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Valencia boasts one of the largest historic centers in Spain. The narrowest alleys are concentrated in a small area of the old town called Barrio del Carmen. This very same maze hosts a bustling nightlife, various subcultures and some of the biggest sights of the city.
Mecca for Artists, Punks, Hippies and Gays Alike
Barrio del Carmen, or simply El Carmen, blends the city’s Roman and Arabic roots with Spanish modernism. Just like architecture, the residents present quite a colorful mix – from well-dressed ladies to immigrants, punks, and hippies. Bohemian vibe attracts artists and party-goers. Many of Valencia’s gay venues are concentrated in El Carmen, although nowadays Ruzafa might be the more hyped gay neighborhood.
Get Lost to Find El Carmen’s Real Charm
El Carmen consists of old town roughly to the north of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which is the main square hosting most of Valencia’s administrative buildings.
Calle Caballeros (Knight’s Street) splits the quarter in half and is considered as El Carmen’s main street – so this is where most tourists trot. My advice is to venture into quirky backstreets to find El Carmen’s real charm: quiet terraces, tiny tapas restaurants, and pubs, orange gardens and old mansions.
Personally, I liked the streets to the north of Mercado Central (the main market). These tight alleyways form a real labyrinth and atmosphere is a bit rougher: houses aren’t so perfectly renovated, street art blooms and tourism hides. Forget the map and just walk on, let every corner surprise you in a different way.
Stumbling upon Street Art
Valencia has a vivid street art scene, which I didn’t know beforehand. If you follow the scene even loosely, you’ve probably browsed the works of Escif – at least on the net. Although he’s globally very active, his hometown is blessed with an amplitude of his art. We saw Escif’s funny pop-up art just off our home street, Musico Peydro. The same spot had some pieces from the world-renowned Hyuro as well. I’ve heard that she’s originally from Argentina, but lives and works in Valencia.
Are You Dead? became our favorite artist, as we stumbled upon his murals several times in El Carmen. It was love at first sight, as I love skulls and don’t mind witty variations on the same theme. El Carmen is the place to hunt the big names and future talents.
The Best Plazas for Lazy People Watching
Plaza de la Virgen and Plaza de la Reina might be the most touristic spots in the city. They’re worth visiting, even briefly, to get those classic postcard shots facing two of city’s main sights: the Cathedral and Basilica de Virgen de Los Desamparados. It’s told that the Cathedral even holds the Holy Grail, the Valencia Chalice! By stepping in both of these churches, we witnessed one mass and one wedding.
Terraces around these two squares are touristic and overpriced, even water bottles in machines cost five times more than in supermarkets. Of course, you can bring your own bottle of good beer and just idle the day away watching locals roller-skating, kids playing and tourists posing. During a few afternoon hours, we encountered several weddings, bachelor parties, and noisy parades.
To get a more modern feel visit Plaza del Ayuntamiento in the southern part of El Carmen. It replaced Plaza de la Virgen’s status as the main square in the beginning of 20th century and has still old (though not medieval) buildings like the town hall and post office. For us, it was merely a walk-through, though a pleasant one, as the square is surrounded by traffic and all those huge buildings make it less approachable.
Charming little squares that pop out around the corners of El Carmen’s old streets have a more authentic feel than any of those listed above. Some of them have terraces, some not, nevertheless they make for a nice break. We picked cakes from one corner bakery and sat down to watch the bustle for a while.
Why to Choose El Carmen as Your Home Base
I strongly recommend staying in old town (and preferably in El Carmen), if you are spending only a few nights in Valencia like we did. We stayed a few blocks from Central Market (Mercado Central) and loved the neighborhood since sights, restaurants, and nightlife were all just a walking distance away.
Our apartment was at a quiet backstreet called Musico Peydro; you can find their booking.com listing here. Price-quality ratio was excellent. Hotels near old town might be a bit pricey for what you’ll get, but there seemed to be nice apartments available. Ours had even three little balconies – perfect for immersing yourself into the beat of El Carmen first thing in the morning.
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