The 10 best family city breaks in Europe
A city holiday with children can be a daunting prospect, but it doesn't have to be a nightmare. Here are ten of the most family-friendly cities in Europe, from Paris to Copenhagen, along with ideal places to take the little ones when you get there.
1. Paris, France
Paris has absolutely tons of things for kids to do, from ogling giant whale skeletons at the Museum of Natural History’s Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy Gallery (2 Rue Buffon, open daily 10am to 6pm, entry €7*) to exploring the wonderfully quirky Magic Museum (11 Rue Saint-Paul, open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 2pm to 7pm, entry €10 for adults and €8 for children), which boasts a collection of more than 100 bizarre mechanical figurines as well as all sorts of curious magic knick knacks. Meanwhile, Parc de la Villette is home to the mother of all playgrounds in the form of the Jardin des Dunes et des Vents, which features giant hamster wheels, a zip line and all sorts of things for kids to clamber over. And then there’s always Disneyland Paris on the outskirts of the city, which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary with a range of discounts. Take a look at this guide for more ideas on what to do in the City of Light, including where to find the ghostly catacombs that house six million dead bodies.
Where to stay: Hotel Scarlett is a wonderfully stylish three-star hotel that’s just down the road from Parc de Belleville, the highest park in Paris – the views from the top terrace are sensational.
2. Rome, Italy
The Leonardo Da Vinci Museum (open daily 9.30am to 7.30pm, family ticket €25) features more than 200 machines designed by the Renaissance genius, as well as 51 working models. Kids will be fascinated by his exotic designs for war machines, helicopters and gliders. You’ll need to get up pretty early to climb the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican (open 8am to 6pm in summer, €7 for the lift, €6 for the stairs), as the queues can quickly become enormous, but it’s more than worth it for the views from the top of this enormous church, which tops out at just over 136 metres. The climb up the 551 steps becomes more and more adventurous as you near the top – the walls curve inwards while the path gets narrower and narrower. Charmingly, there’s a postbox up there next to a tiny gift shop run by nuns – kids will get a kick out of sending postcards from the roof of one of the most famous buildings in the world. But to be honest, the little ‘uns will probably be more interested in two of Italy’s most famous foodstuffs – pizza and ice cream. Take a peek at out insider’s guide for more expert advice on the city.
Where to stay: If you’re feeling exceptionally flush, then you could treat yourself to a stay in the stunning Villa Spalletti Trivelli, complete with marble bathrooms, wood-panelled library and rooftop Jacuzzi. But if your budget is a bit tighter, take a look at our guide to the most cheap and cheerful places to stay in Rome.
3. Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen is packed with things to do for families. For a start, it’s home to not one, but two amusement parks. Bakken, ten minutes’ drive north of the city, is the world’s oldest amusement park, dating back to 1583. The main attraction is an 82-year-old wooden rollercoaster, but the park’s location in the middle of Dyrehavsbakken wood offers some relaxing strolls along with thrill rides. Tivoli Gardens in the centre of Copenhagen is one of the city’s most famous attractions – 15 acres packed with pagodas, roller coasters and fairground rides, including the world’s tallest carousel. Nearby, the Children’s Museum at the National Museum of Denmark (Ny Vestergade 10, open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4.30 pm, adults 75 DKK, children free) lets kids take a trip back to the Viking Age (dressing up optional), and features children’s games from the 1920s. Our guide to seeing Copenhagen on a budget lists plenty more things to do, such as visiting the self-declared ‘Free State of Christiania’, a self-run community that sprang up on a former military base in the 1970s.
Where to stay: The Absalon Hotel is a friendly, family-owned establishment that’s well placed for Tivoli Gardens, and the National Museum of Denmark is less than a kilometre away, too.
4. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Amsterdam may conjure up images of liberal drug laws and carnal delights, but don’t be fooled – the city is actually a haven for children. The lack of traffic and plethora of waterways make it a delight for families to walk around – or even better, bike. Bicycle rental shops are scattered across Amsterdam, with the most famous probably being Yellow Bike, and taking to two wheels is the perfect way to explore the city’s canals. But if the weather turns, head indoors to NEMO, a science museum housed in a bizarre green building that resembles the bow of a ship looming over the docks. Children are encouraged to don a lab coat and start experimenting in the ‘Hands-on Chemistry’ sessions (weekends from 11am and weekdays from 12.30pm), and there are plenty of things for kids to fiddle about with, from a mini water purification plant to a parcel-sorting machine. Anne Frank’s House is another must-see for children interested in history: in fact, it’s number one in our top 15 things to do in Amsterdam.
Where to stay: Hotel Estherea is a four-star hotel in a chandelier-bedecked seventeenth-century building that looks right out onto the Singel canal, just around the corner from Anne Frank’s House. The fact that it offers free hot chocolate throughout the day will be sure to please the little ones.
5. Barcelona, Spain
The Antoní Gaudi-designed Parc Guell in Barcelona is a great place for kids to explore thanks to its colourful mosaic and fanciful lizard statues, and it provides great views across the city, too. Elsewhere, the Aquarium is stuffed with more than 450 different animal species that will get the kids oohing and aahing in wonder – especially as they walk through the 80-metre underwater tunnel while sharks and rays glide overhead. But, if anything, the Museu de la Xocolata (open Monday to Saturday 10am to 7pm and Sundays 10am to 3pm, entry €6) is likely to be the highlight of any child’s trip – it showcases the origins and spread of chocolate, as well as providing a range of activities that show you how to create your own chocolate masterpiece. Find out more about Barcelona in our local’s guide, such as where to see a magic fountain.
Where to stay: The Catalonia Portal de l’Angel has an enviable location in the Gothic quarter, right near the central boulevard of Las Ramblas – but despite the hustle and bustle outside, the rooms are remarkably quiet.
6. Berlin, Germany
On windy days, children of all ages head to Tempelhofer Feld to fly kites, but even when the wind is calm you can find plenty of Berliners engaging in all sorts of sporty activities in this enormous park. Once upon a time it was an airport – in fact, it was the site of the famous Berlin Airlift – and plenty of the old buildings are still intact. Children and adults alike will find plenty to fascinate them in the excellent DDR Museum (open Monday to Sunday 10am to 8pm, entry €9.50 for adults, €6 for children), which features recreations of German homes during the days of communist East Germany (the DDR), along with quirky insights into daily life. For example, did you know that toddlers in the DDR underwent communal potty training?
Where to stay: Louisa’s Place is a peaceful hotel located in a classic Old Berlin building, with plenty of children’s playgrounds nearby to keep the wee ones happy.
7. Lisbon, Portugal
Simply getting around in Lisbon can be a fun family activity: the distinctive red trams shunt their way past all of the major historical sights, and a day ticket will let you hop on and off anywhere you like for 24 hours. But even more fun is a ride on one of the amphibious vehicles operated by Hippotrip. The aquatic bus tours the city’s landmarks before taking a dramatic plunge into the waters of the River Tagus. Up on the hill above Lisbon, the eleventh-century Castelo de São Jorge (open daily 9am to 9pm, entrance €8.50) provides some excellent views over the city. Kids will love trying out the 360-degree camera obscura in the Ulysses Tower (10am to 5pm), and there are several galleries showcasing relics from the castle’s past – including traces of Moorish occupation from 1,000 years ago.
Where to stay: My Story Hotel Rossio is a cosy, modern hotel located on a picturesque square right in the heart of the city.
8. Brussels, Belgium
Belgium is synonymous with chocolate, and Brussels has a museum dedicated to the stuff in the form of The Choco Story (open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm; entry €6), with live chocolate-making sessions and an exhibition about the history of the cocoa bean – and a chance to sample the goods, of course. Once they’ve satisfied their chocolate cravings, kids will want to make a beeline for the Comics Art Museum (open daily 10am to 6pm, €10), where they’ll find a permanent exhibition on Hergé, creator of Tintin, as well as a look at the origin of comic strips.
Where to stay: Made In Louise is a curiously named boutique hotel that belies its dinky stature with a truly sumptuous buffet breakfast. And as an added bonus, the receptionists have been known to hand out home-made cakes.
9. Gothenburg, Sweden
Thanks to its relatively small population of just over 500,000 people, Gothenburg is one of Europe’s less frantic major cities, making it ideal for a relaxed family trip. The city is famed for its buzzing café culture and gorgeous green spaces, and the narrow cobbled streets and squares of the city can easily be traversed on foot. Trädgårdsföreningen park is an elegant botanical garden that features a nineteenth-century palm house built in the style of London’s long-lost Crystal Palace, and it makes an ideal place for a family picnic. But if the kids are looking for a bit more excitement, Gothenburg’s Universeum (open daily 10am to 6pm; family ticket SEK 625) is like a science museum and a nature park rolled up in one. In one area you can wander through the rainforest, encountering animals like marmosets and toucans, in another you can see sharks in 1.4-million-litre tank, and in yet another section you can take part in experiments and learn about space travel. If you’re interested in visiting more fabulous places in Sweden, check out our guide to Stockholm, including where to buy elk meat.
Where to stay: Hotel Poseidon is a family-run, three-star hotel close to the city centre, with an absurdly generous buffet breakfast included in the room price.
10. Dubrovnik, Croatia
This beautiful city boasts a clutch of fantastic beaches in addition to a plethora of buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. In fact, you may have seen the city’s medieval walls already – they appear on TV’s Game of Thrones from season two onwards as the fictional city of King’s Landing. You can get a feel for the layout of the city and its famous walls by heading up Mount Srd on the cable car (120 kn for a round trip). Once you’ve got your bearings, head down to Copacabana Beach for a bit of relaxation while the kids enjoy riding pedaloes and banana boats. And if you’re feeling active, Adventure Dubrovnik offers kayaking trips that head out to the nearby Lokrum Island, as well as giving you a sea-eye view of the city walls. Mosey on over to our city guide for more on what to do in Dubrovnik, including where to watch the sunset with a drink in hand.
Where to stay: Valamar Club Dubrovnik is right on the beach and offers plenty of supervised activities to entertain the kids so that parents can slink off and do some sightseeing – or just lounge by the pool.
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*Published March 2017. Prices correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change and/or availability