Pizza, medieval castles, and (rumored) dinosaurs lurking in Scottish lakes—from a kid’s-eye view, a family trip to Europe has a lot going for it.
But visiting Europe with kids doesn’t have to be arduous. The Old World is full of cities that seem almost purpose-built for an unforgettable family vacation. Here’s a selection of the best.
The Dutch capital is a rush, and spending three days in Amsterdam is enough time to experience the city’s highlights. Between the ranks of colorful townhouses and the still waters of the canal-ways, the Amsterdammers are always on the move—by foot, bike, skateboard, moped, or car. Once you’ve adjusted to the rhythm, you’ll find this vivacious locale one of the best cities to explore on a family trip to Europe.
You’re best off organizing a tour; such is the abundance of things to look at and learn. One of the most engaging subjects is kitsch/cool Amsterdam itself, and the best place to do that is at the Amsterdam Museum. Its multi-generational appeal is so well gauged that it even offers free family-oriented tours that, in under one hour, will explain how the piles, the port, and the coffee shops came to be.
An excellent follow-up to the museum is a visit to the famous Floating Flower Market. Cleverly combining the two Dutch obsessions of barges and flowers, the market has been in existence since 1862.
Take a break from the hubbub in the serene Begijnhof Courtyard, a well-kept medieval walled garden that delivers a sense of stepping behind the city’s whirling carousel facade. You can also tour the 17th-century Canal Ring by stepping onto your very own canal boat. This canal network was part of the original infrastructure that helped transform swampland into the flourishing international city that Amsterdam is today.
A trip to Europe with kids is an unmissable opportunity to deepen their cultural education by seeing paintings by Old Masters. One of the most accessible of these has to be Vincent Van Gogh. The Van Gogh Museum is full of his bold coloration, with the world-famous sunflowers also on display. It’s a top-notch art museum experience and happily comes without the jostling you’d find surrounding the Mona Lisa.
Crowned with a castle, its cobbled streets served by clattering, mustard-yellow trams, and its window displays trimmed with arrangements of pastel de nata tarts, Lisbon is a fantastic destination for families.
One of its most exciting elements (besides the reliably sunny climate) is its dashing maritime history. When Portugal was a significant ocean-going power, charting new routes to Asia and the New World, Lisbon was the heart of the action.
Begin delving into this fascinating Golden Age at Belém Tower, where explorers of yore would enjoy the sight of a cheering populace, sending them off into the unknown. Here you’ll learn about Prince Henry, the navigator responsible for much of Portugal’s waterborne renown. You’ll also want to stop by the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the navigator famous for discovering the maritime route to India.
For an even deeper dive, head to the Maritime Museum for a full accounting of Portugal on the high seas since the Middle Ages onward. It’s especially splendid for its intricate model galleons—perfect for a range of ages (including adult) to enjoy.
Europe’s largest aquarium, the vasty Oceanário De Lisboa, also calls the city home. It’s a two-level affair allowing both surface-level and undersea browsing of the 500-plus marine species patrolling the aquarium’s flooded spaces.
After your mariner and submariner experiences, stride forth into the streets and—with the spirit of da Gama guiding you—taste test a local delicacy like garlicky snails. For the younger members of your family, the chocolate thimbles used to serve the local cherry liqueur Ginjinha might be an easier sell (empty ones, of course).
Read: Three Days in Lisbon
If you’re planning a trip to Europe with kids, consider Bergen, Norway’s second-largest metropolis. Sitting at the confluence of seven fjords, its boldly colored clapperboard houses are backed by imposing mountains. As such, it’s a list-topper for outdoorsy types, but this “Gateway to the Fjords” is also one of Norway’s most accessible places to uncover the country’s culture and history (while trying a little reindeer steak with lingonberry sauce in between).
Start at the UNESCO-recognized Bryggen (‘pier’ in Norwegian) to learn more about Norwegian culture. A row of warehouses that date back to the 14th century was a significant import/export office for the influential Hanseatic League. Like a German fiefdom operating within Norwegian territory, the merchants lorded it over their maze of storerooms, grand studies, and hidden bedrooms.
If you’re hungering for more behind-the-scenes experiences, check out the Old Bergen Museum. Seven minutes by bus from the city center, this museum is a reconstructed town of wooden houses representing Norwegian architecture from the 18th century onwards. It’s a celebration of the fact that Bergen used to be Europe’s largest wooden city.
You can’t visit Bergen without venturing out into the spellbinding surrounds. One of the nearby highlights is the torrential Steinsdalsfossen Waterfall, reached after a scenic drive along the edge of the Hardangerfjord. Stroll along the walkway behind the waterfall for heart-stopping (and refreshing) fun when on a family trip to Europe.
Denmark’s culinary scene—centered in its appealingly trendy capital, Copenhagen—is more than the ubiquitous custard-centered pastry. The crucible of the New Nordic food trend, Copenhagen’s food scene is so well developed that it’s not just at a Michelin-starred restaurant that you’ll sit down to life-altering platefuls.
And while it’s top of the list for any foodie family’s trip to Europe, this easygoing, friendly city also serves up a smorgasbord of culture, entertainment, and whimsy. The Tivoli Gardens wraps it all up in one.
Close to the city center, this 19th-century amusement park is perfectly pitched to please all members of the family. You’ll find handsomely groomed gardens, classic fairground rides, and the vertigo-inducing Star Flyer, an 80-meter tall swing carousel that rises above the city for matchless views.
Denmark, for a relatively small national footprint, packs in the castles and grand residences. Take a tour north of Copenhagen, and any Shakespeare devotees among you will relish the opportunity to see Kronborg Castle. It was at this grand fortification that Hamlet completed the majority of his tragic dithering.
A little further still, and you’ll reach Fredensborg Palace, where the Danish royal family like to holiday during the shoulder seasons. While a tour of that palace would probably require a state invitation, nearby Frederiksborg Castle is a fabulous Renaissance structure that doubles up as the Museum of Natural History and is open to all.
Back in the city, make your way down to the waterfront and visit the Sculpture of the Little Mermaid. The statue, located near the impressive star fortress, came to be when a brewer, moved by a performance of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, had it created as a gift for the city. It’s since become one of the city’s most iconic statues and a must-see when in Europe with kids.
Cozy and cosmopolitan Cork is found on Ireland’s south-eastern corner, a compact Georgian city wrapped around the River Lee. With its proximity to the coast, this port city’s striking neo-classical streets were the result of its history as a major provisioning port in the 18th- century, supplying ships bound for the Americas with salted butter, salted meats, and, hopefully, a little citrus.
It’s a treat to explore on foot—the industrial juxtaposed with the genteel—so peel off the main arteries and delve into the historic alleyways embedded with hipster cafes, micro-breweries, and traditional pubs (open to anyone underage who is with a parent) resounding with folk music. Follow the thinner branch of the river to University College Cork for a family ramble through its leafy grounds, stopping to browse the free art exhibitions in the Lewis Glucksman Gallery.
On a more somber note, Cork was also the last port of call for the Titanic. At the Titanic Experience, housed in the original White Star Line Ticket Office, step back in time to the moments leading up to the epic tragedy. Your tickets are replicas of the Titanic’s Third Class Boarding passes, and with this authentic reminder in hand, you’ll learn about the events leading up to the tragedy and the lives of those affected in a sensitive and compelling way.
After the profound history of the famous passenger liner, switch gears with a visit to Blarney Castle. This medieval edifice has excellent gardens to wander in while you admire the Gothic heft of this 15th-century castle and weigh up whether you’re going to kiss the Blarney Stone.
The stone is what Blarney Castle is best known for—a rather wet block of rock high up in the castle where visitors can (apparently) gain the power of eloquence by kissing it. Whether the stone can truly impart this power is perhaps hinted at in the meaning of the word ‘blarney’ in Irish slang: nonsense.
Wedged into the top of Scotland where the Moray Firth splits the country into its eastern and western halves, Inverness is a charming small city that acts as the gateway to the Scottish Highlands.
Inverness is the hub for much of Scotland’s tourism. Above all, it is proximal to that famous finger of deepwater called Loch Ness, one of the sites Scotland is known for. In fact, the River Ness, well known among the salmon fishing fraternity, organizes the Victorian streets of Inverness around its broad, shallow sweep before feeding into the famous lake.
Satisfy your monster cravings with a tour that takes you out of the city and into the verdant drama of Loch Ness and its wild surrounds. You’ll discover that it’s not only a hotbed of rumored dinosaur sightings but also a truly gorgeous lake that’s home to real-life eagles and otters.
And don’t despair if you don’t spot Nessie (there’s always Photoshop). Nearby Urquhart Castle’s romantic ruins are in a prime lakeside spot and offer an intriguing distraction. The castle has over 1,000 years of history, a superb visitor center, and even a full-size trebuchet siege engine. Another notable castle nearby is the stunning Cawdor Castle, best known for King Duncan’s murder in Macbeth.
Don’t overlook Inverness itself: this compact city is worth scheduling in when on a fun-packed family trip to Europe. Wander by the elegant river or dip into Inverness’s museums and discover the city’s central role in one of Scotland’s most lively periods of history, the Jacobite Rebellions.
Isle of Portland, Dorset
Pirates, beaches, dinosaurs—if you’re looking for a spot along the English coast that appears purpose-built for families, look no further than the tied island of Portland.
Part of Dorset’s remarkable Jurassic Coast, a stretch of cliffs famous for their fossil density, Portland has long been something of its own lost world. Attached to the mainland by 18-mile Chesil Beach, the island is characterized by traditional villages, perilous naval history, and handsomely rugged scenery ideal for bracing walks in the salt-fresh air.
Cross the isthmus to the mainland, and you’ll find yourself in Dorset proper. It’s one of England’s most picturesque counties, a great green swathe of which is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Amid this lush and gently hilly landscape, thatched-roof villages cluster in small valleys and add contrast to dramatic ruins such as Corfe Castle. The very epitome of Gothic, Corfe had an intriguing role in the English Civil War when it was stoutly defended by Lady Mary Bankes and a handful of soldiers.
After discovering the treachery that led to Corfe’s eventual sacking, take time to reflect within the peaceful grounds of Forde Abbey. Another choice Hollywood backdrop, the stately home used to be a monastery before being sympathetically transformed into an opulent family residence. On a guided tour, you’ll gain access to areas not normally open to the public.
A very aptly named city on the French Riviera, Nice is positioned on a golden arc of sand washed by the turquoise waves of the Bay of Angels. As with much of this glorious meeting of water and sun-baked Mediterranean landscape, it’s a city that attracts yacht glitz and jet-set glam—maybe not an obvious choice when touring Europe with kids. But for all of that high-end swish, Nice is also family-beach-holiday heaven, backed up by a town glowing with warm Provencal hospitality.
A tour of the town quickly uncovers this welcoming vibe, with Nice’s bright baroque buildings and striped awnings providing almost an embarrassment of pleasantries. The Old Town’s art galleries, hidden squares, and nose-tickling spice shops are fun to browse as you navigate your way towards the glimmers of blue sea between the tall buildings. Head south and you’ll eventually hit the Promenade des Anglais, an arc of palms and panoramas out into the Bay of Angels.
If you have time, extend your appreciation of this iconic stretch of coastline by taking a tour to Èze. Travel the Middle Corniche, one of three coastal roads that offer superb perspectives up and down the gleaming riviera. Arrive at the medieval hilltop village of Èze, with its overflowing window boxes and terracotta tiles, and you’ll discover even more breathtaking views.
Baroque, vibrant, historic—the Maltese capital of Valletta was one of the worthiest European Capitals of Culture in recent years. Its small size offers a highlight-packed option for a trip to Europe with the kids in tow.
Put sandaled foot to marbled sidewalk for an unforgettable tour of this UNESCO World Heritage City. Valletta, founded in the 16th century by militant Catholics, is a golden stone maze, the capital of an archipelago set into the azure Mediterranean just south of Sicily. With its religious provenance, it’s little surprise that the city is crammed with serene, shady places of worship.
One to consider for any family trip to Europe is St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Not only is the gilt interior spellbinding, but within, you’ll discover Caravaggio’s magnificent (and pretty gory) “The Beheading of Saint John.” Reward your children’s interest and patience with cool gelato afterward at nearby Cafe Jubilee.
Once you’ve explored Valletta’s charms, it’s likely your party’s attention will turn seaward. With scorching summer temperatures, Valletta’s limpid waters begin to exert an irresistible attraction. The island has an overabundance of beaches and secluded, sandy coves, so the choice of people-watching or sea-lapped isolation is all your own.
You can also explore these coves from the sea by paddling kayaks out of Golden Bay. Watch the abundant fish thrill beneath your hull as you nose into sea caves and secluded coves. Keep paddling south, and you’ll reach one of the archipelago’s most striking spots— the cliff-lined Fomm Ir-Rih cove.
When visiting Europe with kids, cruising is hands-down the easiest way to see the Old World. Your transportation between destinations is taken care of, you can choose from several world-class restaurants all traveling with you, and there’s plenty to occupy your children while they’re on board. Best of all: you only have to unpack the one time.
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