#FamilyFriendlySpain: Family Life in Spain
Spain is one of those wondrously easy places when you have kids in tow. The folk here just love them, and because they are properly integrated – anyone born in Britain in the seventies will remember sitting in the car outside the pub with a packet of cheese and onion crisps and a warm coca cola, will appreciate the fact that bars and restaurants have no problem with little ones tagging along for lunch or dinner – you’ll come away feeling just as invigorated, inspired and, well, relaxed as a parent. You may even find yourself contemplating a move to Spain.
If you’re looking at city breaks consider choosing somewhere like Barcelona where you can easily combine day trips to the seaside along the Maresme or to Sitges. Both are easily done by train from the centre of the city. Or, you could combine it with a couple of nights on the Costa Brava or a quick flight to Ibiza.
Madrid, like any good metropolis, is so brimming with activities that you won’t stop for a second, and although arguably better suited to older kids who’ve already cut their teeth on art and culture (the Prado is one of the greatest art museums in the world), it’s also full of emerald green parks that make letting off steam or drowsy afternoon picnics a breeze.
Lovely, compact Valencia is more big town than little city, easily strollable and with some show stopping surprises like the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences that occupies the bed of the long, dried up river. The beach is less crowded than in Barcelona and everything is noticeably cheaper too.
Marbella is a good choice if you want to treat the kids to lots of theme park style adventures as well as plenty of water sports. You can’t go far wrong with a sailing charter when it comes to exhausting the crew.
Without further ado then, this is our fabulous guide to family-friendly Spain.
Home of the genius Gaudí whose jewel-box townhouses and castle-like cathedrals have inspired millions, Barcelona is a great place for getting the kids excited about architecture and its impact on our quality of life.
Stay at Lázaro Rosa-Violán’s lavish Cotton House Hotel – trust me, my 8-year old god-daughter loved it, your kids will never forget it – for a splash of child-friendly glamour. It’s easy walking distance of the Manzana de la Discordia, a cluster of art nouveaux buildings that are so fantastical they’ll capture the imagination of any kid while giving parents a healthy culture fix. Then head to the Sagrada Família for a romp around the crenellations (perfect for thrill-seekers). If you want to stick to the theme pick up some picnic fodder at the Boqueria – tubs of ready-to-eat fruit and juices, gossamer thin slivers of jamón and cured sausages, wheels of cheese and good bread (a bottle of wine for Mum and Dad) and head up to Gaudí’s whimsical Parc Güell to take in sensational views of the entire city. Head to the northern reaches of the park for a shady picnic away from the crowds.
Cosmo Caixa propels you into the next century with wild science exhibitions, chunks of rain forest complete with piranha tank and a 3D planetarium. Head back to the beach in Barceloneta for a juicy, organic burger at Bacoa and a sunset stroll along the sand.
Best time to visit: January and February when you have cool, clear days that are warm enough for dining outdoors and crowd-free sight seeing.
Easily accessed by train from Barcelona city centre, Maresme beaches are cleaner, less crowded and more family-friendly. Santa Susanna for example throws foam parties on the beach through the summer. The Illa Fantasia (open Jun-Sep) is an excellent water park at Villassar del Mar with immense rides as well as evening pool parties for teens. The Rucs del Corredor offers a rather more sedate form of fun in the shape of donkey rides through the fields and woodlands of the Montnegre i el Corredor Natural Park. There’s also the Parcs Vertical, a network of trails along rope ladders, tunnels and zip-slides through the canopy. Great for high-octane kids.
It’s the beaches though that really shine, a string of white sand pearls looping their way from Barcelona to the Costa Brava. Think old fashioned bucket and space holidays – even in January, though the sea will be cold – interspersed with long lazy lunches in beach bars like the charming Club de Pescadors de L’Espigo de Garbi right on the sand in Villassar de Mar with its willow shades and beach-combing décor, classic paellas at Banys Lluis in Sant Pol de Mar and the wonderful Terrazas del Maresme in Mataró for Sunday jazz sessions paired with vermut aperitifs and barbecue. The place is usually rammed with other kids too, so lots of opportunity for making new friends.
Best time to visit: June, July and August when it’s bustling without being overly busy.
Another excellent day-trip option from Barcelona, but equally good as a seaside holiday in its own right, Sitges is just 20 minutes from the airport and a world away from big city life. The white-washed village awash with brightly coloured bourganvillea, hibiscus and jasmine seems more Andaluz than Catalan.
If you’re traveling by car make a day of it starting first with Sunday brunch in the garden at Cinnamon Cafe in the quiet suburb of Vallpineda before heading into town to spend the rest of the day on small and sweet city beach, Platja Sant Sebastià. From Easter to the end of the summer, Sunday’s a great day for mooching around the shops too.
For beach activities like paddle surfing, Sitges Up is a good place to begin and the boards even come equipped with waterproof cameras so you can you tube your spills and triumphs.
Best time to visit: Sitges does festival flamboyance well so time a visit for Carnival (2-10 Feb 2016) or the Festa Major (21-27 Aug 2016), or both.
You hear the word ‘costa’ and immediately think beach, but the Empordà – of which the Costa Brava is a part – offers considerably more than sand and sea alone. The region of rolling hills dotted with thick clusters of woodland for romping and mushrooming, fairytale villages and castles for exploring, make it near perfect for a week of gentle exploration without having to spend too much time in the car.
Indulge those little prince and princess’ fantasies at the Castell d’Empordà who’ll be thrilled by its gables, turrets and large swimming pool, as well as an in-house exhibition of the Battle of Waterloo made entirely of lead figurines. While not a conventionally child-friendly hotel, it does tick boxes for all ages, and with a little advance warning babysitting can be provided so parents can step out for an evening.
Both Pals and Peratallada are heart-breakingly beautiful little villages of medieval stone houses and cobbled streets that are blissfully tranquil out of season, with plenty of child-friendly restaurants with menus that range from wood fired pizzas to grilled steaks to snails. They’re great just for roaming the streets and soaking up the atmosphere of the Spain of another era. Just 15 minutes’ drive away you’ll find the best of the Costa Brava.
Rippling north to south from Begur to Palamós you’ll find the most delightful coves and inlets such as Sa Riera and Sa Tuna (the latter with a delightful little seaside hotel right on the shore, Hostal Sa Tuna), Tamariu for scuba diving and snorkelling, Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell for strolling and a stupendous grilled fish lunch at El Didal right on the old fishing port.
As seaside destinations go few places beat it for pootling doing not much of anything at all.
Best time to visit: beat the crowds by planning a trip in late spring or early autumn, when the weather is generally reliable.
To think of Ibiza as merely a party island would be to succumb to the stereotype. There’s far more to the place than Space and Pacha. It’s magical for family holidays providing you base yourself in quieter towns like Santa Eulalia (on the coast), Santa Gertrudis or San Lorenzo (both inland).
At Agroturismo Can Gall there’s babysitting and a creche – in case you want to flash back to your twenties and spend the night partying – but mainly its a place for some good old-fashioned family downtime. Doze by the pool, stroll in the countryside, drive 15 minutes to fabulous beaches in any direction, and explore the island’s various hippy markets, which are colourful and eccentric enough for a morning’s entertainment regardless of whether you’re 2 or 80.
For a day out, Cala Tarida is one of the best beaches on the island for families with plenty of peace-keeping facilities ranging from ice-cream to pedalos. Nearby and a good bet for dare-devils Take Off Ibiza offer seabobbing, jet-sking and parasailing from the San Antonio marina.
And if you’re feeling yourself lamenting the time when you were just two, we bring good news. Many of the island’s most fabulous have cottoned onto the fact that yesterday’s party goers are today’s parents and offer children’s activities and entertainment. Kick off the weekend at El Chiringuito, where ‘Little Chiringuito’ lays on colouring, crafts and sand sculpting while you kick back over a champagne brunch. At the Beach House kids can fill up on a child-pleasing menu before skipping off to the kids play area to rub shoulders with like-minded souls, while you sip oh-so-grown-up cocktails before a rather longer and lazier lunch. Or head for Sa Punta which dedicates an entire terrace to face painting, games and bouncy castles. Who says Ibiza’s not for kids?
Best time to visit: although Ibiza is gorgeous out of season the best time to visit as a family is in the thick of it when there’s plenty going on for grown-ups and little ones alike – that’s June, July and August folks.
Like most capital cities these days Madrid doesn’t skimp when it comes to cool stuff to do with kids, but you can save yourself a lot of stress and time by military planning in advance. It’s a proper metropolis, and not as walkable as Barcelona, so it pays to choose an area where you plan to spend most time in if you don’t want to eat up chunks of time on the metro.
Stay at the swanky new Principal Hotel, which really has very good deals, is happy to welcome kids and is as central as you can get – a short metro ride, or a pleasant walk to neighbourhoods like Los Austrias the city’s prettiest barrio for churches, cathedrals and generally majestic buildings towering over spacious plazas where the kids can run about while you sneak a cheeky cerveza. It’s also one of the best places in town for tapas and the Calles Cava Baja and Cava Alta are where it’s at, literally shoulder-to-shoulder with great bars to pica pica. Even the pickiest of eaters enjoy this convivial form of dinner, where you snack and move on. Nobody gets bored and everyone finds something they’ll enjoy eating.
Do factor in one or two ultra special splurges though. The Parque de Atracciones has 30 or so rides and activities ranging from shows starring Spongebob for teeny-tinies, to knuckle-biting roller coasters for teens. Few fail to fall in love with the charms of Xing Bao, the baby panda that turned two this past august at Madrid’s Zoo Aquarium.
It’s worth taking older kids to the Prado, seriously one of the world’s greatest art collections and the sort of place where paintings achieve existentialist celebrity status. Where else can you see Hieronymous Bosch’s creepy “Garden of Earthly Delights”, Francisco Goya’s gruesome ‘The Third of May’ and José de Ribera’s disturbing “Bearded Woman” under one roof? Trust us, your teens will LOVE it!
Best time to go: early spring and late autumn are perfect since Madrid is prone to extremes of weather – very cold in the winter, boiling in the summer.
City of oranges, brilliantly futuristic architecture, wide sand beaches, sensational markets and excellent restaurants (Ricardo Camarena’s tapas bar is well worth a stop). Valencia, like Málaga, is one Spain’s great undiscovered secrets. Long may it be so, for if you relish destinations that are comparatively tourist-free and enjoy mooching about with no particular plan in mind, Valencia scores highly. Ideal pushchair territory with wide, leafy avenues and plenty of plazas for coffee or juice breaks, and beachfront restaurants for the country’s best paella while baby sleeps in the shade, perhaps the best plan in Valencia is no plan.
If a plan is a must, then rent a car and scootle out of town to explore what lays beyond. The Bioparc is a no-brainer. A vast, African safari style adventure complete with crocodiles and tigers, giraffes and gorillas. Who knew? Afterwards, pootle off to Asia! Well, the paddy fields of the Albufera at least could make it seem that way as you drift along the canals in an old fashioned wooden boat past herons and flamingos and pretty reed thatched houses. On the way back to town stop off at the Arroceria Duna where you can sit amid dunes that recall the beaches of Norfolk with better weather and tuck into rice dishes from the very paddies you just came from while the kids let loose on the beach.
Don’t miss the City of Arts and Sciences, which looks like some giant’s child has left his or her transformers scattered willy nilly. Don’t bother with the interior which comprises an average aquarium and a humongous car park, but the façade, believe us, that takes some beating. Surely one of the most dazzling in Spain.
Because the city isn’t big, and it’s worth having a car to explore, base yourself at the Hotel Miramar. Why? Simply because it’s cute, comfortable and you can walk straight from your room, across the beach and into the sea of a morning.
Imagine, all this at the price of a short haul flight?
Best time to visit: whenever you fancy, you’re an early adopter remember!
The Costa del Sol may get rather battered when it comes to self-image, but there are as many pockets of loveliness here as anywhere else. Marbella, helpfully located smack-bang in the middle of it all is a rather elegant Andalusian town, with the cutest, white washed casco antiguo (old town), a great seashore and plenty to discover in the hinterland.
There’s a reason they call it the ‘California of Europe’ with gold beaches lined with fancy villas belonging to the rich and famous, a near perfect climate and innumerable resort-style hotels that are perfect for kids who need pools, activities and restaurant buffets – try the Gran Melia Don Pepe, the Puente Romano Beach Resort or the Marriott Marbella Beach Resort if you want all that, plus more adult-orientated fun like fine dining, cocktails and spa treatments – as well as being the land of theme parks.
Within a 30 minute drive of town you’ll find Tivoli World rather sweetly has a fair-number of old-fashioned favourites like a big wheel, vintage cars and log flumes, as well as knuckle-biters like a loop-de-loop roller coaster and a free-fall tower. There are also no less than four water parks, the biggest being Agualand Torremolinos, crocodile parks, wolf parks and dolphin safaris, paintballing and laser combat. When you tire of it all, eschew car trips in favour of views from the Teleférico Benalmadena, which takes you from the coast to the top of Mount Calamorro where you can hop off and visit the birds of prey. Who wouldn’t be thrilled by the chance to hang with a bald eagle, a griffin vulture or a Harris hawk?
With 27km of coast there’s no shortage of beaches, but the best for little ones are at Puerto Banús where a well protected bay and shallow water makes for happy wallowing (rent water sports gear or book a sailing trip at Hollywood Beach). And finally, when it comes time to eat, you’ll find plenty of American-style places to mix things up a bit from the ubiquitous paella and tapas. You can’t go wrong with the Hard Rock Cafe for classic burgers, Cibo for wood-fired pizza and pasta dishes. Finally, for some laid-back beach time, grilled sardines and paella, dig the hippy vibe down to Sonora Beach in Estepona.
Best time to visit: May or September for fewer crowds, but come much earlier or later and you’ll find most of the theme parks closes.