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Loud, vibrant, beautiful, bustling and booming – Barcelona is wonderful for a family holiday or break, with a sunny climate, mild winters, lively beaches, gorgeous parks, mind-blowing historical and modern architecture, and fabulous, family-friendly food. And though it goes down brilliantly with teens, it's surprisingly good with tots too, provided you do your homework in terms of where to stay and what to see and do.
Spend the day at Parc de la Ciutadella, with its boating lake, its extravagant fountain with gilded statues including water-spouting dragons, its mammoth statue, its free-flying green parrots and its two natural history museums. It’s also home to the Zoo de Barcelona.
Head for Parc Güell, designed by Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and full of mesmerising stone structures including a bench in the form of a sea serpent and vibrant tiled mosaics, one of a salamander (dubbed ‘el drac’ or the dragon).
Marvel at Gaudí's masterpiece, the fantastical Sagrada Familia, finally nearing completion almost a century after the architect's death. An audio-guide brings it to life for kids 6–12, while over-fives can climb its spindly towers. Book well ahead to circumvent the lengthy queues.
Don’t miss another Gaudí masterpiece, La Pedrera or Casa Milà with its topsy-turvy roofscape of chimneys that kids love to race around. Inside you’ll find displays on the natural inspirations for the building's design (which included snakes and sea sponges), a mock-up of a period apartment, and occasional events including workshops and puppet shows (some in English by request). Don’t miss the giftshop with its charming old-fashioned toys or the excellent ground-level bookshop.
Go up Montjuic hill by funicular or cable-car for amazing views over the city from the 18th-century castle, a swim in the outdoor pool built for the 1992 Olympics (open to the public in July and August), child-friendly cultural venues including the Catalan National Art Museum and the Fundació Joan Míro, and several remnants of the Modernist building experiment. On certain evenings, Montjuïc also hosts a famous Magic Fountain sound-and-light show
Enjoy the charmingly old-fashioned Tibidabo amusement park in its stunning location beside the neo-Gothic hilltop Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor (30 minutes from Plaça de Catalunya via the Tibibus from outside El Corte Inglés department store). The fairground rides, rollercoaster and surreal museum of automatons come with 360-degree views over the city.
Make for a beach. The closest to the centre, Barceloneta, is naturally the busiest. A good alternative is Mar Bella, where you can play ping pong or volleyball before refuelling at a chiringuito (beach café). It’s about a 15-minute bike-ride along the seafront from Barceloneta; bike hire is widely available.
Take an evening stroll along the Ramblas with its stunning architecture, street performers and food, trinket and pet stalls. Locals do this en masse before or after dinner, often with an ice cream in hand.
Don't miss a visit to La Boqueria market just off the Ramblas, even if you're not self-catering – this colourful place appeals to parents and kids alike with its quirky little stalls and larger-than-life characters. It's the perfect place to stock up for a picnic, or you can install yourselves at a little counter and order an array of tapas tasting dishes – the ultimate family-friendly sharing meal.
Soak up some history with a two-hour Dragon Hunt family orientation walk with Context Travel, aimed at those with children under 13, spotting the mythical creatures on façades and in the form of statues all over the city.
Sign the kids up for a chocolate workshop at the Museu Xocolata, or just dive into the café or shop for pastries and chocolated-based treats.
Get design inspiration at Vinçon, a Gracia store with fabulous homeware plus a children’s section with imaginative toys and items of decor.
For themepark thrills, head for PortAventura an hour and half south of the city (with dedicated trains from Barcelona Sants train station; train tickets include park admission).
Most Barcelona restaurants, tapas bars and cafés welcome kids, but evening meals generally aren't served until 9pm or later – so do as locals do and take a siesta after lunch in order to keep kids up beyond their normal bedtime.
This is a great place to introduce kids to delicious Spanish specialities such as jamón ibérico (melt-in-the-mouth acorn-fed ham), and to sample produce in the markets (see above), fresh fish near the port and paella on the beachfront (we like El Xiringuito near the Port Olímpic).
Our other tried-and-tested places to eat with kids in Barcelona include locals’ favourite, no-bookings La Paradeta Born near Parc de la Cuitadella, where you order (using sign language if you don’t speak Spanish or Catalan) from a fresh-fish counter and fetch your meal from a hatch from the kitchen.
For gastronomic Catalan dining, preferably without the offspring, the Mandarin Oriental’s Moments is Michelin-starred; with kids, try the hotel’s more informal seafood bistro, Angel León’s BistrEau, which doubles as a great family brunch venue (daily from 12.30 to 4pm).
International fare is also widely available for the unadventurous…
For ice cream, try Vioko on the harbourfront by Barceloneta beach, with both traditional and more outré flavours including rose and violet. The best (and most stylish) sweet shop is Papabubble in the Gothic Quarter, where you see artisans working their magic on sheets of caramel and fruit candies.
Don’t miss a paper cone of churros or Spanish doughnuts, for breakfast, as a snack or as a dessert. We like the no-frills takeaway Xurreria, also in the Gothic Quarter (staff at the Art Nouveau café La Granja on the same street don't mind if you bring them in with you to dip into one of their luscious hot chocolates).
Barcelona is a year-round family holiday or break destination. Come in summer to advantage of the city's golden-sand beaches, but don’t expect to have them to yourselves. The height of summer can also be too hot to be pounding the city streets, especially with very young kids.
Indeed, Barcelona is a great choice for May half term or October half term, when it can still be warm enough for you to enjoy the pools and beaches.
Barcelona is a hugely popular destination and there’s no shortage of flights from main and regional UK airports, some with no-frills carriers.
El Prat airport is is 12km southwest of Barcelona, with easy, fast travel to the centre including express buses, trains and taxis. Note that some budget airlines fly to Girona Airport about 80km away, with connecting buses to Barcelona.
London-Barcelona by train (possible in a single day, with a journey time of as little as six hours and 15 minutes) costs from about £200pp return with uk.voyages-sncf.com. For more info getting to Barcelona by train, see Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com).
Accessible by low-cost airline and with masses of self-catering accommodation, Barcelona can be a relatively inexpensive destination, although there's plenty of opportunity to splurge.By Rhonda Carrier
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