The Best Family Vacation Spots

by Santorini Dave • Updated: January 20, 2019

The best city for a family holiday.

London is one of our favorite cities for a family vacation.

The 7 Best Family Vacation Destinations

The 15 Best Cities For Kids

We’ve had a number of features on visiting cities with kids, so I thought I’d offer some tips and advice for vacationing in a big city with kids.

These 15 cities are among the best urban destinations for a family vacation. I’ve listed my favorites below and added some suggestions on making your visit to them as fun, easy, and enthralling as possible.

Visiting a big city with kids

Cities have an undeserved reputation as being an unattractive option for families and kids. It needn’t be so. Getting around is often easier – subways are fun and easy once you get the hang of buying tickets and reading the maps. There’s lots of great food – great bakeries and treat shops and a wide variety of restaurants. And all these cities have an incredible number of fun attractions for kids.

Paris has playgrounds and parks, boat rides and carousels. Tokyo has 3 great science museums. Three! Barcelona has an aquarium, Dr. Seuss like architecture, beaches, and a cable car. Rome has ancient fountains on just about every corner. Real usable drinking fountains! How cool. And New York City (the best city in the US for a family trip) could easily fill a week-long vacation with something new and amazing every day.

There certainly are challenges to visiting cities with young children. Cities are, of course, very busy. But with some good planning, smart researching and lots of patience the busyness doesn’t have to translate to hectic.

Certainly, this will depend a lot on your child, your family, the ages of your kids and their temperament. I’m sure there are parents who believe their child would not do well in a busy noisy and sometimes chaotic environment. But I feel, as a general rule, that young kids like a bit of chaos. They like interaction. They like movement and bigness and bright lights.

At the very least I would say this to a parent: don’t assume your child won’t like a city unless you’ve spent a little bit of time visiting and exploring one.

If you need tips on packing read What To Pack: Essentials for Traveling with Kids.

Tips and Tricks for a fun vacation in a big city

  • You won’t have fun if you’re feeling rushed. Time, Time, Time. It’s a huge variable and something I really emphasize. It’s hard to have fun when you’re in a hurry. So don’t do it.
  • Weather doesn’t matter so much when you’re visiting a city. Many urban attractions are indoors and even when it’s time to run, jump and play most cities have a good supply of indoor entertainment and play areas. Good deals and big discounts can also be found outside of high season – typically the months with the best weather.
  • Know this about elevators in Europe: they generally don’t work. So don’t climb into one when you have a child that has to use the bathroom.
  • Have a plan. Cities can burn time. Unplanned mornings can disappear in a flash and leave you looking for a lunchtime restaurant with little to show for your morning besides a few subway rides. You want to remain flexible, but at the same time you shouldn’t be wandering down the subway steps thinking well, let’s maybe head over to this neighborhood and wander around. Have a specific destination in mind and at least a layout of how you’ll spend your time for the morning and afternoon.
  • Organise your visit by neighborhoods and districts. Write down the 8 or 10 or 12 attractions you really want to visit on your trip and sort them by their location. Put 2 or 3 in each group and try to make each neighborhood a one day affair. You’ll save time, money and effort in not having to go from one side of the city to the other to get to your next venue.
  • If you live in a small town or city without a subway you might be shocked at how much pleasure and amusement your kids will get from riding subways and commuter trains. It’s a destination in itself.
  • When you take the subway for the first time (especially in a country where you don’t speak the language) have your first trip be an outing in itself. It will probably take you a while to figure it out. Where do you buy the tickets? Does the child need a ticket? Does the machine take credit cards? Expect it to take a while and make it fun and interesting for the kids. Once again, this won’t be fun if you’re in a hurry.
  • Most cities that have subways have this basic rule: don’t eat on the trains. And double that for kids. (And triple it for Tokyo.) This tends not to be one of those rules that’s posted on every wall, but ignored by everyone. People live it and with good reason. It’s why these cities have nice metros.
  • Don’t obsess about hotel location. Yes, it’s nice to be in a central location. It’s great to walk out your door grab a croissant and be at the Louvre in a few blocks. But if booking a cheap hotel is a priority find a good discount on a hotel a little distance from the center – but near a subway or metro line. It’s often win/win/win: you save some money, the kids get another train ride, and the few minutes between your hotel and your destination act as a calm-down and focus interlude that gives everyone a breather.
  • Plan and consider how you’ll get around the city. The BABYBJÖRN Carrier is just a fantastic way to move around a city with an infant or small baby. Most cities have pretty good sidewalks so strollers can be a definite plus. (My all-time favorite is the Maclaren Techno XT.)
  • Swimming pools are often not very common at city hotels unless you are in the high end or luxury category of accommodation. Ask about public swimming pools at your hotel.
  • If you’re in the city for more than 4 days, switch hotels, and switch neighborhoods – you’ll be amazed at how much of a different feel you’ll get for a city depending on your location. As well, it’s probably a pretty good idea not to put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

The 15 Best Beach Vacations for Families

1. China Beach, Vietnam

The boys playing in the ocean on China Beach, Vietnam.
The area just south of Danang – past the big resorts and near Magic Mountain – is our favorite in Vietnam and one of the best in Southeast Asia. (Both the sand and sea are cleaner here than at the more popular beach towns of Nha Trang and Mui Ne.) Seafood, cold drinks, and ice cream can be bought at the small beach shacks but water fun is the main attraction here. Stay at the super fun and relaxed – and very cheap – Hoa’s Place if you’re able to.

2. Elafonisi, Crete, Greece

Elafonisi beach in southwest Crete.
Elafonisi is the best beach in Greece and is the type of idyllic beach you conjure up in your dreams. Stunning shallow water that’s perfect for kids, fantastic sand, a small island you can wade out to and explore. There are some nice dropoffs that allow you to run along the sand and then jump into water that’s 4 or 5 feet deep.

3. Sayulita, Mexico

Sayulita Beach in Mexico.
This is one of the most kid-friendly beach towns in Mexico. The beach is great and the town has a fun and relaxed vibe. Hotels are much cheaper than in Puerto Vallarta. The water has some good surf that’s perfect for beginners or boogie boarding. There’s a kids camp right on the beach that can be signed up for by the day or week. Sayulita is an hour north of Puerta Vallarta.

4. Phra Nang Beach Railay, Thailand

Railay Beach in Krabi, Thailand.
This is an absolutely stunning stretch of sand – and my favorite beach in Thailand. It’s a 20 minute walk from the main “town” on Railay, but the path is fun and easy – a shaded mini-adventure, with caves to peek into along the way. More caves are found at the beach but these are accessed through the water and are fun for older kids to explore.

5. Coronado Island, San Diego

Coronado beach in San Diego, California.
More a vacation destination than just a beach, the stretch of sand near the Coronado Hotel is incredibly kid friendly. Unlike most San Diego beaches no alcohol is permitted here and bike paths extend 15 miles down the coast making it an ideal destination for families. Get here by ferry to make it a perfect day for most kids. Along with Santa Barbara this is one of California’s best city beaches.

6. Bophut Beach, Koh Samui, Thailand

Bophut Beach in Koh Samui, Thailand
Bophut, just 10 miles north of Koh Samui’s main town Chaweng, is perfect for families. The water is calm and shallow. The sand is beautiful with a touch of coarseness that makes cleaning-off super easy. Nearby Fisherman’s Village is filled with restaurants and small shops. Koh Samui has so many beautiful beaches it’s hard to pick the best and some will say that Choeng Mon or Chaweng are just as good for families – both are a short taxi ride away.

7. Naxos, Greece

Plaka beach in the Cycladic island of Naxos, Greece.
The beaches of Naxos are some of the most kid-friendly in all of Greece. Most of the beaches are shallow and calm. The best beaches on the island (including the one pictured, Plaka Beach) are found on the island’s southwest coast and thus protected from the often intense winds (called the meltemi) that blow from the north in July and August. St Georgios Beach is another favorite of ours and is an easy walk from the charismatic main town of Hora where you’ll find the bulk of the island’s hotels and restaurants.

8. Palolem, Goa, India

Palolem Beach in Goa, India.
Unlike some of Goa’s other popular beaches at Benaulim, Colva, Calangute and Anjuna this beach is protected inside a small bay and thus provides a calm and gentle lagoon that rivals any beach from Kerala up to Mumbai. The wonderful sand, rustic setting, and simple hotels and restaurants along the beach are very kid-friendly.

9. Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres across from Cancun.
Facing northwest and away from the Caribbean winds, the shallow gentle water here is perfect for kids of all ages. Leave the big hotels of Cancun behind and check out the stunning white sand and walkable downtown of this relaxed island.

10. Villefranche-sur-Mer, The French Riviera

The beach at Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera.
So many beaches dot the Côte d’Azur it’s hard to choose but this one is a great choice for families. A kid friendly atmosphere pervades this stretch of sand – not a certainty for all beaches in the South of France – and calm shallow waters make it a great pick. The town itself is a magical little spot that is both family-friendly and plagued by large crowds. And Nice is just 10 minutes away by bus or train. Plages des Graniers near Antibes and Beaulieu-Sur-Mer are other good beaches for kids along the coast.

11. Kuta, Bali

Kuta Beach in Bali, Indonesia.
Kuta gets a bad rap from some travelers for not being the “real Bali”. But the beach here is one of the best on the island and its great place for older kids to take surfing lessons. There’s a waterpark in center of town and many hotels have good-quality kids clubs. Most of the rest of Bali is within a day trip of Kuta. Move a little north to the towns of Seminyak or Legian if you want a quieter stretch of beach. Head to Nusa Dua for luxury beach resorts. Or go to Sanur for calm waters and a relaxed vibe.

12. Tulum, Mexico

Tulum Beach near the ruins of Tulum.
Looking for peace and solitude – but still want good restaurants and nice hotels? Then Tulum is it. The town is connected to the beach hotel zone with a bike path. The sea is calm, the sand is brilliant, and there are lots of kid-friendly attraction within a short drive (including cenotes and adventure parks). Lots of restaurants on the beach or rent a bike and ride into town for super-cheap Mexican food.

13. Oludeniz, Turkey

Oludeniz on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.
Oludeniz’s blue lagoon is protected from the winds and surf of the ocean. Lots to do here and a perfect vibe for a family vacation.

14. Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver, BC

Kitsilano Beach in downtown Vancouver.
Kitsilano beach is in the center of the city with lots of great stuff nearby (including the Granville Island markets and several kid-friendly museums). The beach area has basketball and tennis courts, a large playground, an Olympic sized public swimming pool, and sits right on the Seawall bike and pedestrian path that connects with downtown Vancouver and Stanley Park.

15. And one more … Negril, Jamaica

The cliffs of Negril.
The sand along Negril’s famed 7 Mile Beach is wonderful but what makes the area truly unique are the cliffs that start just west of the town. Hotels like the Rockhouse Hotel (pictured) sit right along the cliffs. Most hotels offer free shuttles to the nearby beaches.

The Best Beaches for Families by Destination

Best Beaches for Kids in Thailand

  • Kata Beach, Phuket – One of the most beautiful beaches on Phuket. (The ocean along Phuket’s west coast can get rough – especially during the monsoon season from June to October – so care should be taken.)
  • Nai Thon, Phuket – Semi-protected and one of Phuket’s calmest beaches.
  • Bophut, Koh Samui – Bophut calm water in a family-friendly setting.
  • Choeng Mon, Koh Samui – A beautiful and laid-back setting.
  • Chaweng, Koh Samui – An active and beautiful setting. Lots of restaurants and shopping within steps of the beach.
  • Haad Salad, Koh Phangan – Maybe Koh Phangan’s nicest beach. Great for kids.
  • Bottle Beach, Koh Phangan – Secluded and family-friendly setting.
  • Jomtien (near Pattaya) – Not perfect, but much nicer and more kid-friendly than nearby Pattaya.
  • Khao Lak – Near to Phuket but quieter and very kid-friendly.
  • Koh Lanta – Very family-friendly island with great beaches.
  • Hua Hin – Lots of kid-friendly attractions just a few hours from Bangkok. Great beach.

Best Beaches for Kids in Bali

  • Kuta – Busy and a little frenetic but a great beach, near tons of shopping and great restaurants (and lousy ones too).
  • Sanur – The calmest beach on Bali. Great for young kids as it’s protected by a reef.
  • Nusa Dua – Where you’ll find the best resorts with kids clubs and a family-holiday vibe.
  • Padangbai – Away from the crowds with several great beaches nearby (though they can get some heavy surf).
  • Lovina – Black sand beaches protected by a reef in the far north of the island.

Best Beaches for Kids in Vietnam

  • China Beach (near Danang) – Awesome beach with very calm waters (most of the time).
  • Hoi An Beach – An extension of China Beach and very close to the awesome town of Hoi An.
  • Nha Trang – A touch on the seedy side but lots of kid-oriented attractions in the area (including a water park and amusement park).
  • Mae Nam – A quiet and secluded beach that you can have to yourself. The beach is very narrow in spots.
  • Phu Quoc Island – Some of Vietnam’s best beaches are here. The perfect place to spend several weeks or month unwinding.

Best Beaches for Kids in Malaysia

  • Perhentian Islands – The best beaches in Malaysia scattered across to gorgeous islands.
  • Pantai Cenang, Langkawi – Langkawi has many great beaches, and this is probably the nicest.
  • Redang Island – Great beaches and a family-friendly vibe.
  • Tanjung Bungah – The nicest beach near Penang but if you’re looking for crystal clear water head to Langkawi (3 hours from Penang).
  • Tioman Island – Great beaches and the best spot in Malaysia for diving and snorkeling.

Best Beaches for Kids in India

  • Palolem, Goa – There are many great beaches along India’s west coast but many can have strong currents. Palolem is in a protective bay and is one of the calmest.
  • Cavelossim, Goa – More protected than other Goan beaches but care should still be taken.
  • Kovalam, Kerala – Beautiful but can have strong currents. Great for strong swimmers who like surf and boogie boarding.

So what makes a great kids beach?

Shallow calm water. This is a big one. Kids love beaches with a gradual slope. It allows them to do more and feel more confident and in control. Water games are usually funner when you can touch and move around easily. It doesn’t take much water to put a toddler in over his head.

Warm water. Who doesn’t like warm water? It’s one surprise for many who visit the Mediterannean — the water never really gets warm. On the other hand, the water in the Gulf of Thailand strikes some as too warm and lacking the refreshing feel dipping into the water usually affords.

Nice sand. Most kids (and adults) prefer really fine grained “mushy” sand. It’s good for making sand castles too. One caveat, the coarser the sand the easier it is to clean off and head for a restaurant or hop in the car. But who’s at the beach to stay clean?

Not too busy – but not too quiet either. This might be where parents and kids differ the most. Parents gravitate to a deserted peaceful beach and often suspect that their kids prefer the same. But I don’t think so. If your first consideration is your kids, I’d err on the side of a busier more active setting than a quiet one.

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8 Questions and Comments

  1. San Francisco with Kids

    I can’t understand why San Francisco and Washington DC are high on your list. These two American cities have the least percentage of families with children in the US—if you ask me, data show that these places are not very child friendly…

    1. Santorini DaveSantorini Dave The Hotel Expert

      By that logic, the cities with the highest percentage of kids must be the best places to vacation. Hotspots like West Jordan, Utah; Palmdale, California; and Flower Mound, Texas.

      The primary reason why families don’t live in San Francisco and Washington is because it’s so expensive not because there are few or no attractions there for them. San Francisco, especially, is a virtual kids’ playground.

      Further, I’m sure there are many other places with a similar dynamic. The typical ski resort town – Whistler, BC or Vail, Colorado – I suspect are great places for a family vacation yet have a low percentage of kids living there.

  2. Cities with Kids

    I agree first and foremost about not trying to cram too much in! We’ve taken our two year old to Reykjavik, London, Barcelona, Rome and are now in Kuala Lumpur. The best thing we did was book an apartment in each for a week and base day trips from there. It’s more spacious than a hotel and allows you to make your own breakfasts and pack picnics, which saves money and time. We used HomeAway and citiesreference.com…both great! Also, If you have a fair-skinned child, male sure to bring your own sunscreen to Rome – very hard to find! Our redhead ended up with chap stick on her face by the last day.

  3. Where To Travel with Kids

    Hey. Great Blog. Really appreciate your dedication. I really wish I could read more about my side of the world too (southern hemisphere), with many great cities to share with the kids too.
    Bests!

  4. Top Destinations with Kids

    We’ve been to Cancun, Miami and Washington DC with the our 2 daughters. I’d love to take them to Amsterdam and Tokyo – 2 of my favorite cities. I was surprised how well they did in DC, they loved the museums, most of them anyways. Definitely plan well and always have one kid friendly thing to do every day.

    1. Santorini DaveSantorini Dave The Hotel Expert

      Thanks for the travel tips Henna. I think the Smithsonian museums in DC are phenomenal and about as kid friendly as museums get.

  5. Good Cities for Family Vacation Holiday

    Agreed! Cities are great places to take kids. So much to do. Getting around is usually pretty simple, and often fun, and as you say the weather doesn’t matter much. I usually spend so much time worrying about the weather before we go on a trip. Will it rain? Will it be sunny? Paris, London, they’re better in the winter than in spring and summer – definitely better than July and August. We’ve done Washington, Paris, Amsterdam and London on your list. I’d also throw in Madrid, Lisbon and Porto too, though admittedly we were without kids and when we went there, but great cities.

    Tokyo sounds incredible. We’re planning a trip for August or September, that might be an idea we think about. How’s the weather in Japan in those months?

    Thanks Shirley.

    1. Santorini DaveSantorini Dave The Hotel Expert

      If you’re thinking of going south to the beaches of Okinawa then August would be great. But summer in Tokyo is not something a lot of people rave about. It’s very hot and humid. As it gets into late September it starts to improve and then Autumn is one of the best times to visit the country again. Hope that helps you Shirley.

      David

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