Along with sleep, sex and spontaneity, a city break is one of the great pleasures in life that you put aside when you become a parent. At least, that’s what I assumed.
The idea of city holidays with small children seemed like hard work, even a little dangerous; we associate the metropolis with the occupations of adults, sybaritic, cultural and gastronomic, not to mention crowds, traffic and undesirable nefarious.
Yet, in reality, the richly diverse cities of Europe are playgrounds for children and adults. Unexpectedly, I found them easier in many ways than beach vacations, with their countless all-weather diversions and increasingly innovative activities. Cities engage minds and broaden horizons, not only with their hugely successful attractions and museums, but also through what you encounter. Invariably it is these unplanned, random pieces that children love the most. Take them to the Acropolis in Athens, for example, and they’ll tell you their highlight was feeding stray cats in the cafe.
Perhaps the key to a successful family vacation is managing expectations. Not of your children, but of yours. Put aside your notions of what you should do or what you want to do. This does not mean attending soft play centers, but considering how activities work for the whole family.
What if you’ve always wanted to see Madrid’s Prado? There is only one thing worse than visiting Spain’s most prestigious art museum, and that is visiting Spain’s most prestigious art museum with a recalcitrant child, jogging in its vaulted galleries, with its great unfocused masterpieces. Consider Reina Sofia instead: contemporary installations are much more engaging than Renaissance paintings, for both children and teenagers. Undoubtedly there is the child who enjoys looking at medieval religious frescoes, but I have never met one.
In fact, religion in general is best avoided. As pilgrims kneel at the tomb of St. James the Apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the culmination of their 500-mile hike, my eight-year-old son took advantage of the silence to announce aloud that he no longer believed in God. or the tooth fairy. And of course he found it boring. Who, honestly, doesn’t find churches a bit boring after all? Aren’t they a test of faith?
For this reason, Italian cities can be fickle. On the one hand, a lot of boring old churches. On the other, pizza and ice cream.
Horrible story wins
The story is good as long as it is horrible. In Rome, the Colosseum was a success, not only for its impressive size, but for the brutal tales of gladiators, crocodiles and tigers fighting to the death, of prisoners thrown to the lions just for breaking a promise. Piazza di Spagna and the Trevi Fountain (“Why does everyone have phones on the levers?”), Less. Young children don’t even understand the difference between yesterday and last year, so ancient ruins don’t make sense unless they can climb them.
For them, it’s all about the story, the bloodier the better. A friend is enthusiastic about Naples, where her three children loved Vesuvius (the floor is really lava!), The calcified bodies in Pompeii and the 40,000 skulls in the Fontanelle rock cemetery.
We also took a sightseeing bus tour around Rome, something we dismissed as too touristy before the kids. It’s ideal: not only can you sit, breastfeed and see the city all at once, but the kids think public transport is great: trams, subways, buses, boats, funiculars …
The joys of public transport
Barcelona’s lasting success was the Montjuïc cable car. It might as well have been a roller coaster. There is a castle at the top, but with both groups of National Trust grandparents we had our fill of castles and instead went to the Miró Foundation. It is wonderful for children: primary colors and childlike shapes. They are provided with headphones and can listen to a piece of music for each painting to get a sense of it rather than lengthy explanations. It is Barcelona’s modernism that makes it a wonderland for children: from Gaudí’s fantastic landscapes in Parc Guell (its cathedral also attracts, with its rainbow spectrum light rays penetrating the stained glass spiers) to bars on the beach suitable for families.
Eating out with children is also a joy in Barcelona, and indeed everywhere in Spain (Malaga is like Barcelona in miniature, for something more manageable). Waitresses love children and restaurants are a family affair: sharing tapas and trying new flavors, eating late, going to bed rigorously left at home (even better if you can get them to take a siesta), dancing in the square while the musicians play under lights strung among the jacarandas.
What a contrast to France, where meals have always been something to overcome, like tax returns. Fads like dairy allergies and vegetarianism are frowned upon, if not completely ignored. Nantes has the most extraordinary fantasy world in its Les Machines de L’Ile: imagine a funfair created by the creators of gastronomy – yet we couldn’t find a single restaurant suitable for children (i.e. British children; French children are born sitting upright and eat a steak tartare).
Another friend tells me that her daughters loved Paris: the Eiffel Tower, the carousel, the patisserie. But as it has always been our favorite city break, a hub of intellectual and self-indulgent activity, my husband and I have never gone back. in family.
Maybe we should. The joy of going somewhere with children isn’t about what you can’t do, but the new things you can: seeing a city with new eyes.
Because Bruges is the hell of family holidays
We went to Bruges because we thought it would be easier to take a train break with a child than in Paris. Bruges as cute as a button, with its canals and bridges and the gothic square covered in snow. What could be more magical for children than a fairytale town of chocolate shops?
Try getting a baby to sleep in the stroller in those quaint cobbled streets, doubled over in the sleet. Or find a pharmacy in a city of shops that only sell luxury sweets. Bruges restaurants offer 100 kinds of Belgian beer but not a high chair. Children don’t give a damn about Flemish art, lace or the Unesco listing. They will not eat moule and will not be able to drink glühwein.
You may stumble upon, as we did, an art gallery, which may or may not show an erotic art exhibit, even if you don’t notice it until you are inside and are asked embarrassing questions. And what a time to discover a dairy allergy, surrounded by all that chocolate and cream. Thank goodness, at least, for the chips.
Because London is a family holiday paradise
Tourists cheerfully declare the price of a pint in London, but for families our capital is filled with an endless supply of fun – and peanuts. Being snatched from the crowd to watch an acrobat in Covent Garden; to pop giant bubbles on the South Bank; being disgusted by anatomical oddities in the Hunterian style and mummified bodies in the British Museum.
Strolling through giant-scale installations at Tate’s Turbine Hall, then take the Thames Clipper to Greenwich and disguise as pirates in the Maritime Museum. Swim in the Serpentine or dance in the South Bank Center’s Clore Ballroom at Fun DMC, where dads join in too … and all this before you dig deeper to watch Matilde in the West End or throw an ax in the East End or ride a simulated tube at the London Transport Museum, which might sound like that for boring trains but is so brilliantly curated that the kids absolutely love the place; the troubles of the train barely take a look.