Top Family-Friendly Attractions in Europe

Children play with a zoetrope at the V&A Museum of Childhood.
Children play with a zoetrope at the V&A Museum of Childhood.

The capitals of Europe abound with kid-friendly museums and attractions that educate as well as entertain, thereby enriching the family vacation. Here is a sampling.

Reykjavik is home to the Whales of Iceland, a showcase for the 23 whale species found in Icelandic waters. Enormous real-size replicas are suspended from the ceiling, and the museum’s interactive technology provides fascinating insights about these giants of the sea. There’s also an app, and a mobile virtual reality device (Samsung Gear VR) which creates the illusion that you’re swimming with killer whales.

Paris offers a number of specially designed children’s workshops at famous museums (The Louvre, Centre Pompidou), and attractions such as the Parc Zoologique de Paris, which reopened in 2014 after a six-year renovation as a “new species of zoo.” On a smaller scale, the charming Ménagerie in the Jardin des Plantes is one of the world’s oldest zoos. It was first populated with animals from Marie Antoinette’s farm at Versailles. Today its focus is on preserving biodiversity, with protected species like orangutans and a snow leopard.

The annual Paris Plages, when an artificial beach is set up on the Seine, is a popular, free event with sprinklers, sand castles and kid games galore.

In big museum news, the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) reopened in October 2015 after a six-year renovation. Perched on the top of the Trocadéro facing the Eiffel Tower, this historic anthropology museum was where Pablo Picasso came to sketch “primitive” masks, inspired by African art along with other famed artists and philosophers (including Matisse). Today the museum offers a cutting-edge look at the past, present and future of humanity with the latest technology. Kids love the two-level “La Galerie de l’Homme,” which traces human evolution, because of all the interactive exhibits. Plus there’s a new kid-oriented app (for smartphones and tablets).

London’s V&A Museum of Childhood doesn’t just have one of the world’s best collections of children’s toys (dating to the 1600s), it also boasts hands-on activities such as a wave machine, zoetrope (an early animation device) and Robby the Robot. A major perk: Admission is free.

Like most museums in London, the Wallace Collection offers a number of kids’ workshops (such as The Little Draw and Pixel Art). A big highlight is the Conservation Gallery where children can try on real armor (think medieval chain mail and knights’ shields).

In September, THATMuse officially launches at the British Museum. Short for “Treasure Hunts at the Louvre,” THATLou proved such a popular success in Paris that the company is expanding to London.

In Madrid, a company called Across Madrid specializes in cultural walking tours,  one of the most popular of which is “Prado for Children.” Designed “to foster children’s curiosity and stimulate their visual memory,” this engaging tour, led by Art History professor Almudena Cros, will enlighten them about artistic techniques and mythological themes that were popular from the age of the Renaissance through the 19th century.

Among Vienna’s array of palaces and museums that the whole family can enjoy is Schönbrunn Schloss, a UNESCO World Heritage site which comprises the imperial palace, a labyrinth in the gardens, a zoo and a separate Children’s Museum. Another favorite is the Spanish Riding School, whose famed Lipizzaner horses spotlight a program of performances throughout the year.