Sun, sand and science: Why Valencia is the ultimate family holiday destination
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Valencia could well be one of the best family city break destinations in Europe, says Charlotte Smith-Jarvis.
After five consecutive summers of jetting off on fabulous city breaks with my friends, my kids had had enough.
'Mum,' my daughter shouted earlier this year as I was looking for deals on camping trips in Cornwall, 'why do you and your friends get to go abroad all the time and we have to go in a stupid tent?'
She had a point. But I thought they liked camping. Perfecting the art of pitching a tent is character building isn't it?
I felt bad though, so I set on a mission to plan a last minute family break over October half term. There had to be culture and great food (for me), and enough activities to sufficiently stimulate the short attention spans of my tweenagers – and hubby.
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Valencia seemed to fit the bill.
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What can we do there?
Wander the streets: The area immediately surrounding our base at Plaza del Ajuntamiento had branches off to the historical city centre, with its rustically enchanting winding alleys. There aren't many shops to write home about but I found a brilliant chocolaterie (chocolatfactory.com). The area to the south and west of the city's train station is Valencia's answer to Shoreditch – trendy and full of interesting shops, restaurants and bars – including, to my son's delight, a hipster café dedicated to cereal (cerealhunterscafe.com).Take a proper map. We used the free one that came with our travel guide and it was rubbish – I blame it for dozens of blisters!
Grab breakfast at Mercado Central: One of the biggest indoor food markets in Europe, inside, it's a glorious assault on the senses. More than 1,000 stalls had us salivating with their tins of saffron, slabs of oozing soft turron and tiny country rolls filled with pata negra ham. The kids loved being in the hubbub and trying all the samples (who wouldn't?). And we found it an excellent and cheap spot for breakfast and lunch. One bakery sold a large pastry and coffee for less than two Euros before midday. And the excellent filled rolls were only one Euro! We also sampled the local speciality of horchata (a kind of milky drink made from sugar and ground tiger nuts) which is something of an acquired taste. The fartons (no sniggering) that went with them were tasty though - a cross between an éclair and a cake.
Walk the Turia Gardens: We're quite a fit family with runners and football players in our midst, but we felt like slobs compared to the Valencians who seemed to run and cycle everywhere, but no more so than in the Turia Gardens. Carved from the former riverbed, diverted after devastating floods in 1957, the park wraps around much of the city and is accented by running and cycle paths, fitness equipment and sports facilities. We felt like we needed to break into a jog every time we stepped foot here – but it's hard to run when you're eating a cake! If you're sporty, this is certainly the city for you.
Gulliver: Inside the Turia Gardens and a short stroll from the City of Sciences and the Arts, we found ourselves at this totally whacky, almost surreal, park on every day of our trip. The playground is basically a huge sculpture of Jonathan Swift's larger than life character, covered in climbing ropes, hidey holes and slides. It was a bit unnerving watching the family slide out of Gulliver's armpits, but they absolutely loved it, and entry was free.
The City of Arts and Sciences: There's just too much to talk about here. This spaceage, otherworldy complex was designed by architect Santiago Calatrava and I cannot describe how beautiful it is at night when the curves and arches of the buildings cast their shadows along the glimmering pools and fountains.
The aquarium is one of the most impressive any of us has ever seen, with a gigantic shark tunnel, a whimsical atrium of coloured birds, a technicoloured display of jellyfish and even an Arctic building with snow, penguins and walruses. Also at the complex is a 4D cinema (the hemispheric) and a three-floored science museum, currently hosting a dinosaur exhibition. Pretty well all the exhibits throughout the museum were interactive and we blooming loved it. From playing noughts and crosses with a robot, to testing our balance, and playing with tech, this was a real highlight of our trip.
Valencia Bioparc: This is a zoo unlike any other. We walked from our hotel through the Turia Gardens, which took about an hour (get a bus if you go in summer or you'll melt). The attitude of staff as we went in soured my holiday vibes, I have to admit. They checked our bags for food and took out snacks we'd bought for later in the day – clearly to get us to buy the expensive zoo food. Moments after, as we handed over our tickets, we were asked if we wanted pictures taken with the gorilla statues at the entrance- for a fee of course. Another money-grabbing exercise. We weren't happy. But once we walked over the bridge and into Bioparc we were in awe. Don't expect to see every animal under the sun as this place focuses on the inhabitants of Africa. There are no cages (I swear I could have reached out and touched a giraffe at one point) with vantage points set into manmade tunnels and viewing platforms. At one point, in an open enclosure with some monkeys there was an almighty scrap between some of the youngsters (monkeys that is) and my poor other half was left stranded with his camera, while the kids and I scarpered with the other tourists. Don't worry he survived – and with some good pics too. Enclosures are much larger than you'd find in the average zoo and it was a real experience to see the gorillas – even though they did spend most of the time picking their noses (and eating it).
1. Check out La Pappardella. There are loads of Italian restaurants in Valencia and this one was super family-friendly and keenly priced. They specialise in homemade pasta, and the tagliatelle with Sicilian red pesto was spot-on.
2.If you're going to eat paella is has to be at lunchtime (that's when it's made fresh) and it has to be eaten by the beach. A taxi to Playa de la Malvarrosa will cost you less than 10 Euros. There's La Pepica (all the guide books will point you here) but you'll find lots of other beachfront restaurants to explore. Beware the set menu. We were lured into a couple of places by insistent staff shoving the 15 Euro set lunch in our faces, but once seated found we were totally ignored – and so walked out. In the end we had the most amazing grilled pork with black garlic emulsion, and traditional paella (with chicken and rabbit, all smoky from the wood fire) at L'Estimat. Friendly service too.
3. Don't miss out on the meat feast at Asador de Aranda, a truly authentic Spanish steakhouse where everything is served from the kitchen's wood-fired oven. The lamb ribs and suckling pig (which is so smoky it tastes like bacon) were incredible.
4. For tapas in a chic setting head for the lovely open market building of Mercado Colon, which has several bars and small restaurants. Downstairs you'll discover Asian food and star eateries from chef Richard Carmarena.
Charlotte and her family travelled from Stansted with Ryanair. Return flights for four during October were £380. Flight time was just under two hours.
Where to stay
The Casual Valencia Vintage (£450 for three nights) was smack bang in the city centre and had absolutely everything we could have needed. Our room (puzzlingly Roman themed) was enormous and the beds some of the most comfy we've ever slept in.