Spain in winter: Why Spain should be your next winter holiday destination
While your friends make their plans to join the masses on sandy beaches or charming-but-packed Northern European Christmas markets, imagine yourself strolling through sunny Sevilla surrounded by locals enjoying the quiet holidays or taking in Guernica in Madrid after just a few minutes’ wait. Welcome to Spain in winter! Our family’s winter visit to Spain was one of our favorite trips ever and it could be yours too. If you’re wondering where to go for winter holidays in Europe, read on for just a few reasons why you should start planning to visit Spain in December and January and resources to help you plan your trip, including tips for visiting Spain with toddler in tow.
Why you should visit Spain this winter
While much of Europe is blanketed by snow or suffering under gray skies, you’ll find plenty of opportunity for clear weather in many parts of Spain. When planning our winter trip, I was specifically looking for a destination with weather similar to what we could find in LA (or better!). Places like Granada and Madrid in winter are cold (very cold by my standards – bring gloves if you’ll be pushing a stroller!) but they are blessedly dry in the winter. Barcelona and Seville are both wonderful in the winter, with temperatures similar to LA!
Crowds? What crowds? Winter holidays in Spain strike the fine balance between being void of tourists and teeming with vivacious locals! We arrived in Barcelona between Christmas and New Years, which is the peak time for Spaniards to shop (sound familiar?). It was so fun to be out among so many people, but not to feel like we were just moving along with the herd of tourists (I’m looking at you, Florence). At the same time, the tourist sites we visited were often virtually empty – for instance, when we arrived at the palace in Seville there was not a single other person in the courtyard! We got a good laugh out of Rick Steves’ tip to pay for the additional upstairs ticket to escape the crowds. Spain in January is even quieter than the pre-holiday rush, particularly once Spaniards have returned to work and school the second week.
Most people know that Spain is a “late” country when it comes to meals and nightlife. Did you know that the hours extend to other spots too? While other countries in Europe were operating on reduced “winter hours” (*cough* France *cough*), Madrid rolled out the welcome mat for us by keeping its museums open extra-late. In fact, both of our art museum visits were after dark. No need to set your alarm and wake up early, you can get in a very full day of activities in Spain and then sit down for drinks and tapas at 9pm. Perfect for a vacation schedule!
Don’t mind the cold? Explore Madrid for a few days!
The most important reason you should book your winter vacation in Spain is that it’s downright magical. Beginning December 1st and ending with Tres Reyes in January, every city, town and village in the whole country is lit beautifully to celebrate the season! We saw displays modeled after presents in Barcelona and after toys in Toledo. Lights were strung across every tiny street and decorating trees and statues in the plazas. The whole country says a big “screw you” to winter darkness by competing to show off the biggest and best light display. It’s a huge point of pride for localities! And on a chilly winter evening, there’s no better way to get cozy than over a huge plate of sweet crispy churros accompanied by a mug of decadent piping hot chocolate for dipping.
Winter holiday celebrations in Spain
Christmas traditions in Spain
Many Spaniards share their family’s holiday meal on Christmas eve and then attend Midnight Mass. Spanish Christmas food is usually roasted turkey, often served with truffles.In the Spanish-speaking majority of the country “Feliz Navidad” is the traditional greeting, while in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia people wish each other “Bon Nadal”.
Hanukkah in Spain
Since the forced conversion and expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, there has been little active Jewish life. However, in recent years there has been renewed interest in celebrating Hanukkah in cities with rich Jewish histories like Toledo and Girona.
New Year’s tradition in Spain
While Americans are accustomed to watching the ball drop in Times Square, Spaniards have a much more intense New Year’s Eve (nochevieja) in store. The most famous New Year’s tradition in Spain is the cotillón – eating twelve tiny green grapes in twelve seconds as the clock strikes midnight, with each grape bringing a month of good luck in the coming year. Confession: it’s REALLY hard! Make sure you get the seedless variety, and pick up a bottle of cava to wash it town.
Three Kings Day in Spain
Spanish kids might actually look forward to Three Kings Day – also called Epiphany – even more than Christmas itself, as most Spanish Christmas gifts are aren’t opened until then! We were lucky to attend Seville’s Tres Reyes parade and Jacob had a great time watching the floats of the wise men on camels driving by, while participants showered bystanders with candy. Basically, it was every kid’s dream.
Where to go in Spain in winter
If you’re considering visiting Spain in December or January, there aren’t many bad choices. That said, the some cities are colder than others. Here are a few choices if you’re trying to avoid frigid temperatures but still want to explore the rich history and culture that Spain has to offer:
Seville in winter
My personal favorite city in Spain, Seville has it all: gorgeous architecture; fun Andalusian culture; and moderate temperatures even over the winter holidays! With daytime temperatures hovering around 60F, it’s plenty comfortable to stroll the city’s lush gardens and quiet back streets. Even in places where we expected to fight major crowds, we were often the only tourists present. At night the entire city city is beautifully lit, with huge displays in Plaza Nueva and along the major thoroughfares, plus smaller scale displays on many other streets. Check out 2013’s Seville Christmas lights from Sunshine and Sietas! They even threw (us?) a parade on January 5th (our last night in the city, which happened to coincide with Tres Reyes).
Things to do in Seville
In addition to generally taking in the Andalusian charm of the city, be sure to check out two major highlights, the Alcázar palace and Parque de Maria Luisa. The beginnings of the Alcázar we see today were constructed nearly a millennium ago and represent the unique fusion of Christian and Moorish architecture that is primarily seen in the region. Parque de Maria Luisa is the city’s largest green space and runs along the Guadalquivir River; in addition to its many walking paths and fountains, the park also houses the enormous Plaza de España exhibition hall constructed for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. If you have history buffs in your crew, add a visit to nearby Italica, the birthplace of two Roman emperors.
Are you interested in seeing a flamenco show in Seville with your kids? Most of the local dinner and dance shows don’t permit young children (you’d be expected to leave at the slightest peep during the show). We opted to visit the Museum of Flamenco and can’t recommend it enough! We visited during the day – they were open even though much of the city was closed for a holiday – and loved seeing the costumes and learning about the origins of flamenco dancing in Spain. The knowledgeable staff even took the time to teach us basic flamenco rhythms. When we returned for the evening performance, we were warmly greeted with our little one and reassured that he and the other children in the audience were welcome even if they started clapping along. Honestly I’ve never seen a quieter toddler; Jacob sat mesmerized for the entire show! There’s a 7pm show to appeal to the “younger” crowd, while those without kids may also be interested in the 8:45pm show. Prices are extremely reasonable: combined admission to the museum and show is €25 for adults, €18 for students and seniors, €15 for kids 6-12yo and free for younger ones.
Where to eat in Seville
One of the best pockets of restaurants (and also great for a late-night stroll) is Plaza Alameda de Hercules; it may be off the typical path for tourists, but it’s worth the excursion. Our favorite of the Alameda de Hercules restaurants was Al Aljibe. The restaurant serves tapas, but you won’t find any of the generic microwave variety there; all of the food is top-notch in quality, preparation and presentation. The service was warm to and extreme: on our second visit, our waitress took Jacob around the restaurant with her so that we could enjoy a quiet meal! I’m sure they’re too busy in the peak tourist season for that level of accommodation, but that’s why you’re visiting Spain in winter… right? You can visit Al Aljibe for an al fresco lunch from 1-4pm, or for dinner beginning at 8pm. As always, we generally advise arriving right at opening if you plan to bring young kids to a more “adult” restaurant – it’s usually better for all parties involved.
If you feel like you’ve had enough of Seville, take a quick train ride to nearby Córdoba. The city’s history is fascinating and varied: it was settled during the Neanderthal period, and over time has been ruled by Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Catholics. The layers of legacy are most clearly seen at the Mezquita, where a Visigoth temple is topped by a Catholic basilica, which is in turn surrounded by a Moorish mosque. Don’t forget to visit the statue of Maimonides, the ground-breaking Jewish philosopher, down the street. Check out this great guide to a day trip in Cordoba.
Barcelona in winter
Are you seeking the attractions of a big city for your European winter holiday, but without the snowfall and frigid temperatures? Put Barcelona at the top of your list. While the temperatures will be cooler than Seville (especially at night), Barcelona winter daytimes are still manageable with just a sweater or light jacket. The city has one of the more impressive light displays in the country, and Barcelona in January is bustling with local shoppers once the post-holiday sales begin.
Things to do in Barcelona
Though it’s a major city with all of the usual high-density urban trappings, the ribbon of Gaudi’s architecture weaves through Barcelona and gives it an unusual flavor with his modern, curved, almost lifelike stonework juxtaposed against the charming-but-otherwise-typical buildings of the area. Architecture lovers can plan an entire city visit around seeing his works that span a range of projects: residences like Casa Mila and Casa Batllo (photo below), outdoor installations like Parc Guell and, of course, the masterpiece Segrada Familia. Each of these offers a distinct view of Gaudi’s skill and the range of his talents.
Pro tip: It’s a very long uphill walk to Parc Guell; if you have a stroller with you, plan to take the bus. We didn’t realize how far it was and walked the whole way, but no one was especially happy about it and it took so long that we had limited daylight available. Remember, winter = shorter days!
For a different take on Spanish art, don’t miss the Picasso Museum in El Born district; make sure to allow yourself ample time to wander the back streets and stumble into a tapas bar! While you’re in the area, stop by the nearby Barri Gòtic to see the ornate cathedral, which is surrounded Catalan Christmas market in December.
Traditional Barcelona food is also a treat for any foodie! Don’t miss local favorites like paella and (my favorite as a mostly herbivore) pan con tomate. While you can find churros con chocolate in Barcelona, they are more prevalent in Madrid; instead we mostly scratched our dessert itch with turrón, a honey flavored nougat loaded with almond pieces. Make sure to check out the classic Mercat de la Boqueria, which may be a bit touristy but is impressive nonetheless and a great source for produce, meat, cheese and wine to stock up your picnics or late-night snacks.
Want a warm island getaway in Spain? Visit Mallorca this winter!
Valencia in winter (thanks to Rosalie of Rosalie Goes!)
For those of us visiting from more northerly climates, arriving in Valencia will feel like fast forwarding straight to springtime. Most days are still warm enough to comfortably sit outside, and you shouldn’t need much more than a light jacket to keep warm. With the beaches just cool enough to deter most people, you’ll be able to experience Valencia virtually tourist-free.
Valencia is a city known for its stunning architecture, ranging from ornate townhomes to modern masterpieces. Because of the cooler temperatures, you’ll be able to explore the streets and neighbourhoods on foot without overheating. Museums and historical sites will have shorter opening hours, but you’ll have the place to yourself while it is open.
Throughout December and early January, Valencia comes alive with seasonal festivities. Lacy fairy lights lining all of the main streets and poinsettias adorn every nook and corner. Make sure you don’t miss the annual christmas market inside Mercado Central, where you’ll find everything from handcrafted gifts to red sea bream. Plaza de la Reina also hosts a life sized nativity scene, with more than three hundred statues surrounded by dozens of market stalls.
Perhaps the best part about visiting Valencia, however, is getting to try all of the delicious local specialties – and there really is no greater comfort food than seafood paella on a cool winter night! Prices for gastronomy tours and cooking classes are much lower than peak season, presenting a great opportunity to take full advantage of the delicious Valencian cuisine.
Tips for visiting Spain with a baby and Spain with toddler
- Spainiards love children and don’t mind seeing them everywhere and at all times! Don’t be surprised to find families going for a stroll at 11pm with the little ones bundled up in the stroller.
- If you plan to visit some of the chillier cities like Madrid, Granada and Rhonda come prepared to keep your little one warm. We piled on the blankets, but if we had known better we would have brought a foot muff to keep Jacob cozy in his stroller.
- Pack n Play portable baby cribs were ubiquitous at all of our holiday rentals in Spain, but if your lodging can’t provide one be sure to check out the ultra-portable Guava Lotus. Looking for the best place to stay with kids in Spain? Try a home exchange with GuestToGuest! There are many members located in Spain and you can even search for homes that specifically welcome children.
- While cribs are easy to find, highchairs are not. Ronnie and I retain a running joke from our family trip to Spain, sometimes just looking at each other and saying “Tienes trona?” Sadly, the answer was usually no! And often if a highchair was available, it was a rickety wooden contraption with no center bar in front – the perfect amount of space for our 18mo to slide through mid-meal. If we had known that at the time, we would have brought this awesome inflatable booster seat that we now use.
- We basically never saw a changing table anywhere. Bring a stroller that lays down flat and learn to be quick if you’re going to one of the colder cities! Just wheel into a quiet spot if possible and do what you gotta do, parents.
- El Corte Ingles is ubiquitous and has a surprisingly decent baby section. They carry a range of diaper brands and sizes, along with baby food pouches, in the grocery section. A word of caution: the pouches in Spain are viewed more as dessert and are flavored accordingly (I’m looking at you, naranjas y galletas). The department store section of El Corte Ingles often has a dedicated baby area where you’ll find wonderful brands like Mustela. And they also have baby cologne. Can’t comment on that one way or the other!
- We found every city walkable enough that we didn’t need to take public transport or a taxi at any time except transfers between the airports and cities (the nice thing about trains is that they generally bring you into the city centers directly). To ease the burden of transporting a car seat all around Europe for weeks, we brought our trust Combi Coccoro. After trying half a dozen convertible car seats, the Combi is our favorite car seat for travel!