On recommendation from one cool Spanish-speaking señorita and after months of half-hearted attempts at planning a group holiday, we finally decided on a trip to Spain’s east coast for a week of sunshine and sangrias. What we didn’t realise was that we struck gold. Valencia is by no means a tourist-overloaded city where English is heard rather than symphonic Spanish. A refreshing escape from the Anglo-centric world, we embraced the lack of our mother tongue and got stuck into the Spanish mind-set.
Valencia has an air of Cuba to it with its colourful buildings and art-riddled narrow side streets. I visited Havana in February, am still dying to go back and without fail bring it up in almost every conversation so this made me an instant fan of Valencia. Game of Thrones fans will also feel right at home with the medieval-style architecture and impressively high ceilings. Just visit the historic exchange building La Lonja for your GoT fix, whose garden and orange patio are the vision of the Water Gardens in Dorne (filmed in Seville).
Enjoy my 10 Top Tips for a visit to Valencia!
1. Air BnB it
Not only did we stumble upon a largely untouched city, we also unknowingly managed to stay in the hippest district of Valencia. Ruzafa is the up-and-coming area of Valencia, trendy like Shoreditch and brimming with hidden gems. And that, my friends, is why you leave it super last minute and book the only AirBnB’s left on the site for a student-friendly price! Talking of prices, Valencia is reasonably priced, from their €1.50 student entry tickets to museums to their all-you-can-eat €7 brunches at PikNik. Our AirBnB was such an unexpected treat and made our trip to Valencia much more authentic. Hanging pot plants were suspended above our lounge area while the kitchen was characterised by a mosaic dining table with tribal-patterned chairs and a tiled floor fit for the @ihavethisthingwithfloors Instagram page. Colourful and understated at the same time, this AirBnB was filled with character, a snapshot of Valencia itself.
2. Sangria y Zumo de Naranjas
We successfully managed to have Sangria every evening, and maybe a few lunches too…but it’s all part of the culture right? A jug of homemade sangria will set you back around €10 but only amounts to about €2.50 each when shared between four people so it’s definitely worth ordering. The Agua de Valencia, their signature drink, was less exciting – it’s pretty much Bucks Fizz. It’s no surprise, however, that oranges feature in their cocktails given that Valencia is renowned for its sweet oranges. We dosed up on our Vitamin C with freshly squeezed orange juice every mañana, finding that an electric juicer was a staple in Valencian kitchens!
3. Valencia’s Food Scene
We couldn’t go one day without indulging in Patatas Bravas, often ordering this Spanish delicacy (the tapas frontrunner in our eyes) at all mealtimes. Valencian paella, the one-pan dish of rabbit and chicken, wasn’t my favourite Paella combo (I’m more of a seafood kind of gal) but the inclusion of a generous amount of butter beans was a massive bonus. If you’re a health nut then head to Mercado Colón for fresh juices and salads aplenty, a permanent quasi-indoor food market with al-fresco style seating. You can’t go to Valencia without a visit to the Mercado Central, the city’s bustling indoor market with stalls offering every flavour imaginable, whether that be fresh fruit smoothies or the more enticing churros con chocolate. Mushroom croquettes at La Pizarra are also a must!
4. Cycle around Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences
It might be the less attractive side to Valencia but that doesn’t mean to say that the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences isn’t stupendously impressive. Surrounded by clear turquoise water, perfect for dipping your feet into or even a paddleboard trip, each building is designed to look like a whale from different angles. The cherry on top is that all these buildings are in the heart of Valencia’s park, with a bike route running through it. Make sure to rent your bike from the trendy Passion Bike shop, where bunting and bikes hang from the colourful visitor-tagged walls. The bikes cost €4 for an hour, €8 for 4 hours and a bargain €9 per day (€7 if you rent it for 2-6 days). Revert to your inner tween and scribble your names on the wall on your return. The park is one of the shadier parts of the city, which is vital when you’re in 40 degree heat and have burnt your entire back on a day-one beach excursion…sorry again to my friends who had to deal with that one. At least I was freckles-galore by the end.
5. Botanical Gardens
In a bid to prevent further burning, I separated from my beach-bum friends for a day of solo exploring, discovering the Jardín Botánico when Google Maps-ing directions to the Torres de Quart, the must-visit fort with spectacular views of the city’s rooftops from various heights and angles. To my delight, I stumbled upon a Kew Gardens-esque paradise. Granted, the greenhouses were stifling on a hot day, but the gardens had ample areas dedicated to different plant species and seating amongst the foliage. Palm Trees brought Caribbean vibes, cacti provided you with your very own desert island and the buildings were decidedly medieval Spanish.
6. Wander the street-art filled Calles
Valencia’s street art gives visitors the opportunity to explore the city’s artistic side for free. This is a great afternoon-activity when the Spanish are having their siesta as you’ll find that a lot of art is portrayed on the shutters of shops, which are often closed in the afternoons. If you’re an Art Historian then take a guided tour of the Church of San Nicolás, Valencia’s ‘Sistine Chapel’, whose ceiling is filled with impressive frescoes.
7. El Patio de Ruzafa
This find is a real steal. A cafeteria and outdoor market in one, this place is full of locals with a large ounce of community spirit. The market gives local artists a chance to showcase and sell their work, allowing creativity to flourish in this district. Everyone’s welcome here, with their slogan ‘El Patio de Ruzafa: un local para todos’. We were drawn to the print stall run by the Art School ĪMaGO Taller de Grabado y Estampación. Not only were these students selling their one-of-a-kind lithographs but they were also spreading the arty seed by teaching passers-by how to do a simple print free of charge. They had various templates to choose from and I couldn’t resist printing the dog one to bring home to my (rightly-so) dog-obsessed family. Community projects like this need to continue in this tech-centric world and this should be a lesson to all of us.
8. Jardín Urbano
Another hotspot in Ruzafa is the ecological café Jardín Urbano, perfect for a cuppa with the motivational slogan ‘Sonríe hoy sera un día perfecto’ (Smile, today will be perfect) or some vegan-friendly tapas. With climbing vines and patio-style furniture, this café offers a garden-like ambiance without having to endure the heat outdoors. Bookshops and board games line the walls along with paintings by local artists. Not to mention the stellar soundtrack – Etta James’ At Last was playing during our visit.
9. Hora de Fiesta
Crowded beaches and bonfires encapsulate the spirit of the San Juan Fiesta, filmed by helicopters overhead to the cheers of the crowds. It’s a fun enough event but beware that the smell of bonfire will cling to your clothes for the foreseeable future. And remember that the party only starts at around 1 or 2 am in Spain (you’ll only be having dinner at about 10pm). Better than this event was the spontaneous street party we came across after dinner one night. Crowds gathered far too close to a wooden figurine wrapped in explosives, ready for it to burst into flames and signal the start of the fiesta. Despacito (the original version of course) along with other Spanish anthems played from the makeshift DJ stage while kids as young as 5 to adults as old as 80 danced the night away singing ‘Bailando’ on repeat. Note to self: all Spanish people have a flair for dancing and their rhythm is infectious.
10. Flamenco in El Carme
For an authentic Flamenco experience, make your way to Café del Duende in El Carme, an intimate bar lit only by fairy lights. They put on weekly 1 hour live flamenco shows performed by professional dancers and musicians. Prepare to be dazzled by their fierce moves and a thirst for more.