Europe is rich with amazing museums, churches, and art. But unlike you, kids may not appreciate the magnificence of a Michelangelo statue or the significance of an ancient temple. Still, there are ways to liven up big sights.
At Notre-Dame, replay Quasimodo’s stunt and climb the tower. Kids love being on such a lofty perch, face-to-face with a gargoyle. Using the ArtStart computers in London’s National Gallery, kids can enter their interests (cats, naval battles, and so on) and print out a tailor-made tour map for free. Audioguides are great for older children. My kids liked them because they could pick and choose what they wanted to learn about. For younger children, hit the gift shop first so they can buy postcards and have a scavenger hunt to find the pictured artwork. When boredom sets in, try “I spy” games or have them count how many babies or dogs they can spot in all the paintings in the room. Whenever possible, go early or book ahead for big sights to avoid long lines.
. London’s Natural History Museum offers a wonderful world of dinosaurs, volcanoes, meteors, and creepy-crawlies. You won’t find “do not touch” signs at Florence’s Leonardo Museum, where kids can use their energy to power modern re-creations of da Vinci’s inventions.
Getting somewhere can be more fun than the destination. Kids love subway maps, train schedules, and plotting routes. The Paris Métro is especially appealing, as many stations have boards that light up the route when you press the button for your destination.
. Your son might not care about the Crown Jewels, but he may go nuts riding the double-decker bus getting there. Boats are also memorable, such as a ride on a Venetian vaporetto or a glide down Amsterdam’s canals.
European parks provide a wonderland of fun. Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens is one of my favorite places to mix kid business with pleasure. It has cafés and people watching for parents, and a play area full of imaginative slides, swings, jungle gyms, and chess games for kids. You’ll also find a merry-go-round, pony rides, toy rental sailboats in the main pond, and guignols (French marionette shows).
Tivoli Gardens is like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale, with games, marching bands, shows, and rides ranging from vintage cars to a Ferris wheel that resembles a clock. The recently opened Petzi’s World, based on a popular Danish cartoon bear, offers a cuddly array of rides and activities.
. There are kiddie discounts — but you have to ask. In some places, you can find family discounts on sightseeing passes. Train rides are free for infants and toddlers (and sometimes school-age children), and museums sometimes offer free admission for kids under a certain age.
Eating at European restaurants is a cultural experience, but it can get stressful, since service is much slower than at home. Dinner can easily take two hours, so bring something to occupy the kids while waiting. Hit self-service cafeterias and bars (children are welcome) by 7 p.m. to miss the adult crowd. At fast-food restaurants, kids can move around without bothering others.