Turkish Family Travels: A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Cruise

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravelThis post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

While the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are generally the stars of the Istanbul show, let’s not forget that the Bosphorus has made headlines for thousands of years.

Until 1973, the only way to cross the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia or vice versa was by boat. Now, for the mere price of a toll or subway ticket, you can whoosh your way back and forth between the continents.

But forget all that modern innovation – wouldn’t you rather experience the strait like a pirate on the high seas?

Okay, maybe not a modern pirate. Those chaps are mighty frighty. More like a fairy-tale, swashbuckling-yet-serene pirate. Eye patch optional.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

Since we only had a few days in Istanbul, I didn’t want to devote an entire day to one tour. If I would have had the time, though, we could’ve sailed straight up to the Black Sea. Throw in a walk up to the medieval Anadolu Kavağı Kalesi and the opportunity for a stellar picnic, and I’m sold.

Ah well, that adventure will have to wait until our next time in Turkey.

Not wanting to give up on the dream entirely, we settled for a shorter cruise. Our ship left from Eminönü right down in Sultanahmet and was scheduled to depart at 1430. We showed up about forty minutes prior to sailing, bought tickets, and boarded.

Fortunately, the boat wasn’t crowded, but the upper deck filled quickly. Expert tip: Stake out seats for your party as soon as you board. Don’t stop to use the loo or buy a drink. If you do, all the choice spots will be gone.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

From the upper deck, we were treated to a view from above of the spice market area as well as the back side of Topkapi Palace and two other mosques. All that, and we hadn’t even left the dock!

The ship chugged out of port, slipping past behemoth cruise liners and dingy fishing boats on its way out to sea. She stopped briefly to pick up another set of passengers at Ortaköy which is near the most charming little mosque (Büyük Mecidiye Cami) and nearly underneath the massive Bosphorus Bridge.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

Viewing this feat of engineering from such a close angle completely fascinated me. I learned later that the bridge took more than 3 years to build, boasts 8 lanes which can be assigned to either direction depending on the time of day and flow of traffic, costs about 4TL to cross, and is closed to pedestrians.

Apparently, it was possible to walk across the bridge in the first few years of its opening, but this is now forbidden. Too bad, because that’s definitely something we would have done!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

As we made our way up toward the Black Sea, our eyes were treated to beautiful palaces, mosques, homes, and gardens along the water. We were given a free brochure with the names of these landmarks, but no further information was provided. If you’re particularly interested in learning more about each building, it’s possible to rent an audio guide for the journey.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravelOnce we reached the second bridge (Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge), the ship sputtered around, spinning to position herself for the journey back to Istanbul. I had hoped for a bit of excitement, say nearly missing a colossal container ship, but no dice. Slow and steady she went.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravelThe unfortunate reality for both the full and half day cruises are that there’s only one way up to the Black Sea and back, so you’ll have to retrace your steps no matter what.

At this point, the constant whir of the motor, the lapping of the waves, and the sea breeze lulled me to dreamland. Docking back at Eminönü rudely interrupted my 12TL nap. Shame.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

So, was the Bosphorus Boat Cruise worth it? Eh, maybe. The answer really depends on why you want to set sail.

We had two purposes in indulging in our maritime excursion: (1) Grab a glimpse of the Anatolian/Asian side since our short stay made exploring that area impossible and (2) entertain little boys who think boats are pretty awesome. Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

While we did fulfill both of those wishes, I can’t say that I thought this boat trip was in my top five Istanbul favorites. Top ten, yes. Top five, no. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected pirates, James Bond, or container ship collisions.

There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours of your life, but I can think of better ones as well.

Now before you write me off because boats are to you what trains are to Sheldon Cooper, you should know that I’m not totally a boat trip hater. We’ve had great fun at sea in Brugge, Hvar, and Berchtesgaden just to name a few.

So, tell me, are you a boat trip aficionado? Would you want to do the full-day Bosphorus tour or skip the seas all together?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Turkish Family Travel: Two Magnificent Mosques

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravelThis post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

Have you ever given much thought to how your neighbors look or compared the similarities and differences in culture and custom? In the US, I never thought much about the families in the next house or car or Target aisle because, well, they all pretty much looked like me.

Mosaic of Culture

My neighbors in Germany, though, reflected many beautiful people groups from around the world. I regularly shared the elevator with women in saris, hajibs, African headwraps, dirndls, and wool hippie clothing. Unfortunately, other than a handful that spoke English, I couldn’t ask them about their culture or customs. While I wished I had both more vocab and courage, I was mostly content to admire this sampling of international style.

It’s true that many areas of America host a mosaic of nations. But in order to really get a feel for a particular people group, you need to set foot on their soil and soak up their native atmosphere.

Germany is home to loads of Turkish people, but they have to adapt their way of life to the dominant German one. Experiencing Turkish culture in their homeland was one of our greatest privileges during our time in Istanbul.

First Impressions

Seeing as this was our family’s first visit to a Muslim country, it’s only natural that little boy brains were filled with questions.

What is that strange sound broadcast several times per day? Why do the women dress this way?

What’s a mosque?

Why are those people on their knees, touching their heads to the floor?

I relished these dialogues and hope for many more of the same on our subsequent trips to Muslim nations. I hate that fear in America has created stereotypes; not every Muslim is a terrorist as certain media outlets would have us believe.

I don’t have to agree with everything one believes in order to show compassion and care. We must love people because they are people – daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters – that, on a basic human level, are just like us. One of the best ways to understand this is to observe and interact with people different from ourselves in their home environment.

So when my boys imitated the call to prayer, we explained the importance of these sounds to the people of Istanbul. We taught them to respect rather than mock. When my boys asked why I had to wrap a scarf around my head inside a mosque, I pointed out that all the other women in the mosque covered their heads, and as guests in this land, we must respect local customs.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

All those conversations (and likely the fact that they could sit on the comfortable, carpeted floors) pushed the intricately decorated mosques up to “favorite” status with everyone in the family.

The Blue Mosque

When you visit your local place of worship, do you wait in line? Probably not, but it’s also likely not as famous as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, aka the Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Camii.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

On the day of our visit, we slowly snaked past a hut loaning out cover-ups and headscarves for female guests until we reached the actual entrance. We bagged our shoes as requested; this helps the plush carpets inside to remain clean. I then blanketed my head with a gauzy scarf and stepped inside.

You don’t need to be an interior designer or artist to appreciate the graceful patterns adorning mosque interiors. The Blue Mosque, as the name suggests, is particularly famous for its woven lines in a dominantly blue color scheme.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravelThrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravelTip your head up to appreciate the fullness of the decorated ceiling, but be careful not to fall over backwards in awe or bump into another visitor. Delight your eyes with blue, gold, and persimmon dancing in harmony over every inch of wall and ceiling.

See, magnificent, right?!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

Tips for Your Family’s Visit to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque:

  • Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free. However, the mosque is closed during prayer times. Be sure to check the current times here.
  • If you are not Muslim, you will only be permitted to visit a small part of the building. However, even the third or so of the main floor is worth your time.
  • Women, tuck a scarf and cardigan in your day pack, and be sure to wear a long skirt or pants. If you forget or don’t have these items with you, garments are available to loan just before the entrance.
  • If you’re bringing a child in a pram, know that you’ll need to park it outside the mosque. We didn’t bring one, so I can’t say for certain how that works. However, I did see the stroller parking sign at the top of some stairs, so I highly recommend a folding stroller or a baby carrier instead.
  • When the weather in Istanbul broils, dip into a mosque. The carpets are cool and the atmosphere calm.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

Sülemaniye Mosque

Less famous than the Blue Mosque, Sülemaniye Mosque crowns one of Istanbul’s seven famed hills. Practically speaking, this means two things: (1) the view is amazing but (2) the climb to get there is a royal pain.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

The largest in Istanbul, Sülemaniye Mosque was constructed in the 16th century at the order of Sultan Süleman. History nerds, you can read more about the mosque’s construction here.

I must admit, Sülemaniye ended up stealing the #1 mosque spot from its indigo sister. Fewer visitors, no line, and a clean white interior – the Blue Mosque just couldn’t top that.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

After a serious hike up the hill to reach the mosque, we paused for a moment to enjoy the amazing view from Sülemaniye’s garden. From there, we could see Galata Tower and Bridge and even the ships beyond.

As is common in Istanbul, haze caused low visibility and construction props obstructed part of the view. But still – you do not want to miss this panorama, especially since it’s completely free!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

Sülemaniye’s courtyard delights at first look with stone latticework, arches, and colonnaded peristyle. While there, I noticed that we were sharing the space with other Muslim tour groups instead of foreign cruise ship/tour bus groups. I learned while staying at our hotel that many Muslim couples choose Istanbul as a honeymoon destination. Fascinating!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

Sans shoes, inside we rested on the carpet, recovering from the strenuous climb up the crooked streets of the hill. The boys explored the interior on hands and knees, and they assured me that the carpets are as comfortable as they are beautiful.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

The interior of Sülemaniye is calmer on the eye than the Blue Mosque. Of course, it’s not devoid of the delicate designs that are typical of the Islamic style. A broader color palette – pink, cinnamon, hunter, navy – is sparingly crowned with shimmering gold script. Other areas of the walls and ceiling offer a more subdued pattern, cleaner but elegant in its simplicity.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravelThrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravelThrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravelWhen the eyes have had their fill, the stomach often wants its turn. And boys only act like gentlemen for so long before they go the way of the wild. They’d behaved so well, so quiet and respectful inside, we determined to end on a good note.

So long lovely mosque. Hello, lunch!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Magnificent Mosques with Kids! #familytravel

Tips for Your Family’s Visit to Sülemaniye Mosque:

  • Entrance to the Sülemaniye mosque is also free and closed during prayer times as mentioned above. To see a general guide to prayer times, click here.
  • Tips regarding attire apply to all mosques. Not all mosques have loaner garments, but like the Blue Mosque, Sülemaniye does.
  • Don’t forget to explore the mosque grounds. They’re more extensive than the Blue Mosque and provide panoramic views of Istanbul.
  • I noticed a pleasant tea garden right outside the mosque walls, but since we were all hungry for lunch, we did not get a chance to try it.
  • The bathrooms in the courtyard of Sülemaniye were abysmal and overpriced when we visited. When you gotta go, you gotta go – but just know that you’ve been warned.
  • Talk with your kids about appropriate (quiet, calm) behavior. The Blue Mosque is much noisier due to its heavier traffic; Sülemaniye is much quieter so rambunctious rascals will surely stick out!
  • For more general do’s and don’ts for mosque visitors, click here.

Have you been to either the Blue Mosque or Sülemaniye Mosque? If not, which one is more your style?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Turkish Family Travels: Hagia Sophia, the 8th Wonder of the World

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

This post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

Only a handful of places in the world really live up to their travel hype, and the Hagia Sophia is one of them. You guys – the Hagia Sophia is one of the most phenomenal places I have ever been!

Since my final teenage year as an art history university student, I have wanted to see the Aya Sofya with my own two eyeballs. Coffee table photo books just.do.not. do it justice.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

From church to mosque to museum, this masterpiece has seen a lot of history since she was completed in the sixth century. Gorgeous, amazing, and gigantic – you do not want to miss this!

Unfortunately, the rest of the world feels the same way, and they’ll be accompanying you on your visit.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

We arrived as early as humanly possible with 3 kids and no threat of fire. We still waited in line for a bit and had to endure the constant hawking of tour guides touting their services to the queue. Thankfully, we did beat the cruise ship / tour bus crowd, but only by about 30 minutes.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

With the exorbitant (for Turkey) admission fee paid, we made our way to the entrance. I stopped my boys in front of the doors and snapped a photo of them. The three amigos have no idea what the Hagia Sophia is, but some day I can show them the photo as proof – both that they did visit and how small they were compared to the towering doors.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Once inside, we decided to go up first since most of the crowds stay down on the main level. After peeking down on the hordes and up at the marvelous ceilings from the mezzanine, I went searching for a few ancient pieces heretofore only seen in textbooks.

I found the famous glittering mosaics hidden away in on the far side and, sadly, falling apart. I had hoped for more mosaics (love them!), but much of the interior is painted, not tiled. I loved that I was privileged to see them; I hate these tiled masterpieces only left me wanting more.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with KidsDownstairs, the main area was completely filled with tour groups. Making elbow space to take a photo proved challenging, as was taking pictures sans tourist heads or arms. We didn’t rent an audio guide, but I imagine it was difficult to get near some of the featured points of interest because of the crowds.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Though the Aya Sofya is no longer a mosque, the interior is heavily decorated with Islamic motifs. These are sprinkled in among the early Christian art. I found it to be an intriguing mix, but you’ll have to draw your own conclusions concerning the design.

Was visiting the Hagia Sophia worth it? This is not even a question worth answering.. You cannot visit Istanbul and not experience the Hagia Sophia. It’s a crime against art.

The “8th wonder of the world” truly is an architectural, historical, artistic, and cultural gem that should top every family’s Turkish bucket list and one deserving of the price of admission. I feel like I should say more, but I really can’t do the place justice. You’ll just have to see it for yourself!Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Tips for Taking Your Family to Hagia Sophia

  • Go early! Arrive before opening time, if possible. It may have been a fluke, but we did notice that the entrance line tapered off around 2pm. Perhaps the tour groups are all finished for the day by that time. It’s worth asking around to find the best time to go on a particular day.
  • We spent about an hour inside. I would have liked to stay longer, but the crowds weren’t going away and my kids weren’t magically going to turn into art history buffs (sad, but true). Plus, we wanted to end the visit on a meltdown-free note. I recommend researching the treasures of the Aya Sofya in advance so you know what you absolutely want to see.
  • Getting to the second floor with a pram would be problematic. Use a baby carrier, or plan to take turns exploring the upper level.
  • You can rent an audio guide, but the masses may make it difficult to get near some of the featured points of interest.
  • Use the free WC before you exit the grounds. Bathrooms are hard to find in Istanbul!
  • The courtyard has a small café where you can make a pit stop before moving on to your next adventure.

Have you ever wanted to visit the Hagia Sophia or another famous historical place? Do you think places such as this are worth visiting despite the crowds?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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

 

Our Unforgettable 10th Anniversary Swiss Getaway

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, SwitzerlandThe last time Doc Sci and I had the chance to escape alone, Charlie was still swimming in my stomach. We went to Milan for one warm, delicious day (the little one must have liked it because we ended up back in Italy to celebrate his first birthday). But with the little guy nearly two (2!!), we were due for another getaway.

With our tenth anniversary on the horizon, I entertained visions of endless days spent lying on Greek beaches, in private villas, and around infinity pools. These images must have been more delusion than dream because who I am kidding?! There’s no way we have the financial or child-care means to support such grand plans.

Instead, we ended up with a plan that was much more “us” than my former imaginations. We booked our trusty babysitter for a day and a half and set off for Switzerland to sleep in the Alps and hike the classic Faulhornweg.

Logistics

Faulhornweg day-trippers need to take the cog wheel train from Wilderswil to Schynige Platte, make their way to First (about 6 solid hours of walking, not including breaks), take the cable car back down to Grindelwald, and then a train back to Wilderswil.

It sounds confusing, but the basic idea is that you must travel up one side of the mountain, walk an insanely long way, and go back down the other side in order to return to your car. It can be done in reverse, but I consistently read that it was recommended to start at Schynige Platte.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The terrace at Hotel Schynige Platte.

I figured with our limited budget, we’d need to overnight at a hotel in Grindelwald or even Interlaken. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Hotel Schynige Platte reasonably priced for Switzerland. The hotel sits just above the cog wheel train station on top of the mountain and affords diners and sleepers glorious views of the big three: Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. Rates include both a five-course dinner and breakfast buffet.

Going Up

Since we missed the cog wheel train experience at Pilatus, both Doc Sci and I were eager to cross this experience off our bucket list. We bought tickets in Wilderswil and waited for the last train of the day. We were asked repeatedly if we had overnight reservations (yes) because it would be a cold night alone on the mountain if we didn’t.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

To our surprise, other than a pack of paragliders, we were the only passengers on the train, save one Swiss family with two children. Doc Sci and I were like giddy school kids, jumping over the benches, hanging out the windows, snapping photos every three seconds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Interlaken!

At the beginning of the train ride, we could see Interlaken, Thunersee, and Brienzersee. But then the train went through a series of tunnels before popping out in front of her majesty, Jungfrau.

Just like with the Eiffel Tower, sometimes the best view is not from the monument itself, but rather from a distance.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Why, hello there.

The Hotel

We pulled into the station at Schynige Platte, and checked into our hotel. The Hotel Schynige Platte is marketed as something from “grandma’s time.” The bathrooms are very modern (though not en-suite), the hotel is renovated and sparkling clean, but we had to laugh at some of the cheesy antiques.

All chuckling aside, we could barely speak when we saw the view from our room. I’m absolutely sure we had the best room in the entire house because it was on the corner and we could see the Alps from both windows.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Jungfrau!

Dinner was a curious affair. I can’t remember the last time I ate a five-course meal in a restaurant. I must have forgotten that snobbery is often the only thing that comes complimentary.

When we arrived at our table, the waitress insisted that we must order drinks. We only drink water with dinner at home, and I didn’t see in any TripAdvisor reviews that drinks (or at least water) were not included in the dinner price. She refused to bring us tap water and because we only had a limited number of francs with us (stupid I know, but I was not expecting to be manhandled), we couldn’t just order anything regardless of cost. We awkwardly asked for a menu.

A little heads up on this would’ve been nice, and a little understanding from the server would’ve been even nicer. We finally ordered a half liter of Sprite to the tune of 6 CHF. Yikes.

The worst part was that we realized later that another table had tap water – and a different waitress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Several of the courses were served on “plates” of stone or wood.

This flap put a bit of a damper on our dinner. We tried our best to ignore it, but this server was intent on remaining surly throughout the entire meal. To make matters worse, it started raining during dinner, clouding up our view of the Alps.

Well, whatever – we were here without kids, and we were going to make the best of it!

The room was chilly, but a space heater did the trick. As I mentioned, none of the rooms are not en-suite, but we never had to wait for a toilet or shower, and everything was very clean. It was odd to sleep in such silence with nothing but an occasional gust of wind to break it. We savored every minute of it.

In the morning, we rose early in anticipation of the long hike ahead. Breakfast was a limited buffet (though they did have hard boiled eggs and an assortment of pork cold cuts in the protein department). We made ourselves Alpine cheese sandwiches to take along, and we devoured the traditional Swiss yogurt and muesli in between swigs of coffee.

The Hike

After checking out, we stepped out into the drizzle. Unfortunately, the rain from the night before had lingered. Never mind that, our spirits were still high. Whenever anything threatened to fizzle our cheery disposition, we just looked at each other and said, “No kids!”Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

But this weather, this drizzle, was to be the best of the whole day. The plus side was that we were the only people on the trail. We could chat with each other or climb in silence. Our exclamations at the beauty of this place, even despite the fog and rain, annoyed no one. Pit stops were possible anywhere one pleased.

We traversed so many different types of terrain – huge boulders, tiny footpaths, bits of snow, gurgling streams. We dodged cow pies in pastures with scary heifers and slimy black salamanders that came out to frolic in the puddles. It was incredible.

The only thing that could have made it any more amazing would’ve been the lifting of the clouds so that we could have seen the peaks around us while we hiked.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The down side of the nasty weather was that by the middle of the hike, we were already on our way to being soaked. We wanted to sit in shelter somewhere to grab a bite to eat. We came across one restaurant (Berghaus Männdlenen Weberhütte) that rudely shooed us away since we only wanted to take a break and not buy a meal. The only other restaurant (Berghotel Faulhorn) we saw was at the Faulhorn summit. We figured we had about 5 CHF to spare and bought a hot chocolate with that in order to sit inside and warm up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Faulhorn summit.

Unfortunately, our clothing and belongings were now thoroughly drenched (note to self: check waterproofing on clothing and gear before going on a substantial hike). Putting them back on and stepping back out into the chilly rain and blistering wind sent my teeth a-chattering and my body temperature in a frightening downward spiral. Thankfully, I warmed up again after about 30 minutes, and at that time, we discovered a free hut where we could have eaten our lunch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Bachsee.

This hut looked out over the Bachsee, a lake popular with tourists ascending from Grindelwald to First. The sea was dead that day – no swimming, no fishing. I had hoped to take a dip in the Alpine water, but no dice. We had to keep moving to stay warm and get to a place where we could finally dry off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Don’t get any crazy ideas – that’s a camera and zoom lens in my jacket, not a baby bump.

Water literally poured off of us as we stepped inside the cable car at First for the ride back down to the Grindelwald valley. I think the only things that weren’t completely dripping were our feet (thank God), our cameras, and our phones. We rode down the mountain relieved to have made it and eager to get back to our car to change into dry clothes.

Final Thoughts

Would I do this hike again? Absolutely. But, only if I had the assurance of a clear day with no rain. And I think my boys would love this route in a few years. Perhaps we’ll go back for our 15th anniversary.

Doc Sci and I talked about anything and everything during the hike to stay focused, positive, and warm. I am so thankful that we are the best of friends. The fact that after 10 years of marriage, we still have things to talk about really encouraged me. While I would have obviously wished for better weather and more amazing views, hiking in these awful conditions really solidified something for me. I’d rather be in a miserable place with my husband than in a gorgeous one without him.

Have you ever had weather or vendor attitudes threaten to ruin your plans for an amazing vacation? I’m not always this positive – I think the absence of potential chorus of whining helped – so if you have any tips on how you managed to make the best of things, share them in the comments below.Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Mt. Pilatus – More Swiss Alps… with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with KidsOur romp through Switzerland continues today with an outing to Luzern (or Lucerne, if you prefer). The infamous lake of the same name is guarded by two intimidating peaks – Rigi to the east and Pilatus to the south. Both are big, bad, manly Alps.. so how to choose?

Which Peak?

If you’re trying to decide, you may be interested to know that tourists generally flock to Pilatus, but many Swiss people recommend Rigi. The view is said to be more beautiful from Rigi, though the panorama from Pilatus reportedly beats out Rigi. If you have the cash and want to do both, I’ve heard that the look and feel of the two mountains is very different.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

What made us pick Pilatus? Well, our visit was in June, and the cable car on Rigi is free for children in July and August. There was no way I was going to pay for something crazy expensive like a Swiss cable car ticket when I could just wait a few weeks and then get it for free.

Going Up

There are two ways to reach the top of Mt. Pilatus: cable car and cog wheel train. They both go to the same place, but they start from different sides of the mountain.

Many visitors to Mt. Pilatus choose to do something called the Golden Round Trip. You can start the GRT from anywhere along the way, but the classic route begins in Luzern with a boat trip on Lake Lucerne from the city to Alpnachstad. From there, you board the world’s steepest cog wheel train and chug on up the mountain. After dilly dallying to your hearts content in the thin air, you take two different cable cars down to Kriens where a bus returns you to Luzern.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

We decided that from a logistics and budget standpoint, we would get the most out of our day by going up and down the same side of the mountain. It had to be the cable car side since I discovered that Krienseregg boasts a rather impressive playground called PILU-Land. We’d have to leave the cogwheel train experience for another time.

Parking at Kriens was easy enough, and after being completely ripped off by a terrible euro-franc exchange rate, we were off, sailing up into the blue skies.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The first cable car is small, only big enough for four people (though they wisely allowed us to squeeze Charlie in despite the four-person rule). It glides up Kriens-Krienseregg-Fräkmüntegg. At Fräkmüntegg, passengers switch to another larger cable car to reach the peak. Note that from September 1, 2014, to sometime in the spring of 2015, the Fräkmüntegg – Pilatus Kulm route will be closed due to the construction of a new aerial cableway. 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

At Fräkmüntegg, you can ride Switzerland’s longest summer toboggan run. Ticket prices are reasonable, but note that children under 2 cannot ride and children under 6 must be accompanied by an adult.

Pilatus – The Peak

A fancy hotel and several restaurants sit at the top ready to accept visitors’ francs. We sailed right on by and looked for the trails.

Since we were with another family and this time had six kids in tow (ages 8 and under!), we couldn’t very well do any of the crazy Alpine trails. However, we did manage to hike up to both Esel and Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

View of the Pilatus station, including restaurants and sundeck, from Esel.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Chillin at Esel. No ugly hiking boots or zipoff pants today.

The walk up to Esel is rather short, and it offers the best view of Lake Luzern itself. The stairs are wide enough that you can climb side by side with kids on the inside (toward the mountain). You’ll find benches here, but also loads of tourists. Munch on lunch, and move on.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

If you’re lucky, you might just spot a crazed mountain man free climbing up to the summit.

Tomlishorn, on the other hand, is trickier but worth the trek. It’s further from the Pilatus summit station (about an hour), and the trail is narrower, sometimes with only thin metal poles and skinny cables to keep you (and your kids) from skidding down the mountain. But there are pretty little signposted wildflowers to keep you company along the way. And the views of the Alps are better from this side.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Starting out toward Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Things are getting rocky along the way..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

But this picnic spot was well worth the effort.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

And, then, of course, there’s the view..

If you’d rather stay closer to the station, look for the dragon path which you can start from inside the station building. It’s carved into the rock and winds around the north side of Pilatus. On the back side of the path, you can watch the seriously buff hikers finishing their climb up the mountain. You’ll also have a perfect view of the chapel on Klimsenhorn with miles and miles of Swiss land in the background.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The back side of the dragon path.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The chapel on Klimsenhorn. We desperately wanted to go down and check it out, but the terrain was a bit too slippery with young ‘uns and not enough trekking poles to go around.

Back the Way We Came

After we were half tipsy from the endless picture-perfect peaks, we needed to get those six munchkins to the playground ASAP before they wrestled their way down the mountain. When we switched cable cars at Fräkmüntegg, we heard music – alphorns!

At Krienseregg, we joined dozens of other Swiss families for a romp on the PILU-Land playground. In true Swiss style, the grills were all fired up and everyone was eating freshly roasted sausages (well, everyone except BYO cheapskates like us).Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

To top things off, we arrived back at Kriens just in time to watch two paragliders land next to the cable car station. The boys were in heaven, but all I could think of was the hellish barrage of “why can’t I paraglide when I turn 7?” questions for the next three weeks. Sorry, dear, we don’t mind you walking in the clouds as long as your feet are on solid ground, but it’s going to be a very long time before we let you jump off into said clouds with nothing but a little nylon to keep you afloat.

So, How Does Pilatus Compare?

If you’ve read about our Schilthorn experience, you might wonder how Pilatus stacks up. In our opinion, Schilthorn is the better choice, hands down.

Pilatus had no snow on it, and we could only catch hazy glimpses of the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Schilthorn still had some snow, but all the peaks around it were dazzling in white. Also, the view of Lake Luzern is nice, but looking at Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau is just otherworldly. Both peaks are gouge-your-eyes-out expensive. But, if the weather’s clear and it’s within reach, go for Schilthorn.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Don’t miss our third and final Swiss adventure next week which involves NO children, being soaked to the bone, and the only snotty Swiss people I’ve ever met. Subscribe by email, feed reader, or like TTM on Facebook to stay up to date on the latest posts.

Taking the family to Switzerland but don’t have the cash or the time to visit the Alps? Check our adventures in Bellinzona, Stein am Rhein, and Rhein Falls!

Signature-Marigold

A Budget-Friendly Swiss Family Hike in the Clouds

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Walk in the CloudsSomewhere along the way we became that hiking family. You know, the ones with seriously ugly boots and those weird zip-off pants. I shudder to admit this, but I now consider SPF protection and water resistance rather than style when looking to buy new clothes. Please send help.

When our family was driving back from the amazing Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament, my husband and I tried to figure out just when this switch happened. Exactly when did we realize that hiking was our family’s “thing?” And, someone please tell me, when did our four year-old decide that he (1) was not only capable but (2) actually enjoyed walking for hours in the woods?

When planning the aforementioned trip, I asked for trail recommendations in the TripAdvisor forums. I wrote this:

We have two kids, 4 1/2 and 6 1/2 that are accustomed to hiking (max 15km, 10km is ideal).

Later in the day, the full impact of what I wrote hit me, and I had to pause. Seriously, when did hiking TEN KILOMETERS with my kids become “ideal”?!

I have no doubt there are other hiking families with little ones out there. I just don’t know any of them. Will the non-poser hiking families please stand up?

Anyway, I guess now we (mostly) just forgo fashion for natural beauty – as in rivers, trees, rocks, mountains. This is starting to sound like we’ve gone completely tree-hugger, but that’s not entirely accurate. I mean, at least I still shower. Goodness.

Plus, even if fashion is your thang, I don’t care how GQ you are – no one holds a candle to the Swiss Alps. Oh, golly do I love the Alps. In fact, I’m smitten.

And while it just feels right to snack on a sandwich at 3,000m, what I usually can’t stomach are the Swiss prices. I can only fork over so many francs in the summer hiking season.

It was, therefore, with great delight that I came across Moms : Tots : Zurich’s post about a hike in the Engelberg valley that only required a one-way cable car ticket and clocked in at a very reasonable 12 CHF per adult. For the hiking newbs, you ride the cable car up and walk back to your car. I completely understand if this sounds like torture to you.

As soon as the weather looked something like summer, we stocked up on trail mix (dear me, now we’re granola) and hit the road.

We did our usual bagel breakfast in the car, and arrived at the Fürenalp cable car just after it opened.

Unfortunately, even though the weather was warm enough to be classified as “not winter,” the skies weren’t entirely clear. In fact, the clouds changed about every twenty seconds.

As I usually do before venturing into die Schweiz, I stalked the weather forecast and webcam for days, comparing the predictions from several sites with the actual weather throughout the day from the 360° webcam. In the end, it’s always a gamble, and we decided we’d rather go to the Alps on a cloudy day than not go at all. Besides, everything in Switzerland can’t always be perfect, right?!

Well, since I know many of you aren’t hiking weirdos with convertible pants and trekking poles, I thought I’d just show you the hike in pictures rather than just yapper on and on about the trail.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The Fürenalp cable car is much smaller than the ones we are used to. They hold 6-8 people, and the ride only lasts a few minutes.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

There’s a photo at the station here that shows an old version of the cable car. It basically looks like an open crate, and the photo shows two children sitting alone in it and sailing up the mountain. Yikes.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Thirty francs later (kids under 6 are free), we’re off!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, Engelberg! This turned out to be the clearest view we had of the valley the whole day.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

In Switzerland, there’s always a restaurant at the end of any cable car line. Note that the prices are as impressive as the views.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

But, more importantly, there’s usually a playground at the top, too. This one did not disappoint. Not pictured: a giant trampoline to really get the altitude sickness going.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

As we studied the trail map, Bessie and her buds moseyed up to eye the new trail meat. And yes, that strip of rocky dirt is the start of the Grotzliweg trail.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The kids liked the cows, but Doc Sci was a little chicken to share the trail with them so we took a parallel path. At the time I kind of ragged on him about it, but later, I read Tanya’s post about scary cows. Better leave those heifers alone.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, awesome playground and potentially dangerous bovines.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The trail starts out nice and easy. As Tanya mentions, you can’t take a pram here, but the terrain isn’t too rough for smallish hikers.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

I noticed a sign pointing toward a small mirror lake (Spiegelseeli), so I left the boys on the main trail and ran up to check it out. I imagine this would be a perfect place for the kids to splash and frolic about when the temperatures oblige.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Had the clouds not been so annoying, here’s all the things we could’ve seen (including the more popular and MUCH more expensive Titlis). Sometimes we could see somber black mountain faces smattered with rotting streaks of snow. Other times we caught glimpses of those same streaks morphing into wild waterfalls that careened down the sheer drop-offs. And, in between, we couldn’t see anything but wispy haze that clouded the views we coveted of those majestic Alps.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Along the way, we passed another even smaller cable car station, a handful of dairy farms selling fresh-from-the-cow products, a few restaurants, and the same four pairs of hikers. Everyone took breaks at different times and places, passing and being passed in a funny trail dance that bordered on annoying by the time it was over.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Speaking of that other cable car, if you find that you’ve bit off more than you can chew with a 9km walk, you can catch a ride down on it, and that would probably cut that distance in half. But if you’re game to keep walking, the station makes a lovely picnic spot.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

After lunch, Bravo spotted one of the biggest cowbells we have ever seen.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

One of the highlights of the hike is the Stäuber waterfall. It’s not really a place to wade or swim or test your luck in a barrel, but this section looked okay for the kids to dip a toe or two in (under supervision, of course).

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The waterfall isn’t particularly high, but it still had plenty of water flowing thanks to melted snow. Maybe it’s less impressive in the late summer/early fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The alpine flowers were in full bloom, and we actually saw more critters than usual (read: more than zero). We saw everything from dung flies to butterflies to a laminated frog (tractor tire?) and a silvery snake. All this in addition to the cows that, despite Doc Sci’s efforts to avoid, populated many of the paths.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The route back down toward Engelberg follows this river which flows from the waterfall. The flow calms down a bit further on. We saw several places to wade in the frigid water, but it was still too chilly to do that, even in mid-June.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Toward the end of the hike, we entered a forested area that was rather unremarkable, except for this billy and his buds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Once we cleared the forest (and another herd of cows), we found ourselves in a big open field with a view of the cable car and a bit of the Engelberg valley. An impressive finish, to say the least.

Whew! We did it – 9 kilometers completed, 30 francs spent, and untold numbers of treacherous cow pies avoided.

Even though we were the only family with kids that day, we still made it down the mountain in roughly the same amount of time as everyone else. We started our hike at 10:30am, and we finished just before 3:00pm. We stopped two times for snacks as well as at the waterfall to let our jaws hang loose while we stared at the simple yet amazing power of rushing water. Yes, despite the cloudy conditions, a good day was had by all.

This post is the first of three short trips to the Swiss Alps. In order to ease you into the sticker shock, I’m starting with the cheapest. But if you’re ready to jump in and bleed as much cash as possible, you can read about our pricey (but amazing) trip to Schilthorn last summer here. Stay tuned for our next stop – Mt. Pilatus!

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in HvarI’m wrapping up our whirlwind tour of Croatia today with notes on a place any traveler to the Dalmatian coast would be remiss not to visit – the island of Hvar. Well, one might be forgiven for skipping Hvar as long as at least one other island was visited. You simply must choose at least one Croatian island to experience. With over 1,000 of them, there’s sure to be at least one that fits your family’s travel tastes.

Getting There

Now, first things first. In order to explore Hvar, you have to, you know, get there. It is an island, after all, and attempting to swim or drive would be disastrous.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

The easiest way is to take a ferry, or a catamaran in high season. Timetables offer plenty of options in the summer but are drastically reduced in the off season. No matter when you go, I highly recommend checking times and prices for adults, children, cars, cats, parrots, and pet gorillas here.

I was nervous about the ship selling out, so I (literally) ran down to the port first thing in the morning to buy tickets. We had originally planned to visit Mljet and Hvar, but we weren’t able to make Mljet work. We were totally over the constant chorus of begging from backseat to ride on a boat, and I was afraid we’d never live it down if we didn’t actually set sail while in Croatia.

Thankfully, all my worry was for naught – plenty of tickets, and they didn’t charge me for our four year-old!

Setting Sail

The excitement hung thick in the air as we approached the ship.

“Is THAT the ferry, mama?” Our middle one pointed to a gigantic cruise liner.

“No, buddy, that one is headed to Italy.”

Wow, Italy!

“Ours is the smaller one next to it.”

“Ohhh.. can we go to Italy?”

The disappointment of not sleeping overnight en route to the land of never-ending pizza was quickly quenched by the fascination of watching the cars and trucks drive onto our ferry. The attendants packed the vehicles in, insisting that drivers park with only a few measly centimeters of breathing room in between.

Once on board, we staked our claim to a swath of seats and set up shop. The ride from Split to Hvar takes about two hours, and the only way we can keep restless boys happy for that long is with food.

Our boat set off at 8:30am, and we brought (what I thought was) a standard amount of food for breakfast. They smashed that up in oh, about 20 minutes. I should’ve brought extra rations. Always bring extra.

Our pleas to “look out the window and enjoy the scenery!” fell on deaf ears. Luckily, a friendly Polish family sat across from us; they turned out to be gracious in conversation and donating a good portion of their own personal snack stash.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Arriving in Hvar

The ferry docks near Stari Grad (though you can sail to Hvar Town in summer), but the place everyone wants to see is Hvar Town itself.

Buses from the port to the town are timed to meet the ferries. The ride took about 20 minutes along a coastal road lined with grape vines and olive trees. Oh yes, island life, here we come!

Unfortunately, if you arrive by bus in Hvar Town, you’re automatically branded a tourist and you might be accosted by little old ladies shoving laminated photos in your face and demanding, “You want apartment?!” The fun doesn’t end when you leave the bus stop. They follow you into town and ask you again. And again. Note to self: be firm, and do your best not to be annoyed. They need to make money somehow.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in HvarThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

But, nagging aside, my first impression of Hvar was that it was rather rustic. Many of the cafes and restaurants were shut, either permanently or just for the season. It was rather impossible to believe that this catatonic town is normally known as the celebrity-studded party capital of Croatia. Even the few street vendors that bothered to show up barely budged when we walked by.

The Fortress

Well, good thing our thang isn’t parties. It’s amazing views. And the best view in Hvar is undoubtedly from the fortress. To get to it, you’ll need to schlep your crew up the narrow city streets, climbing stair after stair (though not nearly as many as the 1,000+ we conquered in Kotor) until you reach the entrance gate. Once inside the gate, it’s an easy paved walk to the top.

We didn’t have to pay admission to the fortress (perhaps because it was off-season?), but I saw booths which I assume would be open in summer. Inside the fortress, you can explore several levels, enjoy a drink at the cafe, visit a small museum, and snap some great photos of Hvar Town and the surrounding islands.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

A small church on the way up to the fortress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Where there are cannons, there are boys.

Free Fun for Kids in Hvar Town

Since almost nothing in Hvar was open, we just wandered around until we finally found a fabulous playground on the north side of town. Doc Sci and I took turns napping in the sunshine while the boys made weapons and walkie talkies out of rocks and sticks.

And, speaking of rocks, no visit to a body of water would be complete for my boys without throwing some. There’s just something about searching for the biggest rock possible and following up the toss with a satisfying PLUNK and spastic SPLASH.

Inevitably, fighting about who had the biggest rock and who made the biggest splash ensues, but this is usually solved by an offer to let them stick some appendage in the water, no matter how cold. Off came the socks and shoes, and in they went. Even I dipped a toe or ten this time.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

The Taste of Hvar

Back in Hvar Town proper, we were left with about an hour before our bus ride and a burning desire yet to be fulfilled: buy a bottle of authentic Croatian olive oil.

We asked everyone in Croatia where to get the best olive oil. Answer? Buy it on the islands if you don’t have the hookup from a friend or relative with their own grove.

But, we were at a loss – where should we buy a liter or two when only a few street vendors were even open? None of them had that thick, fragrant olive oil of our dreams, the kind that’s literally clouded with flavor.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Oh, my friend, once you have tasted real olive oil (and, it tastes like olives, fancy that), you can never go back to the store-bought stuff.

We randomly noticed a shop at the green market, one that I would’ve ordinarily considered too touristy. We popped in and the owner chatted us up, offering to let us taste the oil. First his family’s everyday use oil, then a thick extra virgin green olive oil, and then a variety made from black olives. One dip, and Doc Sci and I both agreed: simply AMAZING.

The bottle we bought was made from black olives, and it is only the oil that drips down. It’s not even pressed! It’s simply collected, so the taste is very pungent and pure. We had almost no kuna left, but you can bet we left with the biggest bottle of oil that the shop offered.. and several hundred grams of delicious olives preserved only with sea salt and flavored with sprigs of rosemary.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

As I pour a small dish of that oil in my German kitchen and dip crusty ciabatta in it, I remember our day in Hvar and our time in Dalmatia. Long after the bottle of oil is gone, I doubt I could forget that yes, this is the taste of Croatian island life.

Have you tried authentic olive oil before? What does island life taste like for you and your family?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Practical Tips for Your Family’s Visit to Hvar:

  • Check sailing times and ticket prices here, in advance. Keep in mind that tickets sell out very quickly in summer. If you plan to take a car, ask around for how many hours in advance you should line up to get on the ship.
  • We sailed to Hvar from Split, and we opted not to take our car. However, if you do opt to take a car to one of the Croatian islands, make sure to check out locations of fuel stations and keep in mind that roads on the islands can be narrow and wind through mountainous terrain.
  • When we arrived in Stari Grad, we rushed to get on the bus, not knowing how many places would be available to get to Hvar Town. It looked like a few other mini-buses showed up in order to accommodate the overflow. Tickets were 27kn/adult and we didn’t have to pay for the kids. The ride took about 20 mins, but I was told in advance it takes 30 (maybe in season?).
  • You can stock up on snacks at the Konzum grocery store in Hvar Town before catching the bus back to the ferry. There aren’t really many options for takeaway food either in Hvar Town or at the port, so either eat at a restaurant in Hvar, bring your own meal, or make a picnic out of what you can find at the grocery store.
  • Toilets are expensive in Hvar Town. The only free toilets I noticed were located at the fortress (but there may be an admission charge in high season) and on board the ferry.

 Other awesome Croatian islands for planning or dreaming:

This post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Conquering Kotor, Montenegro

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of KotorMontenegro. Say it.

It sounds… exotic, feisty, mysterious.. even dangerous.

These qualities (obviously) mean I should add it to my list of places to go with three young children, right?

Wait, are we nuts?! Probably. I know there are other families that take their kids even crazier places than we do, but, man, we are so far gone from pretty little Disney holidays.

Today’s adventure takes place in slick little Montenegro, another former YU country (sorry, I know I put it on our bucket list and it’s not technically Croatia, but just go with it). Known as Crna Gora / Црна Гора to locals, most people young, rich, and/or famous know it as a fabulous place to party (Budva).

But, we know it as a (literally) breathtaking place to drink in views of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Bay of Kotor.

Kotor is a popular day trip from Dubrovnik given that it’s supposedly only an hour and a half drive (see Notes at the end of this post). If you like collecting stamps in your passport from random small countries to up your count or exploring old stone cities steeped in history, Kotor might be for you.

Just don’t come here to climb up to St. John’s Fortress like we did.

No, no, no.

The city of Kotor, located on the bay of the same name, is quite small and can be explored in an hour or two. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kotor is cute, and sweet (which is about the opposite of how Montenegro sounds). Plus, it’s less crowded than its flashy friend to the north, Dubrovnik. Cruise ships have started docking in the city, but you can check the schedule in advance and adjust your itinerary to visit on a different day.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

So, what do you do after you’ve strolled the ancient streets? You could do something normal and sane like sit down at a cafe, have a drink, and and enjoy the atmosphere. Or you could set your sights on higher and more insane things like conquering St. John’s Fortress… with children.

I cannot officially recommend schlepping kids up 1,350 stone steps, so I won’t. But I will tell you how it could be done if you thought you might be hare brained enough to entertain the idea. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Pick up a map from the tourist information kiosk just outside the city walls. Or, just walk away from the bay and toward the mountain. You can’t miss it. Bring euros for the small entrance fee as well as water, snacks, and bribes for the hikes. You’re going to need it.

The first thing you’ll notice is that you have two choices: walk on stone steps or a somewhat flattened pile of rocks, both of which are quite slick in the rain (did I mention it was raining?!).

If you’re a parent, your two options become one option. Walk on the rocks while your child walks on the steps. Well, except for the parts of the climb where the low wall that provided a false sense of protection against a nasty tumble down the hillside is, conveniently, missing. Then, you can switch places until the wall reappears.

About fifteen minutes into the climb when you’re soaked to the bone underneath your rain jacket because good golly is this thing steep or what, you’ll reach the Church of Our Lady of Remedy.

Fabulous, you’re nearly there, right? Ha, no. But you can take a rest with the chain-smoker that’s more than happy to sell you an over-priced bottle of water. People watching is, of course, complimentary.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Just passing the Church of Our Lady of the Remedy.

Try to keep your eyes on the route and not on the fantastic panorama unfolding with each step up. You don’t want to slip on those rocks and take the kids down with you. No, no. Oh, and try not to think about why you don’t see any other families along the way.

When you do reach the top, you might want to (again) watch your step. It’s not like the fortress is falling apart or anything, but, well, yeah, it pretty much is. And the edges don’t have secure railings, so you might want to embarrass your kids by tagging along when they need to take a leak so they don’t tumble when they tinkle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back because that was one heck of a climb. And one seriously ridiculous idea with tots in tow. But the view, the view, the view, THE VIEW!Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

It’s easy to understand why this spot was chosen to fortify. From here, you can see so much of the Bay of Kotor, the city of Kotor, and the surrounding terrain.

Set up the self-timer, and burn up the camera. This is a perfect place to take a family photo. Just don’t position expensive cameras or precious children too close to the edge of anything.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

On the way back down, try to ignore those shaky legs. What are you, a weakling? You just owned that climb up to the fortress! Promise the kids they can have  a n y t h i n g  they want to eat from the grocery store if they just make it down in one piece.

Bonus: Groceries in Montenegro are CHEAP, so they can have the chips, the ice cream, and the juice for all I care.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Why yes I did just sweat my way up and down the mountain behind me, thanks for asking.

I’m (obviously) being cheeky here, and just in case the sarcasm is lost on you (Sheldon Cooper), I don’t want you to think we didn’t enjoy Kotor. In fact, we loved it, and it goes down as one of the best days of our Croatian adventure.

Also, I probably should add that for all my groveling here for the sake of humor, actually our kids made it up with hardly any whining. Reading that statement from my trip notes and typing it again here, I can barely believe it, but it must’ve happened. Just don’t expect a repeat performance, right?Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

By the way, I’m partly blaming my desire to conquer the climb up to St. John’s Fortress on Calli and Travis of Have Blog Will Travel. Their post got me hooked on the idea, and, well, we’re suckers for a good view. If they did it, why couldn’t we? Oh right, because we have THREE LITTLE KIDS with us. And apparently I just skipped over this little line, “The hike isn’t an easy one, as many of the pathways are still a work in progress,” and instead focused on the fact that, “the views at the top are more than enough reward.”

Well said.

To see the fortress walls of Kotor all lit up at night, click here. And then tell me, what would you do for a good view?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Stuck at the border. This line took us nearly 1 1/2 hours..

More Notes on Montenegro:

  • Driving directions will tell you that Kotor is about 1:30 – 1:45 from Dubrovnik. Don’t believe everything you read. Double that time to allow for long lines at the border (maybe triple it in summer). We were only about 12 cars away from the crossing and it took nearly 1 1/2 hours. Apparently there are problems with drugs, guns, money, and the like in and out of MNE so that’s why the checks are thorough. See? I told you, dangerous…
  • The roads were horrific – one lane in each direction, winding and twisting around the water with 40-60km/hr speed limits, slow old beaters and big trucks.
  • Bring loads of snacks and entertainment options (or practice your hand at these games that don’t require any equipment) in case you get stuck.
  • Living in Germany, we have become quite accustomed to not bringing our passports when we pop over to France or dip down to Switzerland. They’re never asked for or checked. But you definitely need your passport with you when crossing any borders in this region.
  • There’s a ferry option to cross the bay of Kotor, but it is not much faster than driving around the bay and the second option is much more scenic. Plus, if you drive around the bay, you can stop in Perast.
  • To up the awesomeness of your time in Kotor, park in Perast and take a boat out to the island of Our Lady of the Rocks. We didn’t make it out there, unfortunately, but I believe the boat costs 5 euros per person. At the very least, pull over and have a look; the two little islands are lovely to look at from the shore (see the second photo in this post). Check out Travis and Calli’s post on getting to Perast via public transport here.
  • Parking outside of the city gate in the town of Kotor is quite cheap (around 1 euro/hr) and convenient.
  • You can find small grocery stores inside the city walls or larger supermarket-type stores a bit further out.

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik and Ston

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & StonDubrovnik is nearly everyone’s favorite Croatian city and for good reason. She ain’t known as “the Pearl of the Adriatic” for nothin’. And while it’s sad but true that she was bombed heavily during the war, you should know that Dubrovnik’s got her fancy pants back and is as pretty as ever.

The difference between Dubrovnik and, say, Zadar is that Dubrovnik is made for tourists. Yes, real Croatians live here, but D-brov isn’t the place to experience authentic local life. You’re just going to have to do the tourist thing here.

While there are all sorts of luxurious things to do in Dubrovnik like lounging around on the beach or blowing your budget on drinks at the Buza bar, the one expensive thing you must do is walk the walls of old city.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Getting There

Dubrovnik’s walls were built to keep unwanted visitors out. These days, visitors are exactly what the tourism industry wants, despite what one might think when experiencing sticker shock at the admission price…

Anyhow, if you’re going to walk the walls, first things first – you’ve got to get up on the wall somehow. I assume you’re staying overnight in Dubrovnik because the city isn’t a day trip from, well, anywhere except maybe Montenegro or a docking cruise ship.

Admission booths and stairways are located at both the Pile and the Ploce Gates. Visitors must walk in one direction, no doubling back.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

The View from the Top

Once you’ve bled kunas in exchange for a ticket, get ready for the “wow” chorus that’ll be intermittently interspersed with “ooh” and “ahh” verses.

From the walls, you can see all of the old city, the Adriatic, Lokrum and other islands, and the rest of the town of Dubrovnik.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

And, once you’re standing on the fortress, you’ll be able to tell just how insanely massive the walls really are. We sometimes have that despicable spoiled traveler disease that renders one jaded and unimpressed, a side affect of seeing too much of the world. Not so in Dubrovnik.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & StonThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

We were totally impressed. Flippin’ fascinated, in fact.

What’s There to Do at the Top?

After walking around in the hot sun for nearly an hour (I told you the walls are massive!), you might be ready for a drink. We noticed several shops and cafes selling ice cream bars, bottled water, and fresh-squeezed juice. You can even find bathrooms and some tourists stands selling overpriced wares here and there.

If you’re cheap like me, bring your own water and snacks and take a break near the cannons. They’re located on the sea side at a particularly wide stretch of the wall. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a pirate ship heading out to sea!Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera!

The European Wall of China

A smidge to the north of Dubrovnik is a lesser-known but no-less-impressive wall in Ston. I’ve heard it called the “European Wall of China,” which is profound in its impossibility but I digress… Visitors can enter the wall either in Ston or Mali Ston and walk to the other village.

According to our good ol’ pal Wikipedia, “The wall, today 5.5 kilometre long…links Ston to Mali Ston, and is in the shape of an irregular pentangle. It was completed in the 15th century, along with its 40 towers (20 of which have survived) and 5 fortresses.” The area is currently on the UNESCO Tentative List.

Since Ston doesn’t appear on many people’s bucket lists, the area is much quieter and rarely overrun with tour groups.

Now, this is the part where I usually tell you how great it was to be up on the wall and how we were the only weirdos up there with kids, if you’ve been here long enough, you know the spiel..

Well, uh, I can’t write about that because it’s not entirely true.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Our experience

Most of the tourist sites in Croatia are closed in winter and admission is reduced or free in spring and fall. We (falsely) assumed that Ston would be the same. In fact, when we arrived, it looked abandoned.

When we tried to go inside the fortress, a guard chased us out and demanded money for us AND for the kids. Now, I’ll get to this in my kid-friendly Croatia post, but this is not normal. And, the fees were a bit steep.

Honestly, we might have paid it anyway, but our calves were screaming from walking the Dubrovnik walls the day before and to a hillside fortress in Montenegro the day before that (yeah, told you we’re weirdos). I wasn’t sure we actually wanted to torture ourselves further with more. stone. steps.

So, I politely said we just wanted to have a look and then hurriedly went in while the males stood within view of the guard.

I noticed that the rails were rickety in some parts with a sheer drop rewarding any missteps. The wall is long (5k), and I knew we didn’t have it in us to do three psycho wall hikes in 3 days.

So, I did what any other person in the Facebook-Instagram oversharing world would do: I took a selfie.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Sorry, I know, this isn’t my selfie. But it is the back side of the wall which you can see if you drive to the other village instead of walk on the wall.

The Verdict

The walls of Dubrovnik and Ston are unique in the world and unique in their own ways. They both warrant a visit (though perhaps not Ston with under 5’s), and they both give you a glimpse into what life must have been like centuries ago in the old Republic of Ragusa.

Which wall would you rather visit? And, I’d love to know, what other walls around the world have you walked? Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!