When parents tell me they're going to Europe and ask me where to take their kids, I'm sometimes tempted to answer, "To Grandma and Grandpa's on your way to the airport."
It's easy to make the case against taking the kids along. A European vacation with kids in tow is much more about playgrounds and petting zoos than about museums and churches. And traveling with kids can be expensive. Out of exhaustion and frustration, you may opt for pricey conveniences like taxis and any restaurant with a child-friendly menu. Two adults with kids can end up spending twice as much to experience about half the magic of Europe.
But traveling with kids, you'll live more like Europeans and less like tourists. Your children are like ambassadors, opening doors to new experiences and countless conversations. With kids, you'll be forced to discard your tourist armor and become a temporary European—as a parent.
Some of my best travel memories wouldn't have happened without my kids. Because my son was in the car, I once detoured to watch a "Petit League" baseball tournament in southern France—and debated ball and strike calls behind home plate with a pan-European bunch of parents. I'm no horseman, but because my daughter had her heart set on it, I've trotted along leafy bridle paths in the Cotswolds (next time I'll wear long pants).
Let the kid in you set the itinerary, and everyone will have a good time. Somehow even the big-ticket family attractions—the kind I normally avoid—have more appeal in Europe.
Europe's Disneyland, outside Paris, has all the familiar rides and characters. But Mickey Mouse speaks French, and you can buy wine with your lunch. My kids went ducky for it. With upward of 15 million visitors a year, Euro Disney has become the Continent's single leading tourist destination.
Also a hit, but on a more Danish scale, is Legoland, a fun sight for kids (lots of them blond) and their parents. Sixty million of the plastic bricks are arranged into extraordinarily detailed depictions of such wonders as Mount Rushmore, the Parthenon, and "Mad" King Ludwig's castle. Anyone who has ever picked up or stepped on a Lego will marvel at these meticulous representations.
Nostalgic parents and their children enjoy Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, which recently celebrated its 150th birthday. This 20-acre park is happily and simply Danish, without commercial glitz. You pay one admission price and find yourself lost in a genteel Hans Christian Andersen wonderland of rides, restaurants, games, marching bands, roulette wheels and funny mirrors.
Certain European cities seem built for kids. London eliminates the language barrier, and has some of the best museums for children—the Natural History Museum (dinosaur bones), Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood (toys, doll houses, and games going back to the 1600s), and Science Museum (hands-on fun). Hyde Park, London's backyard, is the perfect place for kids to play, ride bikes and run free. My kids enjoyed the pirate-themed playground.
Barcelona bubbles with inexpensive, quirky sights and an infectious human spirit. There's a fun, hill-capping amusement park, "magic" fountains that put on a free light-and-sound spectacle most summer nights, a chocolate museum (no explanation needed), and one of Europe's best urban beach scenes.
Venice doesn't need an amusement park—it is one big fantasy world. It's safe and like nothing else your kids have ever seen. Riding a vaporetto across the lagoon to the Lido, Venice's beach island, is nearly as fun as the beach itself.
Another canal-lined city, Amsterdam, has a special charm for kids. Its electric trams are an enjoyable ride, as are the boats that tour the canals. At NEMO, the kid-friendly science museum, it's forbidden not to touch. Older kids will want to make a pilgrimage to the house where Anne Frank wrote her famous diary.
Whichever city you are in, take advantage of the legacy of Europe's royal past: spacious parks and an abundance of castles. Give in to your inner toy soldier and line up with your kids for the changing of the guard at Prague's Castle or London's Buckingham Palace. Take a picnic break in Berlin's sprawling Tiergarten Park, once a royal hunting ground. Vienna's formerly royal Prater Park tempts young and old with its sprawling amusement park, huge red Ferris wheel, and miles of green space.
Because my parents imported pianos from Germany, our family traveled there when I was a kid, during my "wonder years"—when travel experiences fed and shaped my core values about the world and my place in it. If you can afford it, do the same for your kids. Getting your children comfortable in the wider world is great parenting.