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Gaudi's mosaic dragon fountain at the entance to Park Guel in Barcelona is a popular place for tourists.

Randall Moore/Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail

I should have known when I spied my three kids and husband slumped over and barely conscious on the hotel lobby couch that jet lag was going to put a damper on our plans.

We only had three days to introduce the kids (11, 8 and 5) to the chaos and beauty of Barcelona: the crazy spires of the Gaudi cathedral, the dizzying heights of the tram, the kinetic energy of the tapas bars and the crowded pedestrian mall La Rambla. When I had gone over my checklist of attractions with my 11-year-old, he said: "That sounds fine – but no museums or art galleries." I sighed and removed the Picasso museum from my list, hoping to sneak in something educational along the way. But the extra few hours of waiting in a semi-conscious state for our rooms at the Barcelona Meridien to be ready were compromising the to-do list even more.

We rallied – pathetically – and set out in search of sustenance and caffeine. As we headed down the crowded pedestrian mall, we spied the La Boqueria market. The beautiful 1840s stained-glass entrance is the gateway to a riotous hallway filled with colour, sound, smell and food showcasing the best in Catalonian ingredients.

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Armed with fresh-fruit smoothies, the kids wandered around alternately disgusted and delighted by the culinary wares on display. Every piece of the animal is available for purchase and inspection – no sterile plastic wrap here.

We had received many warnings about the difficulties of travelling in Spain, tied to the late dinner hour, but this was one time jet lag worked for us. Dinner at 10 p.m.? No problem when you are still suspended between North American and European time.

Barcelona doesn't have the refined, uptight culture of other European cities. Kids are welcome, even expected, everywhere. A casual dinner at El Glop satisfied our craving for paella, and allowed one child to discover a new passion: langoustines. My daughter continued her love affair with Spanish ham and, alas, my third child continued his Toronto diet of bread and cheese.

The next day, with the fake confidence of tourists, we made our way on the modern subway to the Sagrada Familia, otherwise known as the Gaudi cathedral after the architect Antonio Gaudi. Started in 1883, the ornate cathedral was Gaudi's obsession. It was less than a quarter complete when he died in 1926, but the work has continued throughout the years. The expected date of completion is 2026.

Heading out to see an unfinished church didn't excite the kids – but this time the parental veto was in full effect. The kids forgot their apprehension as soon as we got close; it's hard not be wowed when you catch sight of the spires and busy cranes reaching into the sky.

Walking into the immense sanctuary at noon is affecting even for the most bored and cynical tween. Stained glass glows with the afternoon sun, lighting up the immense pillars and softening the modernist structure. The kids played I Spy with the multitudes of carved animals and mythical creatures built into the form of the church. They even said they were willing to wait in the two-hour lineup for the elevator to the top spire, but we decided to issue another parental veto and move on to lunch.

After a successful morning, jet lag got the best of us. Frustrated, I cut one more thing off my list. So much for the "hop on and hop off bus" that would take us to every tourist outpost in the city.

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Travelling in a group of five has its limitations: Hotel rooms are difficult to book, car rentals are expensive but the most difficult thing is setting an agenda that satisfies kids and parents. How do you work in cultural appreciation while acknowledging that kids need to run and play? Barcelona does all that. Gaudi's structures incorporate grandiose spaces that amaze you with their beauty but are also tactile and experiential. His Parc Guell, a large municipal park, was supposed to be a garden village with apartment buildings on the edge of the city – but the buildings never got built, and now it is one of Barcelona's most popular destinations, beloved by tourists and natives alike.

The kids loved the fluid forms, colourful mosaics and sandcastle-like creations as well as the views that open up on each level. They chased each other up and down the many stairs, hid in little nooks and even talked about why Gaudi would choose such strange and wonderful shapes. And they were in stitches over the ongoing escapade of local police chasing knock-off souvenir sellers.

Strolling down La Rambla once again, we set off to find the best gelato – and we did at Amorina, where staff shaped its rich gelato into a shape of a rose for my delighted five-year-old. But the highlight of La Rambla from the kids' perspective is the human statues: The rotating crew of painted figures alternately scared and delighted the kids. I have no doubt that when they return later in life they will seek out the black demon who put our middle child in a headlock for a few euros and a picture.

Vacation logistics required that we switch to the W Hotel at the end of the Barceloneta beach the next day. The magnetic pull of water and kids is universal: Before long, more tourist destinations were knocked off the list in favour of hanging out at the pool and the beach. Watching them with their windswept hair, laughing as they tried to skip rocks, I knew we had made the right decision.

We get asked why we would take our kids to Europe at such a young age. Our response: They may not remember the details, but they will come away with a feeling of being part of a culture that is different from their own. Their memories may be of throwing rocks into the sea, or climbing hundreds of stairs, or the human statue that made them laugh – these won't necessarily make them better students of art and architecture but, hopefully, better citizens of the world.

As for me? I can wait to see the Picasso museum. The opportunity to see a city through the eyes of my young children is available only for so long.

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