Help plan a Mom-friendly trip from Paris to Barcelona!
February 27, 2010 5:47 AM   Subscribe

In May I'll host my mother and sister for a 10-day European holiday, starting in Paris and flying out of Barcelona. It's my Mom's first time in Europe! How can I plan a trip that's unforgettably awesome but not too overwhelming?

My first order of business is making this trip fun for my mother. She's a great traveler -- positive attitude, open mind -- but most of her holidays to date have been to all-inclusives. She likes experiencing beautiful/interesting places, but isn't so arts/culture inclined, and likely wouldn't find art museums fun, for example. Ditto for jam-packed itineraries or strenuous physical activity. Leisurely sipping a noisette after wandering through the Jardin du Luxembourg, definitely. Four-hour neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood walking tour, not so much. Finally, she lives in a rural area, and I expect won't want to spend all of our time in cities.

Second order of business: getting from Point A to Point B, and what to do along the way. Night train? Direct flight? Day train with a stop in the beautiful village of _____? I'm pretty confident I can plan a few days in Paris without much trouble, but I'm a blank on Barcelona. I'd also welcome any suggestions for specific day trips and smaller cities/towns to visit. (We'll all be consulting guidebooks, so in some respects your impressions are more important to me than a detailed to-do list.)

A final thought - we're flexible on accommodations in Paris/Barcelona, but ideally looking for decent, mid-range places that are comfortable and quiet. We're considering apartment rentals, and would welcome any suggestions on that front, too.

Side note #1: my architect sister will have her own must-see places. It's no problem if the trio splits up on occasion, but bonus points for destinations that are both relaxing and Mom-friendly and of interest from an architectural/urban design perspective.

Side note #2: This trip will be prefaced by a few days in the Loire Valley. I've got that covered, but it means Mom/sister will have had some time to get over their jetlag, see a castle, visit a vineyard, etc.

Side note #3: I am not the first and surely not the last to ask a question about travel in Spain/France. I'm hoping this question is sufficiently different, and have consulted the previous AskMeFi questions before posting.
posted by nicoleincanada to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Don't try to do too much in such a small window of time. Sit down with your mom well before the trip and plan together -- this is the first fun part of your trip! Maybe order a few Rick Steves DVDs and watch them together, taking notes on the places you'll want to see. Since you want to venture out of the cities a bit, make sure you get country (or regional) guides and not city guides.

Consider renting a car if one of you is comfortable driving in foreign situations. This will give you a lot more freedom when it comes to venturing out of the cities. Avoid flying if possible.
posted by nitsuj at 5:55 AM on February 27, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, nitsuj. I'm living in France already and won't be able to physically sit down with my mother, but we'll be doing a lot of phoning and emailing and such. She thoroughly enjoys armchair trip planning, but she's finding this one a bit overwhelming, and has said she'd be happier if I did the big decision-making on where/when/etc. Obviously I want to do this with her preferences in mind, though.

A car rental is out, I'm afraid. None of us enjoys driving enough to want to take it on during our holiday.

Another question - is Rick Steves good for Spain? I recently used his Italy book but have to say that I've preferred Fodor's guides.
posted by nicoleincanada at 6:01 AM on February 27, 2010

How about getting the TGV down to Avignon and having a break there on your way to Barcelona? The TGV is fast enough that you could do this trip in daylight (the southern half of it is lovely), leaving Paris at a civilized time in the morning and arriving in Avignon before lunch.

Avignon would work better than Aix-en-Provence for this because its TGV station is closer to the centre of town, whereas the Aix station is 12 miles (and an expensive bus ticket) outside town. Avignon is, apparently, gorgeous--I foolishly failed to make it there when living in Aix--and there is plenty of beautiful and I think accessible countryside nearby if your mum does indeed want to get out of town. Very different from the green and rolling Loire Valley, too.

After that, the Pyrenees and the coast and mountains north of Barcelona. I don't know that area but would love to see it--friends who have tell me wonderful things about it. Enjoy your holiday!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:48 AM on February 27, 2010

Take the train to Nice and do a trip or two to Cannes, Monaco or Monte Carlo, mainly for the fun of being able to namedrop it later. When they coming over? If it's in apr/may you could check out the Cannes film festival. Hit up Carcassone on the way to the pyrenees, it's fairly spectacular.
posted by Iteki at 8:03 AM on February 27, 2010

You can see a bit of the Pyrenees on the train from Toulouse to la Tour de Carol - and pick up a rattly and rather primitive Spanish train from there to Barcelona. The station at the border is wind-swept and chilly. My partner made end-to-end reservations to Barcelona and the connection between trains there was prompt. The SNCF web site does not like the station name "Tour de Carol", BTW: use "Latour de Carol" or Enveitg.
posted by jet_silver at 8:11 AM on February 27, 2010

You might consider the overnight trenhotel from Paris to Barcelona, leave Paris at 8pm arrive in the middle of Barcelona at 9am the next day. It gives you an extra day to play with. As for what to do with that extra day, there are a million and one guidebooks... I used the Rough Guides last time I was there, and they were pretty good.
posted by itsjustanalias at 8:20 AM on February 27, 2010

Can't offer any suggestions for Paris, but for Barcelona -

- The sightseeing bus (bus turistic - I think there are a couple of companies) is a great and inexpensive way to get around the city and see lots of sights. I believe you can buy day passes or two or three day passes, which allow you to hop on and off as many times as you want. There are three colour coded routes which cover all of the main sights and areas. This is an easy and stress free way of travelling the city - much better for your mum I would imagine than the metro or normal buses.

- The Gaudi stuff is a must-see, but the entry to the houses was expensive and you had to queue for an hour. We much preferred Parc Guell, which Gaudi designed - I think this was free, and was absolutely beautiful. Allow at least an hour to wander around - there's a cafe there too.

- If your mum gets a bit tired of the city, head to the beach. It's fantastic; just like a beach in a costal resort. Plenty of cafes, loungers, etc. You can walk all the way along the beach/sea front back into town - it takes about 20 mins. The tourist bus also stops right on the beach front.

- We stayed in the Barcelo Atenea Mar. This fantastic hotel was right on the beach front. If you want to stay right in the heart of the city it probably wouldn't be for you, but we loved it because it was only a ten minute bus journey into town (or an easy half an hour walk) and infinately more relaxing than staying in the heart of the busy tourist areas. We got a really cheap deal too, booking through If your mum would get stressed at staying in the heart of the noisy, hot, busy centre, it might be worth a look.

- If you're scared of heights this may not be for you, but we took a cable car up the side of the mountain (montjuic - actually in the heart of Barcelona, a 15 minute bus ride from the centre) and explored the castle at the top. Beautiful views to the coast and down to the port; I'd really recommend it.

- La Sagrada Familia is indeed beautiful, but we just had a walk around. I understand it's quite pricey to get in, and when we were there the queues were very long.
posted by schmoo at 8:24 AM on February 27, 2010

Definitiely second both Parc Guell and La Sagrada Familia - once you've seen those, you can decide if you want more Gaudi, which I did.

Outside of Barcelona is the monestary or convent or church of Monserrat - it is an incredibly beautiful location and you can take a cable car up to the top of the mountain if I recall correctly (I hiked up).

I would also suggest Montjuic, particularly from the side that has the Miro museum - just a fun view of the city.

On my way between paris and barcelona many years back, I stopped at Figueres and went to the Dali museum - thought it was great, though the rest of the city I could take or leave. But it is on the way via train.
posted by slide at 8:43 AM on February 27, 2010

The on and off tourist buses for Paris are good for pacing yourselves around different areas of the city. Post your question or scroll through the France boards at They'll have lots of suggestions as well as experiences with apartment rentals and hotels. For three people, an apartment is great.
posted by Elsie at 9:28 AM on February 27, 2010

Response by poster: Great ideas, all! I am very much obliged. This is why I love AskMeFi. Some responses to your ideas:

Iteki - I was considering a detour to the Nice/Cannes area - I've been twice and love it. But I'm concerned it would eat into our time, since it's not really on the way.

lapsangsouchong - will definitely look into Avignon and run it by my mother. Thank you.

jetsilver - Sounds cool. Are you suggesting a TGV from Paris to Toulouse?

shmoo - pardon my total ignorance, but are you saying the beach at Barcelona is both walkable and swimmable and pretty? That is fantastic news. And thanks for the thumbs up on the Hop On Hop Off (if that's what it's called in Barcelona). I'm thinking of doing that in Paris since I don't want to subject my mother to the endless stairs of the Paris metro, expansive and efficient though it is. I'm glad to hear it's a good option in Barcelona, too. And the cable car sounds terrific.

slide - Do you know if Parc Guell is free? I'm guessing yes, but not certain on that. Also, my little mini Barcelona guidebook says it's a bit of a hassle to get there - did you find that?
posted by nicoleincanada at 9:51 AM on February 27, 2010

It is a bit of a hassle to get to Parc Guell: metro + 10-15 minute, which includes some hilarious outdoor escalators. When I was there in February last year, half of the park was closed for construction, and the entrance was hard to find. It's free to get in though, so definitely worth a look, especially if the weather is nice.

I would also highly recommend going inside the Sagrada Familia, of only for the stained glass windows at the entrance.
posted by snoogles at 9:58 AM on February 27, 2010

The beach in Barcelona is both walkable and swimmable and moderately pretty (not amazing by any means) - I know this very well as it was the first topless beach I, a young american-rasied male, had come across and I spent a good amount of time strolling and swimming. I was there in the summer - no idea what the weather on the beach is like now - I was in Nice in December once and it wasn't really swimmable.

Parc Guell is definitely a trek - but worth it. Just such a unique place. I haven't been there since 2003 so I'd rely on Snoogles review of the current status. I'd also recommend going inside the Sagrada Familia. Go on a weekday and get there early; I (again back in 2003) didn't have too long a wait. I liked walking the walkways up in the air between the towers and looking at the incredible detail on the exterior close up.

Finally, I'll also add the Picasso museum. I love musuems, though I realize your mom doesn't. But everyone know Picasso and the way the museum lays out his various periods and has a good selection of works from each, including Picasso's take on Velasquez's Las Meninas along with the studies for it. Really a good museum to go through quickly even for someone who normally doesn't care for museums. Sort of like the musee rodin in Paris.

One thing to at least consider, as air travel can be pretty cheap in Europe - is flying from Paris to somewhere more south in Spain and going up to Barcelona by train. I'd agree that it's not worth trying to do too much, though.
posted by slide at 10:14 AM on February 27, 2010

The beach in Barcelona's certainly walkable and pretty, but in May I'd consider it too cold for more than dipping your feet in (or at least it was last May).

Seconding the suggestion not to bother with the inside of Sagrada Família. Don't miss the outside, though. If you you get there and there's miraculously no crowd, then maybe consider it, but otherwise it's sorta meh.

For other Gaudi stuff in Barcelona, Casa Batlló was nice. Good audio tour and the line wasn't ridiculous, and there's a lot more interesting detail than there was inside Sagrada Família without being too museum-y.

The tourist bus is very nice, definitely take that. It's an easy way to find things you might like to see more of. And yes on the cable car, it's great.

I'm a huge fan of Tarragona. It's a cheap train ride an hour southwest of Barcelona. Fantastic Roman ruins to walk around, and it's much quieter than Barcelona is. Excellent day trip for when you're tired of all the crowds and noise in Barcelona. The beaches are lovely and much less crowded than the Barcelona beaches, but it's a bit of a hike to get to them -- you might not want to bother since it'll probably be too cold for much swimming. The archaeology museum's free, so if you want to stop in to watch the 15-minute movie there's no real downside, and it's really a cute movie. The Plaça de la Font's a perfect place for an outdoor meal. (My mother visited me while I was staying in Barcelona. Tarragona was her favorite part, though this may have something to do with my having been so enthusiastic about it that I visited every weekend I was there.)

Seconding the Trenhotel suggestion, too. Memorable, convenient, and cost-effective (transportation and lodgings for a night in one ticket!) It felt like being in an old movie. So much fun (and a good night's sleep, too.)
posted by asperity at 11:11 AM on February 27, 2010

Paris (Austerlitz)-Toulouse on TGV is a nice ride but make sure to reserve ahead. If you have not been to Toulouse yourself then you might want to stay there overnight. I love that city.

The Toulouse - La Tour de Carol ride is a TER which I find charming in their own way, but they stop quite a bit. It's an advantage when there is scenery.
posted by jet_silver at 11:27 AM on February 27, 2010

If you want a relaxed schedule in 10 days then the combination of all there is to see in Paris and Barcelona - with maybe a train trip between them half way through would be enough I think.

But if you want to spend a little time in one or both cities then I suggest you should look for something that is on the train route and which is as different from city life as possible as possible. If you want to do this then I would suggest you rent a canal boat to go along the Canal du Midi for 2 or 3 days - somewhere between Carcasonne and Narbonne (both of which are on the TGV route).
posted by rongorongo at 11:48 AM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you buy the art card in Barcelona you get to skip the lines and go right to the front. I was there last summer and this was very helpful. Barcelona is about Modernism so I suggest the Modernism walking tour. It's not overwhelming and is a good intro to the main sites/city, then you can decide to do more, or less. (BTW all the walking tours I did were very good.)

The tourist office in front of El Cortes Ingles, it's underground, is great. I would not miss Casa Mila, The Picasso museum, Palau de la Musica or the Boqueria market. The Rick Steves book is good/helpful for Barcelona. The textile museum cafe by the Picasso museum is a nice spot to eat/have a drink.

If you go inside one Gaudi site I would do Casa Mila. They have a very good audio tour explaining his work and models of all the major works too, showing how they were built and his ideology. The apartment is beautiful and you get a sense of being transported to a different time/place. The views from the rooftop are great and the sculptural elements are just brilliant.

The metro is easy, like in Paris. I walked, took the public bus, and the metro. Also, a crossover bag/purse is helpful as everyone will tell you to watch your bag and/or wear it in front.

I did the TGV to Avignon a couple of years ago and it was a quick ride from Paris. Avignon is lovely too.
posted by bookshelves at 12:19 PM on February 27, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone. I probably can't 'best answer' everyone but I'll try to sort out which of these great ideas work out the best for this trip.

One more question for you, schmoo - when you booked the Barcelo hotel, was it listed as one of the Top Secrets on
posted by nicoleincanada at 1:25 PM on February 27, 2010

ACC IN PARIS: I love the Hotel Leveque in Paris. My mom was the one who chose it, to begin with, but we are repeat visitors. It's old and charming, but remodeled enough to be comfortable and bright. The staff are friendly and speak English. Your room can be just above the fromagerie (what a smell to wake up to in the morning!), and the Rue Cler is a great place to be based as a visitor to Paris.

GETTING HERE AND THERE: Airports are such grief, and trains are such a nice change of pace which we can't really use in the US. Take the train (city center to city center) and use it as a chance to kick back and watch the countryside. If you decide on the night train, get a place you can sleep. You may also benefit ($!) from being able to get a Eurail pass for those visiting from the US. Since you're already in France, you aren't eligible (iirc).

(I guess I am the only one who enjoyed the Casa Batllo more than the other eponysterical Gaudi things - I loved the way the sea imagery had been built into the windows, walls, and everything else.)
posted by whatzit at 3:38 PM on February 27, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, whatzit. You're right, I'm not eligible for Eurail but I could theoretically fudge it and have a pass sent to my mother's address (not sure about the rules on that, but I know people who've done it).

On the other hand, I'll be eligible for Interail by then - I'm just not sure if it's worth it, especially since you still have to pay a sizeable fee for the night train on top of the cost of the pass (as far as I can tell from the Trenhotel site). By my estimates I wouldn't save any money with the pass. But do you have any experience with this?
posted by nicoleincanada at 5:52 AM on February 28, 2010

Sorry, only just checked back here.

Looking back, I think I booked the Barcelo through lastminute, but as a part of a package with flight included. It wasn't one of the Top Secrets, no. You should be able to find good prices for it though, we certainly got a good deal, and reading the reviews on Trip Advisor I think most people got fairly inexpensive rooms. If you do book there either put a note on the booking asking for a seaview room (if you haven't paid specifically for that) or ring them up after making the booking and ask. We paid the standard room price, and meant to ring them up to ask for a seaview room if they had one spare. We actually forgot, and only asked when we arrived at the front desk, but happily they must have had one free as they gave us one! If you do stay here, check the Trip Advisor reviews for tips on the near shopping centre, close restaurants, etc.

The beach is absolutely walkable - parts of it have a promenade bit next to it, and you can easily walk it. I'd say its pretty - it's obviously quite touristy with beachside bars and cafes, and loungers etc so it's no 'unspoilt beauty' but it's beachy enough for me - golden sand and blue waters! We swam in September and the water was beautifully warm...if you're brave it might be swimmable in May!
posted by schmoo at 12:05 AM on March 1, 2010

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