More than 2000 years of history have shaped Valencia's eclectic barrios, where atmospheric music bars and inventive restaurants are now springing up. Valencians are proud of their paella and passionate about politics, a fervor that ignites the city during Las Fallas festival in spring. But Valencia is far more than just a pitstop for partygoers – it packs a cultural punch too. Here are the top 15 things to do in Valencia.  

1. Admire avant-garde architecture in the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias

Futuristic and otherworldly, this cultural complex designed by renowned local architect Santiago Calatrava underpins Valencia’s reputation for innovative design. Begin with a guided tour of the Palau de les Arts, the towering white opera house that cantilevers over an azure pool, then track down the answers to any burning questions about the world in the science museum. Its "Chromosome forest" does a great job of explaining how genes work. 

2. Discover Valencia by bicycle

Flying along the extensive network of cycle lanes is the most practical – and enjoyable – way to get to grips with Spain’s third-largest city. Navigating is easy; much of Valencia is organized around a grid system and the wide boulevards are mercifully flat. The city also has its own bike sharing scheme, Valenbisi, which allows users to hire a bike and return it to different spots around the city. Once you’ve hired a bicycle, wheel toward the Jardines del Turia, a 5.6-mile (9km) stretch of greenery that curves around the eastern flank of the city.

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People picnic on the grass under a palm tree in a wide open garden overlooked by medieval towers
A visit to Turia Gardens is one of the best things to do for free in Valencia © FotografiaBasica / Getty Images

3. Picnic in the Jardines del Turia

Best free thing to do in Valencia

When a flood devastated Valencia in 1957, urbanists decided to reroute the river away from the low-lying city center and transform the riverbed into a garden. The Jardines del Turia links the Bioparc – a zoo full of African wildlife – with the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias. In the afternoon, the park is an ideal spot to esmorzar (to lunch in Valencian) beneath the palm trees or return on rollerblades at sunset to cut shapes with the young crowd who skate to reggaeton.

4. Head to the beach

With nearly 12.5 miles (20km) of long, sandy beaches to choose from, it is no wonder that the city decamps to the coast at the weekend. Busy Playa de las Arenas, a delightful freeway of soft, muscovado-colored sand just north of the port, is the city’s most accessible stretch of shoreline. 

This is where friends gather around a cool box of cervezas and where grandparents on deckchairs keep a watchful eye on children happily building sandcastles. So grab a cocktail from a chiringuito (beach bar) and lie back on your deckchair. Further north, Platja de la Patacona is more low-key. Only the seagulls will disturb you here – and the occasional cheer from the beach volleyball courts.

5. Taste a traditional paella

Valencia is the home of paella and feasting on the saffron rice dish at lunchtime is a Sunday ritual. Eat your fill at La Pepica – Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spot – or venture out of town to El Saler, a village by the L’Albufera natural park. It was these floodplains where the Moors grew rice in the 8th century, paving the way towards the creation of Spain’s most famous dish. Traditionally, ingredients in a paella are sourced from the land, so be prepared to swap the seafood for rabbit and snail. 

6. Explore the old haunt of painter Joaquín Sorolla

Sun-soaked El Cabanyal is Valencia at its prettiest. Situated next to the ocean, this working-class barrio of low-rise, tiled houses was once a fishing village. The impressionist painter Joaquín Sorolla was born here too. His former home – Calle de las Mantas, 8 – has a small plaque outside. Crane your neck outside Carrer del Mediterrani, 37 to see a mosaic of an oxen dragging a fishing vessel out of the ocean. It is reminiscent of the scene the Sorolla painted in Sol de la Tarde (Afternoon Sun). 

Slightly dilapidated but utterly charming, the quarter is a favorite with locals, unlike more gentrified parts of the city. Let your hair down to live music at La Fábrica de Hielo, a former ice factory. A few blocks away, the gourmet food trucks at Mercabanyal attract the cool kids, so get ready to join the line – even on a Sunday.

A square lined with historic stone buildings and a large fountain in the center. People are pausing for photos and to enjoy the architecture
Don't miss Valencia's Ciutat Vella, the historic center, home to a 13th-century cathedral  © vale_t / Getty Images

7. Experience old Valencia in the historic center

The Ciutat Vella ("Old City") is Valencia’s soul. Wind through tranquil plazas towards the cathedral, a 13th-century masterpiece that was once a mosque and before that, a Roman temple. Inside, great stone archways draw the eye upwards to a glorious fresco that depicts frolicking cherubs in gold leaf. After the baking heat of the city, the cathedral’s sacrosanct depths are something of a balm, for mind and body. Climb up the El Miguelete bell tower for one of the best views in Valencia. 

Not enough Gothic architecture for one afternoon? Imagine Valencia as it was during the Golden Age inside La Lonja – the old silk exchange that was at the heart of the city’s wealth in the 15th century. Indeed it was a Valencian banker who coughed up the funds for Christopher Colombus’ voyage to the Americas.

8. Celebrate creativity at Las Fallas and Festival de les Arts

The arrival of spring brings Valencia’s biggest, boldest fiesta. Las Fallas is an unbridled display of creativity, color, and endless fireworks, with a political twist. The fiery frenzy lasts for 19 days and finishes with the Cremà; when figurines of political figures called ninots (Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have featured in the past) are set ablaze. 

Valencia lights up again in June during the Festival de les Arts, an epic weekend of bands and electronic music held in the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias.  

9. Try tapas by a Michelin-starred chef at the market

No trip to Valencia is complete without a trip to the Mercat Central, an arresting modernist building that dates back to 1928. Peruse the food stalls in the morning then stop for gourmet boccadillos (sandwiches) and tapas at Central Bar. The buzzy, zero-kilometer eatery is run by Ricard Camarena, a mega-chef on the Valencian culinary scene whose restaurants have won Michelin stars. Prices here are higher than elsewhere in the city but worth paying. 

People sit outside a bar at tables and chairs in the evening
Top areas for nightlife in Valencia include Ruzafa, El Carmen, and Benimaclet © bortnikau / Getty Images

10. Wander around Ruzafa

With its picturesque townhouses and new-wave coffee shops, this barrio is popular with Valencia's growing expat community. The former working-class district now buzzes with young people who are drawn to its fusion restaurants, wine bars, and late-night spots. 

Hints of Ruzafa’s roots remain in the market, housed in a squat building in the central square. The neighborhood is sleepy during the day, then livelier come nightfall. If you are looking to meet people, this is the place to visit. Try Gave Mx for cocktails then head to La Escuela de Ruzafa for live music and flamenco. 

11. Eat at a traditional bodega

There is a reason why Casa Montaña has been around since 1836. Now one of the city’s best-known restaurants, food here is consistently excellent and the dark wood interior transports you to old-world Spain. Try the anguila ahumada (smoked eel), typically hauled out of the L’Albufera, a freshwater lake. Wash it all down with a glass of Bobal, a light, fruity regional red.

12. Listen to jazz in El Carmen

Best thing to do at night 

If you are looking for things to do once the sun goes down, head to the El Carmen barrio. The meandering alleyways are frequented by a bohemian bunch and the neighborhood is home to several music bars. Jimmy Glass is one of the best, with a stellar line up of Spanish and international groups and a jazz festival in the fall. Clap along to jam sessions at L'Ermità or shimmy to rock, folk, blues, and more at Peter Rock Club.

13. Ponder the artworks of Spanish Masters

Culture vultures should not miss the Museo de Bellas Artes, the second largest art gallery in Spain and easily recognizable by its splendid cerulean dome. Mull over artworks by Joaquín Sorolla, Francisco Goya, and El Greco, plus one of only two self-portraits that Diego Velázquez ever painted.

14. Visit Benimaclet in the evening

Away from the main square, Benimaclet lacks the heritage architecture found in other parts of the city, but the district’s lively spirit makes up for it. In any one of the numerous bars that spill onto the pavement, try Agua de Valencia, a deceptively lethal cocktail composed of orange juice and various alcohols. For dinner, share small plates at La Pata Negra or nibble pinchos at El Carabasser. La chufa (tiger nuts) are grown near here too. The superfood is the key ingredient in horchata, the sweet, milky drink served in Valencia’s horchaterías.

15. Visit one of Europe’s largest aquariums

To the southeast of the city center, the Oceanogràfic rises from the former Turia River bed like a monster from the deep. This curved, hyperbolic shell-like museum was once Europe's largest aquarium until Nausicaá, on the Boulogne-sur-Mer seafront in France, was expanded. 

Home to dolphins and sharks as well as the continent’s only pod of beluga whales, it's easy to lose an afternoon here. Your ticket money helps to fund conservation research and a rescue program for stranded marine life. However, it is worth noting that research suggests keeping cetaceans in captivity is detrimental to their welfare.

You might also like:
The 12 top free things to do in Valencia
Find the day trips from Valencia that were made for you  
Best parks in Valencia: how to go green in the Spanish city  

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