A visit to Valencia isn’t complete without an adventure around the winding streets of Valencia old town – or as it’s better known, El Carmen. The barrio is book-ended by Torres de Quart and Torres de Serranos – the old city walls, runs as far north as the IVAM Museum and as far south as Plaza de la Reina. This is a gorgeous corner of the city, perfect for getting lost in on steamy days and nights. It’s also where much of the city’s nightlife is – although forget the super clubs you’ll find down at Valencia beach – El Carmen is all about cosy bars in hidden plazas and drinks and tapas in candlelit vermuterias and tascas… with the odd place to dance thrown in for good measure. While El Carmen may be one of the more touristy corners of Valencia – away from the main hotspots, you’ll experience a slice of the laid-back magic that characterises this relaxed Spanish city.
Old city gate, Torres de Serranos in Valencia
Things to do in Valencia Old Town
Close down your Valencia old town map – Google can’t help you now. Instead, let your feet guide you through El Carmen’s winding streets. Graffiti-lined alleyways might look like they lead to nowhere, but typically this is where you chance upon the biggest rewards – historic buildings, churches, little squares with bars serving ice-cold jugs of sangria and glasses of local favourite, Agua de Valencia. This drink is a delicious combo of freshly-squeezed orange juice, local cava, vodka…and gin – an easy ticket to tipsy town with an added dose of Vitamin C.
1. Explore the history
Start your explorations in Plaza de la Reina, which is a super touristy spot, but it’s where you’ll find Valencia Cathedral, and a couple of seriously decent ice-cream shops. Valencia Cathedral dates back to the 13th century, and is a combination of Romanesque, gothic and baroque architecture. There’s a €7 entrance fee, but that includes your audio guide. Be sure to climb the spiral staircase to the Miguelete – a terrace area that offers fab views of the city, and swing by the Santo Caliz Chapel where you can get a glimpse of the Holy Grail, an ancient chalice that was apparently used by J.C himself during the Last Supper.
Valencia Cathedral and Torre del Miguelete tower
If you are a view junkie – Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart are worth climbing. These 14th century towers are the last remaining parts of the old city walls and still bear the scars of cannon fire, which happened during France’s siege on the city in 1808. They were also both used as prisons back in the day. Torres de Serranos offers views of the Turia – a sunken park housed in what used to be the old river bed. This park is Valencia’s crowning glory and it runs the length of the whole city from BioParc to the unbelievable City of Arts and Sciences. The Turia is well worth a wander, a picnic or a run if you packed your sneaks. It’s also home to some fancy bridges, if you like that sort of thing. Highlights include Pont de les Flors, Puente del Mar and Pont de L’Exposició. Climbing to the top of the towers costs €2.
Another historical landmark worth a look is La Lonja de la Seda (The Silk Exchange). This beautiful gothic building dates back to the 15th century and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its architectural and cultural significance. The entrance fee is €2 or it’s free on Sundays.
2. Shop local
No trip to Spain is complete without swinging by a couple of markets, and Valencia Old City has some of the best. Mercado Central is the Art Nouveau Mack Daddy of Valencia markets, featuring more than 1,000 stalls flogging fresh produce galore. Fill your boots with free samples, and stock up on olives, cheese, oils and fresh fruit. The ceiling isn’t half bad either. Mercado Rotonda is a circular market just south of Plaza de la Reina which hosts a flea market on Sundays. If you’re a stickler for rules, Mercado de Colón is technically a little outside of El Carmen, but it’s close enough to include and well worth the visit for a chilled glass of wine in an incredible building.
El Carmen is the dream spot for shoppers. Direct your spree around Calle Caballeros, Carrer de Baix, Carrer de Calatrava and Calle de la Sombreria, which is just around the corner from La Estrecha – the narrowest building in Europe at just 107cm wide. There’s a cute little tavern attached, where you can cool off with a cerveza.
3. Get cultural
El Carmen also boasts some of Valencia’s best museums. Check out some modern art at Institute Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM). The Ceramics Museum (€3) is a space dedicated to decorative arts, housed in an impressive 15th century building. If you like ancient artefacts that provide a glimpse into Valencia as far back as the Palaeolithic era, the Museu de Prehistória de Valéncia is worth a couple of hours. Entry is free on weekends. The Jardí Botanic (Botanic Gardens) are worth a wander too, especially on a hot day when you’re hankering after some shade. Keep an eye out for the friendly resident cats. Entry is €2.50.
Valencia Old Town bars
The majority of nightspots in El Carmen are distinctly laid-back, but there are a few places to dance the night away in if you know where to look. L’Ermita is a friendly spot to start the night. Expect a friendly crowd, good music and outdoor seating. If the sun is shining, head to La Negrita for strong cocktails in a buzzing square. There are some nice spots around Plaza del Tossal. Café/ cocktail bar, El Cafetín serves up a mean Agua de Valencia in quirky surroundings. El Caballo Loco is great for cocktails and meeting Valencia’s cool kids and things kick off at Mr Monkey Valencia a little later in the evening.
Prepare to discover your new favourite drink…vermouth! All around El Carmen are little holes in the wall or tiny bars where you can sample this local tipple. Restaurante Bocatín is one such spot. The building used to be part of a convent, so the inside is gorgeous…as are the array of Spanish vermouths, which each come served with a free piece of tapas. These guys have a lot of vermouths on offer, so to avoid confusion opt for something from the Valencian region or something ‘artesano’. Another good spot is Tasca Sorolla, a lovely little local favourite that serves tasty white and red vermouth through the bar’s window. These guys also have a decent dinner menu, including some seriously delicious seafood.
Jimmy Glass Jazz Bar is a cool hangout, which attracts some big names on the jazz circuit. Late night dance spots include Radio City, which although far from cool, is a trusty favourite if you’re in the mood to carve up the dancefloor. They host hip hop and reggae nights, there’s a stage to dance on, and it’s open until 4am. Peter Rock is another late night spot, as are Monterey Bar and Discos and Vibora if you’re in the mood for something a touch more rock-y!
Valencia Restaurants Old town
Valencia is the birthplace of paella don’t you know, so it’s essential you fill your boots while in town. L’Alpec is the ideal spot for paella, or anything traditionally Valencian, and it’s conveniently-located by the Torres de Serranos. El Forn del Carmen may not look like much but their paella and tapas are superb and portions err on the larger side. La Riuá is as traditionally Valencian as it gets. If you’re paella’d out, try arros negre – another traditional Valencian dish, which is seafood rice coloured with squid ink. For cheap and delicious tapas check out local favourite, El Dorita.
For food stalls and cold beers in the fairy light-strewn courtyard of an old convent, head to Convent Carmen. This cultural space has a cool events programme, hosting everything from movie nights and yoga to jazz, classical and rock concerts. Mercado de la Tapinera is another hip and Instagram-worthy square, which hosts a market, cultural space and two restaurants. La Bernarda serves up paella and other local favourites like cuttlefish and croquets, and La Tapinera Bar & Kitchen serves various nibbles, good cocktails and has an extensive selection of vermouth.
If you’re a veggie, be prepared to encounter some confused looks from your waiters. However, there are a couple of superb, well-priced vegetarian options in Valencia city centre. La Lluna serves cheap and delicious vegetarian food. They have a banging four-course lunch menu for just €8.20, plus there’s outdoor seating on a quiet pedestrian street. La Tastaolettes serves up enormous salads, and their daily lunch will set you back just €12. Alternatively, head to El Tap – their menu is created daily based on what is on sale in the market. Opt for anything featuring local tomatoes and you are on to a winner.
Paella Valenciana with seafood
Where to stay in Valencia Old Town
There are loads of options for budget accommodation slap bang in the middle of the El Carmen action. Center Valencia Youth Hostel is a top choice, just 50m from Plaza del Virgen and Valencia Cathedral. It’s got an idyllic roof terrace perfect for some pre-drinks before you hit the town…don’t bother until 10:30/11pm if you want to hang with the locals. Home Youth Hostel Valencia is perfectly located for the Silk Exchange and Mercado Central, plus setting up shop there puts you the right side of El Carmen for the nightlife ensuring a short stumble home. Purple Nest boasts its own bar and roof terrace, plus air conditioning, which is essential if you’re visiting during August. Their partner hostel, Red Nest is another popular choice that offers a superb free breakfast and sociable atmosphere, ideal for solo travellers.
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About the author
Amy Baker is the author of Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America, and founder of The Riff Raff, a writers’ community that supports aspiring writers and champions debut authors. You can follow Amy on Twitter here.