How to holiday with kids: Entertaining breaks with pre-teens

Part two: Combining cultural trips and fun to create memories without breaking the bank

We’re lucky enough in Europe to have ‘living museums’ in many of our towns and villages. Photograph: Getty Images

We’re lucky enough in Europe to have ‘living museums’ in many of our towns and villages. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Holidays, like everything else in life, change as your children grow up. Travelling with toddlers means a focus on equipment, logistics and fear of the unknown, but rewards you with a feeling of “we can do this – we can have children AND have a life” (with compromises of course).

Once you grow into a family with kids with a voice and an opinion, requirements change, but it gives you a chance to experience the world through their eyes.

Thinking beyond the beach/pool family holiday, there are lots of interesting ways to combine everyone’s wishes. Some city destinations work really well.

The currently ultra-trendy Lisbon comes to mind. Situated on the Portuguese coast, it has history, culture, great food and easy access to beautiful beaches. And then there is the Océanario de Lisboa, the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. It is stunning architecturally – it sits on its own lagoon in Lisbon’s Parque das Nações (Park of Nations) – and we had to drag our three kids (then aged eight, five and three) out of there after more than four hours one day, such was the fascination with the excellent exhibits. We ended up bribing them with the promise of something from the gift shop to get them out, which makes a change from trying to escape without them seeing the gift shop.

Cascais and Estoril are lovely towns a short distance from Lisbon. You can stay there by the sea and take the train to the city in about 30 minutes. The prices in the Portuguese capital also make it a family-friendly destination – it’s the only place we were happy for our five year old to order lobster for dinner. He got to choose his own lobster from the tank in the restaurant; they even let him climb the ladder to help catch his dinner himself.

Trade a day of museums and cultural activities for one in a theme park. Photograph: Getty Images
Trade a day of museums and cultural activities for one in a theme park. Photograph: Getty Images

The eating-out experience becomes an event once the kids are old enough to explore – they may be used to pizza at home but there is nothing like the fun when they see it being stretched, tossed and topped before being cooked in a beautiful wood-fired oven. Paella definitely tastes best if cooked on a huge flat pan on an open fire on the beach before being served to you; dinner and entertainment for the kids, all in one.

Cities with different transport types also provide great fun. While Lisbon has its wonderful old trams, rattling up and down the many hills, most cities have open-topped hop-on/hop-off buses that give everyone in the family a rest from walking with great views along the way. Some cities have bike taxis which will take all the family in one or two carriages on sightseeing trips.

To balance out the culture, we do a deal with the kids – some culture today and a theme park tomorrow. This cuts out any resentment, on either side

It’s also great to do some holiday activities with children. Surf lessons, for example, are great fun and have the advantage of being a great leveller if the adults are beginners with the kids. It might be the highlight of the holiday to discover that the kids are better at something than their terrified parents. The same often goes for skiing.

Over the years, we have learned different ways to incorporate our love of culture and history into a trip with kids. Although museums are great for context, children can bore easily. However, we are lucky in Europe to have so many “living museums”; towns and cities that require little more than a stroll around to learn.

Évora in Portugal, for example, has both a well-preserved Roman temple and a skeleton-filled chapel made of human bones – there are few kids who will pass up the opportunity to see something that gruesome. Also in Portugal, in the ancient town of Óbidos on the west coast, you can walk along the top of the old castle walls, the children carrying the reproduction wooden medieval swords they sell around the town for extra ambience (and in case of any marauders).

To balance out the culture, we also do a deal with the kids – some culture today, and a theme park or water park tomorrow. This cuts out any resentment (on either side) and allows everyone to enjoy each day.

Home swaps work well for us. Our children enjoy the fun of arriving and checking out the home and notes, treats and toys the family have left for us

It doesn’t have to be a pricey Disney-style land or a tacky theme park – there are lots of great local options. Italy has Gardaland to balance out days visiting the beautiful towns on Lake Garda, while France offers Parc Astérix to complement visits to authentic ancient French landmarks.

The right accommodation for the family can add to the experience of the holiday. As a family of two adults and three children, we often don’t fit into a standard hotel room so we need to get creative to keep costs down and avoid the adults having to split up in separate rooms. I’ve found that a call or email to a hotel can produce a room that sleeps five, where the same hotel’s online booking might not allow this.

Airbnb-type services work really well for us, as do home swaps (we use a site called LoveHomeSwap). Our children have enjoyed the fun of arriving at a home swap, checking out the home, the notes and treats that the family have left for us and the toys that the other kids leave out for them to play with. It’s a bit like living someone else’s life for a while, though of course it might not be for everyone.

Travelling with kids is a great way to build memories. It’s never going to be really easy, but who needs easy?

Apart from the practical elements of accommodation, you can sometimes make it a fun part of the holiday – we once stayed in a hotel in the city of Pompeii which had a small farm attached. Our chalet was beside the farm and our daughter loved to visit the animals and help to feed them. An Agriturismo in Italy will take the experience a step further; you can stay on a working farm in a rural location where all the food served will be produced locally. Vineyards provide another educational experience (and wine-tasting for Mum and Dad!). Our children have been lucky enough to see a grape harvest in September (and the vineyard owners were lucky enough to spot our three year old trying to open the tap on a barrel of one of their older vintages just in time).

Travelling with kids is a great way to build memories – it’s difficult to remember exactly how they looked at a particular age in normal life, but easier if you remember them on that one trip where they were really fascinated by an ancient castle, or ate their first squid. It’s never going to be really easy, but who needs easy?

Hints and tips for travelling with kids

“Keep costs down and interest high by shopping for a picnic lunch in a local supermarket or market. It’s interesting for both adults and kids to see the difference in products and brands from those available at home and everyone is more likely to eat if they are actively involved in the selection process.”

“Beach restaurants often have play areas beside them, keeping kids busy between courses and allowing adults some time to relax with children within viewing distance. You might also be lucky enough to have an ice-cream kiosk within sight – a little safe independence for the children to choose their own dessert on holidays is fun – and so are the unusual ice-creams on offer there.”

“A pack of playing cards or something similar might never see the light of day at home but can become part of the holiday experience – fun to play in the shade during the day or while waiting for dinner – best to make sure there is a prize or something to keep the competitive spirit going!”

Next week: Part Three – How to travel with teenagers

How to holiday with kids: Part One. Tips and tricks for travelling with babies and toddlers

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