Unless you live permanently in Spain, have Spanish family or use your Christmas holidays to escape the bitter cold, Spain may not seem like such a ‘traditional’ place to spend Christmas.
The weather is warmer, for a start. And as much as we love to bemoan the terrible British climate, we do cherish our cosy, by-the-fire and occasionally white winters. Generally speaking of course.
We also love the classic Christmas jingles, gluttonous Christmas dinners and never-ending supply of mince pies. And you don’t get those in Spain.
But, as a matter of fact, a Spanish Christmas isn’t too dissimilar from a British, American or German one. There are bustling Christmas markets, twinkling Christmas decorations, sweet Christmas treats and even Christmas jumpers have made their way into the likes of H&M and Zara. And believe me when I tell you winter temperatures can be as cold as the UK, depending on where you go in Spain and what part of the UK we are comparing.
If you’re considering taking a holiday in Spain over the Christmas period, it might be worth your while learning about what different Spanish cities and towns have to offer at this time of year. So in no particular order, here are six of the best places to spend Christmas in Spain!
From mid November through to January 6th (Reyes Magos), Madrid becomes a glittering disco ball. Fancy and often creatively themed Christmas lights hang above all the main streets and plazas, and remain switched on until late into the evening.
There are Christmas markets too, the largest of which can be found in Plaza Mayor. I visited this particular Christmas market 2 years ago and had a good look. You can buy Christmas ornaments, gifts, festive food, artisan products, brightly coloured wigs and random costumes for children (I still do not quite understand why). There are markets in Plaza España, Santo Domingo and late night bars in Mercado de San Antón.
Madrid’s ‘Navibus’ (‘navi’ derived from ‘navidad’ meaning ‘nativity’) takes passengers on a tour of Madrid to see the shimmering Christmas lights. You can jump on in Plaza de Colón at the Colón metro station. The bus is a double-decker bus and so enjoy the festive displays are best enjoyed from the top deck.
One thing not to be missed is the ice-skating in Retiro Park.
Further Reading: What to Do in Madrid in December (madridfoodtour.com)
If there were one festive celebration you wouldn’t expect Spaniards to localise in some way, Christmas would be it. But this is what they have managed to do up in Bilbao. On December 23, an old farmer named Olentzero departs from city’s main thoroughfare and heads to the baroque Teatro Arriaga, handing out gifts along the way. Elsewhere in Spain such parades are left for January 6th, day of los Reyes Magos, but Bilbao likes to get theirs in early.
The Olentzero tradition is very popular, drawing people from all over the city, but the festive season kicks off just two days before with the Santo Tomás Fair. This occasion pays tribute to the local farmers who bring their ready-to-eat local produce to market. Here you can buy everything from talo (Basque tortillas) to txakoli (the region’s signature, slightly effervescent wine).
Further Reading: Basque Hunting in Bilbao!
Málaga is frequently touted as the best place to spend Christmas in Spain, by Spaniards and holidaymakers alike. Obviously it’s a lot warmer down there, and owing to the abundance of emigrated northern Europeans – a.k.a. ‘guiris’ – whose old habits die hard, Christmas tends to look and feel a lot more, well, European.
It’s not just Malaga. Christmas Day as Brits, Germans and Swedish know it is accommodated for in restaurants and hotels all along the Costa del Sol. It’s hardly beach weather in winter but the fact you can actually go to the beach on Christmas Day, even if just for a walk, really adds something new!
The highlight, undoubtedly, are the intricate Malaga Christmas lights on Calle Larios. No expense or effort is ever spared, with a new theme and design adorning the city’s main thoroughfare each year. Two years ago I published a guest post about the Malaga Christmas Lights by Malaga blogger Anna Collins.
Further Reading: Discovering Málaga’s Bario de Artes
Catalonia, generally, is much less about ‘traditional Spain’ and more embracing of other European cultures, so Christmas in Barcelona may be a little more familiar.
La Catedral (a Gothic church complete with gargoyles) hosts the Fira de Santa Llúcia — a large market surrounding the cathedral that sells both Christmas as well as regular gifts — while the stunning Fuentes de Montjuïc provide the setting for Christmas Carol concerts.
Barcelona’s rather bizarre Christmas mascot is Caga Tió de Nadal: a tree trunk with a smiling face, a red barretina (a Catalan hat) and a small blanket thrown over the top. What’s the blanket for? Well, quite simply it is meant to hide the unsightly culmination of the caga tío tradition; when, according to Catalan parents, Tío literally shits out all the presents. Yaaaaaaayyyyy!
He’s Barcelona’s answer to Santa Claus. A very peculiar answer but an answer nonetheless. Now caga tío has become a popular souvenir for tourists. You can even buy variations of the original caga tío, ranging from pop stars to politicians to royalty. I’m not sure what The Queen makes of her version.
Further Reading: Stag Party in Barcelona? What you need to know.
If you’re looking for somewhere a little quieter with a more local feel to spend Christmas in Spain, the small Catalan city of Girona should appeal. It’s only up the road from Barcelona so you could even fit both cities in to your itinerary. In Girona you’ll find the usual jumble of Christmas markets, nativity scenes and street lights. The difference is it’s all on a much smaller scale than the likes of Madrid and Barcelona.
You can find all sorts of shops, from artisan stores to designer boutiques, in Girona’s central area. The zone between Carrer de la Barca and Carrer Emili Grahit is especially popular during the Christmas period – not least for las rebajas (‘the sales’) which take place at the beginning of January. There are also plenty of activities for children to enjoy in this area.
St Stephen’s Day (26th) is bank holiday in Catalonia so most shops shut and some museums too. Shops tend to be busier between the 27th to the 31st as people are buying presents for Reyes Magos on January 6th.
Further Reading: Girona’s Temps de Flors (barcelonablonde.com)
You didn’t think I’d write a post about winter in Spain without mentioning Granada, did you?
If none of the previous suggestions grabbed your attention then maybe this one will, especially if you’re mad about skiing or snowboarding.
Granada sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, inland Spain’s tallest peaks and is home to Europe’s southernmost ski resort. You can’t expect the powder fields you might get in the Alps but the resort is large and of a high standard. The pistes suit all levels of ability and it only takes 50 minutes to get to the resort by car from Granada city centre. You can read more information about prices, equipment hire and accommodation in the Sierra Nevada here.
So instead of walking off the Christmas Day calories with your family on Boxing Day, how about heading up a mountain to ski them off instead?
Granada has a slightly higher altitude than other southern Spanish cities, so expect to be cold! The views during winter are unbeatable though, particularly from El Mirador de San Nicolas, the famous lookout in the Albaicin barrio, where on a clear day you can see the Alhambra glisten under the bright blue sky and snowcapped mountain backdrop. It’s a sight worth savouring all right.
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