Second Cities: Porto and Valencia

This is a post by David.

One thing that I’ve learned while traveling is that I really enjoy B-List cities. And by that, I mean cities that are not their country’s capital, may not be extensively covered in guidebooks, but are still cultural, historic, and wonderful places. I don’t like the term “B-List” because that implies that they are not as good, so maybe “second cities” works better.

For instance, in our journey through Asia we really liked Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is the second largest city in Thailand, was once the country’s capital, and is full of wonderful culture, friendly people, and so many things to do. We spent three weeks in Chiang Mai and loved every minute. Compare that to the four days we spent in Bangkok.

Boston is another great example. New York may be the city that America is known for, but Boston is my home. I love that it’s smaller and less hectic, but still has so much to offer.

On this trip we spent time in two great cities that fit this mould. The first was Porto, Portugal. It is the second largest city in Portugal, the “capital of the north”, and the home of port wine. The city has a very authentic feel and fewer tourists than Lisbon. We had a lot of fun there and met some great people.

A traditional boat moored in the river in Porto. Notice the barrels of port that it is transporting!

The other “second city” we visited was Valencia, Spain. I’d go so far as to say that Valencia is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s the third largest city in Spain, but it hardly gets a mention in the guidebooks (as a matter of fact, our guidebook didn’t mention it at all!). With everyone flocking to the metropolis of Madrid, the architecture of Barcelona, or the palaces of Andalucia, they all seemed to overlook this gem on the east coast.

We had intended to spend three days in Valencia, but within the first few hours we were trapped in the city’s charm. We promptly changed our flight and spent a total of nine days in the city which gave name to its famous oranges.

Enjoying an orxata, a Valencian drink made from chufa nuts. It tastes kind of like almond milk

So what makes Valencia such a wonderful place? Well, where shall I start?

First let’s talk about tourists: there aren’t many. This leaves the city delightfully clear of scams, high prices, and giant tour groups (though there are still a few of these). The city feels authentic, people will actually speak to you in Spanish, and you can mingle with the locals who are living their normal lives.

The futuristic Arts and Science City in Valencia

But there are two worthwhile exceptions to this: La Tomatina and Las Falles. The Tomatina is the world-famous tomato fight that happens just outside the Valencia in a town called Buñol. Jenny and I participated this year and we’ll post some pictures once we get the film developed (film?!) from our waterproof camera.

Las Falles is an event that takes place over twenty days in the winter in Valencia. I won’t go into it here, but it’s a really exciting event that causes the city to shut down for three weeks. I had the great fortune of visiting during Las Falles a few years ago and it was amazing.

Valencia’s city hall is a little bit nicer than Boston’s…

But back to Valencia as a city. One of best things about this city is the beautiful park that encircles the historic center. Up until a few decades ago there was a large river running through the city, but after a terrible flood the residents decided that the river needed to go. They diverted it, and it its place they built an amazing, huge linear park. Our hotel was right on the edge of the park and so every day we visited the park to picnic, exercise, and ride bikes.

Speaking of bikes, Valencia has the best bike share program I’ve ever seen. You can pick up a bicycle from any of the 275 locations around the city, ride for a half-hour for free, and then drop the bike off at a different location. Jenny and I got memberships while we were there (big surprise) and we used the bikes at least four times a day. It was a wonderful and effective way to get around.

Jenny riding a bike through Valencia’s park

Then there’s the Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias, or the City of Arts and Sciences for my English-speaking friends. It is a huge, futuristic complex of buildings that houses an aquarium, a science museum, a theater, and more. And don’t forget the fountains and gardens.The Ciudad is at one end of the linear park and at the other end is a giant zoo!

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias just before sunrise

I could go on and on about the charming buildings in the historic center, the beaches within biking distance (free with a bike share membership!), and the food (they invented paella), but you’ll just have to take my word that it’s a great place to visit… and visit again… and stay a little longer…

Sharks swim overhead and all around you at Valencia’s fantastic aquarium

What about you? Are you a second-city person? What overlooked cities do you love? I’m looking for new travel destinations!

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