Forget the red light district — Amsterdam has much to offer families. (Photo: Swisshippo/Dreamstime.com)
By Kerry Lyons
If your motto is “Have family, will travel,” you’ll be glad to know that Europe is within your reach; in fact, these 10 cities will greet you with open arms. To save on sightseeing, book in advance and consider buying the multi-attraction discount passes most cities offer. If a traditional hotel room is too pricey (or small!) for your brood, or leaves you wanting for the comforts of home, rent an apartment through airbnb; owners typically leave their “must-see” list and restaurant recommendations so you’ll have a truly local experience—especially if you download a few local apps before departure. Ready? Set? Go!
There’s more—a lot more—to Amsterdam than the red light district. In fact, with paddle boats and bike paths galore, you can—and should—give it the green light for your next family adventure. Eating is easy and photo ops abound in this walkable, bikeable, boat-able city. Patat met (French fries with mayo) will keep hunger at bay as you take in the sights, possibly stopping to smile in an oversize Dutch clog—or perhaps with the pair you plan to bring home.
What to do
Everything is more fun when you arrive on a boat or a bike, and in Amsterdam, that’s the way to go. Be sure to swing by the NEMO Science Museum for hands-on exhibits that include a chemistry lab with experiments for young scientists and a bubble display for those that can’t resist getting their hands wet. Older kids will appreciate the history of the Anne Frank Museum while kids of all ages will find something of interest at the Van Gogh Museum; just be sure to buy your tickets in advance to avoid the long lines. If you visit in the spring, a day trip to Keukenhof to see the tulips in bloom—hundreds of thousands of them—should top your list. Consider a Holland Pass to save time and entry frees to major attractions.
It’s not just the Irish eyes that will be smiling when you touch down in Dublin; the welcoming locals will have everyone smiling from the top ‘o the morning till the rise of the moon. With relatively short direct flights and no language barrier, Dublin is the perfect starter-city for a family of aspiring adventurers.
What to do
Admire the “doors of Dublin” as you stroll over to St. Stephen’s Green. Pack a picnic lunch, romp at the newly renovated playground and feed the ducks before you depart to see ducks of a different sort at the National Museum of Ireland - Natural History. A taxidermy tribute to Ireland’s wildlife is artfully displayed over two manageable floors. Assuming you have some animal lovers in your midst, they’ll be pleased to know they can see the real thing at the delightful Dublin Zoo in Phoenix Park. For a bit of (dark) Irish history, plan a visit to Kilmainham Goal; Gaol is Gaelic for jail and this one housed almost every notable Irish rebel.
If day trips are your thing, consider taking the train south to Bray to visit the aquarium, stroll along the sea or hike up to Brayhead; you might even pick some blueberries along the way, depending on the season. If mountains are more your style, head to County Wicklow, where you’ll be dazzled by the gardens at Powerscourt and awed by the scenery and history at Glendalough.
Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. (Photo: Juan Moyano/Dreamstime.com)
Croissants, baguettes and crepes, mon dieu! Paris isn’t just for romantics in the spring; it’s for everyone, all year long. Kids will love the boulangeries on every corner; you’ll love how easy it is to navigate the Metro and catch a view of the Eiffel Tower from vistas around the city.
What to do
Leave the Louvre for your next trip. When travelling en famille, take in Paris’ plentiful parks. You could spend the whole day at Jardin Luxembourg, which in addition to a stunning palace built in 1612 by Marie de Medici boasts modern-day delights including peddle cars for racing and toy boats for sailing—not to mention a playground with zip lines and an Eiffel Tower bungee for your pint-size thrill seekers.
If the weather drives you indoors (the kids may not see the romance in the rain), visit the Musee Cluny and go for a treasure hunt among the tapestries. Should your tots be avid climbers, Paris will not disappoint. If your brood is physically fit, the 1,600+ stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower will suffice for a workout with a view. For a more gentile ascent, climb the 300 steps to the top of Sacre Coeur for a view of the city that is magnifique.
How could you go wrong in the city that gave us Paddington Bear, Peter Rabbit, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Harry Potter? And then there are real-life princesses and castles to die for (as more than a few did!).
What to do
You have to see the sights memorialized by Chevy Chase in European Vacation (“Look kids, Big Ben! Parliament!) but your tweens will love posing with One Direction at Madame Tussaud’s. And while you have to pay to see the Crown Jewels (and Torture Tower) at the Tower of London, there are some great (free!) museums and lesser-known attractions you won’t want to miss.
Ever wonder how they developed the symbol for the pound or how it feels to hold a bar of gold? Find out at the Bank of England Museum. If your pint-size flyers are also fans of buses and trains, you won’t want to miss the interactive London Transport Museum, with more than 80 vehicles including a double-decker bus and the world’s first Underground train. To get your fill of history, visit the Museum of London and time-travel from the days when lions roamed Trafalgar Square to today’s thriving city center. Last but not least, if J.K. Rowling is a family fave, you won’t want to miss the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studios Tour.
When the royal sun is shining, plan a day at St. James Park. Watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and then stroll down Horse Guards Parade and Mall to the lake; watch the pelicans get fed daily at 2:30 or settle into a deckchair while the kids frolic on the playground.
Gladiators meet gelato in this city of ancient history and modern cuisine. The locals love kids, and they love food. Need we say more?
What to do
No family trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Colosseum, and the pious will want to pop in on the Pope and visit the Vatican. Keep your shoulders covered and hold onto your hat as you look up at Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Splash in the Trevi Fountain, climb the Spanish Steps, and enjoy a gelato in one of the city’s many central piazzas.
Pizza is plentiful but if you want an insider’s look at Rome’s food scene, take one of Elizabeth Minchilli’s food tours. In case one gelato just isn’t enough, she offers a two-hour all-gelato tour that’s a favorite with the junior set.
If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, take a day trip to Ostia Antica. Once Rome’s harbor city, it’s now a maze of ruins that evokes Pompeii, providing ample wandering of ancient alleys and passageways. Spend an afternoon exploring the remnant rooftops, storefronts and latrines—which kids of all ages always get a kick out of.
Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the classic fairy-tale sights outside Munich.
Munich’s motto is München mag dich (“Munich loves you”) and indeed it does. There’s something for everyone in this Bavarian capital where handcrafted toys are as plentiful as hand-crafted beers.
What to do
Start your day at Marienplatz, the central square in Munich’s Old Town. Secure a spot in front of Neues Rathaus, the New Town Hall, to see the 100+ year-old Glockenspiel chime daily at 11 a.m. and noon. After that, visit the Toy Museum in the other clock tower, the Old Town Hall. For a more hands-on experience, walk over to Munich’s biggest toy store, Obletter Spielwarne in Karlsplatz square, or visit Kids Kingdom in Deutsches Museum. One of the biggest, oldest science and technology museums in the world, it offers over 1,000 kid-friendly activities.
The Munich Zoo, Tierpark Hellabrunn, is spread over 89 sprawling acres and offers kid-pleasing pony and camel rides in the summer and a penguin parade in winter. If you believe in “happily ever after,” don’t miss the German “fairy-tale route”, especially Neuschwanstein Castle, said to be the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
Barcelona is not only a bustling metropolis, but home to relaxing beaches too. (Juan Moyano/Dreamstime.com)
With the works of Gaudí around every corner, you’ll be in a state of architectural bliss while the kids will think they’ve landed in the land of Seuss. If that’s not enough, you can amble along Las Ramblas or stroll by the sea in the city that gave the world tapas. Bueno!
What to do
Barcelona’s Boqueria is a market like no other with flowers, fruit, and local fare to dazzle all five senses. Grab some goods to go and then get your Gaudí on at the famous Sagrada Familla. From there, hike uphill to Parc Güell, where you’ll be greeted by “el drac”, a multicolored mosaic salamander perfect for photo ops.
For a sweet treat, visit The Chocolate Museum, featuring chocolate monument replicas and tasty souvenirs. CosmoCaixa is an interactive science museum with a mini rain forest and crowd-pleasing planetarium. If you have a little inventor along for the ride, don’t miss the Museum of Ideas and Inventions, which will spark their imagination and yours too.
If you’re feeling adventurous, go shark cave diving in the Oceanarium at the aquarium near the Marina in Port Vell. Afterward, enjoy the view of the Mediterranean while nibbling on prawns and jamon at Martina’s Brasserie & Cocteleria. As the sun sets, stroll over to the Fountain of Montjuic for an unforgettable display of illuminated dancing “magic” fountains.
Okay, Halkidiki is not a city but a region of Greece. Why is it on our list? Because not every family vacation needs history and sightseeing; sometimes you just want to soak up the sun. Here, you can actually do both and go home boasting that you’ve been to the birthplace of Aristotle and bathed in the clear blue Aegean Sea.
What to do
Situated in northern Greece, the Halkidiki region is composed of three peninsulas, known as the three fingers of Halkidiki. The first and most populated is Kassandra, the second, with fewer resorts and more secluded coves, is Sithonia, and the third is Mount Athos, a monastic community closed to the masses.
Begin your journey in Kassandra and avoid the crowds with a hillside hike. Try the Koutsoupia-Sivri trail; as you walk the sea cliff from Sani Resort to Sivri village, you’ll pass by Roman ruins including a villa and early Christian temple. Spend an afternoon in Athitos, a picturesque village dating from 3000 BC. Stop for coffee and take in the old stone houses, cobblestone alleys, and breathtaking views of the Toroneos Gulf. If you need a break from the sun, visit Petralona Cave at the foot of Mount Katsika, famous for its stalactites and stalagmites.
In Sithonia, the luscious green landscape meets the cerulean water of Aegean Sea; settle in on a secluded beach and then go explore the fish tavernas in Vourvourou where you can watch the fisherman bring in their bounty.
To see the only monastic republic in Europe, take a boat from Ormos Panagias in Athonia and head toward Mount Athos. No tourists (or women) are allowed, but you won’t want to miss the view of the 20 monasteries dotting the coast or the abundant sea life that surrounds you.
More from Budget Travel