Q. Some friends of ours took their children on a series of weekend breaks last summer prior to the end of term to avoid paying peak holiday prices. We would like to do something similar with our children, aged five and eight, this year. Can you suggest somewhere we could visit either for a day or for a weekend? We would like to spend no more than three hours travelling each way.
Mrs M Rogers, Wiltshire
A. For a weekend break with plenty of culture and family entertainment, I would suggest Prague. With its soaring spires, cobbled streets and tiny squares, it is picture-postcard pretty and has become an incredibly popular short-break destination. It is only two hours' flight from London, and a number of low-cost airlines serve the city from around the UK.
From the airport, you can either take a taxi to the city centre, which costs around 600Kc (£14) or jump on the 119 bus to Dejvicka station for just 20Kc (50p). From here it's an easy two- or three-stop hop on Prague's efficient, clean Metro system to the centre (00 420 296 191 111; www.dpp.cz).
Prague is easy to negotiate on foot. The centre is compact with the River Vlatva winding through its heart. Stare Mesto or the old town is to the north-east, while across Charles Bridge you'll find Mala Strana huddled below Prague Castle up on the hill. Largely pedestrianised, the centre is safe for children, and there is plenty to keep them amused including musicians and puppet shows.
A good place to start is with a trip up Petrin Hill, a refuge of greenery away from the crowds. There's a funicular railway to the top, from where you get a fantastic view of the city. There's also a mirror maze, which is popular with children, and Petrin Tower, a one-fifth-scale model of the Eiffel tower - the 299-step ascent is not for the faint-hearted. You can also visit the Stefanik Observatory (00 420 257 320 540; www.observatory.cz), there are ponies to ride and it's a gorgeous walk to a playground at the bottom.
Dotted along the River Vltava are several small islands, including Slovansky where you can hire a rowing boat (from 150Kc, or £3) to get an alternative view of the city. Also on the island is the magnificent 19th-century Zofin Palace (00 420 222 924 112; www.zofin.cz) which has a play area next to the restaurant outside. On Kampa Island, with its grassy, tree-lined spaces, there's another good playground and some excellent restaurants suitable for families. It's a good place for an afternoon ice cream and a rest.
Prague Castle (00 420 224 373 368; www.hrad.cz; open daily April-October 5am-midnight; adults 350Kc/£8 including a full tour and 220Kc/£5 for abbreviated tour) is also fascinating. The changing of the guards takes place hourly until midnight while inside the complex you will find the impressive St Vitius Cathedral, a row of tiny houses known as The Golden Lane (which most little girls fall in love with), a toy museum, cafés and a safe, empty space for children to run around in.
Day two could involve a visit to Prague's superb Zoo (00 420 926 112 111; www.zoopraha.cz; metro to Holesovice Nadrazi, then bus 112) in Troja. Admission is 270KC (£6) for the whole family and the enclosures are beautifully maintained. A baby hippo was born here last month. A walk around the Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesty) is a must - you may remember seeing Tom Cruise and about 10,000 gallons of water burst through a café window here in Mission: Impossible - and the hourly display of the Square's Astronomical Clock should amuse the little ones. A horse and cart ride from the square, through the old Jewish Quarter is great fun and adds a touch of cheesy elegance to your day. Finally, try taking your children to a Laterna Magika show - it's a mixture of film, visual effects and theatre (00 420 224 931 482; www.laterna.cz; 8pm Monday-Friday and 2pm and 8pm Saturday; adults 680Kc/£16 and children 300Kc/£7) on Narodni 4 next to the National Theatre. The website lists the different performances.
Prague hotels range from the magnificent (Hotel Pariz; 00 420 222 195 195; www.hotel-pariz.cz) to the truly grim. A good option is to rent a small apartment - these tend to be in grand old buildings with clean, comfortable, refurbished rooms. There are also several offering hotel facilities. The website www.marys.cz lists plenty of family friendly options such as Bilkova 18 in the Jewish quarter, which sleeps four and costs at €149 (£106) per night between March and November. Further information on all Prague's attractions, hotels and restaurants can be obtained from the tourist office: 00 420 224 212 209; www.prague-info.cz.
For a day trip I'd recommend Brussels. Under three hours from London by Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) and with a day return costing around £59 at a weekend next month (£50 for children aged four-11), the city is much more than the capital of Euro bureaucracy, boasting spectacular architecture and acres of parks and woodland. Oh, and fantastic chocolate. The historic Grand Place is the place to start: a vast, pedestrianised square lined with exuberantly ornate houses, it is widely held to be one of Europe's finest and is scattered with numerous cafés selling delicious Belgian beer and moules-frites. Don't miss the Manneken-Pis fountain on the left hand side of the square: the statue of a little boy urinating is a beloved figure in Brussels that will guarantee some naughty giggling. He has a wardrobe of over 250 outfits which are changed regularly.
Also worth a look are the Royal Palace (00 32 2551 2020; www.monarchie.be; open 25 July-10 September, Tuesday-Sunday 10.30am-4.30pm; free) and the imposing House of Parliament (00 32 2551 2020; www.lachambre.be; Monday-Saturday 9am-4pm; free). In between is a pretty park with fountains, trees and a lovely playground. If you haven't filled your bags with chocolate and Belgian lace then the antique shops of the Place du Grand Sablon are worth a detour, and it's also a lovely place to grab some lunch, providing the sun is shining. You could also take your children to see the newly reopened Atomium (00 32 2475 4777; www.atomium.be; open daily 10am-6pm; €7/£5), a monument built for the 1958 Brussels World Fair representing a molecule of iron.
Finally, if you want to see a different face of Brussels, head to the stunning Bois de la Cambre, a leisure park open to joggers and cyclists, immediately south of Ixelles. This forest and lake is where the Bruxellois stroll in their chic clothes, walk their tiny dogs, and walk off all those waffles and chocolate. Contact the Belgian Tourist Office for further information: 020 7531 0390; www.belgiumtheplaceto.be
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