"It is easier to get tickets one day before the match than one week before the match," intones the tourist information woman in Barcelona, gazing at us solemnly. We are desperate to see FC Barcelona play at their home ground, a dream for my soccer-loving son, aged 10, to see Lionel Messi play live. But she can't confirm if any late tickets for the sold-out game will be released.
This is our first trip to Spain, and we have been trying for months to get tickets to the game, luckily taking place during our four-day stay in the city.
We had already discovered, to our cost, that the Viagogo ticket resale website is not to be trusted (although after failing to supply the tickets, it refunded our money the day after the match). So here we are, finally in one of the most celebrated cities in the world, feeling gloomy about missing a football match.
On the bright side, Barcelona has many other diversions for young travellers, some unexpected, like the restaurant with the slippery dip, the cool flamenco busker dudes at Park Guell, and the spooky holographic figures in a massive reconstructed 16th-century galley at the Maritime Museum.
This is part of the advantage of travelling Spain with a kid. Sure, we didn't get to hang out until 2am in tapas bars, or spend the whole day at the Prado Museum (he lasted pretty well for two hours), but we have lots of experiences we might otherwise have missed.
In Valencia, there is the spectacular interactive science museum, racing each other on wacky watercraft at the City of Arts and Sciences and clambering over the amazing Gulliver playground formed by his massive reclining figure tied down by the Lilliputians.
A few tactics can help make a holiday memorable for everyone travelling.
TAKE THE TRAIN
In Spain for two weeks, we do a circuit by train: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Toledo, Madrid. The Spanish national Renfe service is excellent, and the AVE high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona has a screen showing how fast you're travelling – 300 km/h impresses even a 10 year old – as well as food trolleys coming past like you're on a plane. If you have more than one child and they are aged over 11, train travel becomes more expensive and a hire car might make more sense, but not having to navigate roads and parking is a plus. Our technology rule was alternating 30 minutes on the iPad, 30 minutes looking at the view out the window.
TAKE IT IN TURNS
A happy family means everyone getting a turn at doing what's fun for them. So on day one in Madrid, we head straight to Parque del Retiro, to stretch the legs and get some air in the big green space after the long flight. We admire the elegant Crystal Palace and its pond full of the turtles, eat ice-cream, watch kids play soccer with parents yelling encouragement from the sidelines just like at home, and kicked a ball around. On day two we head to the Prado. Day three it's a tour of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, home stadium of football team Real Madrid; then the Sorolla Museum for some more art.
ORIENTEERING AT ART GALLERIES
There must be some kids who are rapt at looking at old paintings, but ours is not one of them. He does, however, like a challenge. So once inside the Prado, we flip through the heavy-as-a-brick museum guide book, mark several paintings we want to see, then give him the task of finding them. In this way, we see the greatest hits: Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, Bosch (The Garden of Earthly Delights took some explaining) plus lots of others along the way. At the Reina Sofia gallery, Madrid's gallery of 20th century art, we narrow the focus even more: find Picasso's Guernica. In the course of this mission, we take in work by Miro, Dali, Gris, the sculpture garden and a gigantic Man Ray metronome. And the lifts on the outside of the building are really cool. Any view is good, so we stop in at the bar at the top of the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, the Ateneo Sky Bar in Valencia and the Iglesia de los Jesuitas in Toledo.
Big museums and galleries can be overwhelming for adults, let alone children, so we tend to stick to churches and smaller museums. Artist house museums are often ideal because they focus on one subject and are compact enough for a 10-year-old to explore without getting lost. Madrid's Sorolla Museum is the former home of painter Joaquin Sorolla, who lived there with his family from 1911. Stepping from the grey city street into the small garden with fountains and greenery is magical and we each wander around at our own pace, admiring the painter's gorgeous, light-filled works, often of his family. At the end we come together to point out our favourite work. We also like the El Greco Museum in Toledo, where we each choose our favourite saint.
Taking a tour is often the best way to get the most out of visiting a famous attraction, but tours designed for families are not always offered. Tour guides' accents can be trickier for youngsters to understand, and if it's boring it's easy to ditch the earphones. It helps if they already have an idea of what they're looking at and why they're here. Before taking a tour of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, we explain why it's famous, who built it and when, how when Antoni Gaudi was hit by a tram, no one realised he was a famous architect because of his shabby clothes, and that the building is due to be finished in 2026, 100 years after his death.
For any trip, long or short, we pack a mini soccer ball. It doesn't take up much space, but helps burn off energy outdoors and is handy for boring bits like waiting in line for the Prado to open. It's also a great way to meet friendly, football-playing locals, no need to speak the same language. Outside the Palacio Real, a young bloke with excellent skills spontaneously spent 20 minutes kicking with the Australian boy, giving his parents a break to admire Madrid's royal palace in the golden afternoon light.
We visit off-peak at the end of April-May but there were still plenty of tourists. Summer is frenzied. Book big-ticket attractions before you leave: the Prado in Madrid, La Sagrada Familia, Park Guell and La Pedrera in Barcelona. Book a guided walking tour of Toledo to dig into its extraordinary past and try to prebook football matches (but not via Viagogo). The tourist information lady was right, the last round of tickets for the Barcelona game were released at precisely 11am the day before the match. We were waiting, first in line, credit card ready, but the club's website kept crashing. It took five attempts and two different ticket counters, with the clock ticking and countless others vying for seats, but finally we succeeded. So there we were, leaping to our feet with 99,000 others when Messi scored in the second half, then once more to take Barcelona to victory. Before our son started playing soccer, I had zero interest in team sport. So I thank him for giving us that afternoon, when the crowd went wild and we were right there.
Jacqui Taffel travelled at her own expense.
Qantas flies to Madrid via Dubai (all Emirates-operated flights). See qantas.com.au
Barcelona: Apart Hotel Citadines Ramblas is central with views from the roof; one-bedroom apartments from $291.Toledo: Sercotel Pintor El Greco is in a quiet spot in the Jewish Quarter and a standard double room starts from $163. Accommodation in Madrid and Valencia was via home exchanges. See citadines.com; hotelpintorelgreco.com; homeexhange.com
Madrid: Lamucca de Prado, Casa Gonzales and Brown Bear Bakery are all on Calle Del Leon, in the old quarter; Barcelona: La Colosal (restaurant with the slippery dip) is on La Rambla (near Placa Catalunya) while Ziryab Taverna Gastronomica is in the Gothic Quarter; Valencia: La Tasqueta del Mercat is near the market in Ruzafa; Toledo: middle eastern restaurant Tulaytula is so called after Toledo's Moorish name.