The best European family trips tend to start with urban stays that, once children tire of museums and city touring, segue into out-of-town sojourns. Fortunately, most of Europe’s major cities have a firm foundation of family appeal: world-class museums, summertime festivals, and spacious plazas and parks perfect for picnics or blowing off steam. Just outside of many towns at countless palaces and castles, fabulous and frequently bloody tales of royalty capture kids’ imaginations, and wherever families go, there is usually an interesting local treat to try, such as pretzels or pastries, sausages or slices of macaroni cake.
These European cities have it all—both historic appeal and living vibrancy, a balanced mix of city and country—and they are ideal for pleasing everyone in the family, no matter their age.
Vienna and Donau-Auen National park, Austria
It’s easy for families to love Vienna, a city where the cakes and pastries are as world-renowned as the palaces, art, and music. Start with the city’s multiple royal residences, where lavish rooms are filled with treasures that interest children. At the Imperial Palace, see bejeweled crowns, suits of armor, and the Lipizzaners, the Spanish Riding School’s prancing horses. The Schönbrunn Palace, on the other hand, includes such unexpected attractions as a children’s museum, a marionette theatre, and a garden maze. Gustav Klimt’s works, not jewels, are the gems in the Upper Belvedere, an 18th-century palace, and youngsters like romping in the garden’s cascading fountains. The MuseumsQuartier (the city’s trendy branding for the museum district) draws locals and visitors for the art—more Klimts are inside the Leopold Museum—for the children’s museum Zoom, and for the pedestrian plaza’s free music concerts, fat benches (pictured), and mini-golf course with sculptures. The Prater, a public park, recalls an old-fashioned leisure ground—it has amusement rides. You and your family can also bike the Vienna Woods, splash in the water playground at Donauinsel (Danube Island), and take a guided canoe tour of Donau-Auen National Park, one of Europe’s largest undeveloped wetlands (those are available from Orth, 35 miles southeast of Vienna). It’s fitting to celebrate your explorations with a café break for Vienna’s famous sachertorte (a rich chocolate cake), apple strudel, or another Viennese pastry.
Český Krumlov and Šumava National Park, Czech Republic
The restored medieval town of Český Krumlov, 106 miles south of Prague, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tucked into a bend of the Vltava River, the picturesque town is often crowded with day visitors in summer. By overnighting there, though, you and your family can stroll quieter cobblestone streets by moonlight, grab a morning table in a main square café, and be among the day’s first visitors to Krumlov, the 300-room, hilltop castle that dates to 1302. Highlights include the marble chapel, the Baroque theater, and the sweeping views from the tower. On a tour of the 14th century monasteries, youngsters learn to write with a quill and other medieval skills (pictured). Local pubs serve traditional goulash and steamy garlic soup served in thick bread bowls. During the annual International Music Festival, held from mid-July to mid-August, the squares and churches ring with classical, folk, and jazz music, and in Šumava National Park, 31 miles northwest of Český Krumlov, easy hiking trails wind through thick forests of centuries-old trees past lakes and waterfalls. And, of course, you can dip into the wonders of Prague itself.
Gothenburg and Marstrand, Sweden
Less costly than Stockholm, Gothenburg still has first-rate museums, expansive gardens, an amusement park, and easy access to the islands of the Bohuslän Coast. Gothenburg’s Konstmuseum is top-notch, and its collection includes Edvard Munch, Carl Larsson, and other Nordic artists. At the Universeum, Scandinavia’s largest science center, you and your children can view North Sea creatures, walk through a rainforest, and experiment in the chemistry lab. Highlights at the Naturhistoriska Museum include what it labels as “the world’s largest” mounted blue whale, while in Slottsskogen, the city’s biggest park, linden and beech trees shade walkways and Gotland ponies give rides at the children’s zoo. Kids like Liseberg Park’s rollercoasters, bumper cars and other amusement park rides, or get out on the water with a harbor tour or a boat to Marstrand, a popular island for sailing, 30 miles north of town. At Carlstens Fästning, the island’s 17th-century fortress, history comes alive for kids with muskets, cannons, and tours led by soldiers in period uniforms. You can even stay over night there—booking at the Soldatotell, the barracks rooms where the weary soldiers once bedded down.
Seville and Cádiz, Spain
Seville, the largest city in Andalusia, radiates flamboyance, a quality valued by most tots and teens. The Royal Alcázar, a Spanish palace that began as a 10th-century Islamic fortress and later became a Christian palace, blooms with an intricate mix of Moorish and European architectural design—plasterwork ruffles, minutely defined geometric strips, archways, pillars, inner courtyards, and sequestered rooms. The opulent gardens reflect each era’s preferences from Islam-inspired fountains to the formal patterns of an 18th-century English garden. Seville’s cathedral isn’t only the largest Gothic building in the world, but it’s also where Christopher Columbus, or at least part of him, lies entombed, confirmed by a DNA sample—grade-schoolers love making the connection to a figure they have learned about in class. At the Museo del Baile Flamenco, the Flamenco Museum, family lessons are possible, so you can all pick up some wicked new moves, and the interactive exhibits detail the dance’s history and the reasons behind the rhythms. En route to Cádiz’s beaches, stop at Jerez de la Frontera, 57 miles southwest of Seville. At the Fundación Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre, (Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation), the horses prance, trot, and pace with a combination of military precision and balletic grace.
Glasgow, Stirling Castle, and Ayrshire, Scotland
Glasgow is Scotland’s technological and cultural heart. Many of the city’s signature Victorian-era red-sandstone buildings now house music venues, art schools, and offices for digital startups. The contemporary Glasgow Science Centre rises over the banks of the River Clyde, engaging kids with hands-on exhibits and panoramic views from the facility’s Glasgow Tower. Kids can explore the history of transportation at the Riverside Museum, where the collection is as diverse as baby carriages, skateboards, and trains. Outside, board the Glenlee, a restored 1896 Glasgow-built ship. A few blocks away, the wide-ranging exhibits at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, another Victorian triumph that looks almost like a palace, gathers fossils, French Impressionist paintings, and suits of armor on display in a spectacular, cathedral-like setting. Teens into vintage clothes and vinyl records will find them in shops along Byres Road in the increasingly hip West End. Castles, meanwhile, deliver a visceral sense of Scottish history and royal life: The hilltop fortress Stirling Castle (pictured), 30 miles northeast of Glasgow, dates to the 12th century. At Stirling, Mary Queen of Scots was crowned, her son James was baptized, and, aged only 11 months, taken away from her forever. Experience the charming side of noble life by lodging at Glenapp Castle, 70 miles southwest of Glasgow, where you and your family can go on woodland walks and try falconry, clay pigeon shooting, archery, and other royal sports.
Kraków and the Tatra Mountains, Poland
Historic Kraków feels like a beautifully illustrated children’s book about a long-ago Europe—pastel colored buildings, cathedral, and large market square. In Wawel Castle, a hilltop castle right in the middle of town, centuries-old Flemish tapestries (some sewn with pure gold thread) adorn warrens of rooms, and in the Throne Hall, 30 carvings of heads stare down at you—one of them is a woman with a gag over her mouth. Obwarzanki, a.k.a. local bagels that look like hoops, make for easy-to-carry snacks. Learn how to make your own at the Muzeum Obwarzanka. For those needing a respite from walks, an hour-long cruise on the Vistula River brings the energy down with scenic city views. Kids are also rendered agog by the underground tunnels at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, just outside of town, where they can walk through rooms and chapels, sculptures and all, carved from solid salt. Kraków’s once-bustling Jewish quarter has been restored, so its synagogues in Kazimierz can provide a glimpse of what life was like here not so long ago. West of town, consider visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, the two Nazi concentration camps within a few miles of each other 44 miles west of Kraków, and south of town, the ski-and-hiking tourism town of Zakopane, 68 miles south, is a good base for exploring the Tatra Mountains, a landscape of sylvan woods, mountain streams, and snowcapped peaks that form the border to Slovakia. Relatively easy walks lead to lakes, while invigorating hikes reward with sweeping ridge-top views from higher altitudes.
Budapest and the Danube Bend Towns, Hungary
The Danube River divides Budapest into buzzy Pest and stately Buda, the older section. What makes the Hungarian capital so special for many is that it still retains much of its fin de siècle grace, bursting with Art Nouveau buildings, especially on Andrássy út, the city’s grandest boulevard. At one end of the street, Hosök tere (Heroes’ Square) commemorates the 1,000th anniversary of Hungary. Stroll in nearby Városliget, the City Park, where there’s both a zoo and the eclectic Vajdahunyad Castle (1896). Across the river and atop Castle Hill, the formidable Budavári palota, or Buda Palace, houses Magyar Nemzeti Galeria, the Hungarian National Gallery. Art-loving children may enjoy the colorful canvasses by Secession artists. The restored Dohány utca Synagogue, a.k.a. the Great Synagogue, was built between 1854 and 1859, seats 3,000, and anchors the former Jewish Quarter in Pest. Margaret Island, a long island park in the middle of the Danube, prohibits cars, making it a top family bicycling spot. Consider getting out of the city on a cruise to the small towns in the Danube Bend. Visegrád, 25 miles north of Budapest, has palace ruins and medieval games during the International Palace Games held in early July. Szentendre, 14 miles north of Budapest, is for art galleries, craft shops, and the Szabadtéri Néprajzi Múzeum (the Hungarian Open-Air Museum, pictured), a showcase of traditional farmhouses, churches, and other Hungarian buildings that give a strong picture of traditional life here.
Dubrovnik and Dalmatia, Croatia
Dubrovnik, a picture-perfect fortress city on the Adriatic Sea, is among Croatia’s most popular tourist destinations. If any of your kids are Game of Thrones fans, then make a pilgrimage to some of the 19 city sites used as sets. Old Town provides easy access to several, including the Pile Gate and Fort Bokar, part of the city’s medieval walls. Walking atop the walls—a path goes all the way around—rewards you with spectacular sea views and closer looks at the town’s distinctive concave red roof tiles, some of which date to the medieval period and were shaped by molding them around workers’ thighs. Just be sure to climb early in the morning or in late afternoon to avoid the blazing sun and the thickening crowds (Dubrovnik is a popular stop for cruise ships, but groups depart by late afternoon). Kids also like strolling Old Town in search of street performers, souvenirs, and such local sweets as torta od makarona, a macaroni cake, and arancini, orange grinds with sugar. From mid-July to the third week in August, Dubrovnik hosts a lively Summer Festival of music, dance, and theater. Like most of Dubrovnik’s beaches, Copacabana Beach, at Babin Kuk peninsula, is pebbly but ideal for kayaking or beaching. Lopud Island’s Šunj beach has better sand (a rarity here) and also a stretch of shallow water. Reach Lopud by a 50-minute boat ride.
Dublin and Howth on the Irish Sea, Ireland
For teens and college-age travelers who like city energy in a safe environment, Dublin pops, a result of the plentiful numbers of university students. During the day, trendy Temple Bar draws people to food markets, funky shops, and art galleries, and at night, millennials make the rounds at its pubs, some known for beer and fiddle music and others for cocktails and club dancing. Trinity College is known for the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels dating to 800 A.D. The impressive St. Patrick’s Cathedral dates to 1190, and National Gallery of Ireland has amassed world-class works by the likes of Monet, Renoir, and Vermeer. On a tour of the Kilmainham Gaol (Jail), learn about its past inmates, including Irish Revolutionaries fighting for independence from Britain, and the harsh conditions for the ones unlucky enough to get caught. EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum, uses multimedia exhibits to detail 1,500 years of Irish history, including explanations of why and how the Irish left, and where they went. If you have Irish blood, maybe you’ll take the opportunity to look into your ancestry. For an easy day trip from the city, head 10 miles north to Howth, a suburb on Dublin Bay. The moderately easy Cliff Path trail loop (pictured) comes with refreshing sea views and breezes. It’s just a city bus ride away.
Munich and the Bavarian Alps, Germany
With top-flight museums, gardens, and squares, Munich rates as one of Germany’s most livable and welcoming cities. Another of its charms: location. As the capital of Bavaria, Munich puts you within easy drives of magnificent lakes, mountains, forests, and castles. Munich’s Alte Pinakothek museum includes masterpieces by Reubens, da Vinci, and Rembrandt, while the Pinakothek der Moderne showcases modern masters. Picnic in the Englischer Garten, among Europe’s largest public parks; people-watch in the Marienplatz, the main pedestrian square (one of many where cars are kept away); and cool off by swimming in a 1972 Olympics pool. To teens and other car enthusiasts, BMW Welt (BMW World) is part showroom, part museum, and altogether an unusual experience. You can pose with classic BMW motorbikes and cars and “drive” at top speed using game consoles. There are some powerful social lessons for kids, too: Through photos and texts, the NS-Dokumentationszentrum traces the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler’s agenda. A place worth taking teens, the facility’s purpose is to underscore the importance of upholding the rights of minorities to prevent oppression. Just outside Munich, the ornate, 17th-century Schloss Neuschwanstein (pictured) is, to many people, the picture of a perfect castle, probably in part because its design inspired elements of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Schloss Elmau, a 20th-century castle in Krün, 62 miles south of Munich on 1,600 acres in the Bavarian Alps, is a place to find luxury lodging and a spa along with summer children’s programs—like everything on our list, there will be something for everyone in the family.