Valencia was a last-minute trip for us.
We had spent countless nights searching for the perfect combination of cheap flights to somewhere sunny, with affordable accommodation, a bit of culture and, most importantly, a half-decent beach upon which we could lay.
However leaving it until August - peak European holiday season and smack-bang in the middle of school holidays - meant that finding somewhere that ticked all those boxes proved very very difficult. In fact, it was looking impossible.
And then, like a bright shining light at the end of the tunnel, Valencia appeared.
Far enough from the typical Brit destinations further south, Spain's third biggest city is often overlooked for its sexier neighbours - Madrid and Barcelona - or the slightly more bohemian choice of Sevilla. However, the more we read about it, the more we thought that Valencia would be the perfect answer in our search for sun, good food and a taste of la vida Español.
And, after a blissful two weeks exploring its cobblestoned old town, devouring its cuisine, hanging out in its hipster districts and working on our tans at its, surprisingly, pristine beaches, we can confirm that it really was, for us, perfect. If you're looking for a great place in Spain that combines many of the elements of this great country - then this is it.
Here are our favourite things to do in Valencia.
Walk the Old Town
As with any Spanish city, most tourists can be found in the historic centre - where picture-postcard European beauty resides amongst the cobble-stone streets and beautiful buildings whose walls could speak of the centuries of intrigue, feuds and scandals which have played out within them.
Valencia's old town really is incredibly beautiful and very well-preserved. There are no shortage of sights to stop off at but a lot of it may not actually be of too much specific interest except to the silk or ecclesiastical enthusiast. For us, the best way to experience this part of Valencia is to taking a day or two to to discover its streets and squares, its hidden alleyways and its secrets on foot, at your own leisurely place, with a vague plan of sights to see and some money in your pocket.
Pop into a boutique store, marvel at the gorgeous architecture and cathedral, stop off for an ice-cold beer or cocktail at a pavement side café, take some photos, visit a selection of museums (if they grab your interest) and get lost amongst the winding alleys.
In terms of 'things not to miss', we'd highly recommend a visit to Valencia's version of the Sistine Chapel - San Nicolas church - which is mesmerising. Also, the 'Tribunal de las Aguas' (Water Court) held on Thursdays at midday outside the right side of Gothic Door of the Apostles of the Cathedral is an age-old court system where farmers bring their irrigation disputes to the 'council' who decree a decision which has to be adhered to by all those involved in the dispute.
And the reason why there are water disputes in the first place....
Discover authentic Paella
The first thing to know is that Valencia is the birthplace of paella. The second thing to know is that, as Jamie Oliver discovered recently, Valencians are very passionate about the dish. Much of what you think you know about it will be considered an abomination in this part of the world - sacrilege even (hint - it should NEVER ever contain prawn and chorizo!)
Around the city, there remain acres of rice fields which require specific levels of irrigation (hence why you have grizzled old farmers feuding with each other over who has rights to the water!)
Aside from a great selection of restaurants serving up proper versions of the dish , we'd recommend checking out a cooking class which allows you to learn the history and the culture surrounding it - as well as giving you the opportunity to devour as much of it as you can stomach. Get those tastebuds going by reading all about our paella cooking class experience in Valencia.
If time is against you, then take a quick visit for some paella outside the popular (and touristy) Mercado Central - just prepare yourself by learning how to pronounce it correctly - "pa-e-ya" with the "e" as in "bet".
Enjoy Valencia's excellent beaches
Now, when we were looking for our last-minute August holiday, there was one pretty key factor - it had to have a good beach. We hate the crowded holiday-maker beach experience (who doesn't?), but there's always an element of give and take when you're visiting Spain in high season. Pictures of Valencia's beaches led us to believe that it had some nice enough, although not great, beaches.
The reality was much, much better than we could have hoped.
For starters, you have the city beach 'Malvarosa'. Reachable from the city centre on the 32, 19 or 2 bus (or a combination of metro and tram), it does get awfully crowded. However, it's wide enough for you to always be able to find a spot and it's got a pretty laid-back atmosphere, with a healthy mix of local families, young people and tourists. As it's a beach that is for Spanish people first and foremost, rather than a beach catered primarily to package holiday-makers, it isn't unbearable at all. On the street behind the beach, you'll find your standard souvenir / beach apparel stalls, whilst the street behind that, with its fading buildings housing seafood and paella restaurants, reminded us of many places we visited in Latin America.
However, the real surprise in Valencia was the excellent stretch of coastline just outside the city limits. After spending our first couple of beach days at the city beach, we ended up spending the rest of them at those a short bus ride away - find out more about our favourite beaches in Valencia, and how best to reach them with public transport, in a post which will be published next week.
Watch a match at the Mestalla
Valencia's football team has had a difficult decade. However, Los Che, with their white shirts with orange trim and bat crest, are actually a giant of the European game. La Liga winners twice at the start of the noughties, but consecutive losing Champions League finalists in the same period, recent years have seen multiple managerial changes, ownership controversies and poor league performances. Nevertheless, their fans are loyal and create an excellent, raucous atmosphere at home games.
And, thankfully for those who are used to extortionate UK football prices, a ticket to watch a game at the 55,000-capacity La Mestalla is very affordable.
Note that there is a new stadium being constructed - however lack of funds, boardroom shake-ups and a lack of success on the pitch have resulted in its on-going delay. So, if you visit a game, make sure you go to the correct Mestalla (i.e. the old one), which is located on Av. de Suècia and accessible via the Aragón metro.
See the city from above
Once acting as the main entrance to the walled old city, The Torres de Serrano were completed in 1391. They are pretty magnificent and, aside from giving off a very Game of Thrones vibe as you climb their stone staircases (we had the theme tune in our heads anyway), the towers also give access to one of the best views over Valencia.
Opening times are Tuesday - Saturday, 10:00 to 14:00 and 16:30 to 20:30. Sundays and public holidays from 10:00 to 15:00. Entry is €2, but free on Sundays (or anytime on VLC tourist card). The Torres de Quart were also part of the old wall encircling the old town, and admission is to these is always free.
Although 'hipster district' is used by everyone now, and not always accurately, it still serves as shorthand to describe a part of the city that ticks a lot of boxes for locals or travellers. Some may feel that those boxes could be replaced simply by one staying 'generic gentrification', but we wouldn't agree.
We want to know the place in a city where we can find a bunch of coffee shops playing good music and serving a nice flat white. We want to know the place that is popular with the local 'creatives and cool kids'. We want to eat at the restaurants which are serving up fusion cuisine or an alternative to tourist-centric offerings and find a quirky bar primarily focused on a local crowd.
In Valencia, your best bet for all of this is Ruzafa (also known as Russafa in the local language). Although Cabanyal is up-and-coming, and already developing as the 'actual' hipster spot because Ruzafa has become too 'done', we still liked Ruzafa a lot.
A five minute walk from train station, we spent some sunny afternoons meandering around its colourful streets (don't believe anyone who tells you it's ugly) which house an alluring blend of photo galleries, pavement cafés and bars, vintage junk shops, cute little restaurants (including many excellent vegetarian options) and much much street art.
The Mercat de Russafa, a excellent and colourful example of Mediterranean brutalism, is an experience in and of itself - again, it reminded us so much of many markets we visited in Latin America (and it's actually a market where lots of Latino immigrants in Valencia do their daily shop).
In terms of experiencing Ruzafa at its best, we'd recommend leaving your visit until a little later in the afternoon - many places take a very long and literal siesta - or the early evening. It's also a great going-out barrio, with a number of places open till the wee small hours. Places you need to check out?
- Dulce de Leche - Named after one of our favourite ever things, this cool cafe has amazing sandwiches and cakes, and is an excellent spot if you're looking for a place to work for a few hours (2 Carrer d'Alberto Gisbert Pintor)
- Doña Petrona - After two years in Latin America, we knew straight away that this was a place run by Argentineans. If you aren't having one of the excellent empanadas or alfajores, then they've got one of the best outdoor seating areas in the neighbourhood, facing the mercado and a lovely church (Plaça del Baró de Cortés)
- Ubik - A cafe-cum-bookshop which is kick-started kickstarting the whole movement and regeneration (well, at least according to the plaque outside its entrance). It's also got a great vegetarian philosophy at its core (Carrer del Literat Azorín).
On your way to the area, it's worth popping into the train station itself, which is extremely pretty and retains a lot of of original features, making it feel like something straight out of a 30s film-set.
Tasting Horchata and agua de valencia
The Valencian region is lucky enough to have not one, but two, hugely important local drinks. Unsurprisingly, we preferred the one with alcohol (but the white one was pretty darn nice too)!
Read more about both of them in this post on foodie experiences in Valencia.
CYCLE OR RUN Jardín del Túria
The best decision the city's residents made after the Túria flooded for the umpteenth time in 1957 and the river was diverted elsewhere, was to ensure that the dried-up riverbed became a park rather than a road.
The 9-km long gardens connect the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences (which we didn't visit) with the Biopark (read 'zoo') in the west. The park ostensibly prevented the city being split in two and, with its running and cycling paths, water parks and sporting / cultural facilities, has actually brought it together in more ways then one.
If you want to do some running whilst you're in the city (Valencia is becoming recognised as a fantastic running city in its own right), then this is the best spot for it, or you could rent a bicycle and discover it on two wheels.
** And lastly, feel free to admire the gorgeous architecture of the Plaza de Toros (that's the building in our lead image at the start of the article), but please please please do not support the bull-fighting industry. If you think it's interesting 'culturally', just watch a video on youtube rather than fund it **
ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION
Our 'essential things to know before you visit Valencia' article will be published next week but, in the meantime, we thought we'd let you know that you can get £25 off your first Airbnb booking by signing up here. There are lots of affordable, gorgeous and well-designed apartments available in the city and we loved having our own place for two weeks. If you prefer hostels, then we recommend Valencia Lounge, which is stylish, well-located and has a kitchen for guests.