Cheap Family Eats: The Istanbul Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Order

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

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

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

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

Our Favorite Finds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention

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

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

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Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?Grocery shopping – it’s either a mundane chore or an obsessive activity depending on who shares your shack. If you only cook for one or two, restocking the fridge may be an afterthought or even an annoyance. But for those with HUNGRY munchkins nipping at their heels, getting groceries is serious business.

While purchasing provisions in Germany vs. the US might not be as drastically different than, say, bartering for baloney in a rural Mongolian market, the discrepancies while abroad were enough to make me pine for the greener pastures of Publix, Kroger, and… Costco.

During my weekly German Aldi run, I longed for a bulk store like Costco or Sam’s. I was completely over the cashiers’ stares when I bought my standard ten liters of milk every Monday. Must I always insist that I am not feeding a herd of baby cows each week?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Rookie German grocery mistake: don’t buy more than your teeny fridge can hold.

In Germany, buying in bulk is just not a thing. Are you a big-box or warehouse shopper? Do you buy your milk by the liter or by the metric ton? I would’ve preferred the latter, but really, all I wanted was to shop at one store.

ONE.

Super Size It

America has done such a bang-up job of exporting BIG abroad – BIG brands like Oreo and BIG companies like Coke (to say nothing of BIG hair and BIG bodies plastered on the BIG silver screen). Unfortunately, my homeland failed me in neglecting to force the rest of the world to jump on the jumbo food packaging train.

Did I count down the days until we could join an American warehouse club store? You betcha.Thrifty Travel Mama - Strawberry Madness! Ideas and Recipes

Shop Around

Beyond the super-sized milk jugs and bloated boxes of cereal, the second major annoyance focused on the necessity of patronizing a minimum of two grocery stores every week to purchase ingredients I needed or wanted. More often than not, I visited three OR MORE… e v e r y    w e e k.

Give a little shout out if you that routine sounds major awesome!! No one? Really..?

One store. That doesn’t seem to much to ask, does it?

You might say, but hey, don’t you often sign the praises of Aldi? Yes, you’ve caught me. I do love Aldi, so much so that I pitted German Aldi vs American Aldi in a supermarket smackdown which you can read here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Weekly Aldi grocery run.

Unfortunately, as a discount store that aims to keep prices low, Aldi does not and cannot carry everything. Another German grocer, Rewe, is as expensive as it is amazing. Most Rewe stores are sparkling clean with two or three times as many products as Aldi or Lidl. But, that variety comes at a premium. Prices at Rewe were too high to shop there exclusively.

Despite their advantage over Aldi in terms of options, even Rewe doesn’t carry cilantro for my homemade salsa or black beans for this cheesy Warm Chipotle Dip. Want to know why?

I’ll let you in on a little secret… many Germans do not like dishes that feature a lot of spices (the exception being, of course, currywurst). Plain Jane is the name of the German flavor game. Grocers in Deutschland don’t carry a plethora of ethnic products because the majority of German customers won’t buy them.

So, what if you want to buck the well-established German flavor system and cook delicious dishes like curries and stir fry? Where are you going to find the essential ingredients?Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

The best place for global cuisine staples is an Asian or Middle Eastern specialty shop. Since I just can’t live indefinitely without my red lentils or soba noodles, I added yet another stop to my grocery groove – the Turkish market.

Exhausting and irritating yet unavoidable for the flavor seeker – patronizing multiple stores was my weekly routine. And every time I did the dance, I dreamed of being about to shop at one store per week.

Just ONE.

Coming to America

By now, you’re thinking that the neighborhood Walmart sounds like a fabulous place to shop in comparison – yeah, you and me both. Well, okay, maybe not Walmart. That place sends me into an absolute panic.

As you can imagine, one of the things I looked forward to the most when moving back to the States was one-stop grocery shopping. One store – done.

Bahahahahaha. Boy, was I wrong.

In Arizona, we became Costco members, and I gleefully loaded my colossal shopping cart with industrial-sized laundry detergent, a city block of toilet paper, and enough ketchup to last me until the apocalypse. Those first few weeks of buyers bliss were seriously something awesome.Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

But, I soon realized something.

Costco really is fabulous, but it doesn’t carry all the produce we usually eat. Kroger has low prices, but they don’t have all the natural and organic foods I buy. Sprouts is a decent health food store, but even they don’t carry all the ethnic food ingredients needed for more exotic dishes.

Oh my… here we go again.

I still find myself frequenting at least two stores every week here in America, often three if I add Trader Joe’s in the mix.

The main difference is I zip around in my car instead of my bike, burning gas instead of calories, while stressing out about traffic instead of whether the heavens will open up and drench both me and my bike trailer full of groceries. Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Win, Lose, or Draw?

If neither Germany nor America can give me that one and done experience – will ANYONE win?

On the plus side for America, it really is nice to save money in the land of grocery competition where stores often sell items at a loss just to get you in the door. I am once again using coupons (though nowhere NEAR the level I did once upon a time) and shopping the sales.

But, other than that aspect – significant as it may be, I can’t say that the American market experience is much better in terms of value added. America just stocks more products, offers more choice, and advertises more options… all of which isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for an expat in reverse culture shock recovery.Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

I do like that I can get any ingredient I need at nearly any time of day or night. And, yeah, the free samples at Costco and free cookies at Publix are a godsend when shopping with little boys. It’s also a big bonus to have my groceries bagged for me instead of having my meat and potatoes flung at me by an overzealous Aldi clerk because I’m not sacking them fast enough for her…

I don’t like that every time I go to the grocery store here, I am loaded up with a zillion and one plastic grocery bags. Where is the petition to ban these convenient nuisances from stores? Please, put my name at the tippy top.

Environmental concerns aside, those piles of plastic are a mushrooming monster, multiplying at an alarming rate and silently conquering every available nook and cranny in my house. At least German stores charge for plastic bags which passes the cost to the customer and makes one rethink how many bags are actually necessary.

Even if I can’t shop at one store, maybe I could make it out of each one with only ONE reusable bag instead of ONE thing in each plastic sea-creature-suffocating bag… A Sip of Summer - Refreshing Blueberry Lemonade and Green Tea

Wrapping Up

Contrary to my domestic daydreams, the grocery shopping grind in the US isn’t all I had hoped it would be. Despite living in the land of infinite possibility and choice, grabbing groceries every week at ONE store is simply not possible unless you possess (a) loads of cash that allow you to always pay full price or (b) a personal shopper who goes to all the various stores for you.

My one-and-done goal turns out to be downright unattainable under current circumstances. But, who knows? Maybe ONE day, that dream will come true.

What do you like and loathe about your weekly grocery trip? If you have grocery delivery, I would love to know your experience and if you think it simplifies things for your family.Signature Thrifty Travel MamaLead photo credit

 

Supermarket Smackdown – Aldi America vs. Aldi Germany

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

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

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

German Aldi

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

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

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

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

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

I soon came around though – German Aldi is awesome!

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

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

American Aldi

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

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

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

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

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

Things were not looking good.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice try, but no.

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama Image Credit

 

 

Walmart is Terrifying! – Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceHere’s another post written during the first few weeks of our return to the US in the fall of 2014.

One of the things that scares me the most about returning to America after four years in Germany is the dreadful reverse culture shock. It’s nasty, sometimes hard to identify, and manifests itself differently in each person.

The last time I went through reverse culture shock, it wasn’t so bad. I was in my early twenties and had spent the better part of a year in Russia. I was single, and I only experienced a few weeks of floundering before I had to buck up and finish my last semester of university. I’m sure it was worse than I remember, but I moved on quickly.

This time around I have four other people to think about besides myself and none of them has the slightest idea of what lies ahead.

So far, Charlie hasn’t noticed a thing except that there is an abundance of snacks here ranging from slightly salty to serious sugar high. He hasn’t met one he didn’t like. Obviously, he’ll be fine.

Bravo is distracted by all the big-kid Lego he now owns. We had been saving the transition from Duplo to Lego to hype as a major perk of moving to America. Now that we’ve made the switch, he likely thinks we’re on a continuous Lego shopping trip which is a win in his book. He’ll also be fine.

Alpha is not happy with all the homeschooling we are doing (to catch up on taking a few months off to pack and move). He thinks it strange when I refer to everyday items and places using German names (Spielplatz instead of “playground”). German is NOT cool in his book. But other than that, he appears to be fine.

Perhaps things with these three boys will get worse when we actually settle somewhere and they have to integrate into school, church, sports, clubs, neighborhood friends, etc.

Update, September 2015: No ill effects other than disdain for speaking German in the US. Apparently, Germany never happened in their minds except when random memories pop up. They don’t express any emotions at these memories; only facts are stated.

As for Doc Sci and I… oh sure, we smile and share a box of Cheez-Its, but inside? We are freaking out.

I strive to play the good American. I hop in my car, drive the one mile to Walmart, and do my best to “pick up a few things.”

At the superstore, I go inside for milk, cookies (because, you know, the Oreo aisle), and a piece of poster board.

Several hours later, I emerge.. My bags are laden with three kinds of cookies, two peanut butter candy bars, hummus, pita chips, four boxes of cereal, one piece of poster board, and the latest anti-aging moisturizer because this move is giving me wrinkles… but, no milk.

Crappity crap. Cookies without milk.

I’m too terrified to go back in that freaky big box again, so I just leave and go home minus milk for the cookie smorgasbord.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Walmart is Terrifying! And Other Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Walmart.. once you go in, you may never get out. Photo

I found this article browsing through an old issue of Cooking Light that just happens to be a perfect picture of the American grocery store experience.

Spend two hours in a big supermarket, not shopping, just studying the food and customers, trying to take every bit of it in, trying to receive fresh clues about an everyday activity.

 

Ninety minutes in, you may find yourself having an out-of-body experience, as if wandering the aisles with Timothy Leary’s ghost. Such is the hallucinatory effect when you open your mind to all the brands, claims, data, memes, and pop culture icons that crowd shelves and packages, hooting and hollering for attention.

 

There are as many as 40,000 products in a supermarket, just one of which, if you stop to study it, is a cereal that offers nine health-related bits of information on the front of the box and 134 bits of information about nutrition and ingredients overall.

 

Now that you’re in the cereal aisle, walk its length. There are 28 paces of product, five shelves high: a staggering number of variations on the single theme of something crunchy to pour milk over.

 

Of 137 cereal products, about 93 look to be sugary. But there are also sugar-free cereals, low-added-sugar products, “natural” products, and products containing urgent amounts of fiber… (full text here)

If I could sum up our current state in one word, it would be overload.

For someone who is used to shopping at a grocery store that is approximately the size of two, three-bedroom American homes put together, the sheer size of Walmart is the first hurdle.

The second is the vast amount of choice. My German neighborhood Aldi stocked four kinds of chips. FOUR. How do you pick between the 6,902 varieties here? Either you are required to take the time to read every.single.label to check for hidden chemicals and unwanted ingredients or you are forced to not care.

And speaking of reading labels, I had forgotten how long ingredient lists are in the US. Friday night dinners in our house are usually fun, lazy cooking kid-friendly affairs.

In Germany, I would often pick up frozen chicken strips and oven-bake fries to serve with a quick salad. The chicken strips were composed of chicken (as in actual pieces, not that weird pink puree), flour, spices, salt, and maybe some broth. Less than 8 ingredients and nothing I couldn’t pronounce, even auf Deutsch.

And those fries? Potatoes, sunflower oil, salt. Nothing hydrogenated or hydrolyzed.

Short, straightforward ingredient lists are scarce in a vast majority of American food products. Here’s another snippet from the Cooking Light article I quoted above…

Keep walking and watching—all aisles… Sugar, fat, and salt, the three sirens of the American diet, still seem front-loaded in so many products.

 

A “light” 3-ounce snack pack intended for one child contains 77 ingredients, 17 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium.

 

Mark Bittman, crusading New York Times columnist and cookbook author, would say that a lot of this food is not even “real,” inasmuch as he finds it not “recognizable by appearance or flavor as what it was when it started.”

 

Little cans of propellent-powered cheese spread insist that they are, however, “made of real cheese!” (full text here)

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. I’ve been encouraged to see so many American brands rolling out product lines with a “simple” theme featuring fewer ingredients and no artificial chemicals. It’s just so dang difficult to find them in the sea of 40,000 products all vying for your attention and money.

So, while my kids are loving the free-flowing Goldfish crackers and I’m enjoying a cold glass of dark chocolate almond milk, I have to admit I’m straddling the line… the line that separates the “food is better for you Germany” from “but choice is what makes America awesome.”

I miss my little Aldi with it’s limited choice. Though, if I dig down deep, I have to admit I don’t miss it enough to say it was better or that I wish I could go back to shopping there every week.

Yes, there’s still a teeny part of me – my residual “Americanness” – that enjoys a smattering of choice and the convenience of being able to get almost any product at nearly any time, day or night. But this unmitigated freedom and overabundance of choice leaves me exhausted.

What I really crave is the simplicity that comes out of choosing from only a few products that are truly made well.

I know it’s only a matter of time before I fully jump the fence on to the American side – joining Costco and buying my toilet paper in 100-roll packs. But, for now, we’re stuck in the overwhelmed stage of culture shock… eating our way out one Cheez-It at a time.

Since writing this post, I have (ahem) joined Costco. The plethora of choice still paralyzes me at times, such as when I visit a new restaurant that offers too many options on the menu. I still find myself lost at Walmart and end up leaving with things I don’t need and without the things I do.

So, what do you think about the abundance of choice in the US? Love it? Hate it? Do you get overwhelmed with too many options or frustrated with too few?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!

Supermarket Souvenirs – Scotland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandWondering what to buy from Scottish supermarkets either for yourself or the folks back home? Shortbread is the obvious place to start. But don’t buy these butter-laden treats from the expensive tourist shops in town. Stock up at the supermarket!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandScottish stores have no shortage of shortbread (ha). Walkers is the most famous, but step out and try other brands. We even found gluten-free shortbread at Sainsbury’s.

To be clear, shortbread is not actually bread, but a cookie (er, biscuit, sorry). And to eat it properly, you need tea. Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandPerhaps you’ve heard of English Breakfast Tea. But, did you know there’s such a thing as Scottish Breakfast Tea? The Kitchn explains the difference, but you can read it for yourself right on the package. It’s especially made to be brewed with soft Scottish water. So do make a pot while you’re in country.Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandIf you’re going to go to all the trouble to make tea while on holiday, you may as well pick up some tea cakes from Tunnock’s. These little calorie bombs are a puff of marshmallow placed on a biscuit and coated in chocolate. While you’re at it, pick up a package of Tunnock’s caramel wafer biscuits. Apparently, they’re the national treat!Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandIf you’d like something that more resembles actual cake to go along with that tea, unwrap the famed Kirriemuir Gingerbread. Again not bread, this treat hails from the same town as the author and playwright J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame. Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAnother sugary snack is what’s known as tablet. It looks like fudge, but it’s not soft. Our pal wikipedia clarifies.. “Tablet is a medium-hard, sugary confection from Scotland. Tablet is usually made from sugar, condensed milk, and butter, boiled to a soft-ball stage and allowed to crystallize. It is often flavoured with vanilla, and sometimes has nut pieces in it.” YUM!Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandIf you’re a texture eater and can’t get over the crumbly consistency of tablet, you may as well go ahead and try the fudge instead. You’ll have plenty of brands to choose from, but Mrs Tilly’s is quite famous.. and apparently gluten-free, too!Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAre you in a sugar coma yet? Let’s take a break from the sweets and go with another traditional Scottish food, the oatcake. I saw a zillion and one brands, flavor, and texture varieties at the grocery store. These little rounds are quite the versatile meal ingredient, and they can be served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandI’d be remiss not to mention haggis, but given my absolute abhorrence when it comes to organ-based dishes, I can’t offer any personal recommendations without wretching. (I am not an adventurous eater..)

I found these haggis chips (crisps) flavored with sheep parts for those who only want a taste without the liver-full commitment.Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAre you sick to your stomach? No, just me? Well, a little carbonation should help. Irn-Bru is the Scottish soda to try (unless, of course, you’d rather have a Scotch & soda..). It’s bright orange with a very unique taste. I’m not sure how to describe it, but if you like Mountain Dew and all it’s variations such as Code Red, you’ll probably like Irn-Bru.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAnd last, but not least, this Saltire rock candy is a fun way to bring home the Scottish flag. Bonus: it tastes like Irn-Bru!

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from Scotland?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Edinburgh?  Check out my posts about visiting Scotland with kids!Signature-Marigold

Cheap (Family) Eats: Edinburgh Edition

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap Restaurants for Families in EdinburghOne of the biggest ways we save money as a traveling family is to stay in a vacation rental and prepare our own meals. A cheap dinner out for a family of 5 can easily be 50 euros, or more if you happen to be in an expensive city like Paris. In Italy, we ate out only twice during our two-week vacation because the prices were high as were the stakes in betting on the quality of the food.

But in Edinburgh, we ate out every day.. for lunch AND dinner. We couldn’t believe the affordability of budget restaurants, the generous portions, nor the variety of mouthwatering dishes.

Now, when I think Scottish food, the first thing that comes to mind is haggis (you, too?). I’m not an adventurous eater, and I often walk on the vegetarian side, so clearly the sheep stomach specialty wasn’t going to be an option. But, I was thrilled to find that not only does Edinburgh have plenty of ethnic food options, but they have some seriously spicy burritos!

Below are a few of our family’s favorite cheap eats in Edinburgh plus a list of restaurants we didn’t have time to visit. You can find more suggestions for kid-friendly restaurants and things to do on my Scotland with Kids Pinterest board.

Our Favorite (Family) Budget Restaurants in Edinburgh

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap Restaurants for Families in Edinburgh

Baseball bat burritos at Illegal Jack’s.

Illegal Jack’s. Oh. my. Illegal Jack’s has a reputation for seriously good burritos and even better service. It did not disappoint. It’s not the best Mexican I’ve ever had, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything better for the price in Europe. We ordered two burritos and the beef chili nachos for the five of us to share. The burritos were mysteriously missing lettuce (?). The chicken can’t compare to the tender, marinated strips from Chipotle, but the beans, salsa, and guacamole had a little Mexican party goin’ on inside my mouth. Our favorite, however, was the flaming pile of beef chili nachos smothered in white cheddar cheese. Whoa, Nelly. Add to that free wifi, free refills, and high chairs – I’m already wishing we could’ve gone back for seconds.. and thirds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap Restaurants for Families in Edinburgh

Nachos!

Wannaburger. Burgers, fries, onion rings, Dr. Pepper, pancakes, MILKSHAKES! I only had to browse the menu (and the prices!) for a few seconds before I knew Wannaburger would be one of our favorite meals in Edinburgh. I wouldn’t list hamburgers on a list of favorite foods, but when we eat them, it reminds us of home and of great American institutions like In-N-Out and Five Guys. The portions are small, in line with the prices (kids meals are TINY). The black bean burger was not what I expected, but in a good way. The kids loved the chicken goujons, but the burgers were the best (pass on the hot dogs). After the blandness of German food, Doc Sci and I fully appreciated the heat that the cajun fries delivered. But, really, the absolute best thing on the menu at Wannaburger is the chocolate milk shake with peanut butter. Dear me, I might have to go recreate that in my kitchen post haste!Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap Restaurants for Families in Edinburgh

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap Restaurants for Families in Edinburgh

The best peanut butter shake EVER. If we would’ve known, we wouldn’t have ordered the kids’ size…

The Tailend Restaurant And Fish Bar. While I wouldn’t consider us serious fish & chips fans, we always make a point of indulging in a local chippy whenever we’re in the UK. The Tailend is rumored to be the best fish fry in Edinburgh, and their “to go” prices are a steal. For example, the haddock fish supper comes in at £6 for takeaway; the same fish special sells for nearly double in the restaurant.

Yocoko Noodle Bar. I remember reading somewhere that the service at Yocoko leaned toward the snotty side, so I planned accordingly. In reality, the restaurant was just busy, and the waiters were simply doing their job. Don’t expect warm service, but don’t be put off by their demeanor. This is a student hang-out, after all. One thing that was rather annoying, though, was that one could choose either chopsticks OR a fork, but not both. My husband and I prefer to eat with chopsticks, but the kids haven’t learned yet. It was a bit stressful to arrange for the kids to get forks. But, when our gigantic bowl of udon noodles arrived, I embraced the awkwardness and took the opportunity to slurp my soup. The fried noodles are nothing to write home about; go for the udon instead. The kids went nuts for edamame and fully enjoyed drinking weak-but-free green tea from tiny cups.

Los Cardos. A total Chipotle knock-off (seriously, look at their website), Los Cardos only has one advantage over Illegal Jack’s.. they deliver! I didn’t think it would work since I don’t have a UK phone number, but I somehow was able to set up a dinner delivery for our last evening in Edinburgh. The food arrived on time, hot & fresh. Unfortunately, without salsa, these burritos have no claim to fame. Again, the lettuce was absent (?!), and the rice and beans bordered on bland. But once we heaped the delicious black bean & corn salsa on top, and scooped up the salsa verde with or tortilla chips, we didn’t care. Even Los Cardos on a bad day is better than most German attempts at Mexican food.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap Restaurants for Families in Edinburgh

Burrito from Los Cardos. Just add salsa.

More Cheap Eats

  • The Baked Potato Shop.  Jacket potatoes with your choice of hot or cold filling. Vegetarian and vegan options.
  • Red Box Noodle Bar.  Fast and filling, veggie or carnivore, eat in or takeaway, choose your own Asian noodle box adventure.
  • Viva Mexico. Touted as Edinburgh’s “original and most authentic Mexican restaurant,” I’ve heard rumors of lunch specials for £6, Fajitas for £9, and dinner entrees for £12-15.
  • Black Medicine Coffee Co. Not a restaurant, but a friend who lived there for a year promises this is the best coffee she has ever tasted.
  • Mums Great Comfort Food. If mushy peas or bangers & mash are your thing, I’m told this is the place to indulge.
  • The Holyrood 9A. The burgers are a big pricier here (£9), but they have SWEET potato fries! Red Squirrel is another handmade burger joint with sweet potato fries. Seriously, we need a burger & sweet potato food truck in my city..
  • Union of Genius. Soup Bar – 6 soups daily with a sampler option. Served with artisan bread. Great for warming up on a grey, Scottish day.
  • Mother India. Daily specials and take-away menu items under £6 as well as many (Indian!) tapas dishes under £4. I’m rather disappointed we didn’t have time for this one.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap Restaurants for Families in EdinburghPrices are current at the time of writing. As always, double check restaurant information and current prices before visiting.

Would you have gone for the haggis instead of the habanero? What kind of budget restaurants do you look for when visiting a new city?Signature-Marigold

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

Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris EditionParis might be a gorgeous gal, but she’s an absolute shrew when it comes to penny-pinching travelers.

We lucked out on accommodation; a friend of a friend lent us her place for the week. But food was a different story. While we could save money by cooking dinner at the apartment, logistics made lunch out a necessity.

As I briefly mentioned in my post on the French version of Chipotle, 9 euros for one burrito was actually reasonable in Paris! If you want a burger (which hopefully is only the starving expat crowd), be prepared to pay even more. We stumbled upon FrogBurger in the Latin Quarter and couldn’t believe it… 11 euros for a skinny burger?! At least they have some comical brews.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

FrogBurger prices!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

FrogBurger beers.

I combed Pinterest, scoured the Rick Steves city guide, and searched high and low in the blog world for the best budget eats in Paris. Below are a few of our favorites plus a list of restaurants we didn’t have time to visit and a few splurges.

Our Favorite (Family) Budget Restaurants in Paris

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

Chez H’anna Falafel with a gigantic grilled eggplant on top.

Chez H’anna. Delicious, fresh falafel for under 6 euros. I could’ve eaten one of these every day! If you want to have a falafel tasting, do not waste your time at Chez Marianne around the corner. See L’As Du Fallafel below which is just down the street from H’anna.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

You never know what you’re going to find at Churrasqueira Galo!

Churrasqueira Galo. A short walk from the Sacré Cœur in Montmarte, this unassuming Portuguese chicken joint serves up gigantic platters for 9 euros. All five of us stuffed ourselves full of rotisserie chicken, salad, rice, and fries. We ordered two platters and barely finished the food. Even David Lebovitz recommends this place.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

My dark chocolate crepe at Chez Nicos.

Chez Nicos. One of the cheapest crêperies we found, and one of the best. The dark chocolate crêpe was stuffed with nearly a whole bar of chocolate! Doc Sci and T-Rex devoured the specialty – Nutella with an entire sliced banana.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

Eiffel Tower pizza picnic from Pizza la Gourmandise.

Pizza la Gourmandise. Not anything near true Italian pizza, but the pies were a steal compared to most pizzerias in town. We ordered ours to go and ate in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

More Cheap Eats

  • L’As Du Fallafel. We ate at Chez H’anna instead, but this one is Lenny Kravitz’s favorite. Beware the queue! Mi Va Mi is across the street to add yet another option to the falafel question.
  • Gusto Italia. Pizza place (takeaway or dine-in) near the Eiffel Tower, slightly more expensive than Pizza le Gourmande. Two locations across the street from each other at 199 and 218 Rue de Grenelle.
  • La Charlotte de l’Isle. A cute and quirky tea room serving loose leaf and hot chocolate. We arrived just as the last customers were seated and the cozy dining room was completely full. Boo.
  • Breizh Cafe. Apparently, they serve the best salted caramel crepes and affordable savory galettes, but we visited on Monday when they were closed!
  • Berko. Another closed-on-Monday strike out, I must’ve been on a salted caramel kick when making trip notes because this cafe has the coveted flavor in meal-replacing cheesecake form.
  • La Crêperie Bretonne. Each crepe costs approximately €7 (as of September 2013), and the Ratatouille galette comes highly recommended.
  • Krishna Bhavan. Indian specialties, suitable for vegetarians and cheapskates.
  • Le Royal. Located on the infamous Rue de Grenelle. Carte highlights: 5 euro omelets, 9 euro plats, 14 euro menus.
  • Apparemment Café. After heavy French food and fried falafel, a create-your-own salad shop would be nice for a change.
  • Smooth In The City. Another stop for those in search of healthier fare. Fresh fruit smoothies and menus available.

Places to Splurge for a Special Treat

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

  • Angelina. At nearly 8 euros for a hot chocolate, this cafe is not cheap (nor easy to get into if you visit the location near the Louvre). Sneak into the Angelina tucked into a corner at Galeries Lafayette instead. Sure, the service is snobby, but savoring the liquid chocolate and fluffy cream is (nearly) priceless.
  • Berthillon Ice Cream. Lines were out the door here, even in winter!
  • Pierre Hermé or Ladurée Macarons. These cookies are obnoxiously expensive, but you shouldn’t leave Paris without trying at least one. Bet you can’t guess what flavor I’d recommend… (salted caramel!)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris EditionBon appétit! Did I highlight or pass over any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below!Signature-Marigold

Marvel: German Taco Truck

Thrifty Travel Mama | Marvel: German Taco Truck!Maybe this post isn’t of serious interest to those who live in, say, San Jose where the beans and rice flow freely.  But for the salsa-starved crowd in Europe, today’s news is downright thrilling.

We finally have an authentic, affordable source of Mexican food in our little German city!

I couldn’t be more excited.  Well, actually, I think Doc Sci has me beat.  The man has decided we need to add a line item in our budget for burritos.  No joke.

So, what’s the big deal?Thrifty Travel Mama | Marvel: German Taco Truck!

Well, an American expat (Geoff) and his wife have set up The Holy Taco Shack in a truck where they serve authentic tacos, burritos, and quesadillas… emphasis on authentic.  If I wasn’t so cold, I would’ve done a little happy dance when I saw ingredients like tomatillos, cilantro, carnitas, cheddar cheese, and homemade corn tortillas on the menu.

Patrons can pick from three meals: tacos, quesadillas, or a burrito.  The fillings include shredded chipotle chicken, carnitas (pork), and a vegetarian option.  Dishes are topped with one of three salsas – mild salsa verde, Chili de Arbol salsa, and pico de gallo – and finished with a healthy dose of cheddar cheese, onions, and shredded lettuce.

Hungry yet?Thrifty Travel Mama | Marvel: German Taco Truck!

We ordered two taco plates, one with pork and one with chicken.  I don’t normally eat pork, but I thought the carnitas had great flavor.  And the handmade corn tortillas?  Wholy guacamole!  I can’t remember the last time I tasted masa harina.Thrifty Travel Mama | Marvel: German Taco Truck!

However, I must say that the burrito was our favorite.  The gigantic portion almost puts Chipotle to shame.  The flour tortilla was loaded with seasoned rice and creamy refried beans followed by an avalanche of chipotle chicken, pico, and cheese.  I’ve never had Mexican food in our German city so delish outside of my own kitchen.

I was recently thinking how the presence of a decent Mexican joint might change my decision about whether or not to stay in Germany.  I’m completely excited that the aforementioned Chipotle has decided to expand into Europe (more on that in a future post).  But, I have to say, I never dreamed I’d be making regular trips to a taco truck for a fix.  If my husband has his way, that will be our new reality.

Of course, we’ll need to make a few more visits… you know, for quality control purposes of course.  And next time, we’re springing for the quesadillas!  Who’s with me?

For locations and hours, check out The Holy Taco Shack website, or like them on Facebook.  At the time of writing, burritos cost 5 euros, quesadillas are 4 euros, and tacos are also 4 euros for 3.  I was not asked or paid to write this post – I just really, REALLY like the food.  And you will too.  So go!Signature-Marigold