Traveling is a most wonderful way for children to learn about the world and the people in it. I’m so excited today to have Ashley Steel of Family On The Loose guest posting today about five of her top tips to traveling with kids in Europe. Her kids are well-travelled and they’re now experts on both short and long-haul travel.
Traveling with Kids in Europe
We first started traveling with our kids when they were 6 weeks old. Only work-related trips and in-country trips but, still, adventures none-the-less. There was the time our tiny, perfect infant started screaming bloody murder every time we put her down on the hotel mattress and we had to call our pediatrician emergency line long-distance. Oh, acid reflux? So much to learn.
On that same trip, we discovered that she loved the drumming of Native American music. We bought tapes from a local musician and toured eastern Washington with the lovely sounds of drumming from The Confederated Tribes of Colville Nation blasting through our Subaru and a peaceful baby. In fact, we kept in touch with the young musician who sold us the tapes of his band for years. He was pretty entranced by our little suburban baby so clearly happy to listen to his drums. He sent us new tapes and we sent photos and stories of our travels for nearly a decade.
We learned from all this. Even very young, our children’s lives were enriched through travel and these amazing multicultural experiences. As well, they are our best family ambassadors, opening doors that might otherwise stay sealed shut.
Since I’ve mentioned long-distance phones and mixed-tapes, this was all clearly a long time ago. In the following 17 years, we have taken our kids to Europe multiple times, Asia, and Central America. While living in Vienna, Austria, we started writing Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids (this post contains affiliate links) and we recently finished 100 Tips for Traveling with Kids in Europe. Both books focus on ideas for how to travel with kids. In 100 Tips for Traveling with Kids in Europe, we also added lots of fun details about where to go in Europe, and how to keep it educational, fun, and easy. We emphasize the opportunities for cultural immersion rather than simply icon-visiting. Here are five of our favorite ideas:
Get ready … get a paper map!
There are some amazing tools for exploring the geography of the world. Traditional globes and atlases put the world landscape in perspective. Google Earth allows you to simulate the flight from home to anywhere on the planet, map your route, find a hotel at a convenient location, and sometimes even see playground equipment in neighborhood parks. There are amazing smart phone apps and countless websites. But there is nothing better than a big paper map!
With a paper map, you and the kids can view and touch the whole travel landscape at once. You might want a big map of all of Europe, so you can highlight your entire route as you go. Or you might want a map for each country, to get a closer perspective on local details. Lay the map out on the floor as you plan. Point out all the amazing information that you can read off of a map – place names, topography, cardinal directions, time zones, the proximity of the closest river to your hotel. Use it to find off-the-beaten path opportunities, or put country borders in a political context. Hang the map on the wall as you plan and stick pins where you hope to go. The map can also be a great vehicle for getting travel advice from friends. Ask them where they’ve been and what they recommend.
Swimming pools are a perfect place for literal cultural immersion. Not only do they provide a fun place for your kids to mingle with local kids, the differences between American and European pools are often fairly dramatic and interesting to discover! In many countries, for example, the changing rooms are co-ed. In Austria, lap swim takes place without lane lines. Very tricky!
Also consider one of the many destination pools, known for views, architecture, or amenities. In Barcelona, you can experience the city from the Olympic swimming pool, Piscines Bernat Picornell, way atop Montjuïc. On another day in Barcelona, visit Poliesportiu Marítim with four linked hydrotherapy pools, a lap-swimming pool, saunas, steam rooms, and a tunnel to the beach. What kids wouldn’t enjoy, and even learn something, sampling swimming pools across Europe?
Geek Out at a Science Museum
When most people think of European museums, they think of old buildings and famous art. But some of the world’s best science museums are also in Europe. Visiting one of these amazing museums will likely be a trip highlight. Not only will you receive a dose of scientific adrenaline but you’ll get insights into new ways of thinking about the museum experience.
The European style of kid-centric exhibits is often quite different from the American style. Your family can check out science in the 18th century in London’s Science Museum or burn off calories in the giant hamster wheel that’s part of the bodyworks exhibit at Glasgow’s Science Centre. On the outskirts of Paris, La Cité des Enfants within the Cité des Science et de L’Industrie is packed with hands-on activities.
There are lots of smaller, science-themed museums scattered across Europe. These are often less crowded and full of discovery-potential. Consider the Landek Park Mining Museum, an open air museum on black coal mining in Ostrava, Czech Republic where guides are former miners. There’s also the free Hellenic Children’s Museum in Athens, Greece, with an extraordinary exhibit on the science of cooking. Soak up the new Muse in Trento Italy which combines stunning architecture with a focus on water and light. Wander into a three-story rainforest at the Universeum in Gothnburg, Sweden. Marvel at the Museo Nacional de Arqeología Subacuática [National Museum of Underwater Archaeology] in Cartegena, Spain. Did you even know that underwater archeology was a science?
Travel a Book
A great deal of famous literature is set in Europe, providing iconic destinations likely to grab your kid’s imagination. The 370-mile Fairy Tale Road in Germany links about 50 small towns and villages. Start in the quaint town of Steinau, home to the brothers Grimm, where a small museum sets the stage. Along the route, climb the tower at the medieval castle of Trendelburg where Rapunzel is said to have let down her hair. Then visit the 650-year old Castle Sababurg where Sleeping Beauty slept peacefully for 100 years. If you’re feeling a little extravagant, note that this is now a hotel. The road’s finale is in the city of Bremen, where the Grimms told of musicians that outsmarted thieves, and are memorialized with statues in the town square.
England has Paddington Station with a sweet statue of the bear himself. The Wind in the Willows museum in Henley-on-Thames, England, is a magical stop for small kids and parents too. It’s hard to imagine that even hardened teens would not be charmed by the detailed dioramas but, if not, send them to the River and Rowing Museum upstairs.
There are plenty of literary stops specifically for older readers. Fans of Harry Potter can find studio tours and amusement parks. With just a little digging, they can also locate real book or movie settings such as King’s Cross Station or the Glenfinnan Viaduct, Scotland.
Tour the stunning and somewhat creepy Bran Castle in Transylvania, Romania where Count Dracula is said to have lived. Or, tour the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, home of the Phantom of the Opera. In England, visit Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire where Robin Hood is said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor. The Major Oak, where he allegedly lived, is thought to be 800-1000 years old! Feeling even more literary? Visit the remains of Troy, Turkey with your high schooler before she reads The Illiad.
Share with the Class when You Come Home
Travel is not only an education unto itself, it can also enrich formal education. If your kids are in pre-school or elementary school, encourage them to give a short presentation to their class or to a group of friends about their trip. Help them put together a PowerPoint presentation with a map describing the itinerary, a few photo highlights, an anecdote or two, and maybe a few fun historical facts. Help your child rehearse and remind them that it’s always best to leave the audience wanting more. A little show and tell can add to the fun. If possible, share candy or treats that you hand-imported from Europe. Everyone loves Swiss chocolate! Or make a special treat for the class from a country you visited such as Austrian Marmorgugelhupf, Portuguese Cavacas, or Swedish Hallongrottor.
Chat with older students about how their European experiences connect to their schoolwork. World War II? Mozart? The double-helix shape of DNA? There might be an opportunity for an extra credit report but, more likely, just some fun dinnertime conversation and perhaps a good excuse to watch a few old movies together such as The Third Man, Amadeus, or NOVA’s Secret of Photo 51.
The hardest step is getting out the door. So, get started planning and enjoy your next family adventure! Our book is on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and you can read more about our adventures and get more tips at Family On The Loose. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Ashley Steel is a scientist by day in Bellevue WA and traveler whenever possible. She has been to over 40 countries traveling with a big suitcase, a small backpack, and, even at times, without so much as a toothbrush. She is the mother of two amazing teenaged girls and author of two books on family travel, “Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids” and “100 Tips for Traveling with Kids in Europe” both available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk