As we awaited our departure to Spain, there was a moment in Washington Dulles International Airport’s cramped Concourse C — as our 20-month-old, Maggie, ran barefoot through the crowded halls singing “Baby shark!” at the top of her lungs — that our big Barcelona family adventure seemed like a bad idea. We were already tired. Maggie was irrepressible: She only wanted to run, climb, spin and put random objects in her mouth. Our 6-year-old, Gibson, was easier but was already complaining about all the walking, all the way from Concourse A to C. Could we handle a week of this in the Barcelona heat?
My wife, Judy, and I had heard all the warnings about European summer travel: swarms of tourists, overwhelmed airlines, long lines, unbearable heat. And yet we, too, were determined to get back to traveling. Friends and family responded with worry and bemusement when we shared our plans to take the kids, but we had lived abroad and traveled extensively when Gibson was a toddler, so it seemed perfectly possible to us. Despite everything I read about the insanity of Europe this summer, I repeated the mantra, “If we can just get through the flight, it’ll be fine.”
It was better than fine. It was spectacular. All the warnings came true: Flights were delayed, we missed connections, we ran into crowds and sweated a lot and waited in long lines. Yet this trip was one of the best weeks of my life.
Before leaving, Judy and I set aside our usual travel ambitions. There would be no tasting menus, no endless wandering from tapas to art museum and back. We would do kid things, lots of them. And we did. We visited the zoo and the aquarium, but the real gem was Tibidabo Amusement Park, which is built atop the mountain of the same name. Its quaint, old-timey rides are made thrilling because they literally tower over Barcelona. An otherwise typical Ferris wheel feels terrifying at 1,600 feet above the sprawling city.
We went on a Thursday, as did 1,000 kids from summer camps. We learned that children everywhere shamelessly cut in line, but also that those lines die down later in the day. As the shadows lengthened, we hit the bumper cars, log flume and three roller-coaster runs in quick succession.
Did I ever dream of spending a precious Barcelona day at an amusement park? No. But they had slow rides for the little one, a splash pad, a breathtaking view, plus ice cold and perfectly drafted local Estrella Damm (Spain has really mastered the art of the beer pour). The kids played so hard that it bought us extra tapas time later in the evening. At the adorable Bodega Santo Porcello in the Sant Antoni neighborhood, they devoured embutidos (assorted cured meats) like they hadn’t eaten in days, and we took our time with perfect negronis.
The kids took to some things we were excited to see, too. Gibson created his own scavenger hunt at the Picasso Museum, searching for the “shadowy guy” hidden somewhere in each of the artist’s Las Meninas paintings. Our daughter was hard to contain in the Joan Miró Foundation, but we plied her with a lollipop (while in the stroller, of course), and both kids spent an inordinate amount of time in the museum’s children’s activity space with blocks and crayons. Our son declared his favorite Miró painting to be “Landscape,” a solid-white canvas with a single blue dot.
We had been tired on our way up to Miró. But the kids’ energy (and the incredible collection) gave us a second wind. When Gibson suggested a cable car ride to the top of Montjuïc, we couldn’t resist. He loved the sweeping views across the city, plus the novelty of dangling in the sky in a little pod. We eventually ambled down the hill, ate a very late tapas dinner at Bar Calders and used our last bit of energy to sprint home and put the kids to bed.
Kids amplify the indignities of being a tourist in peak season in a massively popular destination. I remembered the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia from a backpacking trip 20 years ago as awe-inspiring. This time, the heat, the crowds and my concern about losing the toddler in said crowds made it hard to enjoy. The nightly sound-and-light show at the Magic Fountain is fun, but it was mainly a sea of bodies and humidity as we tried to track the kids.
Eight solid days with your children continuously at your side and often physically on top of you is tough. We took naps when they did and tried to carve out a little time for cava and conversation after bedtimes. But the toll of planning, wrangling and cajoling caught up with us after a week. Still, crowds and lines aside, we thought we had escaped the worst of European summer craziness.
Then we tried to go home. Our overseas return, from Barcelona to Dulles, was delayed five hours, so we knew we would miss our connection to Kentucky. There wasn’t another flight until the next day, so where would we stay? United wouldn’t tell us what accommodations it would offer until we arrived in Dulles.
After a nine-hour flight with a squirmy “lap infant,” we were ready to crash. As we passed through an absurdly long hallway en route to passport control, it was well past bedtime no matter the time zone, the kids hadn’t eaten, we still had no idea where we would sleep, and we didn’t have car seats or a baby bed.
Of course, the U.S. airport experience is not designed with parents in mind. In Spain, our stroller was a signal to airport and museum security to usher us to the front of the line (or better yet, to the family line!). In Dulles, we wandered like nomads from counter to counter with our stroller and our pile of suitcases and personal items until we found a United agent who could help us. The one airport hotel they offered vouchers for, however, did not have cribs. We finally found another airport hotel, DoorDash-ed fast food and fell asleep at midnight local time on my birthday, still 500 miles from our final destination.
The stress of the return home somehow magnified the fun and joy of our memories of Barcelona. On our last day, we trekked up to Park Güell, the steep, naturalist gardens designed on Carmel Hill by the Catalonian modernist master Antoni Gaudí. Most of the main objects of interest are sandwiched in one area, so if you don’t know where you’re going, or if you’re subject to the whims of a 6-year-old and his even more aimless little sister, you could spend a lot of time traipsing along crowded paths on a nondescript Barcelona hillside in the blazing sun.
Eventually, we made it down to the one of the park’s highlights, Nature Square, for a quick family portrait at one of the most impressive vistas overlooking the city and continued into the cool shade of the Hypostyle Room, where Maggie could roam and shriek with impunity. We gathered our strength and began the downhill hike to the lovely Gracia neighborhood. It was a quiet, summer Monday, so many bars and restaurants were closed.
Determined not to settle on any old place for our last Barcelona lunch, we kept pushing until we came upon the tiny Bar Pietro. Maggie was in the middle of a deep stroller nap. Gibson seemed happy to drink Fanta and eat lacón (a thickly sliced shoulder ham from Galicia) sprinkled with paprika and oil. Judy and I started with cañas (small Spanish beer glasses) of crisp Estrella, then moved on to Spanish-style gin tonics and Aperol spritz, with the added fun of honey rum shots sent by the bartender to the small crowd of day-drinking locals and us. We wandered out an hour later, smiling ear-to-ear. Bringing our kids meant fewer of these moments, but we savored every one we got.
Cornwell is a writer based in Lexington, Ky. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @ghcornwell.