Valencia is a harmony of the cultural and the cosmopolitan, of the historical and the high-tech, a brilliant balance of ancient and avant-garde. It’s a fantastic destination for a city break; the third-largest city in Spain takes a bit of buzz from Barcelona, some magic from Madrid and blends it with its own distinct identity, a melting pot of Moorish and Mediterranean influences and plenty more besides.
It’s got an impressive CV (could that be curriculum valenciana?): one of the largest historic centres in the country with appropriately awe-inspiring architecture, a vibrant social scene, miles of green spaces and golden sands, great food, and great weather. If you’re short on time, most of the city’s sightseeing can be done within three main areas:
CIUTAT VELLA (OLD TOWN)
The historic centre of the city should be your base camp. Accommodation is plentiful and generally well priced, and the smart money should go on renting a self-catered apartment. As much as you’ll want to eat out in one of the many cute plaza cafes and romantic restaurants, once you visit the Mercat Central, you’ll be picking up as much local produce as possible and taking it home to rustle up your very own Valencian dishes. The enormous, elegant market is a typically bold example of pre-modernista architecture where most Valencianos still do most of their grocery shopping. It’s alive with the daily hustle and bustle of the community and a great starting point to soak up the atmosphere. Valencia is the home of horchata, a creamy drink made from tiger nuts, water and sugar; served cold on a hot day, it’s one of the most welcome and refreshing sweet treats around, and the Mercat is a good place to grab a glass.
Next door, La Lonja is well worth a look; the 15th century Silk Exchange is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the country (if not the continent) and a designated World Heritage site. From here, wander northeast through the winding streets to check out Valencia Cathedral, a boisterous blend of Roman, Gothic, baroque and renaissance design. Inside, you can climb the 207 steps of the Miguelete tower for stunning views of the city. Reward yourself with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice just around the corner in the Plaza de la Virgen, where 21 centuries’ worth of history converge. The Palau de la Generalitat and the Basílica de la Virgen are the showpieces here. Check out the nearby Taberna El Olivo for dinner; it specialises in traditional tapas, served in the shade of the eponymous olive tree, and an ideal spot to rub shoulders with the locals.
By now, you might be after something a little stronger than juice. Thankfully, you’re on the doorstep of the bustling, bohemian Barrio del Carmen, the liveliest neighbourhood in the city. It’s alternative, atmospheric and dazzlingly diverse; recent regeneration efforts have seen trendy bars and restaurants spring up amongst the cobbled streets and old townhouses: think jazz bars, sizzling salsa, neon-lit nightclubs, retro reggae hang-outs, and much more, and people from all walks of life to fill them. Radio City and Café Negrito are two excellent options, but you can let yourself follow the crowds and get lost (easy enough after a couple of wrong turns and a couple more sangrias) and find some interesting little tabernas to tumble into off the street.
There is plenty more to see in this part of the city: Plaza del Ayuntamiento, ground zero for the famous fallas (Festival of Fire) celebrations in March, is home to elegant architecture and landmarks such as the Plaza del Toros as well as upmarket fashion boutiques and restaurants. It’s worth heading back to Carmen by day to visit the Torres de Serranos, the breath-taking gothic towers that were part of the old city walls.