While not always especially child-friendly, the following are museums in which my son and I have had a fabulous time but ones that we feel don’t get the credit they deserve and are hence often neglected by families. I've also shared my tips for making the most of the individual venues; see also our advice page on Visiting Museums with Kids.
Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie
Imagine Cornwall's Eden Project and London's Greenwich Planetarium and Science Museum all rolled into one and moved to Kew Gardens, and you’d just about get a handle on Europe’s biggest science museum. It has a well-thought-out and original kids’ section, the Cité des Enfants, where small children get to experiment, play with water and generally learn through having fun, and older kids 7-12 have an area offering all manner of science-based madness. Parents seem to have as much fun as the kids. The Cité also has an IMAX cinema, a planetarium, a submarine, and several decent restaurants.
Stay: Adagio Aparthotel Paris Tour Eiffel
Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle
France’s main botanical Jardin des Plantes, a beautiful place alongside the Seine, is home to four museums of the National Museum of Natural History – the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, the Mineralogy Museum, the Paleontology Museum and the Etomology Museum – plus a small zoo, a maze and a carousel of extinct species, the Dodo Manège. It’s perfect for kids – when they tire of the displays, they can run around the park, visit the zoo, swelter in the greenhouses, chase the butterflies and get lost in the maze, returning to the dinosaur bones with renewed interest after letting off some steam.
Stay: Pavillon de la Reine
Musée des Enfants
Purpose-built for ages 4-12, Belgium’s Children’s Museum is all about education through fun. Plunge your hands into gloop, crawl through mirrored tunnels, play dress up in eccentric costumes and have a magical Alice in Wonderland ride… These are just a few of the activities. Sign up at the front desk for workshops that might let you follow the course of blood, take photos with an enormous camera or learn about the colour red.
Stay: Adagio Aparthotel Brussels Centre Monnaie
NEMO Science Center
This modern, interactive science museum designed for kids offers lots of exciting experiments to take part in and things to blow up and climb over. Its one rule is that you must touch everything – music to the ears of parents accustomed to having to snatch children’s hands away before a guard arrives. In summer the slanting roof of the ship-shaped building becomes an urban ‘beach’. See our feature A Family City Break in Amsterdam.
Stay: Renaissance Amsterdam
The National Gallery, housing many fabulous paintings from both Finland and abroad, is a frankly bonkers place with a refreshing approach to its art that makes it very appealing to families, offering workshops and trails on topics such as Compassion, Sorrow and Solitude that help kids (and parents) examine the works in an original and absorbing way. The equally potty events, often done in English, range from Picasso carnivals to button workshops accompanied by balloons and accordion music…
Stay: Scandic Paasi
This museum in a beautiful city on Lake Geneva charts the history of the Olympics from their Ancient Greek roots to today. Among the many iconic objects on display are Carl Lewis’ ‘golden shoes’ and Chris Boardman’s revolutionary bike. There is also a multitude of clever, interactive, multimedia features and a lovely park that also displays sport-related art.
Stay: Aquatis Hotel (adjoining the aquarium-vivarium of the same name).
El Castell de Guadalest
This evocative little town hanging from a cliff is a living monument, with eight museums within its walls and a ruined 12th-century castle. Kids love running through the twisting ancient streets and popping in and out of some of the bizarre little museums – the Museum of Torture may not be on the agenda, but the Magic Garden of Figures outside the Ribera Girona Museum is a must, as is the Micro-Gigantic Museum, holding miniatures to inspect with a magnifying glass (including a flea riding a bike on a seed) as well as giant sculptures. You can also take part in geocaching – hi-tech treasure hunts whereby you set off from the town armed with a GPS, walkie talkies and maps to hunt down goodies hidden by other families in the valley around the town.
Stay: Casa Delfino
This wonderful, oft-overlooked museum holds much of the priceless art collection of the late Calouste Gulbenkian, a fabulously wealthy oil magnate of Armenian birth. Like London’s British Museum in miniature, it’s a great, eclectic collection of ‘stuff’, from golden Egyptian masks and Persian cats to European masters and a world-renowned array of Lalique. Get the kids to devise a trail for you, whereby they choose a particular object then set clues for you to follow, then reward them with a runaround in the lovely little park.
Stay: Martinhal Chiado
It’s hard not to be moved by the sheer scale and beauty of the treasures on display here, and though it's an overwhelming experience for most kids, it is so in a good way. Many parents avoid bringing kids, put off by the crowds and the size of the museums, but you can largely avoid the hordes by going in winter or in the afternoon, after the coach parties have left. Buy advance tickets (shop around) to avoid the queues, and get a map of the museums before you go and decide what you want to see. The Sistine Chapel really is extraordinary, and you shouldn’t miss the other Michelangelo statues. There's a children’s trail, ‘Alice in the Museum of Wonders’, on sale.
Stay: Rome Cavalieri
You can admire the neighbouring Acropolis itself from this magnificent marble and glass space. It’s a wonderful place to introduce your children to the myths and mysteries of Ancient Greece, but take a guidebook to make up for the minimal labelling. There’s also a good film in English on the history of the Acropolis. Bring paper to get your kids drawing, and refuel in the very good café/restaurant with its stunning views.
Stay: Grande Bretagne
See also our Days Out section for hand-picked recommendations for great things to do with kids in the UK and abroad.