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Travel Advice for Vagabond Parents in Europe

Girls in Venice
Unlike the cramped streets of Florence, the streets and squares in Venice (where cars are not allowed) are a good place for kids to let loose. (photo: Cameron Hewitt).

When parents tell me they’re going to Europe and ask me where to take their kids, I’m tempted to answer, “to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s on your way to the airport.” Traveling with children is expensive and tough, but a well-prepared parent can roll with the punches. Whether your trip takes you to the theaters of London, museums of Florence, parks of Paris, or canals of Venice, here are my best suggestions for how to make your family trip a smooth ride.

Flying High in the London Eye

The key to a stay in sprawling London is making everyone happy, including parents. Double-decker bus tours connect the major sights, allowing you to save your energy for sightseeing instead of trooping all over the city. You can stay on the bus the entire time or “hop-on and hop-off” at any of the nearly 30 stops, visit a sight, then catch a later bus.

On the east side of the city, at the Tower of London, the crown jewels are awesome and the Beefeater tour keeps kids entertained. In central London, Covent Garden has ample opportunities for people-watching, candy-licking, and trendy-store-shopping (especially for style-conscious teens).

In Trafalgar Square, children can climb the lions for a fun photo op. The nearby St. Martin-in-the-Fields has an affordable Café in the Crypt, with just the right spooky tables-on-tombstones ambience and a brass-rubbing center where your child can make a unique souvenir.

For a fantastic, we-really-are-in-London sight, take a spin on the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel with a 360-degree view of the city. It goes slow, but it’s fun.

You’ll spot plenty of other families at the Natural History Museum, and for good reason. Metal walkways let you and your kids stand eye to eye with reconstructed dinosaurs. Enjoy the interactive displays on volcanoes, meteors, and creepy-crawlies.

If you’re still on your feet by the end of the evening, go to a play. Long-running shows that are both kid- and parent-pleasers include The Lion King, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Get half-price tickets at the tkts booth on Leicester Square.

Florence: Artistic Masterpieces and Long Lines

I won’t sugarcoat it: Florence with children—not ideal. But a stint in the art capital of Europe, particularly for older kids who are more likely to appreciate its Renaissance charms, is certainly good for them.

Call ahead to get admission appointments whenever possible, especially for can’t-miss museums such as the Uffizi Gallery. (To schedule an entry time, call 055-294-883 at least a day before your visit and ideally at least a few days in advance.) Long museum lines add insult to injury for kids dragged into another old building filled with old paintings. Avoid the midday heat by planning on a cool break for lunch at an inexpensive air-conditioned cafeteria. A gelato stop is welcome anytime.

Every child will want to see Michelangelo’s David. But the most interesting collection of statues—with many bizarre poses—is in the Bargello. Stop by the un-crowded Science Museum (around the corner from the Uffizi), too. Gross-out favorites at the museum include the surgery and obstetrics room (be glad you didn’t need brain surgery in the 1700s) and the tiny, pickled finger of Galileo.

Florence’s various open-air markets are fun. And the Boboli Gardens are a landscaped wonderland. Designed to give adults a break from the city, they are kid-friendly compared to Florence’s streets and museums.

Oui, We Love Paris!

Paris is surprisingly welcoming to families. After enjoying so many parks, squares, and sights, your children may want to return to Paris even before you do.

Before you go, get your family in the spirit: Rent or read Madeline stories, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, or The Man in the Iron Mask. And speaking of books, bring plenty for your kids—they’re harder to find and more expensive in Paris.

When picking your Parisian home base, hotel selection is critical. Stay in a kid-amenable area near a park. Staying a week or more? Rent an apartment (Editor: see Transitions Abroad's section on rentals in France and Paris).

If you’re traveling with infants, pack a light stroller and a child backpack. Strollers are tough in the Métro and not allowed at many sights, but they’re ideal for neighborhood walks. And speaking of walking: don’t overdo it. Tackle one place each day (Louvre, Orsay Museum, Versailles). Children prefer the Louvre in the evening when it’s not crowded (Wednesdays and Fridays).

As in London, double-decker bus tours—which stop at major attractions, including the Eiffel Tower—provide a delightful orientation. Or for more fun, hop on a Batobus boat that connects sights along the Seine.

Be sure to visit the Luxembourg Garden, the perfect spot to mix kid business with pleasure. This chic Parisian park has it all, from tennis courts to cafés, as well as an extensive big-toys play area with imaginative slides, swings, and jungle gyms. Kids also like the pedal go-carts, merry-go-round, and toy rental sailboats in the main pond.

Some Paris parks host temporary amusement parks. The summer Ferris wheel and rides in the Tuileries Garden are the best. And if you’re heading to a big park, keep an eye out for French marionette shows, called “guignols.” They’re a treat for everyone, even in French. Check Pariscope (sold at newsstands), under “Marionettes” for times and places.

The Eiffel Tower is tops. Come early and take the elevator up the tower before crowds appear, or arrive and soar up amid the lights at night. Stop by a deli on nearby rue Cler and have your picnic in the Champ de Mars park at the tower.

Venice: Say Arrivederci to Stress

Some of the best times I’ve had with my family have been in Venice. The city doesn’t need an amusement’s one big fantasy world. It’s safe and like nothing else your kids have ever seen. While there’s lots of pavement and few parks or playgrounds, just being there—and free to wander—can be exhilarating.

To reduce stress, turn off the see-everything mindset. Let kids take turns setting the path (it’s an island, so you can’t get lost), leading everyone through the maze of Venice’s back streets. Give your kid a cheap camera—Venice turns anyone into a photographer.

Feed the pigeons on St. Mark’s Square, especially in the morning, when the crowds haven’t yet been bussed in. If the scene starts seeming a little more like The Birds than Mary Poppins, toss a sweater into the air to kick off a pigeon evacuation (the birds will just ignore you if you yell). Ride the elevator to the top of the Campanile (the bell tower) to enjoy the grand view. And everyone enjoys the magic of St. Mark’s Square at night.

Jump on lots of boats, and sit in the front seat of a vaporetto (Venice’s motorboat answer to city buses) when you can. Keep count of how many kinds of service boats you can spot during your time on the canal. Speaking of deliveries, the Rialto fish market is as fishy as they get (two blocks west of the Rialto Bridge on the canal). Watch the people unload the boats at the market. You’ll see the traghetto stop. Hop on a traghetto and cross the Grand Canal; these gondolas, stationed along the canal at marked points, serve as cheap, miniature ferries.

A children’s park is near the train station, and the bigger Public Gardens (Giardini Pubblici) have swings and playground equipment. The Lido (beach) may sound intriguing, but it’s filled with cars and offers only congested, dirty beaches.

For older kids, make a point to include some Venetian history to help make the trip more meaningful. Play spot-the-winged-lion (a symbol of the city) on churches and buildings.

Final Thoughts for Parental Happiness

Wherever you go, here are two guidelines that apply just about everywhere in Europe: Eat dinner early (around 7 p.m. or before) and you’ll bypass the romantic crowd. Skip the famous places. Look instead for self-serve cafeterias and fast-food restaurants where kids can move around without bothering others. Picnic lunches and dinners work well.

In ancient city centers like London and Florence public bathrooms can be hard to find. Try department stores, museums, and restaurants (particularly the fast-food kind).

And once you’re there—watered, fed, and only a little bleary—remember: Europe is your cultural playpen, too, a living fairy tale, a sandbox of family fun and adventure. Grab your kid and dive in.

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