Taking the kids abroad on a family vacation may not be as difficult as you think. We’ve found 9 international cities that are kid friendly—from European vacations to exotic tropical destinations to bustling metropolis’ that will light up every one of your senses. You’ll create enduring family memories (and probably eat a lot of sundry foods) and your brood will learn a little something along the way. Keep reading to see them all.
Panama City, Panama
A visit to Panama offers not only exposure to culture, parks and serene villages, but also the destination that rewards travelers with two coasts, beautiful islands, mountains and lush tropical rainforests.
What to do: Visit the district of Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to learn about how the city of Panama was founded in 1519 by Spanish conqueror Pedro Arias de Avila. Here you’ll find stunning Spanish architecture, boutique shopping and lots of restaurants. Two of our picks are Diablicos for authentic Panamanian dishes and dancing or Savaje (if you have older kids), an incredible Asian Fusion restaurant with a popular rooftop bar.
Pop into BioMuseum, Panama City’s most popular museum for kids (the building itself was designed by Frank Gehry!) to check out the new galleries: Oceans Divided, The Living Web and Panama is the Museum. Rent bikes and cross the Amador Causeway, connecting Panama City to the Amador islands. Go on a whale watching and snorkel tour, or hang out at the playground, admire one of the best skylines in Central America and grab a bite to eat. Visit the Metropolitan Natural Park to see a jungle in the city.
Of course, no trip to Panama is complete without seeing the Panama Canal, a manmade wonder of the world that brings the Atlantic and Pacific oceans together. When you visit the Miraflores Visitor Center, you'll find an IMAX 3D movie about the history of the canal, a three-floor museum with interactive exhibits and a restaurant that gives guests a great view of the boats as they move through the lock system.
Where to stay: The Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort is ideally located 10 minutes from the Panama City airport, has a variety of room options, including singles and suites and three restaurants, one of which is a pool-side spot that does a paella night on occasion. The 40-meter long pool is stunning, and there's a one-foot deep pool just for kids. With a lifeguard on duty every day from 9-5 p.m., you can explore the city and come back for naps and swimming before ending the day with live music (Thurs.-Sat. 7-9). Staying through Sunday? If so, you'll be able to enjoy Bike Day, where from 7-11 a.m., the Santa Maria complex shuts down the road lanes, so pedestrians and bikers can enjoy the area without cars.
Find out more: anywhere.com/panamacity
This capital city of the province of Ontario is incredibly diverse (half of the 2.8 million residents were born outside of Canada), and because of that, visitors are afforded many wonderful dining options, exciting urban happenings and neighborhoods to explore.
What to do: Check out this post with some super fun things to do when you visit Toronto. Highlights for families include Casa Loma (yes, there’s a real castle in Toronto!), Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Botanical Garden, the Hockey Hall of Fame and Ontario Science Center. Thrill-seekers will love getting strapped into a harness to walk around the top of the CN Tower on the outside, 116 stories high. Take your family on a long bike ride (you can rent electric bikes to make it easier) along the Don River Valley to enjoy Toronto’s green spaces. Hop on the 501 “Red Rocket” old-fashioned streetcar along Queen Street through one of T-town’s notable neighborhoods—Leslieville, Riverside, Queen West, Parkdale or Roncesvalles.
You’ll definitely want to take a ferry or boat over to Toronto Island for leisurely strolling around, biking, kayaking or frolicking at the beach—bring a picnic or a blanket to indulge in some downtime. Visit Centreville Amusement Park and Far Enough Farm while here (only open during the summer) if you have small kids in tow.
What to eat: Scarf down authentic global cuisine in Little Italy, Little Portugal, Greek Town, China Town, Korea Town or Little India.
Where to stay: The Chelsea Hotel is great for families. They have a special kid check-in area where littles can receive a prize. There are also fantastic year-round kids’ programs and activities (including visiting the resident bunnies!) and an indoor pool with a water slide. Dining options are plentiful too, whether you need grab-and-go items or a nice alfresco meal in the courtyard.
Find out more: toronto.ca
Auckland, New Zealand
Imagine a bustling urban metropolis, the largest and most diverse—Māori, European, Pacific Island and Asian cultures—in New Zealand, with a strong link to nearby nature, and you’ve got Auckland.
What to do: Top family-friendly activities include The Maritime Museum, the Bug Lab at Auckland Zoo, Brick Bay Sculpture Trail, Butterfly Creek, Auckland Art Gallery, Sky Tower, Auckland Harbour Bridge, Auckland Botanic Gardens and Stardome Observatory. Catch the downtown Auckland Ferry, cruise across Waitemata Harbour for 25 minutes, and dock at Rangitoto Island, where you can summit Auckland’s youngest volcano.
Go slightly north, and you’ll find beach-y Takapuna, the seaside village of Devonport, snorkeling at Goat Island Marine Reserve and Shakespeare Regional Park.
What to eat: Dine at the carnival-themed Circus Circus or The Library Café, complete with chalkboards, a kids’ corner, and a bouncy castle.
Insider tip: Take Air New Zealand, their SkyCouch program now allows parents and kids to take off and land while laying down.
Find out more: aucklandnz.com
Helsinki has made our list of great cities to visit with kids not only because of its smallish, manageable size—about 628,000, which is very accessible on foot or bike—but also because the city has a nice balance between nature (one-third of Helsinki is covered in greenery) and urban fun.
What to do: Take a ferry over to Suomenlinna, the sprawling 18th-century island fortress, and enjoy walking around the gardens, climbing on old cannons, dipping your toes in the Baltic Sea, and chasing each other through the underground bunkers and tunnels of the upside-down castles. Visit the Natural History Museum, the tropical gardens of Gardenia, a glow-in-the-dark cave at Helsinki Playground and one of the many flea markets sprinkled all over the city. Finland is also well-known for their saunas (as well as Nokia and Angry Birds)—stop by one and relax before heading out for more sightseeing.
What to eat: Stop at one of the many indoor markets and eateries for Finnish favorites like gelato, cloudberries, chocolate, smoked fish and really strong coffee.
Find out more: visitfinland.com
Amsterdam is not all “coffee” shops and red light districts, it’s actually an incredibly charming, kid-friendly destination with more bicycles than people (and not too far from multi-hued tulips as far as the eye can see).
What to do: This circular full-of-canals city is home to beautiful parks (like Vondelpark, with its lakes, ponds and cafes), electric trams (they even have spaces for strollers), and nearly 75 museums. The Van Gogh Museum offers audio tours for children and the Anne Frank House, while difficult to walk through and fathom, provides great opportunities for practicing empathy and acceptance. Woonboot Museum, or houseboat museum, is super cool and kids will dig the activity corner. There’s a science center, Nemo, that is worth checking out for their interactive exhibits, and TunFun is an underground play space for kids that will spark their imagination. A number of petting zoos and farms, oddly enough, are sprinkled around the city as well.
Where to stay: Check out Airbnb for reasonably priced accommodations that will give you a local aesthetic.
Find out more: iamsterdam.com
Los Cabos, Mexico
On the very southern tip of the Baja California peninsula sits two very different cities, that together make Los Cabos.
What to do: On one end, you’ll find the vibrant Cabo San Lucas, where you’ll stroll by plenty of merchants calling out and selling their wares, boats docked along the marina with music flooding the walkway (look out for sea lions trying to hop on the back of boats for fish scraps), and pirate-themed restaurants with live steel drum music in front. Sandwiched between beaches Playa del Amor and Playa del Divorcio sits El Arco, large chunky rock formations that were carved out by rough winds and waves over millions of years. You can see the arc by land, but it’s best to take a boat over, snorkel and enjoy a picnic.
On the other end of the Los Cabos corridor sits San José del Cabo, an authentic and colorful Mexican town that features art galleries, small festivals and a much slower pace than Cabo San Lucas. You’ll see lovely churches, a large plaza with surrounding shops and plenty of great guacamole-heavy Mexican cuisine. Make sure you keep your peepers out for humpback and gray whales—every year, hundreds of whales can be spotted in Los Cabos during their migration from the Arctic.
Where to stay: If you want to stay somewhere in between the two cities, Hacienda Encantada is a great family-friendly, peaceful option. Here you’ll find multiple swimming pools, dining options, a short hiking trail to a vista point, beautifully landscaped desert gardens, and hammocks to swing in while reading a book. If you’re looking for something closer to the marina and the bustling Cabo San Lucas, check out Marina Fiesta, a nautical-themed resort that is walking distance to everything you’ll need in the way of food, boating activities and shopping.
Find out more: visitmexico.com/loscabos
Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan
For some, Japan might seem like a huge undertaking for a family trip abroad. Where do you start? Which cities are the most important to see and what should you do when you get there? A great resource is Abercrombie & Kent, a tour company that plans out tailor-made, culturally-rich family itineraries to Japan.
What to do: See the vibrant neon-clad streets, soaring buildings, and fish markets in Tokyo. Other highlights include cat and owl cafes; Asakusa Kannon Temple, a pagoda-style temple and the shrine of Meiji-Jingu. Kids will love learning about ninja culture and the life of a samurai through an in-depth, behind-the-scenes activity. At 175 miles-per-hour, the bullet train will connect you to Kyoto lickety-split. In Kyoto, you’ll visit the Golden Temple and surrounding gardens, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto Steam Locomotive Museum and Kyoto Aquarium.
Where to stay: There are many lodging options to choose from while in Japan—a traditional Ryokan, a robot hotel, a capsule hotel, a room with Godzilla peeking in, or luxurious options through A & K such as The Peninsula Tokyo and Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.
Lush avocado-colored fields, vast rocky landscapes, peat bogs and sprawling farms dot Ireland, the Emerald Isle. Dublin is the capital of this island nation, located at the westernmost edge of Europe.
What to do: Kids will love Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, Ark Children’s Cultural Centre, land and water tours, National Aquatic Centre, and Imagionocity children’s museum. Parents will enjoy stepping inside some of the oldest and most stunning cathedrals in Ireland. Dublinia is a great way to learn about Ireland’s medieval past through exploration of medieval sites, cathedrals, and even a stop at an underground crypt. Everyone will salivate at the Chocolate Warehouse while learning about the history and methods of chocolate making in a workshop. And, of course, you should visit the National Leprechaun Museum because, you know, you’re in Ireland.
What to eat: You’re sure to work up an appetite, in which case, you should dine on Irish favorites like stew, soda bread, farmstead cheese, and colcannon. If you purchase a Dublin Pass, you can get discounts at over 30 popular attractions, restaurants, and tours around the city.
Find out more: visitdublin.com
Paris isn’t just for couples—families will find a plethora of belly-filling restaurants, museums and interesting happenings in the City of Light.
What to do: Our favorite must-see stop is Shakespeare and Company bookstore, located in Paris’ left bank. The first bookshop opened in 1919 and was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway and the Lost Generation of the twenties until German occupation closed the store in 1941. The second bookstore, with the same name, opened in 1951 and has been open ever since. The amazing thing about this bookstore is that they host traveling writers—the shop has several beds, often with cats sitting on them, tucked away within the books.
One of the most historic and beautiful neighborhoods is Montmartre, and it is here that you can have your portrait sketched or painted, drink copious amounts of coffee and hot chocolate, walk through Basilica Sacre-Coeur and explore the winding flower-studded cobblestoned streets of Paris.
Of course, there are the popular must-do activities, especially for first-timers, like: Disneyland Paris, Jardin d’Acclimatation, Parc Zoologique, The Grévin wax museum (which predates Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum), The Louvre, Notre-Dame, Musee d’Orsay, Luxembourg Gardens, Arc de Triomphe, Paris Catacombs, shopping along Champs-Élysées and a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Find out more: enparisinfo.com
Which one of these cities would you like to visit with kids? Share with us in a comment below.
— Wendy Altschuler