I always thought I’d go back to Valencia some day, but didn’t expect a storm to turn that thought into a last minute, but very welcome return to one of Spain loveliest coastal cities. Its combination of historic old town sites, beautiful beaches, great restaurants and the stunning City of Arts and Sciences make it the perfect destination for a weekend away or a longer break.

The original plan for February was Gran Canaria as being just off the coast of Africa’s Western Sahara region makes the Canaries a great winter sun destination. But after many hours at Gatwick our flight was cancelled and we quickly realised we couldn’t get on another one to our planned destination for four days. So we changed course to somewhere we knew wouldn’t be quite as warm, but the sun would definitely be shining and we could get a flight there in 36 hours time.

As we’d stayed in Valencia’s old town on the previous visit and were due to be in a beach hotel in Gran Canaria, we opted for Hotel Balneario Las Arenas, the largest and nicest hotel on Valencia’s main beach. Our room had a balcony with a wonderful sea view, a very welcome sight after the horrible weather back home.

The hotel has an indoor pool and spa but despite it being February we did spend some of the time sitting by one of the two outdoor pools. It was often 20 or 21 degrees by early afternoon, though we only really felt that when sitting directly in the sun. In the shade we definitely needed more clothes than a bikini!

But it was perfect weather for alfresco lunches and on our first day we discovered the nearby Panorama restaurant on the harbour wall. It’s popular with locals and visitors so I’d recommend booking online in advance, especially if it’s a weekend. The Menu del Dia was excellent and went down very well with a bottle of rose and a sea view. It was so good we went back twice more, the last time was after another storm delayed our return home from Valencia – yes, it was quite a trip!

Between the hotel and the harbour is a promenade lined with restaurants facing the beach, so there are plenty of options to choose from. In February they were quiet during the week but on Saturday evening we ate at La Pepica, a really excellent and popular fish restaurant.  The swordfish was delicious. There are bars along here too and both Vivir Sin Dormir and Gabbeach were good options.

On day two the sun was shining but it was cooler, so we headed for the City of Arts and Sciences which is at one end of Jardines de Turia, a park created from an old riverbed. The arts and sciences complex was mainly designed by Valenica’s most famous son architect Santiago Calatrava. It’s an incredible collection of six stunning steel and glass buildings.

The Assut d’Or bridge has giant sails while the Agora is lotus like and the Hemisferic planetarium looks like a huge staring eye. Meanwhile the science museum’s design is similar to a giant rib cage and the opera house evidently reminds some people of Darth Vader’s helmet!

There’s plenty to take in just walking around the buildings, but we decided to take a look inside the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia which is both an opera house and cultural centre. They run guided tours that can be booked in advance or on the day and give you a backstage glimpse of the Palau’s different auditoriums and Mediterranean gardens.

It’s hugely impressive, as is the outside of the building. Up close you can see there is fine white concrete covering the large metal structural supports of the building and broken mosaic tiles decorate the outer shells, walls and reflecting pools that surround it.

Another good place for reflection is L’Umbracle, a 320m long walkway shaded by arches and filled with greenery and seats where you can take a break from exploring and the sun.

The City of Arts and Sciences is the sort of place that’s hard to tear yourself away from, but we eventually crossed over the main road to find Sorsi E Morsi in Paseo Alameda. It’s Italian rather than Spanish, but a great contemporary spot that does an excellent lunchtime Menu del Dia –  starter, main course, wine, bread and coffee for €11,50.

After lunch we took a wander though the riverbed park, which is a pretty unique green space to have in the centre of a city. It’s 9km of playing fields, cycle and walking paths, fountains and children’s playgrounds. From the noise coming out of it I’d say the most popular is Gulliver Park where children can climb and slide on a massive play structure of the famous character.

We popped out of the park at Torres de Serranos, a pair of 14th century towers. You can climb up to the battlements for a view of Valencia’s historic quarter behind the towers. One of the trams from the beach to the old town stops just on the other side of the riverbed to here, so when we ventured into town for an evening out we also saw that the towers were beautifully illuminated at nighttime.The old town is a great place to meander through, particularly Barrio del Carmen with its narrow streets, boutique shops, galleries, restaurants and bars. We were keen to find Cafe Sant Jaume, having visited on our last trip for some of the local specialty Agua de Valencia. You won’t be surprised to learn its not water! Sant Jaume is a tiny bar in Plaza del Tossal and is a former pharmacy. So there’s only a couple of tables inside but quite a lot on the terrace next to it.

Later that evening we paid our second visit to El Cabanyal, the former fisherfolk’s quarter which is just behind the port and only a short walk from our hotel. We didn’t discover it the first time we visited Valencia, but its well worth the trip even if you’re staying in the old town as it’s dotted with fabulous traditional tapas bars like Casa Guillermo, a small place that specialises in anchovies.

Nearby Casa Montana is a Valencia institution with a lovely marble bar that you have to duck under to get to the restaurant on the other side. The whole place is lined with wooden barrels and there’s an excellent list of wines served either from a bottle or barrel. Its definitely one to book in advance as there were no tables for the same evening when our hotel called for us on Tuesday, but they were able to book us in for the following evening. We also found a quirky little bar for drinks after dinner that was only a three minute walk away. Bar Lapaca in Carrer del Rosari is a cheap locals’ hang out with decent drinks.

Another good area to try in the evening is L’Eixample. It includes Mercado de Colon, a beautiful former food market that now hosts a variety of cafes and restaurants. They’re mostly outdoor which means eating in coats on in February, so we walked on to Carrer del Comte d’Altea. It’s a lively street that is lined with so many restaurants it’s hard to choose just one. In the end for a change from tapas we went for traditional old Italian Don Salvatore where the food was great and the service was just as good.

After dinner we walked a few minutes to Gran Via del Marques, a main road that runs parallel to Comte d’Altea. Our destination was Aquarium, an old bar lined with wooden panels and mirrors that boasts smartly dressed waiters serving extremely good cocktails.

The following day we were back on the Valencia sightseeing trail and took the tram to walk across the Serranos bridge and into Barrio del Carmen. There’s some excellent street art in the old quarter and in Carrer dels Cavallers we found a great little shop called @typical selling alternative modern souvenirs.

At the end of that street is Plaza de la Virgen, a lovely square with a Neptune fountain, a pink basillica and one side of Valencia’s Gothic cathedral. It’s the side that features Puerta de los Apostles, a door that is the venue for the weekly Tribunal de las Aguas. That means Water Court and consists of eight people in black peasant smocks settling local farmer’s water disputes. Evidently there aren’t many disputes these days, but I’d imagine its a sight worth seeing if you’re there at noon on a Thursday.

The main entrance to the cathedral is round the corner in Plaza del la Reina. Its another lovely square and though not traffic free there are restaurants with outdoor tables, so its a nice spot for lunch and a glass or two of rose wine. Yes there’s a theme, I pretty much only drink rose when the sun is shining, but if you prefer white wine Albariño is an excellent Spanish choice.

Not far from here is the Mercado Central.  As with many Spanish markets it’s an excellent place to wander through as it’s bursting with bright colours and wonderful smells. And of course it’s a great place to pick up a snack. We opted for mini tortilla baguettes which were delicious, especially when eaten sitting outside on the steps in the sunshine.

On the opposite side of Plaza del Mercado is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen in Valencia, La Lonja. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site that was once an exchange for silk and other commodities. The main room Sala de Contratacion is filled with beautiful pillars that could have been designed to look like skeins of silk.

On the other side of a small courtyard filled with orange trees is a staircase leading up the Consulado del Mar (Consulate of the Sea). This room has a gorgeous carved wooden ceiling which came from the former Town Hall.

There are plenty of other lovely buildings that are worth detouring past on a walk around Valencia’s historic centre including the post office and town hall in Plaza Ayuntamiento. The main train station Estacion del Norte also isn’t far from there. It was clearly built to impress visitors to Valencia and I’d say it was a job well done.

Of course the old town is also a great place to spend an evening and as mentioned earlier we jumped on the tram from the beach a couple of times. Barrio del Carmen is packed with places to eat and drink. We revisited Pepita Pulgaracita which looks a bit more pricey than other tapas places but the portions are large so you don’t need much and the quality is excellent. We also had great tapas at El Molinon, a narrow place with the wine list chalked on the walls. It also specialises in Spanish cider which is poured from a great height. I have no idea why!

Other places in the area are Bar Pilar, where tapas and mussels are the thing, including throwing the shells on the floor. Bodeguilla del Gato is a traditional tapas place near Plaza Negrito where there are also a couple of lively bars. Our favourite choice for after dinner drinks on this trip was Cafe Infanta in Plaza del Tossal. There are plenty of bars around this square but we liked Infanta’s large terrace with heaters which meant we could sit outside and drink their excellent Aqua de Valencia. It was better (and stronger) than we’d had the converted pharmacy Saint Jaume, which being so unusual may have succumbed to being more of a tourist attraction than a bar serving decent drinks.

So to finish off I’ll just mention the beach area again. The second big storm of February 2020 meant that our Sunday flight home was cancelled and after a lot of shenanigans and a wasted Saturday trying to contact  Easyjet we were eventually booked on a flight on Tuesday. Having seen all that we wanted to in the city, we decided to just hang out near our hotel and explored the port area.

Valencia won an Olympic style bid to host the Americas Cup yacht race in 2007 and the harbour was transformed for it. The crew headquarters fringe the port and the ultra modern Americas Cup Building, Veles E Vents (Sails and Winds) has function rooms for hire and a large terrace with good views of the boats. Nearby is the La Pamela sculpture which was voted by the public as the favourite in an exhibition of six sculptures of women’s heads by Manolo Valdés.

Going in the other direction from the hotel is a wide promenade that is a really lovely walk. The beach is gorgeous and it’s not far to the unusual Fountain Boat sculpture. It’s designed to spurt water in the shape of the hull and sails of the boat, though there was no water in sight when we were there. Maybe it’s a summer season only sculpture.

Further along there are lots of beachfront restaurants that are very popular with locals for lunch at the weekends, so I’d really recommend booking in advance. We had no luck on Saturday but were very lucky to snag the last table at La Murciana on Sunday. The staff couldn’t have been nicer and eating the delicious vegetarian paella with a sea view made up for the hassle of our flight being cancelled.

And of course with the benefit of hindsight all of the weather related issues with this trip have faded away and I’m very happy I got to go away just before coronavirus took hold of the world.  I’m writing this when I should have been away on a trip to Uzbekistan and it seems likely all of this year’s travel plans will be cancelled. So that unexpected return to Valencia is a brilliant memory I’m very glad I can hold onto until the world makes sense again.

Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery. And visit the Europe section of my blog to find other city break ideas for when we can all start adventuring again.