Now that Las Fallas are in full swing, what better time to finally get around to writing about our December trip to Valencia? It’s one of Spain’s largest cities (more on that in a bit), but often overlooked in favor of giant metropoli Madrid and Barcelona. However, what I loved about Valencia is that it felt like an authentic Spanish city while still having plenty to see and do—much the same way I feel about Córdoba. Here are some interesting tidbits about the city I picked up along the way.
1. It’s Spain’s third-largest city
Yep, it’s right up there after Madrid and Barcelona and just ahead of Seville. Its population is around the same as that of my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, which is not at all considered a huge city by American standards.
2. It started off as a retirement colony for Roman soldiers
The area now known as Valencia was founded in 138 BC by the Romans. As they grew older, Roman soldiers who had fought bravely for the empire were rewarded with a new home and land in the region, chosen for its sunny climate and prime location on the Mediterranean. In fact, the name Valencia comes from the same Latin root word as “valiant,” or “brave.” The city continued to grow and the rest is history.
3. You might see and hear a different language being spoken
That would be Valencian, the official local language. Due to Valencia’s location just south of Catalonia, the Valencian language is extremely similar to Catalan. However, unlike the Catalans, Valencians are not particularly interested in becoming an independent country. If you didn’t think to brush up on your Valencian before your trip, no worries. People will be more than happy to speak Spanish with you.
4. Forget about churros and embrace the fartons
Churros and chocolate are one of the most popular sweet breakfast choices in Spain. You’ll definitely find them in Valencia, but the more popular local option is a long, sugar-covered pastry known as a farton. Laugh all you want at the name (hi, I’m Lindsey and I have the sense of humor of a 10 year old boy) but don’t knock it ’til you try it. Fartons taste like a croissant covered in powdered sugar and are positively heavenly when dipped into horchata.
5. Yes, you can get actual paella here
As someone who now works for a Spanish food tour company, I cringe a little bit every time I’m researching restaurants on TripAdvisor for a blog post and see tourists mention ordering the paella at any given place. More often than not, they complain that it wasn’t very good. That’s because, contrary to popular belief, paella is not Spain’s national dish! It hails from the Albufera lake region just outside of Valencia, and the best paellas in the country are still found in and around the city.
It is possible to find a decent paella in restaurants outside of Valencia, but don’t expect any miracles. It’s not something most Spanish people tend to order, but many restaurants keep some frozen for when tourists come in, inevitably wanting the iconic rice dish. No, gracias! Head to Valencia for the real deal (or a restaurant owned by a Valencian anywhere else in Spain). Because paella takes a while to make perfectly, many restaurants in Valencia recommend that you call ahead and order your paella so you won’t be waiting forever once you arrive and get seated.
6. Turrón is Valencian, too.
Spain’s favorite holiday candy bars come from Valencia as well! Unlike paella, though, turrones are popular all over the Iberian peninsula.
7. It’s home to the narrowest building in Europe
Known as “la estrecha” (“the narrow one”), it measures just 107 cm (just a little bit more than a yard) across! Our tour guide told us that the little girl who lived there years ago couldn’t even put on her big, poofy Fallas dress inside her narrow apartment. She had to go outside and get changed in the middle of the plaza with neighbor women holding up sheets for privacy.
8. They have a huge festival where they burn gigantic, elaborate paper sculptures
I’ve mentioned Las Fallas twice now, but what is it exactly? Valencia’s most famous festival takes place in mid-March. Local artisans spend months creating huge sculptures (known as fallas) out of paper, wood, cardboard and other combustible materials. Fallas can be up to 5 stories tall and nowadays are usually satirical depictions of real people from pop culture. During the festival, the fallas are paraded through the streets for everyone to marvel at.
Then on the last night, they burn all of these huge, elaborate creations in a massive finale in the city center.
We were in Valencia in December and the Fallas are happening…now, so unfortunately we didn’t get to see them. However, if you’re in the same boat and can’t make it to the festival itself, check out the Fallas Museum. Each year, a handful of fallas are spared from the flames by popular vote and end up in this museum to be preserved for posterity.
9. Valencia is home to the biggest fresh food market in Europe…
It seems like every city nowadays has a trendy food market, but Valencia’s stands out. With more than 300 stands taking up nearly one square kilometer of space, the city’s Mercado Central is a must-visit. Markets are such neat places to visit, and this one, with its art nouveau decor and aisles upon aisles of stalls, is a true feast for the senses in every sense of the term.
10. …and Europe’s largest aquarium!
The fascinating City of Arts and Sciences is the most iconic set of buildings in Valencia, and each is worth a visit. However, if you only have time for one, make it Oceanografic. This fascinating aquarium will take you on a journey under the sea and take your breath away.
Have you ever visited Valencia? Leave your suggestions for off-the-beaten-path things to check out when I (hopefully) go back!
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