train museumMy oldest, T-Rex, turned six last month – six!! I can’t believe I’m old enough to have a six year-old… To celebrate, we took a drive to Mulhouse, France, and spent the morning at the train museum there (Cité du Train).
While I could simply say that this is one of the most fascinating museums I have ever visited, this place really deserves a Nerdy Travel Dad review, and Doc Sci will be posting for me today. Even if you don’t love trains as much as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, you’ll soon see why a stop here is definitely worth your while.
All the boys in the thrifty travel house LOVE trains. And, uh, that’s putting it mildly. Every other day (or so it seems), my wife and I are interrogated as to when the next train ride will occur. On the off days, they’re begging to go on an airplane.
Since our budget didn’t allow for an actual train ride for T-Rex’s birthday, we decided the next best thing would be to take him to the biggest train museum in the world, the Cité du Train in Mulhouse, France. Not too shabby for a birthday, if I do say so myself.
When we rolled up on that Saturday morning, I had not done a lick of research. Of course, the always-prepared Thrifty Travel Mama ensured we had the 4-1-1, but she just didn’t tell me. Or I didn’t ask. Whatever.
After I walked into the building, I was genuinely surprised. There were trains, tons and tons of full-size trains, all lit up, dressed, and costumed. Mannequins dolled up in era-appropriate clothing peered out from the windows, demonstrating how train travel used to be. This was awesome.
Quirky dialogue leaked out of tiny speakers in the train cars. Well, at least I assume it was quirky.. it was in French, of course.
There were so many trains the boys kept running from one to another, peeking inside and boarding those open to visitors. In the middle of the train yard, we discovered a switching booth with the actual switches outside just waiting to be pulled. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t budge, even with hefty amounts of grunting. But, right next to the switches was a junction to easily illustrate why the switches were needed and what they did.
After all that, I was quite satisfied with our experience at the Cité du Train. I mean there was history, some railway engineering, creepy mannequins… what more could you want?
Oh how naive I was! We had only just completed the first, much smaller depot. A whole other GINORMOUS warehouse was waiting for us on the other side of the restaurant.
The first building is dedicated to the history of French trains, and the second focuses more on the evolving technology of trains.
The technological exhibit starts with steam engines, works its way through diesel and electric, and finishes with the ultra-sleek, high-speed TGV.
One of the best displays in the second building was an active demonstration of a steam locomotive, complete with moving parts and, surprise, surprise, steam. The boys were fascinated by the train that was moving but not actually going anywhere.
An adjacent train was literally cut in half so that inquiring minds could have a look and see what all the fuss was about. The steam engine had color-coded lights for cold water, hot water, steam and coal. It was a brilliant way to demonstrate how the engine works.
What could be better than a steam engine chopped in two? Why, the ability to go underneath the train to have a look at the hidden workings below. How many people can say they’ve been on the nether side of steel locomotive and lived to tell about it?
The thing I enjoyed explaining the most (and, as these things go, the kiddos understood the least) was how a bunch of straight pieces of metal could make round things move. Being able to watch the steam engine wheels in motion helped to illustrate this, but it still was just a smidge over their heads.
Me:”You see boys when the steam builds up inside of this tube thingy, the piston, it pushes this other piece out. Then this big straight piece of metal that is connected also goes out. That makes the piece of metal that is connected to the wheel move back and while it moves back the …”
T-Rex: “Daddy look at the size of the wheel. It is bigger than me!”
See what I mean?
The diesel and electric trains were also difficult to explain to the six-and-under crowd, so I didn’t press too much there. Plus, the museum offered sooo many trains that some had to be just straight up skipped. Take my advice and spend the most time on the steam trains since they are the easiest to describe and the most likely to spark interest in young minds.
After winding your way through the 70s, you’ll arrive at what kids will most likely think is THE BEST part of the museum – a TGV cockpit complete with bells, whistles, and buttons. The TGV train was all hype and no science (in the exhibit, anyway), which honestly was perfectly fine with me because by the end of the line I think only Sheldon Cooper would want to see more trains.
To top things off, the final exhibit was a super fun model train community. Though not as large and extensive as Miniatur Wonderland, it was packed with zooming trains and working details (and a hefty dose of humor for the adults with keen eyes). I don’t deny putting in my 50 cents to see it all come to life.