Years ago, when I told my friend that I was visiting Europe for the first time, she promised me her guidebooks. I gratefully agreed, until she knocked on my door carrying five thick tomes. Every single one was for Italy, only one stop on my touring schedule.
“I’ll bring the Spain ones another time,” she said. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you.”
Too late. How on earth was I going to narrow down my daily itinerary now? I hadn’t even started Googling yet!
Planning a family-friendly trip to Europe is no mean feat. Even when it comes to arranging the fun, sightseeing stuff, it is hard to know where to begin. By the time you step on that plane, you’ll wish there was a one-stop shop providing the basic best-ofs, city by city. Start with this simple run-down of the best cities in Europe to visit with kids on your long-awaited escapade.
Charming London relaxes its regal vibes to welcome kids with open arms.
The scholarly halls of the British Museum become a treasure trove of otherworldly artefacts, as do the Natural History Museum and V&A Museum of Childhood. Experience history traipsing through remarkable monuments such as Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London (be sure to make your way there by crossing Tower Bridge). Time your tower visit for the pantomime-like reenactment of an invasion, which includes ample audience participation.
They are pricey, but Madame Tussauds’ wax museum, Harry Potter Warner Bros studio tour and the London Eye are great for kids. Jumping aboard the famous double-decker London buses is a good way to conquer the city. Adolescent art-lovers will know of the Tate Britain gallery, but consider visiting the Tate Modern for contemporary works, interactive sculpture and audio-visual content. Enthusiastic thespians will revel in the abundant options showing on the West End (we picked Mamma Mia!) or a Shakespeare on show on The Globe stage.
The star performers are undoubtedly the abundant parks and gardens, which are totally free to explore. Hyde Park contains a zoo. Enough said. Kensington Gardens have nice grassy picnic spaces. Regent’s Park is shady and cool (join the clusters of families and friends playing board games on picnic rugs here in summer). Kew Gardens have playgrounds and treetop walkways. Coram’s Fields are secret kids-only grounds in Bloomsbury. And the huge Richmond Park is home to loads of wild deer.
Between the gardens, nutella crepes and multitudes of museums, what’s not to love about a kid-friendly sojourn in the city of light?
Book major monuments and activities, such as the Eiffel Tower ascent, in advance. Definitely prepare to wait in lines for the Louvre, which is well worth it. Instead of jostling for a peek of the Mona Lisa, why not check out the majestic (albeit headless) Nike positioned on a staircase. Or the French sculpture rooms full of plants, marble figures and natural light. This is a good spot to stop and have a breather if your restless ‘museum legs,’ as my family calls it, are getting the better of you.
If art is up your alley but you want to avoid crowds, pick smaller but equally fascinating musées such as Picasso, Orsay, Rodin, Cluny, Orangerie and the funky Pompidou. If you plan to visit a number of these galleries, perhaps with patient teens, grab a Paris Museums Pass. Monuments and impressive churches such as the Notre Dame Cathedral and Sacre Coeur are free. On foot, you can marvel at the Seine, Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe.
Paris is a city perfect for picnics. Stop in at Marché Bastille or Marché d’Aligre for fresh produce and then take your lunch to the Place des Vosges, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and Luxembourg Gardens, where you can sail a tiny wooden boat on the pond. Take a day trip to Disneyland Paris for some fairy-tale fun, or to Versailles to experience living history in all its ornate luxury. Older kids will enjoy the gruesome ghost stories of the Catacombs. One hour out of Paris you will find the Champagne region – and many of these wineries can be visited with kids. Read more about our favourite family-friendly regions in France.
One thing everyone will tell you before you go to Italy – “the Italians love kids”. The smiles, doting nonnas and relaxed vibes alone are enough to make Rome one of the best cities in Europe for families. But that’s only the beginning.
Kick off your explorations with a taste of Empire. The big three – the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill – allow families to follow the footsteps of gladiators and stand where emperors stood. It is a good idea to book in with a guided tour to get the most out of the experience. The Pantheon is another photo-worthy hot spot, as are the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Toss a coin over your shoulder here if you want to return to Rome one day.
Private or small group tours of the Vatican Museums can easily be found online, including those suited to primary school aged visitors. The audio guides are just as comprehensive if you’d prefer to whizz through at your own pace. Complete the day with a visit to St Peter’s Basilica and a climb up the dome. You will, however, need to book in advance.
Stop for a breather in one of Rome’s quintessentially Italian piazzas or squares, such as the Piazza Navona or the Campo dei Fiori where you will find lovely fresh fruit and a myriad coffee shops. Enjoy a nice picnic in the Borghese Gardens. Here, you can get your wriggles out by wandering around the zoo, hiring a bicycle or renting a rowboat to enjoy on the pond.
Don’t miss some of Rome’s best highlights: edible ones such as a gelato, pizza or big bowl of pasta. The Trastevere neighbourhood has some quirky and cute eateries complete with gingham table cloths and fairylights.
This Spanish explosion of colour and noise is one of the best cities in Europe for active, engaged kids.
Naturally, you will have added the famous Sagrada Familia to your list. Play I-Spy as you circle the Nativity, Passion and Glory facades outside the controversial and unfinished cathedral. Even if you don’t climb the towers, snag a ticket to explore its cavernous interior. You’ll feel like you’re inside a forest.
There are also plenty more of Antoni Gaudi’s bizarre ‘brainchildren’ to explore. Run alongside bright mosaics in the public Park Guell, and see if you can spot dragons and Hansel and Gretel houses. Combat the crowds in Casa Batllo to immerse in its underwater theme. Or stop by Palau Guell, my personal favourite. It is ostensibly less extravagant than Gaudi’s other kaleidoscopic creations, so perhaps of less interest to little architecture critics. But teens will enjoy the history and peace and quiet. When we visited, nobody else was there.
Amble along La Rambla from Placa Catalunya to the port, where you can snap up a cheap lunch to enjoy in the Parc de la Citadella. Here, tour the onsite zoos, greenhouses and museums, or stop under a tree for some respite, a snack and to watch the living statues.
Make the most of the free morning or evening entry to La Catedral, whose majestic, neo-gothic pillars house thirteen roaming geese. The narrow, cobblestoned streets of the surrounding Gothic quarter are well worth a wander and a window shop. We happened on a ‘Devil Parade’ complete with papier mache dragons and fireworks – so who knows what you’ll discover!
Check out the Museu de la Xocolata (the Chocolate Museum), the Tibidabo Amusement Park and L’Aquarium, which has a glass tunnel through a shark tank. To cool down, it is worth making a splash at one of the well-loved city beaches like Bogatell or Nova Icaria.
Already been to Catalonia? Read instead about why your teens will love southern Spain.
Too many families dismiss the Dutch capital as a city for adults, when Amsterdam is in fact one of the most family-friendly spots in Europe.
By day, this centre of art and thinking has countless attractions for kids to explore. Take your pick from a series of galleries and museums, such as the Van Gogh Museum (containing some of the most famous of the artist’s masterpieces), the Banksy Museum (a celebration of edgy street art teens will love), the Rijksmuseum (a really well-planned, well set out exploration of Dutch history), Nemo (a Science Museum aimed at children aged 6 and older) and the Anne Frank House (a sobering take on Holocaust history best for teenagers).
Snatch a selfie by the I Amsterdam sign, enjoy one of the city’s many petting zoos, take a canal cruise, taste test some Dutch pancakes or pofertjes, walk through the Royal Palace and enjoy the grassy expanse and ponds of the Vondelpark. This beautiful green space is ideal for picnics and for bike-riding, an activity for which Amsterdam is famous. It would in fact be worth hiring a bike on a tour outside the city. We took a bus out to Edam and Volendam and pedalled our way past windmills, clogs and (of course) cheese.
A version of this story was first published in June, 2018 as ‘Europe’s top cities for families.’
“The 5 Best Cities in Europe for families” is a Family Travel online exclusive story. Make sure you don’t miss any exclusive digital content by subscribing to our email newsletter.