Where to go for a child-friendly vacation in Europe?
April 11, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

My family are heading to Europe this summer for a vacation. Mainly we are visiting family in the UK and France, but we are planning on a week to go off by ourselves somewhere and have fun. We have two boys who will be 4 and 6 when we travel. We want to go somewhere that will be enjoyable for the boys, so that we all have a relatively stress-free time. Where should we go?

We will be in London and Toulouse beforehand, but we aren't limited to being driving distance from either, happy to fly somewhere else. We are all EU passport-holders, so visas aren't really an issue. We all enjoy city vacations, if there are fun things for the boys to do and see i.e. interesting transportation, cool museums and bonus points for geeky fun things to do. Mr Joh and I love nature, views, and gentle hiking, but the boys are less enthusiastic than we are. We are not interested in somewhere like Disneyland Paris, or a beach holiday, we want to see and do things. We would prefer to go to one place and stay in one hotel for the week, using it as a base to explore an area. Moving hotels is a pain. The boys are great travelers, happy to sit in the car for a few hours if we are going somewhere fun. Some ideas we came up with but aren't sure where within these countries we might go and what we might do:

Italy - we hear it is the most-child-friendly country in Europe, the food is good and my kids like to eat it too. Mr Joh has been there once a long time ago, I have effectively never been before.
Sweden - none of us have ever been, and we have friends there we could hang out with.
Switzerland/Austria/Germany - the scenery appeals, Mr Joh has lived and traveled extensively in Germany, and we have friends there to hang out with.
Iceland - I desperately want to visit Iceland one day, but I'm guessing it won't be very fun for a 4yr and 6yr old.
Scotland - Mr Joh would like to visit the highlands and enjoy the scenery, and I would too, but I'm skeptical that the little ones will enjoy it.

I welcome feedback on specific areas or things to do in those countries, or any other places I might not have thought of.
posted by Joh to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I have put repeated pitches in for staying at Les Olivettes in Lourmarin (where Peter Mayle lives, I believe). It has a pool and is a lovely place to stay--each room is a suite with a kitchen, which is great with kids. It's near/in the Louberon, and there's a lot of gentle hikes--I particularly liked the ochre pits at Roustrel--a former quarry for the mineral, it's beautiful orange sandy hills. Really nice.

Plus, on the way (or while you're there) cool places like Nimes, Arles, Aix, Avignon--so much great stuff to see.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:37 AM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: We spent about a week in Stockholm with our then 5 1/2 year old daughter in summer 2011. She had a great time at Junibacken (She spent hours in Pippi Longstocking's house playing Don't Touch the Floor); we did a day trip to Birka, and Skansen and The Vasa Museum were a lot of fun.

The thing she loved most of all, though, was Tom Tit's Experiment. We were there from the time it opened to the time it closed (11 am - 6pm, IIRC), and she didn't want to leave. She still talks about how much fun she had there. If you go, bring extra clothes for the kids, as my daughter got soaked in the water area (I had her go play in the wind tunnel for a while to dry her off a bit, and then we were able to buy her some dry clothes on the way home.)
posted by mogget at 9:42 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Budapest and Istanbul have a great mixture of culture/museums for everyone, amazing food (and wine!), great walking neighborhoods, awesome parks, endlessly fascinating rivers/waterways, and both are cheaper than parts of western Europe.
posted by mdonley at 9:44 AM on April 11, 2013

It's a bit out of your way, but when I visited Slovenia it struck me as a great place to take kids. It's a very "fairytale" sort of place, full of old castles and deep mysterious caves and folklore about dragons. There's also Lake Bled, which seems like an extremely kid-friendly place to spend a few days (lots of rowing around in boats and ducks to feed, and the obligatory castle), and the Lippizaner stud farm (AKA "oooooo look at the horsies!") towards the Italian border.

There's also lots of hiking and some adventure tourism, though I think they're probably too little.

That said I don't know that I'd trek halfway across Europe for it. But it really is a superb place to take kids.
posted by Sara C. at 10:07 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree the food in Italy is great but if you're in Toulouse, well you're in Southwest France where the food is also amazing.

Aside from food, that area also has some of the best and most famous caves in the world, as well as scenic hilltop towns and plenty of things to do and see. The Dordogne is full of gorgeous caves. and gorgeous scenery and attractions. It might be selfish but many of these caves such as Font de Gaume may be closing soon so this may be one of the last chances to see them.

You can base your stay at someplace like Sarlat (a gorgeous though touristy village) or Les Eyzies. From my experiences in that area, the whole place just seemed built for kids.
posted by vacapinta at 10:15 AM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: You could go to Zermatt (Swiss Alps) or Chamonix (French Alps) for amazing scenery without too much hiking for the smaller ones. Zermatt has the Glacier Express and cable cars. Chamonix especially has a lot of different trains and cable cars and is also only 30 minutes from Italy in one direction, and Switzerland in others, which is fun.

When exactly are you going? August can be very hot and crowded in some places.
posted by tardigrade at 10:27 AM on April 11, 2013

Another place I was just researching (as I'm going to a wedding there soon) is the Amalfi Coast - Sorrento, Naples, Positano, Capri, Pompeii...it seems like very a high concentration of interesting and beautiful places in a small space.
posted by tardigrade at 10:40 AM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: We did a driving trip from Germany to Italy when our kids were about 5, 7 and 9.

Would the kids like to go visit castles and castle ruins? If so, look a little further into Germany. I know you said you didn't want a Disneyland experience, but I can say that Legoland in Germany is pretty awesome. Lots of rides, but also lots of physical fun for kids - outdoor climbing gyms etc. Our kids loved it and it was good bait to tell the kids "Only 3 days til we get to Legoland" for the days that were a little boring for them.
posted by caroo at 10:46 AM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: I just got back from a vacation in Scotland with my kids, who are 2 and 4. We stayed near Aberfoyle, in Strlingshire. About 45 minutes drive from Glasgow airport. It's not exactly the Highlands, though the Highland boundary fault runs through the area. There are trails in and around the fault area that start in Aberfoyle, though some of them may be a bit much for your 4 year old. We did a nice walk from Balmaha (pdf), along the banks of Loch Lomond, that the kids enjoyed. Great views of Ben Lomond, it also passes the pier where you can take a boat over to the conservation village of Luss. My kids were entertained the whole time, they enjoyed the walks and the wildlife, we also did pony trekking, and visited the aquarium in Balloch. Glasgow itself has lots of activities that will keep your kids interested if the nature activities start to bore them, in particular the Science Centre is good fun.
posted by IanMorr at 12:15 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

How are you with hot weather? August weather made Rome unbearable to me when I went, and the south of France will be similar.

I'd love to go to Iceland and Sweden. Will Icland be boring for the kids? There will be hot springs, and geysers and it will be light all night. I think I would have found that pretty fascinating.
posted by kadia_a at 1:39 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: I think I'd stay in south-western France / Northern Spain so as not to waste time on traveling days. There are tons to see and do, both culture and nature. How about renting a house on the edge of the Pyrenees as your base, and then making day-trips from there? Carcassonne is fascinating, and so is Montségur, you can combine it with stories of knights in shining armor and crusades as you see fit. You can also visit the pilgrim route to Santiago. We are not religious, but my kids loved when excursions were combined with "stories" like this. Also, going up in the mountains and hiking a bit will be nice at that time of year.
There are the Dalí museums north of Barcelona for another fun day.
My dad once went on an excursion somewhere outside Bordeaux, where they gathered shellfish while the tide was out, and then cooked them for lunch, he talked about that trip for ages after. I've tried to find the tour on the webs, but couldn't. Instead I found this article, and found it inspiring, even though you said you weren't interested in beaches. My kids (and nephews and nieces) really enjoy foraging and cooking on open fires.
Bordeaux in itself is a charming city, and I've read that the architecture museum is famous for it's children's activities.
Albi is on my personal to-do list, but I'm not sure wether it's attractions are child-friendly.

Scandinavia, including Iceland, is beautiful, but the distances are huge. Whereas in the rest of Europe there is a lot to see within a short radius almost everywhere. Still, we went to Stockholm with 7 children a couple of years ago, and had a great time.
posted by mumimor at 2:28 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers! Although I didn't mark them all best, they were all helpful! Not looking to stay in France since we will already have been there for a week, exploring, and I want to make the most of our time by going somewhere different, since we only come back every few years.

Mumimor, Albi is lovely. Last time we took a riverboat through the city, then explored on foot.
posted by Joh at 6:41 PM on April 11, 2013

Best answer: If you're in Toulouse, plan for a full day at the Cité de l'Espace. It's amazingly kid-friendly, very fun and very educational.
posted by snakeling at 2:24 AM on April 12, 2013

Response by poster: Just as a resolution follow-up, thanks for all the tips. We went to the Cite de l'Espace while in Toulouse and it was fabulous! Highly recommended if you're in the area.

We chose Stockholm as our third destination, since you recommended a few fun things, and we have friends there. The Vasa was the highlight of the trip, we also did Skansen, and a couple of lovely boat rides to islands on the Archipelago. Our trip was sadly shortened by a day due to flight difficulties, so we didn't get to go to Tom Tit's Experiment, which was high on my list thanks to mogget's ringing endorsement.

In summary - Stockholm is awesome and you should go there!
posted by Joh at 11:08 AM on August 15, 2013

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