Sometimes the best family vacation ideas require a passport and a sense of adventure. If you’re ready to look beyond the usual family vacation spots in the U.S., why not consider Europe for your next family trip?
European vacations are an experiential way to introduce your kids to the wider world. Western Europe is different enough from the U.S. to feel excitingly unfamiliar, yet it’s similar enough to foster a sense of comfort in most American travelers – making it an excellent choice for your first overseas trip as a family.
The best family vacation spots in Europe
Traveling to the best family vacation spots in Europe with kids in tow may be more of a deep dive into playgrounds, gardens and street food than art museums, cathedrals and gourmet restaurants, but the benefit is you’ll probably be living more like a local than a tourist. And whether you choose a big city like Paris, a remote island like Madeira, or a storybook town like Bruges, Europe’s top vacation spots for kids have something to offer families of every stripe.
Here are six European vacation destinations that are sure-fire family vacation winners:
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► Things to do in Paris with kids
To get a sense of the city, spend the afternoon with Parisian families at the sprawling Bois de Boulogne, a green oasis with walking trails, playgrounds, greenhouses and a lake with rowboat rentals. For some indoor time, head to the City of Science and Industry, Europe’s largest science museum with a planetarium, a submarine and enough interactive exhibits to satisfy curious kids.
Bookended by the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, Jardin des Tuileries is a traditional garden with perfectly trimmed lawns thanks to a flock of resident sheep who act like living lawn mowers. Kids will enjoy its whimsical playgrounds, maze and carousel.
The Eiffel Tower may be the City of Light’s most beloved site and it’s easy to see why. Ride the glass-enclosed elevator to the top of the signature spire and marvel at its beauty from high above. After dark, watch the lights hypnotically twinkle for five minutes every hour on the hour.
And if you believe man cannot live by bread alone, you’ve probably never been to a French boulangerie. Purchase a baguette and some cheese in Paris and you’ll be transported to picnic heaven.
► Where to stay in Paris with kids
Situated in the chic 16th arrondissement, a residential area that’s popular with well-to-do families, Brach Paris is a modern and upscale hotel with an indoor pool and a rooftop terrace. Live chickens and an unmatched view of the Eiffel Tower complete the picture.
Few cities welcome children more than Rome. Parents bring their children practically everywhere here, even to fancy restaurants and the opera. Locals will embrace your bambini as their own.
► Things to do in Rome with kids
Famed ancient sites, including the great gladiatorial arena the Colosseum and the sprawling ruins of the Roman Forum, are located within walking distance of each other. The city’s Bernini fountains and beautiful squares, such as St. Peter’s and Piazza Navona, pack a punch. Explore the maze of back streets and watch the Romans zip through traffic on mopeds.
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Villa Borghese, Rome’s beloved park, has playgrounds and an old-school zoo. Villa Celimontana is a leafy respite near the Colosseum, where historic statues circle the shady playground. When hunger strikes, you’re never far from a refreshing gelato, a delicious plate of pasta, or luscious fresh produce at one of the city’s many open-air markets.
►Where to stay in Rome with kids
Close to Rome’s major tourist attractions in the heart of the city, Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese offers large family suites on a quiet street adjacent to Villa Borghese.
3. Bruges, Belgium
With swan-studded canals and enough chocolate shops to satisfy Willy Wonka, Bruges is a kid-friendly European vacation spot lifted right from the pages of a Flemish fairytale.
► Things to do in Bruges with kids
Stroll the stone-paved streets and watch expert lace-makers spin decorative magic. Soak in the city’s nautical charm on a boat ride down its maze of waterways. The Belfry Tower provides a continuous serenade courtesy of the 47-bell carillon. Kids can expend energy climbing 366 steps to the top and be rewarded with a view straight to the North Sea.
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Appetites will be robust after scaling all of those steps; luckily, Belgian street food is perfect for little ones. Belgian fries are served out of a paper cone with a creamy dipping sauce. Waffles come in two varieties: Brussels-style is as light as a feather and dusted with a veil of powdered sugar while the denser Liege waffle has a crunch of caramelized sugar.
Leave calorie-counting at passport control as dozens of artisanal chocolate shops fill the air with a tempting aroma. Visit the Choco-Story Chocolate Museum for a bean-to-bar explanation of how cocoa is transformed into chocolate.
► Where to stay in Bruges with kids
On a quiet street steps from the city center, Duke’s Palace Residence has 26 bright and airy guest rooms.
4. Madeira, Portugal
Madeira’s alluring mix of black-sand beaches, lush mountain trails, natural rock pools and semi-tropical climate are a jackpot for families who love the great outdoors. A remote outpost in the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is 300 miles from Morocco and nearly 700 miles from mainland Portugal.
► Things to Do in Madeira with Kids
Ernest Hemingway wrote that his descent down Madeira’s steep streets in a wicker basket toboggan was the most exhilarating experience of his life. You and your kids will love it too. You’ll be expertly steered by a pair of straw hat-clad drivers during a thrilling 10-minute descent. (It’s an especially fun element of Christmas vacations in Madeira.)
A boat ride is the perfect perch for an up-close look at marine animals who frolic in the clean Atlantic waters. VIP Dolphins adds an educational component with an English-speaking marine biologist on board.
This off-the-beaten-path Europe family vacation spot is awash with walking trails dotted with ferns, fragrant bay bushes and tumbling waterfalls. The floral-fringed paths at Monte Palace Tropical Garden are paved, making it easy to push a stroller. You’ll ride a cable car right to the garden’s entrance, so the journey is part of the fun even when vacationing with toddlers.
► Where to Stay in Madeira
Families will enjoy the clean and comfy Pestana Carlton, with ocean access and multiple indoor and outdoor saltwater swimming pools.
5. Lake Geneva, Switzerland
On the shores of Lake Geneva, Francophone Lausanne is a compact city loaded with Gallic panache. If the weather cooperates, you can go for a dip or a boat ride on the sparkling lake.
► Things to do around Lake Geneva with kids
Situated high on a hill, you can’t miss the Gothic and imposing Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne. Each evening at 10 p.m., the night watchman strikes the bell and calls out the time. In today’s high-tech world, this old-fashioned ritual seems frozen in time, a good reason to let the kids stay up late and witness the charms of yesteryear.
The Olympic Museum encourages young visitors to reflect on the ideals of the Olympic Movement and the value of sports in society. State-of-the-art robotic, computer and audiovisual technology make it possible to get a sense of the emotional highs and lows of an elite athlete.
And at Aquatis, the largest freshwater aquarium in Europe, families can enjoy an immersive journey through the earth’s aquatic environments.
► Where to stay in Geneva
The elegant lakeside retreat Beau-Rivage Palace has an indoor swimming pool for hours of all-weather fun.
6. Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland consistently ranks as one of the world’s happiest countries. Glaciers, waterfalls, volcanos, geysers and lava fields add up to an otherworldly beauty that’s a magnet for families. The relatively quick five-hour flight from some East Coast cities in the U.S. makes the capital city of Reykjavik an easy and convenient first European vacation spot for families.
► Things to do in Reykjavik with Kids
Head to the Old Harbour in Reykjavik where numerous boat operators offer whale-watching excursions. The Reykjavik Maritime Museum is filled with imaginative and interactive displays that celebrate the crucial role of fishing in the nation’s economy. For high-tech fun, Fly Over Iceland has a state-of-the-art spherical screen and sensory extras such as wind, mist and scents that give you the virtual sensation of flying over Iceland while remaining safely buckled in your seat.
For an immersion in family-friendly Icelandic bathing culture, Sky Lagoon is an outdoor volcanic swimming complex. You also can’t go wrong with a family trip to the famous Blue Lagoon for a geothermal spa experience all ages can enjoy.
One of Iceland’s most popular foods is the hot dog. You’ll see scores of stands selling pylsur, served on a steamed bun with a variety of tasty toppings, putting a smile on many children’s faces without making a dent in their parents’ wallets.
Reykjavik also makes a great base for exploring the scenic southwest of the country. Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and the waterfalls Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss are all within rental car driving distance of the city.
► Where to Stay in Reykjavik
Once a furniture factory, Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre has been imaginatively repurposed into a modern hotel with local artwork and a retro collection of vinyl.
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FamilyVacationist.com covers family vacation ideas; family vacation spots; all-inclusive family resorts; and must-have travel accessories for families of all shapes, sizes and orientations. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.