A buzzing, culture-rich city that has brilliant beaches too? Spain’s third largest city – Valencia – ticks all the boxes for a short family break away.
Valencia sits on the south-east coast of Spain, and you can fly directly to it from a select few UK airports. All of them were hours away from us in Cardiff though, so, with our younger son who’s 14, we opted to take a flight to Alicante from a local airport, then opted to ‘take the train in Spain’ the rest of the way, booked via the easy to use trainline.com app. The journey from Alicante to Valencia on a high-speed, spacious Renfe train through the sun-baked countryside took a pleasant hour and a half before we arrived at the beautiful Art Nouveau station Valencia Estacio Nord.
From there it was a twenty minute walk to our holiday apartment; first along the wide and grand marble-flagged streets of the city, then onto the more historic warren of narrow medieval streets that make up the oldest and most-happening quarters of the city Ciutat Vella and Barrio del Carmen, where we were staying.
Our family-friendly apartment was in the beautiful gold and white-fronted Palacio de Rojas – a recently renovated building of comfortable and stylish flats that can accommodate smaller families of three to larger broods of nine.
A small bar downstairs offered complimentary cold drinks, coffee, beer and even champagne to be enjoyed in either the air-conditioned interior or garden at the back of the building. Plus, there’s a reception area manned by really helpful staff who gave us some personal recommendations for where to eat and what to do.
Our first stop, they told us, was a swift must – a visit to the Mercat Central (central market) before it closed at 3pm. A five minute walk away, this big modernist building designed in 1914 houses hundreds of stalls filled with all sorts of fantastic fish-life, locally grown fruit and veg, bakeries, butchers, and delis. For an authentic lunch amid the hustle and bustle of shoppers, we’d been told to pay a visit to the Central Bar by Ricard Camarena (a Michelin-starred chef, no less) serving delicious tapas, daily specialities and bocadillo type sandwiches washed down with wine. You will have to queue but it’s worth the wait.
There’s plenty of ancient architecture to admire in Valencia, not least the nearby Gothic-style La Lonja, now an Unesco Heritage Site but originally Valencia’s Silk Exchange. A short walk from away is the square – the Plaza de la Virgen – surrounded by yet more impressive architecture including La Catedral which is, amazingly, home to the Holy Grail.
But there’s only so much sightseeing you can do before refreshment calls and in Valencia, that means partaking of their unique speciality drink – horchata. It’s available in lots of cafes but we headed for somewhere that really knows their craft and who have been making it for over a hundred years – the Horchateria de Santa Caterina.
Made from tiger nuts and plenty of sugar, the drink (which looks like an iced latte) comes served with long icing sugar-powdered bready dipping buns called (keep a straight face please, children) fartons.
The drink is headily sweet and ice cold, making for a good way to cool down (and get a huge sugar rush and boost of energy too!)
Don’t miss a walk or bike ride along the city/s nine-kilometre long Turia Gardens. The meandering greenery – dotted with parkland, playgrounds, ponds, skate parks, jogging and cycling lanes plus football pitches – follows the path of the Turia riverbed, which used to flow through Valencia. After a devastating flood in 1957, the government diverted the flow of the river and, in the dry riverbed, created this length of greenery which locals use in their droves to escape the city.
At one end of the Turia is the city’s Bioparc – a zoo that’s gone to great lengths to create pleasant and natural habitats for the animals – and it makes a nice day out. It’s probably as close as a zoo can get to convince you that you’re getting a sneak peek of creatures in the wild without boundaries. Take a break in a café right alongside the giraffe and zebra enclosures and delight at baby monkeys clutching onto their mums or elephants taking a bath.
At the very other end of the Turia is Valencia’s stunning City of Arts & Sciences, a collection of spectacular futuristic buildings mostly designed by the world-famous Valenican-born architect Santiago Calatrava. Our son recognised one of them which had been used as a setting to film an episode of Doctor Who (set in the future of course).
There’s plenty for children to do in this area. We spent several hours enjoying the hands-on exhibits at the Museo de las Ciecias Principe Felipe Science Museum, then onto the Hemisferic, a planetarium and IMAX cinema.
Valencia is blessed with miles of beautiful beaches a short 3km bus ride from the city centre. The fine sand and safe bathing of La Malvarossa and Las Arenas Beaches might get busy but as the sands stretch over 4km, you should find some space to set up camp. The Paseo Maritimo promenade is lined with market stalls and further south you’ll find plenty of cafes and restaurants.
Valencia invented paella so you simply have to sample this delicious rice dish at least once while you’re here. After a tip-off, we headed for the beachfront terrace of La Pepica – a restaurant that’s been around for 120 years and a favourite haunt of the writer Ernest Hemingway in his heyday. Another top spot is the Panorama Restaurant situated atop the pier of the Marina Real Juan Carlos. We were warned to book ahead and were lucky enough to bag a spectacular table on the terrace looking out onto the Mediterranean and the stretch of beach. Book your spot just before sunset for a view to remember.
Valencia makes a great city break away for families and if you pair it with a stay in nearby Costa Blanca resorts such as Denia or Gandia, your whole brood will be more than happy.
All images: Alistair Heap
We travelled from Alicante to Valencia with tickets booked via thetrainline.
We stayed at Palacio de Rojas with global accommodation provider Booking.
The Valenica Tourist Card is a great way to get around the city – offering free public transport on the bus, metro and tram zones ABCD as well as free entry to certain museums and discounts of up to 50% in participating shops and restaurants. You can buy it online here.