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).

Advertisements

Turkish Family Travels: Bucket List FAIL and the Mishap That (Almost) Ruined Our Trip

Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

This post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul… well, except for the hotel shenanigans I’m sharing today.

It’s obvious from comments both written and spoken that some people think the life of an expat or long-term traveling family is one of endless glamour. It must be amazing to see so many places in the world! You are so lucky! I wish I had your life! Hmmmm.

Amazing? Yes, at times.

Perfect? Hardly.

I think the travel blogging community doesn’t do enough to show the other side of travel. You know… the my-kid-threw-up-on-the-train-and-we-just-had-to-leave-it-or-miss-our-connection side. The diaper-blowout-that-coated-the-entire-car-seat-at-4am side. The I-so-looked-forward-to-this-place-but-it-totally-let-me-down side.

I’m definitely an accomplice in this only-show-the-pretty-side routine. It’s not that I want to purposely hide anything. It’s more that I prefer to write about the fun times and often forget to write about the travel disasters.

So, today I’m sharing a bucket list FAIL and a nasty hotel mishap that nearly ruined our trip.

You can read more about our mishaps and total travel fails in Italy, Bulgaria, Karlovy Vary, and Seoul via the links provided.

Out of Time

You’ve probably seen my bucket list here. The last item on the list is something I’ve never done before – visit two continents in the same trip without flying between them. Fortunately, this is easily done in Istanbul… if you have time.

But, time we did not have. Sadly, we could only sail between Europe and Asia, touching the former but not the latter. All in all, not a super big deal. Plus, it means I’ll have to go back. Three cheers for silver linings!

Now, on to the dark cloud..

Istanbul Accommodation Hunt

Normally we stay in vacation rentals when we travel. They’re cheaper, provide more space than a traditional hotel room, and give us the opportunity to imagine living in the city.

I had a terrible time looking for accommodations in Istanbul. It seemed that all of the apartments were in Galata – or much further away.

I wanted to be within walking distance of as many places as possible in Sultanahmet since we only had three days. I had no idea (and had no time to research because we were moving) how we would do on public transportation, and I didn’t want to risk it.

Numerous searches did not turn up any apartments that fit my criteria – and yes, I continually loosened my expectations over the weeks I looked for a place. Finally, I had to fact the facts – a holiday apartment was out. Time to look for a hotel.

Shabby Digs – Chic Prices

Many of the hotels looked ridiculously run down, shabby quarters with royally high prices. We needed a cot of some kind for Charlie at least two double beds for the rest of us. I hoped for a door of some kind to make the room a suite so that Doc Sci and I could hang out at night while the boys went to sleep. A kitchen is also a huge plus for us.

The hotel rooms my search returned were both depressing and hilarious. Some of them were decorated with antiques in a rich, granny style which is fancy but never feels clean to me. Others appeared so cheaply put together and dirty I could easily imagine the grime and the bugs (not pictured, of course).

My absolute favorite was a “family room” (their words, not mine) sporting a double bed and a single bed in one room… both were nestled in the main room next to a hot tub with neon lights. Just – wow.

Lucky Strike?

I finally found a hotel I thought could work. The Hotel Enderun featured a beautiful breakfast area enclosed in glass and a small green area perfect for little boys to let off steam in a stressful new city.

The rooms did not have kitchens, but I figured that we would not need to cook when staying only a few days. Having breakfast provided would be enough for 1-2 meals a day (we usually make sandwiches with buffet items).Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

The description on the website stated that the Family Room (the language suggests they have only one) had two connecting rooms, one with a double bed, and the other with a single. However, the photos showed two singles and one double. Either way, that would work for us – and it had a DOOR! After all, that’s what connecting means, right?

Wrong.

When we arrived, we were shown to a regular hotel room (ONE room) that had one double bed and three portable cots. Yep, this hotel expected my big boys to sleep in baby beds. Even worse than that, they completely lied about the description of the room.

From the Hotel Enderun website:

Family Connected Room has 2 Connected Rooms each other. One of them has 1 Single beds and the Other Room has 1 Queen Bed, Private bathroom with shower, Dual action (heating and cooling) air-conditioner, 24 hour hot water,Satellite LCD TV with major European channels, Direct dial telephone, Mini bar, Hair dryer, Safe deposit box,WI-FI, Free internet connection. Buffet Breakfast, Non Smoking. Maximum 3 Person per room in existing beds.

 

At first they were “full” and then they suddenly had an extra single room next to that “family room” that they could give in addition to the room we currently had. But, my kids are too young to sleep alone in a strange hotel in a new city, and I didn’t feel comfortable going in the hallway in the night if they needed us.

Plus, this was NOT what I booked. The manager on duty finally admitted that the room we had was a “deluxe” room – great, but NOT what I booked.

I can handle a lot of stressful situations but being tricked and ripped off is not one of them.

I explained that this situation was unacceptable and showed them on their own website. I asked repeatedly to see that room in the pictures. The manager told me he had never seen those photos and had no idea they had that kind of room. Wow… Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

After a bunch of “But, we’re full..” garbage, I was finally allowed to see a suite – again, not the same as the photos. I was assured nothing could be done that night. And I assured them I would not be paying the quoted rate for that night.

We had no choice but to sleep in the room offered or be on the street that evening. I paid half of the nightly rate and also negotiated a free return taxi to the airport at the end of our stay.

The Saga Continues

The next day, we finally were able to see what was supposedly the advertised room (“It’s our best room! You’ll love it!”).

Want to guess what we found?Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

Inside were one double, one single, and one roll-away bed (NOT four real beds). There were indeed two rooms at one time, as in probably a hundred years ago, that now are one big room with a six-foot opening in between.

No door.

Once more, c’mon, let me hear it… NOT WHAT I BOOKED!!!!Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

I was – naturally – furious. But what could be done? Either I could accept this room and make it work, or I could let this ruin the rest of my vacation.

We chose the former.

Buyer Beware

Unfortunately, the photos of this fake room are still up on the website.

I know now that these are photos from various rooms, not one room, put together in a slideshow to lead the customer to believe they’re getting something that does not exist.

I know this because I’ve been in these rooms. The bathroom pictured is from our first room (the one with three baby cribs for three big boys). And several of the other photos are from the other family room I was shown, but that we did not stay in.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

I write about this not to shame a particular hotel (though that is an added bonus), but to caution you. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In this instance, the price wasn’t outrageously high or low, and nothing about the website seemed sketchy. I wish I would have had a backup plan so that when I was offered a room at another hotel, I could’ve had something to bargain.

Be Bold!

False advertising?! Language translation error?! Who knows – what I do know is that I wasted hours on this mess, and it nearly ruined our entire vacation since we had to deal with this garbage on two of our three days in town.

If blatant misrepresentation happens to you, do not be afraid to call management out on the error and negotiate terms to make the stay acceptable to you.

These infuriating shenanigans are part of that less glamorous, least-publicized, rarely discussed side to travel. These kinds of situations are the mishaps that make a place memorable – for better or worse.

What about you? Have you ever bumped into false advertising on your travels or had another mishap nearly ruin your trip? What would you do if what you got was not what you paid for?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Lead image credit

All other images are from and link to the Hotel Enderun website.

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

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

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!

The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in ZadarThe city of Zadar sits at the edge of the sea, charming and unpretentious, welcoming travelers like you and me to the beautiful country of Croatia. Though not as famous as its southern sisters Split and Dubronik, Zadar also boasts Roman ruins, ancient churches, a ferry port, and two very awesome modern attractions.

We started our holiday in Zadar for two reasons: the first and most obvious, our flight from Germany landed here and second, we wanted to spend a morning toddling around the old city with SJ from Chasing the Donkey. We love meeting other traveling families, travel bloggers, expats, and making friends on the road.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Welcome to Zadar!

From the taxi driver we hired at the airport to the owner of the apartment we rented to my new friend and her family, everyone in Zadar treated us so well and made us feel incredibly welcome.

In many parts of Europe, most places of business are shut for Easter Monday as well as for the main holiday itself. Unfortunately, the water in April is still too cold for swimming, so SJ and I made a plan to indulge in the unofficial national pastime – meet up do the Croatian hang-out-and-drink-coffee thing.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Too cold to swim..

A little bit late and more than a little bit sweaty from being the only weirdos to walk 35 minutes to the old town, we spotted SJ and family near Zadar’s most famous church, St. Donatus. After handshakes and hugs, SJ showed us around. Up and down the ancient streets we went, passing markets, monuments, and a multitude of cafes.

Mate, her Croatian husband, picked one and ordered for us (bonus: no awkward sorry-I-only-speak-English-is-that-ok moment). While we waited for our white coffees, men and women in traditional dress poured out from under the clock tower and started singing and dancing right in front of us!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Croatian singing and dancing!

Sipping, singing, serendipity. Sigh.

Next, SJ steered us toward some bakeries where we picked up some burek and pizza for a picnic lunch. We headed out to the water, but the closer we got, the harder the wind blew. The gusts had a screaming fit with our things – hats flying, blankets airborne, smallish children nearly whisked away.Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

At least the annoying wind had one very important benefit: it made the sea organ sing.

The Zadar Sea Organ doesn’t seem like much, just ordinary stone steps. But, if you look a bit closer, you’ll see small, rectangular openings in the vertical faces of the steps. It’s from these holes that the sound escapes from the organ, a musical instrument powered solely by the wind and the waves. Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Yeah – wow.

Next to the musical steps lies the Sun Salutation; both were designed by Nikola Bašić in an effort to renovate the damaged city of Zadar. Both are fascinating, but the Sun Salutation takes the nerdy travel appeal up another notch.

At first glance, all one sees is a gigantic, smooth glass circle. But underneath the surface are zillions of solar cells and LED lights. Throughout the day, the cells collect energy and convert it to electricity. Once the sun sets, the lights flash on and dance about in various colors. The pattern and the length of the show depends on how much energy was absorbed that particular day.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Sitting on the Sun Salutation.

Yeah – double wow. Understandably, the Sun Salutation is very popular, so expect it to be crowded in season.

One of our favorite corners of Zadar’s old city was what’s known as the Five Wells. In centuries past, residents came here to draw fresh water. The place had an ancient yet familiar feel. It was easy to imagine the women, the water.. the chatter!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

One of the five wells.

We strolled back to our first meeting point, the church of St. Donatus. SJ pointed out that pieces of the Roman ruins had been used to build the church. You can literally see chunks of stone columns that were cobbled together to form the church’s foundation. It’s possible to climb the church’s tower.. just not on Easter Monday, of course.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Roman foundation.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

Ancient flogging post in downtown Zadar.

After a scrumptious round of ice cream cones at the city’s best gelateria (Donut), we bid our new friends farewell. I think we still would have enjoyed easygoing Zadar had we not met them, but having locals show us around just knocked it out of the park for us.Thrifty Travel Mama | Kids in Croatia - The Sounds of the Sea in Zadar

From the stone ruins to the ferocious waves to the sea organ’s melody to the warm-hearted Croats, we couldn’t have asked for a better day, nor a more fitting welcome to our first day in Croatia.

Tell me, have you been to Zadar? If not, what would be your first stop in the city?

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!

Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast

Thrifty Travel Mama | Family Adventures in Croatia on the Dalmatian CoastFinally, (finally!!) I’m giving you what you’ve always wanted – tales of our travels in Croatia! Admittedly, what you’ve always wanted is probably more like the opportunity to actually go to Croatia, but since I’m not giving away any trips today (boo!), this will have to do.

In April, we spent ten days in Croatia, overnighting in Zadar, Split, and Dubrovnik. We usually prefer to just stay in one place and do day trips to surrounding attractions, but the driving distances were too great for our norm to be realistic this time around.

When I visit a new destination that I’ve always wanted to see, I often make a list of the must-see sights (you too?). I ask myself, what will I regret not seeing or doing if I don’t make it happen this trip? I know the usual travel advice is to assume you’ll be back. But life gives us no guarantee, so see what you want while you’re there. However, don’t stress yourself out by doing so much that you don’t enjoy the trip. I know, I know… it’s a delicate balance.

Now, I must admit, I feel a bit ridiculous talking about our travels in Croatia. SJ of Chasing the Donkey has put together such an incredible blog filled with gorgeous photos, fascinating sites, and fun things to do in the country. If you have not yet had the chance, I highly encourage you to hop on over to her blog, and follow her straightaway. She’s an Aussie expat living in Croatia with her husband and son who is the same age as our little Charlie.

With SJ’s help, I put together an itinerary that I hoped would be a balanced diet of sightseeing, driving, and rest: three nights in Zadar, three nights in Dubrovnik, and four nights in Split.

Like our trip to Tuscany last summer, I created a (much shorter) bucket list for our Croatian holiday. Follow along as I write about the highs and lows of each of our adventures in Croatia with three boys. I’ll add links as I post about each place.

Our Family’s Croatian Bucket List:

I’ll also answer the inevitable question… “Is Croatia kid-friendly?” I searched high and low for this kind of information before our trip, but I came up empty-handed most of the time. Look for my answer and some tips on taking the kiddos to Croatia here.

Taking your family to Croatia outside of the high summer season requires some special consideration and advance planning. Read my pros and cons of visiting during the off-season here.

And, it wouldn’t be right not to include some Supermarket Souvenirs that you can enjoy while in country or take home to friends and family. SJ wrote a post on Croatian candy, and I’ll report back with our taste test results.

So, to the Dalmation coast we go.  First stop, Zadar!Signature-Marigold

Jousting at the Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament (Ritterturnier)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)I know, I know, you want to hear about Croatia. I really will write about Croatia soon, I promise! BUT, we went to the most amazing knight’s tournament last weekend, and I wanted to post about it sooner rather than later, just in case anyone randomly happens to be hanging out in Europe and able to go.

The Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier) is held every summer at Kaltenberg Castle outside Munich in the Bavarian countryside. For three weekends, visitors step back into the Middle Ages while feasting on period food, browsing handmade wares, and being dazzled by sword fights and jousting. (Jousting!!)

Seriously, wow.. this was one of the most fun events our family has been to while living in Germany!

But instead of me yapping on and on about it, let me just show you a bit of the awesomeness that awaits you. Sword and stein optional.. but highly recommended.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The first thing you should know about the Kaltenberger Ritterturnier is that it’s sponsored by a brewery. Beer, beer, beer. It’s everywhere. We tried the honey beer. It smells like honey and tastes like.. beer.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

If beer is not your thing, you can get all kinds of fruity wine and other drinks.. but no Coca Cola or Pepsi since I guess they’re trying to be all historically accurate.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The market is filled with trinket stalls and artisans like these women who are spinning wool into thread.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Sprinkled throughout the grounds are these “exhibits” where actors show how life was lived in the Middle Ages.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Okay, enough of the tame stuff. Let’s move on to weapons and armor. They’re strapped to actors..  and available for purchase, of course.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Speaking of weapons, these knights did an excellent job of using them. Especially the fire. Who doesn’t love a good flame-throwing sword fight?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

If you lose in battle or are an unlucky passerby, you might wind up tarred ‘n feathered like this poor bloke who, uh, looks like he is actually digging it.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Just to show that it’s not all about violence, here’s Bravo watching some Italian flag twirlers. Yes, they really were from Italy.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The two main events of the day were the tournament and the parade. If you snag a good spot for the parade, you can see all the characters up close.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Check out the punk in a kilt. He’s part of the band Corvus Corax that seriously knows how to rock out with bagpipes (video here).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

After the parade, it’s time to head to the arena for the jousting! But first, some of the other acts take the main stage. This man herds his geese with the help of his extremely talented dog. Definitely something you don’t see every day.. or, like, ever.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

All day long, people were lighting up. Here it’s breath.. later, it’s a body.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

And now, let the jousting begin! All the knights line up in front of the royalty. You might not be able to see the horses behind the king and queen – but, they rode straight up into the box!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Here’s the black knight. He’s (obviously) the bad guy. But his costume is arguably on the awesome side.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Ready, set, joust! Yes, the lances really broke, and the riders really fell off the horses. Some were even dragged a while on the ground. It felt like stepping into A Knight’s Tale, right down to the audience doing the wave.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The arena show is a story about a king and his two sons. Spoiler alert: the king dies (don’t hate me too much – it happens in the first few minutes). Remember I said more fire to come? Here they are burning the body of the king.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Epic sword fight that filled the entire arena. No blood, but plenty of staged death.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

And, one more time, here are the knights that jousted. (psst.. one of them is a woman – yeah!)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

As if all of that were not enough, after the stray lance shards were collected, the gigantic jester invited the children (6+) into the arena for some kid-friendly fun, including pony rides, stationary (padded) jousting, and other medieval-themed activities. Awesome.

Booking your tickets yet? Dreaming of a visit next year? Check out my tips below. And, if you’ve been to a similar knight’s tournament, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Practical tips for visiting the Kaltenberger Ritterturnier:

  • Buy your tickets in advance online. They are NOT cheap, but both Doc Sci and I felt that the main jousting event alone was worth the price of admission. Sunday is family day. We took advantage of a 15% family discount, but that special had to be booked over the phone.
  • Should you buy a seat or choose standing room? If you have kids with you, I’d highly recommend purchasing seats. The show runs about 2 hours, and that is just too long for my boys to stand in one place. Children under 6 do not need to buy a seat to sit with you, but they will have to sit on your lap. Seats in C, B, F, and G are obviously the best because you get the best view of the jousting.
  • Parking cost 3,50 euro per car (more for trailers). This is a massive event – arrive early so you do not have to park miles away.
  • Bring your own water. Drinks are very expensive at the festival. You can refill water bottles in the bathrooms.
  • As for meals, pork, pretzels, and corn on the cob are the main fare for sale, but other treats can be had as well. We brought our own snacks and sandwiches for lunch so we only had to buy dinner. If you’re vegetarian, again, BYO.
  • Wear sunscreen, and be prepared for any kind of weather. Umbrellas are prohibited in the arena, so bring rain jackets or ponchos.
  • You could bring a stroller, but you’ll have to leave it outside the arena for the main show.
  • The seats in the arena are wooden slats. Your bum will be hanging out in the same spot for at least two hours. If you have portable cushions, bring those.
  • The show is in German, of course, and you won’t understand everything if you don’t speak the language (I understood about 60-70% because it was so loud and the announcer and actors talked so fast), but without any German skills, you’ll get enough to know what is going on and, let’s face it, you’re there for the stunts, not the story, right?
  • Bring pocket money because the kids are going to beg for princess hats, costumes, and fake swords.

Note: This is not a sponsored review, and our family paid for our own admission.

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

An English Speaker in an English Speaking Land… and a Little Announcement

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life: The English Speaking Bubble, Edinburgh

At the top of Arthur’s Seat, overlooking Edinburgh.

Before Paris, we had the most lovely whirlwind of a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland.  We had gorgeous weather and a marvelous time together, just the five of us.  I long to tell you all about it – oh, how I do – but, for now, let’s just have a little peek into the wide, weird world of an English-speaking expat.

When you live in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, you get quite used to living in a bubble.  You may think the description cliché, but it’s spot on.

Inside the bubble, things are quiet.  Others may chat, giggle, debate, argue, or whisper around you.  But the funny thing is… you don’t really hear any of it.

There’s no picking up a snippet from the teenagers here or a stray comment from the elderly couple there.  You have absolutely no idea if the person next to you is gossiping about her best friend or discussing the finer points of Nietzsche.

When you open up your mouth to speak in your native language (because, of course, that’s what tumbles out first), those outside the bubble either stare or ignore you.  It’s impossible to tell whether you’re understood or not because interaction simply does.not.happen.

In some ways, you’re… invisible.

In other ways, you’re on display for all the world (okay, the train) to see.  Eating out, grocery shopping, waiting for the bus.. these are all relatively quiet affairs.  It’s a silent phenomenon, one that sneaks up on you and becomes firmly ingrained while you remain oblivious, until…

One day, you find yourself in another place, a land where everyone hears, understands, and -gasp- speaks to you.  This isn’t a forced exchange full of necessities and awkward pronunciation.  No, here the conversation is effortless.

The bubble bursts.  And suddenly, everything just got a whole.lot.LOUDER.

You try to finish your lunch, but the girl in the booth next to you just won’t shut up about her problems with the landlady. 

The college kids sitting behind you on the bus are bragging about how many countries they’ve visited (three), how cultured they now are, and how that one time they… was just SO funny!

A man stops on the street mid-stride to suggest you try the coffee shop (his favorite) around the corner because you’re discussing where you should go to warm up on this chilly morning. 

You ask the bus driver to help you figure out which stop is closest to your holiday apartment, and he agrees, smiles (!), and gives a shout when you’re nearly there.

It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it, but going to a foreign country and hearing English spoken is really very strange.

We’ve come to expect this hokey-smokes-we-can-understand-everyone-and-CRAP-they-understand-us phenomenon when we go back to the US.  We become a bit disconcerted on the plane when flight attendants greet our children and make conversation. (Can you imagine someone talking to your child on the street and completely excluding you because they can tell you don’t understand?  For us, this is our normal.) This disorientation grows until we finally recoil in utter shock when the cashier at the sparkly, big-box grocery store chats us up.

“How y’all doin’ today?”

Say, what?!

This is reverse culture shock, and we live it every time we go to America.

But it was a new thing for us to experience a foreign country without a foreign language.  It was… fantastic.  Comforting.  Therapeutic.  Welcome…

Since we know it will be our last year to live in our current city, we often try to imagine ourselves as residents in the places we visit.  Could we live here?  Would we want to?

And while Scotland would take a lot of getting used to (I’ve never stared at traffic, drivers, and cars so much in my life – how do they drive on the left?), at least we would be insiders in a way.

Language.  We miss so much being outside the deutschsprachig circle here in Germany.  We cannot fight or fend for ourselves in many situations.  ‘Tis true that I have only myself, my lack of time, commitment, and determination to blame.  It is our/my struggle, and often brings me/us shame.

So, in between language blunders and fragmented exchanges, we wonder.  How important is it?  Should we make every effort to become fluent?  Is it time to pop the bubble and live out loud?

My answer… is yes.

And so with this long-winded attempt to explain the freakish feelings we experienced in Scotland, I have a small announcement to make.

I’m taking a break.

It’s not you.. it’s me.

I love this blog for many reasons.  It’s been my creative outlet for nearly four years.  It’s pushed me to explore some really random corners of the world as well as to find the marvels and miracles amid the many mishaps of (my) expat life.

But, most of all, I have loved meeting all of you.  I have made real life friends because of this blog, and truth be told, I don’t intend to stop.  While I need to set aside the time I normally spend here at Thrifty Travel Mama to study German, I don’t plan on disappearing completely.  I may post sporadic updates and quick recaps of our trips.  But, I won’t be able to create regularly scheduled content for at least a few months.

I still plan to answer comments (though you may have better luck with email), and I will still be reading your posts and cheering for your adventures.  I hope, when I’m finally able again, that you’ll be back to champion mine as well.

Wish me luck – it’s going to be DEAFENING out there.

Signature-Marigold