What makes a good family holiday for you? It’s different for everyone obviously, but I find the need to be outside of our usual routines such an overwhelming pull. Getting out of the Groundhog Day familiar with school runs, commuting, juggling chores, work commitments and life in general. My lovely DH commutes daily to London and has scant time with our son in the week. And as many of you will know I have a rather advanced wanderlust addiction, so coupled together it’s a driving force for a family holiday. I’ll go one step further though and suggest that you should take a family city break.
Back at the end of 2015, my Mum died not long before Christmas. Christmas is obviously so associated with family, and the realisation that life is infinitely precious but can change at the drop of a hat was the impetuous to make 2016 a year all about travel. Using the #take12trips challenge as my stake in the sand we set off to explore – Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Singapore….. My travel fixation hasn’t waned, and this year we’ve already undertaken some fairly spectacular trips.
Family holidays, rather than work travel, are a chance to slow down and be together experiencing all that travel can bring. Food, culture, fun, newness and hopefully a dash of sunshine too. Don’t get me wrong it’s rarely all rosy, especially when travelling with a 4-year-old. That longed-for chance to connect with each other can lead to tantrums and fraught moments when things don’t go to plan. The mantra of “breathe” and “it’s all going to be fine” through gritted teeth does eventually win through.
We’ve taken two city breaks as a family this year, and I’m going to stick my neck out and say they’ve both been very worthwhile endeavours with a pre-schooler in tow. Mostly our family holiday time has been dedicated to resorts and activities where having children is a given – Camping, Centre Parcs, Disneyland Paris etc. I love these holidays, they are a blast, but often they come at the price of not really seeing a place, or (can’t believe I’m saying this) really only fun for the kids.Of course, I love that these places come with kid-focused activities all thoughtfully provided. But have you tried to drag a four-year-old out of a soft play area or a pool to go and look around “the town” or maybe go and visit the harbour? When they know they have other options, just like us, they’ll choose what they want to do which is more fun.
With the family city breaks we have done so far, the expectations for all of us have been different but with a little preparation, I think we’re getting better at them. Exploring cities with kids in tow can be exhausting, so keeping the agenda light or in a tight geography can really help. Unlike being at a resort it’s harder to just wake up and think “I wonder what we’ll do today”, not that you need to be regimented, just prepared.
One of the best tips I’ll share is about setting the groundwork for your destination with your little one. Before we went to Paris over Easter, I read bedtime stories about Paris to my Son. (I recommend A Walk in Paris by Salvatore Rubbino) We drew the Eiffel Tower and we talked about the food they eat in France. We go to France every summer so he’s familiar with the idea of “Bonjour”, “Merci” and “Au revoir” but I find it’s helpful to have the conversation about the language they speak in your destination. Last year we went to Copenhagen and I can’t tell you the giggles we had with “Tak” and “Hej” before we went. As part of the planning for our Paris family city break, our Son got to choose two things he wanted to do in Paris – it may not surprise you that the Eiffel Tower was one of them.
In no way exhaustive, here are my top 5 tips for a family city break with a pre-schooler.
1) Use visual supports before you go – read stories about your destination, draw iconic landmarks and just talk about where you are going. I also use this technique for so many new things we are going to be doing – including the first visit to the dentist!
2) Plan but don’t plan too much. If you have scheduled every 15 minutes of the day you are going to come unstuck. If you anchor your day around one or two activities then there are likely to be no time pressures. No frantic rushing which kids don’t like, time for plenty of snack breaks and dawdling walking. You’ll be able to research kid-friendly eating near your activity or plan (and pack) a picnic. Try and keep the geography you plan to cover reasonably tight or at least know the routes on public transport you’ll take ahead of time
3) Realign what you think will be achievable. The prospect of a new city is often all too tempting to try and squeeze in many things. When we went to Copenhagen we took a canal tour (in fact we did two!) this way we got to see some of the sights sitting down and while as an adult you might find these types of tours too touristy – they’ll think it’s a brilliant way to spend an hour or so. Even activities that you think will be fun for them can take their toll, as I vividly remember from our trip to Disneyland Paris last year
4) Consider an apartment. In many major cities, accommodation can be a huge dent in your budget especially when you’re looking for a room big enough for your family group. Usually, it also means the pokiest space known to man, which is difficult with a small child. Obviously, Airbnb is a handy resource but also consider Apart hotels. We recently stayed at Cheval Residences Three Quays on our long weekend City break to London. The apartment was incredible – lots of space, killer views and a laundry room and kitchen.
5) Consider family activities, not just kid activities. It’s easy to find yourself with a weekend planned almost entirely to your child’s needs but don’t forget to include yourself in the trip too. Maybe it’s a particular museum, a specific place you wanted to eat or something else. Plan it in and try to a spin on it that everyone will enjoy. In London recently we included a Duck Tour, it was fun for us all – novelty transport, lots of James Bond references and a handful of good pub quiz type facts. Everyone was happy.