Ten Tips to Make Your Family’s Istanbul Adventure a Smashing Success

Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!Have you smelled the salt in the air and felt the press of the crowds while virtually bopping around the Bosphorus and ancient city of Istanbul with us? I’m wrapping up our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series today with my top ten tips for making your own trip to Istanbul both budget-friendly and a smashing success!

Let’s get right to it, shall we?Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Get an e-visa. The majority of travelers will need a visa to enter Turkey. Unlike other countries with arduous processes (ahem.. Russia), obtaining a visa to enter Turkey is relatively painless and can be done online in advance here.

Bargain with your hotel to include breakfast and a ride to or from the airport.

Nearly every hotel I looked at (and believe me, there were scores I researched), offered free breakfast. Many also offered a one-way private transportation from the airport (Atatürk – not Sabiha Gökçen) with a stay of 3 nights, and a return service with stays of 6 nights or more.

It is possible to get to Sultanahmet from Atatürk via public transportation, but I would not have wanted to do that with the luggage we had from moving to the US. If you’re leaning toward DIY or your hotel won’t budge even when you pit different properties against each other, check out this comprehensive guide to your options as well as tips on getting from Sabiha Gökçen to Sultanahmet.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!You should know that even if you have a private driver waiting for you, finding him in the insane arrivals hall will be your first taste of the frenzy that awaits.

Pick a hotel in Sultanahmet or the Galata Tower (Beyoğlu) area.

By staying in one of these two areas, you’ll be within walking distance of as many sites as possible. When researching accommodation options, I (erroneously) thought that the Galata Tower area was too far away from most of the places I wanted to go. I didn’t know about the T1 tram or how easy it is to use. For an overview of the pros and cons of both areas, click here. For where not to stay, click here.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Avoid bringing a stroller if at all possible.

Istanbul isn’t known as the City of Seven Hills for nothin’. A simple walk from your hotel to the nearest tram stop becomes a tad more treacherous when you add a San Francisco-style grade to the route. If you do bring a stroller, you’ll likely save the kids’ energy but burn your own going steeply up and down all day long. It is possible to get on and off trams with a pram, but metro stations are more tricky to maneuver since most have stairs instead of elevators. Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Discuss cultural and religious differences in advance.

Unless your family is well-versed in Muslim culture, your kids will likely ask questions about why the women have their heads covered and why they hear the azhan (call to prayer) broadcast over loudspeakers five times per day. Encourage them to ask questions, find commonalities, discuss their thoughts, and learn about local traditions and customs like bargaining. Also, It’s always courteous (and fun!) to learn a few simple words and phrases in the local language.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Practice restaurant manners and encourage an open mind about new foods.

My kids rarely ate in restaurants during our four years in Germany (their parents aren’t, uh, crazy about German food), so they were a bit on the rusty side when it came to table manners and how to behave in a restaurant. Thankfully, the boys are usually pretty good about trying new foods, but I thought it would be fun to make a little game of it by encouraging them to find the similarities and differences such as how Lahmacun is like pizza or Kofti is different than Italian meatballs.

Save on dinner out by sharing adult portions with your kids and declining drinks.

For our family of five – and our three boys already practically eat as much as we do, we often ordered three adult portions and licked the plates clean. No leftovers means no waste and no extra cash going to meals out. We figured we could always buy Turkish bagels or fresh juice if we needed a little something after the meal.

We bought 5L bottles of water at local convenience stores and used these to refill our smaller water bottles at the hotel. We brought snacks with us from home instead of trying to find a supermarket in Sultanahmet (good thing, too, because – well, good luck with that).

Prepare for total strangers to touch your children and offer them gifts.

This happened to us in South Korea, too, but it didn’t make it any more pleasant for me or my boys. Decide beforehand what your family’s response to such gestures will be. I tried to be polite and gently decline the candy or whisk it away as soon as the stranger left. While that might have been a noble effort, in reality my kids hated being touched by strangers. Bravo smacked a man’s hand away because, “He wasn’t my friend.” Charlie was so sick of the attention that he threw down a piece of chocolate offered to him by a flight attendant. They were OVER it.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Time your visits to popular sites when crowds are smaller and in the shoulder season whenever possible.

When we visited the Hagia Sophia first thing in the morning, we were joined by throngs of other travelers. But, when we passed by it in the late afternoon, the lines were nearly nonexistent. A fluke? Maybe. I would research the best times to visit each site on your list (you may be surprised what you find). And shoulder season is always a bargain.. if you can handle the cold!

Seek out local playgrounds to reward kids and give everyone a break.

The best playground we found (okay, the only one) in Sultanahmet was Gulhane Park. The large Gulhane green space was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. The park wraps around the north and west edges of Topkapı Palace.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

The Palace seemed grand from the entrance, but that’s as far as it went for us. Yes, I know you you can peek into the sultan’s harem for an a token admission fee, but we preferred to enjoy the fresh air and rare opportunity for the kids to run free.

By the way, there’s a lovely tea garden on the far (north) side of the park overlooking the water. The tea service itself is pricey by Turkish standards, but the view is absolutely free.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

If you’re counting, you know we’re at 10 already, but I thought I’d toss in one more tip of a more serious nature..

Have a plan for what to do in case your family gets separated.

It’s no secret that Istanbul is incredibly crowded. Getting on and off trams and subways can be squishy business, and tourist buses can unload and overwhelm a site in an instant. Decide what to do if you get separated from one another, and know emergency numbers and phrases.

YOUR Family’s Adventure

You made it through all the tips (yeah!), and now you should have a better idea of what to consider, research, plan and look out for while in this crazy middle-eastern city.

‘Tis true – Istanbul is loud, smelly, and intense. It is NOT a destination for those seeking rest and relaxation, though I hear Turkish beaches are well-suited for such purposes. However, don’t let that discourage you from giving Istanbul a go; there’s lots to love and gems to be found in the middle of all that mayhem.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Here’s to your own family’s Turkish travel adventure!

What tips would you add from your own research or travel experience in Turkey? What do you wish you would’ve known before you went or what question are you hoping to answer before you go?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

All images are mine except the first one (credit).

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Turkish Family Travels: Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar (Without Being Ripped Off..)

Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravelThis post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

Getting ripped off is one sure-fire way to ruin your holiday, and the Grand Bazaar is the best place in Istanbul to do just that.

Middle Eastern cultures are famous for haggling, the custom of arguing over a price before agreeing on the final amount. True, it’s much more work than buying items at fixed prices. But, when in Turkey, do as the Turkish do.

The problem is that if you’re reading this, you’re probably not Turkish which means your Turkish haggling skills probably leave much to be desired.

So, how do you learn to bargain like a pro and avoid handing over too many Liras to a smooth-talking shop owner?

That was the very question I needed to answer for myself. I scoured articles, posts, and guide books for the best tips. Some of the advice was contradictory (be the first customer – no, you should be the last!). But, surprisingly, most of the suggestions worked like a charm.

Read on to find out how you can get the best prices in the Grand Bazaar.

Prepare Yourself

Haggling with experienced merchants is not for the faint of heart… nor for those hungry or in a hurry. Set aside a fixed amount of time you are willing to devote to a shopping excursion.

Eat a decent meal beforehand, and bring sustenance. Trust me, you do not want to go into this hangry.

Also, if you’re somehow able to secure a map of the Grand Bazaar, this will help you find your way out of what should really be dubbed the Grand Maze.

If you’re curious, here is the map I used. (not an affiliate link)

Decide What You REALLY Want

I have two absolute favorite Middle Eastern artisan objects – lanterns and decorative plates. I knew I wanted to buy several lanterns and at least one plate to adorn our new home (wherever in the world that ended up being). I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to buy, but I was fairly certain I could skip the tchotchkes and cheap imitation designer clothing.

If you don’t know what you are looking to buy in the Grand Bazaar, I highly recommend browsing the shops. Preferably, this would be on a day or during a time other than that which you’ve set aside for actual shopping.

Without this step, you may find yourself obligated to take home that shimmery belly dancing outfit and matching sultan costume.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Do Your Homework

Okay, so you’re well-fed and armed with your list plus a fistful of Lira. Time to start bargaining, right?

Wrong.

First, you need to establish what the going rate is for each item on your list. I did this by wandering through the stalls, fixing my eyes only on those adorned solely with lanterns. When I found a lantern I might like, I used this formula:

  1. Ask the price of an item you do NOT want first.
  2. Ask the price of an item different from the first, and preferably smaller and/or cheaper.
  3. Ask the price of the item you are actually interested in buying.
  4. Politely thank the proprietor, and walk away.

I repeated this in multiple shops until I had an idea of the going rate for lanterns that I liked. In the questioning phase, I learned valuable background information such as the different metals used for making lanterns and that blown glass lanterns are of better quality and more expensive. I also was able to look at a wide variety of lamps that helped me narrow down the options and know exactly what I wanted to buy.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Expert tip: Avoid the shops that advertise “Fixed Price.” These shops are designed for tourists not skilled in bargaining who just want to pay a certain sum and be done with it. You’ll end up paying much more than the items are worth. And, really, you CAN do this bargaining thing.

Deflect the Charm

During your research phase, you’re going to hear a lot of schmooze from the mouths of the shop keepers. Your money keeps them in business, and they are not shy about going after it.

As an introvert, this really wore me down. I just wanted to browse in peace and quiet. I’m content to be ignored by German shopkeepers; but, this is simply not the way things work in Istanbul.

Be polite, but firm. And, under no circumstances should you sit down to tea with a vendor if you do not intend to make a purchase!

Name Your Price

When you have a decent data set for your coveted item(s), decide how much you are willing to pay. However, this number is top secret and should be known only to you. Burn it into your mind, because you’re going to need it in a few minutes.

Take a deep breath, and approach the merchant with confidence. Follow the first formula mentioned above, always asking about several items instead of only the one you actually intend to buy.

The price he offers you (and it’s always a he) will be massively inflated, and your job is to talk him down. Here are the steps I followed to negotiate a reasonable selling price:

  • Ask the price of several items as described in the first formula. Do NOT show special interest in the object of your desire.
  • When he offers you a price, slash it by about 60%. The first price you offer should be lower than what you are actually willing to pay. For instance, if you thought it was worth 50, offer 40.
  • Use phrases like, “It’s a beautiful piece, but my budget is only 40.” Or, “I would really like to buy it, but I was only looking to spend 40.”
  • He will counter your offer. Keeping with the aforementioned numbers, if you offered 40, he may counter 60. At this point, you can either make another offer or politely decline and either ask about another piece (starting the process over) or walk away.
  • Prepare your second offer. To do this, you have two options. First, you could stick to your original offer to see if he comes down any. He might offer you 50. Or, you can up your offer, and say something like, “It’s a lovely piece. Would you be able to do 45?”

The second offer sometimes turns into a third offer or even a fourth. The pressure can build, and you can find yourself emotionally involved in the negotiation. If this happens, simply tell the seller you need a moment to think about it.

Take Ten

Remember that secret price you decided on before entering the shop? It’s time to bring that number to mind.

Evaluate the negotiation that has already taken place. Is the owner willing to agree to an amount less than your secret price? Are you willing to go a bit above it? Only you can answer the second question, but it’s important not to let the pressure of the situation push you over-budget.

You can always walk away and try again with another shop. You can even come back later to the same merchant if no other stall offers the same piece (which actually is rather rare).

The most important thing to remember is that YOU need to be satisfied with the price you end up paying.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Did I get the most amazing deal on the lanterns I bought? Honestly, I have no idea. But, I do know that I talked the shopkeepers down significantly and paid what I thought the pieces were worth.

Whether I got the best price or not, I’ll never know. However, I am confident I got the price that I was comfortable paying and have no regrets about my purchases. That’s what matters.

Bribery and Coercion

This last one has nothing to do with salespeople and everything to do with little people. I’m guessing by this point, you’re thinking the whole thing sounds completely exhausting.

Guess what? You’re right.

And if you feel that way, imagine how the little ones with you are going to fare during your negotiations. Mutiny is the word that comes to mind.

I highly advise talking with your children in advance about the proposed activities of the day.

Explain that you’ll be looking for (lanterns), and ask for their help spotting (lanterns). Be honest and tell them that it might take a while to find the most special one for the best price.

If you know how long you intend to spend in the Grand Bazaar, tell them. And then describe what kind of reward they’ll receive if they help you buy the perfect (lantern) by behaving well while you talk to the shopkeeper.

We used one big reward at the end of the day (I’m sorry to say it was eating dinner at McDonalds), and several smaller rewards in the meantime.

If they have a handheld toy or book, bring it. Just keep in mind that the floors of the Grand Bazaar are icky at best, so don’t plan anything that requires rolling around on the ground.

Pack snacks and water. This is battle, and you definitely don’t want to go in unprepared.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

But, What About the Spice Market?

You may have noticed that I haven’t whispered any expert tips on shopping at the Spice Market. That’s because I found it to be overly touristy with virtually no Turkish people shopping there. All the shops featured the same products; I could find nothing unique from one stall to the next.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

If spices are what you’re after, head outside of the Spice Market and make your way to the west side. There, you’ll find more shops selling spices and other Turkish delicacies and Turkish customers.

Just hold your nose – the fishy aroma is on the potent side.

Wrapping Up

Is shopping at the Grand Bazaar as stressful as it sounds? Absolutely.

There is no question that scoring the most beautiful lanterns or the most intricately decorate plates is going to be tense and tedious. But, if you know this going in, and you arm yourself with the techniques above, you can have a successful – maybe even enjoyable?! – haggling experience.

Have you visited or lived in a culture where haggling is the norm? What strategies have worked for you?Signature Thrifty Travel Mamafirst image credit

Cheap Family Eats: The Istanbul Edition

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravelThis post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

There’s something for everyone in Istanbul – sights, sounds, smells, sweets and savories. The trick is finding your flavor… and on your budget.

Whenever possible, we shop at local groceries or markets and prepare most of our own meals. It saves money, and I don’t have to stress about which restaurant to choose. Too many good choices lead to an incredible amount of stress to pick the “right one.”

In Istanbul, neither an apartment nor a kitchen were in the cards for us. That’s just as well, though, because I only saw a few very small markets in Sultanahmet. We would’ve been out of luck had we relied on our culinary efforts alone to sustain us.

Maybe you’re also headed to Istanbul and your head is spinning at all the options. You might also secretly be wondering if your kids will boycott any and all attempts to experience local cuisine, lobbying intently for dinner at the familiar golden arches.

Have no fear! Here’s a quick guide to what our family bought and bit into while in Istanbul. And yes, there’s even a review of Turkish McDonalds!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravel

What to Order

In Sultanahmet, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a restaurant gem without a guidebook or online reviews. Restaurants are a dime a dozen, and every last one of them has hired a hawker to welcome you, “my friend,” to eat at their establishment for “a very special price.”

However, you’ll also likely be frustrated in your attempts to decipher addresses and locate that particular Lokanta that garnered gangbuster reviews on Yelp.

So when you’ve had enough of everyone offering you “the best food in Istanbul,” when your feet are aching from all the miles you logged in the Grand Bazaar, and your kids won’t stop the are-we-to-the-restaurant-yet mantra, just pick a place and order one of these simple dishes.

  • Lahmacun — Similar to a pizza, Lahmacun is flatbread topped with a combination of meat, onions, and spices and then baked. It’s often served with fresh vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, or parsley. You can eat it like a pizza, fold it like a taco, or roll it up.
  • Kebaps — Kebap is similar to what you might already make on your BBQ at home: skewered, grilled meat. Lamb and beef are more common but chicken is also possible.
  • Döner – You may have seen these gigantic cylinders of meat rotating on a vertical spit at various places around the world (I first saw one in Russia). The meat is shaved and usually deposited in a portion of flatbread and then topped with vegetables and/or sauce. If you’ve been to Germany, you probably already know (and possibly love) Döner.
  • Köfte — A main dish resembling meatballs, Köfte are often made from ground lamb mixed with breadcrumbs and spices. The Köfte are usually grilled and sometimes served with other grilled vegetables.
  • For more well-known Turkish dishes with descriptions, I recommend checking out Witt Istanbul’s list.

Our Favorite Finds

Most hotels in Istanbul include breakfast in the nightly rate, and ours was no exception. Turkish breakfast turned out to be quite an adjustment for us since no one was really keen on olives and tomatoes for the first meal of the day. Read up on typical morning fare you can expect while in Turkey here.

For lunch and dinner, we just roamed. We did our best to find the recommended restaurants I had scribbled on my map. But, sometimes we failed, and I just picked what seemed both affordable and the least likely to give us food poisoning.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravel

Most guides tell you not to eat street food in Istanbul. You don’t want to spend your time in Turkey getting to know the toilet.

One notable exception, however, is the fresh-squeezed juice. You MUST try the pomegranate. Each cup is pressed to order, and the flavor explodes – tart yet sweet – on your tongue. Expert tip: Start with the smallest size possible. The nectar is very strong, and you’ll want to try it before committing to a larger size.

Beans & rice is one of our staple meals at home. When I found out that there’s a Turkish version, I knew I had to try it. Surprise, surprise – we loved the Middle Eastern twist!

The best places to sample Kurufasulye (Turkish beans and rice) are near the Sulemaniye Mosque. We chose Ali Baba on the corner because it had stellar reviews, but other restaurants on that row serve similar dishes.

The beans are cooked in a spiced tomato sauce and the rice is more of a pilaf. We also sampled the couscous which was equally as flavorful. Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravel

As you walk across the Galata Bridge, you’ll see scores of amateurs and professionals doing their best to snag a decent day’s catch. It’s true that Turkish people love meat, but with its close proximity to the sea, fish is always available in Istanbul. Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravel

However, if you’re a bit on the fence about fish like I am, you can tread lightly and make a sampler dinner by ordering a fish sandwich to go from Furreyya Galata Balikcisi and supplementing with delicious falafel from Kikero Falafel across the street. We rounded out our meal by picking up drinks at a small market and walked back down toward the Karaköy tram station.

With food growing cold and tummies rumbling, we ended up making a picnic – right in the middle of the road. It was fabulous to be in the eye of the traffic hurricane while munching on moist fish and crispy falafel.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravel

You may have heard of the legendary Turkish coffee – stiff and gritty like the streets of Istanbul. Maybe grounds with your brew isn’t your thing, though, and you want something a bit more like your morning Joe at home.

Enter Kahve Dünyası. This western-style coffee shop serves carefully crafted caffeine as well as CHOCOLATE SPOONS. Seriously. I highly recommend sharing a treat here after a long (morning/afternoon/day) of haggling at the Grand Bazaar.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravel

Typically, our diet leans heavily on the healthy side of the scale. Living in Germany forced me to make nearly everything from scratch and to appreciate simplicity of flavor and ingredients. So, it may come as a shock to you that Doc Sci and I have tried McDonalds in nearly every country we have visited. Yep, shameful but true.

Despite this reality, I never set out to taste-test Turkish McDonalds. Unfortunately, once my kids saw the big M, it was all over.

I find it funny that they ask for McDonalds and even consider it their favorite restaurant since I can count on one hand the times in their lives when we’ve eaten there. But, everyone has their breaking point. Four hours in the Grand Bazaar was theirs. If I wanted to bring home some lanterns, I was going to have to give up something in return. And so the if-you-don’t-whine-and-let-me-bargain-in-peace-I’ll-buy-you-gross-McDonalds-for-dinner plan was hatched.

Verdict? It’s pretty nasty as far as McDonalds goes. I’ve definitely had better Big Macs. But, they loved it, and I got my lanterns and no one threw up. That’s a win in my book.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Cheap Eats in Istanbul for Families with Kids! What to Order and Where to Eat in Instanbul on a Budget! #familytravel

Honorable Mention

  • Dondurmasi Ice Cream – This is one part entertainment, one part humor, one part ice cream thickened with mastic, among other things. There’s a shop with a show near the corner of Divan Yolu Cd. and Babı-Ali Cd. on the tram line. You can catch a preview of what’s in store for you here. The conniving cream peddler wasn’t at his post when we walked by, so we bought ice cream at the grocery store just north on Babı-Ali Cd. When we returned to Divan Yolu Cd., the show had begun. We ate our ice cream at a safe distance from the slick man and his stick.
  • For more restaurants gleaned from friends and guides, you are welcome to view my Google map here. I have not personally tried everything on the map, so I can’t guarantee every spot is open and of good quality. However, I always welcome a place to begin and a fall-back list in case I run out of time to complete my own research before traveling.

What’s your favorite Turkish food? If you were in Istanbul right now, what would you most look forward to tasting? Do you have any family- and/or budget-friendly restaurant recommendations to share? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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

Supermarket Smackdown – Aldi America vs. Aldi Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?I’m sure you’ve already gathered from my posts through the years that grocery shopping in Germany is not at all what it is in America. But, the two places do have one thing in common – they both have Aldi!

Which Aldi is better, east or west of the Atlantic? Could I get the same products on both continents?

And, if I could indulge in my favorite German treats every now and again, would this reverse culture shock beast be just a bit more manageable?

German Aldi

Do you have a default grocery store where you can be found nearly every week?

While living in Freiburg, Aldi was my jam. I couldn’t stay away. Their prices were just amazing, and we eventually came to love many of the off-brand products sold at ALDI SÜD.

When we returned to the US in 2014, I wondered what American Aldi would be like. Would they stock the best-tasting pretzel sticks, delicious organic yogurt, and balsamic vinegar from Italy?

Now, I did shop at Aldi a little bit in 2010 when the chain first came to Orlando. Confession: I didn’t like it one bit. In fact, I kind of hated it.

The store seemed a bit trashy, dirty, and the products of low quality. Truthfully, it was this first impression that made me hesitant to shop at German Aldi when we moved to Deutschland.

I soon came around though – German Aldi is awesome!

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

An Aldi store in Freiburg – no American Aldi is this cute.

American Aldi

Fast forward to the fall of 2014 when we arrived back in Orlando. Nerdy as we are – and more than slightly terrified of Walmart, we rounded the kids up and drove down to the neighborhood Aldi to check out the scene.

In the car, everyone shared their hopes of what might be on offer – chocolate, muesli, flips, pretzel sticks, flavored peanuts. We all had the jitters. A certain someone even dressed up for the occasion (search the photos for a clue..).

I’m certain we are the only people to have ever darkened Aldi’s door with that much excitement.

Stepping out of the car, we first noticed that the lack of carts in the parking lot. Yes! Grab your quarters boys and girls, because otherwise you’ll find yourself without a shopping cart. Since this is standard in German supermarketsno free carts there and no exhausted teenage employees corralling them – we felt instantly at home (seriously, nerds).

Quarters in our fists, we raced to the entrance. First shock: the tiled floor had to have been bought by the truckful at rock bottom prices because it was just. that. ugly. The décor didn’t invite me to relax and part with my entire paycheck (apparently Aldi needs to take a cue from her cousin Trader Joe’s). The store seemed almost deserted save one or two uniformed employees.

Things were not looking good.

I prepared myself for disappointment, but then a mere three feet later I spotted it… Moser Roth chocolate! Could it be? The very same bars I used to buy in Germany? No way – impossible! But yes, the brown bar had indeed crossed the ocean just to be gobbled up yours truly.

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

 

Further on down the aisle, our kids found their favorite muesli – made in Germany! – that just so happened to be about the same price as it was at “home.”

Ohhh, things were certainly looking up. Dare I hope for even more delights?

Every few meters, we found treasures. Mustard made in Germany. Peanut butter flips – those crunchy puffs of nutty goodness that are like Cheetos but with savory peanut butter instead of cheese.Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

But there, in the middle of the store, lay the most thrilling find of all… Weihnachten (Christmas) treats! Nearly every standard sugary German Christmas delight waited patiently, calling my name, begging to be bought.

At the end of the display, I spotted our family’s absolute favorite – Spekulatius cookies. Though the ingredient list appeared identical to the German version, I remained skeptical. They couldn’t really be the same, could they?

In the interest of blog research (naturally), I put the American version to the test. Oh, how glorious to discover that these sweet gems look and taste the same as the biscuits sold in our old Aldi in Freiburg. Hallelujah – thank you, Jesus! Christmas cookie time cannot come soon enough…Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

At this point, we couldn’t be much higher on joy. The only thing that might have nudged us to the very top of the scale would have been authentic German bread and fresh-baked pretzels.

Nice try, but no.

Unfortunately, American Aldi does not carry any German bread besides Fitness Brot (like this). The rest of the bread selection disappointed, only squishy American carbs full of additives and preservatives.

No German pretzels, and no fresh bakery. I might have shed a tear or two.

For my curious German readers, we didn’t see a tub of Quark anywhere, but I recently spotted a promising product at SuperTarget with the words “Creamy German Style” on the label.

The Verdict

So, which one is better?! It’s a tough call, but one that someone’s going to have to make. If I didn’t already love German Aldi, I don’t think I’d give a hoot about Aldi in the US. And, while American Aldi scores massive points for carrying many of our favorite munchies, it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. We love you ALDI SÜD!!

Sadly, no Aldi stores exist in Arizona, so I won’t be looking to Aldi to cure my reverse culture shock any time soon. The nearest one is in Texas, but I read recently that Aldi plans to give the southern California area a run for its (grocery) money. One can only pray and hope.

Until Aldi moves in next door, would I drive four hundred miles for muesli and cookies? You betcha!

What’s one of your favorite treats from a place you used to live? Would you drive four hundred miles to stock up on precious ingredients or products you love?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama Image Credit

 

 

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

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?

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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

Visiting Croatia in the Off-Season

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonWe’re bidding farewell to our Croatian Family Adventure today with a chat about visiting the Dalmatian Coast during the off-season.

My ideal travel destination is naturally gorgeous, affordable (okay, cheap), and away from the tourist crowds. If this is your cup of tea as well, then you may be considering visiting Croatia sometime other than the jam-packed summer months.

Though Paris is a beauty even in the dead of winter and Rothenburg is quiet when it rains, it’s possible to do and see almost everything even when the tour buses are absent. But Croatia? Not so much.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

It’s worth sitting down and deciding what your family really wants to experience in Dalmatia before booking flights or accommodation. Below, I’ve highlighted pros and cons to visiting during the off-season, which I would categorize as anything outside June, July, and August.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

Drawbacks of visiting Croatia in off-season…

  • Ferry service to the islands is limited. If you want to see more than 1 or 2 islands, I would recommend hopping from island to island instead of trying to do day trips from the mainland. This will require quite a bit of logistical planning on your part since you’ll need to see if accommodation is available (see the next bullet, below) while simultaneously checking ferry timetables and researching ground transportation options to get from the port to the hotel and back.
  • Many attractions, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the winter. Some are even closed in spring and fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • Even if you’re able to arrange accommodation and transportation to experience the islands, they’re rather deserted when it’s not high season. Don’t expect party central.
  • The weather can be downright COLD. In fact, we had the heat on in the first two apartments we rented… in April. If you were planning to lounge around on the terrace at your vacation rental, just know that you’ll be doing so bundled up. Croatia also has this freakish freezing wind known as the bura, or brrrrrrrra.
  • The water is too cold to swim and going to the beach is only for those who enjoy a slow form of torture involving said wind, sand, and sensitive corneas.
  • This one’s only for the carnivores, but the infamous road-side meat stands on the way to Plitvice Lakes and along other Croatian highways aren’t open. You won’t be able to watch a whole pig or sheep being roasted and then partake of the freshly cooked flesh (vegetarians, rejoice).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonNow, on to the benefits of visiting during off-season..

  • Smaller crowds! This might seem insignificant, but when you’re walking the walls of Dubrovnik or hopping over waterfalls at Plitvice, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that even though you’re freezing your bum off, you have room to breathe and appreciate what you’re seeing without constantly being elbowed and jostled.
  • Ferry tickets are plentiful. In summer, you can be stuck in long lines hoping that the particular ship you want to sail on is not sold out.
  • You can enjoy the Croatian national pastime of drinking coffee in cafes for hours with locals instead of tourists.
  • Though the availability is limited, the prices for hotels and vacation rentals are reduced and some attractions are even free.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • If you’re dying to see Plitvice, remember that water levels are highest in the spring after the snow melts which translates to some pretty powerful waterfalls.
  • The heat is tolerable. I remember walking the walls of Dubrovnik in April and nearly baking in the sun. It must be hotter than you-know-what up there in August, and crowded with cruise ship day-trippers to boot.
  • Traffic!! If you’re driving to Dubrovnik from Split or vice versa, you should know that the only way in and out is a two-lane highway on the edge of the sea. Traffic on this road in summer is a total beast. Also, the lines at border crossings for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro will be much shorter during the off-season.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonIn spite of (and also because of) all of the reasons above, I still think we would have chosen to visit Croatia during the off-season had we known all of this in advance (we didn’t).

But, when we go back, we’ll aim for September. The locals I talked to all recommended going in September because the summer crowds are gone but the water is still warm enough to swim. Just don’t tell the tour groups that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

My advice if you want to go to Croatia is to GO NOW. The country is fabulous, but it’s starting to realize this fact. And once it does, the danger to allow tacky tourism in for the sake of the income will be rather irresistible.

Ripping off foreigners in the form of outrageous admission fees for non-locals (which is the case already in places like Russia) is another potential problem for travelers. Some towns like Dubrovnik are already totally touristy which means expensive prices, questionable quality, and many “souvenirs” made in China. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

But, there are still many, many places to experience authentic Croatia, and I highly recommend creating a Dalmatian family adventure of your own, posthaste!

Now that you know the pros and cons, would you visit Croatia during the off-season? Or is the warm weather and water too important for your family to miss?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!