Rick Steves
At Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, kids can be entertained by the puppet shows, acrobats and pantomime theater that pop up all over the park.
Tribune Media Services
updated 5/5/2011 9:36:51 AM ET 2011-05-05T13:36:51

My kids are young adults now, but I remember what it was like taking them to Europe at various ages. When they were in their single digits, our trips were consumed with basic survival issues, such as eating and sleeping. By the time they entered their teens, the big challenge became making our trips educational and fun.

Europe is rich with amazing museums, churches and art. But unlike you, kids may not appreciate the magnificence of a Michelangelo statue or the significance of an ancient temple. Still, there are ways to liven up big sights.

At Notre-Dame, replay Quasimodo's stunt and climb the tower. Kids love being on such a lofty perch, face-to-face with a gargoyle. Using the ArtStart computers in London's National Gallery, kids can enter their interests (cats, naval battles and so on) and print out a tailor-made tour map for free.

Audio guides are great for older children. My kids liked them because they could pick and choose what they wanted to learn about. For younger children, hit the gift shop first so they can buy postcards and have a scavenger hunt to find the pictured artwork. When boredom sets in, try "I spy" games or have them count how many babies or dogs they can spot in all the paintings in the room. Whenever possible, go early or book ahead for big sights to avoid long lines.

Seek out kid-friendly museums. London's Natural History Museum offers a wonderful world of dinosaurs, volcanoes, meteors and creepy-crawlies. You won't find "do not touch" signs at Florence's Leonardo Museum, where kids can use their energy to power modern recreations of da Vinci's inventions.

Getting somewhere can be more fun than the destination. Kids love subway maps, train schedules and plotting routes. The Paris Metro is especially appealing, as many stations have boards that light up the route when you press the button for your destination.

Fun rides
Boat and bus tours can also be a hit. Your son might not care about the Crown Jewels, but he may go nuts riding the double-decker bus getting there. Boats are also memorable, such as a ride on a Venetian vaporetto or a glide down Amsterdam's canals.

European parks provide a wonderland of fun. Paris' Luxembourg Gardens is one of my favorite places to mix kid business with pleasure. It has cafes and people watching for parents, and a play area full of imaginative slides, swings, jungle gyms, and chess games for kids. You'll also find a merry-go-round, pony rides, toy rental sailboats in the main pond and guignols (French marionette shows).

Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens is like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale, with games, marching bands, shows, and rides ranging from vintage cars to a Ferris wheel that resembles a clock. The recently opened Petzi's World, based on a popular Danish cartoon bear, offers a cuddly array of rides and activities.

Of course, costs can add up quickly. There are kiddie discounts — but you have to ask. In some places, you can find family discounts on sightseeing passes. Train rides are free for infants and toddlers (and sometimes school-age children) and museums sometimes offer free admission for kids under a certain age.

Go for the fast food
Eating at European restaurants is a cultural experience, but it can get stressful, since service is much slower than at home. Dinner can easily take two hours, so bring something to occupy the kids while waiting. Hit self-service cafeterias and bars (children are welcome) by 7 p.m. to miss the adult crowd. At fast-food restaurants, kids can move around without bothering others.

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Another fun (and cheap) option is to get take-away food, such as bratwurst, crepes or sandwiches, from a street stand. Or visit a market or grocery store and have your kids assemble a picnic. You can eat your meals on a square, at a park, or on the top deck of a tour bus

When it comes to lodging, avoid B&Bs, which usually cater to travelers wanting peace and quiet. Many larger hotels have spacious family rooms. London's budget chain hotels allow two kids to sleep for free in already reasonably priced rooms. Bonus: They sometimes have a swimming pool.

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Instead of picking up and moving every few days, some families prefer settling down in an apartment or house, using it as their home base, then side-tripping to nearby destinations. Self-catering flats rented by the week, such as gites in France and villas in Italy, give families a home on the road.

The key to a successful European family vacation is to slow down and limit expectations. Don't overdo it. Tackle one or two key sights each day, mix in a healthy dose of enjoyable activities, and take extended breaks when needed. If done right, you'll take home happy memories that you'll share for a lifetime.

( Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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