We’ve taken our three kids (4, 6 and 8) to Europe every year since they were born. Some years we stay in one place for several weeks and really get to know the area. Some years we do the opposite, moving around and experiencing different places. This was one of those years. We just returned from visiting eight countries (Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Austria, Germany, Slovenia and Malta) over six weeks, including a Disney Cruise from Venice to Barcelona. Everyone in the family rated each of our destinations and major activities to be able to give others a succinct list of recommendations. Here are our top 15 highlights from 2014.
1) The Boulevard Raspail Organic Farmer’s Market in Paris. With foodie kids and a foodie wife, we visit markets virtually everywhere we go. Not only was this the best market we visited this summer, it was our favorite activity of the summer. We spent well over an hour wandering up and down the aisle, buying fruit, veggies, baked goods and savory made-to-order items like onion gallettes and crepes. As our daughters were snacking on newly-purchased red and orange bell peppers, several merchants started calling them “les filles poivrons” (the pepper girls) which created a fun rapport. There was live music as well. The organic market is only open on Sundays, but the normal market operates Tuesdays through Saturdays at the same location. On Boulevard Raspail between rue du Cherche-Midi and rue de Rennes from 9am to 3pm. Metro: Rennes.
2) Walking around Florence. We spent an amazingly kid-friendly two weeks in Florence last year and really got to know the city well. This year it felt like we were going home. We met up with our favorite guide Elvira Politi again for tours of Santa Croce, Boboli Gardens and the Stibbert Museum (see number 6 below), but the real highlight was simply wandering around, crossing over the Ponte Vecchio every night and walking along the Arno, climbing to Piazalle Michelangelo, going through the market areas and exploring the streets behind the main attractions. And even after traveling all summer, my six-year-old son, after just two days back at home, told us “I wish we were still in Florence.”
3) Walking around Venice and Feeding the Pigeons. I was nervous about taking the kids to Venice during the summer, since the crowds and heat definitely aren’t optimal. But Venice was one of our highlights. I booked Nadia Danesin as our guide based on TripAdvisor reviews and she managed to get us away from the crowds to show us the non-touristy Venice and islands for two days. But the highlight came when we stopped by Piazza San Marco one afternoon and the kids fed the pigeons, letting them land on their hands, arms, shoulders and heads. They couldn’t get enough.
4) Walking around Rhodes, Greece. We’ve gotten fairly pro-active on booking guides and arranging activities in advance, so it’s funny that our top four activities were all unarranged. We were extremely impressed by Rhodes and its old town. We wandered around for hours, shopping a little but mainly letting the kids play on and around the ancient city walls, gates, towers and open spaces. It was easy to get lost, but that was part of the fun. We had a great long lunch of tzatziki, gyros, giant beans, shrimp and saganaki under giant ficus trees, and I bet we couldn’t find the restaurant again if we tried. And we likely will try – the kids all really want to go back to Rhodes next summer and spend more time there.
5) Macaron Making in Paris. We’ve always loved macarons, and trying new flavors at Pierre Hermé and Ladurée whenever we pass a store. So we arranged a cooking class with Cook’n With Class in Montmartre to learn how to make them. We made three flavors: yuzu/chocolate; passion fruit/black currant; and salted caramel. Our four-year-old got a little tired, but the other two kids loved all 3+ hours, and were highly involved in each precise step. Cook’n With Class also offers kid-friendly dessert classes, but I’m thinking we may work on baking baguettes with them next time. www.cooknwithclass.com
6) Stibbert Museum, Florence. This sits above Florence and required a taxi to get to, but is well worth a visit. The museum holds an amazing collection of 15th-19th century armor from Europe and Asia, as well as paintings and tapestries, Egyptian sarcophagi, and even Napoleon’s cloak from when he ruled Italy. The tour was only in Italian, but Elvira translated for us and added to the official commentary. At the end of the visit the kids sat down and designed their own coats of arms, based on those around the villa. A true hidden gem. Via Federico Stibbert, 26. www.museostibbert.it/en
7) Fish Spa, Rhodes. Virtually everywhere we went, from the Greek Isles to Paris to Florence, we saw fish spas – places with large aquariums filled with garra rufa fish that eat the dead skin off of your feet. We went to one in Rhodes, but could just as easily have gone elsewhere. The three of us who put our feet in with the fish loved the experience. It was slightly ticklish but not to the point where the kids had to take their feet out of the water, and we all left with smoother skin. A fun, inexpensive experience.
8) Mask Making, Venice. Our guide in Venice Nadia arranged a mask painting class for the kids at Il Canovaccio. They loved it. Each of the kids picked out a plain mask and then, with assistance from their mask expert, painted them. They added silver and gold leaf as well, which was a very nice touch, and then Il Canovaccio lacquered the finished masks which we picked up the next day. It was great to be able to do a very local craft, and it gave the kids a personal connection to the city and the masks that they saw everywhere. Castello 5369-5370, 30122 Venice. www.ilcanovaccio.com
9) Day in Santorini. We had been to Santorini before and this time we were on a mission – to get a small black bird, a Paloma, from a store in Oia where we had seen it five years ago. We left the other cruise goers in our wake as we rode donkeys up from the boat landing in Thira, took a taxi to Oia and walked to the store. The mission was a failure as the previous owner had died two years ago (although the previous owner’s widow coincidently stopped by when were there and is still trying to find one for us), but the day was fun. We enjoyed simply wandering around Oia, doing some shopping and enjoying the view, and we had a great lunch at one of our favorite restaurants anywhere in the world, Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna, on the water. From there we took a taxi and bus back to Thira and the cable car back down the hill. Just a fun day in a beautiful place with a quest thrown in. The kids loved it.
10) A Louvre Treasure Hunt. We did four kid-friendly walks around Paris with Paris Muse and Context Travel. We enjoyed them all (Montmartre, Notre Dame, Marais and the Louvre), but if we were going to recommend just one to others, it would be Paris Muse’s private tour of the Louvre. We saw the museum’s well-known paintings and sculptures of course, but that was secondary. Far more time was spent with other Babylonian, Greek, French Medieval and Italian Renaissance art, with a kid-friendly approach and word puzzles, tied together through a museum-wide treasure hunt. We didn’t have to wait in lines, and we skirted the crowds to head straight to notable pieces – definitely the kid-friendliest way to see the world’s most popular museum, and very educational and fun for all of us. www.parismuse.com.
11) La Cenerentola Opera, Salzburg, Austria. We saw two kid-oriented operas as part of the Salzburger Festspiele, the annual 6-week music and drama festival – Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Rossini’s La Cenerentola. We all liked La Cenerentola the best. As it was more or less the story of Cinderella, even though the dialogue and singing were in German, the kids were able to understand everything. The performance was extraordinarily good, and the hour and 15 minute duration was perfect for young kids. We had just wanted to give the kids an introduction to opera – we didn’t anticipate it being a summer highlight. www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/summer
12) Lake Bled, Slovenia. We ended up in Lake Bled because it was raining the entire week in Salzburg and we needed a break. Even if Lake Bled was rainy as well, at least it would be different scenery. It turned out to be one of our favorite places. We spent two days enjoying the area, including taking a rowboat out onto the lake, sledding down the mountain (Straža Bled), feeding the ducks and eating at very good restaurants. It’s high on our list of places to return to in the next couple of years.
13) Water Taxis in Venice. We had previously only taken water taxis to and from the airport (always an enjoyable way to arrive and depart). This trip we also took one on a tour around the city as well as out to the islands. They were more expensive than the ferries but infinitely more convenient, and they allowed us to spend a lot more time on the islands and seeing the real Venice instead of walking long distances (with short legs) to the ferry stops and queuing to get onto the crowded, slower ferries. This led to a definite highlight for my six-year-old son – on the way from Murano to Burano, the water taxi driver let him drive the boat most of the way. How many six-year-olds get to drive a water taxi in Venice?
14) Carpetium Carpet Weaving Center, Selcuk, Turkey. Our kids had the times of their lives, running (and rolling) around for an hour while the Carpetium employees were unrolling carpet after carpet for us to look at. It was a perfect break after a long, hot morning visiting the ruins and sites around Ephesus. What could easily fall into the category of Tourist Traps was anything but. Then we followed it up with an excellent Turkish lunch next door in the shaded courtyard.
15) Book Making, Florence. Concierge in Umbria scheduled this for us as a follow up to seeing how Florentine paper was made (last summer). The kids started by assisting with the cleaning and restoration of a book from the year 1516, and then they created books from scratch. They grouped and folded the pages, punched holes for thread, sewed the pages together, chose covers and glued the covers to the books, using the same methods and tools used for centuries. It gave the kids a great feel for where books come from, and was a really fun activity for an afternoon. www.ciuitaly.com
In looking at our complete list, it’s notable that two of our favorite activities from the last couple of years – climbing the cupola of the Duomo in Florence and visiting the Jardin d’Acclimitation in Paris – were two of the kids’ least favorite activities this year. Last year at the Duomo, we lined up at 8:15am (15 minutes before opening) and there were roughly 10 people in line ahead of us. This year we got there at exactly the same time to find over 200 people already lined up. Instead of being able to run to the top, it was a slow, frustrating, crowded climb. At the Jardin d’Acclimitation, it was both hotter and more crowded than the last time we went. It just goes to show what visiting any attraction on the right day can do to affect one’s experience.