FOOD is a central pillar of Spanish life so it came as no surprise that my first taste of Valencia soon after landing at the airport for a long weekend was a seafood lunch lasting nearly three hours. I wasn’t complaining as it featured the freshest, local seafood and the promenade restaurant’s views looking out to the pristine Malvarrosa beach and Mediterranean beyond was a world away from the rainy Glasgow I’d left behind. It was a most pleasant Friday afternoon.

One of many restaurants along the popular Paseo Marítimo de Valencia promenade, the contemporary El Coso set the bar high and kicked off a whirlwind three-day visit to Spain’s third-largest city which would involve cycling, sightseeing, sailing and, it goes without saying, eating. I do like the European approach to food – meals are not just for sustenance, they are important social occasions, a time to savour not just the food but the good old-fashioned art of conversation.

Foodies will find themselves in gastronomic heaven as Valencia has 2,500-plus restaurants ranging from Michelin-starred eateries, fine-dining establishments and tapas bars to local restaurants serving up traditional Valencian food. Add to the mix an array of international cuisine and there’s something for everyone. Let’s not forget either that the city is the home of paella.

But we would have to wait until Sunday for paella – something we discussed at length as we tucked into luscious prawns caught by local fishermen. Proper paella, say Valencians, is saffron-flavoured rice served with chicken or rabbit – or both – with vegetables such as green beans. No fish or shellfish and to add chorizo is an absolute no-no. And another thing – it’s only eaten at lunchtime.

Thoughts of paella faded as we walked off lunch with a stroll along the promenade. It’s certainly not a typical seafront and although there are shops you won’t see any buckets and spades, lilos, postcards and the usual tourist tat. This is much more elegant and upmarket – more chic tailoring and high heels than T-shirts and flip-flops.

The walk in the afternoon sunshine set us up for a bracing sail on a catamaran. Any cobwebs were blown away as we set sail from the plush Juan Carlos I Royal Marina, a city landmark that has twice been the setting for the America’s Cup. It was surprisingly warm out at sea but good to get back on dry land as the previously calm sea was getting choppy.

After dinner in the old town our host thought it would be a jolly good idea to introduce us to the delight that is the Agua de Valencia cocktail made from a base of Cava or Champagne and orange juice and served in pitchers to share. Sitting in the wonderfully kitsch Café de la Horas it did seem like a good idea and after several pitchers we called it a night.

A 10-mile bike ride the following morning, however, wasn’t particularly appealing when it became apparent that these cocktails are actually quite lethal. But I’m a trooper and once I’d stopped wobbling about it became clear that this was an excellent way to see Valencia. Cycling around in the sunshine was really enjoyable and as Valencia is also largely flat, even an old couch potato like me didn’t struggle too much.

Starting the tour in the Turia Gardens, one of the largest urban parks in Spain, was an opportunity to see the city slowly come to life. Jogging, cycling, football, tennis, basketball, yoga, dog-walking, the occasional Segway tour – there’s room for everyone to do their own thing here and they like to do it early.

The park was once the Turia river and the city rather cleverly converted it into the amazing space it is today following serious flooding problems in the 1950s. And it’s a cultural destination in its own right as the gardens are crossed by 18 bridges from different periods, each with its own architectural style and story to tell.

From this wonderful open space we headed for the ancient Barrio del Carmen district, Valencia’s historical centre with the Plaza de la Virgen, Plaza de la Reina and cathedral at its heart. We parked the bikes – there are plenty of bike stands – and made a beeline for the cathedral which is home to a chalice that many believe to be the real Holy Grail. Also on the itinerary was a visit to the restored Church of San Nicolas, described by experts as the Valencian Sistine Chapel.

The Plaza de la Virgen is a lively square, full of life and atmosphere. It’s also home to the Basílica de la Virgen de los Desamparados with its blue oval-shaped dome and frescos by Baroque painter Antonio Palomino. I’d had my fill of culture, however, and wanted to explore the labyrinthine cobbled streets off the beaten track.

Sadly, those hidden lanes with their bars and cafes will have to wait until I return to Valencia – there simply wasn’t enough time. Also off the menu – much to my disappointment – was a visit to Valencia’s Central Market which I was hoping would be a highlight of my trip. My mouth was watering at the prospect of its colourful food displays and Modernist architecture for which it is famous.

But our bike tour lasted longer than anticipated and I had to make do with another colourful food display – the oranges for which Valencia is also famous. There are trees everywhere, even in the streets. Don’t be tempted by their hanging fruit though – these oranges are purely decorative.

Next up was the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences designed by local architect Santiago Calatrava. It includes an IMAX cinema, Europe’s largest aquarium, the Príncipe Felipe Science Museum – used as a film location for an episode of Doctor Who – and the avant-garde opera house, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía. No visit to Valencia would be complete without hanging out here.

Feeling jaded after an energetic day and – let’s be honest here – too many cocktails the previous evening, I bowed out after dinner at a lovely restaurant in the Ruzafa district, one of city’s trendiest, and left the younger members of the group to hit L’Umbracle Terraza, a nightclub back at the City of Arts and Sciences.

After two days in Valencia I was getting used to non-stop sunshine but a quick look out of the window on Sunday morning made me pinch myself. Was I back in Glasgow already? Or had I been on the Agua de Valencia cocktails again? It was chucking it down. Over breakfast we reckoned that a planned visit to Bioparc Valencia – the city’s zoo – would be cancelled but our intrepid guide decided that a little rain wouldn’t stop us in our tracks.

This was June, so naturally this party of peely-wally Scots had failed to pack suitable outerwear. We were in Spain – there would be sun on tap. Yes, Valencia basks in sunshine around 300 days of the year. Clearly this wasn’t one of them. Arriving at the zoo – where the barriers are practically invisible and the animals are immersed in a habitat similar to their natural one – we were drenched by the time we even reached the entrance.

I’m not a fan of zoos but was prepared to make an exception with this one given its highly-regarded zoological credentials. But the weather won the day and we moved back into the city. The rain followed us but we soldiered on, wishing we were as prepared as the intrepid Japanese tourists with their waterproofs and umbrellas.

We took respite in La Lonja, the gothic Silk Exchange building that is a Unesco World Heritage Site and well worth a visit to learn more about the importance of the city in the silk trade during the Middle Ages. This building, opposite Central Market which sadly isn’t open on a Sunday, is one of the most famous civil Gothic monuments in Europe so I’m glad I saw it even though I was now absolutely soaked from head to toe.

There was good news, however, as it was time for lunch – paella. For this Sunday lunch we were travelling a few miles out of the city to the Albufera Nature Park, home to the largest lake in Spain and one of the most important wetland areas in the Iberian Peninsula with rare species of wading birds, a rich variety of wildlife and rice fields.

The plan had been to cross the lake on a boat to the village of El Palmar for lunch but the weather put paid to that and we continued by road, the reward an amazing authentic Valencian paella that warmed the cockles of the heart. Joining lots of families in the restaurant was a joy and a reminder again that eating should be a social occasion to be savoured.

Valencia really is a fantastic, family-friendly destination with sun, sea and sand for those who want it, history, culture and a fascinating mix of architecture – ancient and modern – if that’s your bag, and a cracking choice of bars, restaurants and cafés. It’s a vibrant and safe city with a compact centre that makes it easy to move around, an airport that’s just 10km away and a friendly welcome – perfect for a city break or longer holiday. I’ll definitely be back ... but I’ll stay off the cocktails next time.

Travel notes

Getting there

Ryanair flies to Valencia from Glasgow on Fridays and Mondays (until October 26), and from Edinburgh on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (

For more on the destination go to

Karen Peattie stayed at the Eurostars Gran Valencia, where rooms start from £47 per night