“Look at this beautiful Mediterranean puzzle,” exclaimed our tour guide at the top of the hill, pointing to the lush landscape below. Olive groves, orange trees, vineyards, and patches of 2,000-year-old virgin forest enveloped the area. To the east were muelas (molars), rocky hills prevalent in Valencia, a city located along the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian peninsula (in a province also called Valencia). The birthplace of paella, Spain’s Valencia region is rich in history and culture with medieval villages, magnificent castles, serene coastal towns, and one of the country’s most vibrant cities. Here, the legacy of the Iberians, Moors, Romans, and Christians resonates in centuries-old buildings, and remnants of life from thousands of years ago linger in the craggy mountains.
A visit to Valencia leaves one appreciating the natural and cultural beauty of a historic place. Bike your way through the old and new parts of the city, sip olive oil made from millenary olive trees (at least 1,000-years old), taste traditional paella, and travel back in time to medieval times as you stroll through narrow streets and up winding paths to fortresses.
There are a ton of things to do—and eat—in the Valencia region. Here are ten to get you started:
1. Take a walk through history, Valencia
The coastal city of Valencia, founded by the Romans in 138 B.C., is packed with cultural sites and historic buildings with Moorish, Christian and Roman influences. In the Old Town, you’ll be surrounded by ancient buildings un-ravaged by war. The Silk Exchange Market, a UNESCO World Heritage Site called La Lonja, built during Valencia’s golden age in the late 15th century, was a place for merchants to trade silk produced in the area. With its stone walls and palm-tree-shaped columns reaching for the golden stars on the ceiling, it’s a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. In the southern part, the North Station (Spanish: Estació del Nord), opened in 1852, takes your breath away with its Modernist facade and lobby adorned with scenes of the countryside brought to life with ceramics, a beautiful legacy left behind by the Moors.
No visit to the city is complete without admiring the 13th-century Valencia Cathedral, also known as Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which took 500 years to complete. This Roman Catholic church, located between the Plaza de la Reina and Plaza del Virgen, features Romanesque, Renaissance (the chapels) and Baroque (main entrance) styles. Gothic style dominates the rest of the construction, including the octagonal bell tower that can be seen all over the city.
2. Shop at Valencia’s famed markets, Valencia
The city’s famed Central Market (Spanish: Mercado Central), built in the early 20th century, is the oldest market in Europe with an iron and stained glass structure decorated with ceramics. Its 8,000 square meters include 300 stalls selling fruits, vegetables, fish, olives, cheeses, and wine showered by natural light streaming through the large windows.
Tip: The best time to shop is on weekdays before the market closes at 3pm.
Colon Market (Spanish: Mercado Colon), with its Art Nouveau construction built in the early 20th century, is especially worth a visit for its colorful Gaudi-inspired facade and selection of elegant stalls.
Tip: Go at night for live music and the best Spanish horchata in town.
3. Bike to the City of Arts & Sciences, Valencia
In Valencia, a city of contrasts, the awe-inspiring architecture of the Old Town shoulders the futuristic City of Arts & Sciences. A short bike ride through the Garden of the River (Spanish: Jardi del Turia) brings you to this newest part of town.
After the Turia river flooded in 1957, the riverbed was moved outside of the city, and the original route was made into a park in the 1970s. Sitting in the dry riverbed now are multiple avant-garde buildings: the striking Opera House, Hemisfèric (IMAX cinema), L’Oceanogràfic, and Ágora for cultural events, designed by Félix Candela and Valencia native Santiago Calatrava. With azure pools encircling the white buildings, some in the shape of prehistoric skeletons, the complex (seen above) is a stunner. Bike-friendly paths allow visitors to admire this artistic vision up close. The DoYouBike shop provides guided tours and plans a route customized to fit your needs. With three shops around the city, DoYouBike also offers the option to have the bikes brought to you and dropped off whenever you choose.
Where to stay in Valencia:
The Hotel AC Valencia Marriott is located close to the City of Arts & Sciences, two shopping malls and bike paths connecting to the Old Town. It offers modern amenities with daily breakfast.
4. Visit a Game of Thrones filming location in Peñíscola, Peñíscola
In the province of Castellón, 90 miles north of Valencia, sits the seaside town of Peñíscola, popularized by Game of Thrones. (The iconic Papa Luna castle, built by the Knights Templar in the early 13th century, filled in for the fictional slaver city of Meereen in GOT.) The castle’s many historical occupants include Papa Luna himself: Pope Benedict XIII, who fought for his legitimacy at the height of the Papal Schism in 1411 and perished inside the walls a decade later. The castle and surrounding buildings of the Old Town are situated on a tombolo (mound connected to the mainland) in the Mediterranean Sea. The catle’s rooftop offers panoramic views of the town, wharves, mountains, and sandy beaches flocked by tourists in the summer.
Tip: Go early for unfettered access to the grounds and rooms, and take a break to shop and eat at a tapas bar on the way down.
Where to stay in Peñíscola:
The Hotel RH Porto Cristo is a beachfront modern hotel within walking distance to the Papa Luna castle.
5. Learn about black truffles in Morella, Morella
A short drive inland from Peñíscola brings you to the jewel of the Castellón province: the walled village of Morella. Standing on a muela (molar)-shaped hill, Morella basks in the sunshine and lights up at night, its walls and fortress perched at the top of the hill like a wedding cake. The 13th-century church of Santa Maria la Mayor is a stunning Gothic building with a blue-crowned dome, Baroque altar, unique stairway, and monumental pipe organ.
Morella is also famous for its black truffles (Spanish: trufa negra), known as “black gold,” which grow on the roots of holm oak trees between November to February. These fruits of the Earth—once consumed by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans—are foraged via use of tracking dogs. The truffles are so rare that they can cost up to $95/ounce. At the Casa Roque family restaurant, opened in 1980, you can enjoy the aromatic scent and flavor of this favorite food of kings during a traditional meal and presentation (keep in mind that lunch in Spain starts around 2pm). Before leaving, stop by one of the stores to purchase a typical Morellan blanket, still handwoven by local artisans.
6. Taste olive oil from millenary trees in Canet Lo Roig, Canet Lo Roig
The locals call it the “runaway tree,” but the award-winning olive tree with three trunks in Canet Lo Roig isn’t going anywhere. It’s been around for at least a few thousand years and is here to stay, along with other millenary trees in the region of Canet Lo Roig. Of a density only found in this part of Spain, the area’s millenary trees—introduced by the Romans—are a sight to behold. It’s hard to not admire the tenacity of these beings. They’ve witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations, fought fires and drought, and withstood other elements while still producing the fruit of the Mediterranean basin.
To get up close to the groves, you can take a bike tour with Itinerantur, a local tour company offering landscape translations. Sitting on top of a hill, the village of Canet Lo Roig in the northernmost part of Castellón has narrow, hilly streets, but the ride is worth it when you get to the El Maestrat route and glide past these ancient trees at the foothills. At the end of the tour, Itinerantur arranges an olive oil tasting with Cannetum, a local family business producing oil from these magnificent trees.
7. Explore the Moorish Caves of Bocairent, Bocairent
The Moors were a nomadic people from North Africa that ruled swaths of southern Spain for seven centuries, beginning in 711. They were known for building colorful, grand palaces and contributing to Spain’s language, culture and architecture. In the hilltown of Bocairent, in the province of Valencia, the historical Arabic presence is evident in the monuments, museums and caves found along its Magic Route. The Moorish Caves (Spanish: Covetes dels Moros) are together the largest collection of manmade caves in the region. Window-like holes are carved out of a sheer rock face located in El Barranc de la Fos, to the north of Bocairent. Seen from the outside, the 50 or so windows lead to as many rooms indoors, which researchers believe were used as granaries.
The old quarter of Bocairent, meanwhile, is a quintessential Spanish town with streets that rise and fall, Moorish horseshoe arches, ringing church bells, homes built around squares, and alleys inhabited with lounging cats. Olive and carob trees hug the slopes, patches of vegetable gardens line the stone pathways, and the neighboring Serra Mariola Natural Park beckons with lush vegetation.
Tip: Take an early morning ride through the clear Mediterranean skies on a customizable hot air balloon ride with Totglobo to admire this scenic beauty all around.
Where to stay in Bocairent:
Hotel L’Estació is a charming hotel built on a former railway station in the outskirts of Bocairent with a first-class restaurant next to a living room with a fireplace.
8. Immerse in Modernist architecture in Alcoi, Alcoi
In the Alicante province south of the city of Valencia, the industrial town of Alcoi (sometimes spelled Alcoy) sits between two natural reserves: Font Roja and Serra Mariola. Alcoi, which was once an economic power due to its paper production, is famed for its 19th-century Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. Idyllic bridges span ravines and rivers, and a stroll through the city center reveals the wealth of those who called it home during Spain’s Industrial Revolution. Along the Modernist Route, you’ll find buildings like the Casa del Pavo, Círculo Industrial, old fire station, and Conservatory of Music and Dance with nature-inspired designs on the facades and ornate decorations and artwork inside.
The serene Sant Antoni Abat Cemetery is a quick drive from the city center. Silent pathways lead to artistic free-standing burial vaults, which impress upon visitors the affluence of those who left their mark on Alcoi’s social history. There are no ghosts here, just flower-laden structures and subterranean catacombs worthy of admiration. Since 2012, the cemetery has been included in the Council of Europe’s official European Cemeteries Route.
9. Make traditional paella in Dénia, Dénia
You haven’t had good paella until you’ve been to the seaside town of Dénia in Alicante province. Something about the local seafood, water and special rice make it all the more delicious. In Dénia, declared a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2015, you can try the traditional arroz a banda, a specialty prepared with freshly caught fish and consumed with a side of rice. Boasting 200 restaurants, one with three Michelin stars, Dénia offers a world of delicious food—plus sandy beaches, hike-able natural parks and a castle in the heart of town—to explore in depth.
Dénia’s tree-lined main street, Calle Marques de Campo, is closed to traffic in the afternoon to allow people to experience the shops and dining establishments. The nearby Baleària Port—accessible via a short, solar-powered boat ride—comes to life at night with open-air restaurants, pubs, discos, and live music. The surrounding waters of the Marine Reserve of Cabo San Antonio are well-suited for snorkeling and scuba diving (with permission) in the warmer months. The harbor also offers a two-hour speedboat trip to nearby Ibiza but with all the fun happening in Dénia, you might want to stick around—especially if you find yourself there in September for its Gastronomic Festival.
Where to stay in Dénia:
Hotel Les Rotes is located between Montgó Natural Park and the Marine Reserve of Cabo San Antonio, two miles from the city center. Rooms come with balconies, and the elegant Punta Negra restaurant serves Mediterranean dishes made with freshly caught fish and locally produced vegetables.
10. Soak up life in the shadow of a great castle in Xàtiva, Xàtiva
Known as the “city of a thousand fountains,” Xàtiva sits on the edge of Sierra del Castel in the shadow of its imposing castle, a short drive from the city of Valencia. It was here that the Iberians first minted their coins. In the 11th century, Xàtiva became the site of the first paper manufacturing factory in Europe. In the 14th and 15th centuries, two Borgia popes were born in the area.
The castle of Xàtiva, with twin fortresses, stretches half a mile and sits a thousand feet above sea level. Although the castle was fortified by the Iberians and Romans, most of the walls and towers are Moorish or Gothic. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the city’s La Plaza del Mercado brims with farmers selling produce. At sunset, the area turns into a giant party, with kids’ playful chatter filling the streets as adults gather with friends and families, drinking and enjoying fine food at al fresco restaurants well into the night—a typical evening in Spain.
Where to stay in Xàtiva:
Hotel Casa Cigroner is a pet-friendly hotel right in the heart of Xàtiva with air conditioned rooms, lounge area, and restaurant.
For more on travel to Valencia, visit regionofvalencia.com.