London. Paris. Florence. Berlin. Geneva. When contemplating these urban locales, their appeal as family-friendly destinations might not first jump to mind. But as a generation of traveling hipsters navigate destinations with young kids in tow — along with stylish locals who want to be part of a vibrant culture while keeping things child friendly — these cities have become exclusive family vacation spots and even more appealing for visitors with children. Navigating these destinations with my son, Jacopo, who just turned 6, reveals a deeper layer of experience — a sense of wide-eyed newness and perspective that accentuates the kind of wonder we want to feel while on holiday.
London proved a perfect case in point — a city I have visited at least twice a year since my son was born. Rather than creating an unwelcoming environment for children at major museums or chic new restaurants for a luxury European vacation, London’s institutions and eateries have family-friendly elements that introduce kids, at an early age, to art and cuisine. The Tate Modern, for example, is full of families looking for both an art fix and a huge main hall space where children can run (there is usually a cool site-specific installation) or indulge in a menu of free, kid-specific activities. At the recent Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts, my London friends’ Instagram feeds were filled with cute pictures of their kids moving through various pieces and playing among the Legos the artist asked them to bring along. Meanwhile, the ground floor of the Science Museum, with its IMAX theater and a flight simulator, provides hours of entertainment for my son, as does the Natural History Museum, with its beloved T-Rex (they even arrange sleepovers).
I lived in London for several years while growing up, and have fond memories of feeding the ducks in Hyde Park and going to the zoo at Regent’s Park (founded in 1828, it is the world’s oldest). Now I can take my son to see these spots, too. Britain’s capital is blessed with ample green spaces and kids’ areas. Such playgrounds as the Princess Diana Memorial (based on Peter Pan), with its pirate ship and tepees, raise the bar on how play areas can be creatively conceived.
And London’s food scene — almost laughable a decade or so ago — has become one of the most cosmopolitan, and delicious, in the world. The food markets celebrate the incredible ethnic and product diversity that’s now prevalent in the city. I love going to Borough Market with my son and tasting from such vendors as Gelateria 3bis. The London Fields’ Broadway Market is a favorite when visiting friends in North London — the mix of 20-something hipsters hunting for classic vinyl alongside couples with a stroller searching for the perfect cheese melds perfectly. Don’t miss a pint at the Cat & Mutton after; they have a kids’ menu too. I also have happy memories of sunny summer days (yes, they do happen) spent outside at the River Café, which overlooks the Thames, with a crisp glass of white wine and perfectly grilled orata (sea bass) while my son played on the grass. Don’t miss cozy breakfasts and lunches at the Wolsely off Green Park, with its leather banquettes and Viennese-style hot dogs (I prefer the oyster plate). And Pizza East in Notting Hill is the hot new ticket in town, with yummy mummies and their adorable tots lining up for pizza and avocado on toast.
SEE: Tate Modern, Royal Academy of Arts, The Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Princess Diana Memorial
EAT: Borough Market, London Fields’ Broadway Market, Cat & Mutton, River Café, Wolsely, Pizza East
Before traveling to Paris, read Paris to the Moon by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. This beautifully written book about Gopknik’s experience of moving to the City of Light with his young family captures so many aspects of the French capital, as well as the challenges and highlights of living in a new country (and navigating a different language) with little kids. “The romance of your child’s childhood may be the last romance you can give up,” he writes. It is true. In Paris, romance of every kind abounds. Of a romantic sort, yes, but also the idea of discovering the city together between child and parents.
Taking my son Jacopo for a pony ride in the Jardin de Luxembourg, for example, watching him gaze up at the Eiffel Tower, eating the perfectly buttery croissant at Boulangerie Pichard or sampling an ice cream at Fauchon reminded me of my luck to be in this sublimely beautiful city, and of the unique opportunity to see it again through a child’s eyes.
It’s true that Parisians can sometimes be incredibly rude to travelers. In fact, it’s almost laughable (surely the way I say café au lait can’t be that hard to understand!). But, if you can find humor in it, then you start to see just how many attractions there are for kids here, even if the general citizenry might act like they don’t even register the enfants in tow. Let’s start with the parks: In addition to the Jardin de Luxembourg, with its famous puppet show, carousel, and one of the city’s best playgrounds, the Jardin des Tuileries is an absolute favorite. With an action-oriented playground (think hanging ropes and a vertical ladder best suited for 6-year-olds and up), the park also has a carnival area and wonderful Ferris wheel. In the midst of all the activity, parents can contemplate one of the world’s most beautiful gardens. Meanwhile, the Bois de Vincennes is where Parisian families head on sunny summer weekends for a jaunt on one of the rowboats, only 10 euros an hour to rent.
I have happy recollections of discovering steak frites with my parents at a little brasserie tucked away in the 5th arrondissement. At the time I thought, this is where real French fries are from! When we take Jacopo to dine out — even top restaurants have well-priced set menus, particularly at lunch — we take him to spots like Le Bistro Paul Bert and Chez Georges. When we have a babysitter, it’s Chateaubriand or Frenchie, if we can get a hard-to-secure reservation (luckily they have a to-go option now, too). And we never miss a family breakfast at Café Deux Magots and a hot chocolate at Angelina.
Arguably not as hip as London and Berlin, Geneva remains a family-friendly destination. One of the city’s most fun activities is a wakeboard lesson from Geneve Plage. Test your skills at the iconic Wake Board Centre, which offers excellent summer camps. Another outdoorsy must is a hike on Mont-Saleve. If in the mood for the more leisurely five-minute gondola ride, once at the top, walk, mountain bike, and have lunch at the summit, taking in the spectacular views of Geneva below. Free city bikes are provided in Geneva; circle the city’s legendary lake, stopping for fish at one of the lakeside restaurants — the local “filets de perches” (perch fillets) and crispy French fries are a must at spots like Le Petit Lac. And if you have time for a side trip, the train ride to Gstaad is one of the world’s most beautiful routes.
Tucked into the upper corner of a country notoriously packed with beautiful and well-trodden sights, the Italian Alps region known as the Dolomites somehow manages to stay just off Italy’s mass tourism radar. It’s hard to believe, considering the spectacular offerings: snow-capped mountains resembling Lord of the Rings backdrops, Bavarian-style villages plucked from fairy tales and some of the most innovative cuisine in a country that prides itself on knowing how to eat. Less known is how family friendly it is, especially for active kids.
Straddling the area above Venice and Milan, beneath some of the most photogenic and diverse mountains in the world, the area is an incredible summer hiking and biking spot and a winter wonderland in colder months. The particular mix of old and new, high and unassuming, traditional and surprisingly modern, makes the Dolomites one of the globe’s most compelling and family-fun destinations. Connecting the quartz-filled rugged mountain passes is a series of hiking trails and ski runs along the vast Dolomite ski network, which stretches more than 850 miles. Wood huts, or rifugi, are distinctly alpine country restaurants (often with simple rooms to sleep), serving hearty and remarkably delicious and locally sourced ingredients, including such Michelin-starred restaurants as St. Hubertus in the Rosa Alpina hotel. Pretty villages abound, including San Cassiano. Anchored by a slender-towered church and ringed by orchards and pastureland, it’s one of the most picturesque, while Cortina d’ Ampezzo — once host to the Winter Olympics — celebrates the area’s glitzier side.
Berlin has recently become one of Europe’s most dynamic and avant-garde cities, packed with contemporary art galleries and cutting-edge architecture, bustling bars, and a thriving underground music scene. Less well known, however, is how kid-friendly the German capital has become. Musicians, artists, and trendsetters have growing families, and neighborhoods like Prenzlauerberg are magnets for young hipster families with lots of jolly “Kindercafes,” playgrounds and beer gardens full with adjacent play areas.
Kollwitzplatz and Helmholtzplatz are two other kiddie epicenters, specifically because these squares have playgrounds in the middle, so parents can alternate hanging out with the kids while the other wanders the square’s shops and cafes. Also near Kollwitzplatz is a wonderful space for young children — an oversized sandpit that has cages of cute bunnies, too. And for active types, “adventure parks” like Kolle 37, are all the rage, though it should be noted that some design aspects might cause more risk-adverse parents to adopt Germany’s laissez-faire attitude.
The coolest new park debut is the Gleisdreieck, a former railway area abandoned after World War II that’s been reinvented into a sprawling green space full of playgrounds, a skate park, and areas designated for soccer and basketball. Treat the family to a delicious ice cream cone at nearby Vanille & Marille, a popular, all organic shop. One of the best ways to see the city, especially Potsdam, is by bike. Rent one at Griebnitzsee-Station. They also provide maps, kids bikes, child seats, and locks.
Explore the jewels of northern Europe with a custom-designed itinerary during the optimal time of year to sail the Baltic Sea. An Exclusive Resorts only itinerary includes overnights in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg. Explore opulent Russian palaces or dine on Seabourn’s touted cuisine. The Seabourn Quest is ideal for travelers who avoid typical cruises — the ship is intimate and ultra-luxurious; suites are large but the ports of call are not. Sight-see in top cities, sample fine wines with a dedicated sommelier, and lasso Instagram envy, thanks to tips via an on-board professional photographer.
Italy is one of the most child-friendly countries on the planet. Kids are not just tolerated, they are completely doted upon. A decade ago, we moved to a small hill town in Tuscany, and my son’s life is idyllic (mine’s not so bad, either) because of how beloved children are in this culture. With that as a backdrop, cities like Florence — am-packed with art and great food — are not just for adults, but wonderful destinations for families.
Even if you have ridden carousels a plenty, the one in Florence’s Piazza della Reppublica stands out — a centuries-old icon known as La Giostra that hosts Italian and visiting bambinos. Watching the antique painted horses circle past the Renaissance buildings is simply perfect. The combination of pasta, pizza, and gelato (the sweet cold treat was invented in this city) means a tantrum distraction is always nearby. For ice-cream diversions, Vivoli is still a frontrunner, as is Carapina, a delicious gelato maker that has an outpost near the Ponte Vecchio. I’m also in love with a place called Dolce e Dolcezza. Not only does it have wonderful espresso in an Art Deco setting, but also it serves fresh bombolone, an Italian doughnut filled with fresh whipped cream. Unmissable.
Food wise, Florence is one of my favorite eating spots in Italy. There are plenty of local trattorias that don’t break the bank, have excellent food, and won’t turn up their noses if you ask for a plate of pasta with oil and cheese for your little one. Case in point is Santo Bevitore, a wonderful restaurant where fashion designers frequent, but where the service and atmosphere remains warm. A bustling convivial vibe means that any outbursts go virtually unnoticed, and kids receive special attention here.
Additionally, there are a number of spots that provide a little oasis when the pleasure of church visits or Renaissance masterpieces wear thin. The year-old Todo Modo, located close to the gorgeous piazza of Santa Maria Novella, is one of the most well-curated bookshops in Florence (with an impressive selection of books in English and guides to the city) and also stages theater performances. It’s chic café lures well-heeled locals who sip on fresh juices and local cheese-and-sausage plates while discussing the latest literary sensation. Best of all, however, is the large assortment of kids books and toys. Same goes for the bookshop at the Strozzi Museum. One parent can take in the excellent exhibits while the other looks at interactive games and books with junior. There are also impressive guided tours for children.