Forget that relaxed holiday feeling. Come home with that smug, self-righteous glow of knowing that your vacation was better than everybody else’s.
Where to stay
Old Town. Only Old Town. There’s no two ways about it. Full of beautiful architecture with a funky Camden vibe, Old Town boasts a whole host of hidden gems for the would-be holiday smugster. From the culinary to the cultured, to the downright cool as fuck, this place will keep you busy with intrigue for the rest of your days – or at least a good long-weekend.
Get your bearings
Book a tour. There’s plenty of good ones, but we chose the free 2.5 hour ramble with Free Tour Valencia. It’s the perfect introduction to the city, taking you through some of the top features and landmarks of Old Town. You’ll see all the best architecture, the famous central Mercado and off-beat urban delights such as the giant poster of Valencian cabaret star Rosita Amores.
Rosita became a bit of a national treasure when she refused to stop performing cabaret during the repressive dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Complete with her infamous giant boobies and nipple tassles, Rosita is depicted standing on a giant paella dish (obvs).
While the tour is technically free, you will be asked at the beginning to pay what you think it’s worth at the end. It’s well worth paying for, but, if you don’t like it, you won’t have to pay a thang.
DON’T… get the bus tour – if you want to see Old Town at least. Many of the streets and squares can’t accommodate traffic, let alone a giant double decker.
DO… ask your guide about where to spot the best local graffiti. Valencia is famous for its satirical wall art, and you’ll see why. From dark and twisted to crazy and colourful, you’ll get a great feel for the city’s independent spirit.
Places to Visit
Catedral de Valencia
Fill your cultural cups to the brim by visiting the Catedral de Valencia. Supposedly home to the Holy Grail, this stunning hunk of stone features a whole host of architectural styles, from Gothic and classical to Renaissance and Baroque. With a 7 Euro entrance fee, grab an audio guide and get a basic tour of all the arty, shiny, carvy stuff. Then, take a trip below the cathedral where you can see evidence of the Roman temple and Arabic mosque that came before it.
DON’T… miss the old, grisly skeletons in the ancient underground graveyard. (They’re way more exciting than the Holy Grail, which is essentially just a big fancy cup.)
DO… take the time to climb Micalet Tower. It’s the highest point in the city so you’ll get the best views, and, if you’re into bells, it has 12 of them. At the top of the 13th century tower you’ll find El Micalet, a 24,000 pound behemoth of a bell, whose name actually means ‘Little Michael’. Good one, people-from-the-olden days, you sure got me.
Find out more about El Micalet, (or El Miguelete), from this lady.
While holiday makers have cottoned on to the super trendy Camden vibe of the Old Town, the barrio of Russafa knows how to keep a secret. Full of off-beat bars and cafes with innovative food for half the price of what you’ll find in Old Town, it has a cosmopolitan feel with a quirky urban edge. It’s about twenty minutes’ walk from historical El Carmen, a route well worth taking as you’ll pass the beautiful antiquated train station and the town’s infamous bull ring.
Russafa is also spelt Ruzafa, and can be pronounced (though not officially), ‘Mufasaaa’!
This guy blogs about Russafa in more detail. Check it out here.
Old Town is a whopping 80 minute walk away from Valencia beach. But! – stay with me – rent a bike for 8 euros a day and it’s an easy 30 minute cycle-ride. The route to the beach takes you through the city’s famous Turia Gardens – one of Spain’s largest urban park lands. Cycling through here is a day trip in itself, so, if you CBA with the sand, take a picnic and hang here for the arvo.
DO… get to the beach early and catch breakie on the beach front. There’s plenty of bike stands to lock your bike on – but get there early on weekends or you’ll find them filled up.
And, DO… hire your bike/s with Valencia Mania. Situated right by the Gardens, the staff are super warm and friendly, and will point out all the best interest sites specific to your route.
While you’re at the beach, if surfing’s your bag, book in with Las Arenas Escuela de Surf. Perfect for noobs, this laid-back surf school will whisk you off to a private beach to hit the waves in style. The friendly organisers will take photos of you and send you all your best pics – much better souvenirs than 50 photos of you pouting under a parasol!
The waves in Valencia are pretty consistent and suitable for all abilities…
City of Arts and Sciences
Again, within easy cycling distance of Old Town, and via the Turia Gardens, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias is a must see. And almost every travel guide will say so.
I, on the other hand, was pretty underwhelmed by it. Though it’s undeniably impressive to look at, and I hear the Oceanographic is pretty good, the Science museum was disappointing. While it had some interesting exhibitions – I’m a sucker for an old dinosaur fossil – it‘s almost too large to house the installations inside, and has a clinical, post-apocalyptic vibe. All in all, it just wasn’t up to the hype.
My advice: check to see if there’s a particular exhibit, show or festival during the time you go and incorporate it into your trip – they drain the water from the surrounding water gardens to host gigs and special occasions.
Fuck Edison and his light bulbs. Paella was invented here! Home to the national Valencian rice dish, Albufera is a stunning national park filled with an expanse of rice paddies, wildlife and a beautifully luminous freshwater lake – coloured a fluorescent green thanks to the flourishing algae.
There’s plenty of buses and tours to Albufera, but for anyone feeling a little more adventurous, rent a bike and follow the cycle path along the beach front.
Cycle past the commercial boat tours and continue the route into El Palma. Here, you can treat yourself to some of the best paella in the district. On the way into El Palma, you’ll see signs from local farmers offering boat trips for the same price as the commercial rides. Or, pay 20 euros and they’ll take 2-3 of you on your own private journey.
My advice: take a boat ride first and get some guidance on where’s best to sample the local paella. We learned too late that one of the better restaurants can only be reached by boat.
Nail your nosh
You really are spoiled for choice in Valencia so we spent a lot of time wandering around to find the best places to eat. As a result, we made some piss poor decisions under the heat of dreaded hunger-anger (see below). Don’t let you hanger decide.
Avoid gimmicky restaurants
We should have known better than visiting medieval-themed restaurant Jaume I, with its teabag-stained, match-torched menus, but we didn’t. We landed a 40 Euro bill for 2 starters and 2 drinks. (We cancelled our mains). It wasn’t the worst place in the world, however, if you’re after authentic, fresh and innovative food that you’ll remember, it’s not the place for you.
Try one of these instead:
This place had us so dizzy with culinary kudos that we high-fived each other more erratically than Jeremy Corbyn at a clapping rally. Serving up traditional Valencian tapas, the flavours will dazzle and the ambiance is stunning. This special little pocket of lushness sits under the approving gaze of Rosita Amores and her paella dish.
OK, so it’s Italian, not Valencian, but it’s proper Italian – and it’s proper yummy. The perfect place to indulge, for me, San Tommaso is all about one thing: the Fiocchi Pear. Made with freshly prepared pasta stuffed with sweet pear and rich cheese finished in a cream-pistachio sauce, I urge you to eat this, and only this. For the rest of your life. Accompany this with any of the Valencian wines on the menu… we went with the Venta del Puerto Nº 18 and it was seriously heaven. Don’t eat here too much though – the food is so rich and naughty, you’ll feel like Teresa May after a lap round the wheat field – but fatter. Much fatter.
True Valencian cuisine with a fancy kick. If you’re going to try foie, try it here. It comes with a cracking caramalized top and a sweet marmalade base. Ask the staff to recommend the wine for your meal. We had Les Alcusses, another great Valencian wine that left us moist in the loin paddies.
Les Alcusses is named after La Bastida de les Alcusses, an Iberian settlement from the 4th Century BC. Why not visit? I didn’t go, but hey, the Iberians liked it so who’s to say you won’t?
Local, local, ask for everything local. Valencia is famed for its wines, with beautifully light aromatic whites and rich, tantalising reds. Local beers are equally lovely, with brews served extra chilled – the perfect refreshment under the heat of high sunshine.
Don’t forget to try the city’s famous cocktail, Agua de Valencia. It’s about 95% alcohol and you won’t even notice. Lethal. Delicious. Drink loads of it. And by the way, if you order it, make sure it’s made fresh. Mixed with the juice of those famous Valencian oranges, it’s not Agua de Valencia if they don’t squeeze the juice there and then.
Pick up a couple of local craft beers from the central Mercado. We tried Galana 13° IPA and Barack American Barley wine. The IPA left us a little underwhelmed compared to its fruitier English and American cousins, but the Barack – which is matured specially in old red wine barrels – will intrigue darker ale lovers, and has a rich, biting flavour.
Music and Nightlife
Again, there are so many awesome bars and clubs in Valencia, you’ll have no problem finding a place to bust a groove. But, if you want my advice (and I know you do), here’s 3 top picks from my time there:
This place has ruined other clubs for me. With a variety of live performances followed by super eclectic DJ sets, there’s something here for everyone. And I mean everyone. We wandered into the set of local mix artist, DJ Razz – a daft name I know – but shiiittt, he was funky. Mixing a medley of musical genres and international style, I challenge you not to get up and dance there. Left-feeters will be hot-steppers in no time.
The drinks are expensive, but the measures are immense. I asked for gin and mixer and walked away with a pint of the stuff.
Now here’s something a little special. Slightly off the beaten track but hitting that beat dead on is one of Valencia’s biggest treasures; Jimmy Glass Jazz Barr. Renowned in the jazz world, Jimmy Glass represents the best new talent in contemporary music, hosting live performances 4 nights a week. The vibe is cosy, welcoming and oozes bluesy, funky, jazzy goodness.
Entrance is typically free unless there’s a super jazzy big-wig playing. Check the website for info.
Cheese. Just pure cheese. Dance the night away here to Motown, funk and alllll the pop classics. I didn’t get long here as I was literally dragged away by the eyeball rolls of my tired, tired boyfriend. But, though the time we spent together was little, I knew this club was for real.
Oh, you’re still reading?
Jeez you’re clingy. But I suppose I can go on… Here’s a few more pearls I discovered during my stay in Valencia…
Do ask about the Flamenco…
…if you want to get your ass kicked. I didn’t know that Flamenco is actually a tradition native to northern Spain, so I got royally shamed when I asked about it. Sure, there’s plenty of shows to see – but, they’ll be uber touristy and the locals will judge you. For proper flamenco, visit Andalucía instead.
Named after the novel and character of the same name, this ‘beat & books’ store/publishers will steal your heart. Here, you will discover the lesser known titles of now venerated artists, many of whom were foolishly unappreciated during their time. Find the good doctor in the bendy, windy lanes of Old Town, among a whole myriad of book, art and vintage outlets.
Just a little FYI… Written by pioneering beat artist Jack Kerouac, Doctor Sax was penned as a follow up to his most famous novel On the Road, and was described by the author as “the greatest book I ever wrote, or that I will write”.
Progress your language skills
There’s a weekly Wednesday language exchange and pub quiz at La Catrina Café & Rock. Based in Russafa, La Catrina is an indie joint with a chilled vibe and a friendly international backdrop. On my visit, I met a lovely Valencian girl about half my age with twice my language skills. Thanks to her patience I now know three varieties of the Spanish word for fuck.
Find out more about the language exchange here.
Find out how to say fuck in Spanish here.
Try fresh (and only fresh) Horchata
Horchata, (or at least proper horchata, as they’ll tell you in Valencia), is made from soaking the chufa or tiger nut – a wrinkly brown round peanut-looking thing, grown mainly in Valencia. Horchata is supposed to be super refreshing and great for perking you up after a hangover. It’s also meant to be a little bit like Marmite; you’ll either love it or hate it. I tried horchata and found that it didn’t fix my hangover and I wasn’t too bothered either way. Try it and see what you think!
Somebody else said some good stuff about horchata here.
DON’T… forget this is all just my opinion… there might be better things to do in Valencia, and you might not like all the same stuff as I do.
DO… take my word for it anyway… my holiday was pretty fucking awesome.