Valencia: The Sunny Spanish City Where Paella Was Born

Spain’s third-largest city has long been neglected by tourism in favor of well-trodden Madrid and Barcelona, but sunny Valencia has been biding her time and is now coming into her own. It’s the birthplace of paella, where the authentic dish is cooked over orange-wood fires. Tree-lined streets teem with oranges (but not the same ones that are squeezed into the agua de Valencia that you’ll sip in summertime). And beaches fill with sunseekers enjoying chiringuitos, where the party stretches into the late hours.

Valencian energy really comes alive, though, during Las Fallas—a festival where the whole city becomes one, 200 pounds of gunpowder unite everyone’s heartbeats, and the streets merge into one huge celebration.

As much as Valencia knows how to party hard, it also enjoys downtime and looking after itself. Cyclists and joggers traverse the city along a winding park that was once a river, and children pass the time with their abuelas sipping horchatas and eating spongy fartons glazed with sugar sold from street carts. You’ll want to experience both sides of Valencia: the traditional and the modern, its frenetic energy and its calm outdoor living.

The birthplace of paella


Paella, arguably Spain’s most famous dish, hails from Valencia—the city’s Albufera region, to be precise. There’s debate as to what constitutes authentic paella. For starters, only two varieties qualify: paella valenciana (made with chicken, rabbit, and lima beans) and seafood paella. Everything else is considered “rice with things.” Paella is normally eaten for lunch, not dinner, and locals love to eat it straight from the pan using a spoon. It’s also the go-to dish for almost every celebration.

Restaurants don’t normally serve paella for one. To avoid disappointment, solo travelers should book at a restaurant with a fixed-price lunch menu (called “menu del día”) and check whether paella is one of the options. These restaurants typically cook a large paella to feed several people and serve portions by the plate. If you’re traveling in a group, you’ll have more options, as paella is typically served for two people minimum and delivered directly to your table to share.

The best paellas are thin, as well as crispy at the bottom; the caramelized rice at the bottom is called socarrat, and some people consider it the best part of the dish. That’s why spoons come in handy, to scrape the socarrat from the pan.

While in Valencia, it’s also important to try esmorzaret, a brunch-like meal where a large sandwich called bocadillo takes centerstage. When it comes to drinks, agua de Valencia, made with orange juice, cava, gin, and vodka, is queen in the summertime. If you’re not into alcohol, try horchata instead, a milky drink made with tiger nuts and usually topped with cinnamon.

Bike lanes and parks around every corner

Thanks to 125 miles of bike lanes, pedestrian squares, and the fact that it was one of the first cities to monitor the carbon footprint of tourist activities, Valencia was recognized as the European Green Capital for 2024. And Valencia’s greenness is one of the first things that you’ll notice on arrival.

Its main park—officially known as Turia Gardens but affectionately called “el río” since it runs along the path of an old river that was diverted due to floods—traverses practically the whole city. On evenings and weekends, this is the epicenter of outdoor activity. Valencians are sporty by nature, and the city’s parks fill up with cyclists, joggers, and yogis alike.

Visitors can get in on the action—and join the city’s sustainability efforts—by renting a bike from one of the many rental centers around town or hopping on a Valenbisi, a self-service bicycle-sharing system that offers a short-term pass for tourists.

The city also has a flat terrain, especially desirable for long-distance runners since 1981, when the Valencia Marathon started. It wasn’t until 2011, though, that runners from all over the world flocked to the race, due to the marathon changing its course to incorporate a stretch by the stunning City of Arts and Sciences complex.

72-hour party people

Valencians have an open and friendly disposition and are known throughout Spain to be partial to a good party. In the ’80s and early ’90s, local nightlife was dominated by La Ruta del Bakalao—a strip of clubs along Valencia’s El Saler highway that attracted revelers from around the country. Characterized by three days of uninterrupted drug-fueled partying, La Ruta is a thing of the past, and thankfully, given the amount of car accidents and deaths it caused.

Still, remnants from those days can be found at modern nightclubs by way of DJs spinning “música remember” (remember music), a subgenre mix of techno, dream trance, and progressive house music that represented La Ruta.

These days, the party scene may be tame in comparison, but there’s no shortage of festivals to enjoy live music, particularly in the summer. (There are even electronic music festivals dedicated to música remember, where 40- and 50-somethings get to relive their La Ruta days.)

It’s no surprise that partying and beach culture collide in Valencia, what with it being on the shores of the Mediterranean. Chiringuitos—seasonal beach bars where people gather after work and on weekends to party into the long summer nights—are a highlight. While the city of Valencia doesn’t allow chiringuitos to set up directly on its beaches, nearby Patacona Beach is home to several lively ones and is easily reached on foot, bike, or public transport.

Watch it all burn down

Every year, the entire city comes together from March 1–19 to celebrate Las Fallas, Valencia’s main cultural festival. In Valencian, “falla” stems from the Latin “facula,” meaning “torch.”

Legend has it that Las Fallas began as a spring clean of sorts: Carpenters would create a bonfire on the day of Saint Joseph, their patron saint, to get rid of wooden shavings and other leftovers in their workshops. As time went by, the leftover wood became grand monuments made up of smaller sculptures called ninotsspecialized artists took over building them, and the night when the burning took place turned into a city-wide affair to celebrate its heritage.

During this time, the town hall roars at 2pm each day as 200 pounds of gunpowder go off for ten full minutes to the beat of a pyrotechnic artist in what is called a mascletà. Thousands of spectators flood the area while kids play with firecrackers in nearby streets and adults set up tents where the revelry will continue well into the night with food and loud music.

Along the Turia Gardens, fireworks are set up and illuminate the skyline. To top it all off, falleros dress up in elaborate period costumes to join religious processions and bands throughout the city that add to the festive mood.

The remains of the day


The city of Valencia dates back more than 2,150 years. Founded as a Roman colony in 138 BCE, Valentia—its original name—translated to “courage” and “strength.” To this day, vestiges of Valencia’s past can be easily seen by walking through historic neighborhoods like El Carmen or peeking into iconic buildings like the Cathedral, where an underground tour brings Roman treasures to the forefront.

In the Ciutat Vella neighborhood, the Almoina Archaeological Museum gives insight into the Roman way of life. Also, the Prison of San Vicente houses the remains of the first Christian basilica built in the Visigothic period (5th–8th century CE), and the San Juan del Hospital Church safeguards part of the spina (dividing wall) of the Roman circus inside the medieval cemetery; historically, the Roman circus was used for chariot races and, together with theaters and amphitheaters, was considered an important entertainment center.

Plenty of other remains can be explored just outside Valencia as well. In Peña Cortada, there’s the Roman aqueduct, a channel used to transport fresh water to highly populated areas. Built in the 1st century CE, this aqueduct—one of the most important in the country—is popular with hikers and can be visited on a guided tour.

An hour north along the coast next to the route of the former Via Augusta (the longest, busiest major road built by the Romans), you can stop by the Arch of Cabanes, one of the few remaining Roman arches in Spain, while on a drive to nearby coastal town Peñíscola, which is known for its 13th-century castle. (Fun fact: Several shots from Game of Thrones season 6 were shot in Peñíscola.)

Neighborhoods of plenty

One of the best things about Valencia is its size—in Goldilocks’ own words, it’d be considered just right. Together with its flat terrain, this makes Valencia a user-friendly city that can be easily explored on foot or two-wheels. Some of the best neighborhoods are located in the center of town and are home to colorful markets worth a wander.

The trendiest neighborhood in Valencia is undoubtedly Ruzafa (Russafa in Valencian). It’s home to some of the city’s best bars and restaurants, as well as galleries, artists’ studios, independent designer stores, vintage shops, and the Ruzafa market, with ample stalls that sell everything from local oranges to French cheese and Mexican salsas.

During Las Fallas, Ruzafa—along with more upscale Cánovas, officially called Gran Vía—is one of the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of fallas monuments and verbenas (street parties). In June 2024, Ruzafa will also host the Russafart Biennale, where the neighborhood’s artist studios open to the public.

Ciutat Vella, the old town, is made up of six neighborhoods, with El Carmen perhaps being the most popular. This well-kept historical area attracts the highest number of tourists—and for good reason. Some of the city’s main pedestrian squares are found here, including Plaza de la Virgen and Plaza de la Reina, along with the Cathedral and the Central Market. While Valencians still live here, Ciutat Vella has one of the highest concentrations of short-term rentals for tourists.

To the south, the City of Arts and Sciences shows a more modern side of Valencia, that of local architect Santiago Calatrava’s iconic landmarks. The Hemisfèric, the Museu de les Ciències, and the Oceanogràfic are home to an IMAX screen, science museum, and aquarium respectively and give the Valencian skyline its unique character. The City of Arts and Sciences has been used as a filming location, typically used to depict futuristic cities, like in Star WarsAndor and Westworld.

Discover Sorolla’s art

Born in Valencia in 1863, Joaquin Sorolla was a prolific painter who left behind some 2,200 works. While his name isn’t as widely recognized outside of Spain as some of his contemporaries, such as Dalí and Picasso, Sorolla had a unique talent for capturing Spain’s essence through art. His mastery of light and color, often depicting sunny landscapes and vivid cultural scenes, remains celebrated in his home country.

Visitors to Valencia can admire Sorolla’s art up close at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Benlliure House Museum. Other cultural centers housing his works include The Generalitat Palace and the Bancaja Foundation.

To see some of the landscapes that inspired Sorolla’s paintings, visit Jávea, a town located about 70 miles south of Valencia. If you take a stroll down the boardwalk, you’ll even bump into a sculpture of the maestro himself.

A once forbidden language

During dictator Francisco Franco’s rule (1939–1975), Castilian Spanish was championed as Spain’s national language and so the Valencian language (similar to Catalán) and all other autonomous languages were forbidden. Since 1982, Valencian has been declared a co-official language in the Valencian community and is now taught in schools, provoking a sense of pride amongst its speakers.

These days, Valencian and Spanish coexist seamlessly throughout the Valencian community. Signage appears in both languages, and if you visit some of the nearby pueblos (towns), you’ll hear a lot more of it. In fact, it’s common for valenciano parlantes (people who speak Valencian) to use Valencian as the primary language spoken at home.

Still, while everyone who speaks Valencian also speaks Spanish (and won’t have a problem switching if they notice that you don’t speak it), not everyone who speaks Spanish will speak Valencian fluently. It is, however, required for those wishing to become funcionarios—coveted government positions that provide job stability.

Good to know

Is Valencia expensive?

Valencia is generally an affordable place to visit. A three-star hotel will run around $150 per night, while you can snag a hostel bed for about $30. For a sit-down dinner in a mid-range restaurant, you can expect to pay about $35 per person for a full meal (including wine). For cheaper meals like fast food or a bocadillo (sandwich) in local bars, you can fill up for under $15. The priciest activities will be around $90, but if you skip those, you can generally have a great time for under $100 per day.

Best time to visit Valencia

Valencia has over 300 days of sunshine a year, meaning it’s a wonderful place to visit year-round.

August can get a bit too warm, and Valencians head to the coast for breezier weather. The winter months of December to February can get a bit chilly, but nothing compared to northern European climates.

What languages are spoken in Valencia?

The main languages spoken in Valencia are Spanish and Valencian. Tourist areas like Ruzafa and El Carmen will have more people speaking English, but people who don’t work in tourism aren’t likely to speak English in the rest of the city.

Valencia with kids

Valencia is a very family-friendly city thanks to its many parks and attractions, such as the Gulliver Park playground, Oceanogràfic aquarium, and Bioparc zoo.

Valencia public transportation

Valencia has a robust public transit system that includes buses, trains, and trams. The trains and trams don’t service the whole city though, so depending on where you’re staying, you might be better off taking the bus.

Is Valencia safe?

Spain ranks #32 out of 163 countries, according to Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index. Valencia is considered very safe. However, as with most cities, it’s important to be aware of pickpockets that steal bags and other valuables, especially when they’re left unattended in the Turia Gardens. Make sure you always keep your valuables close, even if you’re lounging in the park.

Written By Jennifer Fernández Solano

Freelance Writer

Jen started her career 15+ years ago as a magazine editor in Mexico City. She moved to Australia for her master’s degree in Publishing and Editing, landed a job at Lonely Planet, and has been working with travel brands ever since. Since relocating to her native Mexico, she’s been writing for Lonely PlanetForbes Travel GuideMarriott Bonvoy TravelerCondé Nast TravellerThe Independent, and others. She currently splits her time between Mexico City and Valencia, Spain.

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