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Family holidays: if the kids are happy, everyone's happy. From pancake boats and Norman Foster-designed elephant houses to underground tunnels and planet trails, we've uncovered the highlights of five child-friendly cities you might not have thought of for a family break.
The Netherlands’ largest city enchants mini travellers with its 17th-century houses, historic windmills and intricate canal network. Find your bearings and fill up little tummies aboard the Pancake Boat (Ms van Riemsdijkweg, 020 636 8817), an hour-long cruise with all-you-can-eat pancakes – drizzled, sprinkled and slathered with every topping imaginable.
Then work it all off: boasting over 400 kilometres of cycle paths and 600,000 bikes, Amsterdam is incredibly cyclist friendly. MacBike (020 624 8391) has four locations including Centraal Station and rents out kids’ bikes, child seats, adult-child tandems and bicycles loaded with a giant bucket at the front where you can deposit your toddler or shopping.
Amsterdam’s museums cater brilliantly for kids. At the Rijksmuseum (Jan Luijkenstraat 1, 020 674 7000), a children’s audio tour uncovers 17th-century eating and drinking habits, while the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, 020 570 5200) runs fantastic creative art workshops for six- to 12-year-olds. State-of-the-art Science Center NEMO (Oosterdok 2, 020 531 3233) is crammed with five floors of hands-on activities for inquisitive minds.
To burn off energy, hire rollerblades and glide round Vondelpark, then let the kids don chefs’ hats at Kinderkookkafé (Vondelpark 6B, 020 625 3257) and bake their own pizza or decorate cakes.
Nestled beneath the Alps on the shore of Lac Léman, Geneva is a strong contender for world’s most liveable city; its magical setting is enough to wow any hard-to-impress child.
Getting around the city is a breeze. All visitors receive a free Geneva Transport Card from their hotel, allowing unlimited travel on buses, trams, boats and trains. Between May and October, you can enjoy four hours on the city’s extensive cycling trails with a free cargo bike (equipped with a front-loaded wooden box for your tot) from Genèveroule (17 place de Montbrillant, 022 740 1343).
Cross the lake on a canary-yellow mouette (water taxi), keeping your eyes peeled for the famous Jet d’eau, which shoots 500 litres of water per second up to 140 metres high. Work off steam in one of 50 city parks or gaze at polar bears and penguins in the Natural History Museum (1 route de Malagnou, 022 418 6300).
Geneva’s local mountain, Mt Salève, is actually in France. There’s a great family ticket deal for the cable-car ride up: bring your kids and you’ll all pay the child’s price. The views are mesmerising and little ones will love pootling along the waymarked botanical path at the peak.
This European hub’s compact size combined with its picturesque UNESCO-listed Old Town, child-friendly museums and vast green spaces makes it well worth discovering.
A quirky introduction to Luxembourg is the two-hour City Labo walking tour. Designed especially for young explorers, it encompasses seven locations and seven science experiments with some entertaining history thrown in. The lively tours run from the tourist office between mid-July and mid-September and finish at the inspirational National Museum of Natural History (25 rue Münster, 462 2401).
Adventurous kids will also be thrilled and intrigued by the 17th- and 18th-century underground fortifications or ‘casemates’, a labyrinthine network of tunnels hewn deep into the Rocher du Bock.
Luxembourg’s museums embrace small visitors. At the Museum of Contemporary Art or Mudam (3 Park Dräi Eechelen, 453 7851), children can sign up to Mudamini hands-on art workshops, join kids’ tours (available in English on request) or become a Mudam tour guide, undergoing special training and receiving a guide diploma.
The good-value LuxembourgCard allows free travel on public transport and covers 55 attractions in the city and beyond. You can buy a one-, two- or three-day family pass from tourist offices and stations.
Its startlingly beautiful lakeside location in the foothills of the Swiss Alps clearly helped Zurich bag second place in Mercer’s 2011 Quality of Life survey. An enviable blend of culture and nature means it’s an ideal destination for families.
Kick off your visit with a 90-minute Rikscha Taxi city tour (076 318 6889). These funky green and white cycle rickshaws can squeeze in two grown-ups and a small child (hire a couple if your clan is bigger). Or take advantage of Züri rollts’ free bikes – pick one up outside the Swiss National Museum (Museumstrasse 2, 044 218 6511), but pop in for a peek first.
Zurich’s lakeside parks are perfect for cycling, rollerblading or swimming. Lido Mythenquai is Zurich’s original beach; this sandy space with separate children’s area opened in 1922. Alternatively, take a train to Uetliberg mountain, the start of the Planet Trail, where you’ll discover models of our solar system’s planets as you hike, before soaring back down to Earth by cable car.
A laid-back Sunday brunch spot with live music is Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, Haus Hiltl (Sihlstrasse 28, 044 227 7000). Kids have their own menu, can paint on the windows or request a play cart.
Written by World Travel Media.