It’s such a contrast to pretty much everything else I’ve seen in Spain, a country with so much history. The palaces and monuments of Seville and Granada seem to be a world away here in Valencia; the complex I am currently standing in is so ultra-modern that is seems less European and more Saturnian, like buildings that would house Starfleet. But this is still Spain, and Valencia, the country’s third largest city, has a ton of history. But here, in the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, all of that feels light years away.

The Hemisferic and Science Museum together look like a crocodile or spaceship!

In 1957, after a major flood, the River Turia was diverted, leaving its former bed running directly through the middle of Valencia. It was largely turned into a sunken green space, a park stretching most of the way across the city. However, one end was kept for something special, and between 1998 and 2005 – at the cost of nearly €1 billion – the City of Arts and Sciences opened, a collection of futuristic educational and performance spaces, surrounded by shallow pools and fountains.

It quickly became Valencia’s most popular tourist destination, and contributes nearly €150 million each year to the city’s economy, along with more than 3,000 jobs. Even if you don’t go into the museums – all have admission fees, though there are deals to see them all – the complex itself should be at the top of your list when visiting this wonderful seaside city, just for the architecture, public art, and pedestrian spaces.

My day starts at the Umbracle, a parking garage (seriously) disguised as a palm garden and sculpture park. It is open to the sky but shaded, lined with trees and benches, and easily the most lovely car park I’ve ever seen. This is the visitor’s introduction to the City of Arts and Sciences, and it couldn’t be a more welcoming one. It is a sign that this is a special place.

Nice car park, no?

The City of Arts and Sciences cuts a roughly northwest to southeast diagonal along the old riverbed, and I decide to walk the entire length of it in that direction. First up is the Palau de les Arts, a theatre resembling either a spaceship or a trilobite – or maybe a horseshoe crab. While it isn’t open to just pop into, I walk all around snapping photos. This is one of the largest venues in the city, and it’s simply stunning.

Spaceship or trilobite? You be the judge!

Next is Hemisferic, a – shockingly – half sphere that houses an underground IMAX theatre. I decide to see one about the mysteries of the galaxy, with exciting experiments from CERN and elsewhere, as well as talking about some scientists who paved the way for our modern dreamers. It was good, the audio in all languages via a headset.

Hemisferic

When viewed from the front, Hemisferic and the Museu de les Ciencies (the spelling is different because the name is in Valencian) look kind of like a crocodile, and even up close, this world-class science museum seems to resemble a whale’s skeleton (to me, at least). Several floors of rotating exhibits await, a symphony of learning geared toward children but enjoyable for adults, as well. One maps the brain; another tells the story of Mars both scientifically and through pop culture.

The science museum from the side

I pass under the Assut de l’Or Bridge and by the Agora, a bright blue event space that also isn’t open for poppers-in, and head to – in my humble opinion – the pinnacle of the City of Arts and Sciences: Oceanografic, Europe’s best rated aquarium. If you pay for admission only to a single attraction, it should be this one. The exhibits are wonderfully curated, a great mix of fish, mammals, and more.

The Agora. For scale, see the guy cleaning near the top.

Among the highlights: seals and sea lions, penguins, lots of different jellyfish, sharks, and Beluga whales. The whales are my favorites, but you’ll have to visit to find yours!

So cute!!

The only negative was the dolphin show, a Sea World-esque exploitation of animals that I’d prefer to see acting naturally, so I left that early to go back and visit the Belugas a bit more before the place closed for the evening.

Oceanografic, the Agora, and the bridge

All in all, I spent the entire day at Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, from 10am to about 5pm. It was totally worth it, and I could probably have even spent longer, to see the science museum at a more leisurely pace. If you see a single attraction here in Valencia, this should be it!

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