Valencia, Spain has always been one of those places that we’d been vaguely aware of, but knew next to nothing about – except for maybe its famous oranges. We had no idea, for instance, that Valencia is Spain’s third largest city and the busiest container port on the Mediterranean. And then, after our close Medellín friends relocated there last year, we began to hear about Valencia’s draw for expats.
We knew we had to see this spectacular city for ourselves. So we made Valencia our first and last stop on our month-long trip along Spain’s Mediterranean coast in February.
Here are our Valencia favorites, with a few tips thrown in! (As usual, a lot of the photos are in galleries – just click through to see each.)
1. The oranges: They’re really a thing.
In fact, you’ll see ornamental orange trees gracing many Valencia streets (but the fruit is only for show – it’s bitter and inedible). Riding the train from Madrid to Valencia, we saw grove after grove of the edible kind. Fresh-squeezed for breakfast, they’re super-sweet and delicious!
2. Spanish is not the first language of many Valencians.
Valencia city is the capitol of Valencia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, and most residents speak Valenciano – a regional version of Catalan. Valenciano sounds to us like a melodious mash-up of Spanish, Portuguese, and French.
3. This city is old – REALLY OLD!
Founded by the Romans in 138 BC (!), Valencia had become an important Moorish outpost by the 700s. In 1238 the Christian king James I of Aragon drove out the Moors and founded the Kingdom of Valencia, later a component realm of the Spanish monarchy. You’ll see evidence of each of these civilizations in Valencia’s sprawling historic district, one of the largest in Spain.
Tip: We are huge believers in free walking tours and try to find one every time we arrive in a new city. We enjoyed our tour with Guru Walk and learned a lot about Valencia’s history, both ancient and modern. Our advice is to book an early tour; ours took place late in the evening and it went much longer than advertised. After a long day of sightseeing, we were on information overload!
4. There’s a reason you see bat insignia everywhere.
The legend goes that when James I was staging the final battle to conquer Valencia, a bat landed on his flagpole. He took it as a good omen and, following his victory, adopted the bat for the new kingdom’s coat of arms. Today, the bat symbol is ubiquitous, gracing everything from government buildings to manhole covers.
5. Fallas: Party time for Valencianos
At this writing, Valencia is in the throes of its famous Fallas celebration – finally back to its full glory after being derailed by the pandemic for the past two years. To the great anguish of Valencian dogs, the first stage of Fallas has been underway since March 1. From what we gather, this consists of daily ear-shattering fireworks displays (called mascletas) in neighborhoods all over town.
Throughout the year, neighborhood groups (think of New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes) work to build their fallas, huge paper mache figures that will be paraded through the streets until March 19 and then go up in flames on the final night. We’re looking forward to experiencing Fallas ourselves someday (but maybe we’ll take some earplugs)!
6. Valencia is Ground Zero for paella.
In fact, many Valencianos claim that theirs is the only TRUE paella. The real purists insist that the rice be cooked with water from the Turia river, and that authentic Valencian
paella includes only chicken and rabbit. Not being a rabbit fan (unless I can pet them and ruffle their ears!), I lucked out – the seafood version is plentiful and delicious.
Tip: It’s really easy to find a great paella anywhere in Valencia. Look for the restaurants called arrocerias (from the Spanish word for rice, arroz) that serve a variety of rice dishes including paella. Here is Trip Advisor’s list of the top 10 arrocerias in Valencia.
7. Almost everyone rides a bike (or a scooter)
One of the first things you’ll notice about Valencia is its bike culture. The city has one of the most well-developed systems of bike trails we’ve ever seen, with traffic signals designed to provide maximum safety for cyclists. Our first day there, we rented bikes and rode all over town – including the business and historic districts – with our local friends David and Cindy Thomas.
Tip 1: There are bike rental places EVERYWHERE in Valencia, and they’re very reasonable. We rented ours from in the Mestalla neighborhood, about $68 for both of us for four days.
Tip 2: Not up for biking? Try a YEGO! These lime-green, eco-friendly electric scooters are super-easy to rent and ride. Just download the app and put in your credit card and driver’s license info (foreign DLs are not a problem). Once they approve you, you can search for a YEGO near you and reserve it. Each YEGO comes with two helmets, and you can use the app to unlock and start it. It’s all very efficient and friendly.
8. The Jardin del Turia was a beautiful solution to a terrible tragedy.
Once upon a time, the Turia River flowed right through the middle of Valencia. Then, in 1957, the river overflowed and flooded nearly three quarters of the city, killing at least 60 people. To ensure that such a tragedy would never happen again, Valencia executed a plan to divert the river around its western outskirts to the Mediterranean. At the same time, the city built the Jardin del Turia, a fabulous sunken park that follows the former riverbed for about 9 km from east to west.
As urban parks go, the Turia is something special. It’s beautifully landscaped and criss-crossed with 19 bridges from every era, including the Middle Ages. We really enjoyed biking the length of the Turia one morning.
Tip: Start early on your bike adventure in the Jardin del Turia. It gets pretty busy with joggers, cyclists, scooter riders, and walkers as the day wears on.
9. El Carmen is a good place to lose yourself.
Valencia’s bohemian El Carmen district is simply oozing with charm. It’s a great place to wander and explore the narrow, winding streets (many of which are dead ends), find a cozy little cerveceria for a beer and a few tapas, and gawk at the street art.
10. You’ll never go hungry at Valencia’s public markets.
The enormous Valencia Merkat Central (Central Market) is a feast for the senses, with every kind of seafood imaginable together with fantastic cheeses, meats, and produce. We also had a great lunch at the Merkat Colon, a stunning Art Nouveau building that today houses dozens of gourmet tapas restaurants.
11. The City of Arts and Sciences
Chosen by the Spanish people as one of the 12 Treasures of Spain, this sprawling complex of museums and performing arts venues is sited at the western end of the Jardin Turia. Designed by noted architects Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, each of the ultra-modern buildings is a work of art. A highlight for us was a visit to Valencia Oceanografic, Europe’s largest oceanarium.
12. Nature is right at Valencianos’ doorstep.
You don’t have to go far out of town to experience some fantastic natural wonders. We were lucky enough to make a new friend in Valencia who included us in a group hike to the Órganos de Benitandús, about an hour’s drive out of the city. It was such a great (and unexpected) experience that we’ve decided to spin it out into its own post. Check it out!
A few more thoughts
Valencia was the first and last stop in our month-long journey along Spain’s Costa Blanca region, with stays in Alicante, Dénia, and Cartagena. (Stay tuned, lots more blogging to come!) Spoiler alert: We are targeting this region as our next home base after we get Colombia out of our systems, probably within the next couple of years. Although we were in major vacation mode, this trip was also exploratory.
This was our second trip to Spain (after Madrid in 2019), and it had a long incubation. After two earlier pandemic-scuttled attempts, we were determined to go this time, although Omicron was still casting a long shadow when we flew from Colombia on Feb. 2. We’re happy to say that European travel in the time of Covid was easier and safer than we expected, helped along by our vaccination status. Although things are changing rapidly, we were required to be fully vaccinated to enter Spain and also had to show our vaccination cards to enter many restaurants and other venues. While we were there, Spain dropped its outdoor mask mandate but was still requiring masks in all indoor public locations. We were happy to comply, of course.
One more tip: Here’s a great city guide to Valencia for visitors.