Hey, Mum, Let's hit the town

My son Patrick recently had to do a school project on cities. His task was to choose one and then "find out lots of stuff" about what the locals eat, what language they speak, what the architecture is like - that sort of thing.

This, roughly translated, meant getting me to cut and paste things from the internet for him while he watched telly - but his main problem was which city to pick. The teacher had narrowed it down slightly for him: apart from London, it could be "anywhere in the world", but he still struggled.

In the end he plumped for Brighton, mainly because it's the only other city he's ever really spent any time in, thanks to his grandparents, who live there.

All this got me thinking. Until now, I've actively avoided taking my kids to stay in cities. I live in London and no one wants a busman's holiday. And anyway, noisy, dirty chaotic places are hardly ideal playgrounds for poor little innocents.

Or are they? Noise, dirt and chaos - all these things are exactly the concepts my kids relate to. So I did some of my own homework (as well as Patrick's), and I learnt a thing or two - not least that city holidays, if well planned, promise to be enjoyable and, even better, educational.

Take Venice, for starters: a gem for geography fans. Remember all those interminable lessons about irrigation and waterways? This is far more interesting - take your brood cruising the canali in a gondola (or take the vaporetti - they're cheaper) and they'll be much more likely to be intrigued by the whole thrilling business. What's more, Venice is gaining recognition for its child-friendliness: no cars, lots of ice cream, locals who love kids... (0870 112 3333; kirker holidays.com).

If this isn't quite up your alley, try a biology lesson in Lisbon, home to Europe's largest aquarium. Pint-sized fish fanatics can have an "educational sleepover", where they get to spend the night watching sharks and rays go about their nocturnal business. The guides teach them all they need to know about our underwater friends, and then your treasures get to bed down in sleeping bags just inches away from the bull sharks (00 351 21 891 70 02; oceanario. pt). Splash out on a couple of nights in the Lapa Palace Hotel (00 351 21 394 94 94; lapapalace.com), which has a VIP kids' service including organising your child's aquarium sleepover.

Time for a PE lesson next, so it's off to Madrid to brush up on a bit of sporting knowledge. Take the family on a football weekend break with Go Madrid and you'll get to visit the Real Madrid stadium, which includes a tour of the trophy room, the dressing room (presumably without the players in it), the tunnel and, of course, the pitch itself (gomadrid. com). In fact, if you wanted, you could allocate a city for every lesson: Ancient Greek history in Athens, modern art in Barcelona, mythology in Prague...

If all this is too much for your kids, they can always run away to Paris and join the circus. The Cirque de Paris, on Boulevard Charles de Gaulle, offers fantastic one-day workshops for children, allowing your little clowns to try everything from magic tricks to tightrope walking (discover-paris.com).

Yes, city breaks can be a learning experience all round - the world's your classroom.

Katy's top tip

Visit travelforkids.com for inspiration on fun things to do with children in European cities