When the Spanish city of Valencia flooded in 1957 (unfortunately a regular occurrence), people decided they had finally had enough. The Turia River was diverted, leaving a wide and dry riverbed along its path, which had run through the centre of Valencia.
But what to do with this new urban space? Well, rather than turn it into housing or roads, Valencia decided to build an enormous green park called Turia Gardens.
I think it was an incredible decision, rather foresighted for the time, creating a green zone that would be used for generations. Over the year it has evolved, and new institutions and attractions have been established within it.
Turia Gardens has changed Valencia forever, bringing freshness to a historic city. Leading from the coast and its beaches, past heritage buildings, and to modern artistic marvels, the park is a symbol of the relaxed but sophisticated life that is so celebrated in Spain.
When I think about travelling again soon, I often think of Spain, and how you can find so many different experiences from the natural to the cultural (and the edible) in just a single location. Valencia, for me, is one of the best, and there are so many things to do in Valencia!
Turia Gardens is nine kilometres long and 200 metres wide, landscaped but constantly changing along the route, with playgrounds, museums, cafes, flowerbeds, water features, and more.
The park has walking trails and bike paths the whole way along it, zipping underneath the 18 bridges that cross over it, making it easy to explore by yourself. The city’s bike-share program, Valenbisi, is a very affordable way to grab a bike and ride through the park.
Although I found walking in Turia Gardens to be very pleasant, you can’t get as far as with a bike – and there’s lots to see. As I mentioned, this is not just a collection of grass and trees. Some of the best things to see in Valencia are within Turia Gardens, and it gently leads you to all of them.
At the southeastern end, there’s the City of Arts and Sciences, a huge modern complex opened in 1998. The skeletal-like architecture is reflected in pools of water around the buildings, each creating its own interesting shapes.
Within the complex, there’s a cinema, aquarium, science museum, performing arts centre, and more. When you visit Valencia, it’s well worth visiting some of the institutions here – or just walk through and appreciate the design of it all.
At the northwestern end of Turia Gardens, you’ll find Cabecera Park, a large green area that is dominated by the huge lake. You can rent small swan-shaped boats and take them out on the water.
Attached to Cabecera Park is the Bioparc, a small zoo where the focus is on African animals, living in recreations of the landscape from the continent.
One of the delights of cycling through Turia Gardens (or walking), is stumbling across the other attraction within it. In some ways, it may spoil the experience a bit if I tell you about everything. But, keep an eye out for Gulliver Park, the playground where you can climb over the giant body of Gulliver (from Gulliver’s Travels), and the striking Palau de la Música, which is a popular concert venue.
Historic Centre of Valencia
While it might not get the same attention as some others in southern Europe, Valencia actually has one of the oldest and most important historic centres on the continent. Founded in 130 BC, there is more than two millennia of history captured here.
The historic centre is quite large, but it feels relatively compact because half of it is encompassed by Turia Gardens (which was the main river for most of its history). Everywhere you look as you stroll the streets, you’ll find fascinating buildings and artworks.
One of the most important is La Lonja de la Seda, the Silk Exchange. Built at the end of the 15th century, it was originally used for trading silk and then for other types of commerce.
The beautiful gothic architecture inside, with soaring ceilings and intricate columns create a sense of grandeur, where you can imagine merchants making deals. I would highly recommend visiting La Lonja de la Seda when you’re in Valencia.
Elsewhere in the historic centre of Valencia, you’ll find important churches – particularly the cathedral, which is said to hold the Holy Grail (make of that what you will). There’s also the Basilica of our Lady of the Forsaken and the Church of San Nicolás.
The city’s bullring, built in the 19th century, is another landmark of note. It’s also worth seeing the imposing gothic Torres de Serranos, the towers that were once part of the outer defensive wall.
Food in Valencia
I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t also recommend the Mercado Central (Central Market), an Art Nouveau building from the 20th century, built on the site where there have been market-like activities for hundreds of years.
It’s right in the middle of the historic centre and has dozens of stalls where you can buy food to cook at your accommodation – or eat right there. It’s a fantastic way to get a taste of Valencia and learn a bit more about the local produce.
Everywhere in Spain has incredible food, but what I always love about visiting is discovering the unique aspects of every region or city. In Valencia, the cuisine makes the most of the Mediterranean location and there’s fresh delicious seafood in many of the dishes.
But the most famous of the meals in Valencia is paella, which is said to have originated near here (although there are plenty of places in Spain that make that claim). Although you can find it with rabbit, it’s the seafood version that you should try when you visit.
Although I think the gardens, the historic centre, and the food are some of the highlights of Valencia, there’s much more to the city. The beaches for instance, are a beautiful aspect of the city, even though they’re often not the focus for visitors (they are lovely, but there are better ones in Spain).
What I like about the beaches and the coast is the variety they offer. There are some cool spots near the sand for a drink in the afternoon, or a meal (seafood, of course) in the evenings.
There’s also a bike track right along the beach, which is another nice route to ride using the bike-sharing program here.
When I visited Valencia, I stayed for a couple of weeks and rented an apartment. It was the perfect way to see the city, relaxing into a local neighbourhood where there were quick meals just metres away but also easy access to some of the significant landmarks in the centre.
Sometimes I have found a trip to Spain can be a bit hectic – not the country’s fault, but mine because I try to fit so much into a short time. I try to see the main heritage sites, visit a couple of art galleries, go to the beach, eat as often as possible, and whatever else I can.
But Valencia on my visit was the perfect relaxing atmosphere – and not just because I spread it out over two weeks. The city demands that you slow down, that you take a breath of fresh air, and you see it as more than just an urban jungle.
The nine-kilometre-long Turia Gardens right through the centre are symbolic of that, but they are also reflective of the city’s charms and the country’s allures – modern and historic, green and urban, beach and built. I can’t wait to get back and be amongst all of that again.