My sister went off to Spain for a college semester abroad when I was 14, and she stayed for a full year. When she finally did come home, she refused to change her watch back to Eastern Standard Time because she wanted to be reminded of Spain every time she looked for the time. The fact that my sister was willing to do math dozens of times a day, just to be reminded of somewhere, really stuck with me. I thought, “Spain must be awesome.”
Here’s a rundown of my typical day: ice cream, sangria, meeting fun random travelers and locals, horchata, paella or tapas, sangria, going salsa dancing with people I met earlier, even more sangria and clubbing until dawn.
I’m not going to say that the best part about Spain is the low drinking age, because I think that might be offensive to some Spaniards, but as an American teenager, showing up and being able to drink whatever I wanted – and it tasted SO GOOD – was just amazing.
Flash forward to five years later, when I was visiting for the very first time, and I never wanted to leave, either. I’ve been all over Spain, but I have to say that Valencia is my dream city.
A lot of people go to the big museum here, the City of Arts & Sciences, but it’s beautiful from the outside, too, so if you don’t want to pay entry fares for the different areas (like the aquarium full of sea creatures… not my personal favorite) then just walk around this architectural delight and enjoy it. From the outside, from the inside, it’s a stunner. And who knows, you might learn something, but that would probably include going inside.
The main beach here is Playa de la Malvarrosa, but stay away from it if you want to have more privacy. It’s a 10-minute trip from the city in a cab heading due east, or figure out the bus or tram routes. This is the default beach spot, but there are plenty of other areas, too, with a lot fewer people on top of you while you try to get a tan.
There’s a really great food market here called Mercado Central Valencia, so grab picnic necessities here at jaw-dropping prices. It’s the freshest on weekday mornings. If you’d rather pop a squat at a café and grab some tapas, they’re smattered through the market, as well. I can’t think of anything I like more than Spanish ham and fresh Spanish strawberries or oranges. If you think Florida and California fruit is good, you won’t believe how great the produce is, here. I love the fresh, pure juice drinks that cost one or two euros here, though they’d cost double that in America. Seriously, this place is Heaven.
Plaza Ayuntamiento, which is Valencia’s Central Square, is probably at the very top of the list for Valencia’s iconic sights. Yep, that’s the one with the fountain and palm trees I posted a picture of at the top. It’s so grand looking and it’s a central point to start from, for museum-hopping or shopping.
The Valencia Cathedral has so much history, it’s really worth at least walking around. This austere building has been in the hands of Roman Catholics, Moors and Christians, so there are a few different architectural styles to check out, including doors from each era. A fancy cup many believe is the Holy Grail is displayed here. In case you haven’t seen an Indiana Jones movie in a long while, I’ll refresh your memory: that’s Christ’s cup at the last supper.
After a long day of walking around very famous places and not going in, I want to drop off my tourist books and head out to have fun. The first place I always head is the Plaza de la Virgen, a spot in the center of town that parties morning to night. Barrio del Carmen is the more general name for the area, but this specific plaza absolutely stole my heart.
Valencia is just like a lot of other cities in Spain in that young partiers just hang out on the street, drinking and meeting each other, until about midnight. If you’re an outgoing person, you might not even end up paying a cover charge for a club – you might meet some new buddies standing around a plaza. It sounds odd, as an American, to imagine that kind of a scene, but it feels really natural and safe when you’re there. My Spanish is pretty terrible, but a lot of people there are international students, and the Spaniards speak English impressively well…. Which makes me feel even worse for not speaking Spanish!
I will say that at night it’s hard to get a cab to drop you right at the plaza because the whole place is so busy with people (which is always a good sign), so ask your cabbie for walking directions to the Plaza de la Virgin from wherever he drops you off. You know it’s the place when you see a massive church. There’s a big flat area where people sometimes put on performances (I watched a guy do an Olympic-quality rollerblading routine in a tiny spandex outfit). Sit under an umbrella-topped table and grab some ice cream or sangria – or better yet, both.
Valencia is backpacking at its best – for the price of a scoop of ice cream, you can take in the stunning old buildings, the beautiful, tanned people, and meet plenty of new friends. And although it’s a great experience during the day, I have to say it’s even better at night. The lighting in the Plaza de la Virgen square area is divine… the only way to explain it is a golden glow. Prepare to take your new profile picture because everyone looks their very best at night in this place.
If you’re splurging, there’s a restaurant right on the plaza with scrumptious seafood paella, fish soup to die for, and more creative, less traditional food as well.
And if you haven’t tried horchata, give it a go. The cafes will have it, and if you take a walk through the neighborhood, there’s even a shop that specializes in the nutty, milky beverages. Horchata’s actually made from ground almonds, but it tastes like a dessert.
For partying, Johnny Maracas is salsa heaven (Calle Caballeros 39). Their sangria pitchers are tasty and potent and by this point I’m usually just chucking my straws into the serving dish and forgetting about cups. Dance with your friends, dance with strangers, just go for it.
And when that place shuts down, take a short walk to Piccadilly, a super late-night club that stays open until morning (5 Embajador Vich). I’ve partied in a lot of epic clubs, and even I was impressed by this place. Inside it looked like the Thunderdome on ecstasy… lots of caged wire and red lighting. Plus the drinks were strong.
No trip to Valencia is complete without something truly random happening. So wander the streets talking to happy strangers, and don’t go home until you see the sun. Hand on heart, during my last night in Valencia a policeman lunged out of a basement window, snorting like a pig at me… only in Valencia.