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From five-star hotels built on the ruins of Roman perfumeries to gin bars hosting segments of the Arabic city walls, Valencia is paved with fascinating history, with its streets bursting with unique stories of ancient empires. Initially, a Roman colony, Valencia or Valentia, was founded in 136 BC as it was named by its conquers. The Visigoth roots of the city’s glorious cathedral and the grand gateways that once kept Valencia Old Town safe helps shares the secrets of the city’s historical past through architectural grandeur.
Perhaps the most atmospheric part of the city, where crowded tables overflow onto the cobbled streets, and live music streams out of darkened bars, is the old quarter of El Carmen. This is the perfect neighbourhood to begin exploring Valencia’s majestic charm, with its streets encapsulating the city’s history while still filled with modern character. El Carmen is also home to some of the finest boutique hotels.
A step back in time
While the city thrived as a Roman territory for almost 100 years, Valentia was brought to its knees by civil war around 75 BC. After a period of a ghost town-like state, a new influx of Roman colonists repopulated the Mediterranean city in 24 BC, marking the start of its imperial period.
At the dawn of the new millennium was the true beginning of a reinvigorated Valentia. By 200 AD, the city was thriving, with a circus capable of holding 10,000 spectators and a grand forum on the modern-day Plaza de la Reina site, and a Roman temple stood nearby.
By the 5th Century AD, the Roman Empire was falling, and a new power arrived — the Visigoths. As a result, the Roman temple was replaced with a cathedral, ushering in a new era of Christianity.
The city faced further change with the Islamic Empire arriving in 714 AD, bringing with them the knowledge, prosperity, and excellent irrigation systems that would modernise agriculture for Valencia’s huerta region of farmland on the outskirts of the city. The takeover was simple and bloodless, with the old citizens peacefully incorporated into the new society.
The city’s name was changed to Balansiya, and the Christian cathedral was converted into a mosque. For some five centuries, the city prospered under its Muslim rulers.
In the 11th Century, El Cid rode in, and the Arabic Empire was weakened. By the 13th Century, Catholic rule was re-established under James 1 the Conqueror. A new Christian society carved from scratch, with the city’s prosperity flourishing, this medieval period is considered by many historians as the authentic Golden Age of Valencia.
With a collection of modernist havens, historic boutiques and romantic sanctuaries, the cobblestone labyrinth of the Old Town is the perfect place to stay when you travel to Valencia. If you’re wondering where to stay in Valencia, then try of these distinctive options.
Housed on the site of a Roman perfumery and hosting panoramic views of the city’s terracotta roofs and blue domes, Palacio Vallier offers five-star opulence in the heart of the Old Town.
A luxury retreat enjoying unequalled views of the medieval gateway to the city, Hotel Puerta Serranos combines ancient flair with modern luxury a stone’s throw from the sun-kissed squares.
The Helen Berger Hotel is a unique hideaway with a premium restaurant and vibrant atmosphere behind the University of Valencia’s 600-year-old La Nau building.
A two-minute stroll from the art-nouveau Central Market, Valencia’s vibrant food market, the glamorous Hotel Vincci Mercat provides the space and serenity you need to explore the ancient city in style.
Among the oldest hotels in Valencia Old Town, you can sleep under the eaves of the old Arabic watch tower and dine beside the remnants of the ancient city walls at the luxurious Hotel Marques de Caro.
The sun-splashed square of Plaza de la Virgen provides the perfect backdrop for the start of your tour. Soak up the unique flavour of Valencian life as you people-watch with a coffee in the cathedral square, right in the centre of the Old Town.
Head into the cathedral to witness the Valencians’ claim to fame, the supposed Holy Grail. Housed inside the Chapel of the Holy Grail within the cathedral walls, the Holy Chalice often tops the list among hundreds of claimants worldwide.
Next, a steep walk up the gothic El Miguelete bell tower offers a bird's-eye view of the city, while Plaza de la Virgen, a moment away, offers a pedestrianised haven in the heart of the cosmopolitan city.
The oldest judicial system in Europe, Valencia’s water court is still held outside the cathedral every Thursday at midday. As it has for close to a millennium, the water tribunal settles disputes among the inhabitants of the agricultural haven that encircles the city. While it may be tricky to understand proceedings as they are discussed in the local language of Valencian (Valenciano), it is remarkable to witness such a continuance of history in the modern-day city.
What to See in Valencia City’s Old Town
There are some unmissable gems to see during your trip to Valencia. Replenish your energies with fartons, the famous spongy textured pastries washed down with the typical accompanying sweet drink horchata, made from tiger nuts. Then, continue your stroll around the sunny city centre.
La Lonja de la Seda
One of Europe’s most famous gothic wonders, the Silk Exchange was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Set around an orange-grove courtyard in Valencia Old Town, construction began on this emblematic building in the late 15th Century, and its beauty is a testament to the power of Valencia during its Golden Age when silk was a key industry.
With a design that reflects both the art-nouveau interests of the time and the antiquity of the buildings that surround it, Valencia’s Central Market is one of the largest covered markets in Europe. It's where you’ll see the city’s Michelin-starred chefs rubbing shoulders with locals and the occasional tourist snapping a picture of the elaborate ceiling.
A magnificent medieval gateway to the city that looks out over the winding Turia Gardens, the Torres de Serranos were saved from demolition when the rest of the city walls were knocked down in 1865. An integral part of Valencia’s cultural heritage, the opening night of Las Fallas festival takes place here in late February, and they were used as a secret storage space to save artwork during the Spanish Civil War.
The city’s second remaining gateway, climb the Quart Towers for a fantastic view over the higgledy-piggledy city roofs. Once a key defence point for the city, the walls still bear the scars of Napoleon’s troops in 1808. The towers have since been a women’s prison, then registered as a National Monument, recognised in law as part of Spanish national heritage, and then finally opened to the public in 2007 after decades of extensive renovation works.
Iglesia San Nicolas
The Valencian ‘Sistine Chapel’, this parish church, was first erected in 1242 before being restyled in the Gothic style in the 15th Century. Two centuries later, the interior was redesigned with intricate Baroque detailing and frescoes of the lives of Saint Nicholas and Saint Peter.
Valencia’s Old Town is also home to fabulous historical immersion, with plenty of museums offering an informative way to learn about the city’s history and cultural heritage - with many of their buildings beautiful historical artefacts themselves.
The Archaeological Almoina Museum
Between Plaza de la Virgen and Plaza de la Reina, the Archaeological Museum of Almoina offers a glimpse into the ancient Valencia that lies below the city streets. Here you can stroll among the ruins of Roman, Visigoth and Arabic walls, squares, forums and baths, all lying side by side.
The Ceramics Museum
Housed in the Baroque Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas, the National Museum of Ceramics is home to Spain’s most extensive collection of ceramics. Discover pieces by Picasso, remnants of the Silk Route, including textile art, typical costumes and elegant furniture from some of Valencia’s most iconic nobility.
The Silk Museum
Found in the old quarters of the Silkmakers Guild, dating back to the 15th Century, this is the place to dive into the city’s rich trading history and textile traditions. Admire historical documents, antique garments and Gothic architecture, then pick up a silk souvenir.
One of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in the city of Valencia, the Monument of the Patriarca is home to paintings by Caravaggio, El Greco, Benlliure and Ribalta, among many other famous Valencian names.
Valencia street art
The charming cobblestone streets of El Carmen host more than history and memories of ages past; they also have a vibrant modern culture visible on every corner.
The incredible street art scene in Valencia was propelled by some incredible artists like the Valencian David de Limon with his instantly recognisable happy robot and the huge depiction of Moses with a beard of snakes, located in Plaza Tossal, one of the most photographed walls in the city, by late Argentinian artist Hyuro.
Why visit Valencia’s Old Town?
Whether tempted by the fantastic art scene, the best restaurants in Valencia Old Town, or the living history found along the sunny city’s streets, there are many reasons to visit this fine Mediterranean City.
As you sit in glamorous bars with pieces of history right beside your table or walk through the impressive Portal de la Valldigna, an arch which symbolised the entrance to the Moorish quarter after the arrival of James I, you’ll experience the unique atmosphere of a city which survived it all.
And from Civil War air raid shelters to old convents hosting modern art exhibitions and open-air film screenings through the summer months, it’s easy to pack your trip to Valencia with a list of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Plan your next Weekend Break in Valencia!
Travelling to Valencia and looking for an urban walking route to discover the city's green artery? Follow our guide to the city’s ancient Turia riverbed, now a 9km park.