Valencia was founded by the ancient Romans in 137 BC and has been pillaged, burned, and besieged numerous times by various conquerors since. But vivacious Valencia has nevertheless sailed into the second millennium as a sophisticated, modern holiday city.
A favoured location for the America's Cup yacht race, Valencia is situated on the Mediterranean coast about four hours south of Barcelona. The city is spread out around its busy port and backed by hills which give way to the plains of Aragon.
Valencia oozes traditional character, particularly in its old town (El Carmen), and has retained its cultural heritage not only in the form of medieval architecture but also in its quirky, exuberant festivals like the Battle of the Flowers, the fireworks of Fallas, and even one dedicated to tomato-hurling.
The Valencians even have their own language. Interspersed with the old and historic, however, there is much that is new in Valencia, including its major attraction, the seemingly futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, which draws around four million appreciative visitors each year.
Outdoors, it is hard to beat the golden beaches which fan out from the port along the coast, and the sprawling city offers plenty of green parks for strolling, cycling, or simply lolling on a bench to get your breath back after indulging in the vibrant life of the city.
Football is a local passion, and fans should not miss the atmosphere at one of the carnival-like Valencia FC home matches. When night falls, dine on paella, which originated here, and then hit the town, because Valencia is renowned for its lively collection of bars and clubs.
The impressive, futuristic landscape of the City of Arts and Science covers a vast area, rising out of a man-made lake in what was formerly the bed of the River Turia. It encompasses various attractions accessed along a magnificent arched walkway, overhung with an array of flowering aromatic plants and shrubs. The city consists of five areas: the Hemisferic, containing the IMAX cinema and other digital projections; the Umbracle, a landscaped viewing and parking area; the Principe Felipe Science Museum, dedicated to interactive science; the Oceanografico, the largest aquarium in Europe, housing more than 500 marine species; and the Palau de lest Arts Reina Sofia, which hosts opera, theatre, and music performances. The cost of exploring the whole 'city' is considerable but well worth the expense. The exhibitions and various features are stimulating, educational, and entertaining, and the beautiful, otherworldly architecture makes you feel as though you are in a sci-fi movie. It is Valencia's most celebrated modern tourist attraction and a must-see for visitors. The city requires a whole day of your attention if you want to experience everything, and there are some great restaurants to rest and refuel.
The ancient district of El Carmen sits in the heart of Valencia's old town, with narrow cobbled alleyways, honey-coloured buildings, and bars and cafes contributing making up a chilled Bohemian atmosphere. El Carmen also has several interesting attractions, including the remains of the medieval city walls, and the Gothic tower gates of Torres de Serrano and Torres de Quart, the latter pocked with cannon-ball marks dating from an assault by Napoleon. Roman and Moorish influences are clear in the Old Town and the numerous squares and narrow streets give the area an authentic medieval feel, despite the invasion of tourists as the city increases in popularity. Along with several museums, there is also a convent complex dating back to the 13th century. The Cathedral of Our Lady is a good starting point for a walking tour of the Old Town, and climbing the cathedral's tallest tower will earn travellers fantastic views. Lastly, Mercado Central is one of the largest indoor markets in Spain is quite an experience.
It is reputedly the resting place of the Holy Grail, but whether you believe that or not the ornate Valencia Cathedral is worth a visit just because of its unique history and combination of architectural styles. Since it started out in 1262, it has shuffled back and forth from being a mosque to a Christian church, and has been added to accordingly in a variety of styles from Romanesque to Gothic, Baroque, and even Moorish. It houses an interesting museum, treasury, and the Holy Grail chapel. Also look out for paintings by Goya. Most visitors make a pilgrimage to the cathedral simply to climb its octagonal medieval tower, which provides a wonderful panorama of the city if you have the staying power to make it to the top of the winding staircase. Climbing the tower entails a small extra fee. The entrance fee to the cathedral includes an audio guide, in multiple languages, which takes tourists to 21 different points of interest in the cathedral. The square outside the church is lovely, with numerous cafes and restaurants. Part of the cathedral is always open for prayer, but tourists are only let in at certain times. Check the website for opening times.
One of Valencia's UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the old Silk Exchange, founded in 1469, copied from a similar structure built in Palma de Mallorca. The walled tower and flamboyant Gothic trading hall, once used for the trade of precious items like silk and gold, is widely regarded as the city's most beautiful building, and is now a top tourist attraction, often used for hosting art exhibitions. The immensely high vaulted ceiling tops some unusual and very attractive pillars, the floors are lovely, and there is lots of intricate stonework and Gothic detail to admire. There isn't much information of any kind inside, but informative guided tours are available in multiple languages for a small extra fee. A good time to visit is on a Sunday morning, when a popular stamp and coin collectors market makes for a lively trading buzz. The Silk Exchange is located opposite Valencia's Central Market, which some visitors may also want to investigate.
The Crypt of San Vicente is an ancient part of Valencia and exploring the space takes visitors on an intriguing archaeological journey through the history of the city. The crypt has existed in many different incarnations: it was once part of a Visigoth chapel; was converted into palace baths during Muslim rule; and was incorporated into a Christian chapel dedicated to the martyr San Vicente (although it is unclear whether the saint was ever actually imprisoned here as some historians claim). There is even evidence of Roman architecture in the crypt, which is located in a district once occupied by Roman nobles. It is possible to wander in and see the ruins, but without explanation it is not that interesting. History lovers are encouraged to book the audiovisual tour with images projected on the walls and a voice over detailing every different era in the building's past. Tours should be booked at the City Museum opposite the crypt.
The Plaza de la Virgen is one of Valencia's loveliest squares. Once the site of an ancient Roman forum, a fountain sits in the centre and is surrounded by plenty of open-air cafes. On one side of the square is the impressive Gothic façade of the Palau de la Generalitat, seat of government for the Valencia region, and opposite is the Baroque Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Desamparados, a grand church dating from the 17th century containing fascinating frescoes. The Plaza de la Virgen is an entertainment hub during the famous Fallas Festival in Valencia, which sees the community building big, creative sculptures in the square and later burning them. Street performers come into the square during the evening and those sitting at cafes are treated to flame-throwers, jugglers, and the like. Even when there is no entertainment, the square is ideal for people-watching and photography. It is one of the best known landmarks and gathering places in Valencia.
Valencia has a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters. The average annual temperature is 62°F (17°C). The peak summer months, between June and August, are hot and dry, with average temperatures in August, the hottest month, ranging between 70°F (21°C) and 85°F (29°C).
Summers in Valencia are sometimes said to last from April to November. Winters, between December and February, are mild by European standards, with the average temperatures in January, the coldest month, ranging between 44°F (7°C) and 61°F (16°C).
It can rain in any season in Valencia but the peak summer months tend to stay dry. Most of the rainy days occur during autumn and early spring, with October the wettest month. Summers can be baking hot, and humidity tends to be high.
The most popular time for a Valencia holiday is during the hot summer months, when the streets buzz with visitors and activities of all sorts. With its warm climate, however, it is possible to travel to Valencia at any time of year and be assured of some sunshine, and some people prefer to enjoy the city out of season when it is quieter, although never dull. March, during the famed Fallas Festival, is a good time for party-animals to visit.
Billed as 'the world's craziest festival' and 'the world's biggest tomato fight', visitors should be prepared to be soaked in tomato juice when this quirky festival gets going. Almost 50,000 visitors descend annually on the tiny village of Bunol, just 25 miles (40km) outside of Valencia, to throw tomatoes at one another in the world's biggest food fight. Begun in 1945, allegedly as a result of a restaurant food fight, it has become a highlight on the summer festival calendar for party-animals, with thousands of people flocking to decimate the loads of tomatoes brought into town on lorries. The street party is worth enjoying even if you don't get clobbered with a ripe juicy fruit. The actual tomato fight only lasts about an hour. Since 2013 the event has been regulated with ticket sales to limit the numbers as the town can only hold so many and the event grows in popularity every year. The tomato fight takes place in the old town, centred on the Plaza del Pueblo. Safety goggles are a good idea to protect your eyes and generally participants choose to be very scantily clad due to the mess. The week-long festival also features live music, parades, fireworks, street parties and cooking contests.
Valencia's spring festival, celebrated since 1871, is the highlight of the year in the city. Close to a hundred enormous wood and cardboard satirical papier-mâché figures are created and erected along the streets by different communities and these creative and comical figures are eventually burnt on the final night of the festival, amid much celebration and jollity in the streets. These huge works of art, called Las Fallas, are invariably beautifully crafted and a lot of effort and thought goes into the theme and execution, with crowds of artists working on each structure. Hundreds of events are organised over a period of several days following the official opening, including flower offerings, music concerts, astonishing fireworks displays, street parties, parades, and bull fights. The five days and nights of the festival are a continuous party, with each day beginning with the lively 8am wake-up call which sees brass bands and merry-makers marching down the streets playing music and throwing fireworks. Many locals wear traditional folk costumes or dress up as historical figures, but anything goes. The festival is in honour of Saint Joseph, whose saint's day is celebrated at this time throughout Spain.
The Metro Valencia has five lines that run to major points within the city, including a tramway to the beach. The system runs from 5.30am to midnight. The city bus system has fairly comprehensive service within Valencia, running from 4.30am to 10.30pm, with additional night buses from 10.30pm to 2am (3.30am on Fridays).
The Valencia Tourist Card offers unlimited use of the bus and metro for one to three days, and can be purchased at hotels and tourist offices. Many people find that most of the city centre can be explored on foot, unless they plan to go to the beach. Taxis are the most convenient way to get around at night; they can be hailed on the street, found at taxi ranks, or phoned. Fares are metered, and rates should be clearly displayed.
A holiday in Valencia offers attractions to suit all tastes, from beautiful beaches right on the doorstep, to a host of museums, art galleries, bars, restaurants and nightclubs, a full calendar of exciting festivals, and historic attractions.
There are some wonderful beaches near Valencia, with favourites like El Saler, El Puig, and Sagunto all less than an hour out of the city; the beaches within the city are less glorious but still good for a swim and a suntan. Valencia has some lovely green lungs as well, including the Antiguo Cauce del Rio Turia park, and the Bioparc Valencia, which is a great zoo.
Historical attractions in Valencia include the ancient Crypt of Saint Vincente, which contains evidence of the city's Visigoth, Roman, and Muslim heritage; the UNESCO-listed Silk Exchange (Lonja de la Seda), founded in 1469; the Valencia Cathedral, which is said to be the final resting place of the Holy Grail; and the beautiful Palacio del Marques de Dos Aguas. A wander through the atmospheric El Carmen district is a must, as is a lazy meal or drink in the Plaza de la Virgen.
With a comprehensive bus and metro system, it is easy to get around Valencia while sightseeing. The metro system is not extensive, consisting of four lines, but covers the major points in the city, including a tramway to the beach. Buses, on the other hand, will get you to just about anywhere. More active visitors can opt to hire a bicycle, and enjoy Valencia's great network of cycle paths. Much of the city can also be explored on foot.