As Iberia celebrates 75 years of service this month to Spain’s third largest metropolis, it’s kind of amazing to see how this great, ancient city astride the Mediterranean has managed to breathtakingly reinvent itself whilst simultaneously preserving so much of its impressive history, architecture, and culture – adding up to a remarkable urban package indeed.
How about we start with the old. As in the really, really old: the Plaza de la Virgen (below, in Valencian, Plaça de la Mare de Déu), with the remains of the forum of Roman Valentia founded by Decimus Junius Brutus. This square, where during Moorish rule a mosque once stood, is now the site of the cathedral, originally 13th-century Gothic but enriched over the centuries with elements of the Renaissance, the Baroque, and neoclassical. Don’t-misses: the Gothic Apostles Gate, the Romanesque Almoina Gate, and a climb up the 207 steps of the Micalet, the Gothic belfry which affords some nice views over the Ciutat Vella (old city) and is one of the symbols of the city.
That view will reveal the spires, domes, and rooftops of the venerable likes of the nearby 15th-century Basilica of Our Lady of the Forsaken, as well as the Santo Domingo Convent, and churches including Santa Catalina, San Nicolás, and San Martín (all dating from the 13th century, right after the final Christian reconquest of the city from the Moors; it had been famously but briefly retaken in the 11th century under the forces of the famous Castilian knight El Cid).
Then lose yourself in the Barri del Carme, the grid of narrow streets surrounding the cathedral, stopping at a sidewalk café for a café or perhaps an horchata, the milky, quintessential local soft drink, made from ground tiger nuts. If you keep strolling, you’ll eventually come up against the medieval city walls, including a pair of old city gates, the Torres de Serranos and the Torres de Quart.
Other downtown highlights not to miss include La Llotja, the 15th-century, UNESCO World Heritage Silk Exchange; the Modernist-style Mercat Central (1928), a marvelous market for foodies and photo ops; and the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (City Hall Square), with its elegant Modernist and Baroque buildings.
Then there’s the modern side of Valencia, with some of its major landmarks along the old river bed. Have a stroll or bike ride, for example in the enormous Turia Garden, a which includes Gulliver Park, a kiddie area where the hero of the famous Jonathan Swift novel is reimagined as a huge jungle gym of sorts. And farther along is the complex for which the city has become recently most famous, thanks to its striking architecture by Valencia’s now world-famous Santiago Calatrava: the City of Arts and Sciences (top), which includes the Hemisfèric (IMAX cinema), Science Museum, and the Océanografic, Europe’s largest aquarium.
Heading up a bit of north of town, colourful houses lend an extra-lively air to Playa de la Malvarrosa, a beach where one of Valencia’s great painters, Joaquín Sorolla, painted some classic summer scenes in the early 19th century. Have a seat at one of the beachside eateries and enjoy the sun and sea breezes while you have a paella (a Valencian invention, of course), and for desert, horchata and fartons, local confections resembling spongy, elongated doughnuts. It doesn’t get more Valencian than this.
Back in town, visitors should also not miss the current hip part of town: Russafa, once an independent town, but as Valencia grew it became incorporated, became a working class neighbourhood, and more recently has acquired a hip, multi-culti vibe that recalls SoHo in London or New York City’s East Village, with good, affordable restaurants, indie shops and nightspots, and so on. (See more in our Russafa post.)
Cool, indeed. Roll over, Decimus Junius Brutus, and tell El Cid the news…
- Valencia has more than 809,000 inhabitants.
- Valencia’s Mediterranean climate means hot, humid summers and mild winters.
- More information: VisitValencia.com
- Iberia flight deals from the U.K., from the USA.