Trip Recap: Family Adventure in Spain
Who: we went on this trip as a family of four. Right now, the kids are just shy of 9 and 12 years old.
What: 10 nights, 9 days in three Spanish cities
When: We went for our kids’ fall half-term break at the end of October. We loved going at this time of year, because it was still warm and sunny, but not ridiculously hot like it was during the summer months in Spain. We also lucked out with dry weather, which we know isn’t always the case, especially in Madrid. The days were warm, but the mornings and evenings were cool enough for light jackets.
Where: We flew in to Barcelona, then spent three days there. We then took a bus to Valencia, which was about four hours (we initially tried the train, but it didn’t work out with routes for us). After three full days, we took a train to Madrid for essentially two full days (one night) before a late flight back home.
Why: The kids had a break from school that allowed for nearly nine days off! This is one of the biggest perks I’m finding with the UK schooling system – you have a full 1-2 weeks off every six weeks or so, and a 4-5 week break in the summer. Doug and I have always wanted to go to Spain, and since both kids are learning Spanish, we thought it would be the perfect place to go. The nice thing about our local airport is that there are tons of direct flights to other places in Europe, so we got non-stop flights in to Barcelona and out of Madrid. After a few short hours, we were there!
What I’d Do Again
In general, we loved Spain! The weather was great, the people were friendly, it was easy to navigate in all the cities (we mostly walked or used public transportation) and even though I speak fluent Spanish, most people we interacted with also spoke English. The food was amazing as well.
Here are some of the highlights that I wouldn’t hesitate to do again:
- Tours with Devour (especially our two in Madrid): I loved the combo tours we did in Madrid. The first was a tour that combined tapas and flamenco, and our guide, Isabel, was the most wonderful, passionate person. We learned a lot about flamenco and got front row seats to a show at a very small tablero. The tapas and drinks were a nice bonus to help make it an evening (so it covered dinner, too!). Our tour the next day was a combo tour of the Prado Museum and lunch at Botin, the oldest operating restaurant in the world (298 years!). As someone who isn’t much of an art/museum person, all four of us learned a lot, and we admitted that going with an expert that could help shine a light on themes, history, and techniques made everything super engaging. Getting to go to Botin was extra special, too, because we were allowed in early and got to see the entire restaurant before it opened, even the underground tunnels and wine cellar! Devour did a great job in Barcelona as well, and I would definitely work with them again.
- Patrick, our Barcelona expert: I found Patrick’s YouTube channel when I was doing research on a trip for a client, and I’m so glad I reached out to introduce myself. He’s a great guy (Chicagoland native who has lived in Barcelona for 13 years), and his knowledge of the city is incredible. He does private, customized tours, and I think his understanding of Americans but also of Barcelona are such a great combo. It was great to be able to walk through the city with him and notice things we would have otherwise missed. He also was great with our kids, and kept them engaged the entire time. Definitely reach out to him for your next trip, so you can have a great tour and feel like you made a friend.
- Daily Downtime: Spain runs on a different time schedule than our family. We’re typically the “get up and go” people who are back in bed by 9pm, but in Spain, dinners don’t usually start until around 8pm. I learned that dinner is typically the smallest meal in Spain, and when you eat lunch around 2pm, you’re not usually ready to eat at 5 or 6 (totally logical). That said, we didn’t end up back from dinner until around 10-11pm each night, so we slept a bit later in the morning, and then had some relaxing time between 4-6pm before heading out for the evening. We found that this really helped the kids with avoiding tired feet and bodies, and allowed us to relax, too!
- Restaurants: You know I won’t settle for bad meals when I travel. So, I did my homework and made sure we had dinner planned almost every night. We ate some amazing meals, and I was surprised at how reasonably priced most of them were, too! We often had tasting menus of 5-8 courses that were half the price of what you might have paid in the US. The chefs loved that our kids were eating the food, because they said they don’t typically see kids trying those foods, which made them both very proud of themselves. That said, one night the kids were just craving burgers, and the restaurant had a kids’ menu that served up a legendary burger that Doug and I were eyeing up, too! Spain is a playground for delicious food, and from meat to seafood to fruit and veggies, there’s something for everyone!
- Paella Class: In Valencia, we went to a class with My First Paella and learned to make the traditional Paella Valenciana. It was fantastic, and again, the chefs were engaging, kind, and helpful with the kids as well as the adults.
- Arts & Sciences Museum: We went to the Arts & Sciences museum, as well as a Oceanografic Museum in Valencia. Wow! That was a full day for us, but could definitely have been split into two days. Both are in beautiful buildings on a gorgeous campus, and there was a ton to see and do. This one is a crowd-pleaser for kids of all ages (aka grownups, too).
What I’d Change
- Market Visits: We visited a lot of the bigger markets in the cities (Boqueria, Mercat Central, San Miguel in Madrid), but I enjoyed finding the smaller ones even better. I forgot at first that the more touristy markets likely have higher prices, and you might not find as many of the truly small, local producers there. As the days went by, we found other markets that we liked just as much, and some even better. It’s also good to remember that many of the markets close by mid-afternoon, because their products are either gone or no longer fresh. If you’re doing market visits, be sure to go early.
- Add a non-city: I loved all the cities we visited. However, I think it would have been even better if we would have picked to do a more natural/outdoor-focused place. City breaks, while fun, can get old for kids, and I think we might have recovered quicker if we hadn’t been feeling that “city energy” for the entire trip. Spain is amazing in the fact that (like most countries) they have tons of natural wonders and beauty, so we’ll definitely explore those on future trips.
- Scheduling: I try to strike a balance between having things scheduled, but not OVER-scheduled. However, I wish I would have known a bit more about how they schedule operating hours in Spain when doing my planning. Many stores are closed between 2-5pm, when owners are eating their midday meals. So, when we were wandering streets looking for open shops, we often found them closed. Conversely, when we were heading to dinner around 7-8pm, most of the stores were open, and closed around 9pm. Finding the “sweet spot” of when to do what is definitely a takeaway from this trip!
Tips for Travelers
While you can glean some good tips from the lists above, here are some of my other hints for a successful trip to Spain:
- You can easily get around with public transportation or walking: pick the right neighborhood to stay in and you’ll be no more than a 15-20 minute walk to everything. In fact, sometimes it’s faster to walk vs. take public transit.
- Don’t bother staying at the beach: while both Barcelona and Valencia have beaches, I don’t think either warrants staying there. Again, you can get there easily by other means, and if you’re used to US beaches (Florida, California, etc) you’re likely going to be disappointed.
- Enjoy the parks! All three cities had HUGE parks with lots of trails, water, and play areas. Most also had opportunities to rent bikes, and that would allow you to explore even more!
- Lean in to the food: this is one of the most important pieces of Spain’s culture, so try new things if you can. We had rabbit, lots of different kinds of seafood, and had the most incredible Basque cheesecakes. I also tried nougat, a sweet that I was confident I wasn’t going to like. You’re never too much of a foodie to be proven wrong.
- If you’re going to Valencia, opt for the Tourist Card. We got discounted admission to the Arts & Sciences campus, as well as free public transit for the duration of the trip. It’s a no-brainer!
In summary, we really enjoyed Spain. I think my favorite part was seeing how much our kids enjoyed it, especially Riley (our daughter). While she is just learning Spanish, she really loved seeing how many words she recognized, and the feeling of pride that came with ordering her meal in Spanish. Even just saying please and thank you in another language often received big smiles. It was really rewarding to see them try new things on our food tour that I might not have gotten them to try (sometimes it’s the setting, you know?). I was also pleasantly surprised at how clean the streets were. When you’re in big cities, you expect to see lots of random garbage, but there were rubbish bins pretty much everywhere, and the streets were remarkably clean. It made for a lot of great walks holding hands and chatting.
We’re already excited for another trip to discover more of this beautiful country!