On day three of our trip, we decided to go to the old city. After spending days in the park and then another day visiting universities, we thought it would be wise to finally hit the downtown area.
We started our adventure at Estación del Norte. This is the main rail station of Valencia. It was built between 1907 and 1917. The station is relatively small for a European train station, but there was still a lot that pleased our eyes: Stained glass windows, cafes, beautiful murals, and of course, several tracks. After walking around the train station for a little while, we walked by Plaza de Toros and saw the famous Museo Taurino. Unfortunately it wasn’t open yet because we got there quite early. So we decided to continue and hit the Plaza del Ayuntamiento where the stunning city hall, Ayuntamiento, can be found.
We decided to go in, and boy, were we ever stunned by the beautiful art and paintings inside. The police who guarded city hall were kind enough to point us in the direction of all the tourist-accessible parts of the place (they really didn’t want tourists to miss out). Every time we were headed toward the exits, a guard actually gently stopped us and indicated that there was more to see! There was a museum, the council chamber, objects and books from the 19th century (and maybe earlier), and the most astonishing wall decorations. And somehow, the visit was free of charge.
Upon leaving the city hall, we started heading to the center of the old town (walking north on Av. Marqués Sotelo and northwest on Av. Maria Cristina) and reached the Mercado Central, one of the largest markets in Europe. What a scene of wonderfully organic chaos that was! Busy merchants and buyers engaged in exchange, people conversing excitedly, and fruits and vegetables and thousands of legs of ham arrayed beautifully. We also saw something we’ve only seen in València so far: Ostrich eggs. If that’s not to you liking you can order a dozen of churros or a paella to go. Even if you don’t plan to get anything at the market, it’s worth visiting just to take in the beauty of the building’s architecture. It is a big hall full off ornamental glass windows and ceramic decorations. It’s certainly prettier than most markets we’ve ever visited.
Adjacent to the market is the church of Saint John: Iglesia de los Santos Juanes. This church has a Gothic design, and was actually built on the former site of a mosque. Not far from the church is La Lonja de Seda, which used to be a center of commerce. In fact, its English name is literally “Silk Trade”, and it’s where merchants worked out contracts for just that back in the 16th Century. This building is quite famous, not only because of its lavish Gothic architecture, but also because its historical function of trade hub during Valencia’s most prosperous age.
Walking 5-10 minutes north of La Lonja, we reached the beautiful Iglesia San Nicolas (Church of San Nicolas) and the Barrio Del Carmen. The church was quite easy to find, and the only real thing to say about it is that it’s a very handsome building, both inside and out. As for the Barrio Del Carmen neighbourhood – we actually had to come back in the evening again to find it! Let us explain why: The first time we went, it was early (not even 11am yet). There was just about no sign of life there – we were two tourists out of maybe 50 tourists randomly wandering around the place. And our guidebook did say it only came alive at night. Which is exactly what happened!
When we came back after 10pm, the whole place was jumping! Tons of tourists walked around the Barrio, but somehow, many, many, many locals were there too, many with extremely young children! The cafes, restaurants, and bars were all alive with customers, and the streets of the old city were packed with people. Some street arteries were positively clogged with folks.
Five minutes’ walk away are the Plaza de Virgen, the Basilica de los Desamparados and the Catedral. Both during our day trip here and during our nighttime visit, we took a long break in this part of the old city because there was a lot to see and learn. But also, there were a good number of musicians and other street buskers. The entertainers during the day consisted of many mimes and people dressed in huge fur costumes (we really hope that there was air conditioning inside those costumes!). When we came back at night, there was a full concert right outside of city hall! That event started around 10, and even when we left well past midnight, both the musicians and crowd were still going strong… We do believe that Valencia can also vie for the title of “City That Never Sleeps” :P.
South of this area were the Museo Nacional de Ceramica, the San Juan de la Cruz, the Colegio Del Patriarca, and a building affiliated with the Universitat de Valencia. By this point in our day trip, we’d been walking for hours already, and the hot, hot sun was bearing down on us, so we didn’t do much more than just either admire the external facades of these buildings or walk into their lobbies. Even with such cursory explorations, we were treated to visual feasts. The architecture, decoration, and craftsmanship on display were all phenomenal!
Outside of these big places and structures, we were either awestruck by particular pieces of ancient artwork or genuinely touched by modern flourishes intended for inclusiveness. For the former, one example we loved was the fountain in the Plaza de Virgen; for the latter, we came across fully braille signs and large scale models of historical buildings designed to be examined by hand. We haven’t seen anything like this for visually-impaired tourists anywhere (and we’ve travelled quite a lot!).
Last, but not least: plaza de la Reina. Wow wow wow! So many restaurants, so many people, so many charming buildings. We had to come back a couple of times to enjoy it to the fullest. See for yourself:
All told, we can’t recommend the old city in Valencia enough. It’s a place that has a character during the day that’s pretty wildly distinct from its nighttime character. If you come (and we hope you do), stay from dawn to dusk and beyond! You’ll miss out on a lot otherwise!
Thank you Valencia, Spain, Europe, World!