Spending a week in the beautiful Spanish city of Valencia is akin to being bathed in the very kindest of light, all day long. I’m no professional photographer, but taking pictures in this place is a dream. The clear white light means everything looks crisp and much of the architecture (especially in the old town) has a wonderful golden tinge, which then seems to soften everything it touches. Add to this the slightly faded grandeur of the place and you have a truly photogenic location. Located in the south eastern Almeria region, Valencia is Spain’s third largest city and as far as tourism goes, is a lesser-known contender behind Barcelona and Madrid. This makes it all the more fascinating, as it’s not overrun by tourists like much of coastal southern Spain. I hate the word, but it feels very authentic – a busy working city with stuff going on. We’ve travelled a fair bit in Spain with and without children (Seville, Cadiz, Jerez, San Sebastian and more) and love it all, but Valencia was pleasantly different. Walking along some of the dense tree-lined boulevards in the sultry evening heat reminded me of being in parts of Lima or Arequipa in Peru. There was a faint tropical air to the place. Although we went in the summer, it would also make for a brilliant autumn or winter city break.
Wander deep into the old town and you might be lucky enough to find a wall daubed in street art or an ornate door to peer behind and into a lush courtyard garden beyond. As such, it’s a fabulous city to get lost in. But not TOO lost. We took a wrong turn one evening and stumbled into an area and an atmosphere that could only be described as ‘fruity’, with ladies of the night plying their thing and other shady transactions under way. We didn’t feel threatened, just a little on edge – especially with our children in tow. A quick left turn and we were back on track. Like any big city, Valencia has its fair share of problems and it was very sad to see a number of beggars on the street in the centre – a tragic sign of the times.
What Goes On
Valencia is not all labyrinthine backstreets, palm trees and grand central boulevards. A short bus ride from the historic old town and you have groundbreaking modern architecture – enough to make children and adults gawp in awe. Another reason for us choosing the city. With two boys, there had to be enough activities to keep an 8 and 10 year old happy and engaged. So here are my top 5 activities for pre-teen kids in Valencia:
- The City of Arts and Sciences – a cultural and architectural complex with an opera house, IMAX cinema, a museum of science, and L’Oceanografic – the largest oceanographic aquarium in Europe. These breathtaking, futuristic and other-worldly structures designed by Felix Candela and Santiago Calatrava, are ideal for spending a day in or just admire from afar. They are huge by the way so you won’t be able to visit them all in one day. Either way you’ll be impressed. Our boys loved the aquarium. A brilliant homage to the worlds’ oceans and with a focus on education, conservation and ecology.
- Valencia also has a long, wide, sandy beach (La Malvarrosa) – again a short hop on the Metro or bus from the city centre. A European blue flag beach with lifeguards stationed at various points, means it’s an ideal place to take children. There are plenty of comfy sun loungers and umbrellas to hire for only 13 Euros a day for a family of four. Conveniently located behind the beach are many restaurants, the majority specialising in paella – THE dish of Valencia (the real paella is made with chicken AND rabbit – who knew?!) Valencia’s climate is also fantastic, hovering around 28 degrees C the whole time we were there (August), but with a light, warm breeze.
- There are dozens of excellent museums and galleries to visit in the city. We bought a 72-hour Valencia Tourist Card online, which entitled us to free transport, and free or discounted entry to certain museums, galleries and churches. http://www.valenciatouristcard.com/en/home. Highlights included; IVAM (Valencia Institute of Modern Art). My eldest and I absolutely loved this place and lost ourselves in the exhibits and installations. Museo de La Almoina (Archaeology Museum) – situated behind the cathedral, this was so impressive. It’s a beautifully designed mix of the remains of Roman Valencian buildings and modern installations such as a glass roof at street level, with water flowing over it. The Toy Soldier Museum in the Barrio Del Carmen area of the city. I didn’t go in but my boys told me it was fantastic – it’s also housed in a beautiful historic building. The Museum of Natural Science in the Park Jardins del Reial. A real little gem of a place – nice and compact too. A favourite for the boys. Much of it is aimed at children with plenty of dinosaur and animal bones and interactive exhibits.
- Valencia Cathedral and the “Holy Grail”. This statement is firmly in inverted commas. Whether it’s the genuine holy chalice or not, the very idea tickled us all and we made like Indiana Jones and/or Monty Python and went to see it. It turned out to be a fun and very moving experience, as light streamed into the room where the supposed Holy Grail stands. The cathedral itself is incredibly beautiful and also has an excellent museum upstairs housing religious art and the like.
- The Turia Gardens. An impressive urban park which runs 9km through the entire city and is the largest in Spain. The gardens were repurposed from the old Turia River which used to bisect the city but was diverted after a flood in the 1950s. We went and played football here a few times with the boys and they also used some of the numerous playgrounds, while we sat in a shady spot. You can also hire bikes there.
Valencia is a foodie paradise. We stayed near the Mercado Central (central covered food market) which was such a treat. If you like food and food culture, it’s a dream to potter around and soak up the noise and atmosphere of this bustling area. Its architecture is also a sight to behold – just be sure to look up and take a camera. It’s a great place to snaffle lunch on the go – with empanadas (spanish filled pies), salads, cheeses, chorizo, sandwiches with unusual fillings and fresh fruit to take away. There are also manifold great value cafes, restaurants and food stalls around the market’s perimeter. Be sure to try the delicious sweet Horchata drink (made from tiger nuts) while you’re here. Sold chilled from stalls on the streets, it’s insanely cooling and refreshing in the heat of the day and is a speciality of the city. For the less touristy cafes and restaurants, head to the Calle de Caballeros, Barrio Del Carmen or La Tassa areas – plenty of tapas bars there and good for people watching.
From the huge array of shops (independent and big chains) to the little hidden squares housing trendy boutiques, there is just SO much to investigate. You can also escape down a quiet side street and find an old-fashioned shop specialising in just one (sometimes random, usually beautifully made) thing. I loved these little places the most and especially their window displays – wigs and silk handkerchiefs or Panama hats – it was like a step back in time. If you like big shops, then El Corte Ingles (the closest equivalent would be Selfridges here in the UK) is a fabulous department store to explore. We had a drink and some tapas at their shiny, old-fashioned bar (filled with Valencianos) in the top floor restaurant early one evening and it was a wonderful pit stop.
We stayed at the Vincci Mercat Hotel in the heart of Valencia Old Town. http://www.vinccimercat.com. It’s modern and boutiquey with good design and has recently undergone a re-fit. The rooftop lap pool and bar with views of Valencia’s rooftops were deciders for us, as was the option to book interconnecting rooms. As such we had our own little corridor with a front door that we could lock leading to the two separate rooms for ourselves and the children. This meant we could have our privacy and some quiet from the boys, knowing they were safe next door and this made a big difference in terms of relaxation. Those of you who’ve been bunched together in a hotel family room with children who are even SLIGHTLY older than a toddler will know what I’m talking about. The swimming pool was small – disappointingly so for our two boys, but fine for us. However they still made the most of it and used it most days. The first day, in their exuberance, they did manage to splash a few poised and polished couples having cocktails at the bar – oops (yes, the area is pretty compact) but they soon simmered down after a day or so. 😉
Vincci Mercat Hotel lobby.
Anyway – I hope you enjoy the pictures of Valencia above and below. They were all taken with my i-Phone 7 plus, but I plan to start using my new pro mirrorless Olympus camera soon to take the blog photos. Once I work out how to use it that is 😉 If you have any ideas for city breaks and with older children in tow, then do share them in the comments below. xx
Above: Breakfast at the hotel.
The Dome roof of the covered food market.
A street in the old town.
Cute or slightly sinister?
Just another beautiful ceiling in a church…
Typical Valencian rooftop vista.
Street art in the old town.
Post Siesta coffee stop.
Just one of the lovely shops in Valencia.
Dusk is a beautiful time in this city.
The little rooftop pool at the Vincci Mercat.
The charming rooftop bar area at the hotel.
Happiness is… walking around a warm Mediterranean city.