Big cities like Rome, Madrid, Munich, or Amsterdam may not be the best places to start traveling with very young children. Ruins, cathedrals, palaces, and art museums are too immense, too crowded, and too incomprehensible for a preschooler or an elementary school child.
Great travel destinations at this age are usually small, relaxed storybook villages such as Mittenwald, Brugge, Volendam, and Feldkirch—and places with children’s activities such as Hallstatt, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, or Gouda. Lakeside or seaside towns such as Riva del Garda or Zandvoort are also great places to take children.
I’d have to suggest a seaside town that very few guidebooks find notable, but I find unsurpassed in Europe for children under ten: Blankenberge, Belgium. You will find no American tourists here (read: no inflated prices), but the Belgians love to vacation with their families at this little beach resort. Yes, Blankenberge has sand and water for endless hours of building sandcastles for kids, and relaxing options for parents, but those aren’t the only things I love about this city. The city is an absolute playground for children!
Note: The Blankenberge website has an English language option. Don’t worry, it’s easy to figure out basics like operating hours and prices.
The Kinderautodroom on the strand by the pier is a fun opportunity for children. Here, kids of all ages rent pedal go-carts to ride around an enormously long and wide track that weaves under the pier and back. Along the way are traffic signals, roadside phones, and gas pumps. When I drove this course as a child, I felt an incredible rush of independence as my parents disappeared out of sight behind me (however, parents can observe the whole track when standing on the pier). An added bonus: the pedaling tires out the kids for an afternoon nap or a good night’s sleep. For only three euros per person for thirty minutes, this activity can’t be beat.
With a smaller, but more charming track, Blankenberge’s kid carting at Leopold Park offers sports cars, fire engines, and dump trucks to pedal. I quickly realized what very authentic pretend-play this course offered when my six-year-old son got out of his cart, and berated another child (who didn’t understand a word of English) for running a red traffic light!
Families can ride around together in beach pedal cars, which can be rented all along the strand, or watch Dad look silly on a crazy bike in the Lustige Velodroom. Blankenberge also has miniature golf, a permanent mini-train expo, a marine park and sea-life center, and a serpentarium (that would be reptiles) too.
The city is small, and you can walk to the beach from virtually any hotel in town. However, even the beach-front hotels on the promenade are relatively affordable. We stayed at Hotel Helios. Here, any size family can be accommodated by their suites, junior suites, extra beds, and cribs. Half-pension and full-pension are available also (I know, that one always throws me off too—I wish they would just say “dinner” and “lunch and dinner”).