Paella, and other pleasures, in Valencia, Spain

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No visit to the Valencia region would be complete without sampling its signature paella.
No visit to the Valencia region would be complete without sampling its signature paella. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Visit Valencia

Do people travel to specific destinations in search of a great meal? After all, golfers are notorious for putting Scotland on their bucket lists, skiers flock to the Alps, and wine lovers can argue endlessly about the virtues of French vs. Italian wines. Can lunch inspire the same level of wanderlust?

In the case of Valencia, Spain, the answer is an unequivocal yes, especially for travelers who want to sample paella in the Spanish city where it was born.

This was certainly my goal when I sampled the dish at various venues throughout the city, where the paella typically arrived at our table with much fanfare in giant, sizzling platters.

"We pride ourselves on having delicious gastronomy," said Maximo Caletrio, Visit Valencia market manager for Canada and the U.S. 

"Visitors must make a stop at the Mercat Central de Valencia, as the building itself is marvelous with colorful glasswork, and it contains unmissable ingredients and dishes."

But despite the glories of Valencian cuisine, it was the city itself that impressed me most, with its mix of old and ultramodern architecture, museums and galleries as well as an inviting location on the Mediterranean.

Oceanografic, at the City of Arts and Sciences complex in the city of Valencia, is Europe's largest aquarium.
Oceanografic, at the City of Arts and Sciences complex in the city of Valencia, is Europe's largest aquarium. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Visit Valencia

Building a reputation for design

This year, Valencia was designated the World Design Capital for 2022, and one look at the City of Arts and Sciences (CAC),  a collection of futuristic buildings conceived by acclaimed and sometimes controversial Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and visitors will immediately see why.

Picture a series of rounded structures -- somehow calling them "buildings" doesn't quite do them justice -- on a former riverbed and reflected in water, and you begin to get the idea.

The CAC comprises three main attractions: the Oceanografic, Europe's largest aquarium, which features a daily exhibition at the dolphinarium; the Hemisferic, a 3D cinema with documentary films, including showings for families with children; and the Science Museum, an interactive venue that also includes a restaurant and workshops.

In stark contrast to the CAC, Valencia also lays claim to three Unesco World Heritage designations that honor its 2,000-year-old past: La Lonja de la Seda, a monument considered a masterpiece of Gothic art that was originally used for trading silk in the 15th century; the Water Tribunal, a 1,000-year-old court system that remains a visible symbol of authority in settling irrigation disputes; and, perhaps most interesting to visitors, the annual Fallas festival that honors St. Joseph, the city's patron saint. The celebration, which this year kicked off in February and runs through March 19, includes light shows, fireworks and parades.

For me, nothing says Spanish art like ceramics, and the Gonzalez Marti National Museum of Ceramics, housed in the ornate Palace of the Marquis of Dos Aguas in Old Town, offers a huge collection of ceramics that span the centuries.

Hitting the beach

Valencia is also a beach town. There are 75 miles of beaches in all, the most famous of which, La Malvarrosa, offers lounge chairs under rustic umbrellas, restrooms, snack facilities and easy access for visitors with mobility issues.

Paddleboarders in Valencia, which has 75 miles of beaches.
Paddleboarders in Valencia, which has 75 miles of beaches. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Visit Valencia/Pablo Casino

The beach also offers designated fitness and activity zones, including paddleboarding, surfing, boating and diving.
Cycling enthusiasts can explore the area along bike routes that span nearly 100 miles or tour Albufera National Park. There is even a 48-mile circular route, Vuelta a l'Albufera, for visitors with time and energy to spare.

Armchair sports enthusiasts will find plenty of attractions in Valencia, as well, including golf tournaments and sailing regattas.

Valencia is also big on green tourism and is the first destination to be certified by Aenor, an agency that promotes sustainability, for verifying the carbon footprint of its tourism activity.

The Ricard Camarena Restaurant, for example, located in the heart of Valencia, received a Green Michelin star for its commitment to the environment.

This year, Valencia was named the European Capital of Smart Tourism 2022, which Caletrio said is "a recognition of our commitment to developing projects that promote smart tourism, including increasing pedestrian accessibility, tech to improve the tourist experience and the effort to preserve cultural heritage."

"Our goal is to provide visitors with a seamless experience when visiting Valencia by giving them access to information and communications technologies [ICT tools] that help travelers navigate our city. One example would be our audio guide that allows visitors to listen to a tour guide while exploring the city on their own."

Taking pride in inclusivity

Valencia also prides itself on being a welcoming destination, including to the LGBTQ community.

"We're proud to announce that Valencia has been announced as the host city of the 2026 edition of the Gay Games," Caletrio said, touting the city's efforts to amplify the normalization of diversity and inclusion. He noted that competitions are open to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, race or ethnic origin, disability or religion.

As to accommodations, Caletrio cited the five-star Only You Hotel that recently opened in Valencia. The luxury property features upscale amenities and three eateries, including the paella-focused El Mirador de Only You restaurant, which features panoramic views, and Salvaje, serving Asian fusion cuisine.

Valencia is one of the regions in Spain that accepts the EU's Digital Covid Certificate, although, as with all European travel, would-be visitors are encouraged to stay abreast of changing protocols.

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