A Family-Friendly European Vacation

Exploring the Abundance of the Old Country

When your home life is a constant outdoor-focused vacation, when your kids have been born into a community fueled by tourism, it makes leaving the Valley to gain perspective that much more of an imperative. This winter or spring break, you have many options, but for the balance of accessibility, depth and fun with kids, it is hard to beat the triumvirate of France, Belgium and the Netherlands and, specifically, their respective capital cities.


Photos courtesy of T.J. Voboril

Linked together by the high-speed Thalys rail, Paris (Gare du Nord), Brussels (Bruxelles Midi) and Amsterdam (Schipol or Centraal) are easy to approach no matter your preferred airport/airline of entry. With only three hours between Paris and Amsterdam, with Brussels halfway in between, you can adventure in this region in any order. For our purposes though, let’s begin in Amsterdam and work our way south to Paris.


Amsterdam, crisscrossed by canals, awash in flowers and possessing incredible bicycle infrastructure, is often described as a large village, not quite a city. To Valley residents, it is still big, but navigating the city is very manageable. The Dutch will ride bikes no matter the weather, as the coastal climate begets not a small amount of rain, but the excellent tram network is also a good choice when the skies have opened.europe vacation

In terms of attractions, the city center is the common draw, with the big art museums (Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum will both blow young minds, but make sure to book in advance), Anne Frank House (generally suitable for children 10 and above, reservations required), canal tours (an interesting way to see the city) and heaps of boutiques, restaurants and cafés. To get a little more of a local flavor, consider staying in the Vondelpark area. This large park, still a short distance from the bustle of Museumplein, is a great place to have a picnic, soak in the rare sun or visit the multiple playgrounds with attached dining establishments like Melkhaus. The kids can run out their museum-fueled energy while parents enjoy a restoring coffee drink, refreshing mint tea or a craft beer.

Amsterdam’s dining scene is a fun mashup of European, Caribbean and Asian influences. Foodhallen is a flexible option for the whole family to try both Dutch classics (bitterballen) and world cuisines in a lively environment, with choices for appetites fickle and daring. For a more upscale choice that is still welcoming to children, try Ron Gastrobar or any of their affiliated restaurants, including an Indonesian spot located on one of the city’s outer canals. A stop at Winkel 43 for decadent apple pie is sure to delight visitors of all ages, with the same result at Van Wonderen Stroopwaffels or the poffertjes stand at the Saturday Noordemarkt.


Hold off on the fritjes in Amsterdam to save room for frites in Brussels. Also, prepare yourselves for a cavalcade of chocolate (Laurent Gerbaud is a master) and gaufres (ideally of the Liegeois variety). And, for the merely young at heart, the Brussels beer culture will warm on a cold day or satiate on a warm one. From the classic Trappist ales that pack a big punch to more modern beer styles, imbibing is a good way to take the edge off the stress of traveling with kids. Moeder Lambic is a choice spot to sample the beer spectrum, À la Bécasse for a more intimate, local vibe.

The Grand Place is the most famous attraction of the city, proximate to that oddly captivating statue of Manneken Pis. It is a worthy visit just to take in the scene and let the age of the buildings soak into the kids’ consciousness. Sometimes subtle exposure to history is more effective. Museums are great, but if you think that your kids’ eyes glaze over now, wait until you have dragged them through hours of (to them) interminable and inscrutable exhibits. That said, Mini-Europe is surprisingly enjoyable and the Atomium holds a nostalgic place in my heart.

The Sablon is an ideal place to stay. Not only do these blocks house every purveyor of fine chocolates and speculoos to jumpstart the kids’ sugar high (Leonidas, Pierre Marcolini, Mary’s, Maison Dandoy, just to begin) but this area has a central location with a slight remove from the mayhem of the main drag. There is a beautiful old church anchoring the space, and the walk to Parc Bruxelles, or almost anywhere, is super pleasant, assuming that it is not raining.

3. PARIS, FRANCEeurope vacation, france

Paris is singular, complex, a dream even as it confounds. It is a city of lore and for extremely good reason; it has a story to tell every visitor, a message that will remain far after one departs. All of the arrondissements have their charms, but the safest bet for a quick hop is the 5th or 6th. These two adjacent neighborhoods have the right mix of charm, proximity to main sites and excellent shopping, dining, drinking and café vibes.

Despite being cliché, you should visit at least one art museum. Centre Pompidou usually takes second fiddle to the Louvre, but I prefer the former, and maybe Musee d’Orsay and Musee de l’Orangerie as well, particularly with children. They are more compact, more logical, less crowded and still house works of art that will stop you straight in your tracks. Le Petit Palais is free and also impressive.

This is not a time to watch your kids’ diets or your own. Eat many croissants and a comical amount of other pastries, breads, cheeses, cornichons, forcemeats and those other delicacies over which the French obsess and in which you should delight. Try Mamiche for baked goods if you make it to the right side of the river; go to Hectar if you can leave the kids on their own or with a babysitter.

Paris is as much about being still as it is about moving. Sit at a café with your family, and play cards while you watch humanity in all its glory and ignominy. Go to the Tuileries or Parc Buttes Chaumont and sit and talk, just like you will see the Parisians doing. It is a culture based on collectivity, on communion over wine, on passionate discussion. Getting away from normal hierarchies (let your kids do a lot of planning with you, their decisions are important!), stepping outside of a routine, enjoying the presence of each other, these are the reasons that one travels, and Paris is an ideal place to capture this ethos.

There is an understandable impulse, given how much there is to see in just these three cities, to be constantly on the move. I have suggested a loose itinerary in that vein. Packing a lot in is one form of appreciating abundance, but there is a countervailing impetus to perhaps pick one city and give it more attention. To begin to feel the rhythm of a place is to impart some special wisdom, knowledge useful to both you and your children.