Spain is one of the warmest parts of Europe, with endless stretches of sandy beach and countless rocky coves, making it ideal for family holidays. With its seaside resorts of the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca and Costa Brava attracting millions of visitors a year (who outnumber, in total, its citizens), it has gained a reputation among some as a tourist-trap, albeit a child-friendly one in many places. But there are plenty of destinations beyond these, whether you’re seeking an adventure holiday, a quieter family-oriented resort, or cities and villages in which to discover the culture and traditions of the Spanish people.
And when it comes to keeping kids amused, whether you have teens, tots or even a mixture of the two, you won’t have far to travel – water-parks, museums, zoos and nature reserves are dotted all over the country. What we describe below is only a taster of what this huge country has to offer for families.
And a warning: although going off the tourist track during your family holiday in Spain reaps benefits in terms of smaller crowds, shorter queues and cheaper tickets, except in major cities and tourist resorts, and often even in those, you’ll be struggling if you haven’t a mastery of at least basic Spanish.
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Explore Andalucia in the south, a traditional favourite among Brits but a region with so much more to offer than the notorious Costa del Sol, including the fabulous cities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba as well as mountains and great weather. At Granada’s Science Park kids can learn all about our planet; don’t miss the tropical butterfly house and the planetarium with its films. Or read our guide to the low-key, untouristy area of Andulucia known as the Costa de la Luz.
Travel to the south-east of the country, to the province of Alicante, where the Costa Blanca is a great family destination for its soft sands, warm seas, wonderful climate, and historical cities and towns, as well as major tourist resorts such as Benidorm.
Discover charming Valencia in the eastern province of the same name, especially if your kids have a taste for paella – the dish originated here. The big draw here is the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by Santiago Calatrava and comprising an opera house and performing arts centre, a science museum, a planetarium, a lazerium, an IMAX cinema, and one of Europe’s biggest and best aquariums (partly open-air). There’s a city beach too. Valencia is a great place to visit in spring: March sees the fabulous Fallas festival complete with huge papier-maché models and fireworks. Or head for nearby Buñol later in the year, in August, when it hosts the world-famous, utterly riotous Tomatina or tomato-throwing contest.
Take time out in the north-eastern region of Catalonia – Barcelona, best known as a party=going coastal city-break destination, is surprisingly good for kids, from teens who appreciate the phantasmagorical Gaudi architecture to younger children who appreciate its brilliant aquarium, one of Europe’s biggest, featuring an ‘oceanarium’ that gives you the opportunity to experience the Med from inside a glass tunnel, so that sharks, eels and fish seem to swim around you.
Drive one hour south from Barcelona to experience PortAventura just outside Salou. Spain's answer to Disneyland Paris, this theme-park takes you on a journey of rides in exotic lands around the world. Salou itself is the biggest resort on the Costa Dorada, named for its 216km of golden beaches; smaller ones include the more laid-back Cambrils. There’s also the city of Tarragona, UNESCO World Heritage listed for its Roman ruins but also boasting Blue Flag beaches, for a double-whammy of culture and relaxation.
Alternatively, head north of Barcelona (140km) to Figueres and then to the old fishing town of Cadaquès if your kids like modern art: both have museums dedicated to the Surrealist Salvador Dalí (be warned that some of his quirky work can be a bit risqué). Cadaquès is part of the Costa Brava, which has some very touristy resorts but plenty of more low-key, traditional coastal towns to seek out.
Madrid, Spain’s capital, may be far from the sea in the centre of the country but for resourceful parents and inquisitive kids it has plenty to entertain, from high culture to funfair frolics.
Check out the Basque Country in northern Spain, a relatively untouristy and tranquil region. The revitalized port of Bilbao is worth visiting, especially the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Museum of Fine Arts, which host cultural and leisure activities throughout the year, including theatre and puppet show, parades and circus acts. At Christmas time, for more than a month, the Children's Christmas Park opens its doors at the Bilbao International Trade Fair Centre, with rides and activities. Fifty minutes from Bilbao is Karrantza, home to the Karpin Abentura ecology and animal theme-park, with Iberian and European fauna, animated dinosaur shows and kids’ exhibitions.
Easily accessed from Bilbao airport, Donostia-San Sebastian, also in the Basque Country, is little known among Brits but popular with Spaniards, who flock to the cosy seaside town in summer to flee the raging heat inland. It offers three lovely beaches (four in summer, when tiny Santa Clara island is accessible by ferry) popular with surfers and other watersports enthusiasts and devoid of gaudy resort trappings. Opening onto the harbour with its aquarium is an attractive old quarter full of pretty historic buildings. There’s also an amusement park on Mt Igeldo, reached by cable-car.
The Spanish section of the Pyrenees is often overlooked as a ski destination but comprises a number of small family-oriented resorts with crèches, snow-parks and other facilities for kids, as well as vast skiable areas. Worth picking out in the Catalan Pyrenees is the little resort of Vall de Nuria not far north of Barcelona, accessed by funicular railway – it has only 10 pistes (from easy to difficult) but includes a children’s activity centre. Ice-skating is also popular here, and, in the warmer months, white-water rafting, hiking, riding, cycling and flights in static hot-air balloons. See also our guide to family skiing holidays in Europe including Spain.
Also in the mountains of northern Spain, this time in the Cantabrian Mountains within 20km of the port of Santander, is the Cabarceno Wildlife Park, with hundreds of exotic animals, many of whom children can mix freely with.
Lastly, the islands of the Canaries and the Balearics are perennial favourites with families, with some peaceful resorts: browse out our guides to Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote and Tenerife in the Canaries, and Menorca, Mallorca and Ibiza in the Balearics.
One of Spain's biggest attractions is its food and drink, and the good news for those on family holidays with fussy children is that a lot of dishes are uncomplicated, so there are plenty of options when it comes to eating out. Resorts are full of places offering the ubiquitous global fast-food options, but because of the huge coastline, fresh fish is common on restaurant menus, as are meat dishes, especially sausages, which locals adore.
The Spanish are very tolerant of young children, so don't worry if yours are not accustomed to sitting still. It is also worth remembering that the Spanish take their kids out with them at night and that dinner often starts late (9pm or after), so plan your day accordingly if you want to follow suit – a large lunch followed by a siesta helps, followed by la merienda – a late-afternoon snack.
Most of Spain has dry summers and winters, so – with the exception of the odd blip – almost any time of year is a good time to visit. For those on family holidays with young children, however, it’s best to avoid some parts of the country, including Madrid, in the height of summer, when the heat can be unbearable. Instead, do as the Spaniards do and head to the north of the country, where there is less humidity and you will get a respite from the scorching heat.
Even in winter, you can enjoy the warmth of the Spanish sun, but spring is probably the most pleasant season of all in which to visit – you can enjoy some of Spain's well-known festivals and experience fewer crowds than in summer.
There are chartered and scheduled flights to around 30 destinations in mainland Spain and the main islands of the Balearics and Canaries, many by low-cost operators. Depending on what part of Spain you are flying to, the journey time is approximately 2hrs 30mins from the UK.
For those who aren’t in a hurry and consider the journey part of the fun, Brittany Ferries operates services from Plymouth and from Portsmouth to Santander on the north coast of Spain, taking 20 and 24hrs respectively. Whales and dolphins can be spotted en route, and the vessels, the Pont-Aven and the Armorique, have family-friendly facilities such as cinemas, pools and playrooms.
Spain can be a relatively inexpensive destination for family holidays by virtue of the huge amount of competition between accommodation providers and wealth of self-catering properties and the number of low-cost flights serving the country.
Self-catering villas have long been popular for family holidays in mainland Spain and on its islands, while apartments can be a similarly flexible choice in resorts or large cities. Otherwise, there’s plenty of choice of child-friendly hotels and holiday villages, some with kids’ clubs.
Specific to Spain and very reasonably priced given the quality, paradors are state-run hotels often set in beautifully restored historic buildings such as palaces, monasteries, medieval castles or Arab fortresses. Most have restaurants serving traditional Spanish food, including kids’ favourites, and the website lets you search by criteria such as the presence of a children’s play area.
Spain is also a good country for motorhoming or camping, or there's a good selection of family activity and adventure holidays – see the Trips tab.
Most families come to Spain on independent or package holidays, but there is a good choice of organised activity holidays to consider too, whether you enjoy the coast or the mountains.
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