The world’s most fascinating cities tend to be either overflowing with ancient ruins like Rome and Athens, or are the embodiment of modernisation like Singapore and New York.
Few aged cities manage to balance their ancient history with the 21st century, but Valencia, Spain’s 3rd largest city, pulls it off.
Squeezing Valencia’s broad range of modern, cultural, and historic attractions into one visit is no easy task. My list of the 17 best things to do in Valencia will have you gorging on paella and sipping wine in the sunshine to contemplating an elusive sip from the Holy Grail.
Before we look at what to do in Valencia, let’s start with how you should do it. Make a serious dent in your ‘to do in Valencia’ list and save money at the same time with a Valencia Tourist Card (VTCard) for discounts on entry tickets, shopping, tours, and food and drink.
Choose a 1, 2, or 3-day pass. The card is also your public transport ticket for the valid days, providing access to Valencia’s local subway and buses. Your VTCard also comes with a handy map, marked with included attractions and their discounts.
A 3-day VTCard costs €22.50 when bought online and can either be sent to your home for a small postage charge or be collected from any Tourist Information Office in Valencia. I collected mine from the Tourist Information Office at City Hall.
1) Tour the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia
Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia proves you don’t have to be an opera fan to enjoy a state-of-the-art opera house. I booked a 50-minute guided tour to learn about this futuristic building shaped like a giant Spartan helmet. The opera house is the largest building in the City of Arts and Sciences complex at over 40,000 sqm and 75 metres high.
Our guide explained the building’s history, from its design and construction to its opening ceremony in 2005 by Queen Sofia, plus information about its daily operations. The 4 theatres within the building seat more than 3,500 people. I was amazed at the attention to detail that produces flawless acoustics, including beechwood walls to absorb sound, tiered seating like an ancient Roman theatre, and leather chairs crafted by the same company that makes Ferrari interiors.
10% off with the VTCard. Tours run 5 times a day Monday-Saturday, and 3 times a day on Sundays.
Tour guide explaining the origins of the opera house
2) Step into the Future at Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe
The architecture of the Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe is equally as impressive as the Opera House. This time, the building is shaped like a giant whale skeleton, with long hallways, high ceilings, and endless glass windows. Pick your jaw off the ground long enough to get inside and purchase your tickets before dropping it again at the remarkable exhibitions inside.
The permanent exhibition is a fascinating exploration of language. Visitors are given a smart card in their native language which can be used to translate the displays. Exhibits include the origins of language in humans and animals, the origins of human ancestors like Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, and even the effect language has on a newborn baby’s cry.
Most displays were interactive and suitable for all ages. Outside the permanent exhibit were more entertaining science displays for kids, like an ant farm and newly-hatched baby chickens. Temporary exhibitions covered the Mediterranean Sea and the exploration of Mars.
15% off with the VTCard. Open 10am-6pm Monday to Thursday, and 10am-7pm Friday to Sunday.
3) See Sharks at Oceanogràfic València
The water lily-shaped Oceanographic building is also contained within the City of Arts and Sciences. It’s a massive complex filled with all kinds of marine life. Exhibits accurately recreate the animals’ natural habitats, such as the Mediterranean Sea. Species in the Mediterranean Sea exhibit included sea horses, sea urchins, starfish, lobsters, and various species of jellyfish.
Other exhibits contained sea creatures from further afield, like walrus and beluga whales in the Arctic exhibit and sea lions and turtles in a tropical exhibit. And the highlight was the Pacific Ocean where you could walk through a Perspex tunnel surrounded by sharks swimming freely in the expansive tank.
The one downside of this place is that I can never eat calamari again! We saw these adorable little squids swimming around in their tank and learnt all about their lifecycle. I spent 3.5 hours in Oceanographic but could have easily spent longer.
15% off with the VTCard. Open 10am-6pm Sunday to Friday, 10am-8pm on Saturdays.
4) Eat Paella by the Beach
Paella is one of the most famous Spanish dishes, and it originated right here in Valencia. You’ll be bombarded by restaurants serving all variations of paella, but the trick is to find the best ones and dodge the tourist traps.
Hint: avoid the seafood. This dish was created for tourists. Traditional Valencian paella is served with chicken, rabbit, or venison.
My recommendation for the best paella in Valencia is found outside the city centre in Albufera, also known as the birthplace of paella. Book a 5-hour day trip to Albufera National Park where you’ll learn about the history of the region and its current farming practices. Then cruise the tranquil lake and take a well-deserved lunch break to taste the best paella around. Literally. This restaurant won the world championships of paella.
If you don’t fancy the trek, there are plenty of good paella restaurants inside the city. I recommend dining along the beach for blissful views to go along with the authentic Valencian food. My favourite beachfront paella restaurant was La Pepica.
5) See the Holy Grail at Valencia Cathedral
That’s right, the actual, real, authentic, genuine, bona fide Holy Grail! Well… let’s use the word probable. Many Holy Grails around the world claim to be the Holy Grail, but Valencia’s is believed by many (including the Pope) to be the real deal. It’s found within Valencia Cathedral, which is an incredible sight to see in itself.
Tour this stunning stone building with a free audio guide providing an in-depth history into the cathedral and its design, construction, and refurbishment after being partially destroyed during the Spanish Civil War.
The Cathedral was built over roughly 750 years. As a result, it displays 3 different architectural styles – Baroque, Gothic, and Romanesque. As well as the magnificent architecture, you can see various relics and exhibits in the Cathedral museum, amongst those, the Holy Grail.
If you’re feeling energetic, you can climb up 207 steps to the Cathedral’s Gothic bell tower for a panoramic view over the city.
10% off with the VTCard. Cathedral open 8:30am-8:30pm daily. Cathedral Museum open 10am – 6:30am.
6) Cycle Through Jardín del Turia
Valencia’s cultivated an active cycling culture, so there are lots of places offering hourly or daily bike rentals. It’s the perfect way to fit lots of sites into a short amount of time. Peddle over to Jardín del Turia, an old riverbed that’s now a park passing directly through the city’s historic centre. This long path surrounds you with beautiful scenery and nature.
Stop at Pont de les Flors, or “Flower Bridge”, in Turia Park for gorgeous views of brightly blooming flowers lining both sides of the bridge.
10-20% off bike rentals with the VTCard.
7) Cheer for your Favourite Football Team at Mestalla Stadium
Spain has no shortage of world-class football teams. Valencia is a top team that plays at Mestalla Stadium, the 2nd oldest stadium in Spain and the 5th largest in terms of capacity. Buy tickets to see an exciting match there or take a tour of the stadium.
The tours, in Spanish and English, guide you all around the complex, including the VIP seats, President’s box, and even the King’s seat. You can go down to the pitch and sit on the bench where Valencia substitutes sit during matches.
You’ll also head inside to see the team’s trophies and to learn more about the history and construction of the stadium. Delve into the players’ dressing room and then upstairs for the stadium’s museum where there are more trophies and examples of the team’s old kits, boots, and footballs.
10% off Mestalla Stadium Tour with the VTCard.
8) Taste Valencian Wine on a Wine Tour
Spain isn’t just known for its great food, but also delicious wine. The Utiel-Requena wine region is a must-visit for wine lovers. It’s the largest wine region in the area and home to the Bobal and Muscat grapes. Tour the wine route and vineyards, tasting some world-class wines while you’re there.
Valencia’s Central Market is the largest fresh produce market in Europe, so it’s a must-see while you’re in town. The highlight here is a drink called orxata (pronounced “or-sha-tah”), made from a tiger nut called Chufa. Since the nut is too hard to bite, it is traditionally soaked in water and then added to a mixture of sugar and cold water to make the orxata drink.
Central Market, where it is made fresh every day, is the best place to try this drink. Another delicious tradition is to dip fartons into orxata, which are a kind of long donut.
Open 7:30am – 3pm Monday – Saturday.
10) Walk amongst Roman Ruins at Museo de la Almoina
Valencia’s history goes as far back as 138 BC when it was a Roman colony for retired army officers named Balentia. You can explore ruins and Roman baths dating back to this era at Valencia’s archaeological museum. View the sights, from ruins to artefacts, including ceramics that look as good as new. And explore history from the Visigoth and Islamic periods of Valencia.
Free entry with the VTCard. Open10am-7pm Monday to Saturday, 10am-2pm Sundays.
11) Stand in a WWII-era Bomb Shelter at Bombas Gens Art Centre
The Bombas Gens Art Centre has an eclectic mixture of art and history on display. Current exhibitions showcase Japanese photography over the decades, focusing on how the context of each piece impacts it. And another exhibition showcases over 20+ years of works from Indian artist, Sheela Gowda.
But the most fascinating part for me was the underground air-raid shelter used during the Spanish Civil War. This shelter was built to protect factory workers, providing refuge for up to 40 people. You can learn about the construction and usage of this shelter by booking a tour while you’re there.
Free entrance. Open from Wednesday to Sunday: 11am-2pm and from 4pm-8pm.
12) Walk through Medieval Gate, Torres de Serranos
Like many cities in Europe with a long history, the original settlement of Valencia was once fortified by strong city walls. While this is no longer the case, two of the original 12 gates into the city still stand. Torres de Serranos is a grand Medieval structure built in the 14th century. Walk through this impressive gate and even climb up it for lofty views over the old city.
13) Learn the History of Valencia at the Museum of Municipal History
Valencia’s Museum of Municipal History is found within the Town Hall. Definitely check this out at the start of your visit for a quick download. The building itself is also a beautiful sight, featuring old marble columns, a stained-glass ceiling, and crystal chandeliers. You can also see interesting artefacts, like ancient books and the original keys to the city.
The Town Hall and Museum are free to enter. Open Monday to Friday, 9am-3pm.
14) See Lemurs and Giraffes up close at Valencia Bioparc
My favourite zoos and wildlife parks are the ones where the animals roam freely. Valencia Bioparc is a perfect example of this. Large enclosures are separated by rock walls, moats, or cattle grids. Others are enclosed by glass walls but with open ceilings so the animals aren’t too closed in.
There’s something to appeal to everyone, with a range of birds such as flamingos, pelicans, and ostriches. African mammals include giraffes, elephants, rhinos, zebras, cheetahs, and gazelles. There are also impressive primates, like mandrills and gorillas.
The highlight for me was the lemurs that roam freely about the park, along the paths and in surrounding trees. The park has an unflustered vibe and it’s heart-warming to see the animals so relaxed and free.
15% of with the VTCard. Open 10am-6pm every day.
Lemur in tree
15) Experience Valencia’s Golden Century at La Lonja de la Seda
The 14th-15th centuries were a golden age for Valencia. The population grew and the economy flourished thanks to silk production and trading. You can learn more about this period in Valencian history at La Lonja de la Seda, which was essentially the Wall Street of the 15th century.
An audio guide takes you through the context and history of the Golden Century. The building itself is the best example of gothic architecture from this period, which is filled with inspiring art including a sculpture of a man mooning.
Free entry with VTCard (normally €2). Open from 9.30am-7pm Monday-Saturday, 9.30am-3pm Sunday.
16) Dine on Tapas at El Corte Ingles Shopping Mall
No trip to Spain is complete without tapas. With your VTCard, you can enjoy a free tapa and glass of wine at El Corte Ingles shopping mall. There’s an El Corte Ingles right in the Old Town of Valencia, and another near the City of Arts and Sciences where you can enjoy spectacular views over the aquarium and riverbed park.
Free wine and tapa with VTCard. Open 10am-10pm daily.
17) Buy an Authentic Spanish Fan to Take Home
Finally, what souvenir are you going to take home from your trip? Fans are an icon of Spain thanks to the traditional Flamenco dance. Spanish fans might make a memorable souvenir, but you have to search high and low for a genuine Spanish-made fan, as 99% are made in China.