My husband and I went to the Catalonia area of Spain (Menorca, Barcelona, and the Pyrenees) ten years ago for our honeymoon, and we loved it, but we really wanted to go back and see the southern region of Andalucia. We also have very good friends living in Madrid who we have wanted to visit. I had been trying to figure out how to get there using points and miles, however it seemed like a pipe dream to fly a family of four. Ticket prices were consistently $1000-1200 each, which was way out of our price range. Accruing enough points and miles was also a possibility, but that even seemed tough to do.
Since I am on several Facebook groups dedicated to travel deals, sometime last year people started posting that Delta was having an amazing sale for flights to some cities in Europe. I saw that they had flights to Madrid from JFK for $390! That’s 1/3 to 1/4 of what they normally cost. With these types of deals you have to jump on them as soon as they post (you can always cancel a ticket within 24 hours for a full refund, so if you are unsure just book it!). We also saw that they had a flight over my husband’s fall break. He would still miss some classes and the kids would miss school (although they were off for Columbus Day), but the fall would be a great time to go – still nice weather but not as hot, and off peak tourist season. We discussed for about an hour and then booked the tickets!
We decided to bookend our trip with Madrid on the first and last weekend of our 10 days because that is where our friends live and we could hang out with them more. We would visit Granada during the week and that would be our “hub” in Andalucia because we could go to the Alhambra, it is close to the coast and the mountains, and seemed like a cool city itself. It seemed to have more to offer for kids than Seville. We decided to rent a car for travel between the cities because it was cheaper than four train tickets and we would then have the freedom to explore the area a bit.
For our lodging, for the first weekend in Madrid I booked a boutique hotel suite through Amex travel. I did this because at the time they were offering a deal where if you spent a certain amount of money through their travel booking site you would receive 10,000 membership rewards (Amex points). Also I wanted to have a hotel (vs an Airbnb) when we first landed in the morning for ease of checking in and being able to leave our bags in the morning before we formally checked in. The hotel was nice and right near the art musuems and the Retiro park.
For the Granada leg, I booked an amazing Airbnb in the Albaycin, which is the very old Moorish quarter on the side of the mountain with white houses and a maze of small, cobblestone streets and little squares with cafes. The Airbnb was a full house with lots of space. It had two bedrooms (bunk beds for the kids), two bathrooms, a full kitchen, an office area, and a rooftop deck overlooking the Alhambra, which was always breathtaking. They also gave us a parking space in a garage. Driving through the Albaycin was extremely anxiety-producing but we did it and came out unscathed.
The final lodging was an Airbnb back in Madrid in the La Latina neighborhood, near the Plaza Mayor and Royal Palace. It was a large, 2 bedroom apartment with an awesome, huge terrace. We were able to make use of the terrace on our last day to hang out with our friends and have a little birthday party for our seven year old.
The trip itself
When we first landed in Madrid we were jet-lagged and tired but got a great boost from spending time with our friends who we hadn’t seen in 11 years! We were immediately initiated into the Spanish culture of a long lunch with lots of wine. The nice thing about Spain is that they don’t mind children at restaurants so we could relax and enjoy our time with our friends. Over the weekend we went to all the big sites including the Plaza Mayor, the Puerto Del Sol, the Gran Via, and the Reina Sofia museum. I loved the latter and it was so amazing to see Picasso’s Guernica in person as well as some Dali, Miro, and others. We didn’t stay long because our youngest has little tolerance for art museums, but we made sure to hit the highlights. Our friends also took us the Egyptian temple (apparently Egypt was flooding the area it was in originally so they offered it to Madrid), and the Casa de Campo, a big park with a lake and restaurants that was once the king’s hunting grounds. We also enjoyed lots of tapas, wine, gin, and a calamari sandwich (famous in the Plaza Mayor).
On Monday morning we rented a car and drove to Granada. The trip was about four hours and takes you through a beautiful arid landscape dotted with olive groves and into the Sierra Nevada mountains. We were greeted by our Airbnb hosts and set off the explore the city, including stopping at a fabulous tapas bar. We explored a bit and had dinner in the little square in the Albaycin near our house.
The next day we headed our early for the Alhambra (we bought tickets online in advance) and spent several hours there. It truly is a marvel and was such an awe-inspiring experience. This was certainly the highlight of the trip. After that, more eating and drinking, and then we went to a Flamenco show at night! I had never seen live Flamenco and it was like nothing I’ve ever seen.
The following day we had a breakfast of churros and chocolate at a cool little local place, and then we headed down to the Science center, the Parque de las Ciencias. It was one of the nicest science centers I’ve ever been to and had a bio-dome with a large aquarium and land animals including a sloth! It also had a tower where you could get a great view of the city. Of course, being Spain, several of the exhibits closed between 2-5pm, so we left and ate lunch at a great little restaurant near the museum. After lunch we went back and saw more exhibits and then went back to the main part of town and saw a museum about the Sephardic Jews of the area. They also had an exhibit of torture devices used in the inquisition which brought on a lot of questions from the little guys and made my older son quite sad. He perked up with ice cream and getting to pick where we had dinner.
The next day we woke up early and drove about an hour to the beach town of Almunecar. The beach here was rocky, but the grey rocks were smooth to walk on and we decided that in a way this was better than sand because you could brush them off easily. The scenery around the beach was breathtaking and we spent some time swimming and lounging. For lunch I had wanted to go to a restaurant nearby that had great TripAdvisor reviews, but they were completely full. Frustrated and disappointed, we went to the next one we saw, and it was not very good. The service was also painfully slow, even for Spain. We left despondent, my hopes dashed for paella on the beach. Fortunately we started exploring the town a bit and we came upon a very cool castle and ruins of a Roman salt factory in their botanical gardens. The castle was apparently originally built by the Moors, then was taken over by the Romans and then the Christians. It was on the top of a hill and so it offered breathtaking views of the sea and the mountains behind it. After this we drove back to Granada and after a bit of a driving snafu in the Albaycin we went to a fabulous dinner in the city. I ordered paella and sopa de ajo (garlic soup) to make up for the sub-par lunch, and it definitely made up for it and then some!
For our last day in Granada we decided to drive out to the Sierra Nevada to try to find Las Alpujarras, which are these little towns of white houses sort of clinging to the side of the mountains. The drive up was a bit scary on small, windy switchbacks. When we finally arrived at the first town, Papaneira, there was nowhere to park! It was already full of touristas. We kept driving up to the next town, Bubion, where we barely got a parking spot and were able to find a nice restaurant for lunch. The kids got pizza and my husband and I tried the local specialty of sausages. We walked around a bit and again tried to go back to Pamapaneira because it was bigger and had more going on, but we still couldn’t find a single place to park! The drive down was a bit less scary (just coast in neutral). For our last night we walked around the Albaycin, climbed a bell tower for more great views, and relaxed in a town square with drinks and tapas. Did I mention that in Granada they always bring you a free tapa with your drink??! It’s pretty awesome, especially since in some places the tapas themselves are so big they can almost be a meal.
I was very sad to leave Granada. It ended up being my favorite part of the trip and is definitely in my top 5 places I’ve ever been to. It is such a vibrant, cool city with an Arabic vibe, lots of hippies, lots of great food, and incredible sights. I highly recommend a visit there. It was also great for kids. My kids loved the Alhambra and the science center and even eating tapas at the cafes. And it’s a great home base if you want to also explore the Sierra Nevada and the Costa Tropical as we did.
The next morning was my youngest son’s 7th birthday! He got to spend it in the medieval city of Toledo which we drove to that morning. This is an ancient walled city near Madrid. We walked around the Jewish quarter and got to tour some medieval synagogues. By mid-day it was starting to get very busy with tourists though. We decided to eat a lunch of empanadas and bocadillos “on the go” rather than sit down for two hours for a typical Spanish meal since our time was so limited there. We ended up going to a museum that had the works of el Greco and other medieval artifacts, as well as an amazing exhibit by a local modern artist.
We then drove back to Madrid to check into our Airbnb, and as if we didn’t have enough art for the day, we decided to head to the Prado museum because from 6-8pm they let you in for free (hint, if you get there at 5:45 as we did, you will wait on line for 20 mins, but if you get there at 6:15 the line has disappeared). We felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer size and amount of art here, so we didn’t stay long but got a taste. On our way back to the apartment we finally found a store that had the gin my husband had been looking for throughout the trip! It is made on the island of Menorca where we spent part of our honeymoon, and impossible to get in the states (even barely possible in non-Catalonian Spain). We then met my husband’s old friend from college for dinner, who is a native Madrileno. I took the kids out and my husband stayed out with his friend to experience some true Madrid nightlife.
On our last day in Spain we had breakfast at a great little creperia near Plaza Mayor. We then headed over to the Royal Palace. The kids loved the Armory section because they got to see all kinds of swords and guns. After this they started to get whiny and tired, so we brought them home and I walked over to El Rastro, the Sunday flea market in La Latina. It was really cool but so busy! I did manage to buy a couple things before heading back to the apartment to meet our friends.
At the apartment we had lunch and a little birthday celebration for my son. We then walked over to Plaza Sta Ana for some coffee and snacks. Around 8pm we said a bittersweet good-bye to our friends, and went home to pack. The next morning we got back on the plane to head home!
Overall, our trip to Spain was amazing. We got to see some incredible sights, re-connected with old friends, are and drank ourselves sick, and definitely got lots of quality family time. We will surely remember it forever!