Upgrading the Europe Summer Vacation: Insider Tips for Family Fun

The Gloriette hill and Neptune Fountain in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace garden.

We asked our Paris correspondent, Mary Winston Nicklin, and London-based contributor, Emily Goldfischer, for their insights into summer family vacation fun in Europe. Nicklin provides a wealth of tips for travel around France, as well as in Brussels, Portugal and England, while Goldfischer tells us about one of her favorite French resort towns, and takes us on a tour of several Europe capitals (Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid) and the Swiss and Italian Alps.

Family-Friendly France: Paris and Beyond

In Paris, Jardin du Luxembourg offers kids carousels, toy boats on the Grand Bassin pond, and pony rides, while their parents can soak up the splendor of one of the city’s prettiest places. The playground is well worth the small entrance fee; there are fun games such as a small zip line, plus a coffee-and-snack stand and toilets — all in a safely enclosed area.

We found that even riding the metro can become an exciting Paris activity; the “6” Line travels above ground on the Left Bank and you can peer into apartment buildings and spy the Eiffel Tower and the golden dome of Les Invalides as you cross the Seine. Likewise, boat cruises are terrific with kids. Companies such as Bateaux Mouches offer multiple trips daily on the river, while Canauxrama’s boats traverse the locks on the Canal Saint-Martin. Regarding the Eiffel Tower, instead of buying a classic ticket (ascending via the elevators), opt to walk up the stairs. The line is shorter, and children (ages 5 and up) get giddy as they climb up La Dame de Fer and take in birds-eye views of Paris. The redesigned first floor is now home to a transparent floor — not for the faint of heart.

Fancy a stroll on the river without car traffic? Starting from the Musée d’Orsay, a stretch of Seine-side quay called the Berges de Seine has been converted into a pedestrian promenade with attractions along the way; we love the giant chalkboard and the climbing wall built into an ancient bridge. There are several outdoor eateries with lounge chairs and picnic benches; try organic crepes at Food Breizh.

Culture-oriented families may be itching to see Fondation Louis Vuitton, the contemporary art museum designed by architect Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne. The museum stages extraordinary exhibitions, and the architecture is thrilling for all ages. The Foundation’s setting, next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a historic amusement park built under Napoleon III, makes this a good children’s activity. Tickets to the museum also include entrance to the Jardin, where there are old-fashioned funfair rides, boat rides on “the enchanted river,” trampolines, exotic gardens and camels. Note: You will need to buy a pack of tickets inside the park for entry to different attractions.

Inside the Jardin des Plantes, a horticultural masterpiece first created as medicinal herb gardens for Louis XIII, explore the historic greenhouses (Grandes Serres) and a charming little zoo called the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, which was first populated with animals from Marie Antoinette’s Versailles zoo, and today serves as a research center for snow leopards and other endangered species.

Le Bristol Paris’ Les Amis d’Hippolyte kids’ club is next door to the hotel’s spa.

Upon check-in at Le Bristol Paris, younger guests are greeted with a stuffed rabbit toy named Hippolyte, and a Hippolyte-themed treasure hunt can be arranged around the hotel. The charming kids’ club, Les Amis d’Hippolyte, is advantageously located next to the spa, so kids can play while their parents get pampered. Fun Fact: The hotel’s handsome resident cats, Fa-Raon and Kléopatre, are celebrities on Instagram.

South on the Riviera, the aquarium in Monaco is one of our all-time favorites. Founded in 1889 by Prince Albert I, the Musée océanographique de Monaco houses more than 6,000 specimens, including sharks in a dedicated lagoon. Another highlight is the panoramic rooftop terrace equipped with both a playground and “Turtle Island,” where kids can check out African spurred turtles while their parents marvel at the Mediterranean views. There is also a restaurant here for lunch. The glittering hotels in Monte-Carlo SBM’s portfolio aren’t just for adults; there’s a great kid’s club at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel featuring arts and crafts, discovery workshops, ping-pong and pétanque.

Families who have vacationed at a Club Med in Florida or the Caribbean may be especially interested in the company’s resorts in France, such as Opio en Provence Resort on the Plateau de Valbonne near Cannes. With a design inspired by the local flora and fauna, the children’s clubs here endeavor to introduce children to the pleasures of living in harmony with nature, and satisfy their curiosity. The Mediterranean vegetation serves as backdrop to this world of treehouses perched on olive trees. The four age-specific kids’ clubs are open Monday through Saturday. Other Club Meds for families in France include Vittel Le Parc, a four-hour TGV train ride from Paris, and Cargèse on the island of Corsica. Club Med also offers summer resort fun in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Just an hour’s drive from Geneva, Switzerland, is France’s Evian Resort, famous for the water, and home to the largest kids club in France. Choose from the five-star Hôtel Royal or the four-star Hôtel Ermitage, both with pools, spas (teens’ and kids’ treatments are available), golf, tennis, biking, ziplining, hiking and any watersport you can imagine on Lake Geneva (aka Lac Léman).

The Kid’s Resort Club (ages three to 12) has several supervised play areas for each age group, a stage for putting on shows, dressing-up room, a multi-purpose sports pitch and a heated indoor pool. The Teens’ Resort provides a wide range of activities such as sports, arts and crafts, music, themed evenings, karaoke and more. During the French school holidays (including most of July and August), teens can enroll for themed programs in the morning (think sailing, tennis, archery and such) and take part in afternoon activities (graffiti, hip hop, adventure course on the grounds). Teens-only evenings and excursions are also organized.

A Bath Kids Will Enjoy

Across the English Channel from France, the city of Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a thrilling place of discovery. The ancient Roman baths host a number of family activities — think activity trails, a special children’s audio guide, costumed characters and more. Nearby, the Gainsborough Bath Spa is one of our favorite hotels. During the excavation of this site, archaeologists discovered the Beau Street Hoard, a treasure of 17,500 Roman coins, some of which are displayed in the hotel lobby. Kids can play an online game where they upload an image of their face onto their own Roman coin. Bath is a 90-minute train ride from London, making a two-city vacation easy to arrange.

Hotel Royal at France’s Evian Resort offers children access to select spa facilities.

Brussels: Sweets and Giggles

In Brussels, we’ve enjoyed designing our own afternoon food tour, making pit stops to partake in Belgium’s celebrated delicacies: pick out a special chocolate at Neuhaus on the Grand Place, share a hot waffle, then get a cone of fries from a food truck. These take-out treats are fun and easy for kids to enjoy on the go, while seeing the city’s many sights. Giggle over the famous statue of Manneken-Pis (“Little Man Pee”) before heading to the Belgian Comic Strip Center. Housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta, this fantastic museum honors Belgian cartoon heroes such as the Smurfs and Tintin.

Kids may also love the Tintin references at the Hotel Amigo, A Rocco Forte Hotel, where upon check-in they are gifted a stuffed “René the Squirrel,” named after Belgian artist René Magritte. They also receive a children’s book starring the plush toy. It’s not just the younger kids who are treated with personalized amenities; the hotel also takes care of the teenage set with spa treatments, interactive in-room entertainment, and specially designed city adventures. Note: The excellent “Families R Forte” program is found at all 10 of Rocco Forte’s European hotels.

A Little Portuguese Magic

Portugal is enjoying a moment in the spotlight for American travelers to Europe. In Lisbon, we love riding the vintage tram 28 across the city — an adventure in its own right and a great way to take in the scenery. To the west of Lisbon, the UNESCO-listed city of Sintra offers flamboyant castles and exotic gardens. Here, the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais is a magical palace hotel, whose warm staff members genuinely adore children. The restaurant’s waiters might even spontaneously perform magic tricks at the dinner table.

TAP Tip: Travelers on TAP Portugal airlines now can incorporate a stopover of up to three days in Lisbon and Porto, at no extra charge, when booking flights from the U.S. and Canada to the Azores, Madeira or the Algarve.  The airline is adding frequencies to each destination as they grow in popularity with international visitors.  In June, TAP will add a fourth daily flight from Lisbon to Faro (Algarve) and a third daily flight from Lisbon to Ponta Delgada (Azores).

Wonder-filled Copenhagen

With one of Europe’s prettiest and oldest amusement parks smack in the center of the city, Copenhagen is a natural choice for families. Allow a day for Tivoli Gardens, but be sure not to miss the nearby Experimentarium, which reopened in January with the world’s first interactive cinema and engaging exhibits on science and technology. We can only imagine how amazing this new version is; the old Experimentarium was a favorite that had the kids (and adults) occupied on everything from a surf simulator to a mind-reading computer.

Amigo Rocco Forte Tintin Suite: All Rocco Forte European hotels offer the “Families R Forte” program.

Head 45 minutes north along the Øresund for two other worthwhile museums. In the shadow of Kronborg Castle in Helsingør is the award-winning Maritime Museum, an engaging collection of interactive exhibits on the history of trade and shipping from 1400 to the present. Nearby, overlooking the Øresund is the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, which has a three- story, fully staffed activity center just for kids, outstanding rotating exhibits and a permanent collection of colorful works from the likes of Kusama and Warhol. The Tivoli Hotel is a good choice for families as they have rooms that can sleep two adults plus two kids on a sofa bed, as well as an indoor pool. 

Berlin: Pandas and Chocolate

Famous for its pandas and having the most species of any zoo worldwide, the Berlin Zoo is a gorgeous respite in the center of the city. The unexpected bonus? A large adventure playground with ropes, swings, slides and more; allow extra time here as the kids won’t want to leave. There is also a petting area for smaller ones. For a treat, let kids craft their own chocolate bar at the Ritter Sport shop — no booking needed. For something more serious, chocolate-making classes can be booked ahead for kids ages seven to 18.

Vienna Behind the Scenes

It’s no secret that Vienna is a cultural city, so ideal for families who love museums, café life and live music. But did you know you can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Spanish Riding School? The building itself is a gem of Baroque architecture. Learn about the history of the riding tradition up close as you walk through the stables, arena, and later see the stars, the glorious white, dancing Lipizzaners perform. Good for children ages five and above, tours last one hour and the show is booked separately.

For younger kids, though all ages would enjoy it, is the Marionette Theater at the beautiful and historic Schönbrunn Palace. The puppets, themselves a work of art, combine with Mozart’s Magic Flute to create an enchanting show. For families, the Ritz-Carlton Vienna is worth booking for its indoor pool, and Chocolate Sommelier, who teaches about the journey of Criollo Cocoa beans, the rarest, noblest type of cocoa in the world. The hotel is near the Stadtpark, which has a great playground.

Allow a full day for Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, but also be sure to include other family attractions in and around the city.

A Taste of Madrid

This is another European capital known for art and culture, but equally for the food. Spanish food is embedded in the culture from breakfast churros, luncheon feasts of jamon and tortillas to late night tapas, and eating has more meaning when you learn about the history of the food, how it is prepared and where it is sourced. Devour Madrid Food Tours offers a glimpse into these customs as well as the chance to meet culinary artisans from cheese makers to jamon (cured ham) purveyors with tastings and demonstrations. To balance out visits to the city’s many museums, check out Madrid’s adorable amusement park, Parque de Atracciones, easily accessible by Metro with a good mix of water rides and roller coasters.

Sunny Alpine Vistas

The Alps, with their green valleys and snowy peaks even in summer, are easily accessible from many European gateways, allow families to mix some sport and spa with culture and delicious cuisine. In Switzerland, about 2.5 hours by train through spectacular mountain vistas from Geneva, is Gstaad, best known as an elite winter playground. In summer, it’s something out of a fairytale with wonderful hiking amongst the famous Swiss cows, mushroom picking, and you can even pack your own fondue kit (prepared for you, complete with portable stove) to eat mountainside. On top of one of the highest peaks, Glacier 3000 is a view bridge and alpine slide.

The Gstaad Palace is worth the splurge (and a bargain, as rates are about half in summer than winter), truly a spectacular resort in an historic palace just above Gstaad. An unforgettable outing offered by the Palace only open in summer is the rustic and cosy Walig Hut, an original cabin that has breathtaking views over the Saanenland region, where a master fondue maker will prepare a meal just for your family.

The Alps also run through Italy, and just a 2.5-hour drive from Milan is the town of Bormio. Here you’ll find all types of mountain pursuits, but the real draw is the thermal waters, which have been welcoming bathers since Roman times. At the QC Terme Bagni Nuovi resort, they’ve made the most of the natural springs by creating 30 different spa facilities, including seven outdoor pools, all using the natural mineral water. Best Part: Kids can do all of the spa experiences, and they will love it. 

A Little Bit of Europe in the United States

Clients not ready to take the family to Europe? Here are some ways to sample the flavors and ambiance of countries across the Atlantic right here in North America — experiences that could whet their appetites for a future visit to “The Continent.”

For a taste of Milan, Rome, Naples, et al, New York’s Little Italy offers authentic Northern and Italian dining up and down Mulberry Street and beyond. In summer, several restaurants offer the option of sidewalk dining and later in the season (think mid-September) there’s the annual San Gennaro Festival. Area attractions include the Italian American Museum and the Tenement Museum, where costumed docents tell the tales of Italian and other immigrant families. Little Italy has seen something of a hotel renaissance over the last few years, including the opening of such boutiques as Sixty LES, Indigo and The Ludlow.

Horse and carriage tours of New Orleans’ French Quarter take visitors past such iconic sights as the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square.

Proud of its French heritage year-round, New Orleans — home to the famous Vieux Carré (French Quarter) — celebrates Bastille Day (July 14) with plenty of French food, live music and dancing, as well as activities for children (think storytelling, face painting, arts and crafts). Visitors to NOLA looking to get a taste of the city’s rich history can also check out the new The Lafitte Greenway, a 2.6-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighborhood to City Park in Mid-City. New hotels within easy reach of the French Quarter include the Moxy and Joie de Vivre’s The Troubadour.

German heritage, especially the still-thriving Amish communities, is prevalent in Pennsylvania Dutch country (Lancaster County). Lodging choices in the area range from The Red Caboose Motel, where families sleep in real decommissioned train cars, to the elegant but kid-friendly Hotel Hershey. The latter is a best bet for those who wish to enjoy the myriad thrill rides and attractions at Hersheypark.

A visit to Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, with its rich Spanish heritage, could be a warm-up to a vacation in Spain. (It’s also next door to Busch Gardens Theme Park and a 90-minute drive to Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World.) Another history-rich option is California’s Historic Mission Trail. Its 21 Spanish-built stone-and-adobe missions are on or near Highway 101, which approximates El Camino Real, named in honor of the Spain’s monarchy, stretching from San Diego to San Francisco.

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