The busy city of Valencia, Spain
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Food and Drink, Romance, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
Valencia is a city of backstreets and grand promenades, great old buildings and vibrant new city complexes. You'll never want to leave
Stepping off the train at Valencia's Estacio del Nord was one of the best experiences of my life. Demetri Ribes' art deco station is tight and cosy and lovingly unmolested by brash shop frontages. The great clock that faces out to the railroad - and the promise of escape - looks like it stepped right out of the 1930s with its pea-green hands and the reception area near the entrance hums with an excitement which has been surpassed almost everywhere else in the world by the invention of the aeroplane.
Once you leave the station it just gets better. In the baking heat of a late July day the bullring (so close that you can hear the roar of the audience from the station) starts your panorama of the city named after the Latin word for strength. There are brilliant white buildings, each housing shops from fashion boutiques to McDonalds that positively scream Spanish culture at you from their every nook and cranny.
That first view gives way to a city of war monuments, straggly sidestreets and twenty-first century scientific endeavour (as well as some of the most picturesque public parks that you'll ever see) which stretches far beyond your first, overwhelming view.
One of the best places in Valencia is the Plaza de la Virgen, home to the great Baroque Cathedral which is available to visit. Located at the fringe of the polygonal plaza, near the political and bureaucratic district, the cathedral can almost play second fiddle to the fantastic Turia Fountain which takes pride of place in the middle of the plaza. Sit for a while by the cool waters and watch the crowds eddy by - but take care to avoid the low-flying pigeons that fly en masse right by your head.
Nearby the Cathedral and the Turia Fountain is the Mercado Central. A vast, 25,000 square foot indoor market which rises above the nearby roads, you'll find everything from fresh-pressed Spanish olive oil to live eels and nuts, berries and great hocks of ham. Stroll around inside and buy some provisions for that most famous dish of Valencia's, paella.
If your luggage allowance is lenient on the flight back, you might want to invest in one of the enormous flat-bottomed paella pans that are sold by hawkers outside the market. They come in all sizes from those barely big enough to cook a meal for two in to massive pans several feet in diameter which could feed the proverbial five thousand.
The place to eat paella is by the sea, and Valencia's beach is one of the finest in all of Spain. Accessible by a tram (costing just €1.40 one way), it's a brilliantly vibrant sandy shore onto the sea - but can get busy during the summer.
If you're looking for a city break, however, then there is still plenty to do in Valencia. The triumphal arch near the Plaza de Tetuan can't rival Paris' for its grandeur, but is still something to behold, stuck in the middle of a busy road through the centre of the city. There are also fantastic gardens, including the Jardines de Monforte, where local couples come to spend some time relaxing under the blazing sun in each other's company, and the much larger Jardines de Real, where you can spend hours getting lost in its expanses. The most unique public park, however, is the Jardin del Turia, located on the dried-out river bed which bisects the old city from the new. Running for miles, it is one of the strangest places to sit and relax in, but is warm and welcoming like the rest of the city.
Some of the most impressive religious art is housed in a small building off Calle de San Pio V; fallen Madonnas sit alongside church reliefs and ornate tapestries which make this a haunting place to come and visit for the religious and irreligious alike. If modern art is more your flavour, then the IVAM (Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Calle Guillem de Castro 118, +34 96 386 30 00) is home to many installations and, best of all, is free on a Sunday.
Mention must be made of Valencia's pride and joy, the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciences (+34 90 210 00 31), at the end of the dried-out Turia riverbed. A great modern building, it's worth visiting even if you don't want to pay the entrance fee to see the exhibits inside.
Accommodation in Valencia runs the gamut from the cheap to the extortionate - but almost all are cosy and comfortable. For students and backpackers, the Purple Nest hostel (Plaza Tetuan) is dorm living but delightful (and the outdoor terrace with its relaxing hammocks a brilliant place to relax when the city gets too much for you). The Expo Hotel (Avienda Pio XII) is a more mid-range option. An actual hotel, complete with private swimming pool, its neon sign lights up the centre of the city every evening. For a once-in-a-lifetime stay, the Hilton Valencia (Avienda Cortes Valencianas) is pricey but provides you the luxury of a worldwide brand that knows their hotels.
While you're here you'll want to indulge in some shopping, explore the city for yourself, take in the majestical gardens and perhaps see a bullfight. Modern art or ancient religious decorations are within a short walk, and if the midsummer heat gets too hot in the crowded city centre, you can always escape to the beach. What more could you want from a city?