Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Kids, Travel and You: Part 3 Basic Activities in Europe

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This review is my personal opinion. I am not paid by anyone. I do not receive any amenities (free or discounted).

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

Europe is often a dream vacation for many people. This could be that we common folk envied the upper classes of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who often sent their young people on the Grand Tour as a rite of passage, introducing them to the experiences and cultures of various countries. In more recent times, college or high school junior year abroad through exchange student programs and backpacking across Europe has made traveling to be more reachable to the masses.

Now that traveling abroad seems more doable than ever, it can still be expensive, but it does not have to be the vacation that you put off until later. It is possible that you will be traveling with your family, with children of various ages. In this 3rd part of our series, we explore basic activities to do (with a more specific activities next time).
Capri, Italy

1. Plan in advance

As we stated in the first two parts, a successful family vacation depends on your already established family dynamics and how much prep you put into the process. This gives you plenty of time to plan local activities that will introduce your child to the culture they will see: restaurants, museums, US cities that resemble European cities and maybe some apps that introduce the language.
Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain
2. Is it the right for everyone?

It is difficult to travel with children, but even more so with children under 3. I would think long and hard before going to Europe (unless it is an offer you simply cannot refuse or you have relatives there). You will also have to do a lot of research before planning a trip with children (or adults) with disabilities. We are very fortunate (and spoiled) with the laws and regulations regarding accessibility here in the USA. While we were in Venice and Amalfi, we often thought about mobility issues as we navigated stairs, canals, cobblestone alleys, steep streets and hotels and train stations without no elevators. Wheel chairs, strollers, canes and crutches were often not accommodated. Sad, but true.

Amalfi Coast, Italy
3. Will it be the right time of year?

Take into account the time of year. Remember, the seasons are reversed past the equator (it's summer in Australia in February). Summer in Europe is hot and the down time is August. Some attractions have reduced hours but some hotels may have reduced rates. However, beaches are crowded and beach hotel rates are high. Spring Break as the best time. It can still be crowded. But not every school has their spring recess at the same exact time. Weather can be a gamble, but that's what museums are for.

Window display in pizza restaurant, Notting Hill, London

4. What to do?

Basic: playing on-going games. Challenge your child to say hello, please, thank you, good-bye and their menu choice in the target language. In Italy, we did not go inside every church but we got a kick out of the fact that every city and town called their big church "Il Duomo." So we started comparing the architecture, taking snapshots with our phones or tablets and pointing out the differences. Ditto the many piazzas (plazas) with their bell towers. We got lucky with several of the plazas: there were street fairs, vendors, musicians, performers and carousels. Wander through Firenze (Florence) on an afternoon and you will be surprised (count the Vespas).
St. James Park, Loondon

Gardens: Springtime brings flowers and butterflies and rolling hills. I have traveled with pre-teen rambunctious little boys who turn into the most curious students at farms and gardens. Any place that encourages touching and participation is a guaranteed hit. Some museums are also gardens: your kids will want to pose by each sculpture at the Musee Rodin.  At Versailles, rather than touring each palace, opt for only Marie Antoinette's Estate and pay extra for the musical fountain show in the gardens in the evening.
Musee Rodin, Paris

Ferris Wheels ("Eyes"): They seem to be all the rage: London, Paris, Niagara Falls (Canada), a few places in Japan. We're even building one in NYC.  These are outside of the theme parks and there are often attractions surrounding them as add-ons.

Wax museums: Keep your children's ages in mind for these. Some have horror themes. For the others, it can be spooky standing next to a life size statue that looks like it may come alive at any moment. But, wax museums can be good history lessons and certainly a lot of fun.
Museu de la Xocolata (Chocolate), Barcelona, Spain
Children's Museums: they are popping up more and more in Europe. The USA seems to be the place that is child-centered and places around the world are on the band wagon. The Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Florence (there's one in Milan, too) is hands on.  

Canals and steps and bridges, in Venice, oh, my!

Boat Rides: Venice, Capri, Versailles. If you have ever taken a ferry, your kids can handle this!

Buckingham Palace, London
Montjuic, Barcelona, Spain
Forts, castles and palaces: These are always a hit with kids: castles and cannons and towers and tales of pirates and adventures, oh my! Sometimes, they're coupled with a park or a fair may be happening. They can be dusty, so don't wear your best clothing. Montjuic in Barcelona comes to mind.
Roland Garros: Site of the French Tennis Open, Paris, 
Olympic and Sports Museum, Barcelona

Sports arenas and museums: Many Olympic sites have been converted for public use, one can visit the four famous tennis open stadiums, or it could be high season for the local favorite. Check your local listings, as they say.
School bus in Positano, Italy
Schools: Depending on the age of your child, just walk by a local school. Seeing kids play in the yard somehow always links the cultures of the similarities, makes a city seem more real. For the older ones, walk by a famous university.
Magnet Butterflies

Shopping: Depending on the age group, this can be dangerous, but setting down some ground rules can make this possible. Compare prices of their favorite sneakers and make them do the conversion, look at the language of the foods in a market and note the lack of huge supermarkets. Check out the many neighborhood marts and how people still shop daily for dinner. Finally, you may run into one of the farmer's markets. Paris!

Restaurants: Eating can be a challenge, but while world cuisine is one reason to travel, at the same time, it's universal. Restaurants are realizing that people are traveling with their kids and are starting to accommodate them. Encourage kids to try new things but almost every place has fries (believe it or not). 

Arc de Triomf in Ciutadella Park, Barcelona, Spain
Tuileries Garden, near the Louvre, Paris

Central parks: When you have seen the Mona Lisa or Michaelangelo's David (which you should certainly do), take some down time, get ice cream (yes, break the nutrition rules and always try a local kid's snack) and walk in the park. Outside of the Louvre you have Tuileries Gardens, up the street from Buckingham Palace is St. James Park or visit one of the 8 Royal Gardens. Madrid has it's Parque de Retiro.
Piccadilly Circus, London

Night Time: Cities come alive and lights are fantastic at twilight. Make sure your lodging is in a well lit and well populated area. The Eiffel Tower actually gives a light show, vendors sell little toys with lights in Florence and Venice, London's Piccadilly Circus looks like Times Square and Barcelona's Ramblas seems to never sleep as you window shop. Fountains are lit up, families are taking strolls and you can walk off your dinner before putting the little ones to sleep.
Street artist in Siena, Italy
In the hotel room: Television programming is likely to be limited and children's programming may be sparse. I would suggest bringing a tablet with downloaded books, games and movies. If you have wi-fi, make it your child's job to research the next day's agenda and let him find it on the map. Keeping your child active will likely make her tired, so TV may be a non-issue anyway.

All in all, taking children on a trip to Europe can be fun, educational and an adventure for all with just a few adjustments and some pre-planning.

Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 if the copyright act of 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.