Growing up in a culture where automobiles had priority, I never learned about the joy of city walking and cycling until I became an adult and traveled the world. I finally settled in Valencia, Spain, a warm and sunny place on the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Continuously inhabited since the Roman Empire, the city has had centuries to carve out its identity on the Iberian peninsula, and Valencian culture is exuberantly expressed through its sophisticated and unique architecture. A 15-minute cycling tour takes me through a joyful mix of Gothic, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Modernist, and contemporary architecture, all performing side-by-side on an urban platform drenched by the sun.
We start our journey with a cup of coffee at Le Marquis, with a view of the facade of the Palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas. Built after the Baroque era in a Rococo style, today the building houses the National Museum of Ceramics and Decorative Arts. Windows, balconies, and doors are all decorated with lavish images of fruits, plants, and people.
Llonja de la Sed was once the financial center of the city, where merchants sold and traded goods. Built between 1482 and 1533, the building has four main parts: a walled Orange Garden (the Islamic garden); a main hall; the trading hall (Sala de Contratación), with its great vaulted ceiling; and the Pavilion of the Consulate. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Central Market of Valencia (Mercat Central) is located next door. After sponsoring a design competition in the late 19th century, the city chose a scheme by Alexandre Soler March and Francesc Vidal in 1910. Completed almost two decades later by Valencian architect Enrique Viedma Vidal, the structure is still one of Europe’s largest open-air markets. A blend of Art Nouveau and Gothic, it houses souvenir shops and restaurants, with a particular emphasis on local empanadas. (Image by Bene Riobó.)
When the economy boomed in the 15th century, Valencia experienced its Golden Age. Silk and precious-goods merchants grew wealthy; the city became more affluent, which led to the construction of Valencia’s most notable architecture. The Santos Juanos Church is built in a Gothic-Baroque style, with an ornately embellished facade and clock tower.
One of the city’s best public squares, Plaza De La Virgen is surrounded by magnificent architecture. The Basilica de La Mare de Déu dels Desemparats, Valencia’s main cathedral, is framed nicely by the Turia Fountain, where tourists and locals alike gather. The cathedral is one of most aesthetically quirky in Europe, and for good reason. It was originally a mosque, built by the Moors (714–1238 CE). After the Reconquista (English Reconquest), Christians began converting the structure into a church between the 13th and 15th centuries by adding new architectural elements.
The Plaça de l’Ajuntament (Plaza of the City Council) is one of the largest squares in Valencia. During the pandemic, one lane of traffic was given over to pedestrians. The irregularly shaped space is centered by a large fountain and lined with commercial, government, and residential buildings, as well as retail shops. Most of the structures date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Estació del Nord, Valencia’s central train station, was built in the late 19th century and is considered one of the major works of the city’s Art Nouveau movement. Its interior is no less exuberant, with columns and ceilings decorated with intricate Valencian tile mosaics.
Adjacent to the train station is Valencia’s bullring. One of the most popular landmarks in the city, it still hosts bullfights. The building was designed by the Valencian architect Sebastian Monleon Estelles in the Moorish Revival style and completed in 1859. The structure is supported by 384 external arches that give it a pleasing urban grandeur.
The Torres de Quart is one of Valencia’s few remaining defensive walls. Most fortification walls were demolished in the mid-19th century to allow for a new urban expansion beyond the old city walls. These impressive fortifications withstood several wars. In fact, we can still see traces of the cannon fire that mark those distant battles.
The city’s medieval wall had 12 different gates. Completed in 1398, Torres de Serranos connects the city with the Turia River. This gate hosts events all year long and acts as a remarkable civic landmark celebrating the entrance to the city’s old center and its beautiful alleyways. There is some dispute about the origin of the gate’s name. Many say it derives from its location, the entry point to the royal road (cami ral) connecting Valencia to Els Serrans district. Others believe there were settlers in the area named “Serrans” (mountain people) during the era of James I of Aragon. (Image from travelhabitat.es.)
Now we reach the City of Arts and Sciences. This area was originally a riverbed of the Turia River. However, in 1957 a catastrophic flood led to the complete drainage and rerouting of the river; the resulting land was turned into a sunken park. In 1991, architect Santiago Calatrava was commissioned to design three structures on the banks of the former river. Although these buildings received intense criticism due to outsize budgets, they remain big tourist attractions. Completed in 1998, L’Hemisfèric was one of the first structures. The planetarium—the “eye of knowledge”—is at the heart of the vast complex.
This massive, skeleton-like structure is the Museu de les Ciències. Sited between two other humongous buildings, this is a museum of the latest technology and science. In front of the building are several large, pulsating water pools that serve as entertainment for visitors.
Our final stop is the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, the opera house and performing arts center. The 240-foot high structure has a 750-foot long metal roof, supported by a massive concrete base. The center has four separate performing venues, ranging in size from 400 to 1,450 seats. It is nearly 14 stories tall and includes three underground levels.
All images are by the author, except where noted.