From classics to rock'n'roll

Europe is bursting with brilliant options, from grand cities to fairytale scenery and magical music tours, writes Michael Gebicki.

WHETHER it's barging through France, gelato on the beach on the shores of the Mediterranean or bargain hunting in a London market, Europe presents a vast canvas of possibilities for the family on the move. From a continent brimming with invigorating delights, here are five top options.

Classical Italy

(12 days)

The classical cities of Italy are a journey through Western civilisation, from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the mediaeval era, the Renaissance and the Baroque. Start at Rome with St Peter's, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

Throw in some lighter moments, such as the morning market in Campo de' Fiori, an evening stroll around the streets of Trastevere, a window shopping session along swanky Via Condotti and Via del Corso for the essential Italian soccer shirts, and gelato late at night in Piazza Navona. If the sword-and-sandal theme strikes a chord, you might plan a visit to the Roman Gladiator School, where you and the kids can toga up for a two-hour hand-to-hand combat session.

Next stop is Siena for a two-night stopover to explore the mediaeval churches and towers of this pocket-sized wonder. For an evening's entertainment, download Quantum of Solace, the James Bond movie, which features an unforgettable horse race shot in the city.

Siena to Florence is one journey where you might consider hiring a car in order to travel the Chiantigiana, the SR 222, a meandering drive past hill towns and the Chianti vineyards.

After two days in Florence, head north to Verona, one of the most likeable of all the northern Italian cities, blending its Roman, mediaeval and renaissance artistic treasures with a cocktail of fine food and fashion, and the fictional balcony where Juliet stood while Romeo listened in Shakespeare's play. Spend two days, then turn east to Venice for the final three days. Even though your journey has taken in some of the wonders of the Western world, nothing quite compares with the moment when you board a vaporetto at Santa Lucia Station and chug past the palaces on the Grand Canal. Venice is dessert, buon appetito.


Croatia's Dalmatian Coast

(One week-plus)

The names might sound like someone talking with a head cold, but Hvar, Brac, Pag, Vis and Korcula - the Dalmatian islands that sit off Croatia's coast - are the new cool zone of southern Europe.

Despite the gleaming yachts in their harbours and the islands' growing fame as the Riviera of the Adriatic, this is possibly the most beautiful and least spoilt coastline in the Mediterranean. The appeal of this part of the world mixes sunshine, warmth, weathered stone villages, beaches, olive groves, vineyards and a lifestyle that gives a high priority to leisure, with a price tag that puts the Aussie dollar on steroids.

If you're looking for somewhere to anchor yourself with the family for a week or two and swim, mess about in boats, lounge about in cafes, eat gelato and figs and experience the Mediterranean lifestyle, these islands are a great option. Gateway is Split, Croatia's biggest coastal city, from where a web of ferries links the Dalmatian islands. The megastar of these islands is Hvar, the main town on the island of the same name, which pulls in a fashionable crowd of Italians during the summer months.

Such popularity has its rewards, especially in Hvar's line-up of waterfront cafes, restaurants and accommodation. For something a little less glossy, consider Korcula, a small fortress encased in honey-coloured walls. Whichever island you choose, if the crowds get too much, the coastline is amply furnished with quiet blue bays and beaches. Anchor yourself here for a week of pure happiness and the Dalmatian version of la dolce vita. For families, an apartment or even a villa might be the best bet and the internet is the place to look.

The hills are alive

(Eight days-plus)

From Mozart to The Sound of Music, there are not too many countries that dish up a musical feast quite like Austria and it's packed with dazzling scenery, gorgeous art and architecture, and fairytale moments that delight all ages. Spend the first three days soaking up the sights and sounds of Vienna.

Take a tram ride around the Ringstrasse, then head for Schonbrunn Palace, the Hofburg Palace and the knotted streets around St Stephen's Cathedral. Vienna has plenty of classical music concerts in its many theatres. Book well ahead to see one of the city's best, such as the Vienna Boys Choir and the enthralling show put on by the riders and white horses of the Spanish Riding School.

Vienna is addicted to cakes and the kids will love the chance to sample some, perhaps even at the Hotel Sacher, home of the famous sachertorte. From Vienna, it's a magical two- to three-day self-drive journey to Salzburg via the Romantic Road, past wine villages, castles and some iconic scenery. Essential stops along the way include Krems in the Danube Valley, the Baroque Melk Abbey and the old wine town of Durnstein, which is one option for an overnight stay.

Next stop is Bad Ischl, a former royal spa town and base for touring the Salzkammergut, Salzburg's Lake District. Finally, Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, with a funicular ride to the Hohensalzburg Fortress and the Residenzgalerie Palace on the agenda.

If music is the main reason for your journey, time your visit to coincide with the Salzburg Festival, a month-long celebration of opera and symphony music that takes place each July-August.

Barge and bike through France

(Seven days-plus)

After Cadel Evans's stirring performance in this year's Tour de France, the 2012 race promises to be one of the sporting highlights of the year for Australians. Pick the right stage as a spectator and you can blend it into a family holiday in a luscious bit of France.

My choice would be Stage 14, on July 15. This 192-kilometre ride from Limoux to Foix is the first of the Pyrenees stages and it involves two gruelling climbs. It's the second of these, where riders must ascend from Boussenac at 630 metres to the 1375-metre summit of Mur de Peguere, facing unbelievable gradients as steep as 18 per cent, where I'd be standing with the kids.

The next part of the journey is a barge cruise along the Canal du Midi, which cuts a slash though the Languedoc region where this section of the tour takes place. A voyage along the Canal du Midi is a cross between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wind in the Willows, punctuated by green tunnels of plane trees, sun-drenched vineyards and sunflower fields.

You can do this either as a guest on a barge, with a professional crew to steer the boat, work the locks, prepare meals and pour your wine, or do all the above as a family aboard a penichette, a modern version of the traditional French barge. Allow plenty of time to visit attractions, such as the walled city of Carcassonne and make sure your vessel has bikes so you can send the kids off to the local bakery to collect the morning baguettes.

London calling

(Three to seven days)

London is a thrilling experience and it's packed with sensations that will touch the hearts and minds of the whole family. From Abbey Road to Wham!, the city has a rich legacy of rock music memories.

Richard Porter is a wizard on the city's music scene and his London Rock Magic Bus Tours take in some of the highs and lows associated with the greatest names in rock'n'roll, with a side serve of industry gossip. The capital also has several Harry Potter-based tours.

Fun, funky and slightly brash, Camden Lock is London's largest flea market, drawing most of the city's subcultures with its array of clothing, jewellery, bags and accessories. Covent Garden is another great place for older children and teenagers to pick up the London vibe and it's packed with boutiques loaded with distinctive souvenirs.

The London Eye is another must-do for families, at its best in the evening, but book ahead. The Science Museum in South Kensington is a fantasy zone for all ages and entry is free.

Chelsea is London's coolest borough. Take a stroll along Kings Road to press your nose against some of the boutiques. The pomp of Royal London is an attraction even for die-hard republicans.

The daily Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is the traditional highlight but crowds frequently block the view. Another option is to head down Horse Guards Parade and have your picture snapped with one of the guards. If time allows, add Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace to the itinerary.

Ten tips

1 If it's not included in the price, a European hotel breakfast is often not worth the cost. Take a stroll outside and you're sure to find a cafe where you can all eat for less.

2 A picnic lunch is a great money saver for families. Pick up some sliced meat, cheese, bread and fruit from a supermarket or better still, a local market, and find a park.

3 If you need help, look for someone else with kids of about the same age. They'll understand the problem and be more sympathetic.

4 A small tube of sterilising gel and hand wipes are must-carry items.

5 Families will often find themselves travelling with several devices that need recharging. If that applies, throw in a double adaptor as well as an adaptor to fit local electrical sockets.

6 A hire car is often a practical transport solution for a family. If you're hiring, diesel fuel is cheaper than petrol throughout Europe and a diesel-powered vehicle should travel for more kilometres per litre.

7 For four people travelling together, a taxi might work out cheaper than public transport.

8 Pub dining is a great British tradition and children are allowed in pubs as long as they're accompanied by an adult, or unless stated otherwise. In Ireland it's no problem.

9 Everyone loves a treat when their energy is flagging, kids especially. Keep some chocolate handy for those weary moments.

10 If the children are having a great time, you will too. Consider their needs equally with your own and all will be well.