The Internet's Most Exciting European Destinations For Adventurous Families

For many American families, Europe makes for a relaxing vacation. Many flights are direct from major U.S. airports, and most big cities are walkable and well-connected by public transit. The European Union has maintained peace and prosperity for many years, and a U.S. passport makes borders a breeze to pass through. 20 nations accept euros as payment. Stability, history, and convenience — what more could a family ask for? 

That said, some families are more outgoing. They want thrills, excitement, and the faintest hint of danger. They want to work for their vacations, whether through physical feats or by venturing outside their comfort zones. Europe offers a pleasing mix of exhilaration and comfort, risk and safety. For kids from the U.S., Europe is a rich tapestry of sights and languages, similar in some ways but also strange and new. Add to these novel sensations the chance to paddle in a legendary sea or venture underground, and they may just feel like Indiana Jones.

We scoured several online publications and forums to narrow down our list of the best cities and regions in Europe for family-friendly adventures. Our research was specific to the family-friendly aspect. You'll find hotels and parks in all of them, plus well-paved roads and established attractions. Yet they also serve up astonishing sights, challenging outdoor activities, and food items your family has never heard of. Europe is full of adventure for the first-time traveler, and these are some dependable hotspots.

Paris, France

Paris has long enchanted visitors of all ages, and the City of Light is more inviting than ever. Every grade-schooler is familiar with the Eiffel Tower, and one trip to the Louvre will reveal world-renowned masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory. The Notre Dame, which is still being repaired, remains as magnificent now as it was in the 14th Century.

But families with a spooky streak may also enjoy the catacombs, an underground labyrinth beneath the city where 18th-century Parisians re-interred their dead to save space in graveyards. The tunnels lined with skulls are probably too scary for younger children, but teenagers may delight in a macabre tour through this so-called "Empire of Death." Visitors will also get a decent workout as they descend and ascend 243 steps.

Do the kids need a touch of home? While it may seem gauche to travel all the way to France for a meetup with Mickey Mouse, Disneyland Paris is a world-class theme park with all the rollercoasters you can handle.

Zermatt, Switzerland

Switzerland is immaculate, organized, and safe, but kids may feel a little underwhelmed in flat, well-ordered cities like Geneva and Bonn. They'll want to see the snow-capped Alps, and one of the best viewpoints is the valley village of Zermatt, Switzerland, which lies within view of the legendary Matterhorn. This spire of rock is one of the most visually unique summits in the world, and visiting this magical vale is the perfect excuse for kids to read the mountaineering adventure novel "Banner in the Sky," by James Ramsey Ullman.

Zermatt is just one of many bucolic alpine villages ringed with mountains, but it's a great place for families to strap on their hiking boots and take trails into the fabled hills. These routes cater to all skill levels, and you're rewarded with breathtaking vistas almost everywhere you go. If you're not athletic (or seek out accessibility), there are plenty of "no-hike" lookout points as well. The slopes are also festooned with cable cars and mountain railways, which should delight children with a craving for heights. In the winter, the snow-covered mountains transform into some of the most coveted ski slopes in the world, with runs for all skill levels and lessons for newbies. Celebrate an active day in your lodge with a hearty meal and world-famous Swiss chocolate.

Reykjanes, Iceland

Once an obscure island near the Arctic Circle, Iceland has exploded in popularity in recent years, becoming one of the trendiest destinations in Europe. And why not? The primal volcanic mountains are irresistible, as are the steaming thermal baths and potential for a scenic volcanic eruption. Families with a hiking habit will find trail systems and national parks that seem geo-formed on some distant planet. Pristine roads snake their way through this undulating landscape, and the photogenic views are relentless. Reykjanes is the island's southwestern region, which is most accessible from Keflavik Airport and the most heavily populated area.

Most visitors congregate around Reykjavik, the urban heart of Iceland. This town is clean, easy to navigate, and statistically one of the safest cities on Earth. You could walk across the metropolitan area in a couple of hours, or you could rent a scooter and zip your way through the maze of streets. Kids will likely love the island's Norse history, which they can learn all about at nearby Viking World. Here they can poke around grass-roofed cottages, stand on the deck of a recreated drakkar raiding ship, and try on an iron-smelted helmet. If all the pillaging isn't your speed, though, families visiting in the summer will delight in a local puffin tour — ride a boat to remote habitats and spot these endangered birds from the top deck.

Rhineland, Germany

Nothing excites a child's imagination like an authentic medieval castle, and the steep slopes of the Rhine River boast some 40 of them. These castles come in every shape, size, and style, from ruined Dark Age fortresses to fairytale Renaissance palaces. Perhaps the most eccentric is Pfalzgrafenstein, the infamous "toll castle" built on an island, which would stop passing ships and demand money.

The Rhine is central to ancient German mythology, and stories of magical rings, diabolical dwarfs, and the fearless warrior Siegfried blend nicely with tours of turrets and gatehouses. The banks of the Rhine are fairly level; the river is crisscrossed with bridges and bicycle paths, which string together the many quaint German villages along the way. Many towns like Bacharach and Cochem retain their half-timbered architecture and cobbled squares, and local folk festivals are common. Every village has its hotels and guesthouses, and kids may love losing their way among narrow old streets.

Traditional German cuisine can also be pretty friendly to picky eaters, with a great deal of bread, sausage, and cheese on every menu. The Middle Rhine is coated in vineyards as well, and parents are encouraged to sample locally crafted wines and beers.

London, United Kingdom

Red telephone booths, the Tower Bridge, and Big Ben! For many American children, the iconic sights of London are almost as familiar as New York's. They may not know what a "Beefeater" is, but they'll almost certainly light up at the red-uniformed guards at the Tower of London. They may have never read a Sherlock Holmes story from start to finish, but they know that deerstalker hat anywhere. Whether it's Paddington Bear or the Great British Baking Show, English culture gushes across the channel, and many families can't get enough of it. A trip to London can bring a lot of already-known reference points to life. 

Granted, London is a rainy city that caters a lot to adults-only interests, like old pubs and Jack the Ripper tours. But kids of all ages will enjoy the Science Museum, which has evolved considerably since it first opened its doors in 1857, and the Natural History Museum, which has a wide range of dinosaur skeletons and animal dioramas that are nearly as old. Art lovers will enjoy the massive British Museum, with its pillared exterior, latticed glass ceiling, and vast trove of artifacts from around the world, including the famous Rosetta Stone.

Classic London meal items like "chips" (French fries), toast, and baked beans seem designed for picky eaters. If you're short on time, here are the 13 ideas for a two-day trip to London with kids

The Danube River Trail, Austria

The Danube River really is a marvel. It runs through more capital cities than any other river in the world (four), and its 1,771 miles flow through no fewer than 10 sovereign nations. Ever since the end of the Cold War, tourists have been able to travel freely on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, in once-forbidden countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia.

One of the most beloved segments of the Danube is the 213-mile stretch between Vienna and Budapest. The route is full of romantic rural scenery and charming villages, which are best viewed from the "Donauradweg," or Danube Bicycle Path. The full journey is too long for little kids, but more mature riders can pedal over this level pavement through Austria, a chunk of Slovakia, and much of Hungary. Thousands of walkers and cyclists take this trail every day, and a handful of shops and tour companies rent bicycles for one-way trips, so you can start riding in Vienna and drop your bike off in Budapest at the end (or vice versa).

Vienna is renowned for its art, architecture, and dining scene, and many kids may love the age-old Viennese passion for music. Budapest is considered one of the jewels of Eastern Europe, with a zoo, museums, and the narrow gauge "Children's Railway" in the Buda hills.

Santorini, Greece

The Aegean Sea has thousands of islands, which have lured visitors to their rocky shores for thousands of years. There are plenty of traveler-ready islands to explore, and many backpackers hop from port to port, taking ferries and sailboats across Homer's "wine-dark sea." But for families, the gem of the Aegean is Santorini, the ancient volcanic island about 186 miles southeast of Athens. This is a landscape of whitewashed walls, blue-domed churches, and inspiring archeological sites. The excavated ruins of Akrotiri reveal the buildings and artwork of a civilization that thrived 3,600 years ago, before a powerful eruption buried the community in ash.

Many will marvel at the geologic formation of Santorini, whose still-active volcano has destroyed and rebuilt the crescent-shaped island time and again over the eons. The caldera mostly lies under crystal-clear water; but you can easily arrange a trip to Nea Kameni, a nearby island with waters thermally heated by the sea's floor. At the end of an eventful day, families can retire to the beautiful capital city of Fira and choose from any number of seafood restaurants.

Costa Brava, Spain

Part of the draw of Spain's Costa Brava is Barcelona, a trendy city with diverse architecture, a lively dining scene, and the unparalleled Sagrada Familia Church. The city has a busy airport with lots of direct flights from the U.S., making it a natural entry point into Spain. The weather in this area is temperate and dry, and Barcelona makes for a rewarding family getaway almost any time of year. Expect Spanish staples like tapas, flamenco, and superb wines.

But the Catalonian coast is also an inspiring mix of cliffs, beaches, and centuries-old towns, and it's ripe for a road trip. There's the walled medieval city of Tossa de Mar, the epic rock formations of Cova de la Sal, and — for older kids — the surreal Dalí Theatre and Museum in the town of Figueres. The city of Girona has become a hotspot for outdoor activities, especially hiking and all-ages mountain biking. While Catalan is the dominant language in this region, the language is very similar to Spanish and many people speak fluent English. Families could spend weeks exploring this complex terrain by car. If you're driving, this amusement park is a must-visit for car lovers. Or you could take advantage of the efficient railway system and hop a train to Madrid or Marseilles. 

Dalmatian Coast, Croatia

The medieval city of Dubrovnik juts out of the Dalmatian Coast like a Tolkien fantasy, and you can view its fortified walls from the road and cliffs high above. This mythic scenery dominates Croatia's western border, whose jagged islands and rocky ridges overlook the Adriatic Sea. This region was largely forbidden to Westerners during the Cold War and endured great hardship after the breakup of Yugoslavia. But today, the Dalmatian Coast is one of the most beloved destinations in Europe for folks who like to stray a little off the beaten path. This area is popular with backpackers and honeymooners, and it's also perfectly suited to families.

Towns like Dubrovnik win over visitors of all ages with their Mediterranean charm: terracotta roofs and stone walkways are built right up to the turquoise waters. These well-trafficked towns are dense with cafes and restaurants, shops and squares. Croatian streets are famously safe, and the people have a reputation for tidiness and hospitality. The coast is punctuated with pebbled beaches, and the many isles and inlets have become popular among kayakers. The coastal atmosphere is relaxed and easy to enjoy, though more intrepid families may enjoy a road trip inland, along winding byways through quiet villages. For a full list of roadside attractions, check out the 11 most beautiful places in Croatia.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen looks like a city designed for young children, with its quaint canals, brightly colored façades, and a never-ending supply of bakeries and ice cream shops. There are no fewer than 125 playgrounds in the city, including Konditaget Lüders, a public recreational facility located on the scenic roof of a parking garage. Bicycles are everywhere, along with 239 miles of bike lanes. It's easy to imagine Hans Christian Anderson living here, dreaming up fantastical tales for young readers. You can even spot Edvard Eriksen's statue of The Little Mermaid, perched on a rock, from the Langelinie Promenade.

Thrill-seekers will feed their hunger at Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park that dates back to 1843. These grounds are famous for their beauty and live performances, including live music and pantomime skits, but many a child may beeline to the Rutschebanen, a vintage wooden rollercoaster, or The Demon, a series of hair-raising loop-de-loops. Tivoli is conveniently located in the middle of the city, and its in-house restaurants showcase cuisines from around the world.

Kids will be excited to learn that one of the most famous companies in Denmark is the Lego Group. If their rooms aren't already overflowing with plastic blocks, the city's downtown store is an emporium of sets, sculptures, and playspace.

Venice, Italy

There is simply no other city like Venice, and for kids, the maze of canals and bridges never gets old. There are lots of grown-up attractions here, such as the Piazza San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs, and history buffs will love to spend time in the water-based hometown of Casanova and Marco Polo. But the real draw of Venice is its unique aesthetic and transport system. Gondola spotting is free, and riding in one will thrill the whole family. Even the water taxis are fun to cruise in. Venice doesn't allow a single-passenger car to be driven in the city proper, which is a boon for families accustomed to dodging traffic with littluns.

Venice also boasts a number of unique curiosities: The elaborate masks of Carnevale come in irresistible colors and forms, and they make great gifts. Artisanal crafters have been headquartered here for centuries, and you can find any number of studios and specialty shops among the narrow walkways. Italy is full of cities that will engage children for days, and families should try to visit the sights of Rome and Florence if they get a chance. But if you're traveling with young children and only have time for one Italian city, "The Floating City" is a high-impact destination.

The Algarve, Portugal

The southern coast of Portugal was once a ribbon of cliffs and fishing villages, little-known to anyone but the Portuguese. How times have changed: Europeans flock to the Algarve to sun themselves on the many beaches and take drives down the 136 miles of coast. This is largely a region to get away from it all; the towns cater to tourists but are generally quiet, and you're never far from the water. Breathtaking coastline has been shaped by erosion and continental drift, and many vistas look otherworldly. You can eat quality seafood to your stomach's content. Lagos is the region's epicenter of history, culture, and artisanal markets, and the adjacent beach, Praia de Camilo, has eye-popping crags and pillars of rock.

But if you're looking for something a little more action-packed, Albufeira is the tourism hotspot, with waterparks, speedboat tours, and a general carnival atmosphere at night. Here you can arrange everything from a beginner's kayak tour with the family to Jeep safaris in the rural Algarve. The one downside is its remoteness; most international travelers with families fly into Lisbon and then have to rent a car or take a bus two-and-a-half hours across the plains of Alentejo, which is mostly flat and rural. If you have extra time to explore, here are 12 reasons why Portugal should be your next adventure destination.

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm is colorful, clean, and almost unbelievably safe, making it a blissful destination for families, especially during the warmer months. Indeed, Sweden is considered one of the most family-friendly countries in Europe. The city is filled with innovative museums, such as the MegaMind exhibit at the National Museum of Science and Technology, which guides families on a thematic, multimedia journey through the human brain. Or there's the Skansen open-air museum, where visitors can walk through farms and streets that represent different eras in Swedish history, including costumed re-enactors. Between visits, families can roam the cobbled lanes and quaint boutiques of Gamla Stan, Stockholm's old city, or admire the immersive public artwork that decorates each subway station.

Stockholm isn't just a city but an archipelago, which means there's a lot of water to explore. Kayaking has become very popular here, not just in summer but year-round, and boat tours through these 30,000 islands are common. Each island has its own history and personality, ranging from tourist-ready villages to evergreen wilderness.

If your kids can handle heights, the most unique attraction is the SkyView Gondola, a glass sphere that carries passengers over the golfball-shaped Avicii Arena. From about 400 feet up, your family can take in 360-degree panoramas of the city.