The sunny coastal city of Valencia, Spain offers offbeat cultural attractions that make it ideal for a short break or an exciting place to perfect your Spanish.
Most Spain-bound American tourists will limit their journey to the classic itineraries including Madrid, Barcelona, or Bilbao, maybe squeezing in Seville or Grenada. They will not be disappointed. But on the Mediterranean coast, south of Barcelona, the ancient coastal city of Valencia has much to offer traveling families and the weather is beautiful throughout the year.
Let’s start with the true treasure, paella, born of Valencia and served here in abundance. This famous Spanish rice dish has many variations, but is most often a baked casserole of rice mixed with seafood, chicken, and sausage. There are many local non-paella rice dishes, with arroz (rice) paired with many wonderful and imaginative vegetables, meats, fishes and more. You’ll find many varieties in the restaurants along the shore ( La Pepica and L’Estimat are highly regarded). Ask your hotel concierge for guidance.
Getting to Know Valencia
Valencia is Spain’s third largest city with a charming old town of both Gothic and Renaissance architecture, mixed with major modern architectural monuments. Public transportation makes it easy to get around, but most visitors enjoy creating their own walking tour of the historic area.
Begin your walk at the central Plaza de la Virgen, easily found by the wonderful bronze Neptune and his maidens topping the large Turia Fountain. There are many places to explore here, including the main Cathedral of Valencia, churches, and a museum of Roman antiquities (note the Colosseum like structure).
Valencia’s Top Family Attractions
Most visitors head first to one of Europe’s most advanced zoos. The Bioparc Valencia encompasses a 25-acre campus housing 4,000 animals of 250 species. No cages are found here as the animals live in environments free of visible barriers.
In the architecturally stunning City of Arts and Science, you’ll find the Oceanographic , Europe’s largest aquarium with seven different aquarium environments within the complex. In addition, there is an underwater tunnel with sharks above, a dolphin aquarium, and a “touch” pool where kids can get in the water.
While at CAS, families should check out the Hemispheric, a planetarium and IMAX theater. School age children will appreciate the Prince Felipe Museum of Science.
Ready to take a break? Grandparents, parents and kids alike will awe at the Mercado Central, one of Europe’s grandest food markets. Don’t miss the fragrant oranges of the region, famous throughout the world.
Spring & Summer Festivals in Valencia
Spring brings the fantastic Las Fallas Festival (in March), centered on the Plaza de la Virgen. Giant paper-mache creations (fallas) representing cartoon characters, politicians, celebrities or animals, are erected in plazas throughout the city and are ultimately paraded around the streets before being burned in a huge bonfire. Miniatures of these giant creations are also made and the best of them can be seen in the Fallas Museum.
During summer visitors have time to explore much more of Spain. If you have a sailor in the family, it’s the time to enroll them in one of the local sailing schools. If everyone in the family would like to study Spanish, Valenica has a number of noted Spanish language schools that will arrange homestays or furnished apartments for students. Many are certified by the Instituto Cervantes, a cultural organization that matches students to the right programs. Although the locals typically speak Catalan among themselves, the schools teach the Castilian Spanish most kids study in school.
And there are more cultural festivals. On the last Wednesday of August, you’ll want to take the whole family to the town of Bunol, nearby Valencia, for the world’s biggest food fight.
In the midst of a week-long festival, crowds participate in a one-hour massive tomato-throwing funfest. Trucks dump huge amounts of tomatoes onto the streets and the people take it from there. A tip: snorkel masks are commonly worn to keep the tomatoes out of the eyes. At the end of the appointed hour, everyone and the street get hosed down by water hoses and all carry on with the festival.
Located on the Mediterranean coast south of Valencia you’ll find Terra Mitica. From April to December, this large theme park offers a variety of rides and nearly 80 shows a day. Count on hours of family-friendly entertainment, including water rides for those notoriously hot days. Major rides have smaller replicas for young children. Grab the kids and go for a ride on the Magnus; Colossus, the longest wooden coaster in Europe! The attractions are divided into themed areas representing Rome, Greece, Iberia, The Islands, Oceania and Egypt. Take advantage of their reduced group admission with the Family Pass.
If you're making the trip to Benidorm, this very touristy and popular seaside resort area also boasts a nature park, Terra Natura and a summer time water park called Aqua Natura.
Valencia Trip Planning Details
Valencia can now be reached by the high-speed train from Madrid, AVE, in only 90 minutes and for only a few euros more than normal service. Spanish trains are so sophisticated and fast that a rail pass is a good way to get around. There are two stops on the Valencia to Madrid AVE: Requena and Cuenca, a region where visitors can do tastings at several of the local wineries.
And speaking of passes, don’t overlook the Valencia Card , one of the good value discount city cards. It’s available at the airport, train station, City of Arts and Science and at many hotels. For more information about the entire region of Valencia, known as Comunitat Valencia, visit the Comunitat Valenciana website.
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