Taking a family city break can be tricky. There are car-filled streets to contend with and there’s generally a lot of walking involved which not all children find appealing. However, I discovered last year on a visit to York that walled cities are perfect for young families. Europe has many impressive walled cities but the best ones for little children are those which feature walls that can be climbed upon. When you have little legs, it’s far more enjoyable to explore a city from an elevated position and where better than the battlements?
With assistance from other travel bloggers, I’ve put together a selection of the best family city breaks in walled cities across Europe. Of course, it’s ironic that what once kept the enemy at bay now attracts invaders in their millions. However, visit at the right time of year and you needn’t share these cities with hordes of fellow travellers.
Best for: budding Vikings and train fanatics
Of all the walled cities in England, there is no doubt that York is the most impressive. York’s walls, of Roman origins but mostly now dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, are a brilliant place to start your exploration of the city. There are excellent views of York Minster and the River Ouse plus some impressive gatehouses (or “bars”) to explore. Over the course of our three day visit, we managed to complete the whole circuit with our then five and three year old boys. There are plenty of places to climb down from the walls to visit some of the city’s family-friendly attractions such as the Railway Museum and the Jorvik Centre and there’s an impressive selection of cafes, bars and restaurants to keep the energy levels up. In my opinion, York is one of the best cities in the UK for a family city break.
- Length of walls: 3.5 kilometres
- York’s walls are free to visit, open daily 8am until dusk, expect for Christmas Day and during icy and slippery weather conditions.
- Click here to visit the York city walls website, York city council also has some useful information.
Best for: pushchairs, bike rides and passeggiatas
Compact, with a central car-free piazza and walls wide enough to cycle along, I think Lucca is one of the best walled cities in Italy for a family city break with young children, Katy of Untold Morsels agrees:
“Tuscany is a region full of amazing cities but our favourite is pretty Lucca. This well preserved medieval city
has many treasures to explore within its city walls. There is a beautiful piazza built on the site of an ancient
Roman amphitheatre and several Romanesque churches with impressive art collections. But it is the city walls
built in the Renaissance era that define the city and it is here where you can have the most fun. Transformed into
a park, the walls form a 4 kilometre long green belt around Lucca. You can hire bikes and ride along the ramparts
or simply join the locals strolling with their gelato. Along the way there are a few playgrounds and wonderful views
of the city, surrounding countryside and Lucca’s famous Torre Guinigi (tower) with its tree topped roof.”
- Length of walls: 4 kilometres
- Lucca’s city walls are free to enter and as they are so wide they do not “close” as some city walls do.
- Click here for more information on Lucca’s city walls.
Derry / Londonderry, Northern Ireland
Best for: gaining an understanding of Irish history
With a Northern Irish husband, I really should have made it to Derry by now. Northern Ireland is a brilliant destination for families: the Titanic Belfast and the Giants Causeway are obvious draws but Northern Ireland’s second city, Derry, is well worth a visit as a family city break. Derry has received an injection of interest since it won the inaugural City of Culture title in 2010 (and held the title in 2013). It is the best preserved walled city in Ireland and was the last city in Europe to be fortified in this way. Walking Derry’s walls allows visitors to take in many of the city’s key attractions including 17th century St Columb’s cathedral, the Museum of Free Derry and the Peace Bridge. Children will enjoy exploring the walls’ seven gatehouses and the numerous canons which look out from the walls.
- Length of walls: 1.5 kilometres
- Derry’s city walls are free to enter from dawn to dusk.
- Click here for more information on Derry’s city walls.
Best for: sparkling views of the Adriatic (sorry, I’ve not watched Game of Thrones…)
Perhaps one of the most popular walled cities in Europe, thanks in recent years to a certain television series, Dubrovnik has the added appeal of a seaside location meaning families can explore the city in the morning and then skip off to the beach in the afternoon. Megan from Truly Madly Kids explored Dubrovnik’s 16th century city walls with her family just as the sun was setting. Don’t have your credit card to hand when you’re looking through Megan’s photos, they are seriously wanderlust-inducing.
Dubrovnik’s stone walls are punctuated with imposing gates and forts, the two kilometre walk takes in views of both the old town with its impressive Baroque architecture and the shimmering Mediterranean. As Megan mentions, Dubrovnik is the kind of city which leaves you with a sense of awe: so much history, both recent and ancient, is contained within the stone walls. The Maritime Museum and the Rectors Palace are essential for budding historians interested in Dubrovnik’s history while the aquarium and the cable car are perfect for younger visitors.
One note of warning, Dubrovnik is packed with tourists in the summer months so consider a family city break in the late spring or early autumn when the weather will still be mild but the crowds should have thinned somewhat. There are various websites (such as Croatian Traveller) which publish the days when cruise ships will be docking allowing visitors to plan their trip around these busy periods.
- Length of walls: 2 kilometres
- Click here to visit Dubrovnik city walls website.
- Entrance to the walls costs 150 / 50 kuna per adult / child (approx. £18 / £6)
St Malo, France
Best for: having a quick dip in the sea
Having not visited St Malo since I was a child, I must confess that my knowledge of this French walled city ended at the ferry port, until I read Phoebe’s blog post about St Malo on the Lou Messugo website, it sounds like the perfect destination for a family city break:
“St Malo is a beautiful walled city on the north coast of Brittany, France, with a rich maritime history. Inside the imposing granite ramparts the city dates back to the 12th century though it has been rebuilt several times, most recently after being destroyed in the Second World War. The walls, or ramparts, circle the town completely and make a wonderful way to visit especially with children as there’s plenty to see and a goal to achieve… get back to where you started! There are canons and a fort to enthral history lovers, a magical carousel for little kids, and steps down off the walls to tempting ice-cream shops every so often. I believe the whole tour takes around 45 minutes without dallying but if you take your time, popping into cafés along the way, ducking down on to the enormous and very picturesque beach (dotted with little rocky islands at low tide) and stopping for photos, you can make a day of it easily.”
- Length of walls: 2 kilometres
- Click here to visit St Malo’s tourism website.
- Entrance to the walls is free.
Best for: board game fans…!
From one end of France to the other, Carcassonne is somewhere I would love to visit with my children. Although visitors can only walk along certain sections of the city walls, the views of the medieval citadel, new town and mountains are sure to slow your pace. Often billed as the most popular French tourist destination after Paris, I’d be keen to visit Carcassonne in winter when I’m sure the city would feel particularly atmospheric and the streets would be quieter. And after reading about David’s trip to Carcassonne on Travelsewhere, I have finally got round to purchasing the board game of the same name. Here are David’s thoughts on this romantic French city:
“In the south of France lies a historical marvel that is sure to delight adults and children alike – the citadel of Carcassonne. While a wonderful sight from afar, it’s hard not to be rapt up in the medieval spirit that has been captured and preserved here in the Languedoc region. Its history stretches back over a 1000 years and its sheer size is hard to comprehend. With an inner and outer set of walls around the citadel and its castle, a visit to the castle includes access to the high, inner walls. You should have no problem walking the walls with children, as they’re protected by a guard rail on their inward side. From the walls you can admire both everything inside Carcassonne, as well as the more modern city below. There’s also ample history to learn about through its exhibits, perfect for young, aspiring historians.”
- Length of walls: 3 kilometres
- Click here for more information on Carcassonne.
- Entrance to the walls is free but there is a charge to enter the castle.
Best for: escaping the Spanish heat
Like Italy and France, Spain is blessed with many incredible walled cities. Just 100 kilometres north west of Madrid in the mountainous region of Castile and Leon, the fortress town of Avila is famed for its 12th century walls which are some of the best preserved in the world. Although sections of the city walls cannot be climbed, there are still two decent stretches to explore. The walls are lit up at night and given Avila’s elevated position (1,132 metres above sea level), this creates quite a spectacle as the sun sets.
Charles and Micki of the Barefoot Nomad sum up Avila perfectly: “The city of stones and saints has everything a newcomer to Spain could want to see. A plethora of Roman architecture, grand palaces, old lumbering convents and Gothic cathedrals all encircled by the formidably giant walls of Avila.” Their photos really do give a sense of just how huge Avila’s walls are. Unusually, Avila’s cathedral, constructed mostly between the 12th and 14th centuries, is part defensive structure, built into the walls with the apse acting as one of the wall’s turrets. The cathedral’s dramatic Romanesque and Gothic interior cannot fail to impress even the most reluctant mini-tourist.
- Length of walls: 2.5km
- Click here to visit Avila’s walls website.
- Entrance to the walls is €5 adult / €3.5 child (free on Tuesdays after 2pm), hours vary, see website for more details.
Best for: a city break from the Costa Brava
Just a short drive inland from the Costa Brava, Girona is perfect for a day trip away from the seaside or as a family city break in its own right. Although Barcelona is the favoured city break destination on Spain’s east coast, I think Girona is worth considering if you’d prefer fewer crowds and a more compact city. There are narrow shaded streets, inviting eateries and great shopping. On our visit, after finding a particularly satisfying restaurant, we spent rather a lot of time eating and didn’t make it on to the city walls but I’m keen to return after reading Andrew and Emily’s account from Along Dusty Roads. Girona’s walls will take you past hidden gardens and peaceful cloisters but also offer incredible views over the city and its Gothic cathedral and, on a clear day, towards the Pyrenees.
As well as the city’s 14th century walls, I’d also like to take in more of Girona’s bridges including Gustav Eiffel’s Pont de les Peixateries Velles which leads conveniently to Rocambolesc Gelateria. If your children are tiring of humdrum flavours and boring ice cream cones, they can feast on a lolly fashioned on the proprietor’s nose or perhaps a blueberry Darth Vada. I’ve heard that this ice cream shop vies with Girona’s cathedral as the city’s top tourist attraction. As with Dubrovnik, scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed in Girona, in case that’s a selling point for you.
- Length of walls: around 2 kilometres over two sections
- Click here to visit the Girona tourism website.
- Entrance to the walls is free, they are usually open from 10am until sunset.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Best for: romantics
I love reading about Germany’s beautiful walled cities courtesy of Lorelei at California Globetrotter and Rothenburg definitely sounds like the country’s number one destination for a family city break:
“Nothing screams childhood fairy tale fantasy more than the picturesque half-timbered town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This is what childhood dreams are made of and if ever any little girl wanted to feel like Belle from Beauty & the Beast, then visiting Germany’s most beautiful town will truly make her feel like a Disney princess!
Not only can children feel like they’re walking through a pop-up fairy-tale book, but they can explore the town by walking Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s medieval walls! What a wonderful way to encourage children to explore than by bringing medieval history alive by walking the entire circuit which completely encircles the 12th century town! Along the medieval city walls, you can also explore several of the town’s towers and climb the Rödertor Gate for a bird’s eye view over the town and truly see how the growth of this medieval town was stunted after the 30 Years’ War and the Black Plague, forever preserving history for us to be transported back to a time long gone!
Little boys will be intrigued along the walls when they catch a glimpse of the Gerlauchschmiede, a house named after the town’s blacksmith. Children will be intrigued to learn that Germany’s most romantic town was once destroyed and was completely rebuilt to perfection as if the Second World War had never happened. Only for the plaques of names and dates scattered throughout the walls teaches a valuable lesson that though something can be destroyed, it cannot be lost with the hope and endurance of people from around the world!”
- Length of walls: 4 kilometres
- Click here to visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s website.
- Entrance to the walls is free and the walls do not close.
Best for: hikers
If Rothenburg wasn’t sufficiently enchanting for you, Kotor is sure to steal your heart. Montenegro’s perfectly preserved medieval town, surrounded by fjord-like waters and towering limestone cliffs, is one of those places which social media increasingly insists you must visit. Like its Croatian neighbour 100 kilometres to the north, it has become a popular cruise ship destination so you do need to check your timings. Spring sounds like a beautiful time to visit when the hillsides surrounding the town are dotted with wildflowers.
Although my children have an incredible ability to clamber up hundreds of stone steps in minutes I think they’d have to pace themselves in Kotor. Lucy from On the Luce has written an excellent article on her experience walking Kotor’s city walls. The climb is some 1,350 steps through the hillside above the town with rewarding views from the hilltop fortress of Sveti Ivan: Kotor’s maze of medieval streets and the city’s red rooftops are laid out below while across the bay, mountains rise up steeply from the water.
If you don’t fancy dragging small children to the top, the view from across the bay, when the walls are lit up at night, looks equally dramatic. Kotor is compact so if you like your family city breaks small, it’s perfect.
- Length of walls: 4 kilometres
- Click here for more information on Kotor.
- Entrance to the walls is between 8am and 8pm and costs around €8 or it appears to be free after dark…
Have you visited any of Europe’s walled cities with children? Have you taken a family city break? Let me know in the comments below.