Move over Madrid and Barcelona. Spain’s third-largest city makes a case for being one of its most alluring. Equal parts historic and innovative, Valencia charms with its varied architecture, walkable old quarter, sun-kissed beaches and a calendar filled with travel-worthy events. Come along as we take a (virtual) walk through the city of Valencia.
The city of Valencia is perhaps best known as the home of the futuristic-looking City of Arts and Sciences. This museum complex, designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, comprises Europe’s biggest aquarium, a digital 3D cinema, science museum, opera house and an open-access garden.
While Valencia may be better known for its modern architecture, the city also has a charming historic district (one of the largest in Europe). The Plaza of the Virgin (Plaza de la Virgen) in the heart of the historic city center dates back to Roman times. An elaborate fountain in the center of the plaza shows Neptune.
Paella, a Spanish dish made from rice, originally comes form Valencia. While you’ll find variations on the dish at restaurants throughout Spain, the traditional version typically contains chicken, rabbit, green beans, lima beans and sweet paprika.
La Albufera, a lagoon surrounded by flatlands south of Valencia, is known for its rich soil and rice production. City dwellers flock to Albufera Natural Park on weekends for the beaches, excellent birdwatching, cycling paths and numerous rural restaurants specializing in rice dishes.
Like many cities in Europe, Valencia has no shortage of spectacular church architecture. Perhaps the best example is the Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir. The Gothic exterior hides a magnificent Baroque interior, considered the “Sistine Chapel” of Valencia.
Agriculture has long been important to the Valencian economy, and if there’s one crop more synonymous with the region than rice, it’s oranges. The climate on the Costa Azahar offers ideal conditions for growing citrus fruit, and the region now produces some 70 percent of Spain’s oranges for export.
The City Hall Plaza (Plaza del Ayuntamiento) makes an excellent starting spot for walking tours of the old city center. The City Hall houses the city’s main tourist office, and the surrounding streets are home to some of the best shops and restaurants.
The Botanical Garden of the University of Valencia opened in the 18th century for scientific research. Today, the garden maintains a collection of some 3,000 plant species from around the globe, including noteworthy collections of palm trees, cacti, desert flora and tropical shrubs.
Valencia’s newest green space, Central Park (Parque Central), was designed by American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson. The innovative park occupies the grounds of a former railway station and features climbing walls, playgrounds, water features and a dog park.
While there are several claimants to the Holy Grail – the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper – the Valencia Cathedral is among them. Visitors can see the vessel on display in the Chapel of the Holy Chalice inside the cathedral (its former chapter house).
Plaza Redonda, one of Valencia’s more unusual plazas, was built in 1840 by Salvador Escrig Melchor. The circular shaped “square” is surrounded by craft shops and tapas bars, popular among locals and tourists alike.
If you find yourself walking though the historic district along Carrer del Museu, keep an eye out for one of Valencia’s most charming façades. The House of Cats, a miniature version of a typical Valencian-style house, is complete with a tiled roof, fountain and garden.
No one is quite sure how the house got there, but the local story goes that the previous owner installed it for Valencia’s feral cats.
Corpus Christi, considered Valencia’s “great festival,” began in 1263 to honor the Eucharist. The festival, held 60 days after Easter, features local dance exhibitions and a lively procession with celebrants dressed as giants and dwarves.
It’s impossible to avoid art in Valencia; you’ll see plenty of it without ever stepping foot in a museum. A collection of artists have transformed walls throughout the city into an open-air gallery. The best neighborhood for street art is El Carmen, named for the nearby Carmen Calzado convent.
Centuries ago, city walls protected Valencia from invading armies. Getting into the city meant passing through one of twelve monumental gates. These days, only two gates remain: the Torres de Quart to the west and the Torres de Serranos (pictured) to the north.
During the month of July, Valencia hosts its Gran Fira, or Great Fair. This citywide party features more than 150 events, including concerts, parades, fireworks and a jazz festival. The festival kicks off with a traditional correfoc, or fire run, through the city streets.
Just about every city in Spain has at least one produce market, and Valencia is no exception. The Mercado Central, located in a stunning modernist building, houses 1,200 stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses, spices, nuts and seafood. It’s also one of the best places in the city to pick up some fresh Valencian oranges.
One of Valencia’s most colorful celebrations takes place in March during the Fallas of Valencia. During this festival, recognized by UNESCO for its Intangible Cultural Heritage, local artists create giant Fallas, or monumental caricature pieces, that frequently offer numerous commentary on social issues.
On the final night of the Fallas festivities, each Falla is lit on fire and reduced to ashes, a tradition known as the Cremà. The Falla in Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the last to go, marking the end of the event.
While relatively new to the city (built in 2002), the Flower Bridge (Puente de las Flores) ranks among the most beautiful. Santiago Calatrava designed the bridge, which features 27,000 flowerpots planted with red, white and pink geraniums.
Turia Gardens, one of the largest urban parks in Spain, runs through the city for nearly six miles. The park was built atop a former riverbed after the Turia River’s course was altered. The linear park offers walking and cycling paths, sports areas, shady picnic spots and access to some of the city’s top attractions.
If you were to look down on Gulliver Park (Parque Gulliver) from above, you’d see a massive fiberglass likeness of the storybook explorer, with each park-goer serving as a Lilliputian. Stairs and slides are hidden on and around Gulliver’s body, allowing visitors to climb over and slide down the giant.