Our journey to Spain, Northern Spain and France was inspired by my significant other, Marcus. After traveling to the region twice in the past 10 years, he couldn’t wait to show off the destination to our family. As with all of our family adventures, we hoped that our children, Madison (17), Mia (10) and Charli (6), would return home with a greater appreciation of a new culture and deepen their appreciation for exploring the world.
Because we were planning our trip ourselves, Marcus and I split the research duties and had weekly planning sessions leading up to the trip. We had a solid itinerary nailed down (albeit written on the back of a Publix receipt) prior to our departure. We had a lot to do and see, but we weren’t afraid to steer from the itinerary if we came upon a hidden gem. The goal was to ultimately land in Pamplona for the San Fermín Festival’s opening ceremony.
Where to Stay
Our first stop was Madrid. We jumped right into the bustling, multicultural city where English is frequently spoken among other languages from around the world. We stayed at the Luxury Suites Madrid, a boutique hotel in the city’s center. This hotel has apartment-style accommodations with a kitchen and laundry area. Plus, it was reasonably priced and perfect for the five of us.
In San Sebastian, the second city we visited, we stayed at the Tryp San Sebastian Orly Hotel, which is a hip, modern property nearby La Concha (the beach) and walking distance to everything in the city. We booked two rooms at this hotel to accommodate our crew.
Where to Eat
It’s hard to describe the energy and atmosphere of the coastal town of San Sebastian, recently named the Cultural Capital of Europe. With the second-most Michelin ratings for dining in the world (next to Paris) there was no shortage of amazing food to try. We enjoyed the local seafood in pintxos style (a Basque word for snack-size portions of delicacies), which is a style regarded as the culinary cornerstone of the local culture and society. We had lots of fun trying the different varieties of pintxos as we wandered in and out of small taverns along the street. Yes, we had our children in taverns, but we were right at home with the local families of San Sebastian, who were also enjoying the delicious assortment of pinxtos with kids in tow. Most restaurants, taverns and even stores close from 2 to 5 p.m. each day for siesta, so it is important to plan meals accordingly. Our favorite breakfast spot in Madrid was Faborit, a Spanish chain restaurant stocked full of fresh fruits, smoothies, coffee and fresh breakfast sandwiches.
What to Do
Our favorite location in Madrid was Retiro Park nearby our hotel. Our favorite spot was a circular ride where we had to balance each other to keep up. Retiro Park has food stands, mimes, puppet shows, huge grassy areas for lounging, play areas and a magnificent lake where visitors can rent canoes. All of this is located in the shadows of the historical architecture and beauty of Madrid. We spent a morning at the colorful El Rastro, the city’s largest flea market, which takes place every Sunday in the oldest section of the city. We also visited the Royal Palace and roamed in and out of breathtaking cathedrals. Finally, we visited the National Museum of Natural History of Spain, where admission is free, children are always welcome and the exhibits are outstanding. At the museum, we were given a list of the top 10 things to see and interesting facts about each. The girls loved the scavenger hunt to find the exhibits.
After a few days in Madrid, we rented a car and traveled to San Sebastian, located on the Atlantic coast of Northern Spain. The four-hour drive through the Spanish countryside was breathtaking. San Sebastian is located in Basque Country, an area of Spain known for strong cultural traditions, cuisine and a distinct language that pre-dates the Romance languages. Their primary language is Spanish, but many people speak Basque. Marcus is a fluent Spanish speaker, which was helpful.
Once we arrived, we all loved swimming out to the ocean platforms to take advantage of the slides and diving boards. However, the pinnacle of our trip was the San Fermín Festival. Its opening ceremony is in Pamplona, which is about 45 minutes south of San Sebastian. The San Fermín Festival features the Running of the Bulls, but the first day does not include any bull running. We arrived bright and early to the festival, which originated in the 1500s. Our family was surrounded by thousands of people from around the world dressed in traditional white and red clothing. There was something special about the moment the mayor of Pamplona appeared on his balcony to officially kick off the weeklong festival. The singing, the dancing and the overall cultural experience of being a part of a tradition that has been taking place for so many years was an experience of a lifetime. PLAY Tip: Just like at any large event, beware of pickpockets.
We also took a quick trip to Biarritz, France (only a 45-minute drive). Each year, the city hosts a surf competition that coincides with the San Fermín Festival. On the way, we briefly stopped off in Bayonne, a small town known for chocolate and World War II history, to visit L’atelier du Chocolat. We also explored Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, a Roman Catholic church located in the town of Auch in the Midi-Pyrénées, France.
We packed a lot into our journey, and it was hands down the greatest trip I’ve ever experienced. Plus, we all came back feeling more connected to each other and the world. Goal achieved!