Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids – Part 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

You’re about to dive into Part 2 of my one-day adventure in Dresden with three boys and no husband. I last left you in a park bench on the south side of the Elbe with some questionable characters for lunch mates. To read Part 1, click here.

Dipping into Dresden Neustadt

With bellies finally satiated, we traipsed across the Elbe to Dresden Neustadt, following Albertstr. until we reached a Platz of the same name. It’s not every day you get to stroll across a bridge that survived while nearly every other place in the city was bombed out. But of course, the little people in my party were oblivious to this historical fact. Instead, my boys just enjoyed the fountains at Albertplatz and admired the statues encased in falling water.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

We like fountains, yes we do! We like fountains, how ’bout you?

All that rushing water made a certain little somebody have to go to the bathroom right.this.minute. You might not know this about me, but one of my biggest sources of travel stress flows from the difficulty of finding bathrooms in foreign countries. Most of the places I’ve visited do not have shiny porcelain loos in every store, restaurant, or train station like in America. Potties are often impossible to find, ridiculously expensive,  gag-me-disgusting… often all three.

I frantically looked around for any feasible WC possibilities while the little guy insisted that no, of course he could not wait (silly Mama!). The only option in sight – an automatic toilet.

I’ve used these contraptions in Berlin and Paris, and they’re a force to be reckoned with. It’s bad enough to have to wade through that mystery muck on the floor and ignore the thoughts of who might have been there before you.. but when strobe lights come on and the latest club hits come streaming through the speakers (yes, this really happened to me in Berlin)… Just no.

Plus, trust me, you do NOT want to get stuck in there. Apparently, these stalls are locked after every visit and completely cleaned and sanitized with water jets and streams of chemicals. Could you imagine…?!

But hey, when one of your posse has to go, he HAS TO go. So, one euro and five frightful minutes later, we emerged only slightly traumatized and decided we’d had enough of Dresden Neustadt.

We turned around and headed back toward the Elbe in search of gelato to soothe our shaken psyches. We found the creamy goodness near Augustusbrücke, and gazed at the row of masterpieces stacked against the horizon on the south side of the river… just waiting there for us to explore the moment the ice cream melted.

South Side

It was the Katholische Hofkirche that greeted us first. Old and darkened yet still fiercely beautiful, she must be regarded before reaching the more lovely and famous Semperoper. Read up on the opera’s history here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!I loved the opera house – magnificent, imposing. My boys, on the other hand, just wanted to climb the gigantic statue of King Johann on horseback opposite the entrance. Boys.

Last, we stumbled upon the Zwinger, only a stone’s throw from the opera house. Gigantic and gorgeous, the Zwinger just might tie with the Frauenkirche for my favorite place in Dresden. The fountains, the deep turquoise rust, the sheer size, all highlights in my memory. I savored the atmosphere in the courtyard – crisp air, the melody of rushing water, and peace despite the crowds.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

A Serendipitous Find

Our day in Dresden was drawing to a close, a fact I met with relief thanks to my exhaustion of toting a little man on my back and melancholy because of the beauty we would leave behind.

The boys and I retraced our steps to Prager Str. on the way to the train station when I noticed we actually had a bit of time to spare. How did THAT happen?! On a whim, I yanked them into an outdoor, REI-type store.

To our utter delight, we discovered a climbing wall (free!) with loaner shoes (also free!) that the kids could use. They gobbled up the last minutes in Dresden scrambling up and down, up and down, until the clock decided they could climb no more.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Adieu

When we could not spare even one minute more, we raced hand in hand toward the station and found our train. As we stepped aboard, I finally exhaled. I had done it – solo! And I did not hate myself or my small-ish companions! Small miracles, right?

Alone, I had managed to explore a completely new city with three little boys and without any help. We four shared a lovely day, and I will never forget experiencing the Jewel Box that is Dresden with my sons. Though I don’t wish to travel without Doc Sci, my husband and best friend, at least I know that I can do it should the need or urge arise.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Places I would like to have visited with the luxury of more time:

  • The Fresh Tea Shop. Actually, we did go here (see photo above). The tea I ordered was fresh (yes, really) and so incredibly refreshing. I took the cup back with me to Leipzig and kept filling it up with water because the mint and fruit were so flavorful.
  • Pfunds Molkerei. This quirky place seemed right up my alley. The most beautiful dairy shop in the world, a milk bar where one can taste varieties of milk, cheeses paired with German wines and specialties like milk jam.
  • Dresdener Parkeisenbahn. A steam train for kids, run by kids. Awesome, right?!
  • Paddle Steamboat Ride on the Elbe. My kids love exploring cities from the water, and the Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt operates the largest and oldest fleet of historic paddle steamers in the world.
  • Playgrounds! Check out this link for a map with recommended places to let the kiddos burn some energy.
  • Dresden Children’s Museum. This for-kids-only area is part of the Dresden Hygiene Museum. How very German!

Now that you’ve seen the highlights, what would you want to explore first in Dresden? Do you have a scary potty story to share? Come on, don’t be shy!

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Advertisements

Snapshot: Alone in Dresden..with Kids – Part 1

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Let’s pause the struggles of reverse culture shock for a moment and focus on a completely different kind of struggle – traveling alone with kids!

If you’re like me, travel is your drug, and your eyes are always searching for your next fix. Cheap airfare, hotel sales, and shoulder season deals are just too good to pass up.

What kind of risky behavior would you dabble in just for that next vacation high? Would you tolerate three mischievous boys under 7 as your only travel companions if it meant you could see Dresden, a city you’ve always longed to explore?

Months before I was to drive for a couple thousand miles with the three amigos in the backseat, I put on my big girl pants and took a day trip to Dresden with those three amigos, all.by.myself.

Gulp.

For the record, please don’t endanger your family or finances just for a travel score. It’s only a metaphor, people.

I once read a post about a married mom who travels internationally with her kids but without her husband because he can’t take off work (sorry, I can’t find the link). The post sparked two thoughts.

First, I can’t do that (right?!). And second, I wouldn’t want to do that (you, either?). While my opinion on the latter hasn’t changed, my fears regarding the former have evolved into an ever-increasing confidence.

I can’t believe I’m saying this – but traveling alone with your kids IS possible, and maybe (maybe!?) even enjoyable… Okay, the jury’s still out on that last one.

With three boys and a limited budget, sometimes it’s just not feasible for everyone to go on every trip (such as when I took Alpha to Keukenhof to see the tulips or to Firenze to tour the Uffizi Gallery).

Occasionally, we are presented with travel opportunities too good to pass up, such as tagging along with Doc Sci to a conference in a fabulous destination like South Korea.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

And, every once in a while, I attempt something I ordinarily never would because the payoff has massive potential, enough to outweigh possibly uncomfortable circumstances. Our day trip to Dresden falls into this category.

Let’s get a bit of background, shall we? After our family said our farewell to Freiburg, we rode the rails east and hung out in Leipzig for a few days. Doc Sci needed to attend one last conference, and I saw an opportunity to squeeze in one last little German travel fling before our expat adventure ended.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Now, I always set my expectations for a family trip itinerary rock-bottom low. But, this time, I managed to reduce those even further. I had only three goals: Get to Dresden, see something, and make it back to the train before it chugs off without us.

I’ve wanted to visit Dresden ever since I was an art history student studying Kirchner and his painting Street, Dresden. The “Jewel Box” is a fascinating place, scarred by World War II and the German Democratic Republic.

I researched and wrote a list of must-see sights. Short of a barfing kid or a broken bone, I was going to make it to those few places to view them with my own eyes. But because I didn’t want to be wandering around aimlessly if we clocked in ahead of schedule, I also made a huge list of options – possibilities if time or interest allowed.

Then, I booked our train tickets and prayed for the best.

The Ride

I bought the kids a bakery breakfast at the station (something I never do because I’m cheap thrifty) to occupy them on the train. A friend who used to live in Leipzig recommended Lukas Baekerei, and it didn’t disappoint. Imagine a soft German pretzel smothered in melted cheese. YES. Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

As we polished off the last crumbs, the train pulled into the station. We stepped into Dresden, gained our bearings, and off we trotted down Prager Str. in the direction of the Kreuzkirche.

Kreuzkirche

Honestly, I wasn’t all that interested in the Kreuzkirche. I was more fascinated by the famous Frauenkirche. But, I wanted to climb to the top of the this church in particular for the best and most affordable view of Dresden (plus, climbing stuff is our thing). As is the case in Paris, the best view often isn’t from the most famous landmark but from another tall building nearby.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The lookout from the Kreuzkirche toward the Frauenkirche.

Sweaty but satisfied with die Aussicht, we descended once more to Dresden’s streets, kids starving and mama in need of a loo. We crossed the pedestrian walkway to the Laden Cafe Aha. I had read good things about Aha, so I ordered a white hot chocolate and the boys busted out their lunchboxes.

Apparently, our actions annoyed the server who thought everyone – kids included – should have ordered a full meal. And maybe I would’ve ordered a slice of cake to go with my hot chocolate had I not received the eyeful and earful the server dished up.

When we had been made to feel as uncomfortable as possible, we left. Expert tip: Come for the chocolate, don’t stay for the service.

Frauenkirche

I melted the frustration away with anticipation of our next stop – the restored brilliance of Dresden, the Frauenkirche. You can read all about the history of it here (be sure to check out the photos showing it nearly destroyed and the restoration process).Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The Frauenkirche is once again a gorgeous gem of architecture; and yes, it’s seriously as beautiful in person as it is in the pictures. This moment right here made the trip for me.

Fürstenzug

One treasure I had not known about before researching our trip is the Fürstenzug. The funny name might not sound like much, but this piece is the largest porcelain artwork in the world. Just check out my little people walking beneath it to grasp the scale.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

At over 100 meters long and over 10 meters high, it’s plastered on the outer wall of the Stallhof of the Dresdner Schloss. It’s enormous in person and really quite amazing.

Luncheon on the Grass, er Park Bench

We wandered around the courtyards of the schloss a bit before meandering along the terrace wall on the banks of the Elbe. We parked ourselves on a bench in the Brühlschen Garten to finish our lunches that had been so abruptly cut short earlier at the café. Not pictured: rather sketchy atmosphere with questionable characters on the bench next door and far too much trash by German standards. Hardly a Manet moment.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

While the boys chased each other around the park, I took a much-needed break from carrying Charlie.

We had sold our pram when we left Freiburg since we wouldn’t need it in America. That meant if I wanted to maximize my short hours in Dresden, I had to carry Charlie. Schlepping an enormous two year-old with concrete bones around on my back while simultaneously carrying a backpack with supplies on the front was perhaps the most demanding part of my day. Intermittent whining/complaining scores a close second.

With bellies full and the clock ticking, it was time to zip across the river and see what treasures awaited us in Dresden-Neustadt.

Don’t miss Part 2 when I reveal what nearly knocked the Frauenkirche out of “absolute favorite” position and share a super fun, serendipitous moment on our way out of town. Plus, I’ll include a list of locations we would’ve visited with more time. For Part 2, click here.

http://wp.me/p13Ig0-1t2

A sneak peak of Part 2 – crossing the Elbe.

Have you been to Dresden or do you want to get there some day? What would you do for your next travel score?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Snapshot: The Swiss Castles of Bellinzona with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)On Tuesday, I told you all about our time in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, on our way back to Germany from a totally rad two weeks in Italy last summer.  Apparently, order isn’t very important to me this week because I’m sharing today about our very first stop on that road trip before we even made it to the Italian border – Bellinzona, Switzerland.

Never heard of it?

Honestly, I hadn’t either. But that’s what you get when you start randomly grabbing names off a map.

How do I come up with these places?  Well, my pit stop selection process usually goes a little something like this…

  • Chart the route in Google maps.
  • Decide how many segments we’ll need to complete the trip.  My kids can usually handle 3 hours if awake and offered food, 4 if asleep and forced to wear eye masks.
  • Search for a city or attraction in the targeted area that we’re interested in seeing anyway, or…
  • Find a park, hiking trail, vista, or other outdoor wonder to explore.

Sometimes the second option is the best because it ensures that the wiggly males from the back seat can just run around and be loud, obnoxious boys for a while instead of having to sit quietly in the back seat like little girls.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

When I found Bellizona, I hit the jackpot.  This small city is big time famous for its three castles (Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro) that have together been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.

Check out this blurb from Bellizona’s tourism website (emphasis theirs):

These fortresses number among the finest examples of medieval fortification architecture in the alpine region. As they appear today, Bellinzona’s fortifications, whose origins actually go much further back to a prehistoric settlement on Castelgrande hill, are mainly the result of intensive and complex building activity undertaken by the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century… These battlements, towers and gateway, included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000, are still a source of wonder today.

For more history, lore, and practical visitor information click here and here.

Since we could only spend a few hours in Bellinzona, I decided we should concentrate our time at only one of the castles.  Our options:

  • Castelgrande: the largest and the oldest.  Located in the city center, access is via a steep set of stairs, a long and winding path, or an elevator.
  • Montebello: smaller, and stands guard 90m above Bellinzona.  Access is via a footpath from Piazza Collegiata in the center or by car/bus on the Via Artore.
  • Sasso Corbaro: austere yet solid new kid on the block.  Only possible to visit by car.
Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Castelgrande

While the Catelgrande might be the first choice of many (check out Urban Bliss Life’s visit with kids), we opted for Montebello instead for two reasons (1) ease of access by car, and (2) it’s possible to see the other castles from Montebello.

The GPS took us right to the parking lot of the castle (free).  While we cleaned up the poo explosion from the birthday boy‘s car seat, the older boys discovered a decent playground adjacent to the parking lot (score!) with a typically Swiss fresh water fountain.  Once all the muck had been removed, I strapped Big Foot to my back, and we all went to have a look see.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Doc Sci was about to go all gaga on me about the drawbridges when I reminded him that the purpose of this visit was for him to nap.  We’d been up since 3:30am, and he still had another five hours of driving to do.  Safety first, boys & girls!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

I was instantly enchanted by this castle.  It had everything you could ask for in an old fortress – walls to walk, bridges to cross, heavy doors to heave, and absolutely marvelous views.

Plus, it was deserted.  I love having the place to ourselves.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)The boys and I scrambled up and down stairs, scurried in and out of every available doorway, and burst out into the meadow in front of the castle.  I was surprised at how close the Castelgrande seemed from Montebello and that I could see the Sasso Corbaro peeking out from the trees further up.

But, T-Rex?  He was just surprised at how fun it was to tumble down the grassy hill.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

See the Sasso Corbaro up there?

The walls belonging to the actual castle of Montebello are rigged with modern metal walkways and railings for visitors to traipse about as they please.  Unfortunately, the outer walls are not… or at least I couldn’t find a way up.  I might’ve tried harder if I didn’t have a baby on my back.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

In short, these little-known castles are gems.  They’re brilliant for boys, history nerds, and weary-on-the-way to Italy travelers.  I only wish we’d had more time to fully appreciate all three castles at Bellinzona!

My snapshot of the castles at Bellinzona: silent, ancient, fantastic, and worthy of all the time you can spare to explore.

Have you been to Bellinzona?  I’d love to hear about your visit or why you might add it to your own bucket list!Signature-MarigoldBe sure to check out What to See in Zadar from Chasing the Donkey as well as all the other fine Sunday Traveler posts!

Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with KidsWay back in September (light years ago it seems), I rambled on and on about our family adventures in Tuscany, ticking things off the bucket list.  I was afraid I might have bored or inundated you, and neither was my intended goal.  So, I waited and saved our pit stop stories for another time.  Ladies and gentlemen, that time is now – get ready to hear a little bit about Vaduz, Liechtenstein!

I’ve always wanted to visit Liechtenstein since it’s oh-so obscure.  And, I’ll admit Doc Sci and I wanted to see the real place associated with the fake character, Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein.

Well, as it turns out, the name isn’t actually fake, only the movie character.  The real Sir Ulrich was both a fighter and a writer.  Once again, Google saves the day!

Liechtenstein is one of the smallest and one of the richest countries in the world.  It’s completely landlocked, and it’s still ruled by a prince (more on that in a minute).

You might also guess that things in little ol’ Liechtenstein are very expensive.  In fact, costs are so outrageous that Swiss prices start to look like bargains.  Thanks to a tip from my friend Ann at Travel Turtle who also stopped off in Vaduz, we didn’t refuel the car or refresh ourselves at a cafe. 

The Journey

After twice being caught in maddening Italian Saturday traffic, we vowed to not let it get the best of us a third time.  We rose at 3:30am and sailed all the way up the Italian Autostrada from Pistoia to the border near Como.

Past Lugano, the road took us east on a winding Alpine highway.  The rising sun lit the peaks on fire while the sleepy valleys stayed asleep in shadow.  The fuel gauge flirted with the empty line, and the game of chicken ended only a few kilometers from the Liechtenstein border at Bad Ragaz.

As Doc Sci filled the tank (at those bargain Swiss prices), I rummaged around the trunk on a desperate search for buried sweatshirts.  Weren’t we just sweating it out in Italy?  Now, we’re shivering in Switzerland. 

We slipped into Liechtenstein without fanfare of any type – no flashing neon You Are Now in The Sixth Smallest Country on the Planet sign, no sober-faced border guards with weapons and questions, nothing.  Only the license plates proclaim Dorothy, we’re not in Switzerland anymore.

Seeing as we’re self-confessed cheapskates, we searched high and low for a free parking spot in Vaduz.  No dice.  Only when we decided to pay for parking did we realize it’s free on the weekends!

The Gist

Hands down, the best fun, family-friendly, and free thing to do in Vaduz is climb up to the castle.  You could drive up to the Schloss (and fellow freeloaders – the parking is gratis up there).  But, when in doubt, I always vote for the scenic route.

It’s rather easy to find the footpath if you keep a look out for the Schlossweg or Haldenweg signs.  The route dead ends at Fürst-Franz-Josef-Strasse.  Hang a right, and you’ll be at the castle in a jiffy.  Actually, I’m informed that official name is The Princely House of Liechtenstein in case precision is your thing..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

The winding way up…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Stop to catch your breath…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Storm the castle!

Expert Tip: Make a great effort to explain to the wee ones (especially those quite accustomed to conquering castles) that this particular palace is still in use by real royalty.  Unfortunately, that means we can’t go traipsing about the yard or snooping in the cellar.  Snap a few photos, inhale the crisp Alpine air, and feast on the view.

Back down the hill, it’s time for a stroll on the main pedestrian street known as the Städtle.  Here you’ll find swanky hotels, pricey bistros, and several museums meant for those who aren’t in the possession of small children who can neither read nor force themselves to be interested in wine, fine art, or postage stamps.

However if I was to bribe encourage such an interest, I’d be more likely to herd said children in the direction of the Liechtenstein National Museum.

If you’re a passport stamp enthusiast, take your little book and a fistful of euros to the Liechtenstein Center.  It won’t be an official impression, but hey, it’s better than nothing, right?Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

As we continued south on the Städtle, I was awed by the juxtaposition of old (Regierungsgebäude) and new (Liechtenstein Parliament building).  The two architectural styles right next to each other made for some fascinating food for thought.

I entertained the thought that perhaps this was a picture of how Liechtenstein held on to its traditions (like being ruled by a prince) while embracing the future.  However, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of such fanciful notions especially since our pal Wikipedia informs us that Liechtenstein was the last country in Europe to allow women to vote.  Doh!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

At the end of the Städtle, we continued on to see the gorgeous little Vaduz Cathedral If you had the dough, this stately chapel would be a picture-perfect place to get married.

Right next to the cathedral stands the Royal Vault.  Silly Americans – the boys thought there were crown jewels in the vaults instead of the actual contents which are a bit more, uh, morbid than that.  No wonder the place was completely unguarded…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

I was doing this…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

…while the boys were doing this.

One Last Look

With as many jitters shaken out of little legs as possible, we piled back into the car and headed out of town.  But, I had one more stop to make – the covered bridge located at the entrance to Vaduz.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Not only is the bridge heavily photogenic and slightly nostalgic, it also sports an off-the-charts cool factor for travel nerds… one end of the bridge is in Liechtenstein and the other end is in Switzerland.  Um yes, I will make of fool of myself by quite literally hopping the border and planting myself in two countries at once, thankyouverymuch.

Practical tip: There’s no place to park nearby the Liechtenstein side of the bridge.  You’ll need to put on your polite face and break out the pretty please (uh, in German, if possible) when asking to temporarily park at one of the businesses along the Zollstrasse.

My snapshot of Vaduz, Liechtenstein: isolated, reserved, historic, and very expensive.

Have you been to Liechtenstein?  I’d love to hear about your visit or plans to do so in the comments!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Stein am Rhein with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsStein am Rhein is a stunning small town that – in the words of a traveling friend – really must be seen to be believed!  Straddling the Rhein River in Switzerland, this Altstadt is a gem.   With countless intricately frescoed and half-timbered houses, you won’t want to miss it! Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAt the end of July, we dipped in to Switzerland after a morning at the impressive Hohentwiel ruins.  Stein am Rhein is so small, you won’t need more than half day to explore it, but you’ll want to stay longer to soak in as much charm as possible.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsOther than the intricate frescoes, the water is the main draw.  Visitors can take a river cruise, but we observed a more DIY way to experience the Rhein.

Scores of college students could be seen along the banks inflating large dinghies.  The first raft ready was placed in the river and filled with two or three inches of water.  Cans and bottles of beer were submerged in the cool water.  Apparently, they were chilling their beverages while the rest of the party pumped up their rafts.  Nice idea, eh?Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAnd speaking of ideas, I couldn’t come up with very many when it came to figuring out how in the world these rafts could be any match for the Rhein’s current.  None of the rafts had motors, and many did not even have oars.  Given the busy boat traffic on the water, I don’t think I’d want to be stuck in the middle of a rushing river with no way to navigate.  Perhaps these young ‘uns know something I don’t…?

For adrenaline junkies in Stein am Rhein, the thing to do is jump off the bridge into the cold river below.  We saw a handful of people partaking in this risky activity, and even a boy about 12 years old.  Apparently diving from the bridge is so popular, that the town has erected a sign warning of potential danger.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAnyhow, we explored the north shore first.  The famous Rathausplatz (town hall square) and the most beautiful frescoes can be found here, as well as some very expensive restaurants.  One of the nicest surprises in Stein am Rhein was the lack of obnoxious tourist traps.  The town didn’t have a kitschy feel or oppressive crowds.

Swiss army knives were the big draw here.  T-Rex wanted one with a "necklace" (lanyard) attached.

Swiss army knives were the big draw here. T-Rex wanted one with a “necklace” (lanyard) attached.

After strolling the picturesque side streets, we headed toward the river bridge.  On our way there, we impulsively ducked in to a small courtyard.  Here we happened upon the first of two delightful discoveries.

A convent museum (St. Georgen Klostermuseum) sits in a charming courtyard just off the main traffic street.  Shortly before we reached the museum entrance, we found a gigantic wine press and several large barrels.  Doc Sci went all nerdy on me, explaining the physics of the press to the boys.  Bored, I left to soak in the atmosphere of the quiet hof.  The smell of lavender in bloom, the breeze from the river, the warm rays of sunshine… absolutely lovely.

The Kloster courtyard.

The Kloster courtyard.

The press.

The press.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsOn the south side of the Rhein, we climbed some steps up to a quaint little church (St. Johann Kirche).  Opposite the onion dome, we feasted on a fantastic view of the town and surrounding hills.

From here, we could see Hohenklingen Castle keeping watch from high above Stein am Rhein.  We were burg-ed out that day, but should you have more energy to conquer the climb, visitor information can be found here.

St. John's Church.

St. John’s Church.

From here you can see the Burg.

From here you can see the Burg on the hill high above Stein am Rhein.

Then, on a whim, I decided to follow a touristy-looking sign to something called Badi Espi.  I guessed it might be a museum or at least a photogenic building.  Nope – Badi Espi is an area of the Rhein fenced off for swimming!

The boys had left their swimsuits in the car, but that didn’t stop us from stripping off shoes and socks and wading into the river.  Cool, refreshing, and clean – we couldn’t believe our good fortune!  Even Big Foot dipped his toes.  I was relieved to find a decent free bathroom on site, though I bristled at the food stand prices.  Five euros for  a single hot dog!  We didn’t bite.Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with Kids

To the right in the picture, you'll notice a diving board for bathers wanting to take a dip outside the fence.

To the right in the picture, you’ll notice a diving board for bathers wanting to take a dip outside the fence.

Back at the parking lot, we noticed two great attractions for children – a large wooden playground and small kiddie train.  Want to ride?  Find fares and a timetable here.

In regards to parking, the lot adjacent to the old town seemed adequate even for a sunny Saturday.  Machines accept credit cards, Swiss francs, and euro coins.  I didn’t notice any free parking; every inch of the road leading in to town required motorists to pay up. Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThe quaint Swiss town of Stein am Rhein deserves a spot on every traveler’s Bodensee or northern Switzerland itinerary, especially in summer.  Pack Swiss money, passports, and swimsuits, and treat the family to a picture perfect day on the Rhein!

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures on top of Europe at Schilthorn and on the river at Rhein Falls with kids!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Amsterdam with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Amsterdam with KidsNo BeNeLux itinerary would be complete without a stop in Amsterdam.  Doc Sci and I have been to the city before, so I thought it would be fun to incorporate some kid-friendly activities this time.

I’ll outline our day in this post, but several of the activities deserve their own separate space.  Look for more complete reviews of specific attractions in the coming days.Thrifty Travel Mama - Amsterdam with Kids9:30am – Hop on a bus headed to Amsterdam from our home base in Haarlem.  Since we planned to walk everywhere that day, we decided the boys should have something to keep them interested and minimize “are we there yet” complaining.  T-Rex rode his scooter and Screech toured Amsterdam on his laufrad (balance bike).

I gotta get me one of those!

I gotta get me one of those!

We opted for the pram instead of the backpack carrier for Big Foot.  Was this the right choice?  It’s hard to say.  There are sidewalks in Amsterdam, but most of them are narrow and made of stone.  The hardest part was keeping the whole circus (pram, scooter, balance bike + two adults) somewhat together on the sidewalks.  But 10 hours is a long time to carry a baby and Big Foot sleeps better on the go when he’s in the pram.

Solution: If you can, do as the Dutch and rent a bakfiets for the day!

10:15am – Arrive in southwest Amsterdam and plot a walking course to our first stop.  Upon arriving at the bus station, we noticed one of Amsterdam’s public urinals.  Did we try it?  To quote the oft-sold saying, “What happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam.”

Free public urinal at the bus station.

Free public urinal at the bus station.

11:00am – Pop in to the most anticipated stop of the day, the Kinderkookkafe!  This place is (obviously) designed just for kids, and it’s awesome.  All the food is made by the kids themselves!  The boys put together pizzas while Doc Sci and I downed some delicious Dutch cheese sandwiches we had brought and drank tea to warm up (did I mention it was blowing snow when we left Haarlem that morning?).

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

12:30pm – Take a walk through Vondelpark, the most beautiful park in Amsterdam.  The place was hopping with tourists and locals alike.  Our favorite feature of the park was the multilingual lost and found.

Lost a glove in Vondelpark?  Check here.

Lost a glove in Vondelpark? Check here.

1:00pm – Shop at HEMA, the discounter (think Target) known for its Dutch design and reasonable prices.  We drank hot chocolate at the cafe which has an IKEA restaurant feel.  HEMA is a great place for budget travelers to stock up on unique souvenirs (we found a fun Netherlands puzzle for 4 euros) or any travel necessities you might have run out of or forgotten.  If you don’t love HEMA, it’s because you just don’t know it yet!

Knocking back hot chocolate at HEMA.

Knocking back hot chocolate at HEMA.

2:30pm – Hit up Kitsch Kitchen Supermercado for whimsical gifts and home items.  As luck would have it, the store was having an Easter egg decorating contest.  My boys were thrilled to be able to sit down and paint hard boiled eggs while I browsed the shelves.  I big fat puffy heart LOVE serendipitous events!

Painting Easter eggs at Kitsch Kitchen.

Painting Easter eggs at Kitsch Kitchen.

3:30pm – Get lost in a parade of clothing from past eras at Episode Vintage Doc Sci is always looking for quality denim in his size, and I can go for a fun peasant top any day.. as long as it fits me.  Alas, we didn’t find anything that day.  If you’re looking for cheap clothing, this is not the place.  Shopping at Episode Vintage is for those seeking one-of-a-kind or nostalgic pieces.

Piles of surprisingly organized vintage clothing.

Piles of surprisingly organized vintage clothing.

5:00pm – Order savory enchiladas and tasty tacos at Los Pilones If you’ve hung around Thrifty Travel Mama for long, you know that I’m always on the hunt for authentic Mexican food in Europe.  When I discovered that Los Pilones sells its own bottled chipotle sauce, I knew this was THE place to go for Mexican food in Amsterdam.  Yeah, buddy!

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

6:30pm – Catch the bus back to Haarlem.  We munched on stroopkoeken (Dutch syrup cookies) all the way home.  What an exhausting but enjoyable day!

Bye, bye Amsterdam - next time we'll have to get around by water taxi!

Bye, bye Amsterdam – next time we’ll have to get around by water taxi!

Have more than one day in Amsterdam?  Here’s what I would’ve added:

  • NEMO Science Center – Admission is expensive, but the place looks bonkers cool.  Plan to spend at least a half day to get your money’s worth.
  • The Dutch Riding School – It’s free to poke your head in and take a look at the riding classes.
  • Albert Cuyp Market – The largest street market in the Netherlands.  I also stumbled upon a tip that there’s a vendor selling fresh stroopwaffels on Saturdays!
  • De Kaaskamer – A store dedicated to Dutch cheese.
  • Pancakes! – Serving up every kind of pancake imaginable from blini to crepes to American-style flapjacks.
  • The Pancake Boat – For a two-in-one experience, the pancake boat offers all you can eat pancakes while cruising around the Amsterdam harbor area.
  • De Taart van m’n Tante – A super funky cake shop.
  • Bierfabrik – A restaurant specializing in organic, charcoal-grilled Cornish game hens.  Eat with your hands, and get to know your neighbor!
  • Le Pain Quotidien – Excellent choice for breakfast or lunch.  Think Panera gone all French.
  • Bagels & Beans – Perhaps not as exciting to US travelers, but expats craving bagels (Einstein Bros or otherwise) will love this place.  In addition to coffee (hence the beans), this chain brews loose leaf tea.

Have you been to Amsterdam with kids?  Did I miss any fun places that little ones would’ve enjoyed?Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Antwerpen with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsAfter our delightful time in Brugge, we needed to make our way up to Haarlem, the third home base of our BeNeLux week.  On a bucket list trip, I find it difficult to simply going from point A to point B.  It’s imperative to squeeze in one or two stops along the way.

I considered taking breaks in both Rotterdam (the largest port in Europe) and Antwerpen (the second largest).  In the end, I realistically thought we’d only have time for one.  Research showed that Antwerpen is prettier, and its cathedral is the tallest in BeNeLux.  I had my winner.Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsDespite my best planning efforts, we almost scrapped our Antwerpen visit.  The GPS in our car is notoriously unreliable (it’s one of those built-in kinds with CDs and we haven’t gotten around to getting a new one), and even the printed directions I used landed us far beyond the city center.

We stopped at a petrol station to fill up and take a closer look at the map.  An older gentlemen was refueling his car and staring at us.  Instead of getting annoyed (my usual response to staring), I decided to ask his opinion on which autobahn was the best route to take north into the Netherlands.  He didn’t want to speak English, so I mustered up my best German and hoped for the best.

Well, the best is what I got.  Not only did this kind stranger advise me on the next road to take, but he offered to personally lead us to the city center when he found out we were (kind of) lost.

At least, that’s what I thought he said.  Everything was in German, after all…

Following our new friend - across the Mexico bridge!

Following our new friend – across the Mexico bridge!

Luckily for us, my baby brain did not fail, and we followed this gentleman along a harbor route with great views of giant ships right to the parking garage in the center of town.  Thank you, whoever you are!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage.  I'm sure this fortress is worth exploring!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage. I’m sure this fortress is worth exploring!

My list for our two hours in Antwerpen consisted of three things: gaze at ginormous freighters, wonder at the beauty of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and put Fritkot Max‘s best-fries-in-the-whole-of-Belgium claim to the test.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

With one down and two to go, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed through Antwerpen’s town square on the way to the church.  We savored an eyeful of the sheer mass of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and then slipped inside for a few moments.  The Cathedral of Our Lady charges admission (probably because of all the Peter Paul Rubens works on display), but you can stand in the prayer area for free.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Just around the corner from the cathedral, we found Fritkot Max.  Doc Sci ordered a large for our family to share.  The fries aren’t salted, and that affected the taste for us.  So, in order to be truly scientific about it, Doc Sci thought we needed another large.  Even after consuming a few kilos of potatoes from Fritkot Max, we still voted Fritland in Brussels the best fries in Belgium.

Hot off the press!

Hot off the press!

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

While in Brugge, I had stumbled upon a super fun shop called Oil & Vinegar.  Doc Sci and I love to eat bread dipped in olive oil, and homemade salad dressing is a current obsession of mine.  We didn’t have time to shop in Brugge, so we hurried over to the Antwerpen location in the few minutes we had left.

Oil & Vinegar!

Oil & Vinegar!

As luck would have it, we discovered a small playground right around the corner from the store!  Score for us (we bagged some delicious bruschetta mix and basil olive oil), score for the boys (they let most of the willies out before we had to continue driving).

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

On the way back to the car, we quickly had a look at the water, but it was not possible to see many ships from the city center.  The best views came from the earlier detour guided by our new friend.  Serendipitous events make for the most memorable travel moments!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

My snapshot of Antwerpen: industrial but beautiful, decadent but hardworking, fashionable but fun.

Have you been to Antwerpen?  What was your favorite part of the city to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Brussels with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Brussels with KidsWhen our Netherlands getaway became a BeNeLux trip, our itinerary went from sane to harebrained.  Doc Sci and I decided to just roll with the punches and make this a bucket-list trip.

Ever since I heard that the Grote Markt in Brussels is the most beautiful town square in all of Europe, I decided I had to see it with my own eyes.  I made Brussels our morning stop on the way from Nijmegen in the Netherlands to Brugge on the west side of Belgium.

That’s the nice thing about being the master of your own itinerary and driving instead of flying or taking the train.  Do what you want, when you want.

But, because we were driving, I worried about navigating Brussels traffic.  (Turns out, the really heavy flow was near Antwerpen – beware!)  Finding and paying for parking was also a concern.  I wanted an interesting place outside of the city center to explore that just happened to be close enough to public transportation so we could have a little jaunt in the beautiful.  A tall order?  Maybe, but as it turns out, the Atomium fit my criteria perfectly.

I don’t have much to say regarding the Atomium at this time because I’m totally stoked to announce that Doc Sci has decided to start his own line of posts here on Thrifty Travel Mama called Nerdy Travel Dad!  Just by looking at the thing, I’m sure you can tell that The Atomium definitely falls into this category.  Update: you can read Doc Sci’s Nerdy Travel Dad review of the Atomium here.

After packing Big Foot into the backpack carrier, and stuffing some sandwiches in my pack, we headed for the subway.  In fifteen minutes, we were making our way through downtown Brussels.

Fritland - the best fries in all of Belgium.

Fritland – the best fries in all of Belgium.

First stop?  The BEST fries in all of Belgium.  Yep, I’m makin’ a claim and stickin’ to it.  Though others seem to think that Frikot Max in Antwerpen is the best, I’ll personally tell you that Fritland wins hands down.  Try the Mitraillette which looks like a huge fry sandwich.

St. Nicholas from the outside..

St. Nicholas from the outside..

While sitting at a table in the sunshine at Fritland, give the Saint Nicholas Church (across the street) a gander.  For some reason, T-Rex wanted to go in every church we stumbled upon.  After a quick visit and a few photos, we made our way toward the Grote Place.

Inside St. Nicholas Church.

and the inside!

Only a few steps later, we were sidetracked by a small sign showing the way to the other famous Brussels landmark, the Mannekin Pis.  I wasn’t planning on taking T-Rex and Screech to see a bronze boy peeing, but what the heck.  Live it up.  Walk the few blocks over, and get that cheesy tourist picture.  You’ll only be in Brussels once, right?  Right.

Other than the throngs of tourists, the worst part about the Mannekin Pis is the inclination of little boys toward mimicry.

Other than the throngs of tourists, the worst part about the Mannekin Pis is the inclination of little boys toward mimicry.

And, while you’re at it, order a big fat Belgian waffle smothered in specaloos.  If you don’t know specaloos, not to worry.  Read more about this cookie spread and where to buy it here.  Or, if you just want the cookie, taste test anything with the word spekulaas in it.

Maison Dandoy - fancy pants speculaas.

Maison Dandoy – fancy pants speculaas.

Waffles seem to affect the sales of lace.  Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

Waffles seem to affect the sales of lace. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

After the obligatory peeing statue giggles, we finally (FINALLY!) found ourselves in what surely must be the most lovely square in Europe, the Grote Place.  Other cities have more beauty scattered, but Brussels has it all in one neat, uh, rectangle.  The gold on the buildings and the ornamental architectural styles are a feast for the eyes.  Amazing.

One view of the Grote Place. (source)

One view of the Grote Place. (source)

My snapshot of Brussels: big city feel, small town taste, elegant architecture, and an excellent introduction to Belgium.

Have you been to Brussels?  What was your favorite part of the city to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Luxembourg with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Luxembourg with KidsI’ve long wanted to go on a BeNeLux trip, and the week before Easter I finally did it!

In a nutshell, the BeNeLux countries were beautiful, the food amazing, the weather freezing, and the itinerary exhausting.  We had three (three!!) home bases in 7 nights.  I generally do not like to travel this way with kids, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbled this time.  So, ready or not, here comes a whole host of posts (ha!) on everything BeNeLux we could jam into one week.

Welcome to Luxembourg!

Welcome to Luxembourg!

First up, the Lux part!  Doc Sci and I carefully woke the boys up around 430am on a Monday morning and crept silently to our car.  Under the cover of darkness, we made our way through France to Luxembourg.  We were hit with two curve balls – the traffic going into Lux happened to be a lot heavier than anticipated, and the weather in Lux was much colder than predicted.

The Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

The Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

After finding our way to what has to be the BEST park in Lux, we awkwardly dressed the boys in their day clothes (they slept in the car wearing pajamas), trying to maneuver socks and buttons in our cramped car.  We fed the boys and the baby breakfast, and set out for a walk around the old city.

We were the only crazy tourists out at 8am.

We were the only crazy tourists out at 8am.

Good morning, beautiful church.

Good morning, beautiful church.

Funky fountain near the city's history museum.

Funky fountain near the city’s history museum.

I had envisioned savoring the beauty of the architecture and appreciating the stillness of the morning unclouded by throngs of tourists.  Oh, the streets were empty all right.  But the only thing I thought about was how I could barely feel my feet.  After a few hey-we-were-here pictures, we headed back to the park.

Fancy a bite to eat?  Better have a wad of cash - this child's expression at the ridiculously priced kids meal says it all.

Fancy a bite to eat? Better have a wad of cash – this child’s expression at the ridiculously priced kids’ meal says it all.

I might've ponied up to try this Mexican restaurant (isn't Chi Chi's a cheap salsa in the US?!), but 8am is a little early for me to be breaking out the burritos.

I might’ve ponied up some euros to try this Mexican restaurant (isn’t Chi Chi’s a cheap salsa in the US?!), but 8am is a little early for me to be breaking out the burritos.

On the way back to the park and our car, we found the tourist office.  We stopped in (hello, free heat) and were told that we had caught all the interesting sights.  The only thing we missed and couldn’t do anyway because of our time schedule was the underground casemates tour (a great description of the tour can be found here).  The admission is surprisingly reasonable, and we will definitely do this tour should we have the opportunity to return to Luxembourg.

Even without the cold, we probably could have spent one day in Luxembourg – max.  The city is quite compact, and very walkable.  If you’re traveling with a baby or toddler, prams are okay, but a backpack carrier would be better especially if you plan on walking up and down the fortress walls or taking the casemates tour.

When researching Luxembourg, I noticed a hop on-hop off tour.  I have to say that after seeing Luxembourg in person, that tour is most likely a waste of money unless you have limited mobility.  The tour buses are not frequent, and all the sights are quite close together.

Luxembourg is a city with layers and layers and layers of history.  Seeing the old fortresses was Doc Sci's favorite part of the morning.

Luxembourg is a city with layers and layers and LAYERS of history. Seeing the old fortresses was Doc Sci’s favorite part of the morning.

Another view from the old fortress.

Another view of the city from the old fortress.

Though I loved taking in the view of the Grand Ducal Palace, I know the boys thought the pirate ship playground was the highlight of our morning in Lux.  If you’d like to visit yourself, the huge park is located near the corner of Avenue Monterey and Boulevard Prince Henri, right next to the Monterey parking garage.  Free (warm!) bathrooms are located in the park as well as in the parking garage.  Many cafes are within walking distance should you need a bite to eat.  (More about this park here.)

The gigantic pirate ship playground!

The gigantic pirate ship playground!

Though it's hard to tell, this slide is at least two stories high, maybe three!

Though it’s hard to tell, this slide is at least two stories high, maybe three!

This park ROCKS!

This park ROCKS!

My snapshot of Luxembourg: bitter cold, enchanting, historically fascinating, and very expensive.

Have you been to Luxembourg?  What was your favorite part of Lux to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold