One thing many visitors look forward to when heading to Spain is the idea of enjoying a huge plate of bright yellow paella – probably washed down with a jug of iced sangria while sitting by the beach. But when you touch down in Valencia, you’ll quickly find out that the image most of us have of Spanish paella is not completely accurate. Valencia is famously the original home of paella and its inhabitants take the dish seriously, so you’re sure to learn a thing or two about it on your trip. The local dish uses rabbit, chicken and snails, and the finished result should be a shallow layer of rice with a golden brown hue. In fact, if the rice is piled high, it’s a sure sign you’re eating in a tourist trap. So where should you go for the real deal? Here’s our pick of some of the best places in town.
Restaurant, Spanish, $$$
Casa Carmela restaurant, Valencia | courtesy of Casa Carmela
Everyone says the best paella is homemade, but the closest thing you’ll find to home-cooked family paella is found here at this seaside restaurant. As well as chicken and rabbit, they also use duck, which adds an incredible richness to the dish. As well as the delicious food, you’ll enjoy the amazing sight of expert paella chefs cooking as many as eight huge paellas simultaneously over blazing firewood. The restaurant is best reached by car or taxi and reservations are essential.
This city center restaurant is one of the most famous locally for its paella. You’ll find few tourists here, a lively local atmosphere and a very traditional take on paella – complete with snails and plenty of vegetables – as well as other popular local rice dishes such as arroz al horno – a rice dish baked in the oven – and paella negra, in which the rice is dramatically colored with squid ink. It’s a short walk from the Old City or Ruzafa districts.
An even more central spot, but just as traditional, El Canyar is tucked away just a short walk from the famous bullring and Valencia’s main train station. While enjoying the Valencian cuisine here you might just rub shoulders with one of the many celebrities who’ve visited over the years, and whose photos adorn the walls. But the real star here is the paella, which can be ordered with rabbit and chicken or prawn and monkfish.
Valencian paella is said to have been invented in the stunning, marshy L’Albufera natural park, known for its rice fields and huge variety of wildlife, 10 kilometres outside the city. Day trips here are popular; you can enjoy the surreal stillness of the lagoon, the colorful sunsets, and of course, the paella at one of the specialist restaurants in villages at the water’s edge. One of the best is Restaurante Mateu in the village of El Palmar. Here you can try the deep, earthy flavours of the traditional version of the dish, made with chicken, rabbit and snails. Make sure to ask the waiter to include everything, as they usually assume tourists are too squeamish to eat snails.
For something completely different, why not go for lunch at a traditional Valencian barraca? Barracas are charming little country houses, usually painted white with a gabled roof, which dot the rice fields surrounding Valencia city center. Eating at La Genuina is a truly local experience, and the food, including paella and other regional specialities, is as authentic as it gets. Best reached by car or bike.