Valencia has always been on the top of my must visit Spanish cities. People always raved about it. Ever since I learned it was the birthplace of paella, I knew I had to go just for that reason. Well I’m here to say that it lived up to all my expectations and is indeed a city worth visiting whether it’s for a weekend or as part of a longer Spanish road trip.
Valencia boasts the best of Barcelona; the weather, beautiful Mediterranean vibes, and picturesque architecture but with half the prices. While it is certainly not off the beaten path, you can expect to find far less tourists in Valencia than say Barcelona or Madrid. I spent three days here as part of a weekend trip and here is my travel guide for this beautiful city!
What to do in Valencia
Valencia is the third largest city in Spain behind Barcelona and Madrid so expect no shortage of sights to see. The old town is smaller but no less impressive in my opinion. Here are some of the main highlights to check out.
Walk around the old town
When in doubt, find the old city and walk around. This is my approach to any good historic European town. Valencia is no exception.
The buildings and cobble stoned streets are among some of the most beautiful in Spain. You’ll have no problems getting lost in the narrow Spanish streets of the city and frankly, that’s how it should be.
Start walking around 8 or 9 on the weekends and you’ll be greeted with relatively empty streets as all the Valencianos recover from the night before, which only ended a few hours prior!
Valencia is also known for its abundance of street art so be sure to stop and take some photos!
Built over a Muslim mosque — that was built over a Visigoth basilica, that had been built on the former site of a Roman temple — this beautiful thirteenth-century building has a lot of different styles — Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, neoclassic — that reflect Valencia’s rich history. You will be awed by this magnificent architectural jewel that’s part of the cultural identity of Valencia. Not to be missed!
Plaza de la Virgen
Begin in this gorgeous square and soak up the atmosphere. Enjoy the mini gardens filled with orange trees, the buzz and excitement from visitors and admire the cathedral from outside and within. Check out the Basilica of the Virgin and get your photo taken next to the Turia Fountain.
There are bars, cafes and restaurants around the square but they are for tourists so expect the prices to be sky high.
Plaza de la Reina
On the opposite side of Plaza de La Virgen you will find Plaza de la Reina, a bustling square and one of the city’s hotspots. You’ll find lots of bars, cafes and tapas restaurants and plenty to keep you entertained as you enjoy the sunshine and people watch.
Valencia Central Market
Valencia’s Mercat Central is the largest covered market in Europe and undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful. You can spend hours and hours here entranced by the insane amount of food options.
Its colourful Art Deco facade houses some 400 stalls that sell the freshest produce from land and sea: seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, cured meats, nuts, butter-soft Iberian ham, cheese, shellfish, sea urchins and wriggling little limpets that dance on ice.
It’s absolutely massive and I was overwhelmed by how many stands there were, particularly jamon. Valencia is famous for its oranges so make sure to get some freshly squeezed orange juice as well for €1-€1.50.
There are also a countertop restaurant here called Central Bar that serves out some of the most amazing sandwiches you’ll have. This is a must visit in my opinion!
It is closed on Sundays but open every other day from 7:30am to 3:00pm.
Torres del Serranos
One of the former Twelve Gates to the City, this pair of towers dates back to the 14th-century. The towers were built as part of the medieval wall surrounding the city. Among Valencia’s best-preserved monuments, they are considered the main city entrance. From here, the fallera mayor announces the beginning of the Fallas festival on the last Sunday of February.
This was probably one of my favorite sights in Valencia. It is much bigger than expected. You are also allowed to enter the tower and climb to the top which has splendid views of the city. It was free of charge when we visited in January but I suspect there is a fee in the high season.
Playa De La Malvarossa
Playa de la Malvarrosa is the main beach in Valencia city proper. A visit is not complete without walking barefoot on the soft sand of this long, wide beach any time of year. Both the beach and seafront promenade are very lively all day long: You’ll find all sort of restaurants, bars and pubs to refresh in, and many activities that take place on its vast space. Another option is renting a parasol with a safe and enjoying a nice bath in the clean waters of the Mediterranean.
Oceanografic is the largest aquarium in Europe. You might feel a little uneasy walking through its tunnels with sharks and rays swimming over your head! The main marine ecosystems are exhibited here: Mediterranean, Antartic, Artic, Red Sea, tropical seas, islands, and wetlands… and there’s a dolphinarium. You’ll see over 500 different species of fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds!
Free walking tour
As always, I love taking the free walking tours in these European cities. Valencia has a daily free walking tour at 10:30am and 12:00pm. It meets at the Plaza de la Virgen and the tour lasts about 2.5 hours in total.
I learned quite a bit on this tour about the history of Valencia while visiting all the main sights. What’s really interesting is how Baroque and Victorian the city looks. Even though it was under Moorish control for centuries, you would never think there was any Muslim influence in this town unlike Grenada or Cordoba. Turns out the Christian rulers that came afterwards completely tore down all references to Islamic architecture and built on top of it.
Make sure to make reservations in the summer months as they cap the group size. As I was visiting in January, there were only 8 people on the tour.
Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe
The Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe is an important visitor attraction in Valencia, Spain. It forms part of the City of Arts and Sciences, and can be found at the end of Luis García Berlanga street. I didn’t end up going into the museum as we didn’t have the time but it seems a lot of people come down here just to check out the architectural wonders which is what I’d recommend as well.
The building was designed by Santiago Calatrava and was built in 2000 and is supposed to resemble the skeleton of a whale. Calatrava is the same designer as the Oculus at the World Trade Center in New York and this was the first thing that came to my mind.
This is just one of the few museums in the area. There is also a giant IMAX theatre next door called the Hemispheric, as well as the largest aquarium in Europe down the street which I of course cannot support being an avid diver. Nearby, you’ll also find a giant palm tree garden that is open for the public to walk through.
What to drink in Valencia
Valencia has a few well known drinks to be aware of. Firstly, Valencia is famous for its oranges. Valencia oranges are a well-known orange, but Valencia oranges aren’t actually from Valencia, they were created in Southern California and named for Valencia. However, that doesn’t mean that Valencia oranges haven’t found their way to Valencia, as they’re one of several orange varieties now grown in the region. Juicing machines can be found in shops all around Valencia, including the central market.
What do you do when you have so many oranges?
Make cocktails of course. And so the Agua De Valencia drink was created.
Cafe De La Horas
You can find Agua de Valencia all over the city. According to many, the best Agua de Valencia in Valencia can be found at Café de las Horas, which is located in the center of the old city and one of our highlighted stops.
What is Agua De Valencia you ask? Agua de Valencia (Water of Valencia) is a drink made from cava or champagne, vodka, gin, and of course, orange juice. Every restaurant probably adds their own special stuff to it too.
Inside Cafe de la horas, you’ll find a old school bohemian style cocktail bar that looks like it’s been taken out of the 1930s and dropped into the heart of Valencia.
The Agua De Valencia is served from pitchers for 2, 4, 6, and 8. We had a pitcher for 2 and consumed it quickly. It was quite delicious and I can see why all the locals say you have to be careful of the stuff! Turns out oranges go very well with liquor.
Ateneo Sky Bar Terrace
If you like rooftop bars like me, this is the place for you. It’s located right in the city center on the main shopping street and has fabulous views of Valencia.
We came here for a nice sunset drink to soak up the views. Prices are of course a bit higher but nothing crazy. Wines are €5. There is a €3 entry fee though but still worth it in my opinion!
Horchateria Santa Catalina
I always thought horchata was a Mexican invention as this was my go to drink when I was wolfing tacos down in Mexico City and didn’t feel like an alcoholic drink.
But nope, horchata like churros is a Spanish (Valencian) invention that was adopted by Mexico. The horchata in Valencia is quite different tasting though as it is made with a type of nut whereas Mexico uses rice. If I had to pick, the Mexican variation is far tastier as I find the Spanish version far too sweet for my liking.
Nevertheless, it is a refreshing drink that Valencian locals love to drink especially in the warm days. Pair it with a traditional farton which is just a sugar dusted pastry perfect for dipping in the horchata, and you have the Valencian snack of choice.
Eating Paella in Valencia
To be honest, half the reason I came to Valencia was because of the food. In fact, the only thing I really knew about Valencia before visiting was that it was the birthplace of paella. That’s good enough for me and all I needed to book the weekend trip.
This is where I would usually say “but Valencia has so much more than just paella…”. This is probably true, but I certainly did not spend enough time to find out because I spent almost all my time eating paella. I’m Asian after all, so rice no matter where it’s from is in my DNA.
History of Paella
For those that have not eaten paella and are visiting Valencia, you are in for a treat. Paella is saffron flavored rice cooked in a large round flat pan over an open fire. It’s cooked slowly so the rice has time to absorb all the flavors of the toppings, and the bottom can become crisp. Traditional paella uses short grain rice, specifically the Spanish bomba rice which is great for absorbing liquids which is essential for a paella. Toppings include various veggies, meats, and seafood depending on the type.
Most of the paella I’ve had in the past included seafood but the traditional Valencian paella is made with rabbit, chicken, and snail. This may sound questionable but it was still delicious. As part of our free walking tour, we learned that the original paella from centuries ago actually consisted of duck, and muskrat. That’s because Valencia was built along a river and the farmers who lived along the riverbeds had access to duck and these sewer muskrats. Eventually, this changed to rabbit and chicken as these ingredients were easier to obtain.
Paella is for lunch
Paella is traditionally only served during lunch. It’s takes time to prepare and is seen as a big family and friends gathering type of meal. Of course, being in Valencia, there will be restaurants serving paella at all times of the day because tourists want it. However, if you want the best paella, these restaurants are only open for lunch and you must make a reservation. This is because there is a lot of demand and these paellas take time to make so they want to know what to prepare for you before hand.
Almost all the paella restaurants worth visiting will be out of the main tourist center, obviously. I went to three different ones and wish I had time for more!
First up is La Riua in the city center. This was one of the ones that came recommended after doing a lot of research. It was close by to our Airbnb and like any good Spanish restaurant, only opened at 9pm. It has an old school vibe with lots of tile, photos, and the waiters even dress up.
We ordered one seafood paella and one Valencian paella. We also got a grilled calamari to start along with a bottle of Valencian red. Overall, I thought the food was quite good, although I knew it wasn’t the best. The paella was a bit too salty for my taste but we still devoured the whole thing. The prices are very reasonable as we only paid €90 for 3 people for a bottle of wine, a large grilled calamari started, and 4 portions of paella (one paella is a minimum of 2 portions).
After tons of research, we discovered that the best paella is actually located outside of the city, in this town called El Palmar. I’m not sure if this is considered a suburb of Valencia as it’s quite far (15km or so) but apparently this is the actual birthplace of Paella. After going on our walking tour and learning that paella started from the farms, it made sense as Palmar is right next to the river.
To get there, we took a FreeNow taxi from the city and it was around €25 one way.
We made a reservation at Pasqualet which came highly recommended. The restaurant was a serious no frills, no thrills restaurant that just served the most amazing Paella of my life. We ordered again the seafood paella and valencian paella and it was about 10x better than the previous nights meal at La Riua. We had a steamed clam dish to start which was probably some of the best clams I’ve had in my life. The soup it was cooked it had lemons, oranges, and tangerines which are the three most main fruits grown in the region. It was delicious.
The paella was just bursting with flavor in every bite. We absolutely loved it and it was by far the best paella we had all weekend. We heard no English in the restaurant, and even the owner didn’t seem to really speak English which is always a good sign. Service was incredibly friendly and the food was an experience. Highly recommended!
If you’re going to the Playa De La Malvarossa, this is a stop you should definitely consider. It was the first Paella restaurant to open up by the beach and it still draws in huge crowds to this day. Eating paella on the beach sounds heavenly to me and if this is your vibe, make sure to come here.
They were closed unfortunately in January so we had to go to a nearby restaurant which was average at best. Make sure to make reservations at this place in advance.
This was another paella restaurant, also on the beach that came highly recommended. It is away from the main tourist strip of the Playa de la Malvarossa but is still located right on the water. The paella here looks absolutely amazing and was on the top of my list but unfortunately, it was also closed in January.
Finally, this is one of the most famous paella restaurant in the city center of Valencia. They draw big lines so make sure to call in for a reservation and reserve the paella before hand.
Where to stay in Valencia
There is no shortage of amazing places to stay in this city. As we went in January, it was low season and we had our pick of options. We opted for Airbnb as we were a group of three people and each wanted our own rooms.
We found some amazing options and settled on one that was situated right in the city center. It had three bedrooms, 1.5 baths, and a lovely balcony with views of the street. It was only €120 per night which split between three people is nothing. Best of all, it was super quiet which can be an issue as Spaniards stay out until ridiculous hours! Here are some other options that I was very keen on as well:
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