When people think about traveling to or around Europe, they automatically think of major cities like London, Paris or Rome. If you’re planning to travel with your family and young children, then those big cities can seem a bit overwhelming (not to mention expensive!). But there are so many other great cities in Europe that are accessible, affordable, and family-friendly. These kid-friendly cities in Europe can be reached by car or a short and inexpensive flight. Utilize Airbnb for lodging to save money on food expenses or book with a budget hotel chain that includes breakfast (we are huge fans of Novotel) to make the trip even easier on the family budget.
Here are three of my favorite “under the radar” kid-friendly cities in Europe, or the “B” List as I like to call it – Berlin, Budapest and Belfast:
While Berlin is Germany’s capital and largest city, it isn’t on most people’s travel radar – although it should be! Berlin may not be the most picturesque city, but it has lots of green space, parks and playgrounds. I selfishly planned our three days in Berlin around the fact that I wanted to see the Berlin Wall memorial and where the line was drawn between East and West Germany. I figured I would throw in a few fun things for the kids and check it off my bucket list.
Boy, was I wrong!
Berlin has so much to offer and is surprisingly kid-friendly – history, museums, parks, playgrounds and more! Not to mention the metro system is excellent and makes navigating the city with kids super easy (kids 6-14 years travel for a discounted price and under 6 years travel for free).
There are also a lot of kid-friendly dining options from major chain restaurants to more local biergarten type places (fun for the parents too!). We dined at the Pratergarten twice during our short trip because the food was amazing! And if the weather is nice, the outdoor beirgarten is fun for the whole family! Berlin is also known for its “kindercafes” where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry, or even brunch, while the kids play nearby.
There are so many things to see and do in Berlin that it could really be a blog post all by itself, but here are a few places to definitely put on your list:
Tiergarten and the Berlin Zoo – The city’s most popular park and home to the Berlin Zoo.
Legoland Discovery Center – A great rainy day activity for Lego lovers!
Museum Island – Five museums on one island. While one ticket gets you entry into all five museums, the Pergamon and Neues are definitely the most interesting for younger children. Plus, there is loads of green space, making it a perfect spot to picnic and take in the gorgeous architecture.
Natural History Museum – All the dinosaurs!
German Museum of Technology – Planes, trains, automobiles and more!
The Reichstag Building – The Reichstag is where the national Parliament of Germany convenes. There is a glass dome at the top that provides an amazing view of the city. Admission is free, but you are required to request an entry time in advance.
There are more sobering sights to visit as well, including the Holocaust and Berlin Wall memorials. We did not find either one to be overwhelming for our kids (then ages 6 and 4). In fact, visiting those sites provided a golden opportunity to talk to them about important historical events that otherwise may have seemed abstract and difficult to understand.
Also known as “Paris of the East,” Budapest is becoming a popular travel destination. Within Europe, Budapest is easily accessible via several of the low-cost airlines and with the exchange rate between the Hungarian forint and the U.S. dollar being extremely favorable, it makes for a very affordable holiday.
Originally two separate cities on opposite sides of the Danube River, Buda and Pest combined into one city in 1873, but they have maintained their distinct personalities ever since. Like Berlin, the metro system is excellent, making it easy to travel across the river and throughout the city, but nothing beats strolling around and enjoying the gorgeous scenery!
We spent four days in Budapest in late October and even though the weather wasn’t great, we still found so much to do. In fact, we left without seeing everything we wanted to!
Here are some of the highlights:
The Baths – Budapest is famous for its baths, or thermal spas, which are known for their therapeutic and healing powers. Most of the baths have both indoor and outdoor pools making it a great activity during any season (and yes, people still venture into the outdoor pools in 40-degree weather!). We went to the Szechenyi Bath, the largest and most popular in Budapest.
Miniversum – A miniature railway model of Hungary and a must-see for train enthusiasts of all ages!
Children’s Railway – While the trains are driven by adults, this railroad is operated by kids. As a reward for good grades in school, children are given the opportunity to literally “work on the railroad” running the operations and ticket sales along this 11 kilometer stretch of track. There are seven stops along the way with various recreational activities including Challengeland with a ropes course and zip lines.
Gellért Hill – Located on the Buda side of the river, Gellért Hill provides a gorgeous panoramic view of the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament and is home to some of Budapest’s most notable sites including Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion. It is a steep hike up the hill, so it’s not a suitable walk for toddlers or strollers, but it is a great way to wear out the bigger kids and get your steps in!
Budapest Eye – Speaking of views, who doesn’t love a Ferris wheel??
The Cat Café – This was such a hit with my kids that we went twice! Of course, you really need to be a “cat person” to enjoy sipping your cappuccino surrounded by furry felines, but the kids thought it was hilarious!
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
When you think of Belfast, you may conjure thoughts of the Northern Ireland Conflict or “The Troubles” as it is locally referred to, but it’s probably best known nowadays as being the birthplace of the RMS Titanic and more recently with the popular Game of Thrones television series.
Even though Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and many of its people very much identify themselves as being British, there is still a strong Irish vibe throughout Belfast with friendly people, comforting pub food and good traditional Irish music.
Belfast is a smaller city, so it’s easy to navigate and very walkable, but there are plenty of taxis if little legs get tired. We traveled here in February and found plenty of things todo during our long weekend visit:
Titanic Belfast/SS Nomadic – Built on the site of the former Harland & Wolff Shipyard, Titanic Belfast takes you through an interactive experience about the history of this famous and ill-fated ship. Just outside, you can climb aboard the SS Nomadic, the tender for the Titanic that transported passengers from Cherbourg, France to the ship before its fatal voyage to New York.
W5 Interactive Discovery Center – An amazing hands-on science museum that is just a short walk from Titanic Belfast. Great for all ages!
HMS Caroline – Climb aboard a Royal Navy ship from World War I (the last surviving ship from the Battle of Jutland) for a self-guided and interactive audio guide tour. My little history buffs loved it!
Black Cab Tour – It was freezing when we visited Belfast, so we decided to give the kids a break from the cold weather and do a “Black Cab Tour.” We thought it would be a great way to see the city while staying warm and resting our feet. We assumed it would cover mostly the main tourist sites, but it was actually a profoundly moving tour of the Falls Road and Shankill areas most affected by the Troubles. Our cab driver was an amazing story-teller who really engaged the kids and helped them understand a difficult topic. And he even provided Sharpies so they could write their names on the Peace Wall.
Outside of the city, you can drive one hour north of Belfast to see Giant’s Causeway. There also are several tour companies that offer excursions from Belfast. The views are spectacular and well worth the trip. While the rocks aren’t toddler or stroller friendly, there are well-paved paths along the route and the visitor center has a good kid-friendly display on how the causeway was formed.
If you have time, Dunluce Castle is well worth a visit and just a short drive from Giant’s Causeway. Perched on the edge of a cliff, this storied castle is largely intact and provides spectacular views along the coast.
If you stick to the coast road on the way back to Belfast, you can visit the famous rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. Once the only bridge to a salmon-fishing outpost, you can walk the rope bridge across a gorge over an inlet to a small island. Not for the faint-of-heart, but absolutely beautiful.
There are many more kid-friendly cities in Europe on my list, but these are definitely three of our favorites. Traveling in Europe doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be fun and educational for the entire family!
What are your favorite cities to travel to with kids?