Can you still take enjoyable city breaks once kids come along?
Big cities sometimes get a bad wrap when it comes to family travel. Many parents dismiss them as “too hard”, or “the kids will be bored”. What rubbish!
We’re here to set the record straight on city breaks with kids. They are not impossible, they just need a little planning and forethought. In this article we are going to guide you through:
- 6 steps for setting up the perfect city break
- 6 sure-fire activities to keep little explorers entertained
- and 5 things for city explorers with kids to avoid
Remember the key to good family travel, is making sure that no one in your group is OVERTIRED, HUNGRY or BORED
Sounds easy right? We all know it’s not that simple. And if a long flight has been involved in your journey then throw jet lag recovery into the mix too. Before we dive into family-friendly activities that are always a winner, let’s look at how to structure your city exploring.
1. Plan only the essentials
Despite years of preaching organisation is key to family travel – and it is – when it comes to what we actually get up to when we arrive in a new city, we like to keep our plans fairly open. (Don’t ever think of skimping on proper planning at the flights and accommodation booking stage though, ever – this will only come back to bite you!!!)
Make plans only so far as when you think meal, toilet and rest breaks will be needed, let everything else fall into place around this. If you plan too carefully, or too much, you will be bound for disappointment when the cracks of a toddler tantrum commence or you’re making your 15th unnecessary toilet stop – GO WITH THE FLOW!
2. See what other parents say
A great way to research what’s on in a city to suit families is to look at family travel blogs! Not just a sales pitch for my industry, this is genuinely the way I now research my trips. With kids, I find this approach far more helpful than any guidebook. There’s a great new website that’s just been launched Family Travel HQ that helps you find travel blogs by location. If you are staying in a hotel, ask your concierge or desk staff what they recommend too – they may well have kids themselves and give you the inside scoop on special events and activities that are on during your visit.
3. Gather information leaflets
If your hotel or accommodation stocks little attractions advertising cards and pamphlets, its a great idea to stock up on these when you arrive. Not only are they brilliant for kids to play within the hotel room, but they might also actually give you some inspiration on what’s on about town too. Local magazines and papers might be another way to see what special events are on during your stay (and could well contain some coupon codes that will save you on meals and attractions too!)
4. Pack an awesome day pack
Having the right amount of kiddie supplies with you – but not too much that you’re weighed down or your stroller keeps toppling over – is crucial. How many diapers will you really go through? Will kids be ok to eat out or will a supply of snacks be needed? Is there a chance they’ll get wet (hands up who’s kid sees a water fountain then ‘accidentally’ falls in?) A critical supply I like to include from toddlers and above is a small supply of colouring books (or magic water boMagic water booksoks), perhaps matchbox cars that can be pulled out when boredom may otherwise ensue – avoid favourite lovies though – I’ve heard too many stories of poor bunny being left behind at important landmarks!
5. Organise downtime
We love finding a bar or restaurant with a good street view – get the kids some finger foods and colouring, get ourselves a nice cold drink and give all of us an opportunity to recharge. Invariably this is also where I pull out the map because I finally have my hands free and work out everything that I’ve managed to miss as I was too distracted! My Miss 5 loves this activity too, she will try and retrace where we’ve been and want to see all the photos we’ve taken.
6. Include adult time too
Family travel is not all about the kids. Yep there, I said it. Make sure if you have any “must do” items on your explorer list these aren’t ruled out or discounted completely because the kids are with you. We’ve many times taken kids to attractions that may not be considered overly ‘kid friendly’, but we balance it out with something that they will enjoy before and after, or attach a reward at the end for their patience (absolutely not averse to bribes in this family). Even better, can mum and dad split up for some alone time? One can take the kids exploring while the other explores on their own?
Regardless of the city we arrive in, almost all big cities will have these attractions which are great to keep kids entertained and break up a long day of exploring – or you can make them the focus of your day:
1. Seek Markets
Food, people watching, picking up touristy nik naks, street entertainers. I think markets are the best way to feel the real essence of a city, far better than seeking out shopping malls and seeing the same old stores you can see pretty much any major city around the world. Our oldest is already learning the art of haggling with street vendors and has picked herself up a few bargains along the way (her blonde hair and cute smile help). In South East Asia particularly this is where we see activity thriving and also a great way to interact with the locals, ask questions, try new foods.
2. Seek Museums
So many museums we have seen around the world are rethinking the way they present themselves to a younger audience with interactive displays, even life shows and activity rooms. Science museums in particular are great for hands-on experiences and giving kids a feeling that they are involved. We have had several great big city experiences including the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie (Science Museum) in Paris, the Science Museum in Kensington, London, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha to name a few.
3. Seek Animals
What kids doesn’t love animals! Of any shape and size. Zoos are absolutely perfect, be it big world-class zoos, or small local community petting zoos (often found inside large city parks). Indoor aquariums also make great rainy day activities to keep little ones amused.
4. Seek Heights
I’m personally a sucker for a great view, and it seems its a passion I have passed on to kids too. Whether it’s taking a trip up an observation tower, a cable car up a hill or even a Ferris Wheel, getting up above a city is a great idea to keep kids engaged with their travels. We love to point out where we’re staying, where we’ve walked or going next – you may even find something new and exciting places to go and explore.
5. Seek Things That Go
We have taken trams to tuk-tuks, buses and boats – not just to get from A to B, but it’s a great opportunity for tired little legs to catch up on themselves. Different modes of transport also provide you with a new way of seeing your city. Things like talking buses can also be the best way to cover a lot of ground quickly, as well as getting some great commentary on your city.
6. Seek Parks
And when all else fails – tell me a kid that doesn’t like going to the park! Even if it’s just a big green space, letting kids run free for a while is a must to squeeze into a busy day of sightseeing. The biggest of concrete jungles will still have little green oasis’s that can be scouted out. Now if you find one with a playground too, you’ve really hit the jackpot! We loved this post by Carpe Diem Our Way on great city playgrounds around the world if you’re looking for some unique ideas that you can even base your city break around. Parks and playgrounds aren’t always very well advertised to tourists which is where insider knowledge and blogging research come in immensely handy. Planning a surprise play park stop after some heavy duty tourism will also win you a lot of good will points!
Now you know how to set up your day, and what activities to turn to for keeping kids engaged – what should you be looking to avoid? The problem with big cities is, well they’re big, busy places! Here are a few things to avoid when looking at a day out in town;
1. Rush hour
Especially on weekdays, remember normal folk live in busy cities, going about their daily business. Your need for a double stroller to be traipsed up the Metro steps, or stopping for the 17th time to photograph your kid in that beautiful but bustling location is probably a bit of nuisance, to be honest. If you’re nearing dinner time and want to avoid the late afternoon meltdowns, plan ahead to beat the crush with an early dinner or snack stop. Likewise, you might not want to start your day’s excursions until the business day is already under way and traffic has eased.
Speaking of strollers – think ahead how easy will your city be to navigate with a stroller?Although they are brilliant for hanging bags off, resting tired children, how user-friendly is your city? Will you encounter a lot of stairs? Will there be safe places to park it at places you can’t bring it inside with you? How heavy is your stroller for transporting and lifting?
I’ll admit I am one who always errs on the side of taking a stroller. With 3 children carrying them all is no longer an option; I’d rather the inconvenience of carrying the stroller up and down the occasion staircase then dragging my older ones kicking and screaming once they are beyond tired (see our stroller page for more on what types of strollers might be best for you).
3. Mis-calculating distances
It’s so easy to look on a map and assume you can easily get from A to B – and as grown adults you probably can. When tired little legs are involved though, don’t expect them to be so keen on the idea of walking everywhere. Some cities offer fabulous tuk-tuk or taxi services that are cheap and easy for short hops, otherwise look at how easy it is to jump on and off public transport just to preserve some leg power. See advice above too on things that go – try building this into part of the days activities to prevent over-tiredness.
4. Wearing the wrong thing
Just as running out of supplies might make or break your day, so can having the wrong clothing. It should go without saying comfortable footwear for everyone is essential, but what about temperature? Kids are the first to moan if they are too hot / too cold. But do you want to be carrying big coats if there’s no chance of rain? (you WILL be the one carrying them). Will they freeze once the suns gone down and the evening starts? Are humidity and sweat an issue? A quick check of the weather forecast is a good start (and look out the window what the locals are wearing). Layering is of course the ultimate travel dressing solution – unless you’re visiting Melbourne (the city of 4 seasons) then I’m afraid any dressing advice I could give is useless!!
5. Trying to do it all
Only got a day to see the highlights of a city? Please remember when kids are in tow, you have nowhere near the leg speed, attention span or stamina that you had travelling solo. Don’t try to be a superhero and squeeze it all in, there’s no medal for completing everything on the “10 things to do in” list. Remember, you’re visiting a city not conducting an audit; you will all get far more from the city break experience by choosing only a few key places and events per day.
Far from being stressful, we find city breaks to be hugely rewarding. There is such a variety of activities for all the family to enjoy and you get to experience and learn so much more than when you simply lock yourself away in a resort.
Just remember, conquer TIREDNESS, HUNGER & BOREDOM for happy travels!
More City Travel Information
- You can’t go past Little City Trips when planning your next city break. A website dedicated to travelling with kids around the world’s biggest cities they have incredibly detailed “how to get around” guides through to the best family-sized hotels and apartments all had picked by real parents – not search engine machines!!
- Taking on the world’s greatest cities with the eye of an expat – check out our Explore My City guest blog series. This looks at some of the world’s smaller or more obscure city locations with super insider tips and ideas for planning a family vacation.
- We asked 20 top travel bloggers to share their favourite cities with us – and some of these might surprise you!
Looking for inspiration? Here are some great cities to try out a city break with kids: BERLIN ~ BRISBANE ~ CAPE TOWN ~ DUBAI ~ ISTANBUL ~ LISBON ~ LONDON ~ MELBOURNE ~ SAN FRANSISCO ~ SINGAPORE ~ SYDNEY ~ TOKYO
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