People come to Madrid because it’s the capital. People visit Barcelona because it was in Woody Allen’s masterpiece Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Those are the two staple cities on every trip to Spain: immensely popular and visited by millions of international tourists every year. What if you want to experience all that the Iberian Peninsula has to offer, but you hate crowds? Well, you’re screwed because it’s crowded everywhere. Valencia, however, might provide a little bit more breathing space. It’s unmistakably Spanish, but certain hints make it unique. Catalonia lies to the north. That region influenced Valencia to the point that they speak a Catalonian dialect. Some even consider their land a part of the Catalan nation. I don’t want to get into the entire “autonomous community” deal in Spain. Let’s not get political. Valencia is the largest container port in the Mediterranean Sea. A lot of stuff arrives in Europe through this city. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. That boils down to glorious chaos you can feel in the local air. A “melting pot”; this disgustingly overused term fits Valencia like nothing else because this is the cradle of Paella! It’s all about some special rice that grows in the area. You can try the real thing or buy the freshest ingredients at the Central Market of Valencia (Mercado Central).
The best thing you can do is rent a bicycle and explore. That is to say: if you have buttocks of steel. Many tough guys before you thought by mistake they could spend the entire day on a bike. Also, be mindful of the heat. It does get hot even with the breeze coming from the sea. Why not do as many locals do and explore by bike the Turia Gardens (Jardí del Túria). It is one of the largest urban parks in Spain and runs over nine kilometres through the old riverbed of the Turia. It stretches out from Cabecera Park and Bioparc in the west to the City of Arts and Sciences in the east and features a lot of great stuff. Picture a realistic copy of an African savannah in the Bioparc and Oceanogràfic houses the largest aquarium of Europe. In the City of Arts and Sciences there is Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía; a spectacular opera house and cultural centre, while in Gulliver Park, the little ones can climb a giant, 70-meter large figure. This all topped with lush palm and orange trees, pinewoods and other aromatic trees, and flowers all over the place. No need to say that the Turia Gardens are the favourite hangout of locals, be it runners, cyclists, and other sporty types, nature enthusiasts, arts lovers and above all families.
The famous Arab baths in Valencia are the place to freshen up in the morning, or even better in the evening. The Arabs built ten of these “spas” in the 13th century, but the Admiral's Baths (Baños del Almirante) are the only one that’s still around. Valencia’s historic quarter is the second largest in entire Spain and packed with landmarks. Stunning but it all looks the same to me. I take most pleasure walking those narrow streets and sipping on Aqua de Valencia from a shaker bottle. It’s a local drink made from orange juice, gin, and vodka. I know, I know, there some landmarks you need just need to see. Mercado Central, which I already mentioned is one of those. Columbus Market (Mercado de Colón) is another one worth visiting. Both are great examples of local Art Nouveau architecture.
I can only imagine the walls encircling Valencia’s Old Town and their scope. You can also only imagine because they were demolished in 1865. Why? Valencia was struggling with unemployment and people needed stuff to do. Who needs walls anyway? There are three main squares within the historic quarter. There is Plaza del Ayuntamiento with the stunning City Hall (Ayuntamiento de Valencia). And you’ve got Plaza de la Reina with the Cathedral and a park with dozens of palm trees. Plaza de la Virgen is perhaps the most recognizable one. There’s the characteristic Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados basilica that doesn’t even resemble a church. The Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of the government for the Valencia region, is right next to it. The fountain in the middle is dedicated to the Turia, the river that flows elegantly through the city. This square is at its best during late evenings when it’s not that hot and you can’t see the mountains of pigeon poo.
Not just the square, but the whole city comes to life after dusk. Valencia’s nightlife is nothing less than legendary. Actually, it is considered to have the best nightlife in Spain (not counting Ibiza). People party everywhere so it’s hard to pin down a spot or two. Visit the beaches: Playa de la Malvarrosa and Playa de las Arenas. Those two and the surrounding streets are pumping to the beat every summer. Don’t miss out on the Fallas Festival. It lasts through almost the entire March and it’s one of the most hyped up festivals in Europe. It gets wild with people dancing on the streets, hard drinking and…. paella competitions. Yes, they take paella that seriously. At its core, Fallas is all about burning things. Burning wooden sculptures, political caricatures, and fireworks! Forget China, Valencia considers itself the world’s capital of fireworks. The grand finale happens after midnight on the 19th of March with one last bonfire and even more pyrotechnics.