God I love Valencia. Located on Spain’s blissful Orange Blossom Coast, where the Turia River meets the Mediterranean Sea, not only is it sunny all year round and packed with culture, but it also harbours a dynamic gastro scene.
Whether you crave contemporary tapas or rustic Valencian paella (paella comes from Valencia!), here’s what and where to eat in the ever-enchanting city of Valencia.
Breakfast: Wake up with Valencia’s Third-Wave Coffee Movement
Retrogusto Coffee Mates is a tiny little stall in Central Market that sells next generation coffee: cold brews, pour-overs and espresso-based classics — ethically sourced and beautifully roasted. Sugar not necessary. Pair with a freshly-baked pastry piped with creamy “dulce de leche” (a sort of caramelised creamy goo) from one of the neighbouring pastry stalls and you’ve got the makings of the perfect breakfast.
Explore the Mercat Central (The Central Market)
Whilst you’re here… Valencia’s Mercat Central is the largest covered market in Europe and its beautiful Art Deco facade houses some 400 stalls selling the freshest produce from both land and sea: seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, cured meats, nuts, butter-soft Iberian ham, cheeses, ruby-red prawns, sea urchins and wriggling little limpets that dance on ice.
Delve into Valencia’s Traditional Tapas Scene
A quick stroll around the ancient streets of Barrio del Carmen will reveal all sorts of wonderful little eateries, including revered spots such as La Pilareta, which is famous for its juicy mussels, La Taverna Marisa, where you can feast on healthy tapas and local wines, and Sidrería El Molinón, where you can indulge in gourmet dishes and ciders from the gastro-gods of Asturias.
And Experience Contemporary Flavours in the Trendy Ruzafa Barrio
For gourmet tapas with a creative twist, I recommend heading to the ultra-hip enclave of Ruzafa, where you can dine on market-fresh tapas at MercatBar. It’s owned by the multi-Michelin-starred chef, Quique Dacosta, but don’t worry, the set menus here offer outstanding value for money and will take you on a gastronomic voyage of discovery. Playful dishes include dishes like pastry “air-bags” that burst with flavours of parmesan and bacon as you bite into them, oysters with sesame-seed-infused seaweed and my personal favourite, succulent braised bull-tail
Slurp Sweet Horchata and Chomp Sugar-Dusted ‘Fartons’
For those with a sweet disposition, Valencia’s famous horchata and sugar-dusted “farton” pastries are the perfect little pick-me-ups. Horchata is similar to milkshake, except it’s made with water, sugar and tiger-nuts, or “cufas” as the Spaniards call them. It’s sweet and creamy with a sort of chalky smoothness to it that’s delightfully refreshing on a sunny day.
Where: There are a number of great little “horchaterias”, but the locals all agree that Santa Catalina is where you’ll find the best in town.
Discover the Craft of Hand-Crafted Valencian Turron
Turron is a sort of sweet and chewy nougat made with toasted almonds and it’s famous around the world as a traditional Christmas treat. This essential Spanish staple originates from Valencia.
Where: Head to Turrones Ramos. Here, a small team of dedicated artisans hand-make and pack slabs of delectable turron of all varieties.
Devour a Classic Valencian Paella Lunch at the Beach
Paella actually comes from Valencia and was originally a humble dish enjoyed by farmers and labourers who would huddle around a huge paella pan (hence the name) to feast. Traditional paella recipes included Valencian rice pepped up with green beans, saffron and a mixture of chicken, rabbit and/or snails — not seafood as we now consider to be “the norm”.
As you might imagine, you’ll find countless bars and restaurants serving paella and “arroz” (rice dishes) all over valencia, but the king of the paella pan is unquestionably La Pepica, a traditional beachfront restaurant with a huge sun terrace.
Top tip: The whole thing with paella is that the rice absorbs the flavour of the ingredients – it’s not about the fish or the meat, it’s about the rice. And the best bit is the “soccarat”, the rice gets toasted at the edges of the pan.
Order the classic Valencian Paella with chicken, rabbit and green beans for an authentic taste of paella the way it was made back in the good ‘ol days, or indulge in the iconic house special Pepica’s Seafood Paella, which comes with ready-peeled shellfish.
Eat Classic Paella on a Budget
Paella can be an expensive business at times, so if you’re travelling on a budget be sure to pop into El Laboratorio, which is conveniently located just off the ever charming Plaza de la Virgen, and you can enjoy a traditional paella feast washed down with an expertly-made cocktail for around €10.
Get a Little Boozy with Valencia’s Famous Agua de Valencia Aperitif
Valencia produces a staggering amount of sweet and juicy oranges and the ultimate way to enjoy them is in the city’s emblematic drink: Agua de Valencia (Water of Valencia). Don’t be fooled by the name, this boozy concoction contains not a drop of water, but instead consists of freshly squeezed Valencian OJ spiked with cava, vodka and/or gin.
Where: Enjoy it in opulent splendour at the operatic Café de Las Horas, where you can sip on it by the jugful whilst enjoying live music and soaking up the theatrical ambiance.
Explore Valencia’s Fine Dining Scene
It’s not all about tapas and paella in Valencia – there are slew of fine dining options to choose from too, many of which I was fortunate enough to eat at when I visited for Restaurant Week. Here’s are some of my favourites.
Seu Xerea ~ Mediterranean-Asian Fusion
Fine dining in a bright and casual environment — and with prices that are surprisingly inviting — Seu Xerea’s Mediterranean-Asian fusion menus are simply unmissable. Chef and culinary visionary Steve Anderson creates dishes such as chicken and peanut samosas, mackerel namban with spicy yoghurt show skill and creativity, whilst the pork ribs with sweet potato, hoisin, pineapple and ginger will take you to a whole new level of gastro seduction.
Restaurant Riff ~ Michelin-Starred Market Cuisine
The Michelin-starred Restaurant Riff is something else. The creation of Bernd H.Knöller, a phenomenally experienced fine dining chef who I had the pleasure of hanging out with for a day, Riff is the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication to the art of the kitchen.
Dishes change frequently, “Too frequently,” Bernd explained to me as we hotfooted it around Mercat Central to order a few ingredients before service. “I’m a romantic chef. I like to come here, to see the produce. It gives me inspiration and new ideas.”
Flavours include rice with gently grilled octopus, hake with white beans and chorizo, and langoustines with organic tomatoes and dill. Simple, you might think, until you put it in your mouth and everything just makes sense.
“The foodie is happy if the food looks pretty,” Bernd suggested as we sipped on dessert wine. “But for the gourmet, it’s all about the flavour, how the taste makes you feel.”
Saiti ~ Gourmet Valencian Cuisine by Local Hero
Created by local chef Vicente Patiño, who trained at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants before deciding to open his own restaurant, Saiti is intimate, modern and understated – as Patiño explains, “The luxury is on the plate”. The dishes reflect the home-cooked classics of Valencia – lots of tapas, lots of fish, lots of meat – but elevated with a flair of contemporary creativity.
The wine list is also quite spectacular, and the prices make this an excellent option for those who want fine dining without spending a fortune.
Ricard Camarena Restaurant ~ Michelin Starred Mediterranean Dining
Ricard Camarena is the epitome of the modern chef. Obsessive, restless and uncompromising, he’s has garnered three Michelin stars for his work over the years. But although he owns a slew of restaurants, as well as a gastro bar in the Mercat Central, the Ricard Camarena Restaurant is where you can best explore the chef’s creative and elaborate cooking style. The staff here are extremely professional, waltzing around the hushed, gold-on-black space in suits like Tom Ford models.
Dishes are all about capturing the essence of seasons flavours – turnips with radish and salmon caviar, figs with duck confit and elderflower, roasted beetroot with smoked eel and dill – and the wine pairing menu is a real treat.
Sip Valencia’s Craft Beer
Barcelona may be leading Spain’s craft beer revolution, but Valencia’s scene is equally as exciting. After hearing I was interested in finding out about local specialist bars, Bernd began to gush with enthusiasm about an Italian couple who set up a bar called La Birreria, specialising in Italian brews.
“They import this special unpasteurised beer from Italy that’s really fresh. I am obsessed with quality, with excellence, and these people are the same,” he explained as he marched me over to meet them.
“Heineken, for example, I give a five and a half out of ten, but these beers are at least a nine and a half!” This is high-praise indeed coming from a man who has earned and defended a Michelin star.
Roberto, the owner, swiftly poured a tasting flight of draught beers ranging from ultra-hoppy double IPAs to dark and sultry stouts and Belgian-style wheat beers. The quality truly was extraordinary and am already planning my return so that I can taste more.
For the perfect ending to the perfect day of gluttony, order a bottle of the Saltafoss Belgian tripel beer, which Bernd described as being a perfect ten.
“It’s so good that’s it’s almost not beer. It’s pushing the limits. It’s incredible,” he said as we sat staring in awe at our goblets of liquid gold.
I stayed at the fantastic 4-star Hotel Vincci Mercat in the heart of the city centre. Visit the official tourist board website to find out more about the idyllic city of Valencia and surrounding areas.