Say what you will about Europe in the summer. Sure, there are longer lines, sweatier tourists, and pricier flights, but there’s also gelato on sunny piazzas, warm evening walks through historic sites, and, most important, no school.
My husband is from Spain, so summer break quickly became our time to visit his family — and just as quickly became a jumping-off point for exploring Europe together.
When the tots were young, we could essentially do whatever we wanted so long as a bottle and a nap were involved. Now that they’re a little older (3 and 6), we’ve adjusted our tactics a bit. We’ve found that certain cities work better than others, and that setting aside time to escape from the hot urban jungle is the key to keeping everyone sane.
Here are four of the family-friendliest getaways in Europe — and a few tips for making memories with your own kids while you’re there:
Barcelona is, hands down, my favorite city in Spain. And it’s just as magical for younger travelers. While a detailed tour of Gaudí’s Casa Milá may not be interesting to kids, a romp in the Wonderland-esque Park Güell certainly is. Equally enthralling is a climb through the spires of the Sagrada Família – if you can keep your vertigo in check.
Must Eat: While Spanish mealtimes are quite late (2 p.m. for lunch, 10 p.m. for dinner), tapas joints, which open earlier, are staples for travelers still trying to get into the Iberian rhythm. Chef Carles Abellan is famed for his Michelin-starred Comerç 24, but head to Tapas 24 instead, where you can try his creations (the creamy croquettes are a favorite) without putting your children through a multi-hour tasting menu.
Must Escape: Take a train to Montserrat, a monastery in the mountains an hour outside the city. Kids can hear the boys’ choir sing daily at 1 p.m., ride a cable car to the summit, and enjoy the area’s striking rock formations from the best vantage point around.
The Eiffel Tower, the Batobus, the fun fairs at the Tuileries, the Paris-Plages – there are plenty of attractions for children in Paris, not to mention a playground around every corner (even on the grounds of Notre Dame!). My daughter’s first trip there last summer was memorable for us both, and she’s been begging to return since the moment we left. Tip: Book a kid-friendly guide if you’re planning to hit the Louvre. We both learned a lot and had far more fun than we would have otherwise.
Must Eat: On a warm evening, swing by funky Pink Flamingo Pizza in Le Marais. Place an order, let the servers know which nearby park you’ll be in, and they’ll deliver your dinner there – complete with wine for mom and dad. Customers are given a balloon to hold, which is how the delivery finds them. If the weather isn’t ideal, dine in the retrofitted VW bus parked outside the restaurant. Best table in town.
Must Escape: Trade in the traditional Parisian day excursion (Versailles) for a day at the Château de Chantilly. Though it’s renowned for its remarkable art collection in the Museé Condé, the kids will be dazzled by the Grand Stables. Built in the 18th century to house hundreds of horses (the prince believed he would be reincarnated as a horse and wanted a residence on par with his rank), the stunning structure continues to provide equine housing that’s fit for a king. Tip: Try to plan your visit around one of the special horse performances.
Rome often tops the European wish list for families. The other list it tops? Cities that are best with a breather planned. Exploring the Italian capital is a history lesson of its own – and one that captivates children. Kids can attend Gladiator School, explore the spooky tunnels of the Catacombs, bound through the gardens of the Villa Borghese. Pizza and ice cream is plentiful, but so are crowds (and they’re likely to be particularly heavy this summer due to the new pope).
Must Eat: Locals dispute who makes the best pizza, but all agree hole-in-the-wall Da Ivo in the charming neighborhood of Trastevere comes up in conversation. Even Tom Cruise and daughter Suri stopped in to sample their famous thin-crust creations.
Must Escape: Don’t miss Pompeii, the macabre but fascinating “frozen” city in Mount Vesuvius’s shadow. Most school-age kids will have learned about the lost civilization (I can remember building models of the fateful volcano in science class), and seeing it in person is truly remarkable. Athletic families take note: The climb to the top of Vesuvius, where you can see its still smoking crater and enjoy the views of the Gulf of Naples, is also a blast (no pun intended).
London’s cool, gray days can be a blessing in the dog days of summer (and the city makes a great stopover en route to Europe’s sunnier shores). I’m taking my kids for the first time this year, and the Royal Mews, the London Eye and a paddleboat ride around the Serpentine are high on our list. I also know that Context Travel has great guides for the British Museum and plan to lock one down immediately.
Must Eat: The food scene in London is a far cry from the fish-and-chips fare we were stuck with when I was a kid. Skip the Michelin stars in favor of the new casual dining hot spot Burger & Lobster. My husband couldn’t handle the wait last time (they don’t take reservations), but if you’re on an early schedule with the kids, crowds shouldn’t be a problem.
Must Escape: As much as I’d like to drag my daughter to Highclere (the real-life Downton Abbey), we’ll go to Windsor Castle. Top attractions are sure to be Queen Mary’s dollhouse, the changing of the guards, and a new behind-the-scenes tour of the Great Kitchen. I wonder: Will Kate and William’s little one request mac ‘n’ cheese from these king-size ovens?
New York-based travel writer Henley Vazquez has lived on three continents, but she’s happiest when hitting the road with her husband and two kids. Follow her story on Twitter @HenleyVQ.