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

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Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!I know this might sound a bit strange, but the main reason I’ve worked so hard the past few months to really get my German skills up to usable levels is that we’re leaving Deutschland by the end of the year.

Wait, what?!

Why bother if we’re not going to live here long term? Well, for starters, it’s easiest to learn a language in a country where it’s spoken all the time. And, I’m determined to not sit by and watch my boys’ bilingual skills fade away. Since we can’t be certain we’ll end up in a city with a German school, the responsibility of keeping up with the language falls to me. So, you can bet I am all ears when it comes to getting tips on how to keep up the German in America… or wherever we end up.

Yes, we can (and will) look for other German-speakers to befriend, but it’s important to not stop there. In order to become truly fluent, one must also know how to read and write. Obviously, having German books on hand is important. But, what books? How does one choose? And how do I know what level of books my boys should be reading?

EnterLibrileo.

A startup company out of Berlin and the brainchild of Julius Bertram, Librileo is a genius idea for busy parents who value frequent and fresh reading material for their children.

The child receives a monthly box of anywhere from 1 to 3 books appropriate for their age range and according to that month’s theme. Past themes have included friendship, courage, and music (see examples here). Each box is reviewed in advance by a test family and a teacher before being sent to subscribers.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

I was thrilled to be contacted by Librileo and offered a box for review purposes. I only review products here on Thrifty Travel Mama that I would actually use myself and this service definitely fits the bill.

My oldest son is following in his mama’s footsteps and absolutely loves to get mail. He could barely contain his excitement when I told him the Librileo box was for him. July’s theme is science (Wissenschaft), and we opened up the box to find a gigantic book about technology and the environment as well as a small booklet with a cute story about water conservation.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

Librileo offers book boxes for a variety of age ranges so that elementary-aged children don’t receive board books and toddlers aren’t given chapter books to chew on. Currently, there are six different age groups: 0-1, 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 4-6, and 6-8. Have an older child? Drop them a line here. The company is considering expanding this fall to include boxes suitable for children up to age 10.

Parents can order Librileo boxes for their children either on a one-time basis to try out the service, a recurring monthly basis, or as a set three-month subscription. Shipping is included in the price which makes the boxes a fantastic deal.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

The cost to buy the books yourself is about the same as going through Librileo. However, Librileo takes the guesswork out of what books to buy and if they’re age-appropriate, as well as adding a touch of fun by following a monthly theme. And, they have their own children’s book writer and in-house graphic designer who produce an extra story for the book boxes that aligns with the theme of the month. Bonus!Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

But, what if you don’t live in Germany? We’re moving soon, and we won’t be able to take advantage of the libraries or loan books from friends here anymore. Well, Librileo has just expanded their service to include international shipping! The international boxes include the 7 euro shipping charge, which is absolutely reasonable.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

To read all the frequently asked questions regarding Librileo, click here. And when you’re ready to order, this link will get you where you need to go.

Once we have finalized the location of our new home, Librileo will be on our list of great ways to keep up with German culture and language outside of Deutschland. Viel spaß!

Expat and bilingual families, what are some of the ways you keep up with foreign languages at home? Signature Thrifty Travel MamaDisclosure: I received a Librileo book box for review purposes. I was not paid to write this review, nor do I receive anything if you subscribe. You can read my current review policy here.

Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families in Edinburgh

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in EdinburghOur trip to Edinburgh was one of those trips that came out of a dangerous practice.. browsing the easyJet website. For someone in my position of penny-pinching wanderer, such behaviors are, or (ahem) should be, strictly forbidden.

Four fifty-euro-return tickets and one infant fee later, I was left with a mountain of research and a challenge: have as much fun as is parentally possible with three boys under the age of six, in unpredictable-but-always-bone-chilling Scottish November weather, while spending, well.. next to nothing.

Lucky for traveling families, Edinburgh suffers no shortage of delightful diversions for the youthful crowd. Unlucky for cheapskates and parents of littles, most of them are expensive (if you’ve got the bucks, check this place out) or designed for older children (if you’ve got the nerves, creep yourselves out here).

But, have no fear. You know I’ll always share with you all the fun that can be had for little more than a song. Check out these inexpensive, fun things for families to do in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle

You can’t visit Edinburgh and not do the castle. You must. I know, it’s expensive, and I just broke one of the rules of this post. But, just go. I promise the rest of the list isn’t this pricey.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

Awful fog at the castle.

We must have used up all our good weather luck the day before when climbing Arthur’s Seat. The fog might as well have been a hearty potato soup drowning out any hopes we had for a fantastic view from the castle. But, at least there’s no shortage of things to see within the castle grounds.

Our favorite sites were the National War Museum of Scotland, the prisoner of war barracks, and the crown jewels (naturally).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

National War Museum of Scotland. Lots of guns. Great for boys.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

Getting our hands on the crown jewels.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

Rations for prisoners of war.. except Americans who received less since they were officially “pirates.”

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

Prisoner barracks.

Tips

  • Try to time your visit to see the one o’clock gun fire. We missed it because we visited in the morning and needed to grab some lunch before the appointed hour. Note that castle tickets are single entry.
  • Ask for the kid’s quiz at the audio tour desk. It’s more for the 8+ crowd, but we still enjoyed trying to answer some of the questions.
  • You can join free guided tours. We caught snippets of a few of them, and the guides were informative and interesting (maybe you really can have it all). But, they’re not easy to do with kids who aren’t accustomed to tours, so pick up an audio guide if that’s more your speed.
  • The castle is mostly pram-friendly (though I wouldn’t take an umbrella stroller on the steep slopes and cobblestones). The only place that might be a problem is the room with the crown jewels. However, I did notice some kind of secret elevator for wheelchair access which might be possible for pram pushers as well.

Cost: See current ticket prices here.

National Museum of Scotland

You don’t see me recommending museums very often here at Thrifty Travel Mama, but The National Museum of Scotland gets my full endorsement.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

I found our new family car!

Not only is it free, but it is PACKED with hands-on activities for kids. Our boys thoroughly enjoyed the Formula 1 simulator, donning scuba gear, and marveling at all the exotic animal exhibits.

And.. the gift shop is actually filled with educational trinkets you might actually want to buy at prices that you can actually afford. And.. the toilets are free and clean. And.. if you’re lucky, the rooftop terrace will be open and you’ll get another great view of Edinburgh. And.. well, you get the idea. This place rocks.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

In the Connect area, kids can actually sit in a car and drive via a simulator.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in EdinburghTips

Save the museum for a rainy day. One could spend anywhere from thirty minutes to four hours here. We thought the best areas for kids were Connect, Earth in Space, and Animal World (1st floor), and Adventure Planet (5th floor). But, those are just the highlights – try to explore all the floors!

Cost: Free (suggested donation). Current info here.

Portobello Beach

The beach in November? Okay, no one went for a dip, but the boys ran in the sand, went bananas on the playgrounds along the boardwalk, and indulged in ice cream.

On a tip from my friend Katie, we skipped lunch and instead had a sort of tea at the Beach House which serves a stellar salted caramel ice cream and a mean carrot cake.

The weather here seemed to be on some sort of time loop slide show: sun, rain, clouds, repeat. So even if you have a crap weather forecast, it’s probably still worth a visit.Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in EdinburghThrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in EdinburghThrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in EdinburghThrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

Tips

Portobello Beach is a modest bus ride from the east side of town (about 20 minutes from Meadowbank where we stayed). After devouring your ice cream cones, take a gander at the cute stores and thrift shops along the main street.

Cost: Free, plus bus fare and pocket money for ice cream.

Scottish Parliament

Truthfully, I hesitate to recommend this total insider tip that I received from a friend for fear that this wonderful service will be abused. If you do patronize the Parliament, please don’t take advantage.

The Scottish Parliament operates a crèche (day care center) that is open to the public.. and it’s FREE. You can’t leave the building, but you can drop your children off and go have tea in the cafe without your kids, explore the exhibits in the atrium without your kids, tour the Parliament without your kids, and browse the gift shop without your kids.Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

I was a little nervous dropping off my kids with total strangers in a foreign country, but the friendly staff in the crèche put everyone at ease (as did the metal detectors and strict security measures). My boys LOVED playing here, and they were sad to leave when at last it was closing time.Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

We visited near the end of the day, so all parliamentary business had finished and we could view the debating hall (oooo!). If government and politics are your thing, book a free tour and crèche space in advance.

Tips

According to the Parliament visitor’s website:

  • The Crèche is registered to provide care for children between the ages of six weeks and 5 years.
  • Spaces can be booked up to 2 weeks in advance Bookings can be made by email (Creche@scottish.parliament.uk), by telephone on extension 86192 or in person by reporting to the Crèche Office.
  • Maximum single stay in the Crèche is 4hrs per day.
  • Visitors to the Parliament may use the Crèche free of charge.
  • Snacks are provided but parents/carers should provide lunch for children if stay is over lunchtime period or if child has any special dietary requirements. It should be noted however, that there are no facilities available to cook or reheat food. Bottle warmers are available to allow feeding of younger children and a baby changing/feeding room is situated adjacent to the Crèche.

Cost: Free. More info here.

Close Gardens

Old town Edinburgh is filled with secrets of every kind. Some of the more innocent are the close gardens, small patches of green hidden away from the main traffic artery known as Canongate (and further up, the Royal Mile).Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

Pop into small alleys, and see how many gardens you and the kids can find! The gardens make great picnic spots when the weather’s dry.

Tips

Dungar’s Close Garden was our favorite, but it took us several tries to locate. Keep searching!

Cost: Free.

The Royal Mile

Starting from the Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament, walk along the Royal Mile up to Edinburgh Castle. Ignore the cheesy kilt & shortbread shops; instead, enjoy the architectural gems that are wedged together block after block.Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun (Cheap) Stuff for Families with Kids in Edinburgh

Tips

None. Just explore!

Cost: Free, unless one of your party succumbs to overpriced kilt or shortbread madness.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

I must say I’m rather disappointed we did not visit the Royal Botanic Garden. Several expat friends mentioned their kids loved romping around this conservatory cornucopia. But, we never managed to make it to the northwest side of town.

If you do go, note that you can explore the gardens for free, but the glasshouses are worth the price of adult admission (kids 15 and under are free).

Tips

Getting to the gardens by bus is very easy. Click here for info on how to reach the gardens.

Cost: Entrance to the gardens is free. Current admission prices for the glasshouses and more visitor info here.

Greyfriars Bobby

I found the little pup rather underwhelming, but if sappy legends are your thing, don’t miss a chance to snap a cheesy photo with the stone terrier near the National Museum of Scotland.

Tips

Take a break from the hubbub of the city streets in the monument-studded Greyfriars Kirkyard behind the statue. Skip the over-priced awful tourist food at the pub of the same name.

Cost: Free. More info here.

Museum of Childhood

Another free museum in Edinburgh! We plumb ran out of time for this one, so I can’t personally give you any juicy tips for your visit.

Tips

I’ve seen mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. Pop in if you have time and are already in the area.

Cost: Free. More info here.

Also, if you missed my posts on Calton Hill, Dunsapie Loch, Arthur’s Seat, and Rosslyn Chapel, be sure to add those to your list of fabulous fun to have with the family in Edinburgh.

Have your own list of kid-friendly budget attractions in Edinburgh? Add a link in the comments below!

What’s your favorite place from the list above where you’ve already been or would like to go with your kids? Signature-Marigold

Beauty and Mystery at Rosslyn Chapel

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with KidsIf conspiracy theories are your thing or you’ve read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, then chances are you’ve heard of Rosslyn Chapel. Construction on this small church located on the outskirts of Edinburgh began in the 15th century, but the lore surrounding it continues to present day.

Full disclosure: I did read the Code, but it was simply entertaining fiction for me. I do enjoy a juicy conspiracy theory now and then, but I don’t indulge too often because my mind goes wild with possibility. However, neither the book nor the legends led me to Rosslyn Chapel.

I came for the art.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

When we arrived at the modern visitor’s center, its petite presence startled me. THIS is what all the fuss is about?! Sure, the speculation surrounding its possible connection to the Knights Templar and Freemasons is intriguing. But, I couldn’t help but think what must have drawn the theorists to Rosslyn Chapel in the first place was the beauty of the structure itself (because it certainly wasn’t sheer mass…).

Inside

The interior walls are brimming with intricate carvings: devils, angels, flowers, snakes, historical figures, virtues, vices, and more. Gorgeous patterns weave the different scenes together. The compositions straddle the line between frilly and fantastic. Prepare yourself for visual overload. Unfortunately, photographs aren’t allowed inside the chapel; I wish I’d brought a sketch book!

Our travel modus operandi rarely includes guided tours or talks. However, we just happened to arrive at the beginning of one of Rosslyn Chapel’s scheduled chats (in English! oh, right, it’s Scotland after all..). I enjoyed picking up bits and pieces of the chapel’s history while keeping an eye on the three amigos. The most fascinating? Apparently 200+ statues that were originally part of the chapel have vanished.

Some folks think these sculptures are in the crypt (along with the Holy Grail and the real crown jewels of Scotland, naturally). The original crypt has been sealed, and excavation is forbidden (of course). A smaller, less mystical crypt is open to visitors and houses a modest collection of stones.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

The crypt contents. Thrilling, no?

A more believable story revolves around the creation of two of Rosslyn’s fourteen pillars. Pride, jealousy, revenge, and retribution – you can read the legend here.

Outside

The exterior of the chapel is equally as stunning as the interior. One can easily see the architectural difference between the original (chapel) and later construction (baptistry). More carvings, gargoyles, pinnacles, flying buttresses, stained glass.. wow.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

Baptistery exterior.

While I knew Doc Sci and I would love this place, I wasn’t sure about the boys. Would they be bored stiff or entertain themselves with a game of who-can-break-the-most-appendages-off-the-carvings? This story haunts me because it could easily have been my kids..

Fortunately, Rosslyn Chapel is surprisingly kid-friendly, provided they don’t touch the carvings, of course. Inside the chapel itself, the boys were given activity sheets with simple questions to answer, a word search, a maze, and a space to recreate their favorite carving in 2D (find more fun stuff for kids to do in advance or after your trip here).

Since we visited nearly 8 months ago, I decided to dig out my trip file. I found our activity sheets and on one of those Alpha had written, “The CHAPEL is SO COOWL.”

And that was before he even went inside the new visitor’s building…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

Hands-on arch building.

The visitor center features the obligatory gift shop (mostly uninspiring except for an amusing assortment of Scottish books), a slightly expensive cafe, clean toilets, and several children’s activity stations. Bravo went to town demolishing and rebuilding the arch. Alpha found three brass plates, paper, and metallic crayons set up for brass rubbings.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with KidsHe’d never seen anything like it. The thrill of coloring fast and furious and ending up with a finished image of a knight was almost too much. Only after plying him with promises of a bus ride to the beach (more on that in a later post) would he step away.

Despite the 45-minute bus ride from Edinburgh, our morning at Rosslyn Chapel was one well-spent. I think often of the carvings and patterns and the quiet rural beauty surrounding the church (the associated bullhonkery, not so much).

While theme parks and cheesy children’s attractions have their purpose, I believe it’s so worthwhile to intentionally expose the littlest travelers among us to some of the biggest architectural treasures of our world. And those conspiracy theories? Well, it might take a few years before those are also considered COOWL..

For all the particulars in planning your own visit to Rosslyn Chapel, see the official website.

Have you visited or heard of Rosslyn Chapel? If not, would it make your Scotland itinerary? Thoughts – and conspiracy theories – welcome below.

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Nerdy Travel Dad: Mulhouse Train Museum (Cité du Train)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)train museumMy oldest, T-Rex, turned six last month – six!! I can’t believe I’m old enough to have a six year-old… To celebrate, we took a drive to Mulhouse, France, and spent the morning at the train museum there (Cité du Train). 

While I could simply say that this is one of the most fascinating museums I have ever visited, this place really deserves a Nerdy Travel Dad review, and Doc Sci will be posting for me today.  Even if you don’t love trains as much as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, you’ll soon see why a stop here is definitely worth your while.

All the boys in the thrifty travel house LOVE trains.  And, uh, that’s putting it mildly.  Every other day (or so it seems), my wife and I are interrogated as to when the next train ride will occur.  On the off days, they’re begging to go on an airplane.

Since our budget didn’t allow for an actual train ride for T-Rex’s birthday, we decided the next best thing would be to take him to the biggest train museum in the world, the Cité du Train in Mulhouse, France.  Not too shabby for a birthday, if I do say so myself.

When we rolled up on that Saturday morning, I had not done a lick of research.  Of course, the always-prepared Thrifty Travel Mama ensured we had the 4-1-1, but she just didn’t tell me.  Or I didn’t ask.  Whatever.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

After I walked into the building, I was genuinely surprised.  There were trains, tons and tons of full-size trains, all lit up, dressed, and costumed.  Mannequins dolled up in era-appropriate clothing peered out from the windows, demonstrating how train travel used to be.  This was awesome.

Quirky dialogue leaked out of tiny speakers in the train cars.  Well, at least I assume it was quirky.. it was in French, of course.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

This was my wife’s favorite train – a snow plow from the Alps.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

In case you’re wondering, the museum is pram-friendly. Here I am with Big Foot taking a look at those creepy stuffed people.

There were so many trains the boys kept running from one to another, peeking inside and boarding those open to visitors.  In the middle of the train yard, we discovered a switching booth with the actual switches outside just waiting to be pulled.  Unfortunately, they wouldn’t budge, even with hefty amounts of grunting.  But, right next to the switches was a junction to easily illustrate why the switches were needed and what they did.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The switching booth.

After all that, I was quite satisfied with our experience at the Cité du Train.  I mean there was history, some railway engineering, creepy mannequins… what more could you want?

Oh how naive I was!  We had only just completed the first, much smaller depot.  A whole other GINORMOUS warehouse was waiting for us on the other side of the restaurant.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The museum’s restaurant, designed to look like a dining car.

The first building is dedicated to the history of French trains, and the second focuses more on the evolving technology of trains.

The technological exhibit starts with steam engines, works its way through diesel and electric, and finishes with the ultra-sleek, high-speed TGV.

One of the best displays in the second building was an active demonstration of a steam locomotive, complete with moving parts and, surprise, surprise, steam. The boys were fascinated by the train that was moving but not actually going anywhere.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The little engine that could… make a big fuss without going anywhere.

An adjacent train was literally cut in half so that inquiring minds could have a look and see what all the fuss was about.  The steam engine had color-coded lights for cold water, hot water, steam and coal.  It was a brilliant way to demonstrate how the engine works.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The fascinating inner workings of a steam engine.

What could be better than a steam engine chopped in two?  Why, the ability to go underneath the train to have a look at the hidden workings below.  How many people can say they’ve been on the nether side of steel locomotive and lived to tell about it?

The thing I enjoyed explaining the most (and, as these things go, the kiddos understood the least) was how a bunch of straight pieces of metal could make round things move.  Being able to watch the steam engine wheels in motion helped to illustrate this, but it still was just a smidge over their heads.

Me:”You see boys when the steam builds up inside of this tube thingy, the piston, it pushes this other piece out.  Then this big straight piece of metal that is connected also goes out.  That makes the piece of metal that is connected to the wheel move back and while it moves back the …”

T-Rex: “Daddy look at the size of the wheel.  It is bigger than me!”

See what I mean?

The diesel and electric trains were also difficult to explain to the six-and-under crowd, so I didn’t press too much there.  Plus, the museum offered sooo many trains that some had to be just straight up skipped.  Take my advice and spend the most time on the steam trains since they are the easiest to describe and the most likely to spark interest in young minds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

Visitors could take a rest on old train car seats located throughout the depot.

After winding your way through the 70s, you’ll arrive at what kids will most likely think is THE BEST part of the museum – a TGV cockpit complete with bells, whistles, and buttons.  The TGV train was all hype and no science (in the exhibit, anyway), which honestly was perfectly fine with me because by the end of the line I think only Sheldon Cooper would want to see more trains.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

TGV!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

Inside the cockpit.

To top things off, the final exhibit was a super fun model train community.  Though not as large and extensive as Miniatur Wonderland, it was packed with zooming trains and working details (and a hefty dose of humor for the adults with keen eyes).  I don’t deny putting in my 50 cents to see it all come to life.

Nerdy or not, I highly recommend adding the Cité du Train to your list of “must see” sites in eastern France.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

If you visit the train museum in Mulhouse, don’t miss the cities of Basel, Colmar, and Strasbourg which are all only a short drive away!Signature-Marigold

Hiking with Kids: The Ravennaschulucht

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtI see looooooads of hiking in our family’s future.  Exploring nature – hopping over streams, listening to rushing rivers, searching for perfect walking sticks – is something every one of us enjoys.. well, except Big Foot.

He’s generally grumpy because he has to be bolted into a backpack whenever we wander about.  But I have hope that he’ll come ’round when his legs are strong enough to carry him and his will is soft enough to decide that listening and following directions really wouldn’t be so. incredibly. awful.

We’re rather fortunate to find ourselves within an easy drive of the Black Forest  in Germany which just so happens to be chock full of trails and adventures suitable for little ones.  My friend Nancy (hi, Nancy!) lent me an ADAC book on hiking in the Schwarzwald with kids (this one, if you’re interested) and insisted we take on the Ravennaschlucht.

The Ravennaschlucht is a wild and romantic gorge with a stream and several waterfalls chasing through it.  As if that wasn’t enough of a draw, the ADAC itinerary tacks on other attractions including several saw mills and a glass blowing studio… all in less than 8km.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtFancy a go at the gorge yourself?  Well, grab your trusty boots, and come along!

We followed the route set forth in the guide, starting out at Hinterzarten.  I balked at paying for parking at the train station, so we drove a bit further along Alpersbacher Str. where we discovered a free parking lot.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As you walk along Löffeltalweg, you won’t be able to ignore the swelling sound of rushing water.  The Rotbach stream was used to power several saw mills located along the footpath.  My boys were in awe of the gigantic blades and completely confused as to how prickly, uneven logs turned into perfectly flat boards despite Doc Sci’s best efforts to explain.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtLeaving the mills, you’ll be treated to a series of waterfalls, several close enough to touch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtSoon you’ll have to make a choice – continue on or face the B31.  I wasn’t sure how we’d cross three lanes of whizzing traffic on the “Hell’s Valley” highway.  Fortunately, my worries were needless – a tunnel for hikers and bikers had been constructed underneath the road.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtNext stop – the Hofgut Sternen, a small village composed of a hotel, restaurant, a large glockenspiel, and a glass blowing studio (with a gift shop, of course).  Scarf down a snack or two here, because the path through the gorge doesn’t offer many places for pit stops.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtAfter everyone is fully hydrated, have a look at the artist fashioning everything from vases to earrings to wine glasses to Christmas ornaments from the blazing hot and stringy glass.  I should mention that only well-behaved or independently wealthy children should enter the shop… Everything is within reach of the curious and clumsy.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMake your way to the Ravennaviadukt, an imposing railway bridge that marks the entrance to the gorge.

Once you climb up the first set of steps, you’re in hand-holding territory.  Though I never felt unsafe, some parts of the path can be rather dicey with steep drop-offs and thinly railed bridges.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As we hiked higher and higher, I couldn’t help but wonder when the gorge was going to end.  I don’t like being lost, and the ADAC guide only mentioned that the path would end.  Not when or how or where.

When the trail finally did terminate, I was even more surprised at the lack of information.  You’ll know you’re at the end of the gorge when a lovely biergarten with a playground appears.  I guess this is so German that the writer didn’t think to include it!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtCarrying on, we made our way back to the ferocious B31 and, again, crossed underneath it.  We found ourselves in the company of some lovely cows on the grounds of the Birklehof boarding school.  Once you see the onion dome, take a quick detour around the back of the building.  There you’ll find a fantastic playground and fire pit.

We ended the day with cookies in the car as a reward for excellent little boy behavior.  Hooray!

If you’d like to hike Ravennaschlucht yourself, I’d like to suggest a few variations from the ADAC itinerary:

  • If you have a car, park at the Hofgut Sternen and start your hike from there.  You won’t have to pay for parking near the Hinterzarten train station, and more lunch options will be available in town.
  • If you only want to hike the gorge, I’d again recommend parking at the Hofgut Sternen.  Keep in mind that you will have to double back.  This would be a good option for the littlest of legs.
  • However, if public transportation is how you’ll be traveling, then the only option is to begin and end at the train station.
  • Consider hiking the reverse of the order I’ve mentioned here.  You’ll be walking downhill instead of uphill through the steepest part of the gorge.  The slope near the saw mills is rather gentle in comparison.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMore family-friendly places to explore in the Schwarzwald area of Germany – Triberg, Kastelburg, Staufen, Steinwasen Park and Schauinsland (from our first month here – four years ago!).

How about you?  Been on any good hikes lately?  Are they within driving distance of southwest Germany? 🙂Signature-Marigold

Nerdy Travel Dad: Visiting the Museo Leonardo in Vinci

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe little town of Vinci would probably never have made an appearance on anyone’s travel bucket list if it weren’t for two guys – one named Leonardo and the other Dan Brown.  Now that the Da Vinci Code craze has died down, nerdy travel can resume.  This blip on the map offers a must-see museum for visiting geeks and their families.  But don’t just take my word for it… Consider the following testimonials:

“The museum was so cool!  There were guns and machines and lots of buttons to press.”  T-Rex, age 5

Okay, that was only one, and it came from my own kid, but whatever.  This place rocks.   

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe Museo Leonardo is split into two different sections, the new one (2004) and the old one.  Both sections are full of models based on Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings.  Many of these works are merely sketches of concepts, so the majority of exhibits in the museum are other people’s interpretations and renderings of his ideas in 3D.

Visitors begin their time at the Museo Leonardo in the new building.  Tickets are purchased here, and pit stops can be made downstairs.  This section has lots of cranes and looming machines.  Most of the models are miniaturized versions, but a few were full size. The cranes certainly held the most appeal for the under-10 crowd.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyBy the way, photography is not allowed inside of the museum, but I took a few photos before realizing this fact.  Doh!

One full-size machine for flattening gold (basically a big hammer) was a physics lesson waiting to happen.  T-Rex was able to figure out how it worked and what its purpose was based on my descriptions of other machines.

Yes, a proud moment indeed for this nerdy dad…Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe area between buildings is decked out with Leo-inspired art.  This would be a good place to stop for a snack in hopes of bribing uninterested children and bored-to-tears spouses to continue on to the next building.  More great geeky stuff awaits…

The old building features all of the da Vinci-designed guns and cannons.  T-Rex loved this section, as you probably could tell from his quote above.  Following the ka-boom exhibit, we explored my favorite area which displayed his flying machines and his engineering sketches (wheels, gears, etc).  Full disclosure: T-Rex could have cared less about the intensely nerdy stuff.

Stay with me, because you’ll want to see the far-out features on the upper level of the old building.  Don’t miss the bike, boat, and underwater breathing apparatus.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe crown jewel of the old building is the optics section.  This area was an instant hit with my son since it was interactive (much of the museum is no-touch).  I won’t go in to a lot of detail because I should leave something for you to discover when you visit yourself.

But, I will mention that the two main concepts the exhibit tried to teach were reflection/refraction and perspective.  Honestly, this was a little over my five year-old’s head, but he still had a blast just playing and pushing buttons while I pored over every detail.

At the end of the visit, you can climb the tower for a panoramic view (120 steps – no prams or claustrophobics).  Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalySo, I know you want to ask… would non-nerds like it?  I would say yes, and here’s why.  Beyond the science and math, the exhibits describe a lot of history with a touch of art thrown in here and there.  Humanities-minded visitors will appreciate just how ingenious Leonardo’s work was for his time.

And even if you don’t understand the machines, inventions, ideas and how they work, they’re still just downright cool.  The real takeaway from this museum to discuss with your kids is the value and power of innovative ideas.

Before I say ciao, here are a few practical details that my wife makes me include:

  • Ticket prices were 7 euros for adults, and kids under 6 were free.  If you wanted to see Leonardo da Vinci’s house, the combo ticket cost 8 euros for adults.
  • All exhibits were in Italian, but the staff provides English pamphlets in the rooms to help you understand what you’re seeing.  I noticed German and Spanish versions as well.
  • We spent 2 1/2 hours at the Museo Leonardo – I could’ve spent 4 and T-Rex could’ve spent 1.  Plan your visit accordingly.
  • The museum is wheelchair accessible, so it would also be suitable to bring a stroller.  But, make it a small one as space in the old building is rather cramped.
  • There’s NO museum gift shop, and this is a real shame.  Bring snacks, and look for souvenirs online.
  • The town of Vinci is located about 45 minutes south of the A11 (exit Pistoia).
  • The SP9 road to reach Vinci was horrific; my understanding is that the SP16 + SP123 roads are slightly better.   The route winds back and forth and might make your kids car sick.  However, if you can stomach the hairpin turns, the views are gorgeous.

Many thanks to Doc Sci for posting today!  Now, over to you – would you take your kids to the Museo Leonardo in Vinci?  Why or why not?  Signature-Marigold

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Six Tips for a Successful Visit to the Uffizi Gallery with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with KidsFlip through any glossy Renaissance art book, and you’ll keep bumping into the name Uffizi.  Huffity, puffity, what?!

The Galleria degli Uffizi in Firenze was built in the 16th century for the extremely exciting purpose of hosting… meetings.  That’s right, the world’s largest treasure trove of Renaissance art is housed in a glorified office building.  And one that’s only partially climate-controlled at that!

Because of its impressive collection and international fame, experiencing the Uffizi Gallery can be an exercise in patience and/or a real pain in the you-know-what, depending on how you look at it.  Add children in this mix and you might have a real mess on your hands.  But don’t be discouraged – a little advance planning is all it takes to make your visit run smoothly.

Here are my six tips for an enjoyable afternoon at the Uffizi with your kids and some really amazing art:

1. Buy your tickets online in advance.  Waiting times for walk-up visitors are generally measured in hours.  Don’t waste precious time tapping your toes.  Instead, book tickets online (and several weeks in advance, if possible).  Many websites sell tickets to the Uffizi, but the only official site can be found here.  Children under 18 are FREE.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with Kids

2. Visit at lunch time or later in the day.  The biggest problem inside the Uffizi is the constant swarm of tour groups.  You’re less likely to constantly bump elbows in the Botticelli room when the crowds are tasting the tagliatelle at a nearby trattoria midday or sipping wine at sunset.

I’ve seen musings here and there warning that Tuesdays are busier days.  We tried Thursday, and the mob seemed more manageable.

3. Purchase a picture book containing (almost) all the works.  If you’re not shelling out for a human guide or an audio tour, I highly recommend a coffee table book containing the all the works displayed in the Uffizi.  If possible, buy the volume in advance, and leaf through it with your family.

Allow each person to pick their favorites.  Discuss common themes in the art.  Jot down questions, and look up the answers online if you’re not art history savvy.  Make a list of “must-see” works in case you do end up lost in a sea of yellow neon Florence: The Big Bus Tour t-shirts.  If you need a little help with your list or coming up with questions, check out this excellent post from ArtTrav.

But, what if you are trying to go paperless and just can’t handle one. more. book. in your house?  Alexandra Korey of ArtTrav has expanded on the post I’ve linked to above in her recently published e-book, the Uffizi Art History Guide, and newly released IOS app available here.  Inside you’ll find an excellent Renaissance art history primer to help you understand and appreciate what you’re seeing.  She covers the most important works in each room, and includes questions for engaging with the pieces.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with KidsT-Rex and I flipped through our book on the train ride into Firenze, chatting about what we saw.  Inside the museum, I was amazed at how many images he remembered (“Mama, this one is in our book!”).  We also enjoyed talking about which paintings surprised us by their scale or fine detail.

Where do you find such a book?  Well, the real kicker is that the Uffizi Gallery itself sells a wonderfully thick volume… but you have to go through the museum to get to the shop and buy it.  Instead, try ordering it off Amazon before you leave home.  I was a little late to the ball game on this one, so I bought one on the street in Firenze for 12 euro.  Not the best, but it got the job done.

4. Make a beeline for the bathroom before you begin.  If the presence of plentiful toilets marks a place as “kid-friendly” in your book, I’m sad to say that the Uffizi will let you down.

Take the kiddos for a potty break immediately after you pass through the metal detectors.  Do not proceed upstairs to the gallery until you’ve emptied the tanks!  You have forty five rooms to clear before you hit the next set of bathrooms.  Yeah, you’re welcome.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with Kids

5. Plan on a pit stop at the cafe.  Gawking at all the art in those forty five rooms is sure to make little tummies rumble.  As expected, the cafe is seriously overpriced.  You can save a bit of money by ordering at the counter and eating while standing.  The same food costs more if you need to plant your bum on a seat.  Of course, you can bring your own grub, and the terrace adjacent to the cafe provides a birds eye view of the Palazzo Vecchio.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with Kids6. Reward good behavior at the gift shop.  Fueled and ready for part two, head downstairs for foreign painters and special exhibitions.  You may start to wonder, when will it end? Trust me, your kids will echo your thoughts out loud.  Now’s a good time to pull out your “must-see” list and check off any remaining works.

If you made it this far without any meltdowns, hand out hugs and euros.  The souvenir shop at the Uffizi is presented in pieces, and everyone will find something to suit themselves… even if they’re not all that into art.

Should you visit the Uffizi?  YES!  Should you take your kids?  YES!  Well, I think so.  Okay, only you can decide that, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I only took T-Rex (he’s 5 1/2) with me.  Kids younger than this who are not napping during your visit or angelic girls with golden curls will most likely be bored and restless.  Regardless of age, interact with the art.  Don’t just have a look and move on.

For best results, follow the six tips above, and enjoy your visit!

What about you?  Have you visited the Uffizi?  Would you take your kids?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!Signature-MarigoldDisclaimer: I was graciously provided a review copy of Uffizi Art History Guide – Unanchor Travel Guide by Alexandra Corey several weeks after my visit to the museum.  As always, opinions are my own.  At this time, I do not use affiliate links.

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Atomium, Brussels

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The AtomiumIn honor of Father’s Day this past weekend, Doc Sci has whipped up another post for nerdy and not-so-nerdy travelers to Brussels.  Whether you dig atoms and molecules or not, you’ll want to check out his review.

On our recent trip to Belgium with the boys, the Atomium was the one place I just HAD to see.  This structure is truly a wonder to observe.  The design is meant to be a full scale model of an iron crystal unit cell only way, WAY bigger… 165 billion times bigger.

For those of you not here for the brainiac review, I’ll start with a few practicalities..

  • Admission for children under 6 is free; adults are 11 euro each.  Ogling the structure is free.
  • Wait times can be horrific because the Atomium is crawling with school children.  Check your intended visit time with the chart here.
  • Bathrooms are crowded, grimy, and not free (30 cents).  No changing tables in sight.
  • Use a backpack carrier for babies.  Strollers are not allowed inside.  Though there is an elevator to initially get to the top, visitors must use stairs to travel between spheres.
  • Parking is plentiful in front of the Atomium (metered) as well as in the Miniature Europe car park (flat fee) next door.
  • For those coming by public transport, the metro stop Heysel / Heizel is located a short walk from the entrance.
  • The park surrounding the Atomium is an excellent spot for a picnic or simply letting the little ones roam around.
  • Should you need to grab a bite to eat, a cafe is located near the entrance.  A fancy schmancy restaurant with a view is located on level 8.

Next, a disclosure.  We (okay, my wife) read loads of reviews that mostly said the same thing.  The tour of the Atomium is expensive and overrated.  The exhibitions are rather boring, and the big highlight is being able to view Brussels from above.  Unfortunately, the Atomium is located so far from the Brussels city center that it’s impossible to see anything of note even on a clear day.  So, since we are a thrifty bunch of travelers, we opted out of the tour.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The AtomiumA much cooler option (though unfortunately only available for school children that live in the area) is to spend the night in the Atomium.  It’s rather obvious from the special offerings to the admission priority that school children are the Atomium’s bread and butter.  If you do decide to pay to go inside, consider yourself warned.

But, all that being said, I still consider it worth any family’s time to take a ride out to see the Atomium.  It’s just awesome to stand there and be dwarfed by science. 

Now on to the cheat sheet bits.  The main things to remember are:

  1. 165 Billion
  2. Elementary iron crystal
  3. Body Centered Cubic

165 billion is the amount of magnification.  This makes for interesting conversations with little ones who can’t quite count past 20.  The iron crystal bit just lets us know what type of unit cell it will be.  And from looking at the model, we can tell that it is a body centered cubic structure.

From there we can go on to tell our prospective (captive!) learners that each lattice point (ball) represents an atom.  At this point, your offspring with either stare at you blankly (8 and under), or whine about what a nerd you are (13 and older).  If you dare, continue to elaborate on how densely packed the atoms are and how that creates certain scenarios and so on.

But, a better idea is to have your children pick a spot with a good view of the Atomium.  Provide paper and colored pencils.  Have them sketch the structure (it’s really just circles and straight lines).  Later on, compare their drawings to other pictures/diagrams of actual atoms.  Help older children correctly label their interpretation of the structure.

For little ones, I honestly couldn’t figure out a way to dumb this down to 5, 3, and 0 yr old levels.  Telling my preschool boys that the huge shiny thing in front of them is actually a model of an iron crystal, (what’s iron? what’s a crystal?) blown up a billion times (is that more than 100?) makes no sense.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The Atomium

To T-Rex, I simply said, “Wow, look at that big thing.” (Brilliant, I know.  They don’t give PhD’s away to just anybody.)

He replied, “Daddy, it’s GINORMOUS.  Can we go inside?”

Instead of saying no, I opted for, “Maybe, but do you want to know something amazing instead?”

“Uh huh.”

“This thing is a HUGE model representing something super tiny.  So tiny, in fact, that it could be inside you.  So tiny that you couldn’t see it just by looking at it with your eyes.”

“Whoa.”

The beginning of science career?  Most likely not.  But I’ll settle for a love of learning and an appetite for exploration.  So, despite our reluctance to spend 22 euros for what is most likely a lame tour, I definitely think the Atomium is worth a gander if for no other reason than to be fodder for good discussion.

Headed to Brussels?  Check out our Snapshot of Brussels with Kids.

More Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests, The Zaanse Schans, and Essen Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex.

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests!!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Trave Dad - Theo Jansen StrandbeestsNerds and nerdettes, you’re not going to want to miss today’s post.  Our family personally met a famous artist/engineer in his studio on our recent BeNeLux trip!  Keep reading for the low down on our encounter with these beach creatures.

In one of those serendipitous travel research moments, my wife stumbled upon a small detail hidden in a random corner of the Dutch shoreline near The Hague.  “Theo Jansen Beach” it said.  Thinking it might be some kind of famous surfer bar, she googled it, but found something much more amazing than booze instead.  Take a look at the 2 minute video below.

Amazing, fascinating, freakish, right?  If you’re like me, you want to see these things in action.  Unfortunately, Theo Jansen didn’t have any work on the beach at the time of our trip to Holland (to find out where the beasts are, look here).

BUT, we found out from his website that anyone can visit his studio near The Hague at anytime.  No need for a wild goose chase in the Dutch countryside; the property is right off a major highway.

Theo Jansen’s workshop is atop a small hill on the side of the road (no parking, just ditch the car on the shoulder and walk up).  Just between you and me, trust me when I say that calling it a “workshop” is kinda pushing it.  The building is little more than a shack to keep Theo protected from the elements when working, and it’s piled high with projects and a case of instant soup envelopes.

This guy developed a formula for creating “new life” as he says, forms that are able to walk across the beach on their own.  A wall next to the shack contains explanations regarding  the proportions and walking motion.  Several creatures greet visitors, inviting the interested to physically experience the creatures.

The sentinels.

The sentinels.

This walking motion and the particular proportions proved to be the two key elements to creating the beasts.  Each animal has a center shaft where all the feet connect in an offset manner.  Wind powers the beasts’ movements depending on the intensity of the gusts.  Theo is now creating a process by which this wind energy can be stored in bottles so the beasts can walk even when the weather is calm.

Theo Jansen’s ultimate goal is to create a beast that can exist completely independent of human help.  He literally believes he is creating a new species of life..

T-Rex is impressed.

T-Rex is impressed.

Wanting to see these engineering wonders for ourselves, we gambled that Theo would be at his studio on the day we passed through.  The odds were in our favor, and Mr. Jansen happily greeted us when we knocked on the shack door.

The studio is littered with PVC pipe, the color of Dutch cheese.  As Theo explained, these tubes are then bent, drilled, and heated to his specifications.  Large sheets catch the wind, and recycled soda bottles capture it.

T-Rex was gaga over all the tools in the workshop, and the two of them even chatted a bit in German and English about the gadgets and gizmos lying around.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Theo really enjoyed seeing the boys faces light up as their eyes followed the movement of a tiny beast across a table.  This particular teeny tiny beast had been 3-D printed and sent to Jansen by a student which is quite impressive considering the large number of moving parts needed to make the thing work.

Instead of being outraged that others are printing his work, Theo is delighted.  In fact, he considers this the method of beast reproduction.  These clever creatures use humans to multiply their species.

After seeing the little ones in Theo’s workshop I must admit I really want one (Father’s Day – hint, hint!).  Apparently, I have good company in my admiration for these marvels.  Adam Savage has also developed quite an affinity for them.

Outside the workshop, we tested some beasts with our own hands.  From pushing and pulling a few little guys around the hilltop, I can only imagine what the full-scale beasts look like in person scurrying along the sand and splashing in the waves.

Father and son geek out time.

Father and son geek out time.

I wished we could have stayed and talked the genius Jansen’s ear off, but T-Rex was cold, Screech wanted a snack, and we couldn’t push our luck with a sleeping Big Foot.

Would I go visit Theo Jansen’s studio again?  You betcha.  I hope Mr. Jansen is still around when my boys are old enough to understand the engineering and design principles behind these creations.  Science + Art = always a winner in our traveling family’s book!

Headed to The Netherlands?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Zaanse Schans – Nerdy Travel Dad approved!