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Traveling with Children

Revised October 25, 2006

If your idea of a European vacation is endless hours in museums and cathedrals, you probably want to leave your kids at home with Grandma. But if you modify your plans to include time for swimming and activities that children will enjoy, you can provide your family with the best vacation of your lives.

Activities for Children

Kids will enjoy a certain amount of city strolling, especially if you add subway and boat rides. Most kids will also enjoy activities that involve swimming and there are numerous beaches and riverside parks where children can get wet. Just remember that little legs get tired quickly and cities are hot in the summer, so don't schedule too many hours of walking or museum viewing. In the course of our travels, we talked to dozens of children from five to fifteen. It was clear that the experience was more rewarding for teens who knew the history of the continent but we talked to five-year olds who were enjoying the art and architecture. We also encountered kids who didn't want to go to churches or historic sites and preferred to spent their entire vacation in the campground's swimming pool. So if you want to make it a better trip for young children and mix adult time for history with recreation, it is really important that you start teaching them about places you will visit before you get there to build excitement about the experience.

The best cities for children:

  • Paris--take elevators to the top of the Eiffel Tour and Arc de Triomphe; ride one of the Ferris wheels near the Louvre. Head to Sacre Couer, ride the funicular and merry-go-round and be sure they see where the hunchback lived, atop the Cathedral of Notre Dame. If the budget allows, add an evening boat ride down the Seine.

  • Venice--stay on the Lido or Punta Sabbioni. The campgrounds on the Punta Sabbioni are clean and reasonably priced. Many are on the Adriatic shore whose warm, calm water is very inviting and provide children with a break from sightseeing. Children will enjoy the ferry ride to Venice and vaparettos rides around the island. They may also enjoy riding the ferris wheel or other rides at the small amusement park on Punta Sabbioni.

  • Brugge--ride through the canals of this beautiful medieval village and have waffles and chocolate for dessert. Their eyes will light up as you pass the dozens of chocolatiers around town. Then give them a break from the sightseeing by camping on the North Sea coast in Zeebrugge , Oostende, Knokke, or one of the other nearby seaside resorts. In addition to the beach activities, your young travelers may enjoy an afternoon at the Seafront Maritime Project Make a detour to Bobbejaanland, a modern amusement park near Antwerp.

There are many amusement parks to entertain children throughout Europe, but you probably don't plan to fly 3-4,000 miles to go to another Six Flags theme park. And you don't need to just to keep the children entertained.

One of the best destinations for kids from 9 to 15 is the Dordogne river region, in southwestern France. The area is a popular vacation spot for the French, has incredible scenic beauty and lots of recreational activities. Rent bikes to tour the countryside, hike through a cave with prehistoric paintings of mammoths and bison and then canoe the 28-kilometer trip that takes you beneath the castles and hillside towns. It will be an experience most teens and preteens will cherish. And because the Dordogne River was the border between English and French soldiers fighting the 100 Years War, it is filled with history that every adult will appreciate. Take a side trip to Rochamadour, the amazing hilltop town that was the destination for thousands on pilgrimages. Ride the funicular up the hillside and marvel at the views across central France.

For many Americans, it may seem strange to travel thousands of miles to visit the Alps when America has spectacular mountain ranges filled with breathtaking scenery. But the Europeans have civilized their mountains in a way that makes them more accessible to children and, for that matter, older adults including grandparents. The cable car from Mt. Blanc to Italy is a spectacular ride across crevassed glaciers that will thrill anyone and while it sounds intimidating in guidebooks, it is an amazingly beautiful experience that we really enjoyed despite moderate cases of acrophobia. For more adventurous travellers with children, Chamonix guides will teach you to parasail, slide down steep canyon waterfalls and kayak through amazing mountain rivers. The family can race down a luge run in winter or roll down the same concrete run in summer. Similar activities are available in other towns in the Alps, where summer cable car an train rides provide a pleasant pause in the historic sightseeing for breathtaking moments in nature.

Another great spot for children is the town of Cesky Kremlov in the Czech Republic, just north of the Austrian town of Linz, where you can enjoy a canoe ride around the hilltop castle down the Vlatva River. The river is shallow, calm but scenic with the only real risk of capsizing at the weir just below the castle if you put in in town and continue to the next pull-out about 6 kilometers north of town. The region also has good bike paths for family outings. The fairy-tale castle is guarded by two bears roaming in an enclosure near the entrance. For older children, be sure to go to the jousting tournament held near the castle and have a wonderful time experiencing life in medieval Europe with lots of modern amenities thrown in.

Rome, on the other hand, is a more challenging location for children. In the summer, the heat can be oppressive and there is little relief from the sun in places like the Roman Forum or Coliseum. Long lines at the most popular sites can make the experience even tougher. To visit Rome with children, plan on taking in the sites in small doses and either select a nearby hotel with a pool or stay at a campground where kids can cool off and play. Do your sightseeing in short spurts, and get to the fountains at night. Be particulary careful about planning too much time in the Vatican. The experience will be memorable for most kids, but endless hours inspecting the amazing amount of art and treasures on display at the Vatican museum are more than most children can handle. Select a few major sights in the Vatican complex and add a little more time, if your are travelling with children, to sample the collections of the Vatican Musueem (and start planning a return trip to Italy so you can savor the vast riches of the Vatican Museum).

A really pleasant family holiday is along the Danube from Passau in Germany to Vienna, Austria. It can be done by boat, by bike or by car and is a fairytale area with beautiful castles and abbeys and the great scenery of the Danube as a backdrop. For many Austrians and Germans, their family vacations are along the bike path that follows the river. It is a gentle downhill with only a few major climbs that any healthy kids over eight can negotiate; the places where the climbs are too steep can be avoided by hopping a train or a boat and if you arrange the trip through a bike tour company, they will often shuttle you past the climbs. Choose early summer dates if possible because July days can often be hazy and warm.

The best advice I can give you for planning a family vacation to Europe is to be sure it includes the things your family enjoys at home. There are lots of places to boat--whether on a big ship, gondola or a canoe; many places to ride trains and cable cars to spectacular views and lots of parks and castles that will entertain the children. You just have to be sure that you adjust your schedule to accommodate little legs and shorter attention spans.

Viewing War Related Sites

Paddling down the Dordogne River knowing that it divided English soldiers from French soldiers during the 100 Years War is a memorable experience that most children can enjoy. Somehow, centuries-old battles have a fictional quality that make them more easy to absorb. But the events of World Wars I and II and the recent conflicts in the Balkans are much fresher in our memories and visits to memorials from those tragic events can be very moving. For some children, they may be incredibly disturbing; or simply very dull.

The stark images of a concentration camp need to be prefaced by some historic context that not only tells younger travelers about the brutality of Nazi policies but also reminds them that many people fought against Hitler and his actions and that, ultimately, good conquered evil. Children who can comprehend The Diary of Ann Frank may be able to understand what happened in death camps, but as an adult, I found the concentration camps we visited to be bleak and overwhelming but also thought a ten-year-old might not understand what he was seeing and feel like it was a boring day walking through empty buildings. Of the memorials we visited, Oradour has had the most profound impact on my psyche with the rusty images of cars and sewing machines and pictures of young children massacred in the town still etched in my memory. These are important history lessons that you should give your children; just be certain to present them in a way young minds can grasp without great fear or confusion.

Helping Children Learn a Language

It may seem that there is no better opportunity to motivate children to learn a language than an upcoming trip to Europe. High school students who have had time to learn a language in school are likely to enjoy a chance to try to communicate in that language. If you can make it fun, with family dinners or other activities where parents are using the language to communicate you may encourage your elementary and middle-school children to start acquiring a new language.

KidSpeak French

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The key is to make learning the new language a positive experience, not a tedious, umpleasant chore that sets a negative tone for the entire trip. There are some great books and audio CDs that teach the language and if you can make them a pleasant family activity (do a thirty minute lesson together as you ride in the car), your kids will have some basic language skills when they land in Europe. There are also software programs designed for children that teach the language in ways that younger minds can absorb and use games and other activities to make the task pleasant. So do what you can to encourage your children to learn a few foreign words and then focus on having a very pleasant family vacation. A great experience in France, Spain, Germany or Italy will do more to motivate them to start learning the language when they get back home than hours of cajoling or demanding that they study will ever do.

Books for Children about Europe