A trip to Spain is fun for families and is a great place to learn more about European history. Full of Old World charm and modern conveniences, Spain is an interesting and less conventional way to see part of Europe’s past.
We just got back from a week-long trip to Madrid and Barcelona, with side trips to El Escorial, Segovia, and Toledo. I’m focusing on those areas in my guide below but know there are many other sites in Spain that I am not covering! Be sure to consult my go-to travel guru, Rick Steves, for information on the other locations in Spain.
General Tips for Spain with Kids
- You can see most of Madrid and Barcelona in one week with easy transportation between the two major cities by a fast train.
- Be aware that Spain, particularly Madrid and southern Spain, get VERY hot in the summer. Plan accordingly!
- Be sure to check the schedule for any large parade and/or planned event, especially in Madrid. We were there during a huge parade, and it made it very difficult to get around.
- Make sure all phones are enabled with mobile payment options – this is used everywhere!
- Spain is very safe but be aware of your surroundings at all times and watch street crossings with little ones.
- With so much walking and history, I recommend children be a bit older for a Spain trip. Older elementary/middle school (10+) is probably a good threshold.
Madrid and Barcelona are big cities with lots of options. We stayed at the Intercontinental hotels in both Madrid and Barcelona and loved the access we had to the club lounge (great for traveling with kids as there are free drinks and snacks available all day!). The Barcelona hotel, in particular, was extremely nice and had a rooftop pool and restaurant serving kid-friendly food all day. Note that both locations are a bit outside of the tourist zone so we did have to take a lot of cabs.
In Madrid, I recommend staying outside of the main squares (Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor) with kids. It’s just too busy and noisy there. A great area with many good hotels is near the Prado/El Retiro Park (for example, check out this Marriott and this Westin property). With kids, it’s good to be near the park so you can let your kids run and play close to the hotel. Plus you’re within easy walking distance of the major sites in the city.
In Barcelona, I recommend staying in the Barri Gotic area (check out this Kimpton) or in the Eixample neighborhood. Stay away from the busy Ramblas and Placa Catalunya with kids.
Getting to and from the airport in both locations is best done by taxi. Between strollers and luggage, struggling onto a train, subway, or bus just isn’t worth it. We had great luck with the high-speed trains between cities, however, and highly recommend using Renfre. It’s worth it to spring for the first-class ticket (usually just about $20-30 difference) for the private lounge and food offerings on the train.
Both Madrid and Barcelona have an excellent public transportation system to make getting around the massive cities easy. We took the subway in Barcelona and didn’t have any issues. I would caution families with young children in strollers, however, as most stations have lots of stairs.
Taxis are available in both cities very easily. We also found it easy and enjoyable to walk, especially before and after dinner.
Spanish dining was a bit challenging for my family. The cuisine in large cities can be a bit easier with a variety of options, but the smaller towns can be more limited to local specialities. There is not much chicken available (at least in our experience!) so be sure your kids like ham (jamón) before you go! In Madrid and Barcelona, we ended up looking for Italian restaurants for a few meals, just to get something more familiar.
Tapas (small plates/appetizers) are popular in Spain, and it’s fun to go from restaurant to restaurant, tasting a few dishes at every one. However, in practice with kids, this is hard to do. We found the easiest places to eat with older kids were the markets (like Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid) or restaurants in the large department store, El Corte Inglés. In fact, I highly recommend the ninth floor collection of restaurants at the Madrid #1 location.
Our favorite Spanish dishes included: Jamón ibérico (thin slices of ham either on a baguette or served as an appetizer with cheese); manchego cheese; patatas bravas (cubed potatoes with a barbeque-like sauce); churros con chocolate; and paella (mostly in Barcelona).
In the smaller towns, we tried the specialities but they were hit or miss with our kids. In Segovia, the specialty is a roast suckling pig (an entire baby pig!). It was tasty but our kids didn’t appreciate the pig head with a leg and hoof on the table! We also tried another specialty there, the sopa castellana and the judiones de la granja, both vegetarian soups that were fine. In Toledo, we liked the many mazapán (an almond and sugar dessert) shops.
Note that Spanish eating times are very different from the United States and not very kid-friendly. Lunch is often not served until 1 or 2 pm with dinner usually around 8 – 9 pm. Many restaurants do not even open until 7:30 or 8 pm! Plan accordingly.
A few of the dining experiences we enjoyed were:
- La Mallorquina (on Puerta del Sol) – an over 100 year old restaurant with amazing pastries on the ground floor. Don’t miss the small cafe upstairs with excellent jamón and cheese croissants and mixed sandwiches (kid-friendly ham and cheese).
- Mercado de San Miguel – amazing food market with tons of restaurant booths
- Bar Mirador in El Retiro Park for a snack with a beautiful view
- El Brillante – near the Reina Sofía and the train station, queue up at this local eatery for a chance to sit outside while eating Madrid’s famous fried squid sandwiches (the sandwiches are large and a little bland but get one to try!)
- Gourmet Experience at El Cortes Inglés (at store #1 on Calle del Carmen)
- La Flaca – great place for tapas and we were even treated with a traditional Spanish singing trio!
- Restaurant Arrosseria las Arenas – good for paella and has a more American kid-friendly menu
- Restaurant La Tagliatella – when you just need some Italian!
- Restaurante La Bella Napoli – Trattoría Pizzería Napolitana – excellent Italian
- Rooftop restaurants at the Intercontinental – we were really pleased with both the casual restaurant and the more formal restaurant on the rooftop of our hotel.
- Segovia: El Bernardino (known for its suckling pig and soup)
- Toledo: El Trébol just off Plaza de Zocodover
Madrid and Barcelona are known for being huge shopping destinations. We fell in love with the large department store, El Cortes Inglés, which has several locations in both cities. Our kids spent hours roaming its many floors!
To get outside of the big cities or to take a guided tour in the city, book a private tour. We had a wonderful experience with Letango Tours who took us on two day trips outside of Madrid to El Escorial/Segovia and Toledo. I highly recommend Carlos and his whole team!
Don’t miss scheduling a flamenco show for your family while in Madrid. We enjoyed our experience at Las Carboneras. Even our kids were amazed by the dancing and guitar. We did the full dining experience but I’d recommend eating before the show at the nearby Mercado de San Miguel instead.
Websites to help plan your trip
Spain’s rich and long history lends itself to many historical sites. It’s unique in that it has Roman ruins mixed with Muslim buildings and royal palaces. The * listed below links to my review. Check back often for more of these sites to be reviewed by The History Mom!
Spain’s capital city, Madrid has many of the best museums and royal historical sites in the entire country.
- Royal Palace – The largest royal palace in Western Europe, it has been the center of Spain’s monarchy since the 18th century
- Puerto del Sol – the center square of Madrid; note the iconic Tio Pepe sign and statue of King Charles III
- Plaza Mayor – site of many executions during the Spanish Inquisition, this is now a lovely place to relax outside
- Assassination Attempt Memorial – a statue near the Royal Palace that commemorates the assassination attempt on King Alfonso XII and his new wife, Victoria Eugenie, on their wedding day
- Almudena Cathedral – beautiful cathedral beside the Royal Palace
- El Retiro Park – large park near Prado Museum full of statues, a lake, and cafes
- Madrid History Museum
- National Archaeological Museum
- Prado Museum – a must-see art museum, one of the best in the world
- Reina Sofía – home to Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica
- Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum – full of Impressionist art
This city by the sea has Roman ruins and is still scarred from the Spanish Civil War.
- Gaudí sites: These unusual buildings make Barcelona unique!
- Barcelona History Museum – amazing history museum that is a must-see for its Roman ruins in the basement and the former Royal Palace rooms
- Barcelona Cathedral – Barcelona’s holiest spot since Roman times; often has vendors selling historical items out front
- Plaça de Catalunya – large square that serves as the center of the city
- Plaça Sant Felip Neri – church here still bears shrapnel scars from Spanish Civil War; note the plaque dedicated to the 42 people (mostly children) killed in a 1938 attack
- Barri Gotic – my favorite part of the city (includes attractions listed above)
- Las Ramblas – a long walking street full of vendors and shops; crowded and touristy, it’s not my favorite!
- Barceloneta and the beach – beautiful water surrounded by tourist trap restaurants; be sure to check out the amazing yachts often in the marina!
- Roman sites:
- Necropolis (near Ramblas behind Citadines Hotel) – Roman tombs
- Roman Temple of Augustus – only four columns remain of this temple tucked among buildings
- Roman ruins in Barcelona History Museum – amazing excavations!
- Roman towers and wall in Plaça Nova
- Picasso Museum
- Museum of Catalan History
The smaller town of Toledo once served as Spain’s capital and has over 2500 years of history in its storied walls. It has jaw-dropping views and is set high on a rocky cliff over the Tajo River which flows from here all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in Portugal. We had a guided tour through Letango Tours, and our tour guide made the city come to life. For kids, there’s also a cute tourist train that takes you around the city! It’s an easy drive or train trip from Madrid. Find a detailed itinerary in my review here.
- Toledo Cathedral – stunning cathedral in the center of the city with paintings by El Greco
- Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes – beautiful cloister and chapel
- Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue – beautiful monument in Jewish quarter
- Army Museum (located in Alcazar)
An easy day trip from Madrid, this monastery/palace/basilica is the historic heart of Spain – read my review here. King Philip II built it in the 16th century, and it now serves as the mausoleum for Spain’s monarchy. I highly recommend hiring a guide like from Letango Tours to see the site as it is hard to see on your own.
- Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial – huge palace/monastery/basilica/library that also serves as the final resting place for most of Spain’s monarchs and their families
- Philips’s seat – location outside of town where King Philip watched the building of his palace
This controversial monument to Spain’s Civil War is located on the way to El Escorial from Madrid. It was built by Franco and was his final resting place until several years ago. It includes a basilica that houses thousands of remains from both sides of the civil war but that is controversial as well. Franco used forced labor by his opponents to build this eerie and cold monument that still has vestiges of his fascist dictatorship. The government is trying to rectify the problematic symbols, but our guide told us this place is still a non discussable topic for most Spaniards.
This beautiful city with a Roman aqueduct and massive cathedral is a great side trip from Madrid. We took a guided walking tour of its cobbled streets and learned about its unusual cuisine.
- Roman aqueduct – located just outside the old city, this is one of the best preserved vestiges of the Roman empire in Spain
- Segovia Cathedral – one of the best cathedrals in all of Spain!
- Alcázar – this Disney-like castle now houses a museum
Sample One Week Itinerary
Day 1: Fly into Madrid and take a cab into the city. Check into the hotel and set out for Rick Steves’ historic city walk. Have a light lunch at La Mallorquina and continue on walk. Get tickets in advance for Royal Palace (for later near the end of the walk). Walk back to the hotel via Rick Steves’ Grand Vía walk and have dinner in the gourmet experience at El Cortes Inglés.
Day 2: Set up guided tour and driver for El Escorial/Valley of Cuelgamuros/Segovia. This 10+ hour tour will teach your family about Spain’s long and varied history. Have dinner near the hotel.
Day 3: Museum day! Start your day at the Prado (get tickets for the first available time). Do the Rick Steves’ tour (around 1 hour) and then head into El Retiro park for rest and play time. Walk through the park to Reina Sofia to see Guernica. Eat lunch at El Brillante before or after. Walk back up to either Thyssen Museum for art buffs or to the National Archaeological Museum or History Museum. End the day with a flamenco show.
Day 4: Schedule a day trip to Toledo. You can spend all day wandering its maze of cobbled streets!
Day 5: Take a fast train to Barcelona. Check into the hotel and do Rick Steves’ city walk through Barri Gotic (visit Picasso Museum if you’re an art fan). Stop in the history museum. Have lunch at the market and dinner at Els Quatre Gats.
Day 6: Begin the day at the Sagrada Familia and do Rick Steves’ Eixample walk. Have lunch near La Pedrera. Take a cab to Parc Güell and spend the afternoon walking among its beautiful monuments. Have a tapas dinner.
Day 7: Explore Montjuïc including the castle and the sports museum (take a cab to the castle so the rest of the day is downhill!). Have lunch at the terrace cafe of the Catalan Art Museum and then take a cab to the beach for the afternoon or to visit the Catalan History Museum. Have dinner along the Passeig de Joan de Borbó.
Books to Read:
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