Family fun in Barcelona

by Dan.Hipgrave

Combine the theme park thrills of PortAventura with the cosmopolitan attractions of Barcelona, and you've got the ingredients for a perfect family holiday


Choosing a holiday that caters for the whole family can be tricky. Last year I decided on a trip to Universal Studio’s PortAventura, the fun-packed theme park set on the beautiful Mediterranean coast of Spain. I’m normally averse to theme parks of any kind - but my daughter Honey was four, and sitting idly around a pool would simply not suffice.
All that said, there was a hidden agenda behind my choice: PortAventura happens to be extremely close to my favourite European city, Barcelona. So when the rollercoasters take their toll and the sight of men in Woody Woodpecker suits becomes unbearable, the cultural haven of Barcelona awaits.
The flight from Gatwick was dizzyingly early, and the airport was awash with families all vying for their place in an extraordinarily large queue. This is what I would normally describe as hell, except that Honey’s insatiable excitement was making it bearable. In fact her enthusiasm seemed to be contagious, as the child in me was now dreaming of rollercoasters. 
The flight time was a mere 1 hour 30 minutes and the transfer from the airport to PortAventura only a short 15 minutes. So we arrived at the hotel at 10am, with a full day ahead. PortAventura has three themed hotels on its vast complex; we stayed at the Hotel Caribe, a group of clean, modern, colonial-style buildings surrounded by palm trees and tropical gardens. The centrepiece is a massive swimming pool cleverly filled with white sand, creating a beautiful manmade beach.
By 11am we were seated on one of the miniature trains that runs guests from the hotel lobby to the park entrance. These complimentary trains also pick up and drop off at the nearby coastal town of Salou and run every 15 minutes. Pulling up at the grand entrance we were greeted by giant statues of Woody Woodpecker and the sight of awesome-looking rollercoasters in the distance. Portaventura Park is divided into five different areas of the world, cleverly breaking the monotony as you explore. You discover the mysteries of Imperial China, mix with cowboys in the Far West, explore the jungles of Polynesia, travel through exotic Aztec Mexico and experience the picturesque scenes of the Mediterranean. It really is excellent escapism.
I was concerned Honey would miss out on some of the rides, as she was an inch shy of 1.30m, but they cater well for all ages, from toddlers right up to rides that had me scared. Honey’s favourite was Tami-Tami, a rollercoaster that had her looking close to tears until whoops of ‘again, again’ reassured me she actually loved every second. One ride she definitely wasn’t going on was Dragon Khan, a serious rollercoaster that spins you in every conceivable direction at an incredible velocity. I let Lynsey try that one first. The park is well designed and the queues aren’t too much of a problem but if you’re not convinced splash out on the effective express passes. If the heat becomes unbearable there’s always the adjoining Caribe Aquatic Park to cool you down.
Children are very much the priority in the evenings at PortAventura. Honey loved the kids’ disco, and the nightly shows were the highlight of her week. There is a babysitting service available at night and Campo Aventura kids club during the day but with so much for us all to do together we decided against it.
After two or three days, it felt like we’d explored the park enough so we headed 80 kilometres up the coast to Barcelona. I love this city. It has the lot – outstanding architecture from Gothic to Gaudi, a beautiful port, stylish shopping, world-class museums and even a beach.
From the moment we were dropped off at Plaza De Catalunya, at the top of the La Rambla, it was a joy to be in the city. The street performers entertained Honey whilst Lynsey and I felt like we were back in ‘grown up land.’ We headed down C’ d’Elisabets, a quieter street off La Rambla, towards Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Set in a shell of an 18th century hospice and a hyper-modern glass structure, both these fine art galleries have the ideal setting for such user-friendly art. Exhibitions range from urban sculpture and design to 20th century contemporary art, representing the city’s forward thinking perfectly.
We then continued towards the coast along La Rambla. This beautiful tree lined boulevard is very touristy and overpriced but every city needs a centrepiece and this is Barcelona’s. Half way down, you can take any number of streets that will lead you to Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, a district I could easily spend the whole day exploring. Here is where you can find the best shopping, with everything from secondhand clothing to high fashion, all set in a maze of medieval streets and walkways. It fascinates me that a city can have so much history on its doorstep and still continue to break boundaries in architecture.
We sat for lunch in Barcelona’s oldest restaurant, Can Culleretes, where we feasted on Catalan specialities with the dark medieval stone architecture as a backdrop. After, we walked the romantic winding streets that surround the magnificent and imposing Cathedral that you can enter for 5 Euros. I was pleasantly surprised how content Honey was; she seemed to enjoy the buzzing atmosphere of this city as much as I did.
We headed to the beach to dip our toes in the Mediterranean. It’s such a novelty to be able to relax on a sandy beach after the slog of the bustling city. To finish our day in Barcelona we headed to Europe’s largest aquarium. It’s a great place for all ages. the highlight being the terrifying 80-metre shark tunnel. As we all stood still, they restlessly swept over our heads, baring their ugly jagged teeth. To calm ourselves down afterwards, we sat and had a cold beer (and a coke) looking out at the glamorous harbour and felt sad to be going home. 
Although the last day seemed to come around too quickly, Honey’s ‘Daddy can I live here?’ spoke volumes, confirming it had been a great holiday. We managed to find the perfect balance: fun for all at PortAventura coupled with a great city break in Barcelona.
Recommended tour operator: First Choice


Dan Hipgrave made his name as the guitarist in rock band Toploader. He now travels the world as a journalist, writing regularly for publications such as The Independent, The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. He also presents a regular travel item on BBC2's Market Kitchen. Dan believes the best way to truly discover a place is to immerse into local cultures and hang out with locals - they always know best! Favourite places: Andalucia Fes / Marrakech and anywhere in South East Asia