I visited Valencia for the first time during Holy Week and loved it. It’s a vibrant city with just enough of a small town feel to be able to accomplish a lot in a matter of two days. Most of what I accomplished was eating. Valencia’s regional uniqueness in terms of culinary tradition lived up to the hype. The wine was fantastic everywhere we went, the fruiterias overflowed with oranges and the paella was everything I had dreamed of – even if I did feel like a total tourist ordering it. But there’s more to Valencia than that. With only 48 hours to spend in the city, these are the most essential places to go and treats to try.
1. Menu del Dia: Paella
Paella, while often viewed as dish representational of Spain as a whole, is actually native to Valencia. 10th century rice cultivation, frequently credited to Moorish inhabitants, gave birth to this fantastic culinary tradition. While paella variations exist in some form across multiple Spanish regions – though often referred to simply as ‘arroz’ (rice) dishes – Valencian paella is unique to particular strains of rice which are not commonplace in say, Murcia or Andalucia.
In the present day capital, you can’t walk one block without tripping over lunch menus consisting of paella. These lunch menus in Spain are known as ‘menu del dia’, translating into ‘menu of the day’. Menu del dia consists of a starter course, a main course and dessert or coffee. This will typically run between 9 and 12 euros and in Valencia, it almost always includes paella options. My mom and I decided to stop in one of the many cafes outside of Mercado Centrale for paella Valenciana.
Paella Valenciana traditionally comprised of chicken and a variation of vegetables. For example, ours included lima beans, green beans, bell pepper and artichoke! Traces of the 19th century paella Valenciana recipe can still be found, however, in the form of rabbit, snails, duck, butter beans and great northern beans.
What always stays the same, however, is the inclusion of short grain or ‘bomba’ rice, saffron and Spanish paprika. You’ll also encounter seafood paellas, vegetable paellas and other distinctive mixtures of sausages and seasonal vegetables.
Keep in mind that paella for lunch is a popular choice among tourists and locals alike. Factor this into your daily plans when choosing a time to eat. We decided to find lunch around 4 o’clock but were informed that the paella had run out at the first few cafes we tried to sit down at.
2. Mercat Central
I’m always eager to share the heavenly delights of a city’s food markets. Valencia’s Mercat Central was a marvelous experience that beat out most of my favorite food markets from across the world. I found Mercat Central to have an exceptional selection of unique regional products that pretty much speaks for itself.
Check out all of these wild items I came across:
But of course, Mercat Central still carried all of the classics:
Part of what made this experience super special was going with my family. When recounting my latest travels with my parents back in the US over facetime, I always gush about the markets. This time, my mom and big brother came with me! I was so happy to have brought them to view the market life and see the thriving connection between local businesses, farmers, fishmongers, butchers, pastry chefs, craftsmen and shoppers.
Mercat Central: Plaça de la Ciutat de Bruges, s/n, 46001 València
3. Drinking: Wines, liqueur and craft beer
Reminiscent of Italy’s specialty drink selections were Valencia’s liqueurs. Crema de arroz was one of the most common items on the shelves of gift shops, small markets and stalls at Mercado Centrale. I was so glad to have sampled it otherwise I may not have purchased some for my friends back home! It sounds strange, but it’s truly delicious.I found it for 3 euros at a stall in Mercado Centrale.
A small artisan shops, L’ham del Mercat, also had an impressive selection of Valencian booze and ceramics. They let me and my mother sample quite a few different liqueurs. Another popular flavor is ‘hierba’, we were informed (you should have seen my face when I heard this, given ‘hierba’ is the common Spanish word for weed). This liqueur is actually for the licorice lovers, being that the dominant flavor was star anise. Hierbas liqueur, which usually consists of other infusions (lavender, thyme, rosemary, eucalyptus, juniper berries etc.) actually originated from the Balearic islands, off of the same coast which Valencia sits upon.
For the brew enthusiasts, you’ll be happy to know that Valencia is a craft beer city. There are quite a few local brands and several artisan-exclusive beer bars. We found a stall in Mercado Centrale that had a massive bottle selection – and not only Spanish. I was overjoyed to have found some of the latest batches from one of my favorite American breweries – Flying Dog!
L’ham del Mercat: Carrer de les Mantes, 5, 46001 València
4. Mercat de Colón
Mercat de Colón is an open air structure housing about a dozen small cafes and wine bars. Of course, after enjoying a class of vino tinto outside in the relaxing night breeze, we wandered downstairs to Las Cervezas del Mercado, a craft beer bar and sandwich shop. A to-go bottle selection was available in addition to an impressive tap menu.
I think the general consensus among my family was that Mercat de Colón is a higher-end experience. I would recommend visiting for a nicer, quiet dinner around 9 pm, as the shops start closing up around 10 on weekdays.
Mercat de Colón: Carrer de Jorge Juan, 19, 46004 València
5. Naranjas Valencianas
I couldn’t leave this one off of the essential foods list. Naranjas, by the way, is Spanish for oranges, another food Valencia is famous for. You can find them in the major markets and fruiterias for great prices.