Valencia might just be the perfect weekend destination: historic centre; a unique arts and science complex; sandy beach; lots of green space; fantastic food; and a great climate. Spain’s third city was established by the Romans, occupied by Muslims, and won back by Spain in 1238, when its influence grew until it was one of the most important Mediterranean cities of the 15th century. These days, it attracts nearly 2 million international visitors per year (about 80,000 from the UK). Many come for the extraordinary Las Fallas in March, a wild five-day fiesta in honour of San José, when hundreds of giant puppets are paraded and set on fire. But it is a party town all-year round – and if you miss Las Fallas, you can always visit the Museo Fallero to see the ninots (figurines) that have survived the flames.
Head out to bar-hop and eat tapas in the Ciutat Vella (old town). Calle de Caballeros is thronged with bars and restaurants, as are the streets and squares north, into Barrio del Carmen, and south, into the Centro Histórico. The city’s La Tassa district is particularly well-served by tapas restaurants. One, La Taberna de Marisa (latabernademarisa.com), 1, is known for its morcilla de Burgos – rounds of rice-heavy black pudding, crispy without, soft within – but its salted anchovies and croquetas are equally delicious. Try agua de Valencia at one of the bars on Plaza del Negrito: it is a more lethal version of buck’s fizz (cava, orange juice, sugar and spirits), invented in the 1920s and still widely drunk. Restaurants stay open until at least midnight at the weekends and most bars until about 2am, but if you want to stay out later, try Radio City (radiocityvalencia.es), 2, a club with flamenco nights and other events.
Spend the morning exploring the old town, where all the sights are within walking distance. Valencia has three main squares: Plaza de la Virgen, Plaza de la Reina and Plaza del Ayuntamiento. Start the day with a coffee at one of the outdoor tables in the atmospheric Plaza de la Virgen.
From here, head to the vast 13th-century cathedral (catedraldevalencia.es), 3, a hotchpotch of Roman, gothic, baroque and renaissance architecture on the site of the old mosque. Inside, have a look at San Vincente’s withered left arm, a relic that has terrified generations of Valencian schoolchildren; the “Holy Grail”, a chalice dating to at least Christ’s time; two Goya paintings, one of which depicts a fantastically horrifying exorcism; and the windows – they are made from fine alabaster, because Valencia’s light is too dazzling for glass. Climb the 207 steps of the Miguelete tower for the best views of the city.
Next go to La Lonja de la Seda (whc.unesco.org), 4, a gothic chamber of commerce built to impress visiting merchants in the 16th century and to symbolise the city’s wealth and power. It is now a world heritage site and beautiful in its own right, but also fascinating as a secular building designed with the splendour usually reserved for religion.
On the other side of the Plaza del Mercado is the biggest fresh-produce market in Europe, built in the modernismo style (the Spanish variant of art nouveau). Mercado Central (mercadocentralvalencia.es), 5, is still the place where most Valencians buy their groceries and is a great, light-filled place to wander around and haggle for ham. Stop at La Huertana, a little stand-up cafe inside the market, for the archetypical Valencian snack: horchata and fartons. Similar to churros con chocolate, this is a milky drink and a pastry, but the Valencian version is served cold. Horchata, made from tiger nuts, is creamy, slightly grainy and incredibly sweet. Fartons are light, finger-shaped buns, thickly dusted with sugar. Dangerously moreish.
While you’re in the old town, squeeze in a quick visit to the National Ceramics Museum (mnceramica.mcu.es), 6, housed in a rococo palace said to be Valencia’s Versailles in (extreme) miniature. At the very least, take a look at its brilliantly over-the-top facade: the doorway is flanked by two muscular figures, with a statue of the virgin – who can be seen all over the city – above. Decorative ceramic tiles are also ubiquitous – to buy ceramic souvenirs, try Artesania Yuste (Plaça Miracle del Mocadoret), 7.
Take a tram to the beach for lunch. Restaurants and bars line the seafront, but the quality is variable so get off the tram a couple of stops early (Grau is closest) and head to the old fishermen’s quarter. Calle José Benlliure (and surrounding streets) is full of bars and tapas restaurants, including Casa Montana (emilianobodega.com), 8, one of the oldest restaurants in Valencia. You can eat in the busy front bar, lined with wine barrels, or in the more spacious back room, but the best table is squeezed into a space between the two. You have to duck under the bar to get to it, next to the kitchen and the jamón-carving station. Don’t miss the fat boquerónes fritas (fried anchovies), meaty brown broad beans stewed with chorizo, roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with béchamel and tuna, and, of course, the translucent slivers of jamón ibérico.
Follow a long lunch with a siesta on the beach (Las Arenas or Las Malvarrosa), a 10-minute walk away. Valencia has three kilometres of long, sandy beaches and more than 300 sunny days a year – it can be warm enough to swim and sunbathe into November. Have an early-evening pick-me-up at a bar on Paseo Neptuno, the palm tree-lined beach promenade. Valencians have embraced “gin tonic”: Destino 56 (destino56.es), 9, for example, has 15 craft gins and three premium tonics – measures are huge and served in a proper balloon glass with lots of ice.
Choose between upmarket or hip Valencia. L’Eixample is a wealthy district just south of the centre, with wide boulevards and grand art nouveau buildings. Its boutiques and delis include Espacio 1880 (turron1880.com), 10, which specialises in all kinds of turrón, and Torreblanca (torreblanca.net), 11, which made Prince Felipe’s wedding cake. Mercado Colón (mercadocolon.es), 12, a gorgeous example of modernismo, is now full of cafes and bars, though it still has a gourmet food market downstairs.
For dinner, the city has four Michelin-starred restaurants. One of them, Vertical (restaurantevertical.com), 13, is on the ninth floor of a hotel east of L’Eixample, with incredible night-time views of the City of Arts and Sciences. (The entrance is quite confusing – go to Hotel Confortel Aqua 4 and take the lift.) There is no choice, only a daily changing, multi-course set menu. Dishes might include a ruffled egg yolk, beef with foie gras, and deconstructed fudge cake.
Alternatively, head further south to Ruzafa, which has overtaken Carmen as the city’s hippest area. It is a working-class, ethnically diverse quarter that is being colonised by young creatives – Valencia’s version of Brixton in London. It is full of vintage clothes shops (eg Kauf Vintage), bike shops, and homeware stores such as Gnomo (gnomo.eu), 14, which sells work by contemporary Valencian artist Paula Bonet and displays a mural by Vinz, Ruzafa’s answer to Banksy. Espacio 40 (c/Puerto Rico), 15, is an art gallery/wine shop run by a Valencian woman and her Chilean husband. The covered market (c/Padre Perera), 16, gives a taste of pre-gentrified Ruzafa – its one bar caters to older locals. Younger drinkers head for three “bookshop bars” – Cosecha Roja, Slaughterhouse and Ubik Cafe, 17 – a Parisian theatre bar (Café Tocado), or “The Corner”, a crossroads with a bar on each corner. Restaurants range from traditional tapas and bocadillos (El Rus) to oysters (De Claire), South American restaurants, and fusion (El Rodamón). It’s a small district, so wander around and you won’t go far wrong.
Most cities have riverbanks to stroll along; Valencia has a whole river. The Jardín del Túria is a unique, 9km-long swathe of greenery through the city. When the river Túria flooded – again – in 1957, it was diverted south. The former riverbed is now a landscaped parkland walk with trees, sculptures and water features, crisscrossed by 18 bridges – some designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava. The gardens connect the Bioparc in the west and the City of Arts and Sciences (CAC) in the east. The zoo (bioparcvalencia.es), 18, is a modern, immersive animal park that recreates natural habitats, but in a weekend you’ll probably only have time for CAC (cac.es), 19. You can walk there along the gardens in about 45 minutes. The futuristic complex was mainly designed by Calatrava and includes an opera house, science museum and planetarium. Oceanogràfic is best: more than 45,000 specimens swimming around Europe’s biggest aquarium. Look out for the spooky sandfish, awe-inspiring white whales and shoals of leaping dolphins.
Stroll back towards town and stop for lunch at Les Graelles (grupo-jbl.com), 20, a traditional restaurant with arched stone ceilings, dark-wood furniture and crisp white tablecloths. Paella was invented in Valencia and this is the place to try an authentic version – which, surprisingly, doesn’t contain seafood and is only eaten at lunchtime. Saffron-flavoured rice is served with hunks of rabbit and chicken and a handful of snails, plus some vegetables – perhaps green and broad beans and artichokes. Everyone around the table digs in to the communal pan with their own wooden serving spoon, and washes it down with rioja. (Locals often head to L’Albufera, a nature reserve about 30km along the coast, for their Sunday paella lunch.)
From here, it’s a short walk to the Museo de Bellas Artes (museobellasartesvalencia.gva.es), 21, Spain’s second-biggest art collection, housed in a beautiful 17th-century convent. It has paintings by Spanish greats such as Velázquez (including a masterful self-portrait), El Greco and Goya, plus Valencian artists Pinazo, Benlliure and Sorolla. If admiring modern works of art is more to your taste, IVAM (Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, ivam.es), 22, was the first contemporary art gallery in Spain – you’ll need to catch the Metro or take a cab, though, as the museum’s back in El Carmen.
Paula Sancho Torregrosa, web editor
By the Flowers bridge, 23, there is a statue of King Jaime I, where children can learn something of our history in a show about him until 24 November (eltorneodelrey.com). Gulliver Park, 24, also in the river gardens, is a great play area. Canguro Verde (facebook.com/canguroverde) 25, is a coffee shop in Ruzafa where kids are welcome.
Alejandro García Llinares, restaurant manager,
Semana Santa Marinera, maritime holy week, in El Cabanyal, the fishermen’s area is an interesting experience. And El Mercado de la Tapinería (mercadodetapineria.com), 26, is a concept market in a downtown square. El Jardín de Monforte, 27, is a quiet and relaxing garden in the centre.
Carla Carrión Palanca, blogger
Few tourists go to Calle Alta and Calle Baja but these two streets in El Carmen (or El Carmé in Valencian), 28, are popular with locals for their charming bars and shops. Jazz lovers might like to try the Jimmy Glass Bar (Calle Baja 28, jimmyglassjazz.net). Or, if a bar crawl is what you’re after, look no further than Calle Alta’s drinking dens.
Where to stay
Accommodation was provided by Hotel Caro (doubles from €137, +34 963 059 000, carohotel.com), 29, a former palace, 200m from the cathedral, which opened in 2012 after seven years of refurbishment. It is one of the oldest buildings in Valencia, with astonishing Roman, Arabic and gothic remains on display alongside sleek, modern furnishings: lots of glossy black and moody lighting. You can eat breakfast – a spread of meats and cheese, bread and fruit, plus unlimited cava – next to the old city walls, or sink into a sunken bath under an ancient beamed ceiling. There are 26 rooms – the three in the attic are especially romantic.
Way to go
Getting there EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Valencia; Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and East Midlands
Getting around Valencia has an easy-to-use metro and bus system. Metro lines 3 and 5 take you from the airport to the city centre in about 20 minutes. The Valencia tourist card gives you unlimited travel on public transport, plus discounts at shops, restaurants and museums (€13.50 for 24 hours, €18.00 for 48 hours or €22.50 for 72 hours, valenciatouristcard.com). Valencia is very flat, so cycling is a good way to explore: BEbike has five rental outlets around the city (€2 for 1 hour, €8 for 4 hours, €10 for 24 hours, bebike.es)
For further information on Valencia, go to visitvalencia.com//