City of surprises: a weekend in Valencia

Awesome sights, an unexpected festival, interesting food and amazing weather… could Valencia be the perfect city break destination?

Just like our trips to Ljubljana and Plitvice, Valencia made it to my travel wishlist thanks to Pinterest. I wasn’t sure what we’d do beyond seeing the City of Arts and Sciences but I booked the tickets anyway and off we went.

Read more: Seven reasons you must visit Valencia >

The first lovely surprise is how accessible the city is from the airport. The metro is very clean and easy to use and our hotel was very near Colon metro station. Just half an hour or so after leaving the airport we were checked into our hotel.

The second lovely surprise was our hotel, the One Shot Colón 46. I’d liked the look of the midcentury-ish furnishings and the location had looked pretty good but it was better than we could have hoped for – a couple of streets from the start of the old town and really near the Turia park (more on that later). And oh my goodness the bathroom was to die for!

The third and best surprise was that we’d inadvertently booked our trip for one of Valencia’s biggest festival weekends. Not the more famous Falles festival but the festival of 9 October which commemorates the re-taking of Valencia by King Jaime in 1238 and has a lot of interesting events for tourists.

The Valencian flag flying from the 14th century Torres de Serranos

We’d arrived during the early evening of 8 October and when we left our hotel to get something to eat in the old town we immediately noticed that there were a lot more people on the streets than we might have expected and a real party atmosphere. Bars and restaurants spilled out into the streets and in the square beside the Cathedral images from the story of Valencia was being projected onto the town hall. The crowds were waiting for the first spectacle of the 9 October festival – a huge fireworks display at midnight in the Turia park marking the start of the historic day.

The next morning we were woken up by a brass band practicing on the street below. We went out for a walk and some breakfast before heading down to the City of Arts and Sciences but we couldn’t help but notice how many people were carrying Valencian flags. Across the Plaça de la Reina we could see people with banners and brass bands gathering so we waited around to see what happened. At midday they set off on a parade through the town.

The morning parade on 9 October – Día de la Comunidad Valenciana
Valencians march to celebrate 9 October – Día de la Comunidad Valenciana

After the parade we walked a few streets to the Turia gardens. This long park used to be the riverbed of the River Turia but after severe flooding in 1957 the river was diverted further to the south and the riverbed became a park. It’s a really lovely place and it’s obvious that Valencians really enjoy their park – on the sunny Saturday we were there it was full of cyclists, joggers, families enjoying picnics, dogs enjoying their own special part of the gardens and even a trainee tightrope walker. It’s still really clear that it used to be a river – the old bridges still cross the park.

One of the old bridges that used to cross the River Turia – now a park running through the city

About 20 minutes walk from the old town along the river bed you start seeing something strange peeking out above the trees. This is the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by Santiago Calatrava in the 1990s. It looks great on Pinterest but being there is like actually being in the future (or to be precise being in Star Trek).

Our first sight of the City of Arts and Sciences

The buildings hold an arts centre and concert hall, museums, an IMAX cinema, an aquarium and an open-air garden/gallery, but the main attraction is the buildings themselves. We were completely awestruck.

The City of Arts and Sciences
The City of Arts and Sciences
The City of Arts and Sciences

After we’d seen the parade that morning we’d done some Googling and found out that there was another, more theatrical parade that evening, so we tore ourselves away from the City of Arts and Sciences and walked back along the riverbed to the old town.

At the corner of Carrer de la Pau we joined the crowd lining the streets and watched the parade commemorating the Christians driving the Moors out of Valencia in the 13th century. Apparently this parade has taken place every 9 October for hundreds of years and these days starts at around 5pm. There were a lot more Moors than Christians in the parade, probably because they got to wear better costumes.

The evening Moors and Christians parade on 9 October
Belly dancers during the evening parade
Groups parade through the streets in lavish costumes

The parade winds through the old town before finishing on Avenida del Marqués de Sotelo at around 9pm. We went to see the end of the parade and it was amazing to see the effort that had been put in by the musicians (especially the drummers who looked absolutely exhausted as they ended the march with a flourish).

We dedicated the next morning to seeing the old town. It’s mostly pedestrianised and a lovely combination of wide streets, garden squares and tiny alleyways. The circular north end of the cathedral and the fabulously ornate Palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas were definite highlights.

Valencia Cathedral
Palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas

At the northern tip of the old town we got another surprise – through the Torres de Serranos, on the 16th century Pont dels Serrans, a medieval-style market was taking place. There were minstrels playing medieval music, medieval-style food and stalls selling sweets, art and leather goods.

Minstrels at the medieval fair (or should that be fayre?)
Making paella at the medieval fair

To the south end of the city, beyond the castle-like Estacio del Nord is the Russafa neighbourhood – the “hipster” part of Valencia. Unfortunately it was late afternoon and everything was closed! This was our only big disappointment during our trip, but it was our own fault for visiting during siesta time. Still the pastel-coloured Brutalist Mercado de Russafa looked pretty in the late afternoon sun.

The Mercat de Russafa in Valencia’s “hipster” neighbourhood

But Valencia had one last surprise. I’d read that you couldn’t leave Valencia without trying horchata – a refreshing, sweet drink made from tiger nuts and served with fartons – long fingers of sweet bread to dip in the horchata. And that the best place to get horchata was Horchatería Daniel, in the Mercado Colón, near our hotel.

The gorgeous Mercat de Colón

This old market has been transformed into a foodie destination with more casual cafes and shops on the ground floor and fancier restaurants in the basement and was a real find. It’s an absolutely gorgeous Modernista building which wouldn’t be out of place in Barcelona. And the horchata? Surprisingly delicious…

Drinking horchata and trying fartons at Horchateria Daniel

We stayed at: Hotel One Shot Colón 46

We saw: A vision of the future, unexpected parades, riverbed gardens

We ate: Fartons

We drank: Horchata

Have you visited Valencia?

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