Welcome to (That Other) Spanish City

Alyssa Avallon


If you’re looking to travel to Spain in the near future, you’re probably planning visits to both Madrid and Barcelona. However, if you have the time,  you should also consider Spain’s third-largest (and lesser-known) city, Valencia. 


Valencia offers a perfect balance of city and beach, as it lies right on the east coast of Spain (it’s sunny an average of 300 days per year). Although it has received mixed reviews from visitors who claim that it pales in comparison to Madrid and Barcelona, the city still offers a unique blend of charms.


The first thing  to remember is that Valencians (like most Spaniards) like to take their time --  literally.  There is a mandatory siesta from  2:00pm to 5:00pm every day, during which most places are closed.  Even college classes are not scheduled during siesta.  Nothing is open on Sunday, either. 

Valencia overflows with tasty restaurants.  One outstanding restaurant is La Lola, which boasts what  is referred to as “modern” Spanish cuisine and which Frommer’s calls “one of the most imaginative restaurants in Valencia.”  It offers “a parade of sunny flavors,” including duck, beef, and “codfish with caramelized saffron and honey.”  You also can’t visit Spain without having tapas, small snack-sized samples of a variety of food, and you’ll miss out in Valencia if you don’t get them from the Bodeguilla del Gato in the Centro Historico North section of town.  Finally, you shouldn’t visit Valencia without eating Valencian paella. The best place  for paella is La Pepica, a restaurant located by the beach. 


 A necessary stop for any tourist in Valencia is the cathedral, which offers a few special features that set it apart from others.  It houses not only  various 15-century artwork but also the incorrupt arm of Saint Vincent the Martyr.  Plus, for two Euros, you can climb the narrow, winding staircase (which gets increasingly narrower as you ascend) to the top of the bell tower.  From here, you’ll get a beautiful view of the city that’s certainly worth the two Euros and the claustrophobic climb.


Amidst a country of mostly ancient architecture, the Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias (“City of Arts and Sciences”) stands out.  Designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2005, the City of Arts and Sciences is made up of five uniquely shaped, futuristic-looking buildings, as well as an elevated walkway lined with trees on both sides -- which doubles as a night club during summer nights.  The buildings include an interactive science museum, an IMAX theater, an opera house, and the largest aquarium in Europe.  Lonely Planet writer Miles Roddis names it as one of the must-see highlights of the city, citing that the aquarium holds “enough water to fill 15 Olympic-size swimming pools” and that the opera house “defers in size only to Sydney’s iconic structure” (Roddis).  Especially if you’re traveling with family, the Ciudad is a necessary stop for kids to enjoy the science museum and the animals.

Exploring the city is one of the perks of traveling in Valencia.  Simply wander around  and see what you find.  Valencia is full of different restaurants,  quirky bars and cafes full of character, and unique shops that sell anything from handcrafted pottery to antique maps.  There are eight different neighborhoods in Valencia, and one, Barrio del Carmen, located in the Centro Histórico of the city, may be the most rewarding to explore.  New York Times travel writer Julia Chaplin calls it “the slowly reviving ancient quarter,” given the fact that Barrio del Carmen retains its antiquated feel while adapting to the modern world. 


An added bonus of wandering the back streets of this city is seeing the graffiti, which is everywhere.  Instead of stealthily scribbled words, though, these works of art look as though their creators have spent hours perfecting them. Rather than detracting from the city’s beauty, Valencia’s graffiti adds to its character.  You’ll also likely come across a variety of museums.  Many are small and inexpensive, like the Museo Nacional de Cerámica and the Casa-Museo de Blasco Ibañez (Ibañez was a Valencian author).  One larger standout is the Museo de Bellas Artes, which holds paintings by Spanish artists like Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco.


Valencia is undeniably a party town.  Clubs stay  open as late as 7 a.m.  Even if you aren’t into the club scene, this city won’t let you escape one very important celebration.  From March 15th to 19th every year, Valencia essentially shuts down to throw a week-long party called Las Fallas.  Originally started to celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph, it has since expanded to become one of the craziest festivals in Europe. 


“Las Fallas” translates literally to “The Fires,” and throughout the week, the city sets off special fireworks during the afternoon and at night.  The afternoon fireworks are called “la mascleta.”  Hundreds of people gather in the center of the town (by the town hall) to hear them explode.  Add that to fireworks set off by  residents all over the city at any given time, plus a few huge bonfires at the end of the week called “la crema.”  Artists work all year round to build figures out of a combination of wax and cardboard, called “ninots,” that can  rise up to 20 feet tall.  Many are comical, satirical, or political images.  These are  positioned throughout the city  to be admired and voted on and at the end of the festivities, all are burned except the favorite, which lives on in Museo Fallero – an interesting museum that houses all the winning “ninots” of  previous years.


Opinions about Valencia vary from tourist to tourist and amongst Spaniards themselves. Perhaps Frommer’s summed the city up best: “Some claim that the city where El Cid faced the Moors is one of the most beautiful on the Mediterranean. Others write it off as drab, provincial, and industrial. The truth lies somewhere in between.”

Photo of sharks by Frank Muller, Flickr; Other photos by Alyssa Avallon.


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Natt Mlanesiri, Flickr
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