If you were planning on jetting to Spain for a weekend city break, Barcelona is the obvious choice: it’s got the golden beaches, that weird unfinished church that looks like a termite mound, and it’s home to Europe’s most inventive, tenacious pickpockets.
But hold off booking those plane tickets for a moment, because you’re not welcome any more. Barcelona’s Mayor, Ada Colau is considering taking actions to limit the amount of tourists visiting Barcelona.
Yearly, Barcelona attracts over 7.4 million visitors, yet its resident population is only 1.6 million. Understandably, the locals are feeling somewhat overrun by this huge influx of souvenir hunters, mindlessly wandering into oncoming traffic, snapping photos of lampposts, and littering the streets with their used up bum-bags. Documentary film maker Eduardo Chibas’ film ‘Bye Bye Barcelona’ warns that Barcelona is turning into a theme park and tourism has ruined local life, as genuine shops and restaurants are being replaced by tacky tat-pedlars and junky fast-food outlets.
But what can be done about it? Well, for the last two years I’ve shunned Barcelona for Valencia. Not only does Valencia have much of what Barcelona promises sans the dense hordes of sightseers, but it’s a great place to take a city break in its own right.
Don’t just take my word for it – let me break it down for you:
First up – the weather
If you are a pasty Brit like me, one of the most appealing aspects of Barcelona has got to be its location. You’ve got the Mediterranean sea lapping at your toes and that boss Spanish sun crisping up your epidermis all day long. Jackpot!
Valencia is 200 miles south of Barcelona, so you can expect the same guaranteed scorchio, and it’s sitting on that same coastline too; that means miles of…
Yep, Valencia’s got miles of beaches, and they’re just a short tram ride from the city centre (who doesn’t love a tram?). Not as conveniently close as the beaches in Barcelona but they *are* less hella-crowded. Valencia’s beaches are clean, furnished with all the expected facilities (toilets, sun loungers, parasols, bronzed old men in tiny speedos).
After you’ve worn yourself out lying in the sun all day there are plenty of restaurants along the promenade where you can top up your energy levels. Seafood is their speciality, of course.
Getting to your accommodation from the airport can often be a major headache when you just want to unpack and veg out. Not so in Valencia. The Old Town, ‘El Carmen’, (which constitutes the city centre) is a 20 minute metro ride direct from inside Valencia Airport (2 minutes walk from Arrivals) – a single ticket costs €3.90. The trains are frequent, modern, clean, rarely busy, and all of them are headed towards the city centre – you literally can’t go wrong: just get on one.
Valencia’s city centre is smaller and more compact than Barcelona’s. It’s complete charm and character is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Ditch the map with the list of museums along the side and take some time to bumble around the many back streets and courtyards on foot. Such as the ‘Carrer de Sant Ferran’ where you will find a great little arty shop ‘Sebastian Melmoth’, a cutesy shop that sells all variety of teas ‘La Petite Planèthé’, plus a craft beer bar.
I could happily spend my entire life there. However, if you want to go further afield, rent a bike at one of Valencia’s many bike rental outlets and head for the Jardí Del Túria. The Jardí Del Túria is a long and thin park that runs right through the centre of Valencia. It’s got lots of bridges running over it, kind of like a river – because it used to be a river.
You can use the Jardí Del Túria like a pedestrian/cyclist motorway, as it runs from the Bioparc (kick-ass zoo with not a single cage in sight) in the west all the way right down to the beach in the east, via the City of Arts and Sciences (more on that later). Inside the park you will find outdoor gyms, football pitches, basketball courts, fountains, obstacle courses, lots of folk getting their exercise on, and a giant man (Gulliver) that you can climb all over (great fun if you are a child, or act like one).
When I visited Barcelona for the first time with some friends we foolishly stopped for some pizza on Las Ramblas. The pizza was nothing special. The service was adequate. The waiter gave us a complimentary plate of bread to go with our pizza, which we picked at. The bread was rather stale, but we appreciated the sentiment. The bill arrived, and to our naive horror the half nibbled plate of bread had cost us ten euros. Such experiences aren’t typical, but neither are they uncommon for places frequented by large amounts of tourists.
Valencia may be substantially smaller than Barcelona, but it’s still got over 1,700 restaurants to choose from. As is to be expected, some are more touristy than others, but if you steer clear of the busy main roads and squares you’ll be sure to find some hidden gems.
90% of the restaurants in Valencia have outdoor seating, and there is nothing more blissful than sitting in the sun, watching the world go by as you sip a glass of Agua De Valencia (Champagne, orange juice, vodka and gin), graze upon Calemares (squid rings) and Patatas Bravas (chunky potato with a kind of spicy tomato and mayo sauce) – its like Spanish fish and chips! If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, sample the infinite varieties of Paella – oh, and try the fartons, (because, fartons).
With the sea so close and the central market just down the road, it is the norm for Valencian restaurants to use only top notch, fresh ingredients. The Merkat Central itself is a must-see; not only is it a huge, open, Art Deco wonder, you will also find mountains of fish, eels, squid, and massive prawns – all freshly pulled out of the ocean – along with olives, nuts, fruit, veg, chocolate, bread, beer, wine, smoked meats, ham, cheese – it truly is a foodies heaven.
You want history? Valencia’s El Carmen is dripping in history. Check out the Torres de Serranos, which was built in the 14th century, or the Torres de Quart, both guard-towers that formed part of the ancient city wall around Valencia’s Old Town.
The Torres Serranos has great views across the Jardí Del Túria and the rest of the city but mostly it’s worth a visit because it gives a really great insight into how medieval builders has so little regard for health and safety. The walls around the towers come up to just below waist height, so it feels like if you were to trip you could easily fall to your death (or maybe that was just me).
Inside the Old Town you are never far from a crumbly medieval church. In the main square you will find a funky mismatched cathedral (Valencia Cathedral) built in various styles between the 13th and 15th century. Also worth seeing is, UNESCO World Heritage site La Lonja de la Seda (The Silk Exchange), built between 1482 and 1533: it has massive pillars.
So Barcelona had Antoni Gaudí, who designed a load of buildings including the Sagrada Familía. The Sagrada Familía has taken 133 years to build and they still haven’t finished, but it’s shaping up to look completely awesome/bonkers. Valencia can’t compete in that sense. It hasn’t got any crazy Gaudí architecture of its own, but it does have resident architect Santiago Calatrava pushing the envelope – he designed the City of Arts and Sciences.
The City Of Arts And Sciences is home to an iMax Cinema, Planetarium, Science Museum, Opera House, Oceanarium and more, all in crazy futuristic buildings. It took only 4 years to build, so in that sense it is better than the Sagrada Familía.
Valencia has got art. It’s got a modern art gallery filled with all that modern art. The Real Academia de Bellas Artés de San Carlos is where you can find all the old religious paintings, oil paintings and other large canvas rectangles that you are supposed to be impressed by. Having been to Valencia’s ceramics museum I can honestly say they have a whole lot of pots too.
But what really sets Valencia apart from the crowd is it’s street art. I <3 street art, and if you do too, look around the back streets of Valencia’s Old Town and you are sure to be rewarded at every turn.
So do Barcelona a favour, head to Valencia. And if you have a good time, keep it to yourself. OK?
Enigma, raconteur, renaissance man; Tim Cox could be described as none of these things. His main interests include eating full English breakfasts, drinking craft beer and trying to understand modern art. Tim writes about anything and everything in his blog: timcoxwriting.com. Tweet him: @timdcox.