10 Awesome Cities for Kids and Families

The attractions of London are popular with vacation families.

We’ve had a number of features on visiting cities with kids, so I thought I’d offer some tips and advice for vacationing in a big city with kids.

These 10 cities are among the best urban destinations for a family vacation. I’ve listed my favorites below and added some suggestions on making your visit to them as fun, easy, and enthralling as possible.

Visiting a big city with kids

Cities have an undeserved reputation as being an unattractive option for families and kids. It needn’t be so. Getting around is often easier – subways are fun and easy once you get the hang of buying tickets and reading the maps. There’s lots of great food – great bakeries and treat shops and a wide variety of restaurants. And all these cities have an incredible number of great attractions for kids.

Paris has playgrounds and parks and boat rides and carousels. Tokyo has 3 great science museums. Three! Barcelona has an aquarium, Dr Seuss like architecture, beaches and a cable car. Rome has ancient fountains on just about every corner. Real usable drinking fountains! How cool.

There certainly are challenges to visiting cities with young children. Cities are, of course, very busy. But with some good planning, smart researching and lots of patience the busyness doesn’t have to translate to hectic.

Certainly, this will depend a lot on your child, your family, the ages of your kids and their temperament. I’m sure there are parents who believe their child would not do well in a busy noisy and sometimes chaotic environment. But I feel, as a general rule, that young kids like a bit of chaos. They like interaction. They like movement and bigness and bright lights.

At the very least I would say this to a parent: don’t assume your child won’t like a city unless you’ve spent a little bit of time visiting and exploring one.

If you need tips on packing read What To Pack: Essentials for Traveling with Kids.

Tips and Tricks for a fun vacation in a big city

  • You won’t have fun if you’re feeling rushed. Time, Time, Time. It’s a huge variable and something I really emphasize. It’s hard to have fun when you’re in a hurry. So don’t do it.
  • Weather doesn’t matter so much when you’re visiting a city. Many urban attractions are indoors and even when it’s time to run, jump and play most cities have a good supply of indoor entertainment and play areas. Good deals and big discounts can also be found outside of high season – typically the months with the best weather.
  • Know this about elevators in Europe: they generally don’t work. So don’t climb into one when you have a child that has to use the bathroom.
  • Have a plan. Cities can burn time. Unplanned mornings can disappear in a flash and leave you looking for a lunch time restaurant with little to show for your morning besides a few subway rides. You want to remain flexible, but at the same time you shouldn’t be wandering down the subway steps thinking well, let’s maybe head over to this neighborhood and wander around. Have a specific destination in mind and at least a layout of how you’ll spend your time for the morning and afternoon.
  • Organise your visit by neighborhoods and districts. Write down the 8 or 10 or 12 attractions you really want to visit on your trip and sort them by their location. Put 2 or 3 in each group and try to make each neighborhood a one day affair. You’ll save time, money and effort in not having to go from one side of the city to the other to get to your next venue.
  • If you live in a small town or city without a subway you might be shocked at how much pleasure and amusement your kids will get from riding subways and commuter trains. It’s a destination in itself.
  • When you take the subway for the first time (especially in a country where you don’t speak the language) have your first trip be an outing in itself. It will probably take you a while to figure it out. Where do you buy the tickets? Does the child need a ticket? Does the machine take credit cards? Expect it to take a while and make it fun and interesting for the kids. Once again, this won’t be fun if you’re in a hurry.
  • Most cities that have subways have this basic rule: don’t eat on the trains. And double that for kids. (And triple it for Tokyo.) This tends not to be one of those rules that’s posted on every wall, but ignored by everyone. People live it and with good reason. It’s why these cities have nice metros.
  • Don’t obsess about hotel location. Yes, it’s nice to be in a central location. It’s great to walk out your door grab a croissant and be at the Louvre in a few blocks. But if booking a cheap hotel is a priority find a good discount on a hotel a little distance from the center – but near a subway or metro line. It’s often win/win/win: you save some money, the kids get another train ride, and the few minutes between your hotel and your destination act as a calm-down and focus interlude that gives everyone a breather.
  • Plan and consider how you’ll get around the city. The BABYBJÖRN Carrier is just a fantastic way to get around a city with an infant or small baby. Most cities have pretty good sidewalks so strollers can be a definite plus. (My all-time favorite is the Maclaren Techno XT.)
  • Swimming pools are often not very common at city hotels unless you are in the high end or luxury category of accommodation. Ask about public swimming pools at your hotel.
  • If you’re in the city for more than 4 days, switch hotels, and switch neighborhoods – you’ll be amazed at how much of a different feel you’ll get for a city depending on your location. As well, it’s probably a pretty good idea not put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

Further Reading:

8 questions and comments

  1. Shirley Cox

    Agreed! Cities are great places to take kids. So much to do. Getting around is usually pretty simple, and often fun, and as you say the weather doesn’t matter much. I usually spend so much time worrying about the weather before we go on a trip. Will it rain? Will it be sunny? Paris, London, they’re better in the winter than in spring and summer – definitely better than July and August. We’ve done Washington, Paris, Amsterdam and London on your list. I’d also throw in Madrid, Lisbon and Porto too, though admittedly we were without kids and when we went there, but great cities.

    Tokyo sounds incredible. We’re planning a trip for August or September, that might be an idea we think about. How’s the weather in Japan in those months?

    Thanks Shirley.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      If you’re thinking of going south to the beaches of Okinawa then August would be great. But summer in Tokyo is not something a lot of people rave about. It’s very hot and humid. As it gets into late September it starts to improve and then Autumn is one of the best times to visit the country again. Hope that helps you Shirley.

      David

      Reply
  2. Henna

    We’ve been to Cancun, Miami and Washington DC with the our 2 daughters. I’d love to take them to Amsterdam and Tokyo – 2 of my favorite cities. I was surpised how well they did in DC, they loved the musuems, most of them anyways. Definitely plan well and always have one kid friendly thing to do every day.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks for the travel tips Henna. I think the Smithsonian museums in DC are phenomenal and about as kid friendly as museums get.

      Reply
  3. Sofia

    Hey. Great Blog. Really appreciate your dedication. I really wish I could read more about my side of the world too (southern hemisphere), with many great cities to share with the kids too.
    Bests!

    Reply
  4. Ashley Forster

    I agree first and foremost about not trying to cram too much in! We’ve taken our two year old to Reykjavik, London, Barcelona, Rome and are now in Kuala Lumpur. The best thing we did was book an apartment in each for a week and base day trips from there. It’s more spacious than a hotel and allows you to make your own breakfasts and pack picnics, which saves money and time. We used HomeAway and citiesreference.com…both great! Also, If you have a fair-skinned child, male sure to bring your own sunscreen to Rome – very hard to find! Our redhead ended up with chap stick on her face by the last day.

    Reply
  5. chprince

    I can’t understnd why San Francisco and Washington DC are high on your list. These two American cities have the least percentage of families with children in the US—if you ask me, data show that these places are not very child friendly…

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      By that logic, then the cities with the highest percentage of kids must be the best places to vacation with kids. Hotspots like West Jordan, Utah; Palmdale, California; and Flower Mound, Texas.

      The primary reason why families don’t live in San Francisco and Washington is because it’s so expensive not because there are few or no attractions there for them. San Francisco, especially, is a virtual kids’ playground.

      Further, I’m sure there are many other places with a similar dynamic. The typical ski resort town – Whistler, BC or Vail, Colorado – I suspect are great places for a family vacation yet have a low percentage of kids living there.

      Reply

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