Since the early 1950s, Spain’s beaches have been a big draw for travelers. But in a country that is pretty much surrounded by water, it quickly becomes apparent that no two coasts are the same — they vary from rocky shores to long sandy beaches. Given the variety and diversity, the question of where to go on a Spain beach vacation often crops up for families. Use this guide to help you choose the coast that best fits your style.
Spain’s first coastal tourist area is also its best-known, brought to fame through Francisco Franco’s decision in 1953 to allow women to wear bikinis on Spanish beaches. The Costa del Sol (literally, “sunny coast”) can be divided into two sections. The area from Malaga south to Estopona is a haven for luxury resorts and high-rise seaside hotels, where families can really slip into complete relaxation and soak up the luxury. In the opposite direction, the stretch from Malaga to Almeria is full of the famous pueblos blancos (villages where the stone house are painted white and cobblestoned streets are the norm), combining history and culture with time in the sun.
Either way, a vacation on the Costa del Sol can easily fit into a trip to Spain’s large southern state, Andalusia, and both parts of the coast are ideal for family vacations.
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The latest coast to come into the international limelight, the Costa Brava (“rugged” or “wild coast”) runs from about 40 miles north of Barcelona to the French border. It’s a great destination to combine with a trip to southern France or Barcelona, welcoming for all ages. You can make this a day trip from Barcelona, but one day does not do it justice; spending a few nights in this beautiful part of the world is highly recommended.
The Costa Brava is one of the last developed coastal areas of the country, and still has unspoiled beaches and towns that can only be reached by car on winding roads (though they’re in good condition and easily drivable, take your time getting from the highway to town). With its crystal-clear waters and a rocky coastline that gives way to pockets of sandy coves, it’s ideal for those who like scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking, lounging by the sea and art. Yes, art: This region has served as stomping grounds for famous painters from Chagall to Picasso, with Dali, who lived a great deal of his life on this coast, leaving the biggest footprint.
Located in northern Spain, this coast gets its name from the Basque region (Pais Vasco in Spanish) that borders the Atlantic, which is known as the Bay of Biscay in this little corner between Spain and France. The Costa Vasca is an integral part of any trip to northern Spain — San Sebastian’s sandy, horseshoe-shaped beach embraces the bay, with lucid waters and small waves. The island located in the middle of San Sebastian Bay, Santa Clara, can be reached by renting rowboats nearby.
Not far from San Sebastian lies the town of Mundaka, a mecca for surfers the world over who can’t resist the thrill of its 3-mile-long wave. Driving to Mundaka takes less than an hour, but you can also hope on the light rail line and be there in about the same time. With a few days in the Costa Vasca, you can also eat in one of five Michelin-starred restaurants, visit the famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or while away an afternoon soaking up the sun.
The Golden Coast runs south from Barcelona and ends just past Tarragona, about 90 minutes’ drive. As the name suggests, it’s a series of long, open, sandy beaches. Shallow, clear waters and wide stretches of sand make this a great choice for families with babies and toddlers. The most notable seaside town in this region is Sitges, which is an easy day trip from Barcelona, but also makes for a charming two- or three-night visit. Nearby is the wine region of the Penedes (think enchanting reds and the sparkling white wines known as cava); the Roman ruins of Tarragona; the unique museum of Santiago Rusinol, one of Spain’s founding fathers of Modernist art; and good food.
Known as the Seafood Coast in English, this corner of the Galicia region overhanging Portugal brings some of the freshest and most varied types of seafood in Spain. Its rolling green hills and its small sandy beaches and inlets bring out the inner marine biologist in kids and make it ideal for discovery walks. The capital of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, is the endpoint of the nearly 500-mile religious walk along northern Spain that devout Catholics have been making for centuries, and the basis for the Martin Sheen movie The Way.
The variable weather means you should pack both bathing suits and umbrellas — you might need both in one day! Down-to-earth small towns and ports give this coast a family feel and make it easy to combine culture and coastal downtime in a few days. This area makes an ideal combination with a trip to Portugal.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Nancy Daum Dailey except where noted.
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