Situated in the ciutat vella, or old town, Valencia’s Barrio del Carmen is in many ways where you’ll encounter the soul of the Spanish coastal city. Once sandwiched between the 11th-century Muslim wall and the 14th-century Christian one, it’s a neighborhood packed with history, dating back over 1,000 years.
You can still see remnants of its distant past among El Carmen’s streets. The most impressive of these sights certainly includes the medieval towers, Torres de Quart and Torres de Serrano, both of which once belonged to the now-destroyed Christian wall. Then there’s the Portal de Valldigna (located on the street of the same name) that once served as the gate through the former Muslim wall to the Moorish and Jewish quarter. And the past also lives on in the district’s name, derived from the 13th-century Convent of Carmen, which is now a museum dedicated to the 19th century.
Once upon a time, Valencia had four gates that allowed for passage through its medieval wall. Come the 19th century, the city needed to grow, so that stony barrier was demolished, leaving only two gates behind, one to the north, and the other to the west, the 15th-century Torres de Quart (or Quart Towers).
Acting as Valencia’s western gate, the Torres de Quart led to the pueblo Quart de Poblet, from which they got their name. Over the centuries, the towers have weathered their fair share of battles; in fact, reminders of Napoleon’s bombardment live on in the gate’s canon-ball-pocked outer walls (which now tend to fill with birds’ nests instead of weaponry). Though the Torres de Quart’s original purpose was as a passageway, for centuries they acted as a prison: first one for women, starting in the 1600s, and later as a military prison, from 1813 until 1932.
The twin-towered stone gates of the Torres de Serranos are all that remains of Valencia’s original city walls. The imposing 14th century gates were the city’s main exit to Barcelona and northern Spain.
Today the gates are a popular photo stop, and you can climb to the top for great views of Valencia.
Free guided tours take you through the battlements and walkways every day except Mondays.
Known for its jumble of architectural styles, Valencia Cathedral (also known as the ""Seu"") is also famous worldwide as the home of the Holy Chalice. While the cathedral’s dome and tower are Gothic, the main entrance is Baroque and some of the chapels date from the Renaissance.
Take a tour to learn more about the cathedral’s architectural history and treasures, or just pop in to pay your respects to the Holy Grail in the flamboyant Capilla del Santo Caliz near the main entrance. It’s claimed to be the chalice from the Last Supper.
The de Borja chapel boasts some lovely frescoes by Goya and the museum reveals a rich collection of vestments and statues.
Kids and adults alike are intrigued by the City of Arts & Sciences, a museum complex devoted to discovery. The site is divided into four sections: the Hemisferic, Principe Felipe, Oceanographic and L'Umbracle.
The Hemisferic houses a planetarium, IMAX cinema and laser show, while the Principe Felipe building has a multitude of science exhibits and is shaped to look like the skeleton of a whale. The Oceanographic aquarium includes polar exhibits, coral reefs from the Red Sea, Mediterranean seascapes and underwater tunnels, and botanical species and sculptures are highlighted in the L’Umbracle walkway. Musical performances and operas are hosted in El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia.
During the 15th century, Valencia reached the height of its success as one of Europe’s most important mercantile cities. So come the end of that century, it was decided to construct a building where trading could take place. The result was La Lonja de la Seda (the Silk Exchange), which is one of the finest examples around of civil Gothic architecture and a sight to behold in this Spanish coastal city.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the secular building is composed of four principal areas, the largest of which is the Trading Hall, which occupies roughly half of the entire property. This main room is where the majority of business went down and is no doubt the most impressive given its shiny marble floors, and spiraling columns that bloom into a vaulted ceiling of palm-tree-frond-like arches. Look carefully along the upper perimeter of the room and you’ll even notice golden Latin letters emphasizing the principles of honest trade.
The Albufera area is home to Spain largest lake and some of the country’s most scenic wetlands and lagoons. The natural biodiversity of the area contains hundreds of native plants. Nearly 100,000 species of birds can be found as well, including some rare and endangered types. Birdwatching can be done either by land or on the water by boat.
Traditionally fisherman have been of utmost importance to the economy and culture of Albufera, with their thatched roof houses (called ‘barracas’) dotting the landscape. Rice production is also significant here, in fields surrounding the area. The marriage of the two is evident in the region’s most famous dish, paella valenciana, which is served in nearly every restaurant here. Albufera was once a marine gulf, and is still connected to the sea by various waterways. Today it is a peaceful place to escape the city and enjoy some time immersed in nature.
The grand Plaza Ayuntamiento is one of Valencia’s three main squares.
The stunning plaza has a fountain and patch of grass at its heart, and is flanked by some of Valencia’s most important buildings.
The bell tower of the neoclassical town hall chimes on the hour, and inside the opulent decor features marble and richly carved wood.
The post office is more like a theater than an administrative building, with a leaded-glass dome. The plaza is a popular meeting spot for local Valencians, and is the focus for fireworks displays during the annual Fallas Festival.
Plaza de la Reina isn’t particularly old: it dates back to only 1878, when a triangular block of buildings was destroyed to make room for a large main square. Now the plaza – considered the city’s Kilometer 0 -- fills with cars, flower beds and pedestrians, and is lined by a host of cafes and outdoor terrazas (seating areas). In fact, this is where you’ll find one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Horchatería Santa Catalina, the ideal place to try Valencia’s signature beverage, the nutty-flavored and refreshing horchata.
Perhaps more intriguing than the actual plaza itself are the sites that surround it, most notable of which is surely the Valencia Cathedral. Built on the site of a former mosque, the 13th-century church is a mixture of architectural styles, but predominantly Gothic. What makes the basilica particularly special, though, is that many believe it to be the most plausible home of the Holy Grail.
Already impressive from the outside, L'Oceanogràfic is still quite more than meets the eye. That’s because beneath its undulating roof live 45,000 animals from some 500 different species, all which swim in a total of 11 million gallons of water. The oceanarium, which opened in 2003, is the largest of its kind in Europe, and arguably the most popular destination at Valencia’s futuristic complex of buildings, The City of Arts and Sciences.
L'Oceanogràfic is broken out into ten different areas that cover the world’s main marine ecosystems, from the Mediterranean to the oceans, the Red Sea and more. Turtles, sharks, whales, dolphins, walruses, and even birdlife native to the various ecosystems, are just a few of the critters that call this water world home. And native habitats are on display too, including mangrove swamps and marshland.
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Perhaps you may be familiar with Lladró and its porcelain figurines. The fragile pieces typically depict people, and especially women, who are often pensive or frozen in artistic motion. The internationally famous works of art originate from the Valencian suburb of Tavernes Blanques, and have been handmade there since the business got started by the Lladró family in 1953.
While their beauty alone might be enough to satisfy your curiosity, you can also learn more about their history at the Lladró Museum. There, you can explore many facets of the brand’s past as you view a chronological display of noteworthy pieces that are no longer being made. A portion of the museum also consists of a private collection of paintings that is considered one of the most notable in Spain. The pieces span different artistic eras, and are the work of a variety of artists, ranging from El Greco to Zurburán and Valencia-native Sorolla.
Valencia’s fine arts museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes, is one of the finest in Spain. Lovers of Spanish art will swoon over the works by El Greco, Goya, Velazquez and Murillo displayed here.
Gothic art is also a highlight, including tempura paintings by early Spanish painters. Perhaps the gallery’s most famous artwork is the brooding self-portrait by Velazquez.
You may have been to the zoo, but you probably haven’t been to this kind of zoo. Bioparc Valencia prides itself on offering what they call zoo-imersion, a concept that focuses on immersing human visitors in the habitat of the animals, and not the other way around, as is traditionally the case. To do this, the animals are not kept in cage-like enclosures, but instead surroundings that are as close to their natural environments as possible. Meanwhile, guests to the Bioparc view them in a safari-style way, with ponds, streams and rocks serving as barriers rather than bars and fences.
Opened in 2008, the Bioparc is located at the west end of the Turia Riverbed Gardens. It spans some 25 acres of land, on which all manner of wildlife roam. The creatures originate from places including the African savannah and wetlands, and range from hippos to lions, monkeys, giraffes and more.
A trip to the library has surely never been as interesting as it will be on a visit to the National Library of Valencia. That’s because this biblioteca is also known as the Monastery of San Miguel de los Reyes, a complex erected in the 16th century, and which -- with just one glimpse at the structure -- is far more than just a place for archiving books and documents.
Built by the Duke of Calabria, the once-monastery sits on the site of a former abbey, and before that even a mosque. And what a complex it is, complete with a two-towered Renaissance façade, beyond which you will find a proper church, and two courtyards; one surrounded by arcaded galleries, the other unfinished and gallery-less. The exterior alone is a commanding site, reminiscent of El Escorial Monastery near Madrid.
For one week in May every year, Valencia’s streets turn into a gallery of giant, often cartoon-like sculptures. Come the end of the week, these colorful behemoths are incinerated in building-high bonfires, illuminating the town and filling the city skies with smoke. Though your visit to Valencia may not coincide with this fire- and firework-filled event, you can still become acquainted with it by visiting the Museum of Las Fallas.
But first, to understand the museum, you must grasp what makes up this wild celebration, and specifically the fallas themselves. The fallas are essentially massive, usually paper-mache-made sculptures, typically infused with some sort of political or pop-culture reference. Hundreds of these creations are erected in city squares and street junctions around town, with each big falla having a miniature version next to it, which is called a ninot.
Several hundreds of years ago, the city of Valencia – and much of the Iberian Peninsula, really – was under Muslim control. While most remnants of those times have long faded, you can still catch a glimpse of them at the 14th-century Admiral’s Baths (Baños Arabes del Almirante), the only ones of their kind left in the seaside city.
Although these particular baños were actually constructed just after Valencia came under Catholic rule, they remain very representative of Mudéjar architecture, and of hammam baths found elsewhere in Spain and the world. Indeed, they are composed of common hammam features, including rooms of cold, warm and hot temperatures (the latter being sauna-like). Meanwhile, you’ll see other typically Arabic bath-style details such as the horseshoe-shaped arches and the geometric skylights. The Admiral’s Baths weren’t only used hundreds of years ago, either, but actually remained in use until the 20th century.
Cruise ships dock about 2.5 miles (4 km) from the center of Valencia. It is walkable but some ships provide shuttles or taxis are easily found to take you to the central and picturesque Plaza del Ayuntamiento. Otherwise, you can stay in the docks area, which is a lively mix of old and new architecture, restaurants and bars.
From well-preserved Plaza del Ayuntamiento you can wander the ancient streets of Barrio del Carmen, as well as visit the many museums and churches including the Cathedral in the Placa de la Reina, a visually-striking opera house and music hall, and the nearby Gothic Basilica of the Virgin in the Placa de le Verge. The fabulous City of Arts and Sciences includes the aquarium L’Oceanografic - which is primarily under the sea and includes 45,000 creatures from 500 species in different habitats including whales, sharks, penguins and dolphins. The building itself is a very modern building designed by famed contemporary architect Salvatore Calatrava.
Cities and regions across Spain have their own patron saints. In Valencia, one of those saints is none other than San Vicente Ferrer, who was born in this very city in the 14th century. It should come as no surprise, then, that his former “home” is a sacred spot for Catholics, and especially for Valencians.
It’s not exactly his home, though, but rather the site of his home. Instead, what you will find in this place is a chapel, much of which was actually constructed in the 20th century. Apart from the intimately sized interior, the tiny church is also home to the hallowed water well after which its street is named, as well as a colorful entryway decorated with tiles depicting the saint’s different miracles.
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