It can be easy to play it safe when it comes to taking a city break with the kids: will it be London? Rome? Surely not Orlando again? But, while priorities change when you’re travelling with children, it isn’t an excuse to let your destination choices grow stale. Allow our Lonely Planet Locals to broaden your horizons with this selection of surprisingly child-friendly cities, offering offbeat attractions and unusual activities that'll shake up your routine.
Tel Aviv may be known for its nightlife, but its beachfront is ideal for kids © Aleksandar Todorovic / Shutterstock
Hit the beach in Tel Aviv
Famous for its wild nightlife, hip rooftop bars and swanky restaurants, Tel Aviv might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of child-friendly cities, but look closer and you’ll find that mishpacha (family) is interwoven into the city’s fabric.
If your little ones love the beach, then Tel Aviv will wow. The city sizzles for most of the year, with 15km of sandy, safe-for-swimming beaches, and plenty of ice cream parlours to recharge energy levels. More surprising though is the sheer amount of great playgrounds in town, including the seafront-facing Independence Park, a perfect spot for a picnic. Engaging museums like the Steinhardt Natural History Museum and Safari Ramat Gan, meanwhile, offer respite from the sun and a chance to slow the pace.
Where to stay: laid-back northern Tel Aviv is a good bet for families, with close proximity to cafes, parks and beaches. Although it’s a backpacker hub, Abraham Hostel, in the city centre, is a surprisingly good choice, with friendly staff and well-kept family suites without the hefty price tag.
Dan Savery Raz is a writer based in Tel Aviv. When not eating ice cream, he can be found in parks playing hide-and-seek with his kids. Follow his tweets @dansaveryraz
Children climb over the giant Gulliver model in Valencia's Parque Gulliver © IURII BURIAK / Shutterstock
Climb over giants and cycle through parks in Valencia
In Spain, kids are treated like kings and Valencia rolls out the royal welcome. Late dinners aren't only for adults and younger diners are greeted with a smile and saint-like patience at all but the snootiest establishments.
Valencia is also as flat as the proverbial pancake, meaning even little legs can handle a bike ride through Jardines del Turia, a slab of gorgeous green land that unfurls through the heart of the city. Even more exciting is the Parque Gulliver in the east, which shrinks children down to the size of Lilliputians as they climb over a giant model of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, before sliding down his shackled body. Round off the day at the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, with spaceship-like buildings, an interactive science museum, aquarium and water activities.
Where to stay: the City of Arts and Sciences is surrounded by accommodation options, which all provide easy access to the futuristic pedestrianised precinct, as well as a sandy beach and the Parque Gulliver, which are both nearby.
Robert Kidd is a Valencia-based writer on a never-ending search for the perfect paella. Follow his tweets @rob_kidd1
St Petersburg's Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines will prove a real winner with young travellers © Anton Kirichok / Shutterstock
See curiosities, cats and vintage video games in St Petersburg
As the number-one tourist destination in Russia, St Petersburg caters to every taste imaginable, including families. For starters, getting around the city with children is easy, thanks to a reliable, easy-to-use public transport system and the convenience of ever-present affordable taxis.
Then there are the attractions: the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg’s showstopper, has plenty to excite any child, from the life-sized moving birds of the Peacock Clock to spooky ancient Egyptian mummies, plus a task force of adorable, rodent-controlling cats. If that doesn’t wow the little ones, the nearby Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines probably will, home to a horde of fun vintage games, including Morskoi Boi (Battleships), the airplane-based Vozdushniy Boi (Air Battle) and an intriguing contraption where you test your strength by attempting to pull up vegetables.
Where to stay: among the hotels preferred by families with kids is Solo Sokos Hotel, located in a 19th-century building around the corner from Strelka on Vasilyevsky Island. One of the perks is a great spa for the whole family.
Andrei Muchnik is a journalist based in Moscow who regularly travels around Russia. Follow his tweets @amuchnik.
Don't be put off by its reputation for history and architecture – Dubrovnik boasts attractions for the whole family © Nadezhda1906 / Getty Images
Pair sword fights with boat tours in Dubrovnik
With a focus on architecture and history, plus hundreds of stairs, Dubrovnik's Old Town can be a hard sell to younger explorers, but there’s more here for kids than meets the eye. Beat the heat – and crowds – by visiting early in the day, where you’ll have space (and energy) for imaginary sword fights on the ramparts before cooling down with a delectable ice cream from Peppino's.
Elsewhere, the Uvala Lapad area is a local parents' favourite, thanks to the energy-consuming activities on offer, such as playgrounds and inflatable water parks. For quality family time, hop on a boat to one of the nearby car-free islands: Lopud’s sandy beaches make it a good choice, but leafy Lokrum probably edges it, thanks to its large colony of tame rabbits.
Where to stay: Valamar Club, a 10-minute drive from the Old Town on Babin Kuk, is a dedicated family hotel, with a decent-sized pool, kid's clubs and evening entertainment for teens.
Vesna Čelebić is a copywriter and tour guide based in Dubrovnik, who firmly believes that running up and down the stairs after her children counts as a workout. Follow her tweets @Dubrovnikguided
Setting off a khom loi lantern during Chiang Mai's Loi Krathong festival is a once-in-a-lifetime experience © Patrick Foto / Shutterstock
Sample sweet treats in Chiang Mai’s food markets
Chiang Mai’s affordability makes it easy to stick to a budget even with kids in tow. A luxurious hotel with all the handy amenities imaginable – including that all-important swimming pool – won’t break the bank, nor will unforgettable excursions to ethical elephant sanctuaries or trips to atmospheric hilltop temples.
But it’s the food scene where the city shines, and kids will love wandering the markets sampling all sorts of weird and wonderful sweet treats and – dare we say it – perhaps even a vegetable or two. Children are welcomed too in the vast majority of restaurants, where friendly staff are known to whisk kids away to play while the adults chat. For something young and old visitors will never forget, visit the city during the magical (though always busy) Loi Krathong festival, with temples lit up and khom loi lanterns illuminating the sky.
Where to stay: the most obvious area to stay in Chiang Mai with kids is within the confines of the walled old city, where you’ll be steps away from plenty of restaurants, shops, temples and local transport.
Originally from Seattle, Alana now resides in Chiang Mai, where she’s fallen head-over-heels for Thai culture. Follow her tweets @alana_morgan
Outdoor fun for the whole fam abounds in Cape Town, also known as Mother City © BlueOrange Studio / Shutterstock
Enjoy outdoor activities in Cape Town
Few travellers would consider Cape Town a hotspot for family travel, which is somewhat ironic given its moniker as the Mother City. South Africa boasts a family-focused culture and the country’s legislative capital packs in a ton of immense activities to keep the kids entertained, whether that’s scrambling to the summit of Table Mountain or kicking virtual rugby balls at the Springbok Experience. And with a few Big Five safari parks within a two- or three-hour drive, spotting rhino, elephants and lions is also a rewarding possibility.
Cape Town’s penchant for wine may be lost on younger travellers but the city’s many wineries, breweries, cafes and restaurants cater for kids, with outdoor playgrounds, children’s menus and a range of hands-on activities to keep them preoccupied, while older travellers discuss the merits of the local Pinotage.
Where to stay: within sight – and earshot – of the Simon’s Town penguin colony, Tintswalo at Boulders welcomes families. Ask for the Penguin Room, which comes equipped with books, toys and giant beanbags.
Lucy Corne is a writer based in Cape Town who enjoys exploring the city with her young family. Follow her tweets at @lucycorne
The sights, sounds and smells of Fez's markets will mesmerise young travellers © xavierarnau / Getty Images
Blow the kid’s minds in the frenetic souks of Fez
The adoring look on a Moroccan’s face when they see a child is priceless, and it encapsulates the huge welcome children get in this family-orientated society. Forget babysitters: children here always stay up with their parents, falling asleep when they get tired.
For all its architectural and historical grandeur, Fez offers some eye-opening experiences for children aged five and up, from visits to the American Fondouk, a charity caring for working animals in the medina, to workshops on the art of bookbinding or brass etching at Craft Draft. But for most young, wide-eyed travellers, the highlight will be taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the city’s frenetic souks, where they can scour market stalls for quirky keepsakes and try out their bartering skills.
Where to stay: Fez is cobbled and hilly, so carry little ones in a sling and factor in breaks for weary legs. Staying in the centre of the medina could be the answer: Dar Malika is a perfect family spot, while Riad Laaroussa has a lovely pool.