How To Do a 4-Week Summer Trip in Europe with Kids

We were in Europe for about four weeks this summer — Madrid, Northern Italy and Croatia. Our family of five includes three kids ages 11, 12 and 15. We’ve taken long trips before and I have learned that the key to an enjoyable and memorable trip is to balance the needs and wants of everyone in the family, even if it means skipping that one important activity, or place, in your itinerary. Here are some tried and true strategies for long trips that work for our family. (Although I’m writing this after our trip in Europe, these strategies also worked for us in Asia a few years ago.)

1. Europe is hot in the summer. When booking accommodations, make sure you stay in a few places with a swimming pool. Pools might be scarce in big cities, but they are available in other towns and you don’t have to always select 5-star hotels. They will provide a place to refresh and reenergize everyone after a good day’s worth of walking and sightseeing in the heat.The kids, especially, have something to look forward to after you’ve dragged them to yet another tourist site. Our small, 2-star hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure (Hotel Villa Anita) had a new, small pool with several jets that entertained the kids endlessly. Although we stayed just one night at the small Hotel Kapetanovic in Opatija, Croatia, the pool was just what the kids needed after a long drive through the country. After two weeks of culture in Northern Italy, we were ready to unwind in Rovinj, Croatia. We spent three days splashing and swimming in the pools of the 5-star Monte Mulini, our favorite hotel during our 4-week trip.
2. Give the kids ice cream or a cold drink as often as they want. Forget the calories, forget how much sugar they’re taking in. You will have quieter, happier kids. After all, you do want them to come along with you to visit museums, churches, towers and look at all the interesting architecture, right? Besides, this gives all of you a chance to sit down, talk and cool off. Better yet, find an air-conditioned gelateria or heladeria.
3. Be flexible. It’s okay to not do everything you planned to do. When planning our 3-day stay in Verona, Italy, I had the idea of renting bikes to see the town and surrounding area. Bike tours were certainly promoted as one of the things to do in the city and its outskirts. The weather was so hot and humid (it was 103 F one day!) that there was no way I would be able to convince my family to do a bike tour. No big loss, especially since I didn’t book anything in advance. We walked around instead and came back to our air-conditioned b&b when we got too hot. Another example, prior to our trip, I had reserved a car for our third day in Rovinj, so that we could do some sightseeing to neighboring towns. When we got to the hotel, all we wanted to do was hang out and not leave. We had already been traveling three weeks and we needed some R&R. So, we postponed the car for the next day and relaxed for three days.
4. Schedule a few guided tours. I selected Context Travel for Segovia, Florence and Venice. You can sign up for an already-scheduled tour (10+ people), or decide to take a private tour for up to 6 people. The private tours, though I thought pricey, was well worth the money. The online registration form asked me to give the company a brief description about our family (ages, interests, etc.), so that they could match us with an appropriate guide. Of course, I asked to have young, energetic guides to capture (and maintain) our children’s attention. We were very happy with our guides. They were knowledgeable, service-oriented and personable. Especially nice was the boat tour through Venice — we were happy to not do a walking tour in the heat. We had our own guide, water taxi and driver and this allowed us to photograph the not-so touristy highlights of the city.
5. Get out after breakfast, rest in the afternoon, be reenergized for the evening. After breakfast, our routine would be to walk around a neighborhood, stop for ice cream, visit a church, museum, or other historical site, then stop for another ice cream or snack. At about 3:00 pm, we would be exhausted. We would head back for the hotel or b&b and rest and enjoy the air-conditioning. The kids occupied that time with their books, electronic gadgets, or swam in the pool. My husband and I read, checked email, and occasionally had a siesta. At around 6:00 pm, we were ready to explore again and slowly make our way to dinner at the restaurant of choice.
6. Do not overdose the kids on big cities with too many museums and churches. Europe is full of these, but DO plan to visit towns that are along the coast or near lakes. This will give everyone a much-needed change of pace. You will enjoy refreshing breezes, cooler temperatures, and wide open spaces. Also, we established a rule of one museum and one church per town. Better to get an in-depth understanding of a few, rather than an overload from too many. Of course, this might not be possible in Florence.
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Viva Madrid

My family took an almost 4-week trip through Europe. First stop, Madrid, Spain.

My young teen succinctly characterized it as “hot, stinky, old, and ham and cheese”. After 7 days, he got a good feel for the city. This would not be a top summer destination for him, but, never the less, an excellent choice for our family reunion with my in-laws who live on the Canary Islands.

From my adult perspective, I would describe it as a city rich in history, grand architecture, abundance of art museums, and, yes, hot. And, ham and cheese — jamon y queso –everywhere. Of course, the city has all modern amenities. A 7-day stay in this big city gave us a chance to experience more than just the tourist destinations.

I would highly recommend our hotel, Jardin de Recoletos. It is centrally located and a great starting point for many of our walks through the city. Walking is the best way to explore Madrid and many other European cities. The hotel is a quick jaunt to Retiro Park, perfect for evening walks. Large rooms compared to typical sizes throughout Europe. Excellent restaurant food. Dinner served outdoors in a small garden. Efficient and friendly front desk staff. Quiet side street off of Calle Serrano, where all the designer shops are located. One negative — restaurant staff need to learn about service!

Here are the highlights of our stay. Our kids’ ages range from 11 to 15 years old, which I feel are old enough to appreciate old cities rich in culture.

– Retiro Park (lots of strolling through shaded paths, snack bars, people watching, playgrounds)

Museo del Ferrocarril (for fans of old trains and model trains)

Real Fabrica de Tapices (very low key, no crowds, but fascinating short guided tour of how tapestries are made)

Museo Reina Sofia (modern art museum houses Picasso’s huge black and white painting, Guernica, which many experts claim is his greatest work)

Photo credit: The Guardian

Casa Patas (excellent, authentic flamenco in a small venue)

Museo del Jamon (not so much a museum, more of a popular eating place where you stand squeezed between locals enjoying their jamon y queso sandwiches and other tapas, like pulpo)

Segovia (easy day trip from Madrid showcasing Spain’s largest Roman aqueduct — amazing!)

Other memorable experiences included a necessary visit to a “lavanderia”, laundromat, to wash our clothes. Totally automatic with signs in English and Spanish. A snack at the Chocolateria de San Gines for the must-eat churros and thick chocolate experience. Of course, unfriendly and incompetent waiters at many restaurants. We longed for American service.

Next stop: Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy

If you would like help on your next trip to Madrid, please send me an email.

Cheap (or Free) Thrills

After many years of traveling with my family, I’ve decided that many of our most memorable moments have come from what I call “cheap thrills”. Of course, we’ll never forget our pampered vacation at the lakeside resort of Parco San Marco (Lake Lugano). Booking a room that overlooked the sparkling lake and renting a speedboat — to satisfy my then 8-year old son’s wish of driving one — were not cheap. But, nothing compares to the deep feeling of satisfaction and elation from an activity that is free, or costs little, yet provides memories that will last a lifetime.

Gelato everywhere you go in Italy. Go ahead and spoil your kids — let them have a gelato anytime of day. Cheap thrill all day long. We’ll never forget the delicious, refreshing gelatos we bought from a little shop in Menaggio, and licking them as we sat at the edge of Lake Como.

Golf cart rental during the last 2 hours of the day. We didn’t use it for golfing (pricey activity), but drove it around to photograph the gorgeous landscaping and views from the Princeville Golf Course. (The golf course makes extra money because early morning golfers have returned their carts by this time.) We actually rented two. My husband and I each drove one with one child, so that they could experience the fun of riding on a golf course in a buggy equipped with a fancy GPS navigation system!

Biking in Bali. Bike rentals are really cheap and the stops you make along the way are free. My husband and I parked our bikes to follow the crowds swarming to a festival — we guessed it was a festival because of the colorful banners waving high in the breeze. It was a festival for the traditional tooth-filing ceremony. Wow!

Kauai’s canoe club annual fair in Hanalei. Many community fairs do not charge an entrance fee, and you get to hang out with the locals to get that authentic experience. You can watch the races for a bit, go swimming when you’re ready to cool off, and the kids can even participate in a keiki (means child in Hawaiian) obstacle race on shore.

Watching elephant seals in San Simeon, California. Just pull your car over along Highway 1 and park for free. These mammals are HUMUNGOUS and hilarious to watch. Very comical as they clumsily maneuver their 3,000- to 5,000-pound, 15-foot long bodies across the sand, often bulldozing over another one! Every member of our family was so entranced and amused the first time that we went back a second time. Best time to see them is between November and March.

Reply to this post and share your cheap thrill on your last vacation.

Hotel vs. Bed and Breakfast

Have you ever been faced with the dilemma of whether to book a hotel or a b&b? When is one the better choice over the other? In many places, whether you’re in Venice or Chiang Mai, both are equally good choices. In smaller towns, you might only have b&bs. In the US, most b&bs offer a romantic experience for couples, so are not accommodating to families especially with small children. In Europe, many b&bs are set up for families, with rooms that have triple or quad beds. Busy downtown locations will likely only have hotels. If you are taking a multi-week trip, my recommendation would be to do a combination, so that you balance the charm and hospitality of b&bs with the full-service offerings of hotels. Here are my top selection criteria. Of course, there might be some criteria common to both. For example, there are b&bs with historical interest.

When to choose a hotel

– Preference for your favorite hotel chain, like a Marriott or Four Seasons, especially if you have points or have enjoyed these hotels in the past.

– Location. For example, if you are in New York for just the weekend and have tickets to a Broadway musical, then you should book one of the big hotels in Times Square.

– Historical interest. The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok has its history dating back to the 1880s when the original hotel welcomed travelers and businessmen involved with trade in Siam.

– Workout and recreational facilities. If you need to workout, you’ll need a good fitness room. Or, if you have kids and it’s 95 degrees outside, you’ll need a swimming pool.

– Concierge services. Major hotels have concierge desks in the lobby to help you with organized tours.

When to choose a bed and breakfast

– Preference for a small and relaxed atmosphere. You don’t have to dress up to look presentable for breakfast. The owner greets you with a big smile and seats you at your favorite table.

– Independence and flexibility. You’d rather come up with your own choices of what to do that day and where to have dinner, rather than relying on a full-service concierge desk or dining in the hotel’s restaurant every night.

– Meeting new people over breakfast. From experience, people we’ve met in b&bs are generally friendlier and happy to get to know you too, especially if you all come from different parts of the world. People you meet are part of the travel experience.

– For long stays and with children, is a more cost-effective option, especially with breakfast included.

– You enjoy the genuine interest and charm from the owners when asking about your day’s experiences, or if there’s anything else they can help you with.

– Fewer rooms mean fewer people, so you avoid the crowds in the lobby, elevator — and at breakfast, especially if you’re in a rush to get your day going — and get more personal attention from the staff.

What do you think? Do you have any favorite b&bs?

Making Your Family Trip Memorable

After you’ve spent many months planning, researching, and finalizing the last detail of your summer itinerary, how will you know whether this trip is one that the kids will remember? Not all trips will be as memorable as you’d want, but this is certainly a reachable goal. After all, our kids will be out of the house before you know it. You can make these trips count.

I look back on our own family trips and have come up with my top 5 criteria for memorable trips:

  1. A balance of relaxation with activity. Are your kids really going to let you lay on the beach all day for 7 days? Not! Have a hearty breakfast, take a tour of the town, make a stop for lunch and ice cream, then come back to the hotel for an afternoon dip in the pool and relaaax. Dinner at a restaurant you can walk to, frequented by the locals, might be a nice way to end the day.
  2. A sense of adventure. Skip that organized bus tour. Go ahead and ride an elephant today and pet a baby tiger tomorrow. Never zip-lined? Yes, you can do it! Don’t worry that it’s pouring rain on a river raft tour. It’s warm and you can buy cheap, disposable ponchos.
  3. An appreciation for the charm and pleasant hospitality of a small hotel or b&b. We don’t mind 5-star luxuries, but we have given that up for the scrumptious breakfast served by the owner who tells us, beaming with pride,
     about the many generations his family has owned his b&b.
  4. The flexibility of getting around on our own. Again, skip that organized bus tour. We drive around so much in the US. Especially in Europe, taking the tram in Vienna, a ferry down the Danube, or a train through the Swiss alps is the family activity. The journey is the experience. Renting a car for a part of the trip will allow you to pull over, park, and join the crowd hurriedly walking over to their annual town fair.
  5. An activity or tour of choice for each member of the family. In this summer’s Europe itinerary, we plan to visit a brown bear orphanage with my daughter who loves animals; a Parmesan factory tour and tasting for my boys who love good food; a model train museum for my husband who began this hobby as a small boy; and a medieval hilltop town for me because I love the vistas and the history.

Tell me about your most memorable family trip. What made it memorable?

Are you thinking about your next trip and need some help or advice? Let me help you build an itinerary your family will cherish. Contact me.