Basking in sunshine pretty much year-round but surprisingly untroubled by tourist crowds – they’re queuing for the Prado in Madrid, or lining the beaches of the nearby Costa Blanca – Valencia is the perfect city for a laidback weekend break. Lacking the iconic sights of Barcelona and Madrid, the focus here is the amazing food. This is a city for gluttons and gastronomes alike, running the gamut from moreish market-stall snacks to Michelin-star dinners. It’s tempting to spend most of your time guzzling tapas but there’s plenty more to this fast-regenerating city, from the high-profile architectural showpieces mushrooming all over town to the explosive Las Fallas, one of Spain’s most important fiestas.
The city’s biggest claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of paella, and a plateful of sticky, saffron-tinged rice with meat or seafood (Valencian tradition vetoes mixing the two) is a must-try while you’re in town.
The traditional day to eat paella is Sunday, when locals flock to the beachside restaurants for their weekly fix. The vast dining room of La Pepica resounds with the chatter of locals putting the world to rights over sizzling pans of fragrant rice. The authentic local version comes with rabbit, chicken and snails (not a fan of molluscs? Ask for it sincaracoles); you could also try fideuà (with noodles and seafood) or the dense, inky arroz negro (with cuttlefish). Afterwards, snooze the day away on Malvarrosa beach, a dreamy stretch of golden sand.
Valencia holds Europe’s biggest covered market, a gorgeous Modernista affair with a stained-glass facade and a tiled cupola embellished with bright Valencian oranges. The thousand-plus stalls are piled high with seasonal produce, selling a tempting array of goodies, from Iberico ham to turrón (nougat). Central Bar, owned by Valencia-born superchef Ricard Camarena – best known for his eponymous Michelin-star restaurant in the same city – serves up simple meals amid the bustle of the market, and is also a good spot to sample the celebrated local cava, from the nearby Requena region.
There are scores of bars where you can gorge on tapas or grab a quick pintxo (like tapas but often more elaborate, skewered with a cocktail stick and eaten at the bar), especially in the winding lanes of the Barrio del Carmen. The best place for a tapas blow-out, though, is the atmospheric Bodega Casa Montaña in the Cabañal fishermen’s quarter. Duck under the wooden bar-top to the back room, with its vast barrels and wine-making apparatus, and feast on clóchinas (Valencia’s tasty small mussels, in season May to August), chorizo in cider, morcilla (black pudding), broad bean stew and more – come hungry.
Other tapas highlights include mussels in spicy broth at spit-and-sawdust Bar Pilar (Calle del Moro Zeit 13), where waiters holler your order to the kitchen; Tasca Angel (Carrer de la Puríssima 1) for stellar grilled sardines; and buzzy Las Cuevas (Carrer del Comte d'Almodóvar 8), which has a huge variety of dishes. For a lively overview, take a tapas tour with Suzie Anon y Garcia, a dedicated foodie and licensed tour guide with an in-depth knowledge of the local scene.
The historic Barrio del Carmen and hip Russafa districts are perfect for bar-hopping. Do as the Valencianos do and order a pitcher of agua de Valencia – a refreshing but lethal mix of cava, orange juice, vodka and gin. Top bars to try it are Sant Jaume (Calle Caballeros 51), an atmospheric old pharmacy with wood-panelled walls, and and Café de las Horas, with a star-spangled ceiling and a theatrical vibe..
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If it’s daytime refreshment you’re after, try horchata – a sweet and creamy local speciality made from tiger nuts and served with long slivers of cake called fartons; horchatería El Siglo (Plaza Santa Catalina), founded in 1836, serves the best in town, and has a marvellously retro interior.
Valencia boasts five Michelin-star restaurants but the place currently creating a buzz is as-yet-unstarred La Salita. The food is nouvelle but satisfying, and the whimsical creations of chef Begoña Rodrigo (winner of Spain’s version of Masterchef), such as a starter of little shrimps caught in a seaweed fishing net, or a “washing line” of petits fours (complete with clothes pegs), make this a great place for a special occasion. The 7-course tasting menu costs under €50 – a bargain.
Valencia’s biggest fiesta, Las Fallas, in honour of St Joseph, takes place every year in March. Each neighbourhood builds huge cartoonish figures – some as big as houses – which are spectacularly set ablaze on the night of March 19. In the preceding days, there are paella contests, parties and bullfights, and every day at 2pm the central Plaza del Ayuntamiento is filled with ear-splitting displays of pyrotechnics set off by rival neighbourhoods.
Work off the paella with a stroll, starting in the Barrio del Carmen, a labyrinthine network of streets that holds the Baroque-Gothic cathedral, said to house the Holy Grail; climb the bell-tower’s 207 steps for dizzying views. Nearby La Lonja, the old silk exchange building, is a UNESCO-protected Gothic masterpiece.
Wind your way north through the backstreets towards the lovely Jardínes del Turia, a scenic sunken park that takes the route of the old river Turia, which was diverted following flooding in 1956. Wander through the park and you’ll arrive at the focus of Valencia’s recent regeneration: the City of Arts and Sciences. Mostly designed by local-born architect Santiago Calatrava, this futuristic ensemble of bleached-white buildings surrounded by turquoise pools includes the curvy Oceanogràfic, Europe’s largest aquarium, and the astonishing eye-shaped Hemisfèric, used as an IMAX cinema. From here it’s a short hop to the redeveloped port area, which boasts the sleek Veles e Vents marina building, headquarters for the Americas Cup twice in recent years.
Further along the waterfront is a stretch of fine-sand beach backed by a promenade of breezy paella restaurants. Ernest Hemingway famously tried his first paella here, and it soon became a favourite haunt. In fact, he was so taken with the town that he chose it as the perfect location to begin his first novel The Sun Also Rises; take a beachside seat in the sunshine, order a plateful and you’ll soon see why.
There are direct flights to Valencia from London, or fly to Madrid and catch the high-speed AVE train from there. Explore more of Spain with the Rough Guide to Spain. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.