Day by Day Itinerary

Experience the cultural diversity of Spain on a journey through three of this vibrant nation's most fascinating cities. Discover the country's cosmopolitan pulse in the modern capital of Madrid, then travel east to visit Valencia, a seaside city with more than 2,000 years of history which is quickly establishing itself as one of Spain’s most enticing modern travel destinations. Finish your journey in Barcelona, where the old medieval charm of the city’s Barri Gotic competes with the modernist architectural innovations of Antoni Gaudi for your adoration. With four nights in every city, you'll have ample time to see the sights and immerse yourself in each region’s unique cultural traditions as you tour Spain.

Madrid Barcelona Expand All
  • hidden

    Leave the United States today for your overnight flight to Madrid, Spain.

  • hidden

    Land in Madrid this morning, where a Grand Circle representative will meet you at the airport to transfer you to your hotel. This evening, meet up with your Program Director for an orientation briefing, in which you’ll get a preview of your upcoming discoveries as you tour Spain before getting to know your fellow travelers, including those returning from their Bilbao & San Sebastian pre-trip extension, over a Welcome Drink.

    Dinner is on your own tonight—your Program Director will be happy to suggest a local restaurant for you.

  • hidden

    Spain’s vibrant capital city enjoys a reputation as an extraordinarily welcoming one. Though the metropolis boasts a population of more than three million people, a great many of the city’s residents (called madrilenos) are transplants from other parts of Spain or the world at large, calling Madrid their home by choice rather than by birth. As a city of outsiders, its people know how to welcome visitors, giving rise to the phrase “if you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid.”

    After breakfast this morning, you’ll begin your exploration of the city with a half-day panoramic tour. You’ll drive by important landmarks like the opulent Royal Palace, constructed in the 18th century in the style of Versailles. You’ll continue on to drive past the Almudena Cathedral. The building's construction was completed in 1993, making it one of Europe’s youngest cathedrals, though with its massive size and unique blend of modern and traditional influences, it is still one of Madrid’s most remarkable-looking religious buildings. You’ll also see the Temple of Debod, a 2,000-year-old Egyptian monument that was dismantled and then painstakingly reconstructed in Spain as a result of Nile River flooding caused by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam project.

    After your tour, you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to make your own discoveries. In addition to the sites shown off during your tour, Madrid boasts a number of other important cultural attractions, including the world-renowned Prado Museum, a repository of treasures from Spain’s artistic golden age, including masterpieces from El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, and more.

    Tonight, regroup with your fellow passengers for an included Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant to toast the day’s discoveries along with those that lie ahead.

  • hidden

    Today is yours to make your own discoveries in Madrid, if you’d like. Or you can join an optional full-day tour to Segovia, which, with its dramatic hilltop location and stunning medieval architecture, might feel like a fairy tale come to life. Your tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site begins with the Roman Aqueduct, which was constructed without the use of mortar and is still standing today, due to the passionate efforts of the local community to preserve it. Then stroll through the charming, narrow streets of the old Jewish Quarter before visiting the Plaza Mayor, a picturesque square surrounded by many of Segovia’s most important buildings, including its Gothic Cathedral, an imposing 16th-century church that was one of the last of its kind built in Spain. The last stop on your tour is the Alcazar, a skyline-dominating castle perched idyllically on the top of a hill, whose romantic gables and turrets inspired Walt Disney’s design for the castle of Sleeping Beauty. Later, enjoy lunch at a local restaurant (included with the cost of the optional tour).

    Return to Madrid late this afternoon, where dinner is on your own.

  • hidden

    Spend another day acquainting yourself with Madrid, or join an optional half-day tour to another one of Spain's historic cities (and another UNESCO World Heritage Site), Toledo. This quintessentially Old World city boasts a rich multicultural legacy—throughout the centuries, it has been home to Romans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and more, all of whom have left their indelible mark on the city's culture and architecture.

    Your tour of the city starts in its Old Town, where you'll visit the Synagogue of El Transito. The building is unique in that it was built during a time in the 14th century when construction of synagogues was generally forbidden in Spain. In 1492, Toledo's Jewish community was expelled from the city, and the synagogue was converted into a church. Today, it is a museum. You'll also stop at the Church of Santo Tome and the city's Gothic Cathedral, an important spiritual center of Catholic Spain since its construction in the 13th century. You'll go inside to see its elaborate decor, including the magnificent altarpiece, a towering depiction of scenes from the life of Christ.

    Return to Madrid this evening, where you'll enjoy an exclusive Discovery Series flamenco experience, followed by dinner. You'll learn about the romantic Spanish dance and even get the chance to try your hand at it yourself to experience the passion of this iconic form of expression.

  • hidden

    Depart Madrid this morning for Valencia, stopping along the way to explore the breathtaking mountaintop city of Cuenca. The Moors who founded the city chose its hilltop location, straddling a rocky ridge dividing two river gorges, for its strategic defensive benefits. But the area's enchanting aesthetic qualities cannot be denied, as you'll discover for yourself during an included tour of the city's medieval walled Old Town, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

    As the population of Cuenca grew into the 18th century, the city faced a problem: Though beautiful, the local mountain topography provided limited opportunities for physical expansion. The people came up with an ingenious solution, to be mimicked later by the skyscrapers of the industrial era—rather than expand outwards, they built upwards, building homes alongside the very cliffs of the mountain. These are the casas colgadas, or Hanging Houses, seven- or eight-story homes which hang precariously over the Huecar Gorge. Today, the peculiar houses are home to Cuenca's Museum of Abstract Art, a symbol of the city's flourishing artistic community.

    You'll have a chance to see the Hanging Houses from the outside, then your tour continues with a stop at Cuenca's Old Walls, a relic from the Moors' original fortifications. Then explore the Plaza Mayor, a picturesque square lined with colorful buildings alongside the city's Gothic Cathedral, built in the twelfth century after the Catholic Reconquista of the region.

    Following your city tour, you'll venture off the beaten path to experience what is likely to be another highlight of your trip—a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local family. During this exclusive Discovery Series event, you'll have the opportunity to practice your Spanish, and sample authentic, home-cooked cuisine as you learn about local culture during meaningful, up-close and personal interactions with local residents.

    After bidding farewell to your gracious hosts, you'll continue on your way to Valencia, arriving at your hotel later in the afternoon. Dinner is on your own tonight.

  • hidden

    Continue your tour of Spain in Valencia, the country's third-largest city, as well as one of its oldest. It has been many things over the centuries—a Roman settlement, a Moorish stronghold, and even an independent multicultural fiefdom under the short-lived rule of El Cid, the famous Spanish warrior. You’ll become acquainted with the city this morning on a half-day panoramic tour, which will take you past a rich blend of Moorish architecture and medieval squares existing alongside contemporary avant-garde buildings.

    Your tour starts with a drive past one of Valencia’s most impressive ultra-modern institutions—the City of Arts and Sciences, a massive cultural complex built in the dry riverbed of the Turia River (now converted into a picturesque set of gardens walkways), which features an opera house rising like a leviathan out of a massive reflecting pool. You’ll then discover the historical side of Valencia, with a visit to the site of the old city walls—the walls are no longer standing, but several impressive medieval gates and fortifications still remain. Then continue to the Mercado de Colon, an upscale marketplace built in 1914 and renovated with a modern flourish in 2003. Conclude your city tour with a stop to view La Lonja de la Seda (The Silk Exchange), a 15th-century Renaissance trading hall recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and a unique example of Gothic secular architecture.

    After your tour, you have the afternoon to explore the city on your own, or to simply unwind before rejoining your fellow travelers for an included dinner at a local restaurant.

  • hidden

    Today is yours to spend in Valencia as you please, with lunch on your own. You might choose to stroll idly along the manicured gardens of the Turia riverbed, or seek out local restaurants to find the perfect paella, chased with a refreshing Agua de Valencia, a local fruity cocktail. Your Program Director can point you toward the treasures of this Mediterranean city. Tonight, enjoy an included dinner with your fellow travelers at a local restaurant.

  • hidden

    After breakfast this morning, you'll visit the Lladro Museum, where you'll find a collection of highly-valued handcrafted porcelain figurines. Lladro figurines are internationally renowned for their painstaking attention to detail and intricate coloration. You'll see the collection and tour the Lladro factory, to watch the specially-trained artisans at work and learn about their creative technique.

    Next, head to scenic Malvarrosa Beach for an included lunch, where you'll have the opportunity to sample authentic Valencian paella, a dish of rice, meat, vegetables, olive oil, and spices. Paella is enjoyed around the world, but was invented in Valencia, whose residents consider it to be an important part of their cultural heritage.

    After lunch, you'll return to Valencia, where the rest of the day is at leisure. Dinner is on your own tonight.

  • hidden

    Depart Valencia by motorcoach this morning for Barcelona, stopping along the way to stretch your legs in Peniscola, a scenic seaside town. Here, you'll have some time on your own to wander the town's streets and admire its medieval castle, perched on a hill overlooking the sea before returning to the bus to resume your journey.

    You'll enjoy an included lunch along the way before stopping again at the Catalonian coastal city of Tarragona for an included tour. Tarragona was first founded as a Roman settlement and soon prospered as a vital port city. Much of the original Roman construction still stands today, as you'll discover on a tour of the city's archaeological sites (collectively hailed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site). You'll visit the Praetorium, an imposing ancient tower that in the middle ages was converted into a Royal Palace for the Kings of Aragon, as well as the well-preserved Roman Circus, where horse and chariot races were held. Then explore the amphitheater, which in later centuries became the site of a Christian church.

    After your tour, continue your transfer to Barcelona, where you'll arrive this evening to check into your hotel. Dinner is on your own tonight.

  • hidden

    Today, begin your exploration of Barcelona, the second-largest city in Spain and the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia. Barcelona has been a vital center of trade in the Mediterranean from the Middle Ages up until the present day, which has helped to cement its status as one of the great cities of Europe—an important center of cultural, artistic, and scientific innovation for centuries.

    You'll start your discoveries here with a panoramic tour of the city, beginning with the wooded slopes of Montjuic Hill, which hosts Castell de Montjuic, a 17th-century fortress. Scattered along the hillside are buildings from the 1992 Olympic Games, including Santiago Calatrava's Olympic Needle. Then continue to the city's scenic waterfront, a modernized, trendy district with shops and pedestrian walkways that still retains much of its old medieval charm. Next, you'll drive along the Passeig de Gracia, an upscale boulevard which showcases some prime examples of Barcelona's Catalan modernist architecture, a standing legacy of the late 19th- and early 20th-century cultural movement to assert an independent Catalan national identity. The architectural style, spearheaded by the brilliant architect Antoni Gaudi, is characterized by unconventional, asymmetrical, borderline chaotic, yet visually striking designs. You'll enjoy an included lunch during your exploration.

    After your tour, you have the rest of the afternoon to make your own discoveries. Dinner is on your own tonight.

  • hidden

    Today you have the opportunity to explore Barcelona on your own. You might choose to wander through the winding alleyways of Barcelona’s old city center, or Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), which offers visitors a glimpse of medieval Barcelona. Some of the structures in this charming section of the city date as far back as the first Roman settlements of Barcelona. Today, centurions and garrisons have been replaced by quaint antique shops, hidden courtyards, and strolling street musicians.

    Or, you can choose to join an optional half-day tour to Montserrat and the Codorniu Winery. Begin your tour in Montserrat, a jagged mountain range outside the city which offers exhilarating hikes past peculiar rock formations and spectacular views of the Catalonian countryside below. The mountain is also home to a Benedictine abbey, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat, a Black Madonna statue which attracts many devout pilgrims.

    You'll then continue on to the Codorniu Winery, a major producer of the local Spanish sparkling wine called cava. You'll learn about the production process and tour the cellars, where you'll have the opportunity to sample some of the finished product. The wine isn't the only thing on display—the building itself is visually impressive, as it is designed in the Catalan Modernist style for which the area is so well known.

    The remainder of your afternoon is yours to explore Barcelona as you please, before you rejoin your fellow travelers for an included dinner at a local restaurant.

  • hidden

    One of Barcelona's most significant contributions to the European cultural scene is its one-of-a-kind architecture, designed in the Catalan Modernist style. The man who spearheaded this architectural movement was the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and today's exclusive Discovery Series Event will take you on a journey through his life, as you survey some of Gaudi's most famous works while discussing his historical legacy with an expert local guide.

    One of the highlights of your tour is sure to be the Sagrada Familia basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While construction of the cathedral began in 1882, the colossal structure isn’t scheduled for completion until 2026. Originally started by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, Gaudí took over in 1883 and then devoted his entire life to its construction. When he died in 1926, after nearly 43 years of work on the cathedral, the project was only 15 percent completed. At first blush, the breathtaking mixture of Gothic and geometric Art Nouveau forms appear to be dripping in melted wax, but closer inspection reveals a meticulous stone tapestry depicting the life and acts of Jesus Christ. Once completed, the church will accommodate some 13,000 worshipers.

    This afternoon is yours to seek out the many treasures of Barcelona. Rejoin your fellow travelers tonight for an included Farewell Dinner.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:

    Transfer to the airport today for your flight home. Or continue your tour of Spain as you begin your optional post-trip extension to Malaga.


Traveler Reviews

There's no better way to learn what a trip is like than from the firsthand experiences of your fellow travelers, and our Traveler Reviews are the real deal—unbiased and unedited—giving you an honest appraisal of the experiences that await you on this trip.

Have you been on this trip? Share Your Thoughts, Sign In

Please note: If you have taken this trip, please log into your My Account & return to this page. You will be prompted to post your review. Reviews are limited to 10,000 characters. Due to our moderation process, please allow up to 72 hours for your review to appear.

loading reviews

Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our vacations? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

Sign in to ask a question

Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our vacations? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

Sign in to ask a question

Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect


  • 3 locations in 13 days

Physical requirements

  • Not accessible for travelers using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Travelers using walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them throughout the trip
  • You must be able to walk 3 miles unassisted and participate in 2-3 hours of physical activities each day, including stairs


  • Daytime temperatures range from 51-91°F during touring season
  • June-August are the warmest months
  • February, March, and December weather can be unpredictable and change quickly within a short period of time


  • Travel over uneven walking surfaces, including ruins and archaeological sites, unpaved paths, hills, stairs, and cobblestones


  • Travel by 45-seat motorcoach


  • Meals will be based on the local cuisine

Travel Documents


Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.


U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips


Main Trip

  • Hotel Tryp Madrid Plaza de Espana

    Madrid, Spain | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Each of the 112 rooms in the Tryp Menfis provides individually controlled air conditioning and heating, wireless Internet access, safe, minibar, and a fully equipped bathroom with hair dryer. This modern hotel is located on the Gran Via, providing convenient access to major sites including Plaza de Espana, Puerta del Sol, and the Triangle of Art, as well as a host of shopping and restaurant options. While here, guests can also enjoy access to the 24-hour gym and take advantage of helpful concierge and business services.

  • Hotel Valencia Center

    Valencia, Spain | Rating: First Class

    The First-Class Hotel Valencia Center is located near the impressive City of Arts and Sciences, on the scenic old riverbed of the Turia River. The hotel features a swimming pool, sauna, and on-site restaurant, while each room includes air conditioning, satellite television, free Wireless Internet, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Hotel NH Calderon

    Barcelona, Spain | Rating: Superior First Class

    The Superior First-Class Hotel NH Calderon is conveniently situated in downtown Barcelona near La Rambla, the city’s charming pedestrian thoroughfare. The hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, on-site fitness center, restaurant, and bar, and each air-conditioned room includes free wireless Internet access, minibar, TV, and private bath with hair dryer.


  • NH Villa Bilbao

    Bilbao, Spain | Rating: First Class

    Only a short walk away from the Guggenheim Museum and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, this First-Class hotel is in an ideal location in Bilbao. Modern artwork adorns the hotel’s rooms, which feature private bathrooms with bathtub/shower, hair dryer, air-conditioning, satellite TV, minibar, electronic safe, and wireless Internet. Guests can also enjoy regional cuisine at the hotel’s restaurant, as well as the host of other amenities on offer: a fitness center, Turkish steam bath, sauna, and Jacuzzi.

  • Maestranza Malaga Hotel

    Malaga, Spain

    The Maestranza enjoys an excellent location only 100 yards from Malagueta Beach and a short walk to the Picasso Museum and many other attractions. En suite rooms feature a stylish decor and a range of amenities, including satellite TV, wireless Internet, minibar and a hair dryer. The rooftop terrace provides panoramic views of the city, and guests can unwind in the hotel spa, which includes a sauna, hot tub, and Turkish bath, as well as massage services.

Flight Information

Flight Options to Personalize Your Trip

You can choose to stay longer before or after your trip on your own, or combine two vacations to maximize your value.

  • Extend your vacation and lower your per day cost with our optional pre- and post-trip excursions
  • Choose our standard air routing, or work with us to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline, applying frequent flyer miles if available
  • International airport transfers to and from your ship or hotel, including meet and greet service, are available for purchase
  • Stay overnight in a connecting city before or after your trip
  • Request to arrive a few days early to get a fresh start on your vacation
  • Choose to "break away" before or after your trip, spending additional days or weeks on your own
  • Combine your choice of Grand Circle vacations to maximize your value
  • Upgrade to business or premium class

The air options listed above may involve additional airfare costs based on your specific choices.

Or, when you make your reservation, you can choose our standard air routing, for which approximate travel times are shown below.

What Makes This Trip Unique

Exclusive Discovery Series Events

  • Flamenco dancing experience. Learn about Spain’s most iconic dance, and perhaps try your hand at it yourself.
  • Home-Hosted Lunch. Share local cuisine and hospitality as you gather in the home of a Spanish family in Cuenca.
  • Life of Antoni Gaudi. Take a walk in the shoes of Barcelona’s most influential architect, examining some of his famous designs and learning about the details of his life and death.

Enjoy the opportunity to visit 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct
  • Historic City of Toledo
  • Historic Walled Town of Cuenca
  • La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia
  • Archaeological Sites of Tarragona
  • Works of Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

10 reasons to experience Spain's Cultural Capitals—in the words of our travelers

We often find that the best endorsements of our discovery-rich vacations come directly from our travelers. From world-renowned museums and architectural masterpieces to cultural delights like flamenco and bullfighting, here are some of the memorable experiences our travelers have shared from our Spain tour.

Madrid, Spain
"In Madrid, with free time, visit the Prado Museum, but be prepared to be overwhelmed with so much as it’s impossible to take it all in before the feet give out. Also take time to visit the Royal Palace and wander the gardens ..."
A 25-time traveler from Elkhorn, WI

Local history
"I learned a lot about Spain—dating from early centuries to the present. The historical significance of Spain and the exploration of the New World was "rekindled" from my 4th and 5th grade history lessons—and I found out that the "line of demarcation" historically in Spain is 1492 ..."
A 16-time traveler from Littleton, NH

Valencia, Spain
"Valencia on St. Joseph's Day, March 19, is a must. It is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but different. Valencia is a wonderful city that is not even mentioned in Rick Steves' book. I am going back to Spain next year I liked it so much."
A 5-time traveler from New Orleans, LA

Program Directors
"The tour guide, Valle, was superb. She went out of her way to make our experience in Spain a memorable one ... I was concerned about traveling alone and Valle made me very comfortable, especially by calling me and telling me not to be concerned. I also had a dietary restriction, and Valle made sure I always had the proper food to eat. She is an excellent tour guide."
A 2-time traveler from Rockville, MD

Local cuisine
"If you are a 'foodie' you will find much to enjoy on this trip: tapas (the tapas lunch in Barcelona is not to be missed), the irresistible ice cream sold on every street, the chocolate with churros, the paella, the 'agua de Valencia' (like a mimosa, only better), Manchego cheese with quince paste, even the calamari sandwiches (delicious ... who knew?)."
A 13-time traveler from Seal Beach, CA

Cultural discoveries
"Instead of sending us to a bullfight or to a flamenco dance, Grand Circle arranged for us to meet with a former matador and his students in training to learn the art of bullfighting and to visit with a flamenco singer, dancer, percussionist, and guitarist to learn how each plays a role in the flamenco experience. Both of those experiences provided much more information about an important part of Spanish culture than attending a public event."
A 15-time traveler from Scottsdale, AZ

Montserrat & Codorniu winery optional tour
"I liked the winery/Montserrat optional tour, but I always enjoy wineries ... I'm from California! I thought the setting and gardens were lovely and I really had fun sampling the wines ... it was a warm, sunny day and being in the mountains was a nice change from the cities. There was a wedding in the cathedral, and I was touched by the long, long lines of people waiting to pay their respects to the Black Virgin."
A 13-time traveler from Seal Beach, CA

Local people
"We were very impressed with how clean everything was and the people were very nice and laid back. We had lived in Texas for 30 years so we could navigate the language but there were always people who spoke English, especially young folks."
A 9-time traveler from Amory, MS

The City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia
"A highlight in Valencia is the City of Arts and Sciences (sort of a museum campus). There is very little information about this architectural wonder in guidebooks and it is worth spending time here. Several of us toured the Opera House, then spent time in the Oceanarium/Aquarium, which consists of several above- and below-ground buildings."
A 14-time traveler from Arlington Heights, IL

Segovia optional tour
"Don't miss the optional tour to Segovia—the Roman aqueduct is like no other we have seen, the town is fun to stroll around, and the Alcazar Palace is outstanding."
A 25-time traveler from Elkhorn, WI

For reservations and information about our Spain tour, call us toll-free at 1-800-221-2610

Discovering Valencia

The Mediterranean gem that is Spain’s best-kept secret

by Amanda Read, for Grand Circle

Valencia blends the excitement of a trendy Spanish city while preserving its rich and storied heritage.

A piece of heaven fallen to the Earth.

So goes the old saying about Valencia. It’s hard to believe that Spain’s third-largest city (behind Madrid and Barcelona, respectively) hasn't been on the radar of serious travelers until recently. Situated on the part of the Mediterranean coast known as the Costa Blanca, Valencia doesn't outwardly or immediately reveal its charms. Like a subtly flirtatious senorita, the city beckons but never begs.

But those who seek Valencia out are rewarded with an authentic Spanish city, one free of tourist menus, postcard racks, and souvenir shops. With endlessly sunny days, scores of cultural opportunities, white-sand beaches, gastronomic delights, and architectural wonders, visitors may be surprised by just how much the city has to offer—and those who get to know her are captivated by her charms.

Blending the old and the new

Founded by the Romans, the city developed into one of Europe’s leading ports and trade centers in the Middle Ages, reaching its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, when precious silk was sent from here to places around the world. Merchants flocked from throughout Europe, creating a foundation for the city’s unprecedented prosperity. Many of the city’s remaining landmarks bear witness to this glorious past.

Valencia’s stunning Gothic cathedral, built in the 13th century directly on the site of what was once a large Arabian mosque, is a perfect symbol for the long struggle between Christianity and Islam. For almost 500 years, between the eighth and 13th centuries, Valencia was one of the Muslim empire’s most thriving Spanish cities—until the Reconquista finally managed to recapture the city for good in 1238.

Within the cathedral today lies one of the most important symbols of Christianity: a chalice that many—even some Christian scholars—believe is the true Holy Grail, the vessel Christ used during the Last Supper. And outside the church, visitors can witness a centuries-old tradition called “The Water Tribunal” that still takes place every Thursday. This gathering of elected officials is one of the oldest democratic institutions in Europe and was introduced by Moorish farmers to settle irrigation disputes.

A short walk from the cathedral stands the medieval silk exchange (La Lonja de la Seda). This building, equally as impressive and imposing as the cathedral, was once the center point for Valencia’s silk trade. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its high-rising columns and beautiful interior vaulted ceilings served as the perfect scene for trading and bargaining.

Many more hidden attractions and sights await as one strolls the city’s narrow lanes and back streets. These include the old fisherman’s quarter, the Cabanyal, which has a flair all its own. It features elegant yet decaying Art Nouveau townhouses and colorfully tiled murals depicting maritime life.

Besides the old quarters, Valencia is home to some of Europe’s most fascinating modern architecture. A must for everyone is the futuristic museum and cultural complex called the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by Valencia’s Santiago Calatrava. The complex is a testament to New Age design, with buildings depicting a whale’s skeleton, and even a giant eyelid with its mirror image projected into a giant pool below, creating the impression of an entire eye.

Throughout the city there are also plenty of new offerings to be found: upscale restaurants, bars, boutiques, and cozy cafes. Valencia blends the excitement of a trendy Spanish city while preserving its rich and storied heritage. It’s truly one of the few Mediterranean locales to retain its regional character and pride even as it plans for the future.

Fiestas and siestas

Valencians are known for having a strong sense of national identity. And they know how to throw a party, as evidenced by their outrageous and spectacular fiestas. The city is famous for Las Fallas, a five-day festival held in March and said to be one of the best in Europe. Locals prepare for it throughout the rest of the year, creating paper and cardboard “statues,” only to set them ablaze on the final festival night. Firecrackers and window-rattling explosions blast through the night, showcasing Valencians’ fun-loving, rambunctious nature.

With all of this nightlife, it’s no wonder locals still take their siestas every day after lunchtime. Siestas began when workers in the fields would take shelter from the sun during the hottest part of the day, usually mid-afternoon. But nowadays, Valencians (like other Spaniards) enjoy this daytime nap in order to recover from either a hearty Spanish lunch or from a late night the night before. Therefore, a mid-day hush falls over the city, as most stores are temporarily closed.

Tapas bars are usually always open, though, and are the perfect place to get the true taste of Spain. Mini bites of different Spanish delicacies, tapas are generally not eaten as a whole meal. Some classics: a dish of olives, some anchovies or pinchos, bread with different toppings like garlic mayonnaise, or pa amb oli, bread covered with oil and then topped with sliced ham or Manchego cheese. Paired with a Spanish wine or perhaps an agua de Valencia, (not water, as the name suggests, but a mix of orange juice and cava, the local sparkling wine), it’s a perfect mid-day (or anytime) snack.

Living well is truly an art in Valencia. And in a city with so much to offer, it isn't difficult. Like the old saying goes, Valencia truly is a bit of heaven on Earth. It’s no wonder travelers are finally recognizing her charms.