City breaks with kids
If pre-kids you were a keen traveller, you will no doubt be mourning the loss of the city break which for many parents no longer seems possible with little ones in tow. Dragging one or more children around museums and along endless streets can be torture for all involved and the joy of a long lunch can become a nightmare when your toddler won’t stay in his chair or insists on tripping up the waiter. However, city breaks with kids can be a great experience. With a bit of planning and research it is still possible to have that holiday of fascinating culture and good food as well as quality family time.
Location, location, location
The most important thing is to pick the right destination for you and your children. Venice frequently tops the list of city break destinations but should be avoided if you have a buggy (too many steps) or a toddler (too many canals to fall in) and definitely don’t dress said toddler in a red rain coat but that’s straying from the point. So look for a city which works for your family. Lisbon has an amazing aquarium located next to a large pedestrianised walkway. An afternoon here for youngsters can balance out a morning spent exploring the historical city centre. Barcelona is another win-win destination with plenty of car free streets for children to burn off their energy as well as a sandy beach which will more than make up for a few hours of Gaudi explorations.
How to budget for city breaks with kids
If you’re on a budget and tied to school holidays but you’re desperate for a change of scenery consider looking at some of the low cost carrier bargain destinations. Heading to Berlin for a few days over May half term will slice in half the cost of airfares compared to the obvious family friendly destinations of Palma de Mallorca or Malaga. Of course, the best way to save money is simply to stay in the UK. York, for example, has a multitude of attractions for young children such as the National Railway Museum and the Yorvik Viking Centre while Oxford’s Ashmolean is a wonderfully bright and peaceful alternative to the crowded museums of London.
Family friendly accommodation
Avoid hotels is my biggest piece of advice and with so many self catering options now available with the advent of Airbandb and its various spin offs, there is no excuse to find yourselves cramped in a small hotel room silently drinking a glass of wine while your little one slumbers in a cot at the end of your bed. Alternatively, why not consider a youth hostel? They’re good value and often have private family rooms.
Location is also key. A centrally placed apartment is great but can be expensive if you need two bedrooms so if you are visiting a compact city or one with good transport links, consider staying out of the centre in one of the less well known neighbourhoods or suburbs. There are likely to be more local families living there, fewer tourists, cheaper eateries; all adding up to a more authentic holiday experience.
If you have particularly energetic young children you might enjoy staying outside the city on a farm which you can retreat to when the children need to let off some steam. Some Italian cities work really well for this concept. I stayed at an agriturismo near Perugia during the Umbria Jazz festival several years ago; it offered very cheap, spacious self catering accommodation as well as a swimming pool and it was just 20 minutes’ drive away from a truly beautiful city with daytime live music filling the streets, it was bliss (and the car parking arrangements were fine too).
For many of us, a city break is all about experiencing the destination through long lazy lunches and big dinners plus a few visits to enticing cafes in between. If you are travelling with a stationary baby, he may well oblige you with a two hour lunchtime nap or indeed sleep in his pram while you have your evening meal (neither of mine did the latter but I have heard some enviable success stories). However, if your children are mobile consider a restaurant in a pedestrianised area where they can run around after they’ve had their fill. We’ve managed several relaxing lunches in piazzas and car-free streets this way.
When to go on a family city break
If you want to encourage your children to visit a few places of cultural interest, avoid the summer months and possibly even May half term in southern Europe where 30 degrees is not uncommon by then. Pacing the streets of Rome in the scorching sun will hold no appeal to children of any age and you are likely to be as worn out as they are. City breaks with kids definitely work better in cooler months. Go in February or at Easter and balance the sightseeing of, say, Rome’s via del Corso with a thick hot chocolate and a pastry (or ice cream) in fountain-filled Piazza Navona. Family-friendly Copenhagen by contrast is perfect for a summer city break as temperatures are more likely to be in line with those of the UK making it perfect for al fresco lunches in the many pedestrianised streets.
Be realistic, don’t expect to tick off too many of the must-sees when you take city breaks with kids. For example, if you’re spending three days in Madrid aim to see just two or three “sights” such as the Plaza Mayor or Gran Via rather than trying to cram in the entire contents of your guide book. A morning in the Prado won’t appeal to most children whereas a smaller gallery such as the Sorolla museum or the Caixa Forum will be a lot more palatable. And if you end up spending a whole day in Madrid’s (wonderful) Retiro Park, consider it well spent family time!
Do some child-friendly research
Although it’s important not to lose all links to spontaneity, it is a good idea to do a spot of research on child-friendly attractions in your adopted neighbourhood. This might simply be asking your accommodation provider where the nearest playground is or supermarket for stocking up on breakfast provisions and snacks. Alternatively, find a parent forum for your destination and note down one or two child-friendly eateries. If you’re pushed for time, simply tap in “children” and your destination into Google and you’ll find a completely different (and possibly superior) set of attractions to the ones you would have visited pre-kids.
My top 5 city breaks with kids
I love visiting London with my boys. It’s so easy to spend a day in the city without parting with any cash. There are so many free museums, it would take an entire childhood to visit them all. We really enjoyed the National Maritime Museum and the National Gallery and I’m looking forward to taking my older son to the British Museum for a quick run down on ancient Egypt whilst he’s studying it this term.
I also have yet to visit a city with so many wonderful outdoor spaces. My boys particularly enjoy the playground at St James’s Park which never feels too busy. When I was saddled with a buggy, we would take advantage of the step and escalator-free access at Green Park and walk from there via St James’s down to the Thames taking in Buckingham Palace and Big Ben along the way.
We visited Syracuse with kids during a wider trip around eastern Sicily. Syracuse is small and perfect for little children to explore on foot without tiring. There’s a brilliant central piazza for the kids to run around in (and for parents to have a coffee). We loved the puppet theatre during our visit: kids had front row seats and the shows were a hilarious mix of monsters, princesses and knights. Boat trips can be had along the coast and sandy beaches are easy to reach. Just outside the centre of Syracuse is an impressive archaeological site worthy a few hours’ wander.
Where to stay in Syracuse: L’Approdo delle Sirene
We loved our city break with kids in York. The city is brimming with history: the city walls, the Railway Museum and the Jorvik Centre are brilliant child-friendly attractions. The walls are a great way to explore York; our youngest child isn’t a great walker but travelled for miles when distracted by his elevated position above the city streets.
We came away from our city break in Copenhagen wishing our home city of London could be more Scandinavian. Amazing playgrounds, fantastic cycle routes and some impressively child-friendly museums were our highlights. We loved the setting of Copenhagen, surrounded by a harbour and with countless waterways, it really it a fun city to explore by boat as well as by bike. Eating was a pleasure too: we loved the food markets and cafes with a blanket to curl up in. Copenhagen is a city we will definitely return to.
Where to stay in Copenhagen: the Generator Hostel
Lisbon is a great city break destination for families with small children, we took our older son there when he was two. He loved the aquarium, set in a pedestrianised zone in the north east of the city and we loved the food and drink! I’m a particular fan of the custard tarts… Lisbon is great value: unlike many other European cities, it’s possible to rent an affordable apartment right in the centre of the city. Aside from the aquarium, there’s a hill top castle to explore and the city squares have wonderful paving designs for little kids to run around on. There are steep hills in the city but you can travel up some of these on the rattly old trams: another surefire crowd pleaser for children.
Do you enjoy city breaks with kids? Let me know which city worked best for you.