Dreaming of Spain travel? Here’s our Spain travel guide, including Málaga and Barcelona Spain, the Alhambra palace, the best beaches in Spain, and paella.
In 2003 I was a young university student in Madrid, Spain, and the experience impressed the country deeply into my soul. I’ve been talking about it ever since: tapas and paella, the rocky coastal beaches, the kindness and warmth of the Spanish people… My poor husband Alex has had to hear about the glory days in Spain one too many times! This year, we decided it was finally time: time for Alex to experience Spain himself! And we brought along our 1 year old toddler son Larson too. Showing this beautiful country to my husband and son is something I’ll never forget. Our summer trip to Europe started in Italy and Croatia, then ended in Spain—a most fitting finale! Keep reading for all about Spain travel: Málaga, Barcelona, the Alhambra Palace, beaches, paella, and more.
Where did you travel in Spain?
Though I studied abroad in Madrid and loved living there, it’s not my favorite city in Spain. There are so many beautiful regions in this country that it was difficult to decide where to go on this trip! From the balmy South with arched doorways and palm trees, to the green cliffs in Northern Galicia that look like Ireland, Spain is full of contrasts.
How did we choose starting in Málaga? Alex found a cheap flight to Málaga on Wizz Air from Vienna, where we were staying with friends (and taking a road trip to Croatia). We also had friends who offered to let us stay with them in Barcelona at the end of our trip. So with those book ends, Alex, Larson and I set out on an epic road trip from Málaga to Barcelona, with all sorts of adventures in between.
Frigiliana & the white villages of Spain
Our trip started in Málaga in Southern Spain. But the highlight of our time there was our day trips, specifically to the lovely whitewashed village of Frigiliana. Southern Spain is known for its pueblos blancos, or white villages. They look just like the bright white villages on Grecian islands, except they’re high up built into the cliffs of Southern Spain. Alex researched and found the town of Frigiliana was about 1 hour drive from Málaga. I wasn’t sure quite what we were getting into, but we set out on a drive to find out.
Frigiliana was even more lovely than we imagined. The light bouncing off of the whitewashed walls, the bright pink blossoms, and the bright blue doors were something out of a fairytale. We spent most of the day wandering down the charming narrow streets with little Larson. (Both of us remarked that it looked very much like our trip to Santorini, Greece, without the ocean views.)
Our first true meal in Spain was in Frigiliana, where we stopped at the tiny La Taberna del Sacristán for lunch. Bright red gazpacho, that cool tomato cucumber soup, tasted even more refreshing in the hot Spanish sun. We also got a plate of cheeses and meats, including traditional Manchego cheese and jamón serrano (a cured meat similar to prosciutto). The waiter took an immediate interest in Larson. At the end of the meal Larson started to wander off, and one of the waiters came over, helped him wash his hands in a fountain, and then promptly kissed him on the head! It was such a sweet interaction and set the tone for the way Larson was treated in Spain. Waitstaff consistently took such joy in serving kids, which made it the most pleasurable experience for us too.
These last two photos are of another pueblo blanco: Mijas Spain! We went to Mijas for another short day trip. While we enjoyed it and it’s super charming, we loved Frigiliana more.
Granada & the Alhambra palace
The other day trip highlight was Granada and the Alhambra Palace. I’d visited Granada back in my university days, and the Alhambra palace was seared in my memory. A mysterious Islamic palace, it has some of the most beautiful architecture I’d ever seen: filled with mosaics and intricate carvings. The Moors inhabited Southern Spain for hundreds of years, and the Alhambra is one of the most famous reminders. Since we were staying in Málaga, we spend just the day in Granada. Granada is such a charming city, with white buildings fading into the cliffside.
We got tickets to the Alhambra Palace ahead of time, which we’d recommend. Since it was summer, there were very long lines in the hot sun. The Alhambra lets groups of people in every half hour. We chose a time as late in the day as possible. Not only was this better for the light, we were hoping there would be less crowds. (There will still lots of people, but we didn’t have anything to compare it to!)
The Alhambra is truly awe inspiring: the hum of the indoor fountains and beautiful mosaics bring a mysterious calm. If you can, I’d recommend finding a guided tour so that you can understand the history and significance of the building. Since we were with a toddler, we opted out of this for this trip–next time! When I was a university student, I went on several guided tours and it gave even more significance to this special spot.
After our Alhambra Palace visit, we walked down the hill into Granada to find a quick dinner of tapas. We stopped into Bodegas Castañeda, which served pretty traditional tapas. Standing at the bar with Larson, it was busy and loud, but it felt like a perfect Spanish dinner. With glasses of crisp white Spanish wine, we ordered tortilla de patatas, one of the most traditional tapas: a potato and egg omelette. Alongside it, a huge salad, a spinach and cheese empanadilla, and ensaladilla rusa, a mayo-based potato and tuna salad that’s very traditional. (I’m not a huge fan of ensaladilla rusa, but it gives me good memories of my prior time in Spain!) The servers behind the bar bustled about under a canopy of ham legs, used for shaving off the jamon serrano. This is Spain, I said to Alex and Larson. We were really here!
Málaga, on the beach
Málaga was our home base in Southern Spain. Our Airbnb was in a high rise that was steps from the beach, and our window view was beach umbrellas and palm trees waving in the breeze. Since we were there in the heat of summer in July, the beach was pretty hazy and very hot. Because it was so flat and hazy, the beach in Málaga was less picturesque than we expected. So if we were to recommend the best beaches in Spain, we prefer the rocky beaches of Cartagena and Valencia — keep reading!
The historic town center of Málaga was fun to wander around and explore. We had a lovely lunch at El Pimpi, where we dined on salmorejo, a thick cold tomato soup (garnished with jamon & hard boiled eggs), ajoblanco, a creamy white almond and garlic cold soup, and salad. The dessert put it over the top: it wasn’t traditional Spanish, but the vanilla peaches with whipped cream cheese and mint was pretty perfect.
The beach in Málaga
The Málaga historic center
Salmorejo, a cold tomato and almond soup
Cartagena Spain: an undiscovered gem
On to Cartagena Spain! The next stop on our road trip was Cartagena, a 4 hour drive from Malaga. Full disclosure: when we planned our stay in Cartagena Spain, we based it on the photos we saw online of Cartagena Colombia! A few weeks before the trip, we realized the brightly colored quaint streets we were looking forward to were actually in Colombia, not Spain! (Ooops.) But Cartagena Spain was absolutely worth the stop.
First of all, where we stayed was on point. Our Airbnb balcony opened right onto a Roman theater built in 5 BC! This apartment was centrally located in town, and had the most killer view of the ruins. Cartagena is full of Roman ruins, and how impressive it was to live next to them for a few days versus simply go on a tour. We spent many hours looking out onto the Roman ruins with a glass of wine in hand, watching the people mill about touring the theater. What a romantic view!
While the town of Cartagena is charming to wander, the best thing we did was another free activity: finding a hidden beach! One of our goals was to find the best beaches in Spain. And since the flat, hazy beach in Malaga didn’t rank for us, we went in search of a beautiful rocky Southern Spain beach near Cartagena. After doing some intense internet research, Alex found an undiscovered hidden beach just a few minutes outside of town in Cartagena.
The beach was outside of town, near a squater town where people had built small houses right on the water. When we saw the handwritten sign for the beach, we knew we were in for an adventure! We threw Larson in our baby carrier and hiked out a few minutes to the rocky beach. And when we got there, we couldn’t believe it: what wild, untamed beauty! There were only a handful of locals in this spot, precariously jumping off of the rocky cliffs. We splashed a bit in the water, and sat uncomfortably on some rocks as we stared at the impossibly blue green water. Though unconventional, to us the hidden Cartagena beaches were some of the best beaches in Spain.
We had some great food in Cartagena, including a lovely meal in the view of the Roman ruins at sunset at Restaurante La Catedral. I’ll always remember sitting at the table under the window of our apartment, doing “cheers” with my wine glass to little Larson as we devoured Manchego cheese and bread. Of all the things we ate in Cartagena though, one of our favorites was a snack we found at a local grocery. Crespillo was a round cracker bread made of masa, salt, pepper, and paprika, which tasted a bit like a high end Goldfish cracker! It was so good that we bought it often to accompany cheese and wine that we munched on while watching the sun set over the Roman ruins out our balcony.
The town center in Cartagena
Calamari, patatas bravas and other tapas
The hidden beach in Cartagena
The Roman theater ruins right out our window! (Our Airbnb was the yellow building)
The restaurant outside the Roman ruins (La Catedral)
Crespillo! We hope to recreate this one…
Valencia: the best paella, hidden beaches, & Spanish tile
Next stop: Valencia! Valencia was a short stop for us on the way to Barcelona, but Alex and I had some lofty goals. First, to find the best paella in Valencia! Valencia is the birthplace of paella: a mix of saffron and paprika spiced rice, vegetables, seafood and meat cooked in a shallow pan. It’s one of the most traditional Spanish dishes and I have incredible nostalgia about eating paella in Spain from my college days. (We’ve since developed an authentic paella recipe: hear me wax on and on about paella in our Open Fire Paella Recipe!)
One of our favorite memories of our Spain trip was our trip to find the “best paella in Valencia.” It was a Sunday afternoon, and we followed our phone navigation to what was supposed to be an “authentic” restaurant just outside of Valencia. The landscape got increasingly more isolated. I remember asking Alex, “Are you SURE this is the way?” Sure enough, the mountain path came upon a small village and an unassuming white stucco building in a sleepy town: Bar Restaurante Parpallo. Opening the door, we were greeted with a surprise: the restaurant was filled to the brim with Spanish families shoveling yellow rice out of massive paella pans! The hostess almost turned us away since we didn’t have a reservation, but we got squeezed in to a small table with “paella for 3”. There was no menu; the dishes just started to arrive: empanadillas and croquetas, a salad, and then a massive pan of rice. The paella was fabulous: the yellow saffron rice was studded with artichokes, snap peas, white beans, chicken, and meatballs, and served with wedges of lemon. To us, this unexpected surprise was the best paella in Valencia.
Another highlight was our search for the best beaches in Spain. Since we’d found such a fantastic hidden beach in Cartagena, why not try for one on our way to Valencia? After a lot of internet research, Alex found a remote hidden beach in a small town on the way to Valencia. As we followed our phone navigation into the small town, the streets got narrower and narrower. Finally we were on a narrow one way street, walled on both sides. After parking, Alex found an unmarked metal door. “This is where the beach is!” he said. What? They were no people around, and it seemed impossible that this random metal door would be unlocked, let alone what a beach behind it. Alex assured me that the Spanish-language video he watched on a travel website showed people going through this very door to access the hidden beach. We crossed our fingers and Alex pushed in the door: sure enough, it opened to a view of rocky cliffs and transparent blue green water! The beach was incredibly rocky, and we joined a handful of Spaniards soaking up the waves and marveling at the razor sharp cliffs. What an adventure.
To round out our time in Valencia, we stayed in the cutest little Airbnb in the El Cabanyal neighborhood. This neighborhood is pretty rough around the edges, and apparently used to be full of drugs and violence. However, it’s on the mend and chock full of the most incredible Spanish tile house architecture, circa the 1900’s. Every single street has the most unique and beautiful homes clad in authentic Spanish tile. It was a complete surprise to us, as we didn’t know much about the neighborhood when booking the Airbnb. We wandered around the neighborhood, snapping photos of the homes and storefronts, sipping horchata, and wishing we had more time in this fascinating neighborhood. We also spend a good bit of time on our terrace sipping wine and listening to the sounds of the city. My new life goal is to photograph a coffee table book of these unique homes! Valencia left us wanting more, and I hope we can return.
The mysterious hidden beach door, which led to…
The secret beach outside of Valencia
And the unassuming paella restaurant…
To Larson, it was the best paella in Valencia!
Our sweet little Airbnb in the El Cabanyal neighborhood
Spanish tile houses in El Cabanyal
Barcelona: Gaudí, tapas, & more
People in Barcelona don’t consider themselves part of Spain. They’re from the region of Catalunya, and speak Catalan. We loved hearing stories of Catalan traditions (ever heard of Caga tió?) and food. And the more time we spent in this cosmopolitan city, the more we fell in love with the sights and sounds of this Catalan city.
The crown jewel of Barcelona is the Sagrada Familia, a huge church designed by the architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí worked mainly in the 1900’s, and his architecture style was colorful, imaginative, mysteriously fascinating to look at. The Sagrada Familia is his life’s work, and he actually died before it was completed. Get this: it’s still under construction today! Construction is rumored to end in 2026 to align with the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death. Perhaps you’re thinking, another European church? La Sagrada Familia is different and is truly one of the most beautiful, awe inspiring buildings in the world. Even if you’re not a person of faith, being inside the Sagrada Familia is a spiritual experience. Alex and I were moved to tears at the beauty of the building. And how tragic that Gaudí never got to see his masterpiece! He’s buried in the catacombs, and entrusted his work to people who have spent their entire lives devoted to the construction.
There are so many things to do in Barcelona, it’s a little overwhelming. Here’s a list of the things we did and loved:
- La Sagrada Familia. It’s a must visit. You can get tickets in advance here. (Perk: there’s a playground right outside of La Sagrada Familia, so Larson got to play in the shadow of it.)
- Casa Batlló: Gaudí designed many other houses and outdoor spaces in Barcelona. My favorite is Casa Batlló, mainly because of the iridescent dragon scale roof. We took a tour this time, and it was fun to see the inside. (You can get tickets when you get there! We went in the late afternoon and there were no lines.)
- Park Güell: I went to Park Güell on my first visit to Barcelona, but it’s currently under construction! Once construction is over, it’s part of a great visit to Barcelona. Park Güell is a good example of Gaudí’s tile work.
- Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic): Wandering through the Gothic neighborhood is a must. Make sure to duck into the cathedral Santa Maria del Mar.
- Beach: The beach seems like an entirely different Barcelona. We had paella here (see below).
Of course, most of our memories in Barcelona center around FOOD! Here’s an abbreviated list of where to eat in Barcelona:
- Paella: Barraca is a paella restaurant right near the beach and all organic. The paella was delicious: we got seafood and vegetable! Just as good were the ocean breezes, Cava toasts, and munching on olives.
- Tapas: Ali and Barclay took us to their favorite places for tapas, and we loved all of them.Bar del Pla was a friendly neighborhood join where we got patatas bravas, pan con tomate (toasted bread spread with fresh tomato and garlic), and something totally unique: a shaved mushroom, Parmesan and strawberry salad. Sounds odd, but it was incredible! At Centric we got a spread of tapas: fried Padron peppers, pan con tomate, and patatas bravas. To be totally Spanish, Ali and Barclay taught us to drink Spanish vermouth, which is sweet and tastes a bit like Coca Cola! Chowing down on tapas while Larson ate octopus and pinned stickers from his sticker book onto David from Green Kitchen Stories is one of our favorite memories from the trip. We also loved the patatas bravas at Bar Mendizábal.
- Dinner: Our favorite dinner was at Teresa Carles. It’s a vegetarian restaurant that has a fusion of Spanish food and healthy, vegetarian cuisine. The food was excellent. For example: a green salad with quinoa, cherries, peaches, and savory miso dressing, root vegetable patatas bravas (carrot, beet and sweet potato), with spicy aoili, and stuffed piquillo peppers with smoked eggplant.
- Chocolate: After visting Casa Batlló, we stopped at Faborit Casa Amatller. It’s an adorable cafe full of options for either a quick bite or lunch: soup, salad, or a taza de chocolate! I got a cup of thick chocolate with some bread for dipping. It’s similar to churros con chocolate, but I loved dipping the savory bread. It was delightful little spot!
- Croissants: Hofmann Pastisseria is a famous bakery in Barcelona, and the croissants are to die for! If you’re a baked good fan, it’s a must visit.
If you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide to Barcelona, check out Ali’s Barcelona Guide. She’s an American expat living in Barcelona, so she has wide expertise on this subject!
Cheese board to greet us at Ali’s
That mushroom Parmesan and strawberry salad tapa…it was stellar!
La Sagrada Familia…
Croissants from Hoffman Bakery
A tapas spread at Centric
Paella at Barraca
The Barcelona beach
The Gothic Quarter
Casa Batlló with its dragon roof
Una taza de chocolate at Casa Amatller
Lingering around the table
By the end of our travel in Spain, we realized: we came for the food, but what we found was more intangible: community, hospitality, and lingering. The way Spaniards (and Catalonians!) linger around the table and enjoy friends and family, treating them as the #1 priority in the world at that moment, is something we’re bringing back to our table in America. The memories we made in Spain are indelible: The value of time spent around the table relishing dear people. Appreciation of the rugged beauty of this world. Treasuring new customs and foods. The exhilaration of going off the beaten path. A fresh look at the world through the curiosity of an adventuring 1 year old.
Spain, you’re etched on our hearts. We can’t wait to return.
Spain inspired recipes
- Open Fire Seafood Paella
- Vegan Patatas Bravas
- Pan Con Tomate (Gimme Some Oven)
- Authentic Gazpacho (Gimme Some Oven)
More travel posts
Here are a few more of the posts from our European trip this summer, including what to pack, how to take great photos, how to travel with a toddler, and more about Italy and Croatia!
- Sibenik Croatia: A Charming Coastal Town for Your Bucket List
- Tellaro: Italy’s Best Kept Secret
- Where to Visit in Italy, Croatia & Spain
- Travel Capsule Wardrobe: What to Pack for a Trip to Europe
- 8 Secrets: How to Take Better Pictures on Vacation
- Traveling with a Toddler: Travel Beds, Packing List, & Tips!