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Once known as the “ugly sister” of Barcelona and Madrid, Valencia’s less than flattering reputation has long kept the tourist hordes at bay. But the secret is slowly getting out. Valencia has blossomed into the perfect weekend destination; the little city that really does have it all. As well as beautiful beaches, a quaint old town, green parks and colorful cuisine, the area boasts a mild climate and 300 days of sunshine per year. With so much to do and see, here’s our guide to making the most of a short trip to Valencia.
Experience the Central Market
Head for the Ciutat Vella (Old City) area and start the day with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice at the incredible Central Market, one of the top food experiences in the city. It’s one of Europe’s oldest running food markets and, below its mosaics and stained-glass domes, the vast space bustles with shoppers every day until mid-afternoon. Wander among stalls piled high with fresh local produce, including everything from cheeses and jamon to artisanal craft beers. Sample the produce as you wander, grab a freshly-squeezed fruit juice, pick up some gifts to take home or have breakfast at the market’s popular (but small) café. Or try one of the many pavement cafés surrounding the market building which, while tourist-friendly, don’t charge the inflated prices you might expect, usually buy their produce at the market, and provide a great spot from which to admire the enormous 1920s market building.
Cross the road to La Lonja de la Seda, the stunning 15th century silk exchange. It’s famed as one of best examples of non-religious Gothic architecture in Europe and has World Heritage status. Make sure you take the time to see the amazing interior.
Explore the Old Town
Stroll down the pretty lanes behind La Lonja and admire the mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and you’ll eventually come upon the stunning sight of the city’s Cathedral and its surrounding square, Plaza del Virgen. Inside there’s a chalice that’s said to be the actual Holy Grail, plus all kinds of priceless works of art.
Climb the 207 steps of the cathedral’s unique 13th century bell tower – known as the Micalet (“Little Michael” in the Valencian language) – and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views over the city and beyond to the countryside and the sea. If you’ve worked up an appetite, nearby Sidrería El Molinón is a cosy spot for a truly Spanish tapas lunch.
Just a few steps away from the cathedral is one of Valencia’s most curious museums. Go underground at the Almoina Archaeological Museum – an enormous former archaeological dig preserved under a glass roof – to see all the treasures uncovered at the heart of the city and explore the many layers of Valencia’s past, from its Roman foundations to its strong Arabic influences. Afterwards, continue south to the huge Plaza de la Reina square where you can treat yourself to a coffee or some churros with chocolate, or perhaps try the local tiger nut milk drink horchata and some pastries at the Chocolates Valor café.
Go out in Ruzafa
Head to the trendy Ruzafa neighborhood for dinner at Canalla Bistro, a laid-back place run by Michelin-starred local chef Ricard Camarena, around the corner from his main restaurant. Afterwards, go for drinks at one of the area’s many lively, quirky bars such as the Ubik Café, which doubles as a bookshop.
City of Arts and Sciences
Start your day with a walk or bike ride through the Turia riverbed gardens to visit the spectacular City of Arts and Sciences, a complex of futuristic buildings that gleam in the sunlight. Enjoy the exhibitions at the Science Museum, see sharks, belugas and walruses at the Oceanogràfic aquarium, or just enjoy the architecture from outside and check out the surrounding water features, gardens and outdoor sculptures.
Paella at the beach
Take a taxi from here to the oceanfront restaurant Casa Carmela to enjoy a traditional Valencian paella lunch. Make sure you book ahead for this local gastronomic experience, and try the authentic recipe complete with snails if you dare. Afterwards, walk down to the city beach and soak up the rays in the late afternoon. You could spend the afternoon sunbathing and swimming, or stroll around the nearby marina.
Don’t miss the old fishermen’s quarter of El Cabanyal, directly behind the main beach, where you can meander through streets lined with colorfully tiled houses. Stop for a glass of wine and sample the excellent tapas, much of it seafood, at local favourite Casa Montaña before heading back to the city center.
Explore El Carmen
This neighborhood within the Old City area is famous for its eclectic mix of old and new, with ancient city walls and cobble stoned squares now sitting alongside hipster cafés, colorful street art and cool jazz bars. If you haven’t done so already, try the local drink Agua de Valencia at the unusual baroque-themed Café de las Horas, or seek out one of the city’s great live music venues. You never quite know what you’ll find in El Carmen, so take the time to explore a little and you’re guaranteed to find something unique and enjoyable.