What’s not to love about a city that has an iconic food scene and strong cultural identity, takes pride in the arts and sciences, and values outdoor recreational space. Valencia, as the third most populated city in Spain, is located on the southeast coast on the peninsula and also has offers some excellent beaches that rival those of Barcelona and a cost of living that’s cheaper than Madrid.
The city feels accessible and welcoming, even more so if you know some Spanish or Valencian (a dialect of Catalan), but regardless of your language skills, you’ll find something that appeals to you. It may be the paella or horchata, the loud and lively annual Las Fallas celebration, the futuristic Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, or the tranquility of the meandering Jardín del Turia, but if not those, then ask a local for a suggestion – either way, don’t miss this city. Here is what you should know before you go and what you should see when you’re there.
- A Mediterranean port city, Valencia’s founding is tied to the Roman Empire with subsequent influences from the North African Moors and Jewish populations that resided there until their expulsion in the 17th The region’s language and cultural traditions that had been suppressed over the years were most recently revived after the end of Franco’s dictatorial regime and the transition to democracy in the 1970s. Today, the official languages of the region of Valencia are Spanish and Valencian, which is similar to the Catalan language, and the city has a strong association with the arts and sciences.
- Spain is well-connected by easily navigable roadways and reliable public transportation. While you won’t need a car in the city of Valencia, if you are starting your road trip through Spain here, there’s a couple of important basics to know about driving in Spain:
- Drive on the right side of the road.
- While manual vehicles are more common, automatic vehicles are available to rent, but note that you will pay more for your rental.
- Outside of the largest cities, don’t count on gas stations being open past 6 or 7 PM, and furthermore, don’t be surprised if you pump your gas first before paying (a rarity in the US).
Rental car companies operate at the Valencia airport and the Valencia Joaquín Sorolla Train Station.
- In order to drive in Spain, you are required to have either a valid European driver’s license or an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP translates your domestic license into other languages and therefore assists local authorities in reading the information on your license. Anyone can apply for the IDP through AAA by completing the application, submitting two passport photos, and paying $20. Note that your domestic license should still be carried with your IDP as they are meant to function in conjunction should a local authority need your information.
- From Valencia there are several nearby destinations of interest that are easily accessible by train and car. Total transit time varies, but the quickest options are:
- Barcelona –3 hour train ride
- Madrid –1.5 hour high-speed train ride
- Xàbia – Just over 1 hour drive by car
- Montanejos Hot Springs – Just over 1 hour drive by car
Uber is also available in Valencia as of December 2019.
- Valencian, a dialect of Catalan, and Spanish are the official language of the region. While the Catalan language does share similarities with Spanish, it has a closer relationship to the French language and the Italian spoken in the north of the Italy. As far as what tourists can expect from a city with two official languages, most street and transportation signs, and all public transit announcements, are in both Valencian and Spanish, some even in English. While you will find English spoken by locals in Valencia, learning a few simple Spanish phrases will be helpful to you and facilitate polite exchanges with your hosts and other locals you meet off the beaten path.
- Most are familiar with Hola and Gracias, but if you want to greet someone in the morning try Buenos dias, or in the evening use Buenos tardes
- Sometimes a simple please, Por favor, goes a long way
- If you would like a table at a restaurant, you could get by with saying Una mesa por favor
- Requesting the bill after a meal is as simple as La cuenta por favor
- If you’re looking for the toilet, ¿Donde están los servicios? will get you pointed in the right direction
- If you are in need of help, you can approach someone with Me puedes ayudar?
- If you’ve reached the extent of your Spanish language skills, you can inform the other party that you don’t speak Spanish by saying No hablo Español
- Generally speaking, across Spain, the opening and closing hours of restaurants and businesses that are listed online are not always accurate (especially during any holiday) so don’t fully rely on this information when planning your day. A reservation at a restaurant is always a good idea, but keep in mind that meals are generally served later in Spain and therefore a restaurant may not open until after 7:00 PM.
- Tipping is not as common in Spain, but leaving small change at cafes or following a cheaper meal is appreciated. Having received great service during a longer meal, a 10% tip at a dining establishment is appropriate.
- The city of Valencia is easy to get around on foot or with public transit and you will find no shortage of bike rental shops. I was unable to locate any bike sharing services (like Citi Bike or Uber’s Jump Bikes for example) that didn’t require you to sign up for a weekly or annual subscription, so renting from a bike store for single day use is your best bet.
- If you visit Valencia in March, you will find yourself in the midst of the Las Fallas celebration. The annual festival is held from March 15th -19th and celebrates the local community organizations, known as “fallas”. Each falla creates their own puppet-like papier-mâché statue to showcase before the festival excitement culminates in the burning of these statues. Las Fallas involves big street parties, loud firecrackers by day, and fireworks at night. While our trip to Valencia did not coincide with Las Fallas, we stayed in the area of Russafa and I already saw lights on display in the neighborhood. I share this information because you are less likely to find cheap flights to and accommodations in Valencia during this time of the year so plan ahead if you want to partake in the festival.
Old City district of Ciutat Vella
- The Mercat Central is one of the largest public market buildings in Europe. Stop in for free smells of the fresh produce, Jamón Ibérico, and seafood and to see the attractive Valencian Art Nouveau style of the building.
- Another historical building is La Lonja de la Seda which was constructed between the late 15th and mid-16th centuries to be used as a center for commerce. The building is a reminder of Valencia’s Golden Age when they held significant influence amongst the Mediterranean port cities. General admission tickets are only two Euros.
- The Valencia Cathedral and its octagonal tower, El Miguelete, are built on the site of a former Visigoth cathedral and mosque. Tickets are three Euros for the cathedral and two Euros to climb the bell tower.
- A visit to the cathedral should also include a stop in the adjacent Plaza de la Virgen to see the former forum of Valencia during its time in the Roman Empire, and Plaza de la Reina for lively people watching and eateries.
- While the exterior of another cathedral known as Parroquia de San Nicolás de Bari y San Pedro Mártir seems ordinary, the colorful frescos that spill across the ceiling and walls in the inside are anything but that. These magnificent frescos depict the lives of the two saints (Nicholas and Peter Martyr). For eight Euros you receive an audio guide (included in admission) that walks you through what has been described as the Valencian “Sistine Chapel”.
- The Torres de Serranos are towers constructed in the 14th century that served as the main entrance to the city and therefore constituted part of the old city walls. At one time they were used as a prison, but today the opening ceremony of Las Fallas is announced from the platform on the front. For two Euros, you can climb up the paraphets to see the remains of the old moat and a city view.
- A visit to the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences) is an absolute must when visiting Valencia. Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, natives of Valencia and Madrid, respectively, designed the modern landmark which is comprised of six structures – L’Oceanogràfic (aquarium), L’Hemisfèric (planetarium), El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe (science museum), L’Umbracle (walkway with plats and sculptures), El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (opera house and performing arts center), and L’Àgora (concert and event plaza). The outdoor space is open 365 days a year but combined entrance into Europe’s largest aquarium, the planetarium, and science museum requires a ticket costing just under 40 Euros for adults and just under 30 Euros for children. If you’re visiting all three exhibits, plan on it taking a whole day, or better yet, plan your visit over multiple consecutive days (up to three). Tickets to each of the separate sites are also available, but the combined ticket is where you’ll find the cost savings.
- Connected to the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències is the Jardin del Turia or Turia Park, another must visit area of the city. The park, created from the dried-up Turia riverbed, is nine kilometers (over 5.5 miles) long. Along with public toilets and water fountains, there are recreational fields and courts, plus plenty of space for children and families, including the popular Gulliver play park. Its flat pathways make it wheelchair accessible too. If you’re looking to extend your bike or running route outside the park, you can access the Port of Valencia and then the beachfront by exiting at the east end of the Turia Park, following the wide sidewalks of Calle de Menorca and then turning right on Avenida del Port.
A glimpse of Jardin del Turia or Turia Park
- The sandy beaches of Playa de las Arenas and Playa de la Malvarrosa are easily accessible to the city center and offer eateries along the waterfront promenade. If you’re walking back towards city center from the beaches, you’ll pass the port that hosted the famous sailing regatta, the America’s Cup. There’s a tourist office with public bathrooms here as well.
Don’t leave Valencia without sampling some of these local favorites:
- The oranges grown in abundance in this region should be eaten or better yet, drank in the form of the popular cocktail, Agua de Valencia, made with orange juice, champagne, vodka, and gin.
- Cooked in a caldero pot, paella has become so iconic of the Valencia region thanks in part to the nearby wetlands which provide an ideal environment for growing the staple ingredient, rice.
- Creamy and smooth horchata is made from locally sourced tiger nuts and tastes like a sweet albeit chalky milk – refreshing on a hot day.
- Churros and bunyols with chocolate are found at cafés such as Chocolatería Valor or street-side stands.
Looking for restaurant inspiration, here are just a few suggestions:
- Palao Bistro in the trendy Russafa, or Ruzafa, neighborhood offers friendly service, a delicious menu, and a great selection of local wines by glass or bottle.
- Enjoy a drink and some tapas at Central Bar while wandering through the stalls of fresh produce, meat, and seafood in the Mercat Central.
- LIA is located just a block or two from the Mercat Central and it’s a welcoming, modern setting is inviting for a small or large group lunch served with a pitcher of Agua de Valencia.
- Horchatería Daniel and Horchatería Santa Catalina are great places to try the creamy horchata drink with a farton pastry on the side.
I think the residents of Valencia are on to something in calling this jewel on the Mediterranean home. It’s a livable city that is also feels welcoming to visitors and seems to offer something for everyone.
If you’re feeling inspired and want more of Spain – check out my posts on What to Know & What to See in Granada and What to Know & What to See on a Road Trip on the Coast of Spain. To read anecdotes about our experience at the Alhambra in Andalucía, how many sunsets we saw in Murcia, and our Christmas in Valencia, take a look at my trip recaps.