the signature hand-painted ceramic tiles decorating the streets. Colorful compositions of a baker preparing bread and a restaurant chef readying to cook some fish are found in many corners of buildings here.
Built between the 13th and 15th centuries, Valencia Cathedral (Catedral de Santa Maria de Valencia) is a synthesis of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque elements. After taking it all in, I can’t help myself and start climbing El Miguelete bell tower. For stunning views of the city, I brave its 207 steps. The sense of fatigue flies away with the admiration awakened by the groundbreaking and glamorous futuristic architecture I see before me.
Lonja Building (Llotja de la Seda) is another site which merits a visit. It was built in the 15th century and is admired as one of Europe’s most famous civil Gothic monuments.
I walk under the domed ceiling and among the long, thin, and twisted columns of the building which is under UNESCO preservation.
I imagine the hustle and bustle of traders and their excitement as they tried to sell fabrics in this building which once hosted the silk trade.
The Mercat Central in the El Mercat neighborhood in Old Town is a feast for the eyes and palate. This historic indoor market blending Art Nouveau and Gothic architecture is one of the largest and most impressive indoor markets in Europe. Here, I discover local specialties and seasonal produce at over 900 stalls selling everything from cheese to fish and exotic fruit.
Upon leaving Mercat Central, I embark on a quest to try Valencia’s renowned paella. This traditional rice dish made with meat, green beans and saffron is typically served at lunch. While paella is offered all over the city, Riuà Restaurant is known for its authentic delicacies along with Casa Carmela by the beach. I quickly understood what all the fuss is about. The harmony between saffron, spices, and other ingredients leaves an indescribable and lingering taste in my mouth. As for tapas, the famous Spanish side dish, there’s one address that tops the list. Casa Montaña is hidden in the Cabanyal neighborhood, dating back to 1836. This stylish yet casual eatery serves exquisite tapas made from artisanal ingredients.
After treating myself to a meal, I am ready to visit the City of Arts and Sciences, one of the twelve treasures of Spain (Ciutat de les arts i de les Ciències), opened in 2005. Visible from El Miguelete tower, the spectacular museum resembles a space station and is so extensive that it definitely deserves a day-long visit. You can start exploring these modern structures that were designed by architects Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela and comprise five buildings from the Science Museum (Museo de les Ciencies). Partly built in the form of a whale skeleton, the museum enables you to learn many things by touching, pulling/pushing, feeling, i.e. by tactile interaction. This is the main reason why children are in love with it and can be seen running around the museum with glee. Walking around the Botanical Park (El Umbracle), you feel mesmerized by the scent of aromatic plants, such as lavender and thyme, while giant palm and orange trees offer guests shelter in their shade. El Oceanogràfic is the biggest aquarium in Europe and home to 45,000 sea creatures of 500 different species so it’s an unmissable opportunity to meet sea animals you’ve never seen before. El Hemisfèric offers the pleasure of IMAX cinema with its concave shape. The half-circle structure resembles an eyelid, and when there is a reflection on the pool in front of it, it is completed into an “eye.” The Opera House (Palau de les Arts) and Agora host concerts and performances in their magnificent ambiance. If you plan to visit Valencia, I suggest you take a look at the events calendar and buy your tickets in advance as you might be disappointed after waiting in long lines.
If there is a museum that exhibits the works of famous painters in the city I am visiting, I never miss the chance to visit it. The Fine Arts Museum Valencia (El Museo de Bellas Artes de València) contains many artworks from the Romantic period to the Renaissance, collected from churches and convents throughout the region, including works by Van Dyck and Goya. Here, I discovered one of Valencia’s most prominent painters, Joaquín Sorolla, in a room dedicated to the life and work of the famed artist.
Valencia is also a city of festivals attended by tens of thousands of people all year round. Make sure to check and make a note of the fun-filled and exciting carnivals. The city hosts a Puppet Festival in March to celebrate the arrival of spring. Giant puppets, designed and produced in a year and worth hundreds of thousands of Euros, are paraded through the streets and burnt at the festival's end. The Tomato Festival, held every August in the town of Buñol about half an hour from the city, lets thousands of guests relax and have fun by throwing tomatoes at one another. Concerts, bullfights, and fireworks are all essential parts of festivals. Every year on October 9, the streets come alive with festivities as the city celebrates its independence. What makes October 9 even more festive is the celebration of St. Dyonisius, Valencia’s Valentine’s Day. It is customary for men to offer women mocadorà, also called a mocaorà, which are marzipan sweets wrapped up in a handkerchief.
A five-minute walk from Mercat Central, I take a break at one of Valencia’s most celebrated cafés. Horchatería Chocolateria Santa Catalina is famous for its orxata, also known as horchata, a milky beverage made with tiger nuts and often served with a spongy cake called fartons, which you can dip into the refreshing drink. This historic tile-clad café also serves food and pastries, but it’s the horchata that takes the cake!
Whatever your travel tastes, whether they be discovering ancient relics, exploring the world of science, gaining new culinary experiences, or feeling the breeze caress your face on the beach, Valencia will satisfy all your senses. This eclectic city will leave you both inspired and enlightened, and is certain to become one of your favorite coastal destinations in the Mediterranean. Give it a chance to win your heart!