Thousands of students flock to Europe every year to learn one of the continent’s 24 languages, and no country is more popular than Spain. Barcelona and Madrid are the go-to choices for many students, but if you’re considering a move to improve your Spanish, take a moment to consider the country’s best kept secret. You’ll quickly discover there’s no better place to learn this beautiful language than Valencia.
Every year my mum and I go on a three-day city trip to somewhere in Europe. I live in Berlin, she lives in London, so it’s our annual opportunity to spend quality time together, and it also gives us a good excuse to discover new places. This year we selected Valencia, a city I knew nothing about. I expected a quaint, sleepy Spanish town with a few cafes, bars and shops to peruse. I suspected after three days my mum and I would have covered everything and we could happily tick Valencia off our list.
Not so. I realized my predictions were totally wrong a few minutes after we left our Old Town Airbnb the first day. We meandered through labyrinthine streets bathed in the orange glow of evening, following the sounds of clinking glass and jazz music, until we emerged onto Plaza de La Reine, a packed central square teeming with life. Friends drank beer by the baroque fountain, families dined out in the table-packed streets and couples chatted lazily while sipping cocktails at open-plan bars. This city felt vibrant, not sleepy, and in that moment I realized three days just wasn’t gonna cut it.
Why Valencia Is A Spanish Learner’s Dream
Fernando, born and raised in Valencia, has been teaching Spanish for over 10 years at Taronja Spanish School in the heart of the city. His first language is Spanish, his second is Valencian and he’s keen to tell me that he’s very happy to speak either. Spain is home to a variety of languages and localized dialects, you see, and many students are surprised to find out they won’t hear classic Spanish spoken everywhere. For those looking to practice their Standard Spanish, though, Valencia is a great option.
Language students typically choose Barcelona as a first choice city to learn Spanish: It’s well-known, on the beach and its landmarks and sights are famous the world-over. Practically speaking, you also hear a lot of Catalan spoken here, which is great if you’re trying to learn Catalan, but not great if you’re trying to learn Spanish.
Madrid or Salamanca are also popular favorites, but those cities aren’t on the coast. “Valencia is the best city in Spain to learn Spanish,” Fernando says with confidence. “Firstly because of the size of the city. It’s the third largest city in Spain, so we have everything a big city has — great transportation, for example — but you can walk everywhere.” It also has all of the benefits of Spanish culture, and none of the downsides.
Valencia Ticks All The Boxes With None Of The Downsides
Of course, there’s the beach. “A lot of students who come to Spain are looking for nice beaches and good weather. We’re in the Mediterranean, so our summer is hot, but the beach cools down the city,” Fernando says. I check out the beach for myself one evening before dinner. The expansive, yellow sand stretches down to choppy, turquoise water. Although there are many people here and the atmosphere is jovial, it somehow feels uncrowded. It’s a breath of fresh, salty air compared to the jam-packed city beaches elsewhere in Europe.
Valencia has the big perk of being significantly less touristy, and therefore less stressful, than its big sister, Barcelona. And Fernando informs me that there’s no better place to eat Spain’s national dish. “Paella is originally from Valencia. If you want to try paella, come to Valencia. That stuff you get in the other parts of Spain — that’s not paella, that’s just rice with ingredients.” If you do want to get around the country, though, Valencia is the perfect location. “We’re close to Madrid, Barcelona, the islands of Ibiza and Mallorca,” Fernando says. “You can easily travel to a different part of Spain.”
The Sights And Sounds Of Valencia
For those wanting to stay close to home base, Valencia truly has it all. On our first morning we took a walking tour of the city and discovered the rich, intricate history of Valencian architecture. We passed through the Serranos Towers, the city gates built in 1392, and jumped out of our skins as the bell tolled at Valencia Cathedral. We learned that the heart and soul of the city lies in The River, which used to be the River Turia. A huge flood almost destroyed the Old Town in 1957, though, so the river was soon drained and transformed into a green space dotted with fountains and sculptures that now runs the length of the city. Here, you can stroll through rich lawns, breathe in the smell of lush plants and fuel up at one of the many food locales.
At one end of The River sits the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias — the City of Arts and Sciences — an architectural and cultural complex that’s now one of the 12 Treasures of Spain. Shaped like gigantic glass animals straight out of a sci-fi movie, its six glass structures protrude from a shallow pool of crystal clear water. They’re a far cry from the Sagrada Familia, but awe-inspiring in their own unique way. Venture inside and you’ll find workshops, interactive exhibitions and educational art displays on a range of topics, from brain neurology, to oceanography and the solar system.
The true magic of Valencia is found in its vibrant food and nightlife culture. I was charmed by Russafa, a hip, little area with tons of cafes, tattoo parlors, vintage shops and bars. In recent years, culinary talent has flocked to the laid-back city to escape the competitive landscape of Madrid and Barcelona. We spent our last evening at ONA in the beachside neighborhood of El Cabanyal. The owner, Marcelo, opened the restaurant with his wife last year with dreams of bringing his Chilean cuisine to his wife’s home city. The menu is short and bursts with flavor, containing dishes from slow-cooked pork, to fresh salmon and a delicious dark chocolate and raspberry soufflé.
As my mum and I said Salut over our last glass of Prosecco, we agreed that picking Valencia for our city break destination was the best (accidental) decision we made all year.