Kids just can't resist Barcelona. Neither can adults. Where else can they tour a world-class landmark of architecture and meet the inspiration for Darth Vader in the morning, ride a heart-stopping cable car to a mountaintop for lunch and swim at a golden sand beach in the afternoon, all in the middle of one of Europe's most popular cities? Only Barcelona offers families such a convenient blend of serious sights that appeal to kids, experiences the whole family can enjoy together and outdoor recreation, all smack-dab in the city center.
Perhaps the reason Barcelona is such a perfect city for children is that its best-known buildings and artappeal to the child in us all: undulating walls that look as though we're viewing them in a funhouse mirror, skull-faced balconies that leer down at us in the night, bright tile lizards warming themselves on sun-drenched walls. Barcelona is all about imagination.
Even young children will be charmed by the vivid imagination of Antoni Gaudí, who characteristically broke the rules of architecture - or at least bent them to suit his own creative vision. Who could resist the roof shaped like a dragon's back on Casa Batlló or the Darth Vader look-alikes atop the roof of La Pedrera? Tour the inside of this residential block for the whole experience - and be sure to walk the rooftop among the chimneys with the reputed Star Wars connection. Give kids sketchbooks and markers and suggest they design their own Gaudíesque buildings - a good way to keep them amused as you relax through one of Barcelona's leisurely meals. Survival tip: Kids who aren't into trying new foods will happily find chicken and fries on the menu at most dining venues.
Gaudí's best-known work, the still-unfinished church of La Sagrada Familia, represents his vision of a great Bible open to the world. Only eight of the cathedral's planned 18 towers and spires are completed; part of the fascination is watching the stonemasons and sculptors of today at work on the vast structure where their forebears first put chisel to stone in 1882. A vertigo-inducing trip to the top brings panoramic views and up-close looks at the upper stone carving.
One more Modernista extravaganza is on everyone's list, but this one is not by Gaudí. The Palau de la Música Catalana
is a palace for music, with an upside-down dome made of stained class, flying horses cavorting overhead and no-two-alike pillars covered in mosaic tiles.
It's not just the buildings. Barcelona is a place where kids even venture into art museums. Catalonian artists appeal to the imagination by seeing things in different ways - Picasso defining humans in cubes, Dalí draping pocket watches over walls and Miró's playful Crayola-colored sculptures scattered throughout the city. Both Picasso and Miró have museums of their own - the Picasso Museum is in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, a tangle of narrow medieval streets.
Kids may not care about local history or the fierce pride of the Catalonians, but adults will notice evidence of both as they realize Barcelona is different from other Spanish cities. First hint: High-school Spanish won't help with the pronunciation of names or understanding conversation. Locals will switch to Castilian or English for a visitor's benefit and hide their smiles politely when strangers pronounce the common name Puig as pewg instead of pooch.
But it's easy to get around with or without speaking Catalan, or even Spanish, and to enjoy exhibits in the Maritime Museum, where the yells of pirates ring out and the life-sized Spanish galleon is outfitted with life-like light and sound shows. Even the setting is realistic - the mammoth shipyards where the royal navy ships were built. Part of the museum is a sailing ship afloat in the harbor.
While into things briny, head for L'Aquarium's glass tun-nel into an underwater world inhabited by live sharks. Coming nose-to-teeth with a shark is an unforgettable experience, even if there's glass in place to prevent a more touching experience.
Barcelona's museums seem determined to include kids. The Museu d'Història de Catalunya is filled with interactive items: a suit of armor to try on, relief maps under glass floors and push-button-activated animation. A total of 66 museums cover everything from Roman walls to chocolate - even the city's beloved soccer team.
But the experience of being in Barcelona is an activity in its own right. La Rambla is living theater, filled with street performers (give kids small change for the hats and they'll often be rewarded with special attention or a treat). Colorful Miró tile paintings decorate the pavement, and local color continues at Boqueria, the bustling central market where travelers join locals noshing at the food stalls.
Barcelona sits among steep hills, their tops reached by cable cars. Two climb Montjuic, one a dizzying ride across the harbor to Miramar, and the other to the even higher Castell de Montjuic (with cannons to climb on). Wooded paths join the two.
The parks aren't just for kids. Granted, they may get more of a kick out of the rowboats in Parc Ciutadella, but the cedar hedge maze in Jardins del Laberint d'Horta pleases everybody. So do the rest of the park's gardens, canal and waterfalls. If everyone is game for more Gaudí fantasy, Parc Guëll is filled with it. Paths and staircases climb the leafy hillside past grottos, fairy-tale cottages, undulating benches and a covered terrace with visions of sea creatures dancing on its ceiling. Beyond Parc Guëll a cable car reaches yet another mountaintop, this one crowned by a charmingly old-fashioned amusement park with a century-old carousel.
Weather permitting, a trip to the beach is almost required. Barcelona's 3,000-foot-long Barcelonetta Beach begins the fabled Costa Brava - wild coast. While there's nothing wild about the golden sands of Barcelonetta (except maybe its nightlife), the coast north of the city is a craggy shoreline of coves and beaches against a backdrop of eroded cliffs; an inviting alternative for families who want a break from city life.