I’m often inspired by families on the road. Last summer, on a ferry between Oban and the Isle of Mull in Scotland, I met a family from Texas. The parents were taking their kids on a yearlong adventure through Europe and told me how they’ve realized there’s no better education or high-quality family time than traveling together — and I wholeheartedly agree. The key is balancing educational sightseeing with fun activities.
When I toted my kids, Jackie and Andy, around Europe, they had no problem telling me what the best kid-friendly experiences were — ones that balanced out my heavy museum-going. Here are some of my family’s favorites.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, take advantage of the city’s cycling culture and bike with your kids to dazzling Tivoli Gardens. This grand old amusement park — with 20 acres and countless ice-cream cones of fun — has been running since 1843. It’s like a Hans Christian Andersen theme park, with games, marching bands and rides ranging from vintage cars to roller coasters to a Ferris wheel that resembles a clock. There’s something happening every half-hour. Free concerts, pantomime theater, ballet, acrobats, puppets and other shows pop up all over the park. With or without kids, this place is a true magic kingdom.
In Budapest, Hungary, the city’s top attraction for kids is also my top recommendation for adults: thermal baths. They’re like your hometown swimming pool — except the water is 100 degrees, there are plenty of jets and bubbles and you’re surrounded by Hungarians. Splash around in a warm-water whirlpool at the grand Széchenyi Baths, a casual option popular with locals. Or try Gellért Baths’ outdoor area and wave pool for the best thermal-bath thrills for kids. At any Hungarian thermal baths, big pools with cooler water are for serious swimming, while the smaller, hotter thermal baths are for relaxing, enjoying the jets and playing chess.
In southern Germany’s Bavaria region, the otherworldly 19th-century “King’s Castles” capture kids’ imaginations with a dramatic setting and fanciful architecture that inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle. Kids can picture “Mad” King Ludwig as a boy, climbing the hills above his dad’s summer residence (Hohenschwangau), dreaming up the ultimate magical castle (Neuschwanstein). Inside Neuschwanstein, the exquisite 2 million-stone mosaic floor is a visual encyclopedia of animals and plants. Make it into a scavenger hunt and challenge your kids to find different species. You can complete the fairy tale and take a horse-drawn carriage up to the castles.
After playing king, set aside some time for an even more thrilling Bavarian experience: a summer luge ride. At the nearby Tegelberg summer luge, kids young and old hop in a wheeled sledlike go-cart, ride up a track to the top of a hill and scream back down on a banked course. It’s a quintessential alpine activity that reminds me it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
The dozens of opulent châteaux in France’s Loire Valley are remarkable, but youngsters may lose steam after visiting one or two. But the Château de Cheverny offers a unique demonstration that’s perfect for animal-loving kids and highlights the château’s hunting heritage. The marquis here keeps a kennel of 70 hunting hounds — half English foxhound and half French Poitou. They’re given food once a day, and the feeding ritual is an impressive feat to behold. Before chow time, the hungry hounds fill the little kennel rooftop and watch the trainer (who knows every dog’s name) bring in troughs stacked with delectable raw meat. He opens the gate, and the dogs gather enthusiastically around the food without touching it — yelping hysterically. Only when the trainer signals can they dig in. It’s an exercise in control, and the excitement is palpable.
Across the Channel, sprawling Hyde Park is London’s backyard — and the perfect place for museum-fatigued kids to play and run free. Plays, concerts and clown acts are scheduled throughout the summer. Rent a paddleboat at the Serpentine, wade in the swimming area or walk a park trail. At Christmastime, Hyde Park transforms into its famous Winter Wonderland. The enormous event has plenty of kitschy carnival fun, with winter treats, a Ferris wheel, circus show and ice-skating rink.
Year-round, London’s live theater scene is another must-do that was always at the top of my kids’ lists. London’s West End theaters have several shows that particularly appeal to kids, currently including “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and the two-part “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” You’ll appreciate the talented performers, and the kids will revel in the colorful costumes, catchy tunes and familiar stories.
When taking your kids to Europe, seek out experiences that are culturally enrichening and just a downright good time. You’ll expose your kids to the local lifestyle and bring lighthearted fun to their travel memories.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rickricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.