Europe is famed for its historic sights and world-class museums, but it doesn’t want for more family-friendly attractions. Choose the right place and youngsters will fall for what the continent has to offer: storybook castles to fire an imagination of any age; forests straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale; secret islands echoing with the squawks of wildlife; beaches with serious sandcastle potential… the list goes on.
All of the above and more feature in our experts' pick of 10 places perfect for a family holiday in Europe this year.
1. Kent, England, UK
If all Kent brings to mind is the Dartford Crossing, P&O Ferries and the Archbishop of Canterbury, it's time to look again, as the so-called 'garden of England' is growing in popularity – and it's full of opportunities for time travel to intrigue curious young minds.
Pack the bucket and spade for some retro-fun at sandy Broadstairs beach, then soak up the Victorian atmosphere of Charles Dickens’ one-time stomping ground. Give your clan a glimpse into the Middle Ages as you explore the higgledy-piggledy heart of Sandwich. Or blow them away with the views of the English Channel as you walk along the wind-buffeted White Cliffs of Dover.
Still riding high on the opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2011 (turnercontemporary.org), Margate has gentrified without losing its personality – and it also has an ace up its sleeve when it comes to keeping the kids happy: the reopening of Dreamland on 19 June (dreamland.co.uk), with a revamped wooden roller coaster (the UK’s oldest), a Big Wheel, a 1920s helter-skelter and a carousel, is a grand example of nostalgia reinvented.
2. County Kerry, Ireland
Mysterious islands off a craggy coastline; mist-wreathed mountains and lakes; castles, abbeys and other ruins to explore… no wonder County Kerry appeals to the imagination of travellers of all ages. Better still, the popular Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry – part of the Wild Atlantic Way (ireland.com/en-gb/wild-atlantic-way) – have roadside attractions every few miles to keep those with short attention spans engaged.
This wild part of Ireland is perfect for children (and adults) with a sense of adventure. If you're visiting during the summer months, test their sea legs on the short ferry to Great Blasket Island or, for older would-be sailors, take the boat to the Skelligs; admire the raw power of the Atlantic Ocean during a horse ride along Rossbeigh Beach or let your water babes sign up for surf school; take an epic journey through Killarney National Park, where the Gap of Dunloe trip combines a boat trip with walking, cycling or a pony and trap. Oh, and while you're there, don’t forget a child-pleasing side trip to see Fungie, the wild bottlenose dolphin that has been visiting Dingle Harbour regularly for more than 30 years.
3. Black Forest, Germany
Kid-pleasing pickings are rich in the Black Forest: endless walking trails, well-marked cycle paths, lidos in every town, gentle ski slopes – you name it, this neck of the woods in southwestern Germany has got it.
On a budget? The eco-savvy Konus (blackforest-tourism.com/info/KONUS) guest card is a bonus, giving you free travel on local buses and trains. Your euro will stretch far, too, at secluded farm-stays, where mooing cows are your wake-up call. Take the kids to Triberg, home to a cuckoo clock the size of a house (the world's biggest according to Guinness), Café Schäfer, which claims the original recipe for Black Forest gateau, and Germany's highest waterfall, where red squirrels run riot. Elsewhere, you'll find lakes for a cooling dip, like forest-rimmed Titisee and Schluchsee. Or head north to the gingerbready villages of the Kinzigtal. Half-timbered Gengenbach was a film-set for the Augustus Gloop scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while cute-as-a-button Schiltach has a zipline (hirschgrund-zipline.de/) through the treetops.
4. Budapest, Hungary
Known for its history and nightlife, Hungary’s capital is surprisingly family-friendly – so much so that you may need only make minor tweaks to your itinerary to keep the kids happy.
Start with the swimming baths. Budapest sits atop a cluster of hot springs, and there are numerous indoor and outdoor pools and spas. Adults can nurse their ailments (or hangovers) in the healing waters while the little ones make a splash. Kids will particularly love the wave machine at Gellért and Széchenyi’s whirlpool. Afternoon boosts for weary little troops are found in the form of Hungarian pastries – sweet-toothed members of your party will relish the countless cakes and fruit tarts. What’s next? The zoo, the circus (Europe’s only permanent big top), a puppet show, or a journey on the Children’s Railway? The latter is run almost entirely by 10- to 14-year-olds and runs throughout the year.
5. Vorarlberg, Austria
Nudging the Arlberg Alps, Vorarlberg is often overlooked in the dash to Tyrol's slopes. What a shame. This region of rolling dairy country, wildflower-freckled pastures and quiet valleys is storybook stuff for families and it's more affordable than Austria's more popular parts.
Tourist offices (vorarlberg.travel) can recommend child-friendly trails and back-to-nature farm stays, many of which arrange free activities to keep the kids occupied – from waterfall hikes to craft workshops. Whizz around the Bregenzerwald's dairies and cow-nibbled meadows on Käsestrasse (‘Cheese Road’ – kaesestrasse.at); gawp at giant purple cows in Bludenz at the Milka Chocolate Festival in July; or even adopt one of the region's long-lashed beauties at Kräuterbauernhof Erath (kuhforyou.at). Head northwest to Bregenz to ride the Pfänder cable car to 1064m for views of the not-so-distant Alps and encounters with deer, wild boar, ibex and marmots. Bregenz sits on the shore of the Lake Constance, where well-signposted cycling trails dip into neighbouring Germany and Switzerland, and kayaks can be hired from La Canoa (lacanoa.com/kanuvermietung/kanustationen).
6. Åland Archipelago, Finland
Off Finland's western coast, the self-governing, Swedish-speaking islands making up the Åland Archipelago are popular destinations by ferry from the Finnish mainland and Sweden, but scarcely known further afield. Yet as the sunniest spot in northern Europe, they're an idyllic getaway with sweeping beaches (Degersand has sublime swimming and camping) and flat, scenic cycling alongside green fields, red granite and sparkling sea.
Allow three gentle days to cycle the 65-km-long Mail Road, on the Finland-Sweden postal route that crossed Åland between 1638 and 1895, passing two of the main island's mightiest sights: the 14th-century castle Kastelholms Slott, set on a picturesque inlet, and ruined Russian fortress Bomarsund, complete with cannonball scars. In the archipelago's lively capital, Mariehamn, kid-pleasing favourites include a four-masted merchant barque, the Pommern, moored outside the state-of-the-art maritime museum Sjofartsmuseum, and slides, saunas, and indoor and outdoor pools with water jets at Mariebad water park (mariehamn.ax/mariebad).
7. Ibiza, Spain
Ibiza’s megaclubs may be the stuff of legend but the island’s 80s/90s clubbing heyday is behind it, the original party people are all grown up, and these days they have kids in tow when they make their pilgrimage. And so it is that this pine-clad island has taken off with families.
Sheltered, child-friendly beaches and pretty bays dot the shores from Santa Eularia d’es Riu in the east up to Portinatx on the northern tip. Island culture is welcoming of little people – eating out won’t be a problem here – and rural agroturismos (fancy farm stays) in Ibiza’s interior make great stomping grounds for wild young things. Peaced-out hippie markets and Ibiza Town’s helter-skelter, Unesco-listed old town will also delight them. The west coast clubbing scene at Sant Antoni de Portmany is alive and well, of course, but elsewhere this Balearic island now rocks to a gentler rhythm.
8. Normandy, France
Normandy delivers when it comes to family trips, whether you're looking for an action-packed holiday, a rustic escape or a beach break.
Thrill-seekers of all ages are spoiled for choice in this corner of France. Take to the river in a kayak or canoe on the Eure (aventureure.fr); practise your climbing skills in the treetops at La Forêt des Elfes (laforetdeselfes.com); or follow one of the region’s countless horse trails and cycles routes for a scenic adventure. Visit the rare critters at CERZA (en.cerza.com), a zoo with its own miniature safari train; get lost together in a labyrinth of maize outside Caen (labyrinthedecaen.com); or opt for white-knuckle excitement at Festyland (festyland.com), the largest theme park in Normandy.
If you're looking for a seaside retreat, the region boasts miles of beautiful beaches and family-friendly resorts. For something offbeat, consider one of its quirkier accommodation options – do your best Tarzan impression in a tent pitched in a tree (woody-park.com/tentes-suspendues), or keep an eye out for pirates from your perch in a 19th-century fort (fortducaplevi.com).
9. Skomer and Marloes Sands, Wales, UK
Still something of a secret to all but in-the-know locals, the rugged island of Skomer sits in a marine nature reserve off the Pembrokeshire coast on Wales' southwestern tip and a close encounter with its inhabitants is sure to enthral young visitors.
Half a million birds – puffins, guillemots, gannets, fulmars, cormorants, razorbills, kittiwakes and petrels included – rule the roost here, seemingly oblivious to human presence, while grey seals, porpoises and dolphins splash offshore. Be among the few to stay overnight (welshwildlife.org/overnight-accommodation-on-skomer) to have the island pretty much to yourself, then watch your kids' faces as they listen to the chorus of 120,000 breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters returning to their burrows after dark.
The Dale Princess (pembrokeshire-islands.co.uk) departs daily (except on Monday) from Martin's Haven. Tie in a visit to the island with a day or two at Marloes Sands (nationaltrust.org.uk/marloes-sands), a mile-long sweep of beach that does a vanishing act at high tide.
10. Bohinj, Slovenia
Bohinj isn’t the lake most people think of when they think of Slovenia. Bled – complete with beautiful island church and towering castle – tends to hog the headlines. Yet families who venture further along the road to Bohinj find the perfect place for an active holiday.
Lake Bohinj is framed by the Julian Alps, with mighty Triglav – Slovenia’s highest point – giving dreamy views. Energetic junior travellers will find kayaking, mountain biking, hiking to waterfalls, cable car rides and swimming here, with Euro-holiday staples of pizza and ice cream to go alongside parent-pleasing local fare, all available at competitive prices compared with other alpine spots in Europe. As you’re in the mountains, visitors can expect cooler temperatures than on the coast, and the odd shower, but a fine indoor water park and the ease of day-tripping to Ljubljana means the odd rainy day is no problem.
Get tips from the experts on where to eat, drink and sleep in three of this year’s most exciting European destinations by downloading free PDF chapters.
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