“Got it,” my husband gasped as he landed back down on the sidewalk, a sun-ripened orange and stray leaves protruding from his fist, “anything for my pregnant wife.”
He handed me the orange and with it, the scent of orange groves somewhere far away. I closed my eyes and imagined us there only to be brought back to reality by a city bus whizzing by. It was anything but pastoral. We were on a busy street in Valencia, Spain and we’d just plucked an orange right from a tree.
When it comes to traveling for food, Spain is one of the best places to begin a journey. In Madrid and Barcelona, we feasted on tapas washed down with endless cava. We noshed on gambas, pulpo, and fresh fish in Gran Canaria and Lanzarote. And in Valencia, the orange tree-lined streets led us to the birthplace of paella.
It didn’t hurt that I was five months pregnant at the time. Food tours while pregnant are pretty serendipitous because gaining weight is a necessity. Our main form of exercise was getting to the next restaurant, perfect for a pregnant woman who should be taking it easy. I dedicated a previous post to tips for traveling while pregnant.
We came, we ate, we walked, and we ate some more. Here are the highlights of our Valencia food tour.
It wouldn’t be a Spanish city without a central market or two, and it wouldn’t be my itinerary if we made our way to the Central Market on the day that it was closed. The good news is we returned on Monday and we were glad we did. When it comes to the best places to eat in Spain, a market is always a great place to start (as long as it’s not a Sunday).
Mercat Central de Valencia
Food stalls, fresh produce, smoked fish, coffee, and the buzz of locals going about their day, the Mercat Central de Valencia is a feast for the senses.
Wait for a stool at Ricard Camarena’s Central Bar and nosh on whatever’s on the menu for the day. Bocadillos (sandwiches) and tapas (small plates) are made to order. It is impossible to order wrong, so don’t be intimidated.
Be sure to grab some cash from a bank ATM before you arrive, and give yourself ample time stroll the market aisles for nuts, chocolate, spices, olives, fresh and dried produce, fish, meat, and more. Pick up some snacks for the days ahead or to take home with you.
Mercat de Colón
Another great market known for its Valencian Art Nouveau facade is Mercat de Colón. Designed by architect Francisco Mora Berenguer over a century ago (1914-1916) the exterior alone is a work of art. If the Central Market is a hub for residents of Valencia to do their shopping and grab a quick bite, then Colon Market is more of a gathering place for young people to see and be seen. Its ornate facade and interior has been raising eyebrows for over a century.
This market is made up of mostly cafes with patrons sitting down to eat a sandwich or sip on horchata. There are a couple of places to pick up cheese, meat, and olives, but the Central Market offers more variety than you’ll find here.
Valencia is best known as the birthplace of paella, named for the shallow pan used to prepare the iconic, family-style dish. Paella starts with a humble base of rice, sofrito, a hint of saffron, and broth which is slowly simmered down. The dish is topped with local proteins: fish, seafood, and traditionally rabbit or snails. Peas and fresh lemon round out the dish. The secret to great paella might be the socarrat, the crusty, crispy bottom and sides that caramelize, lending flavor and texture to each bite.
The true birthplace of paella is 30-minutes outside of Valencia. We hailed a cab and found ourselves in the lagoon-side town of Albufera before long. Albufera’s main street ran along a canal and was lined with restaurants as far as the eye could see.
We took a seat at Restaurant Mateu, which has been serving paella since 1966, and ordered a salad, some patatas bravas, and seafood paella for two. The paella was made fresh, our server informed us, and would take 45 minutes. We didn’t mind the wait, in fact this was what we loved about travel: pushing past the instant gratification of our daily lives, being forced to pause, to anticipate what’s to come, and of course to have time to stare across the table at each other and just…talk. We seldom give ourselves time to chill out and this was a welcome respite.
We hadn’t run out of things to talk about when the paella arrived. The pan for two took up most of the table. The flavors were rich yet subtle, the seafood was fresh, and the rice was the right amount of crispy and chewy. We dug in. This was the best paella we’d ever tasted. We took our time.
I’ll let you in on another secret: my husband makes paella every day at work. In fact, he’s the chef and we own the restaurant. Let’s just say Spanish food tours are our thing — equal parts R&D and R&R if you will. After this trip, Steven began to reinvent the paella he’d be serving for years to make it more like the authentic Valencian paella we experienced here in Albufera.
After the meal, we walked around the town and watched as other diners gasped at the sight of their own paella arriving. Eventually, we found ourselves where the canal meets the lagoon. A hand-painted sign read “boat tours” and we were once again intrigued.
The motor boat ride took us out to the center of the lagoon and then along the perimeter. Unfortunately the driver didn’t offer much by way of explanation, but we did see some birds, flora, and fauna. The lagoon is a source of freshwater fish, crabs, and rice paddies, and is protected as part of Parc Natural de l'Albufera de València.
Tapas in Ruzafa
When we choose a place to stay, walkability to good restaurants is one of our main criteria. It paid off in Vancouver and Madrid before that, so we picked a hotel in Ruzafa as our home base to explore Valencia. Ruzafa a hipster neighborhood known for bustling cafes, vintage stores, and tapas restaurants. We stayed at Petit Palace Ruzafa, and got around mostly on foot or via bicycles that were provided by our hotel (side note: make sure the bicycle tires will hold air before riding too far from the hotel).
Ricard Camarena’s tapas restaurant in the neighborhood, Canalla Bistro, was our favorite place to eat in Valencia. It was so good we ate there twice.
The menu is globally inspired, and while in my past experiences that can mean a restaurant doesn't really do any cuisine particularly well, Canalla Bistro could do no wrong. Chilled potato salad tapas straight out of Russia, sashimi and several other dishes care of Japan, street tacos from Mexico, and a Reuben sandwich that must have been made in the Lower East Side of New York. Yet here we were in Valencia, savoring every bite of smoked meat and rye.
It was as if the chef had crossed every corner of the globe and brought back his favorite dishes from his favorite places which happened to be some of ours, too. In fact, that’s exactly what he did. There was personality in every dish and every presentation, and even the servers seemed to be having fun. Chicken croquettes came out whimsically displayed atop a ceramic chicken, tacos on a giant ceramic corn cob, while other plates were delicate, nuanced, and refined. We also loved the option to order full or half portions. so as a party of two we were able to order six half dishes and not feel overstuffed.
It was one of those places where even though we were full, we had to experience dessert. The Amazing Banana (as it was called) wasn’t a banana at all. It was mango, it was vanilla custard, and it took us by complete surprise.
While you can find Spanish horchata, a creamy, slushy-like drink made from chufa nuts, all over the city, there are a couple of stand outs. Mercat de Colón is actually one of the best places in the city to find horchata, with multiple stalls within the market dedicated to the tasty drink. While sight-seeing around the city center, Horchateria de Santa Catalina is another great place to enjoy a cool, creamy glass, which is traditionally accompanied by a farton, a light, sweet pastry.
We’d certainly heard of Valencia oranges but we weren’t expecting to find the city streets of Valencia lined with orange trees. We visited in early November and the oranges were ripe and plentiful, and it wasn’t until a few days into our trip that we got up the nerve to pick an orange off of a tree and give it a taste.
Warm from the sun and perfectly ripe, easy to peel and segment, we couldn’t believe that more people weren't picking these oranges straight off of the trees. Now every time we eat an orange, this one we plucked off a tree in Valencia is our benchmark.
If you’re planning a food tour to Valencia, there are a few more places I’d recommend, and a few tips to make the most of your food tour.
There is some really good chocolate in Valencia. While we loved the drinking chocolate experience at Cacao Sampaka, and we weren’t too thrilled by renowned chocolatier Trufas Martínez. Choose the former, which is just a stone’s throw from Merkat de Colon. There’s also a chocolate stall at the Central Market that offers free samples and great prices on bars to take home.
Another worthy excursion is to walk along the beach. We had a great meal at Panorama, right on the pier overlooking some surfers down below. The only word of warning here is that there’s a good chance people will be smoking at the table next to you. This is mostly an issue at open air restaurants (we had the same issue dining on the port in La Maddalena, Sardinia). Others didn’t seem to mind dining with the scent of cigarette or cigar smoke, but being that I was pregnant it really bothered me (and my husband). If you can get past this, the food and atmosphere were great. Standouts were the blue wine and the jazz-pop soundtrack.
Next, know the days of operation and hours of operation. Our rhythm felt a bit off as we forgot that Spain observes siesta - a period in the afternoon between lunch and dinner when most restaurants are closed for four hours or more. While we love this restful approach, we were also packing a full days’ worth of activities into our food tour, so by the time 6:00pm rolled around, we were hungry and it felt like all of the restaurants in Ruzafa still had a couple of hours’ wait before they’d open.
Valencia packs a lot of wonderful food in a city that’s much smaller than Madrid and Barcelona making it relatively easy to get around to different neighborhoods and sample the cuisine. From bustling markets, to sweet treats, and from perfect paella to tapas that tell stories, our food tour in Valencia was full of flavor.
Have you made your way through the restaurants in Spain? Let me know where we should travel next - San Sebastian? Rioja for wine? Or maybe somewhere else entirely. Let me know in the comments below.
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