When Dan and I realized we had 5 and a half days to visit Spain after my conference in Barcelona in March, we immediately started brainstorming where else we could go. By the time Dan arrived, I would have already been in Barcelona for a week, and Dan was inclined visit other cities.
We thought about the South of France (Toulouse, Montpellier, or even Nice) but ultimately decided it was a lot of traveling for the short amount of time we had. Madrid would have been the obvious option since it was just a short 3-hour high-speed train ride away from Barcelona, but we also briefly considered Zaragoza and Sevilla. Ultimately, once we found out Valencia is the birthplace of paella, that made our decision.
Although you can take a train from Barcelona to Valencia, we decided to rent a car for the road trip experience. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that we would have to pay $70+ in toll fees roundtrip…but we got to see a lot of the countryside, which was beautiful! And it was a huge bonus to be able to stop in Sitges along the way and wander around at our own pace.
In Sitges, we didn’t do much except walk along the beach, look around the Church of Sant Bartomeu & Santa Tecla and eat paella and sardines at a seafront restaurant that looked fairly touristy…though I still thought it was some of the best paella I’ve ever had, Valencia included. We probably spent around 2.5 hours here, but we wished we had time to stay for a few days and lounge around the cute seaside town!
Three hours later–a straight shot down the E-15 and many tolls later–we arrived in Valencia. We only had a short 2-night stint here, but we still tried to pack in as much as possible. Below are some highlights from Valencia!
- Central Market/Mercado Central: This was essentially Valencia’s version of La Boqueria, though it’s mostly indoors with much more restrained hours (8am-2:30pm daily, closed Sundays). We had fun wandering around and picking out snacks for brunch and the road trip back.
- Orio: The buzzy atmosphere is what drew us into Orio, and we were intrigued by the unusual system of ordering. You can select some bites from an array of premade “pinchos” or little bites like a mini croissant sandwich, mini tarts, and mini tartines topped with smoked salmon, slices of Spanish tortilla, and you keep the toothpicks on your plate for charging at the end (kind of like at a sushi boat place).
- Mi Paella en El Huerto (cooking class): SO FUN! Dan inadvertently booked a private paella cooking class for us, so we got tons of time with the instructor. A car came to pick us up from our Airbnb in the morning to drive us to the farm where the cooking class was located, The translator gave us a mini tour of the farm and surroundings (an orange farm) before we started cooking (this post has some amazing photos and is a fantastic recap of the experience!). Paella uses TONS of olive oil and you basically half-fry a lot of vegetables and the meat before you add the rice. Flat green beans, white beans, rabbit and chicken are actually the most authentic version of paella–the only other ingredients we used were grated fresh tomato, bomba rice, olive oil, salt, paprika and saffron. If you ever see chorizo in paella, you’ll know it’s not authentic Valencian paella. However, an all-vegetable vegetarian paella is also one of the popular, authentic versions of paella since vegetables were easiest to access back in the day. I’ll post a recipe someday, but it was a great experience! They fed us appetizers halfway through the cooking process (roasted peanuts, one of the best tortilla espanolas I had on the trip, cheese, olives and sausage) which was nice but completely unncessary as we ended up cooking enough paella to serve 6.
- Horchateria Santa Catalina: Horchata is a milk-like drink typically made with rice, sugar and water in Mexico–in Spain, it’s more often made with tiger nuts as opposed to the rice-based horchata that I can find in Texas (originating from Mexico). We made a stop at this horchateria that my friend had visited during her trip to Valencia for horchata and an ensaimada, a fluffy, sugar-dusted pastry that my friend had been raving about (unfortunately, ours was not stuffed with cream as she had instructed us to find). The horchata was thick and sweet, but not quite something that either of us loved. Still, I think it’s worth a visit to try horchata, and this horchateria also offers fartóns, or slender sticks of pastry that you can get stuffed with chocolate or vanilla cream, churros and chocolate, gelato and more.
- Arroceria La Valenciana: On our last night in Valencia, we were combing the web to find one last paella place to use as a comparison to our home-cooked paella. This place was highly ranked on TripAdvisor and cute inside, but I was disappointed. Our seafood fideua (a noodle version of paella) was just a bed of cooked noodles with just a few pieces of seafood laid on top (rather than being cooked into the paella). There wasn’t a good crust on the bottom of the dish and the seafood didn’t taste fresh. Listing this just as an FYI that I would NOT return here!
- Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias: After our paella class, our driver kindly dropped us off at the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, or the City of Arts and Sciences museum, which is one of the top attractions in Valencia. We didn’t end up going in, but even walking around the interior was fun–there’s lots of cool architecture and a few sculptures. We took a nap in the nearby park, and then took a meandering walk along a bunch of parks back to our Airbnb.
- Bike tour: Dan also booked us a bike tour, which I always love as a great way to see a lot of a city with a local. I can’t remember the name of the tour company, but I generally look on TripAdvisor or just Google to find a highly rated bike tour company. During one stop, the tour took us to an awesome cathedral next to a churro stand frying ropes of fresh churros, which was obviously a highlight.
- Accommodation: We stayed at this Airbnb, which seemed pretty centrally located (it was a 5 minute walk from the Mercado Central and near a bunch of shops and restaurants. Our host, Jaime, was very friendly and gave us a bunch of recommendations for things to do. Highly recommend!
For more information on what to do in Valencia, I highly recommend checking out Along Dusty Roads–I read all of their Valencia posts after I got back and it made me wish I could have spent another week in Valencia!