Are city breaks and kids an impossible match? I don’t think so! Find here how to plan a city break with kids that will actually feel like a holiday.
I love big cities. Some people thrive in nature, open spaces and natural surrounding but while I do enjoy that, growing up in an urban setting made me a city person. I love the buzzing atmosphere of a big urban centre, the cultural dynamism, the infinite options of food, galleries, encounters. A city is to me like a pirate chest: messy looking, sometimes overwhelming but full of treasures.
Living in Europe has made this city obsession very easy to feed: with trains and low coast airlines over the course of the years I have been on uncountable city breaks and I always took for granted that I would keep doing so forever. When the kids arrived, however, I became doubtful: the adagio from other parents was ‘no more city breaks now. With kids, you want a beach resort’ and I couldn’t help but wonder: surely I can do both? Surely city breaks are possible with kids?
Two kids and six years later, I have found my answer: city breaks are possible with kids and can be fun, enjoyable and feel like a break for everyone. However, like always when travelling with kids, you do need some planning: these are my ten steps to planning the perfect city break with kids.
How to plan a city break with kids: 10 tips
1. Pick the city wisely
Not all cities are created equal when it comes to family friendliness. Traffic, accessibility of public transport, availability of children attractions (or child-friendly attractions, more about it later) all impact on the quality of your stay so, if you can, put in some solid research when choosing a destination.
Many guidebooks have sections about visitors with young children, but I do find the web the best resource of all: family travel bloggers are a fantastic source of practical, tried and tested info (if you need help finding reliable ones, let me know in the comments what city you are interested in and I’ll put you in touch – we are a super supportive bunch!), boards and forums also are a good starting point and, even better, facebook groups. I am in a fantastic family oriented facebook travel group and you can ask any family travel question being sure to get an answer. If you want to see what kind of conversation goes on there, you can join us here (no advertising or businesses allowed in the group, parents only please!).
Also, this very blog is a great source of information about city break (even if I say so myself!). So far I have guides about Rome, Florence, Dublin, Geneva, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Stockholm, Montreal, and Toronto but the list keeps growing so come back to see updates. Even better, if you want to be the first to get our new guides, sign up or our newsletter: the signup bar is at the top of the page – no spam guaranteed.
2. Think transport
City breaks usually involve exploring and the right means of transport are essential. I mean this in two ways: public transport and kids transport.
The first time I went back to Rome with my kids, I underestimated the cobbled streets. What used to be so charming became a nightmare once negotiated with the wheels of a buggy and that taught me: if my hometown can catch me unprepared, I better step up my game!
Since then every time I go somewhere I make plans about mobility: I always check online before I go if buses accept buggies (not all do,in Dublin you can only have one buggy per bus!), if the metro has accessible stations and if/how much walkable the city is.
Once I have that info, I can select whether I should bring a buggy and/or a baby carrier and I can make informed decisions about where to stay and how much to schedule.
3. Choose accommodation wisely
Accommodation is critical to the success of a family trip and I find this particularly true in the case of city breaks. Cities can be overwhelming especially for young kids and a safe place to relax and unwind goes a long way to enjoyable days and restful nights. When looking for accommodation in a city, I look at:
Proximity to points of interest – In big cities and cities with a lot of traffic, being close or well connected to the in attractions on our itinerary is paramount. I look for walkable distances or train/metro connections, usually the most rapid and easiest to negotiate with buggies and younger kids. Unless I find an amazing hotel or apartment right in the centre of town, I tend to prefer residential areas with rapid connections into town: these are often quieter and greener and tend to have a family friendly pace.
Facilities – Whenever possible, I choose hotels with play areas and/or swimming pools (always double check kids are allowed in). Swimming pools are a safe, fun way to entertain the kids and a fantastic option in case of rain. They also make for great bribes: ‘if you walk a little longer without complaining, later we go to the pool’ (don’t look at me that way, we all do this!!).
Also, I choose hotels that include a generous breakfast, to minimise the immediate need to look for a snack once outside.
Family friendly policies – I don’t think you need a ‘family hotel’, fully kitted out with baby clubs and plastic cutlery to enjoy a city, but it is a good idea to check provisions for families. Do they have large enough rooms, do they charge for extra beds, is the swimming pool open to kids? If you have very small children: do they have a cafe that would heat up a bottle for you or even just a kettle in the room of a mini bar? Do they have a lift?
Do not take any of this for granted: countries and hotels differ widely. As well as the resources above, I am an avid user of booking.com and always check the reviews on their site. To have a good idea of the facilities on offer, do read a few reviews and seek out the ones written by parents: they are invaluable to gauge what an establishment is really like.
4. Be realistic with plans
It might be tempting to try and make the most of your time away and stuff your day with as many attractions as possible but cities have a knack for making these plans go belly up quickly, with traffic jams, delayed transport and just crowds.
I have now learned that it is better to always factor in playground time or park time and accept that we just cannot do, with very young kids, as much as we used to. I have also learned that bus tours, which I always labeled as a ‘touristy thing’ (Oh the snobbism of the young traveller!) can be a resource for parents: kids tend to love transport, it is a way to sit down for a while and they can be an easy way to get an overview of part of the city you might not otherwise see.
Top tip. A great way to get started with city breaks is to go back with kids to a city you already know. This takes away some of the stress connected to planning and it is often a fun experience: kids are guaranteed to make you look at any place with new eyes and a familiar place will feel as exciting as a new one.
5. Plan at least one activity in advance
This is something I have learned to do on all city breaks, even without kids: no matter how short a stay, I always book one activity that acts as a focus of the trip. I find in cities in particular a lack of planning might turn into an aimless wonders that sometimes brings great discoveries but sometimes… doesn’t!
Our activities of choice are aquariums, the zoo, a child-friendly museum, self-guided cycling tours and amusement parks.
6. Skip queues
Waiting in line is a shortcut to family meltdowns so my advice is: buy tickets in advance and prefer skip-the-queue tours. If there is no such option, consider wisely if the attraction is worth the wait and how many ice creams/rice cakes/lollipops you’ll need to feed the kids to keep them quiet.
7. Get the kids excited before you go
I try and involve the kids as much as possible in the planning stage so they can feel ownership about the trip and help shape it in to be enjoyable for them too. I usually give them a couple of options they can choose from, when it comes to activities, and try come up with funny/ interesting facts that can pique their attention.
When we went to Geneva, I told the kids that the city is on a lake and as well as buses they have water-taxis: I know for a fact this played a huge part in having them declare ‘Geneva is my favourite city EVER’ and ‘who spot the water taxi first’ kept us entertained for a good while!
I particularly like seeking out quirky facts, historical or otherwise, because I find them interesting too. If they involve architecture buildings, I also try and include them in some for or scavenger hunt or I spy game so the kids are motivated to engage with their surroundings and make connections with what we have previously learnt about the place.
8. Seek out child-friendly activities and museums
I always think of family activities as divided between child-centered and child-friendly. Child centred are activities just for the kids like amusement parks, playgrounds etc, things you most likely wouldn’t be doing if you were travelling as a couple.
Child-friendly are, on the other hand, things that are not just for kids but can also be for them: these can be interactive museums, exhibitions with family tours and workshops, belvedere terraces or towers, bus tours. I believe these are the key to an enjoyable city escape as they make everyone happy
Top tip: some museums can be hard to take for kids but this doesn’t mean they have to be avoided at all cost. Instead of visiting the whole museum, pick only one wing or few rooms with pieces you really want to see: before you go in, stop at the museum shop and get a postcard or even a booklet with the image of what you are hoping to admire and ask the kids if they can find it on the walls or in the cases. You will not be able to see everything this way, but it does keep them entertained for a while!
9. Plan one activity per day that is just for them
Little kids need to play so I always try to factor in some time that is literally just for them. I learned to do this in Toronto: we only had a couple of days in the city but the kids were tired and cranky and not in the mood for sightseeing: our hotel, thankfully, had a gorgeous play area and after two hours there playing kitchen and cars, the kids were like new!
They themselves demanded to go out and we saw some lovely part of the city – it might feel like a waste of time, to be in a playground or hotel, rather than exploring, but the energy and happiness you get as a reward makes it worth it
10. Bring snacks
The secret weapon to any family outing, make it a city break with kids or a trip to the pond is food, at least when it comes to my kids. Cities usually have a plethora of food options but they might not serve the food your kids like or do it at times that differ from your routine back home: snacks are the easiest way to get a little extra mileage and keep hunger pangs at bay.
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