Spain has always been a favorite with traveling families, and there’s no sign of a slowdown … in fact, it’s become our second most requested destination in the past few years, behind only Italy. And for good reason: Spain is as kid-friendly as it gets! Locals adore children and go out of their way to accommodate them. Pair that with the fact that so many of the country’s marquee sights — wide golden beaches, fairytale Moorish palaces, the Dr. Seuss-style works of Antonio Gaudí — seem tailor-made for kids, and the love affair becomes easy to understand. Here’s our best parent-tested advice for a magical family vacation in Spain.
Top Things to Know for a Family Vacation in Spain
Except in Barcelona and Madrid, the siesta is very much a part of daily life and most shops and businesses shut down from 2 to 5pm (restaurants close later, from roughly 4:30 to 8 or 9pm). Go with it! This is a built-in chance to rest or catnap, especially in light of Spain’s late dinner hours. If you’d rather stay active, use the time to see an attraction that remains open or take a tour of outdoor sites.
Spanish is actually a second language for those in many parts of the country — the first is the regional tongue, like Catalan or Basque. That said, most people will switch to Spanish intuitively when talking to foreigners. English is widely spoken in big cities, less so in smaller cities and towns. Learning a few basic Spanish phrases goes a long way.
Many mom and pop stores, market vendors and food stalls don’t take credit cards, so carry cash in bills of all sizes. ATMs are plentiful and easy to find.
You’re expected to have knees and shoulders covered when entering cathedrals or other places of worship. In the summer heat, we like to bring a light scarf or shawl to throw on over a sleeveless top.
Babysitters are practically unheard of among locals as kids are warmly welcomed everywhere and at all hours. It’s common to see toddlers and preschoolers in restaurants or playing in city squares at 10 or 11pm.
When and Where to Go
Andalucia, home of flamenco, orange blossoms and bullfighting, represents the Spain that most people picture, but it’s just one facet of this complex and diverse country — there are 17 regions that differ greatly in culture and character. Though some have more big-name sights than others, getting off the beaten path can be rewarding; we’ve arranged immersive experiences like surf lessons and sheep herding in out-of-the-way locations.
The classic two-week itinerary for first-timers offers a taste of three major regions: Catalunya, Andalucia and Madrid (synonymous with the capital). Consider flying into Barcelona and taking the train to Sevilla, then on to Madrid, from which you’ll eventually fly home. You can also reverse the order and do Madrid first. All three cities make excellent home bases for a variety of day trips.
Alternatively, with two weeks you could pair one or two places in Spain with Morocco — easy to reach by air — for an engaging cultural contrast.
Andalucia is blazing hot from May through September. That doesn’t mean you have to skip it if summer is the only time you can travel; just do your exploring early in the day before the heat spikes and take the afternoon to cool off.
Traveling in winter? Spain has great family-friendly ski resorts, mostly in the Pyrenees along the border with France.
With an unbelievable number of Michelin-starred restaurants in a small radius, San Sebastian is a magnet for foodie families. In warmer months, the beaches in this part of Basque country are a draw as well.
The famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona takes place July 7-14 each year. It’s a full week of celebrations and the streets are absolute chaos day and night … if you want to watch, we suggest doing it from the safety of a balcony (contact us for help booking this). There are plenty of kids’ events during the festival that allow families to get in on the fun.
Semana Santa, or Holy Week, spans the week leading up to Easter. This is the biggest religious holiday of the year, with elaborate processions and more. Availability is at its lowest and prices at their highest; plan accordingly.
Spanish beaches differ greatly among the various coasts, from seasonality and crowd levels to facilities. Use our guide to help you figure out the best fit for a seaside escape.
Mallorca is our favorite of Spain’s islands for kids. With a wide range of family accommodations, clear and calm blue water, and a wealth of beautiful beaches, what’s not to love?
Active families with older children might consider traversing the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrims’ walk that still attracts people of all ages and stages from around the world. There are many different starting points from which you can get a taste of the experience; the walk ends at the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, reputed burial place of Saint James the Great.
Instead of chain hotels, consider staying in one of Spain’s 90 or so government-run paradors, upscale accommodations in historic buildings such as convents, monasteries and castles. There’s even a parador on the grounds of the Alhambra.
It’s the eternal question in Barcelona: to stay near the water or in the heart of the city? There is no right answer; it comes down to personal preference and where you plan to spend the bulk of your time. We have favorite properties in both locations, such as Hotel Arts (a modern skyscraper-style hotel with gorgeous water views) and Hotel Majestic (as central as it gets in the tony Eixample district).
Hotels in the major cities can be expensive, especially in desirable neighborhoods. Standalone apartments are well priced and give you a taste of living like a local. Always book through a reputable agency; we maintain a list of vetted apartment rental companies all over Spain as part of our trip planning service.
If you are headed to southern Spain in the hot months, prioritize accommodations with air conditioning and a pool. Trust us on this!
Activities and Sightseeing
Planning to tour the Alhambra, the Alcazar de Sevilla, Park Guell, La Sagrada Familia or other huge attractions? Book tickets beforehand to avoid lengthy lines. This is crucial for the Alhambra in particular, as they issue a limited number of tickets per day and typically sell out weeks or even months in advance.
Hire a family-friendly guide for the Alhambra to maximize the experience. The palace is rich with history and symbolism that would otherwise be lost on kids.
Madrid’s top two art museums, the Prado and the Reina Sofia, are free to enter most evenings and during certain weekend hours (kids under 18 are always free). You still have to wait in line for a ticket, so arrive early.
Almost all cities and towns have wonderful parks and plazas where kids can run and play. Bonus: Bring a soccer ball to kick around and you’ll make instant friends.
If your schedule in Barcelona allows, see the local castells — a Catalan tradition that goes back at least 200 years. Skilled participants called castellers arrange themselves into human towers several tiers high, often with young kids at the very top. The action happens right on the street with the crowd cheering them on … don’t miss it!
Flamenco was born in Andalucia, and this is the region in which to see a show. Quality can vary, so ask around for recommendations.
Our favorite place for a bike tour is Sevilla due to the reliably good weather and the flat terrain. Barcelona is a close second.
Food and Drink
The Spanish dine late. Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 or 8:30pm; even then, locals will not start coming in until 9pm. Lunch, eaten between 1:30 and 4:30pm, is typically the main meal of the day.
Most restaurants offer a midday menu del dia, or prix fixe lunch menu, that includes several choices each for a first course, main course with side, and dessert, plus coffee and wine or a soft drink. For about 12€ per person, it’s one of the best food deals in Europe.
Tapas, Spain’s version of bar snacks, stave off hunger until dinnertime and can easily make a meal for kids who need to eat early. It’s fine to bring kids into busy tapas bars, though jostling amid the crowds may intimidate novices. One strategy is to book a tapas-hopping tour and let a guide show you the ropes.
Pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”) are the Basque cousin to tapas; they usually consist of a slice of bread and toppings secured with a toothpick.
For many visitors, paella is synonymous with Spain. It’s native to Valencia on the southern coast, and that is far and away the best place — some would say the only place — to sample it. Although it appears on menus all over the country, the quality can be hit or miss. Instead, go with the specialties of the region you are visiting; Spain’s cuisine is wonderfully nuanced and varied.
Children’s menus are rare, but ubiquitous dishes like tortilla española (egg and potato omelet), patatas bravas (crisp potatoes with creamy dipping sauce), ham and cheese croquetas (fritters), pan con tomate (fresh bread rubbed with garlic and tomatoes) and bocadillos (simple baguette sandwiches) are perfect for picky eaters.
Spain’s cities have fabulous markets that are ideal for grazing or putting together a picnic. La Boqueria in Barcelona, Mercado San Miguel in Madrid and Mercado de Feria in Sevilla are the best known and well worth a visit, but check out smaller, less touristed markets too. Or take a cooking class that incorporates a market shopping trip — always a hit with kids.
Menus often list the same dish multiple ways: as a tapa, a racion (full portion) or a media racion (half portion). Be sure to indicate clearly which one you want.
Jamon, or specially cured and dry-aged ham, is a source of national pride and a cornerstone of the Spanish diet. Vegetarians and vegans, do a little restaurant research ahead of time to make sure you have enough options.
The quintessential Spanish dessert is churros con chocolate: sugary strips of fried dough dipped in hot chocolate as thick as pudding. Indulge freely!
Most restaurants serve sangria, but almost no locals drink it. Instead, ask for tinto de verano (red wine and lemon soda on ice) or try one of the many excellent Spanish wines and beers.
Brush up on coffee lingo: cafe solo is straight espresso; cafe cortado is espresso with a dash of milk; cafe con leche is half milk and half espresso. If you usually take sugar, try a cafe bombon, made with sweetened condensed milk. And if you want a paper cup to go, say “para llevar.”
Madrid has some of the best tap water in the world. Request agua del grifo in restaurants to avoid paying for bottled water.
Spain’s national rail system, called Renfe, is modern, well-maintained and efficient. High-speed AVE trains can zip you across the country in a blink — it takes just 2 1/2 hours to get from Madrid to Barcelona.
In major cities, there’s no need for a car as public transport is convenient and inexpensive, and driving and parking are a nightmare. For exploring the countryside, it’s helpful to have your own wheels, especially if you want to visit places like the Costa Brava in Catalunya, the Galicia region on the northwest coast, or the villages of Andalucia.
Advance train reservations are a smart idea, especially for long-distance AVE routes.
Children under 4 can travel for free by rail, though they still require a reservation. Kids age 4 to 12 usually pay 60 percent of the adult fare.
Gas stations can be few and far between along the highways. Fill your tank and stock up on snacks before you get beyond city limits, and plan meal breaks around the siesta schedule.
For Babies and Toddlers
Spanish pharmacies and supermarkets carry essentials like diapers, formula and baby food, though not with the same variety you may be used to. If you need a specific brand, bring it with you. Make note of store hours too, since many are closed on Sundays.
While it’s always worth asking, many restaurants lack high chairs, even in the cities. Just tuck the stroller next to the table and let your baby lounge or nap (with luck) while you eat in peace.
Baby changing facilities are hard to come by, so it’s smart to pack a changing mat. The good news is that no one will look askance at a parent discreetly changing a diaper in public.
Servers in bars and restaurants will generally be happy to heat a bottle or warm up baby food for you.
Bring or buy a lightweight umbrella stroller for ease of navigating subway stations, museums and crowded sidewalks. If you are visiting a place with cobbled streets or lots of hills, a backpack carrier will come in handy too.
Most car rental offices will supply car seats, but there is no way to vouch for the quality — we always suggest traveling with your own.
Sun in Spain can be exceptionally strong on tender skin. Don’t leave home without plenty of sunscreen.
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This is a challenging time for our clients given the uncertainty around the spread of coronavirus, particularly for those with near-term travel plans in impacted areas. We’re working with our suppliers on being flexible with their booking conditions, and enabling families to postpone travel to a later date without a penalty, when possible. Likewise, given the unpredictability around destinations that may be impacted in the future, we’re helping clients planning new trips and understand ways that they can protect themselves until the situation improves. We are ready to help our clients work through questions and concerns.