Valencia is often overlooked by visitors who flock to Madrid and Barcelona or the beach resorts. The America’s Cup and Formula 1 race events helped raise the profile of Spain’s third largest city, but it remains an undiscovered gem to many foreign travellers. For anyone weary of fighting the crowds, this is definitely a plus.
Named for Roman Emperor Valens, the city was founded in 137 BCE. Visigoths, Moors, Christian reconquistas and civil war each left their mark on local history, imparting a distinct culture and language. A thoroughly modern Valencia coexists alongside cherished antiquities and traditions.
Much of this history is colourfully reenacted in the many annual festivals held in every town and village in the region. The brightly costumed rituals and processions that go on for days are almost always accompanied by deafening fireworks displays called mascletas. Fallas is the biggest of the fiestas, an annual Valencia-wide festival held each year, from early to mid-March. The final week features giant constructed figures in every neighbourhood, daily pyrotechnics, processions with period costumes and marching bands. Bonfires, known as la cremà, which consume the figures on the last night, get so big that firemen hose down the surrounding buildings.
Del Carmen (or Carme) is at the heart of the old city, filled with buildings dating to Roman and Moorish times and bounded by Torres de Quart and Torres de Serranos (remnants of the city walls) to the west and north. Mercat Central (the central marketplace) is to the south, Plaça de la Verge (Virgin Square) and Plaça de la Reina (Queen’s Square) are to the east, with the cathedral between them. Here at the centre of the Roman city, the temple of Diana once stood. The old district is a warren of narrow twisting streets, glorious medieval architecture, and grand palaces and courtyard gardens you’d scarcely know were there until glimpsed through an open door. It’s hardly a surprise this picturesque area and nearby streets contain so many of Valencia’s gay restaurants, cafés and clubs. Ruzafa (Russafa) has another smaller gay district, beyond North Station and the Bull Ring.
What to do
Besides Fallas, the Nou d’Octubre (Oct 9) festivities, and celebrations for Three Kings Day are good times to see the pageantry of Valencia. A lively recent addition to the region’s annual festival schedule takes place in Buñol, a 40-minute train ride away. La Tomatina now attracts 40,000 mostly college-age foreign visitors in August for one of the world’s biggest food fights: an hour-long tomato-throwing, T-shirt-ripping melee with tons of ripe fruit — preceded and followed by international partying in the bars, the streets and the parks. A quieter recent celebration took the form of an art exhibition of works by native son Joaquín Sorrolla y Bastida, whose paintings vividly depict traditional Valencian life (see New York’s Hispanic Society of America and Museo Sorolla, Madrid; for information on other regional celebrations and day trips to surrounding towns, mountains and beaches, click the links at the bottom of this page).
For locals, two of the most popular pastimes are following the local Valencia CF football (soccer) team or going to the colloseum-style Plaza de Toros (els bous al carrer in Valencian) next to North Station. Traditional spectacles of colour, costumes, ritual and music, the bullfights take place during just three periods each year, during religious holiday festivals. As with football, bullfights are covered on local TV for the curious who want to avoid crowds (and blood), and the commentaries and interviews help in understanding what’s going on.
Dining out and nightlife
Spain famously runs on different time from elsewhere in Europe. Businesses usually close at 2pm and may not reopen for two or three hours, as people head home or go to the cafés. In the heat of summer this is sensible. After reopening, the stores stay open until 8 or 9pm, so dinner between 9pm and midnight is the norm. Families with small children, who in other countries would have long been in bed, spend relaxed evenings together around outdoor tables late into the night. As afternoon cafés close around midnight, some nightclubs aren’t yet rolling up the steel shutters.
These many terrazas have outdoor tables that bars and restaurants spread around the neighbourhood plazas and along sidewalks. One of the great pleasures of Spanish social life, they provide tourists with gathering places in the small squares and narrow streets of El Carmen, and many stay open all afternoon. Outside downtown tourist areas, a beer or copa de vino usually costs only $1.75 or so. Plaça de la Verge, one of the grandest and most popular, has an impressive atmosphere, but the cuisine here is mostly middling. Grab a coffee, ice cream, beer or an orxata (sometimes horchata) in summer or thick hot chocolate in winter — then venture deeper into Carmen for better food in back streets.
Valencians’ preference has long been for traditional local fare (paella, tapas, pochuga, seafood and ham) with the occasional shawarma, pizza, Chinese or American fast food. Recently, things have been changing, with more international and vegetarian restaurants popping up, mostly downtown.
Several cafés within a few blocks of Carmen’s Plaça de Tossal comfortably include gay folk among their customers, especially after midnight on weekends when these streets begin to teem. Among these is Café Sant Jaume (Caballeros 51, at Sant Jaume), which features carved-wood ceilings, pleasant outdoor seating beneath expansive trees, and good views of all who pass by. Ca Revolta (Santa Teressa 8; carevolta.org) is a “very Valencian” café/bar and community centre between Plaça del Tossal and el Mercat, offering live music, theatre, film screenings, photography/art exhibits, poetry readings and dance performances.
On hot summer nights many people head for the long wide beach that extends northward from the harbour, easily accessible by metro during the day but requiring a taxi by 2am, when the throng arrives. It’s a young and seemingly “straight” crowd that spills out of seasonal dance clubs here, onto the sand. But defining lines blur easily as the weekend partying extends into dawn-time hours.
For some guys, saunas are the main attraction, and Valencia has three. Magnus Termas (Avinguda del Port 27), Pases Group, spa, steam and dry saunas, large pool, Jacuzzis, video lounge, dark room, maze, cruise spaces and cabins, voyeur zone. Olimpic (Vivons 15) also Pases Group, steam and dry saunas, Jacuzzis, cruising area, dark room, cabins, maze and video lounge. Thermas Romeo (Pintor Gisbert 5), independent bathhouse, dry sauna, steam, bar, cabins, video lounge and professional massage. Also see Sex Romeo above.
Under the heading “relax” (or “sex,” at its least complicated) there are a number of shops for gay men in Valencia. The most popular of these erotic bookstores is Spartacus Erotic Gay Shop (Flassanders 8, near Central Market), cabins, dark room, porn videos, magazines and accessories.
Valencia Airport has a few arrivals direct from North America, but the best deals arrive at Madrid, Barcelona, London, Paris or Zurich, with connections from those cities. Most European and Mediterranean airports have air connections here. Check the low-cost carriers, such as Easyjet, Ryan and Vueling, for cheap special rates to scores of European cities, if you book ahead and travel light.
The modern Metro rapid transit/subway trip takes 30 minutes into downtown for 2 euros — but you pay another euro for the rechargeable fare card. Hang on to that — it’s needed to exit at your destination station and saves you a euro on your next, or return, trip. Taxi cabs, found just outside the arrivals terminal, charge around 20 euros to the city centre.
Car rentals are available at the airport, but parking is difficult in town, and impatient and aggressive local drivers are irritated by outsiders who go slow to read street names. Day trips to surrounding areas are less stressful, and short-term visitors may use a home country driver’s licence. Reserve in advance online, especially in season, to guarantee a car, and for best rates (local companies often beat the big guys for price).
RENFE at North Station rail has regular and high speed AVE connections to Madrid and regular service to northern cities like Barcelona, with connections to the rest of Europe. Regular-speed one-way trips cost between 35 and 65 euros, depending on time of day and seat class.
Buses and coaches arrive at and depart from the Central Bus Station just north of the Turia. Among the bus companies here ALSA will get you to and from Barcelona and towns to the north, or Alicante and points south; Avanza connects with Madrid — in each case for as little as 25 to 35 euros.
Metro subway trains, trams, EMT buses or short taxi hops will get you to most places easily enough in Valencia. Most of the old city can be covered on foot, and many streets are pedestrian-only. During Fallas much of the centre is closed to traffic for a week or more. Save the electronic ticket from the airport; it can be recharged. Plastic smart cards, either bus-only or combining bus and Metro, can be bought or recharged at tobacco stores or news kiosks: 10 trips for about half the normal price, with a one-time initial charge for the card. They allow you to jump on and off buses for up to 60 minutes in any direction for just one fare. Bus drivers accept cash for single trips, without the transfer option. For more information on city and regional public transport, in Valencian, Spanish and English, see EMT.
Bicycles may be rented from Valenbisi for a few minutes, or by the hour or the day, from street stands all over town with the swipe of a card (see website for purchase). They’re free for the first 30 minutes, so on arrival return it to one of many stands, then take another when moving on or returning. For longer trips, your credit card will be charged.
Taxis may be hailed in the street; most have meters. Figure from 6 to 12 euros for most hops around the centre. Traffic jams are rare except in case of accidents.
Street signs here are often in Valencian (similar to Catalan in Barcelona or Sitges) rather than Castillian Spanish — as the community restores the local language to preeminence. Don’t be confused to see both Plaça or Plaza, Avinguda or Avenida, or Sant Pere with or instead of San Pedro — they’re the same. To avoid confusion, we’ve used the Valencian names you’ll see in the streets, but many businesses still use Spanish.
Spain’s official currency is the euro. Since the switchover, the once-familiar change booths have mostly disappeared, except at the airport. Banks will usually change dollars, but most close by 2pm, (open weekdays only). There are ATMs everywhere, so use your debit card for cash with better exchange rates. Check with your home bank before leaving to be sure credit card transactions go smoothly, and to save the ATM charges if your bank has a Valencian network partner. Also, unless you tell your bank you want otherwise, there is a daily cash limit. Having a credit card with a chip (and pin number) can help when buying tickets in machines, and most places check passport ID as they take your card in stores or restaurants.
For the official city tourist website, see valencia.es, with content in eight languages.