The Spain/France/Italy vacation advice thread

Well, it seems that I’m spending four weeks in these countries and I’m so far out of my comfort zone that I’m in outer orbit. It’s a family holiday so we’ll have three kids age 9, 12 and 14 to entertain.
Does anyone have any tips or advice based on their (relatively similar) experiences?
The itinerary is basically 10 days in Seville, Cordoba and Barcelona. 7 Days in Paris. 3 Days in Venice. 8 days in Florence, Bologna and Rome. Nothing is locked in though.
Most anecdotes I have garnered from people seems to involve bad encounters with gypsies, so I’m hoping for some more level headed advice. Bonus points for any citizens of above countries who can offer local advice or tips.
I’d love to know about any awesome things to do that aren’t blindingly obvious, because at the moment I’m ashamed that I can only think of the popular tourist destinations.

I’ve not (yet) been to France or Spain, but my wife and I vacationed in Italy a few years back and had a fantastic time. We started in Rome and did a lot of wandering around checking the ruins and the museums, then took a bus up to Siena where we toured Tuscany for several days, then on to Florence for a few more days, and finally just a couple of days in Venice before we left. I enjoyed my time in each city for very different reasons - Rome is wonderful for the history, Siena is great for wine tasting and relaxing, Florence has great museums (I particularly enjoyed the Galileo museum) and Venice is just beautiful. The only downside I could really mention is that we were there in the heat of the summer and it was oppressive in some areas. We stayed at a winery in Siena and one night it got so hot I just jumped in the cold shower and got into bed soaking wet to cool off. Still, just a fantastic time.

Make sure to keep your valuables close to you and not easily snatch-able in Venice. Otherwise, the whole place is like a tourist attraction.

Barcelona has tons of art and architecture; I would recommend the food scene but with kids along it may not work out too well (depending). I hear there are some barbers in Seville…?

Instead of Bologna I would rather spend time in Genoa perhaps, or if you want mountains, Turin is pretty cool. And yes, summers in Italy can be brutally hot. Sidetracking to Naples for the day and seeing Vesuvius and Pompeii might be a cool side-trek. Or San Marino to see one of the world’s smallest countries.

I know Paris is cool and all, but I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time there. And certainly not 7 days. Ugh.

— Alan

It has been a long time since I was there but in Barcalona I would recommend the famous church , the Sagrada Familia. They also had a very good zoo and central park area. Also a nice beach. I had some excellent sea food there. Maybe too high brow but Gaudi (sp) has some famous work in Barcalona. In the southern cities you should take in the Moorish Architecture, and beaches.

I only spent one day in Paris so I can’t help there. I have friends who just spent a week in the area of Italy you talk about and they loved it. Stayed in a villa.

The hard part is traveling with the kids. I know in taking a long trip with mine when they were that age that they eventually didn’t want to see anything cultural after a certain point.

Being able to see the differences in cool architecture is always pretty neat–Grenada would be a good side trip.

But yeah, kids kind of make things a little difficult… not knowing them, it’s hard to know if that’s the kind of thing that’d interest them. There won’t be any local soccer (football) games in the summer (though depending on when you go, the World Cup in Brazil might be going on).

— Alan

The favorite thing I did in Paris many years ago when I was wet behind the ears was visit the Musee des Arts et Métiers so I could pretend I was the protagonist in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

It’s also just a neat little museum with (wait for it) a Foucault’s pendulum.

Well, it depends what you and your kids are interested in but…

My daughter (7 at the time) really enjoyed the Almodovar Castle near Cordova. It’s been reconstructed and filled with semi-authentic stuff so you get a bit of an idea what it was like when people lived there.

In Seville we went to a Flamenco concert/dinner which was pretty popular.

Barcelona was all win. Anything Gaudi will be a big hit. She particularly liked Park Guell and the Casa Batllo.

Last summer we were in Venice and (my now 11-year old) really got into the glass works at Murano. Fake looking interested in buying the expensive stuff and they fall all over themselves showing you how it is made. She also really enjoyed the “Secret Itineraries” tour in the Doge’s Palace. They take you to see the Torture Chamber and the prison that Casanova escaped from.

Everything France does, Spain does better.

Also, yes, avoid the Roma.

In the last couple of years I’ve been to Bilbao, Lucca, Firenze, and Paris on various trips. Some time before that I went to Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, Sevilla, Toledo, and Madrid on a separate touring trip.

  1. Bilbao has not got enough to make it a major tourist destination, but if you go there the Museo de Bellas Artes is far superior to the crappy Guggenheim. Nice town, though, nice restaurants, pleasant climate, and it’s not far to Bordeaux, though I didn’t go into France myself.

  2. Lucca is a nice little walled medieval town in Italy. All the restaurants within the walls have exactly the same standard trattoria menu, but it’s not bad food. If you go there around Halloween the population will be multiplied by some ludicrous figure for the Comics con, but it should be nice other times of year. Access to Pisa and Firenze.

  3. Firenze. Hey, I’ve been here before! Oh yeah, I climbed on these buildings in Assassin’s Creed. Heh. What you are probably expecting in terms of picturesque Italian art centers. All kinds of nice stuff mixed up with horrible tourist traps.

  4. Barcelona architecture is lovely, Gaudi, etc. but you’d damn well better like seafood. Avoid any touristy thing there, the touristy stuff is unpleasant. Don’t confuse Catalan with Castillian; your highschool Spanish will not help you with the signs…

  5. In Andaluz, Sevilla has the nicest stuff, a lovely city, the gardens are beautiful as are the moorish buildings. The Alhambra in Granada is overrated, but not bad. I had two of the best meals in my life in Cordoba and Sevilla. All three cities are much nicer than average, well worth the trip. I hear however that the whole region is suffering greatly in the current economy, with social unrest, poverty, etc.

  6. Toledo is a giant tourist trap. Nice to look at, quaint and all that, but then you’re sort of trapped there for a while and most of what you can do there is buy shoddy souvenirs.

  7. Madrid is a generic European city. Nothing horrible about it, but not compelling. For some reason the lighting in the Prado is pessimal, with spots aimed to reflect into your eyes off the gloss of the paintings, sort of ruins the experience.

  8. I like Paris a lot. The modern art museum at the Centre Pompidou might be the best in the world. (Actually I like the modern in San Francisco a bit more, but it’s 1/10 the size.)

In Spain I recommend staying at one of the paradores at least one night just for the experience, which are restored old castles and hotels. Some are a little decrepit, but the decor and furnishings may be hundreds of years old and it’s a fun thing to do.

Wow, you’re picky. I’ve never heard anyone say that the Guggenheim was sucky and the Alhambra overrated.

— Alan

Thanks for the replies so far- lots of cool ideas already. I definitely want to catch the torture chamber in the Doge’s Palace.
We’ll be going in April, so I’m not too worried about the heat. Probably my greatest worry is about driving on the right hand side of the road…

Sorry, I’ve never been in a worse modern museum, including the ICA in Boston which has hardly any works on display, despite the huge size of the building. The Guggenheim Bilbao structure is better than any of the things inside, at least when I was there. The Museo de Bellas Artes had floor after floor of stuff better than everything in the whole Guggenheim, including superior modern works. Well, I suppose a temporary Serra installation in the Guggenheim wasn’t bad at the time, but their actual paintings and the like were inferior and forgettable.

The Alhambra was inferior in my eyes to the Alcazar in Sevilla, and since no one ever seems to mention the Alcazar at the same time, I judge the Alhambra to be overrated.

Spanish drivers are not incompetent, but they are aggressive and sometimes disregard the law especially in cities as regards parking and driving lanes. I remember seeing traffic backed up at a Madrid intersection because people had triple-parked across the road, blocking the street completely. You may possibly have problems on mountain roads in Spain, as they are something like 1 1/2 lanes wide, and if there is oncoming traffic and you’re in the outside lane, your tires will be very close to the edge, while your side mirror will be inches from the other car’s. They do have some big central highways, though. Italian drivers in Tuscany seem to be generally okay, but I don’t know about Rome or the south. Not enough experience of traffic in France to say one way or the other, but in Paris the Metro is very convenient even for non-francophones.

I heartily second everything that has been said about Barcelona. Such an excellent city. Leave time to walk La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter:

Though it may take away from your time in Barcelona, you might consider a side trip to Cadaques:

When I went I spent six days in Barcelona and three in Cadaques. You could easily “do” Cadaques in a day or two but, really, what’s great about Cadaques (aside from the history and food) is the sleepy pace of life. I’m not sure how well it translates with kids though.

I have friends who went to Italy with their 23 year old son a month or so before Christmas. For Christmas the boy bought his dad the XBox version of Assassin’s Creed 2. I haven’t seen him to ask him how he likes it but I had mentioned to him before Christmas that he should ask his son if he owned it.

Yeah, I visited San Gimignano as part of the Tuscany leg of the trip, I remember it being not that long after I played AC2. Just FYI, those buildings are a lot harder to climb in real life.

We rented a car and drove Madrid -> Toledo -> Cordoba -> Seville -> Granada -> Valencia -> Barcelona along the main highways. They were some of the smoothest and best roads I have ever driven on. Don’t worry. The advice I got while I was there was not to park where the street was “shiny”. The shine is caused by all the little pieces of broken glass where previous cars have been broken in to…

Tuscany is full of interesting “B” roads which also pose no problems. The SR 222 is highly recommended.

Bring a GPS.

While in France, I can heartily recommend visiting the beaches of Normandy, especially Omaha Beachwhere the allied forced landed during D-Day 6th of June 1944. There is a warmuseum, and its especially interesting to Americans I’d think since France gave that piece of land to the US, and a great Military Cemetary was built there after the war. So much history there. US troops are also stationed there at all times, at the war museum.

Not too far away from there, lies the magificent castle of Saint Mont Michel, which is the grandest castle I’ve ever seen. Its like something out of the Lord of The Rings movies, and its 900 years old.

Rome is magnificent, and the most marvelous city I’ve ever visited. So much history and so many places to. Forum Romanus especially, where people like Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, Flemming Madsen, Claudius and all the rest of the cast of the entire Roman history has walked. Its amazing to look upon mighty pillars over 2000 years old and then think of modern buildings which lasts a few hundred years at best. A guide book is a great thing to have, since you can both plan ahead, but also while there look up the history of wherever you are.

Oh hey, Razgon’s post reminded me, there’s a local guy around these parts, Rick Steve, who does guided tours for people. But he also records basically podcasts that you can download to an iPod or something and have him talking about all the stuff you’re seeing as you wander. It’s kind of like those recorded guided tours you get at some museums. I found they were really handy for some of the open ruins in Rome and when walking through the Vatican, but I also used them in Florence in some of the museums. Here’s a link to the one we used for Rome, they’re down in the “Listen” section, naturally enough.

Is that the Rick Steves who has the travel show on PBS? I know you can buy books and videos on various regions based on his travels.