Since I spent a semester abroad in the small fishing town of Dénia on Spain’s Costa Blanca, I’ve fallen in love with this spectacular country. From the ubiquitous tapas restaurants lining the narrow streets just waiting to be discovered in Madrid to the cosmopolitan and artsy Barcelona and then down south to Andalucía, the birthplace of flamenco, it has something for everyone and you always leave with new plans for your next visit. For first time travelers to Spain, I highly recommend getting to know Madrid and Barcelona for 4-5 days, and from there, there are myriad opportunities to continue your trip and discover more of this diverse destination.

Cibeles Fountain, Madrid Spain

Day1: Madrid – Arrive in Madrid and settle into your comfortable hotel. I highly recommend the Petit Palace hotel chain which offers 3- and 4-star quality accommodation in the city center at an affordable rate ($100-$150 per night). The super central 4-star Petit Palace Mayor Plaza even offers family rooms from $118 per room per night. Spain is very child friendly so you’ll see kids around the city at all hours of the day and night! For your first day, check out Madrid’s grand central square, Plaza Mayor. Once you’ve admired the architecture on your stroll, grab an outdoor table at one of the many restaurants surrounding the square for a bite to eat and take it all in. Just outside the square, you’ll see the famous San Miguel Market which is housed in a historic glass building and filled with little stalls of Spanish delicacies (tapas, olives, seafood, sweets and cava to name just a few).

San Miguel Market at night

Enjoy an hour or two sampling some typical Spanish foods – most are sold in small bites or portions so it’s a great place to try something new. From here, take a stroll down to the nearby Royal Palace, originally home to many of Spain’s kings, but now only used for special ceremonies. Perhaps, you’ll want to enjoy a tour. The Catedral de la Almudena is next door so take a peak here before wandering over to the Opera house to see if there are any performances that are of interest to you during your stay. For dinner tonight, head to La Latina neighborhood and the Calle Cava Baja for some tapas tasting. Take a look around to see where the locals are and stop at a few different restaurants for a course (we enjoyed Taberno Los Huevos de Lucio) before finishing up at Chocolatería San Ginés for their legendary churros con chocolate. They’re open 24 hours a day!

Plaza Mayor

Day 2: Madrid – Today, head to the world renowned Prado museum to view some of the European masterpieces on display or the Reina Sofia which houses Picasso’s Guernica. From either museum, head to the expansive and bucolic Parque de Buen Retiro for a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and perhaps enjoy a leisurely row around the small pond in one of the rowboats, always popular with kids and adults! This afternoon, stroll back to the city center through the lovely Plaza de Santa Ana and the bustling Plaza del Sol or head to Faunia (zoo/botanical garden) which will not disappoint the kids with lots of activities to enjoy and animals to see. Head back to your hotel this evening to freshen up before heading to Sobrino de Botín, known as the world’s oldest restaurant, for dinner this evening. You’ll have to try the roast suckling pig or roast lamb cooked in the restaurant’s 300 year old oven.

Parque de Buen Retiro
Buen Retiro formal gardens

Day 3: Barcelona – Today, say goodbye to Madrid and head to the train station for your 2 and a half hour train ride to Barcelona.

View of the city from Park Guell in Barcelona

Make sure to book the AVE (fast train). It’s a great way to see the countryside and relax for a few hours before your next adventure. Upon arrival, head to the 4-star Petit Palace Barcelona (variety of room offerings for individuals, groups or again, families!) or the 3-star HCC MontBlanc on the edge of the Gothic Quarter and settle in. Your first visit will be to the Gothic Cathedral in the heart of the city and then wander the tiny streets filled with restaurants and small shops and even a few small museums to get a feel for the area. For the art lovers in the group, don’t miss the amazing Picasso Museum this afternoon before heading to trendy Barceloneta and enjoying a seafood dinner on the coast! Try Barraca for their fabulous paella with amazing sea views from their second floor.

Views of Barceloneta

Day 4: Barcelona – Today, enjoy a stroll down el Rastro, Barcelona’s most famous street filled with vendors and street performers and don’t miss a stop at La Boquería Market for a snack or a lunch. The photogenic Plaza Real is not to be missed! This afternoon, visit Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia and then head to nearby Parc Guell.

Sagrada familia
Park Guell

Don’t forget to book your timed tickets online in advance for both of these visits to ensure you are able to enter and avoid waiting in line! And for the extreme Gaudi lovers out there, book an inside visit of one of his apartments, Casa Milá or Casa Batlló. For dinner this evening, join the locals and check out the many Pinxos on offer on the pedestrian street, Carrer de Blai. After dinner, head to the nearby Magic Fountain of Montjuic for a spectacular light show on summer weekends.

Magic Fountain of Montjuic
Plaza Real
Gaudi lamppost in Plaza Real


Day 5: Barcelona – For adventurous travelers, take a bike tour of Barcelona (CicloTour offers a great one!) and get a fantastic overview of the very bike-friendly city while on two wheels. Alternatively, enjoy some down time at the beach in Barceloneta or perhaps enjoy a day trip to the seaside town of Tarragona (45 minutes one way by train) to explore the ancient Roman ruins. Cap your trip off with a Flamenco Show this evening!

Day 6: Depart for home, or if you have more time, I highly recommend adding Granada and/or Sevilla to your itinerary to get a taste of Andalucía! Alternatively, the beach towns of the Costa Blanca (Xavea or Dénia) are delightful and offer a fantastic smaller town feel, yet they are still filled with culture, history and delicious Spanish cuisine!

As far as costs for this 5 night/6 day itinerary, an estimated budget for a family of 4 would be as follows:

Accommodation: $125 x 5 nights = $625 

Transport: $100 (mostly walkable but Metro and taxis may occasionally need to be used)

AVE train: $400 

Food: $1100

Activities/visits: $600

Total: $2825

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Originally from the Chicago area, Cara has most recently relocated to the Central Valley of Costa Rica with her husband and two energetic little ones to slow down and enjoy the ‘Pura Vida’ life. Since traveling to Mexico as a child with her family and studying abroad in Spain as an undergrad, she is always looking for the next adventure. Her favorite life experiences to date include working in a deli in Grand Teton National Park, teaching English to toddlers in Japan, connecting with her local community as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, backpacking with her husband in Patagonia and putting down some roots in the Boston area. With over 10 years of experience in the travel industry, she is passionate about sharing her love of travel with others and helping them make the most of their time overseas with authentic, extraordinary experiences. To learn more about Cara’s adventure in Costa Rica, visit her blog at


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