If you're looking for things to do in Barcelona as a family other than sit in a dark cinema, eat at another crowded restaurant or try to get the little ones away from that electronic game, you've come to the right place. Barcelona may not have as many parks as London or New York, but it's got its share of lovely open spaces to spend some quality time in a mysterious place known as the outdoors.
Outdoor family fun
In 1870, the Torre de les Aigües provided water to some of the first houses to be built in the Eixample district. Now, more than a century later, converted into a swimming pool and a small park, it provides fun for young and old alike. As temperatures soar in August, the Torre de les Aigües is a welcoming oasis: relief from the heat and unlimited opportunities for splashing, paddling and generally getting wet.
If there’s one thing kids love it’s a funfair – and the same usually goes for their parents. The amusement park perched at the top of Tibidabo has an otherworldly charm, a hundred years of history and the added attraction of being perched high above Barcelona. With rides for all ages, it’s a day out to remember.
This urban adventure park – the first of its kind in Barcelona – is designed to deliver a monster dose of adrenalin. There are zip lines, nets, rope swings, bungee jumps, bridges and walkways rigged on platforms up to six metres above the ground – altogether more than 50 attractions on the park's various circuits, designed for kids, families and adrenalin junkies of all ages.
Take in Barcelona’s skyline from the sea, aboard one of the emblematic wooden boats that have been sailing round the port since 1888, the year of Barcelona’s universal exhibition. There’s the classic 35-minute tour of the port itself, or a longer excursion in a catamaran that heads out of the port and up the coast past Barceloneta and the Vila Olímpica. Weigh anchor all hands! Prepare to make sail!
The dolphin shows are the big draw, but the decently sized zoo has plenty of other animals, all of whom look happy enough in reasonably sized enclosures and the city's comfortable climate. Favourites include giant hippos, the prehistoric-looking rhino, sea lions, elephants, giraffes, lions and tigers. Child-friendly features include a farmyard zoo, pony rides, picnic areas and two excellent playgrounds. If all that walking is too much, there's a zoo 'train'. Bear in mind that on hot days many of the animals are sleeping and out of sight, and when the temperature drops below 13 degrees many are kept inside.
A perfect day. The sun’s shining. Pack up a picnic. Grab your bikes and a ball to kick around. Head down to the Ciutdella Park. Eat ice cream. Row a boat round the pond. A siesta in the shade. The ideal day out, easy to organise and as photogenic as an advert. And the Ciutadella isn’t just a park: inside its fences you’ll find a century and a half of history in its artworks, plants and buildings.
Gaudí's brief for the design of what became Park Güell was to emulate the English garden cities so admired by his patron Eusebi Güell: to lay out a self-contained suburb for the wealthy, but also to design the public areas. (This English influence explains the anglicised spelling of 'Park'.) The original plan called for the plots to be sold and the properties designed by other architects. However, the idea never took off – perhaps because it was too far from the city, perhaps because it was too radical – and the Güell family gave the park to the city in 1922.The fantastical exuberance of Gaudí's imagination remains breathtaking.
On the hills behind Barcelona, the heavily forested Serra de Collserola Natural Park is easily accessible by public transport. Kids will appreciate the freedom to run on tracks and paths through a natural environment – plus there are stunning views over the city. See website for maps and information about facilities.
The Botanic Gardens are a haven of peace, biological diversity and shade, a relaxing space to marvel at species from all over the world. It’s true that during the summer months, many of the specimens are at their driest and dustiest, but they’re fascinating at any time of year. Visitors follow meandering paths to discover the different geographical regions represented within the gardens. The city’s natural science museum organises family activities to help you discover the amazing world of nature.
In 1791, the Desvalls family, owners of this marvellously leafy estate, hired Italian architect Domenico Bagutti to design scenic gardens set around a cypress maze, with a romantic stream and a waterfall. The mansion may be gone (replaced with a 19th-century Arabic-influenced building), but the gardens are remarkably intact, shaded in the summer by oaks, laurels and an ancient sequoia. Best of all, the maze, an ingenious puzzle that intrigues those brave enough to try it, is also still in use. Nearby stone tables provide a handy picnic site. On paying days, last entry is one hour before sunset.