08 May 2024

How to afford a family city break in Barcelona

08 May 2024

It’s hard to break my gaze, but when I do, settling on two young faces mesmerised as they stare at an architectural icon – mouths agog – is everything I need to see.

La Sagrada Familia – the cathedral which is still being built more than 140 years after construction first started, showcasing the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí – for which Barcelona is so well known – has to be seen to be believed.

Every element of its design is different from the next, and my two daughters, Rosie, 14, and Poppy, 11, appear to be lost for words – a very rare thing indeed.

We inch our way around every bit of building; spellbinding spires stretching up into the clear blue sky with pyramids of fruit perching deliciously atop.

This is the landmark everyone says you have to see if you come to Barcelona – and with good reason. Ageless beauty sits beside the majestic and modern with total pride. Weird and wonderful – every inch of the architecture is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

The fact that we’re even here is a welcome surprise to us all, let alone gawping at Gaudi in 20-degree sunshine when it feels like it hasn’t stopped raining at home for months.

We’ve managed to escape for the Easter holidays after deciding a trip abroad was most definitely off the cards this year. With bills going up year upon year, sunny getaways are becoming less affordable. But when we unexpectedly managed to bag four days in Spain’s artiest city for £792 for all four of us, we all let out excited squeals.

I thought the days of bargain flights were over. Even if you book with a value airline, by the time you’ve added on baggage, it seems to be a fortune. But booking three months ahead, we secured four flights with Vueling for £234.77. Baggage is extra (though if you’re savvy and only going for a couple of nights, I would argue you could all pack an under-seat rucksack for free) and you can opt for cabin or hold, which starts from €10 (£8.50).

The hotel, we were less organised with, but even booking weeks before, we secured a basic family apartment at Atenea Calabria, in a relatively central location, for three nights, for £557. And that included a big old breakfast spread every morning that pleased the kids no end (9am doughnut, anyone?).

Once you get to Barcelona, of course, things can be as cheap or expensive as you like. When it comes to food and drink, after a big morning feast, we opt for a small snack or ice-cream around lunchtime, and then plump for an early sitting of tapas.

After pounding pavements all the way to the port – where we ogle yachts and people watch while basking in the warmth – we stumble across small but perfectly formed Perikete.

We scoff patatas bravas, cod croquettes, Spanish tortilla, Serrano ham, padron peppers, broken fried eggs and Manchego, as we sit on giant Estrella kegs upcycled into bar tables. A jug of deliciously fruity sangria, half a litre of Keller beer and a couple of Fanta Limons, and the damage is just £61 – a figure we can only dream our dinner bill amounts to when we eat out at home.

Arriving early means getting a table is easy, too (by 7pm, long queues are forming outside).

Another night, our weary legs fall into La Guapa & La Mala Tapas, where we order a similarly delicious array of treats. Repurposed old soda stream bottles are made into lights, black and white photographs of celebrities adorn the walls, tins are transformed into lampshades, bills come in sardines cans and 90s music blasts out of the speakers; it’s wonderful. £76 covers everything, including beer, Aperol spritz and soft drinks, and the portions are so big, we can’t eat everything.

Barcelona is also renowned for its food markets. The beautiful La Boqueria is the oldest and most famous, but with sweetie stalls replacing traditional food stands, we wander through Mercat de Santa Caterina and Mercat de Sant Antoni instead – an assault on the senses by anyone’s standards.

But while food and drink is very much affordable in Barcelona, the big attractions can be expensive.

The beach, however, is completely free. Walking from city sights to sandy surf never fails to make me smile.

Sporty types dig and smash their way to beach volleyball victory, friends sit and laze on the stony sands, while savvier folk keep walking to avoid the myriad of beach sellers flogging towels, braids, drinks and massages every few minutes.

Fit bodies pump iron by the pier on the outdoor gym, and pricier restaurants and beach bars spill over with people spending money, but it’s worth splashing out a little more for that view.

We all love how each area of the city feels so different. Flashy, edgy, beautiful, boho, just keep walking and you’ll stumble across somewhere you’ll love.

We walk the length and breath of Barcelona, Gaudi spotting where we can. We snap La Pedrera from the street, before falling completely in love with Casa Batllo. Stained glass, mosaic, sumptuous textures, quirky balconies and more skyward sculptures. It’s colourful yet classy. But it’s expensive to go inside.

Basic entry costs €43 (£37) or it’s €53 (£45) for everything (including queue skipping, which is very important for teenagers and tired parents alike). If you’re organised, you can save money by booking ahead online. But as we’re not, we decide not to spend over £150 for an hour and split up. I pay for the ‘gold’ (queue jumping) entry for me and take Poppy, as delightfully, under 13s are free.

She loves how every room objectifies some kind of animal, and the interactive audio visual tour which brings everything to life. “It’s the craftiest building I’ve ever seen,” she proclaims.

Park Guell is another must-see, but tickets are likely to sell out on the day, so it’s worth getting organised (€10/£8.50 for adults; €7/£6 for children aged 7-12; free for kids under 7 years). Families can spend hours inside – we take a picnic and spend the day among extroverted parakeets, squawking and squealing as they zoom from the palm trees, vying for everyone’s attention.

Inside, it’s another mind-blowing Gaudi phenomenon. Bougainvillea and wisteria thread themselves around the undulating stone walls, with greenery sprouting from cobblestone-like top hats.

Visitors rest on mosaic benches, beneath which lies an underworld of picturesque pillars. Look up to linger on punched out domes, circles of colourful art created from the teeniest of tiny shards. Every corner you turn, stony staircase you step down or winding ramp you climb, there is something new to see. Tourists queue desperately for snaps next to the mosaic iguana, but there is art literally everywhere you look.

Barcelona is full of art you can immerse yourself in. As we pack our bags for the plane ride home, the girls decide the best bit was La Sagrada Familia – and vow to return in 2026, when the building is scheduled to finally be complete.

How to plan your trip

Vueling flies to Barcelona from Birmingham, Edinburgh, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, and Manchester, with prices starting from £38.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox