Despite my love of travel – and travel-planning – organizing a stellar family vacation is a quagmire for me.

Our brood includes Bella, an 18-year-old rising first-year college athlete (go Wisconsin Badgers!); Sophie, a 16-year-old almost high school junior whose bent for art and style runs deep; and Anderson (his first name is my last name), an eight-year-old soccer (and all sports) fanatic who is always up for an adventure (except when it comes to trying new foods). And then there’s John and me, who have been to enough places and done enough things that our personal checklist on family getaways usually includes one crucial item: a super-special meal just for us.

To celebrate Bella’s high-school graduation and all of our back-to-back spring birthdays, we chose Spainwhere we knew we had a great shot at meeting the needs of all our mixy-matchy family members. The smartest thing I did was enlist help from genius local expert Laura Guillen Olavide from Elsewhere by Lonely Planet to help me plan and make it happen. The itinerary she created for us was exactly what I'd hoped for but didn't have the time or local expertise to pull off on my own. Our June trip more than met everyone’s expectations. 

IMG1378.jpg
Anderson at Parc Güell in Barcelona © Melinda Anderson / Lonely Planet

Where did you stay? What was the vibe?

We stayed in three different cities: Madrid, Málaga and Barcelona. The three hotels Laura found had both of my essential family vacation amenities: a pool for post-activity chill-out time and room service for when one (or more) of us might be too pooped to pop out. We had a family-style room for three and a double for the teenagers at each spot. 

In Madrid, we slept at super centrally located Catalonia Gran Via on the main shopping drag and a short walk from the art triangle. The girls loved the city-boutique feel, and we appreciated the extra proper bed in our room instead of the usual pull-out. 

IMG0383.jpeg
Bella and Anderson take a leap into the sea off the Costa del Sol near Málaga, Spain © Melinda Anderson / Lonely Planet

The palatial building at Gran Hotel Miramar in Málaga has over its 100-year history been a hospital and a municipal building. A recent top-to-bottom renovation has brought it back to its original purpose as an upscale seaside haven. With the luxurious almost-entirely white decor dotted with glittery mirrors and sparkling Moorish touches, we all felt a little like movie stars. With its two pools, multiple dining options, spa and seaside views for days, we might never have checked out had the pull of Barcelona not been so strong. 

Located steps from two Gaudí must-sees on window-shopping mecca Passeig de Gracia, Hotel Condes de Barcelona is teeming with so many helpful staff members it felt like we had private butlers every time we entered the fully modernized 19th-century former mansion. 

IMG0547.jpeg
The family’s first meal, at La Tasca de Ventura in Madrid @ Melinda Anderson / Lonely Planet

Best thing you ate?

John and I left all three kids behind for Michelin-starred Restaurante Jose Carlos Garcia in Málaga. It’s a strictly multiple-course malagueño-inspired tasting menu (70% of the ingredients are sourced locally) served up in a super stylish contemporary space that manages to be upscale but unfussy. 

That – and ham, ham, ham, anywhere and everywhere. 

What did you book in advance of your trip?

We booked just enough to give us structure but not so much for us to feel like we were on a pack-it-all-in commercial tour. Hotels, transportation and key activities like golf, sailing, a cooking class, special dinners and an out-of-town excursion were all set in in advance. It worked out to be roughly one planned activity a day with plenty of free time around it. 

IMG0750.jpeg
Our walking tour of Madrid with local guide Margit © Melinda Anderson / Lonely Planet

Favorite activity from the trip? 

If we had to vote as a bloc, we might collectively agree that the half-day sail off of Costa del Sol was aces. Individually, from oldest to youngest: John loved golfing with Anderson at the insanely beautiful Torrequebrada. I was in even more awe at La Sagrada Familia (nearly finished!) than 20 years ago, on my first trip to Barcelona. Bella nearly died from the homemade croquetas at our mom-and-stepdaughter cooking class with Bernardita, but also did not hate the lower drinking age and thoroughly acquainted herself with the refreshing Tinto de Verano wherever possible. Sophie fell hard for Madrid, especially her namesake, the Reina Sofia, while Anderson has not stopped telling all his friends about his tour of Camp Nou home of FC Barcelonawhere he scored against the RoboKeeper and took home some serious swag.

Madrid.Roof2.jpg
Anderson framing Madrid from the rooftop restaurant Azotea del Circulo, and his shot of the Gran Via © Melinda Anderson / Lonely Planet

What’s your favorite photo from the trip and where was it taken? 

I love this picture of my son framing up one of the best views of Madrid from the rooftop restaurant Azotea del Circulo, paired with his own shot of the Gran Via. Giving Anderson a camera and assigning pictures kept him engaged even during the activities an eight-year-old might not otherwise enjoy. Plus...hi, Madrid sunset. 

What was the most touristy thing you did?

We went on guided walking tours in each city, which felt like the right thing to do with our three first-timers to Spain. Luckily, Laura booked us dynamic guides, particularly in Madrid, where US-born Margit designed our whole excursion around snacks and libations along the way. 

Best tip for someone who wants to plan the same trip?

Contact Laura today. Just mosey on over to Elsewhere's Spain page and make a request. 

Explore related stories

Copy of LOCAL FLAVOR - Title

Tips & Advice

Local Flavor: where to eat and drink in Madrid

Jul 22, 2024 • 6 min read