Europe: six educational city breaks

By Harriet Cooper

Photography by Shan Shihan/Getty Images

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February 2017

What better way to bring history alive for kids than by swapping text books for travel? Head to these European cities and follow in the footsteps of revolutionaries, emperors and Vikings. Adults might learn a thing or two, too.


With the imposing Acropolis rising above a cosmopolitan hub below, this bustling city seamlessly blends the past with the present.

Best for… Swotting up on the Ancient Greeks.

They may have lived over 2,000 years ago, but their influence can be felt today in philosophy, the arts, science and sport. And there’s nowhere better to understand this lasting legacy than in Athens, often referred to as the cradle of Western civilisation.

There’s nowhere better to understand this lasting legacy of the Ancient Greeks than in Athens, often referred to as the cradle of Western civilisation

Do the culture bit

Why not tick off Athens’ ancient sites on a three-hour electric bike tour. With an expert guide leading the way, you’ll be able to explore the attractions around the Unesco-listed Acropolis with ease, from the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the mighty Panathenaic Stadium.

Treat them

Post-culture, take little ones to a traditional taverna for sustenance. Psaras may be in the touristy Plaka neighbourhood, but it’s frequented by Athenians who yearn for the authentic Greek cooking. The interiors are cosy, while in warmer months, tables are arranged on the steps outside.

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  • Kids going for gold at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens © Fernando Vazquez Miras/Getty Images

    Front runner

    The Panathenaic Stadium, which dates back to 566BC, is the oldest stadium in the world – and it’s still used for sporting events today. Fun fact: it’s the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble and holds around 50,000 spectators.

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  • Get vertigo at the Holmenkollen Ski Jump Tower, Oslo © Ekely/Getty Images

    Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

    At the Holmenkollen Ski Museum, kids will love learning about 4,000 years of skiing history. The jump itself has played host to a century’s worth of skiers, and is the oldest of its kind in the world. Fly from London to Oslo.

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  • Oslo Opera House, home of The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet © Alamy

    Climb every mountain

    Constructed in 2008, the Oslo Opera House building takes its design cue from nature – specifically Norway’s mountains – and lets visitors climb up onto its roof. The slope to the top also doubles as a cool outdoor seating area for concerts during the summer months.

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Rest weary little legs

The family-run Philippos in the heart of the old city, just moments from the Acropolis. It has comfortable family rooms, the metro on its doorstep, and it is excellent value for money.


With its instantly recognisable architecture, superlative museums and one of the most riveting cemeteries in the world, the City of Light is a must-do for any history student.

Best for… Genning up on the French Revolutionary Wars.

To get to grips with these 18th-century military conflicts, ensure a thorough understanding of the preceding French Revolution with a visit to Paris, where you can still find traces of this watershed event.

Do the culture bit

Explore the intriguing parts of Paris on a hop-on hop-off tour. From Palais Garnier to the Louvre there are photo ops aplenty, especially at Place de la Bastille where the French Revolution began. The final stop is Notre Dame, which, though damaged in the Revolution, is now restored to its former glory.

  • The Louvre in Paris © Alamy

    State of the art

    The Louvre is the largest museum in the world, welcoming 9.3 million visitors per year and housing 380,000 works of art – but not all of them are on display to the public. You’d need 100 days spending no more than 30 seconds on each work to see it all.

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Treat them

Nothing says Paris like hot chocolate and a little pastry. The city is teeming with cafés and patisseries but, according to its regulars, the historic Cafe de Flore serves the best chocolat chaud in town with some excellent people watching on the side.

Rest weary little legs

In the heart of Paris, Hotel du Louvre – a Hyatt Hotel has 177 rooms, five-star facilities and impeccable service, not to mention childcare facilities and kids’ activities.

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With eye-catching architecture, stimulating museums, spectacular forests and fjords, and a buzzing café culture, Norway’s capital is awash with delights.

Best for… Learning about all things Viking.

These Nordic seafarers were buried with everything from kitchen utensils to ships, and when their burial mounds were excavated in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, the extraordinary discoveries were put – and remain – on display in Oslo.

Do the culture bit

Explore Vigeland Park, the Holmenkollen ski jump and the Viking Ship Museum. While the first two are certainly photo-worthy, young travellers will love the latter on the Bygdøy Peninsula, where the 9th-century longboats are stars of the show.

Treat them

Take kids to the iconic Oslo Opera House by the Oslofjord where they can climb onto the roof, which is do-able via a wide ramp. Afterwards, head to the artsy Grünerløkka district for brunch at The Nighthawk Diner, with its authentic 1950s American décor.

Rest weary little legs

The Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Oslo’s largest hotel with an impressive 37 floors. There’s a playroom, children’s menus and a swimming pool for burning off any extra energy.

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Since the fall of the infamous Wall, Berlin has shaken off its tumultuous past to become a vibrant metropolis, bursting with creativity and culture.

Best for… Understanding the Second World War and its aftermath.

Berlin was at the heart of the turbulent 20th-century and is a magnet for history buffs hoping to see the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, and the Topography of Terror.

Do the culture bit

To fathom the horrors of Nazi Germany, take older kids to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. The three-hour walking tour will take you around the memorial site, where you’ll learn the history of the camp and those imprisoned there.

Treat them

For some light-hearted relief head to Berlin’s zoo, which is home to over 18,000 animals and considered the most species-rich in the world. Don’t miss the daily feeding sessions, starting with the wolves at 10:30.

Rest weary little legs

The five-star Hilton Berlin is mere metres from the city’s main attractions. Kids will love the pool and bike rental, while parents will appreciate the family package offer.

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Spain’s dynamic capital is a pleasing mix of history, artistry and culture – with great food and an animated atmosphere thrown in for good measure.

Best for...Getting to grips with the European Renaissance

Also known as the Golden Age, this period of cultural rebirth happened in the 15th and 16th centuries in Spain, mostly thanks to the patronage of King Charles V – ruler of the Spanish Empire and Holy Roman Empire.

  • Sign up for an educational tour at Madrid’s Prado museum

    Walk in the park

    Translating to ‘meadow’ in Spanish, the museum’s name originates from the surrounding land’s origin as a leafy garden. The Prado’s collection is so large that only one seventh of it is on display to the public at any one time.

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  • Chill out with a gelato at Rome’s Trevi Fountain © Getty

    La dolce vita

    Keep your gelato firmly in your left hand and throw a coin with your right over your left shoulder to ensure you come back to Rome. Trevi is the largest Baroque fountain in Italy, with a statue of Neptune taking centre stage. Fly from London to Rome.

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  • The Colosseum in Rome in full bloom © Matt Richardson

    When in Rome…

    For a taste of the Roman life, take a walk around the 2,000-year-old Colosseum – the largest amphitheatre in the world.

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Do the culture bit

To appreciate the works of Spanish Renaissance greats such as El Greco and Luis de Morales, visit the Prado Museum, home to some of the world’s finest European art. A personal guide will introduce you to the museum’s highlights and – bonus – you get to skip the queues.

Treat them

The covered Mercado de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor, is the place for rumbling tummies. One of Madrid’s oldest and most beautiful markets, there are stalls selling everything from chocolate to caviar, myriad tapas bars and a bustling ambience.

Rest weary little legs

The four-star Novotel Madrid Centre is located in the Salamanca District and is an ideal base to explore the city. There are a whopping 790 rooms, as well as two restaurants and a bar.

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With 3,000 years of history, the sprawling Italian capital is the perfect mix of classical architecture and antiquities with stylish shops and lively restaurants.

Best for… Bringing Caesar, Augustus et al to life.

The Roman Empire was one of the most influential empires the world has ever seen and its impact can still be felt across Europe today, in architecture, language, religion and law. To understand where it all began, a trip to the Eternal City is a must.

Do the culture bit

Bring those history books alive on a hop on, hop off sightseeing bus tour. You’ll stop close to The Colosseum, the Vatican and the mysterious Catacombs.

Treat them

Rome is chock-full of gelatarias, so reward your little Spartacus with some Italian ice cream. For a leisurely sightseeing trip, hop on the number 3 tram in front of the Museum of Modern Art and enjoy the 40-minute journey, which takes you past aqueducts, the Colosseum, and Circus Maximus to the Tiber River.

Rest weary little legs

Occupying a 16th-century building on the Via del Corso, the Regno is near the Pantheon and the Roman Forum. Book the family room, which is soundproofed, sleeps four and has free Wi-Fi.

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