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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid bringing a stroller if at all possible.

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

Discuss cultural and religious differences in advance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOUR Family’s Adventure

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

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

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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

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Turkish Family 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?

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Thrifty Tricks for Using Your Smart Phone While Travelling

Even though I have a Pinterest board dedicated to Travel Apps for Kids & Families, I have a confession to make.. I don’t use travel apps very often. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have an iPhone (yet), or perhaps it’s because I feel overwhelmed by zillions of options and little time to explore them, but I’ll admit I’m completely behind the times in this area.

So, I am thrilled to not only share today’s guest post with you but also to read and learn for myself about the thrifty ways you can use your smart phone while traveling.

The tips and tricks below are written by my friend and fellow travel planning nerd, Nancy. She’s currently a part-time expat and the inspiration behind many of our family’s hikes and outdoor adventures.

“Now, where do we go?”

Invariably, our arrival at any new destination starts with this question. My husband and son look at me as they ask, confident that I—omnipotent mommy and family travel planner—will have the answer for them.

In response, I whip out my not-so-secret weapon against the unknown: my iPhone.

Smart phones are the perfect travel tools. With a smart phone in your backpack, you have a compass, a GPS, a star gazing tool, an elaborate gaming system, a camera and a library of hundreds of books on a device that weighs less than a pound. (We’ve come a long way from the days when I would tear out irrelevant pages in my travel guide to reduce the weight of my pack.)

Perfect, right? Well, almost.

Smart phones come with one major limitation while travelling. Once you are outside the area covered by your local cellular provider, downloading and sending data, making phone calls, and sending text messages can get (really) expensive. We’ve all heard the stories of unfortunate souls who have forgotten this and ended up with an outrageous cell phone bill.

Top 3 thrifty tips for using your smart phone while travelling abroad:

1)   Ask your cellular service provider if they have special international rates. Sometimes you can buy an international package that will reduce the costs for phoning and texting and will allow you a limited amount of data use abroad.

2)   Buy prepaid local SIM cards when you land at your destination. These are usually found in supermarkets, drug stores, or kiosks all over the world. Use Google or a local expat forum to find out where to buy SIM cards, average rates, and recommended brands.

3)   Simply turn off the cellular roaming data option on your phone and avoid making or receiving phone calls or text messages. (In other words, don’t answer any phone calls or texts.) Also, double check with your cellular service provider that you won’t be charged for incoming calls or texts, even if you don’t answer them.

Surprisingly, turning off the cellular data and ignoring the phone functions of my iPhone has been a good solution for me, especially when I have decent access to Wi-Fi to ease the pain of disconnection.

And, the lack of a cellular data plan doesn’t mean that you have to leave your phone at  home while you are out and about. There are some easy ways to use your smart phone even when you don’t have a local plan or data abilities.

Four great tricks for using your smart phone without a data connection:

1)   Use offline maps and navigation systems like Mapswithme and TomTom.

The GPS on your smart phone likely works even when you don’t have cellular data coverage. (You can Google the make and model number of your smart phone to check if your device has this ability).

To use the GPS system without cell access, you also need to have an offline map. There are offline maps available for most destinations, but our favourite offline map app is Mapswithme, an open source map system that covers most of the world.

Once you have downloaded the Mapswithme app, you then individually download the country maps that you will need on your trip. This feature allows you to choose only the maps you need in order to save space on your device.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

The blue arrow shows your location on the map.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can zoom into a high resolution view.

We have used this app to mark destinations like parking lots and trail heads; and we use it constantly when we are walking around a new place to find anything of interest. Mapswithme has saved us several times from taking the wrong turn while on a ramble through a new city.

Mapswithme also has lots of hiking and biking trails on it, which has been very helpful to us in New Zealand, North America, and Europe. My husband and I used the app on an overnight hike in New Zealand as a distance guide.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can drop a pin on the map and then click on it to see how far away you are. The distance from your pin is shown underneath your arrow. Unfortunately, we are very far away from New Zealand right now.

You can place a pin on any destination and when you click on the pin, the info screen will tell you how far away you are from the pin in a direct line. You can also upload a trail map or travel route to Mapswithme and monitor your progress on a trip.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can upload trails and routes to Mapswithme.

This app does have one major limitation: It doesn’t provide spoken directions when driving.

When we do need navigation help for driving, we use an offline navigator from TomTom. This is an expensive app, but it has proven useful several times and was well worth the value. Mapswithme is a good companion to the TomTom app. If I’m unsure of where TomTom is leading us, I double check with Mapswithme.

2)   Download offline travel guides with Scribd.

I use Scribd, a subscription-based app that lets me download an unlimited number of books for a very reasonable price (under $10 per month). The Scribd library includes all of the Lonely Planet guides, and other travel guides as well.

On a recent trip to Provence, I downloaded the Lonely Planet guide for this area onto my phone before we left. When we visited a new city, I would look up the city in the guide, choose the most important sights, and take advantage of the highly detailed maps in the book to figure out where we needed to start and what we wanted to see.

In addition, I use Scribd extensively just for reading. Imagine taking your local public library with you on a trip. Bonus!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

A list of all of the travel books that I have downloaded to my device in Scribd.

3)   Store travel plans and electronic tickets in Google Drive.

I usually make extensive travel itineraries for my family. It helps me know who has to be where and when. But I don’t like carrying paper. Google Drive is a service that lets you store and access documents from any computer or device. I create a folder for our trip in Google Drive, and I upload a detailed itinerary and all of the reservation and ticket documents to this folder.

To ensure that I have access to our travel documents even when I don’t have a data connection, I open the Google Drive app on my phone, open the documents I might want to access, and check off the option which will prompt the system to keep on offline version on my device. I’m sure that this would also work with other online storage systems like Dropbox .

The advantage of storing your documents in Google Drive or Dropbox is that you can access them in a pinch from any device or computer.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

My travel folder in Google Drive.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

Offline versions of boarding passes. Note that I have checked the “Keep an online version” option.

4)   Find free Wi-Fi.

I’ve become good at finding free Wi-Fi when I need to really connect. Free Wi-Fi is less common in Europe and New Zealand than in North America, but it does exist. For instance, Starbucks in Germany offers a free connection for two hours. This does help take the edge off life without a good Internet connection.

I have used the Wi-Fi Finder app, but have found it to be out-of-date. I’ve had better luck just keeping my eyes open. A couple of weeks ago in Switzerland, we visited Chillon, a medieval castle and popular tourist destination that offered free Wi-Fi with the price of admission.

Although I do prefer to be connected to the Internet at all times (like every minute of the day!), I have found travelling without a data connection to be possible and even preferable as I’m not constantly worried about how much money I’m spending every time I check the map.

And I’m still always able to tell my family where we are and where we should head to next!

So, how do you use your smart phone while travelling? Any other tricks to share?

Nancy (aka Twigg3d) is a Canadian traveller, writer, teacher and iPhone addict. In recent years, she has been travelling with her husband and son back and forth between Canada, Germany and New Zealand. Anyone who knows her will find it hard to believe that she can survive without the Internet even for a minute.

 

 

 

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

Where to Find the Best FREE View in Edinburgh

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in EdinburghIn most cases, I prefer to write and post about our travels right after we’ve finished them. The details are fresh in my mind; the information is current, relevant. But I also think there’s value in revisiting a trip months (even years) later.

In looking back, it’s much easier to see the places, the people, the moments (the burrito) that made the most impact.

For our family, it’s usually all about the view… and the burritos. But that’s a post for another day.

In my I’m-sorry-I-love-you-but-I-need-to-take-a-break post, I teased you with a shot from our trip. Now, I finally have time to tell all, and I’m starting with that breathtaking view.

Arthur’s Seat

Edinburgh – okay, the whole of Scotland – is notorious for its crappy weather. So, you can imagine my surprise at our good fortune when we stepped off the plane in early November and the sun was shining. Oh, the horror!

We stashed our stuff at the vacation rental and dashed off in the direction of Holyrood Park. We waved hello to the Queen’s Scottish residence, Holyrood Palace, and continued on toward the massive rock behind it.

As we got closer, however, we saw that there were actually several peaks in Holyrood Park. We wanted to climb Arthur’s Seat, not Arthur’s footstool. We asked around but couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone. Since we didn’t have much daylight left, we gambled on the highest of the bunch and went for it.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

All roads might lead to Rome, but only half of the footpaths in Holyrood Park lead to Arthur’s Seat. The most direct is from the east near Dunsapie Loch (more on that below). The kids scampered up the wide path until slippery rock slopes slowed them down. Little ones will (literally) need a hand to reach the top safely.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The summit at Arthur’s Seat.

Once we rounded the last craggy bend, we were rewarded with an astonishing panorama. From Arthur’s Seat (on a clear day, duh), one can see Portobello Beach, Meadowbank Stadium, Calton Hill, Waverly Station, Cramond Island, and even the amazing Firth of Forth Bridge.

Oh, right, and of course you could also see the city’s crown jewel, Edinburgh Castle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle is a must-see, and the views from the castle are (usually) wonderful. But, just as the best view in Paris is not from the Eiffel Tower itself, so the best view in Edinburgh is not from the castle. Well, at least not when it looks like this…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

Completely fogged up view from Edinburgh Castle.

The wind at the top of Arthur’s Seat is somethin’ fierce, and the weather up there can change rapidly. Luckily, we had brought decent outdoor clothing, but we still shuddered in the waning afternoon sun that set the whole of Edinburgh ablaze in brilliant orange.Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life: The English Speaking Bubble, Edinburgh

When our eyes could take it no more, we picked our way carefully back down the same way we’d come just an hour earlier. We could’ve gone a different route back, but I wanted to see Dunsapie Loch.

A friend of mine that lived in Edinburgh for a year told me that this was her kids’ favorite spot. They’d often go to the loch to feed the swans. When we walked up, there were the swans, just as she said, floating under the pink clouds of sunset and guarded by a hilltop ruin that hovered over their watery home.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The swans of Dunsapie Loch, flocking to their next crusty handout.

Edinburgh, you were beginning to get to me. I actually started to imagine that was our family’s favorite spot. But then I pinched myself and sobered up – not all days in Edinburgh are as gorgeous as this one.

Honorable Mention – Calton Hill

While Arthur’s Seat was an easy walk from our vacation rental in Abbeyhill, it might be more of a bus ride for those staying closer to the city center. (Not that riding buses in Edinburgh is a problem – in fact, the city’s transportation system is excellent.) But if you’d like to take a stroll somewhere closer to the castle, say, then a mighty fine view can also be had from Calton Hill.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The view OF Arthur’s Seat from Calton Hill.

Wind is a theme that can’t be shaken whenever one goes to great heights in Edinburgh. If you can keep the hair out of your mouth long enough to open your eyes, you’ll be treated to a closer view of Edinburgh Castle, the Firth of Forth, and Cramond Island.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The climb up to Calton Hill is easier and less treacherous than the ascent to Arthur’s Seat. I think my boys enjoyed Calton Hill more because there’s plenty of space to run around without fear of toppling over a rocky cliff. Plus, there’s an old canon in the park which always makes for a good time in their book.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The unfinished National Monument of Scotland in the park atop Calton Hill.

Whether you choose Calton, Arthur, or both is up to you – they’re both completely free and worth the physical effort required. Just consider yourself warned: the views from these summits are intoxicating. Brace yourself; you’re about to fall in love with Scotland, grey skies and all.

Do you love a good view? Would you rather pay for a panoramic view in physical exertion or paper money?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler series at Chasing the Donkey. Please head here to get the best of this week’s travel-related blog posts!

 

Delightful (Cheap) Diversions for Kids in Paris

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in ParisParis is an adult city in many ways. I know plenty of children live and play there, but even the youngest French citizens just seem so civilized and classy. Maybe it’s all the berets and trench coats, expensive cafes and brasseries, world-class art museums and fancy chocolatiers. But when I think of Paris, kid-friendly is about the last thing that comes to mind.

However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t travel with tots to the City of Light. You can – and should – take your children to Paris.. for the art as well as the chocolate. Just watch your wallets, and check out these inexpensive, fun things for kids to do in Paris.

The Madeline Tour

Do your kids know and love Madeline? If not, get them hooked ASAP. You might think the smallest of the “twelve little girls in two straight lines” is of no concern to boys. But mine really enjoy the story (maybe it’s the scar on her stomach?).

We pulled out the book a few weeks before our trip and read it occasionally. I made sure to pack it in my backpack so we could whip it out in front of the famous landmarks and compare the illustrations to actual places.

This turned out to be an excellent way to keep the boys interested and give them a reason why their four and six year-old selves should be interested in things like opera houses.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Examining the Garnier Opera House in the book and real life.

Tips

This website gives great information about where to find the locations illustrated in the book. However, it’s not comprehensive so you’ll need to do a bit of detective work yourself to figure out the other locations (hint: the Sacré Cœur isn’t listed on that site). See this thread in the TripAdvisor forums for comments on the location of Madeline’s house.

Cost: The DIY tour is free, but you’ll need to pay for transport to get yourself to the various sites.

Carousels

Carousels are practically a Paris institution. They can be found all over the city, and children of all ages will love whizzing around on fairy-tale horses and grungy motorcycles.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

The carousel at Montmarte.

Tips

The merry-go-rounds are scattered all over the city. Click here for a list of the six most beautiful and here for a more detailed list.

Cost: During the month of December, many of the carousels around Paris are FREE! However, we found that not all carousels were gratis; only the ones with signs stating so. Otherwise, the best value we found was 10 euros for 6 tickets (nontransferable to other carousel locations, sorry).

Auto Showrooms

The Champs Elysées may be one of the most expensive and fashionable shopping streets in Paris, but you might be surprised to learn the boulevard offers something for the young and young at heart… auto showrooms.

Car manufacturers such as Peugeot, Citroën, BMW, Toyota, and Fiat compete to have the most elaborate display of their innovative models. The best part for little boys? Some showrooms allow customers to actually sit in the cars. My boys went nuts when they got to sit in a “real racecar” at Peugeot.Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Kids going for a test drive. This car is a bit above their pay grade, no?

Tips

Click here for a manly take on some of the showrooms, and here for another post with loads of photos.

Cost: Free.

Playgrounds

This is kind of a no-brainer for us. We always visit local playgrounds wherever we go. Paris has some lovely parks and play equipment, but the locations are not as plentiful in the city center as you might think. The Notre Dame Cathedral is a notable exception (for the location, not for the amazing playground) as is Luxembourg Gardens which deserves its own section below.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

A small playground can be found here, behind the Notre Dame and just to the right.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

A few other playthings are located along the south side.

Tips

A few Paris playground locations to add to your Google map:

  • Champ de Mars. Big toys are located at the non-river end of the park (with your back to the tower, it’s to the right). Pony rides, puppet shows, and go-carts are in the center of the park.
  • Parc des Buttes Chaumont. More wild and natural than your average play place.
  • Place des Vosges
  • Parc de La Villette
  • Monceau Park

Also, Lulaville has a gigantic list of Paris playgrounds that you can find here.

Cost: The playgrounds listed above are free. However, attractions such as pony rides and puppet shows cost extra.

Luxembourg Gardens

Another Madeline location, this is THE top park recommended for kids in Paris. Adults will love the peaceful atmosphere and the gorgeous fountains, statues, and monuments. Parents will appreciate the fenced-in playground for big and small kids (note the cost, below) and the bathrooms complete with changing tables and kiddie potties.

Kids will be thrilled to watch the marionette puppet show which comes highly recommended even if you don’t speak French as well as riding the park’s classic carousel and floating boats in the pond.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

An hour too late to visit the Luxembourg Gardens. Doh!

Tips

Lucky Little Travelers gives a great write-up of the park here. If you visit in winter, keep in mind the park closes quite early in the afternoon.

Cost: The Luxembourg Gardens are free, but an admission charge applies to the kids playground, carousel, and the puppet show.

The Centre Pompidou

If you’ve flipped through photos of Paris, you’ve most likely seen the Pompidou Center, a funky building that was designed to literally be built inside out. It houses modern art that adults can (hopefully) appreciate as well as interactive exhibits just for kids.

Tips

Petit Paris offers an excellent guide to visiting the Pompidou Center with kids including a breakdown of what’s interesting for each age group.

Cost: Check the center’s website for current admission prices. If you’re on a strict budget, you can pay the nominal fee to ride the escalators to the roof for a lovely view of Paris. Or, just enjoy the vibrant atmosphere in front of the museum.

Boat Tour

Given the success of our boat tour in Brugge, I knew my boys would have loved to see Paris from the Seine. However, we plum ran out of time. I’ve already got it down on our wish list for the next visit.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Boat Tours leave from here on the Île de la Cité.

Tips

Several companies run Seine boat tours. Vedettes du Pont-Neuf seemed to be the most reasonable, offering both day and night cruises.

Cost: Prices are rather steep for walk-ups. Visit their website in advance to book decently discounted tickets for adults and children.

Love Locks

I know that love locks are a “thing” in various locations all over the world. Sheesh, there’s even a bridge practically in my own back yard that’s piled high with padlocks. But seeing as Paris is the quintessential city of love, you really should make a stop and look at the gobs of metal declaring eternal L-O-V-E.

My boys are intrigued by the concept, but they don’t quite get it. T-Rex wanted to dive to the bottom of the river to find all the keys and open all the locks. I couldn’t explain to him the sheer futility involved in that (but maybe this episode of The Amazing Race would help).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Pont des Arts in the quiet of the morning.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Tips

Visit the Pont des Arts in the early morning to have the place to yourselves. If you want to attach your own steely statement, purchase one in advance. I’ve heard vendors hawking locks can be found at the bridge, but I didn’t see any.

Cost: Free – plus the price of a lock if you so desire.

Ice Skating

At the beginning of the Christmas season, the city of Paris sets up several ice rinks for residents and visitors to enjoy. The most well-known location is in front of the Place de l’Hôtel de ville.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

T-Rex learning to ice skate.. all he wanted to do was learn tricks like the hot shot hockey players swishing around. Actually ice skating wasn’t on his agenda.

Tips

Popular ice rinks are located at Place de l’Hôtel de ville and Montparnasse.  I also noticed a small one at the Place du Trocadéro Christmas market. Since ice skating in Paris is as fun as it sounds, it’s understandably popular. The wait time for those needing rentals (especially at the Place de l’Hôtel de ville) is utterly horrendous.

Cost: Admission to the rink is free. Skate rentals cost extra (5 euros at the time of writing).

Christmas Markets

Christmas markets are all the rage in Europe, and the whole family will love walking along the stalls, admiring the wares and sampling the food. Note that some markets are still up after Christmas, but some close before the 25th of December.

We only walked through one market at the Place du Trocadéro, but I liked this location better than many other markets I’ve seen in France and Germany. Each booth had its own country as a theme and sold various treats and trinkets from that land. Delightful!

Tips

Check the Paris Info website for locations, hours, and dates of operation.

Cost: Admission – free.

Printemps and Galeries Lafayette Window Displays

If you happen to be fortunate enough to visit Paris during the Christmas holidays, make a point to walk the window displays at Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. When we neared the mega-stores, I wondered what all the fuss was about. As we pressed closer, I understood… they’re animated! Music! Lights! Wonder!Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Tips

The displays are obnoxiously crowded, and you’ll have a hard time navigating with a stroller. Let the kids sit on your shoulders for a better view. And, speaking of views, don’t forget that Printemps and Galeries Lafayette have some of the most amazing free views of Paris!

Cost: Free.Thrifty Travel Mama | Fun, Cheap Stuff to Do with Kids in Paris

Even MORE Delightful Diversions for Kids in Paris

Have your own list of budget-friendly attractions for children? 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

Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with KidsAfter a rather frustrating week where it seemed our plans were thwarted by gobs of tourists at nearly every turn, we finally found our stride outside Paris at the Château de Vincennes.

Why didn’t we trek out to Versailles instead?

Well, other than the aforementioned hordes of holiday travelers, Versailles in winter is mediocre at best. The musical fountains are turned off, many statues are covered, and bike rentals are impossible.

Perhaps if the palace grounds had been crowned with a fresh layer of fluffy snowflakes, I might’ve felt differently.Thrifty Travel Mama | Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with Kids

The lesser known Château de Vincennes guards the town of the same name to the east of Paris. From the castle’s website..

Dating back to the 12th century, a little before the Louvre, Vincennes is one of the few castles which, from the Middle Ages to our time, has consistently found itself at the centre of French History.

Now that the City of Light is a sprawling metropolis, Vincennes is a mere suburb easily reached by metro, RER, or bus. Bonus: our apartment was within walking distance.

When taking the kiddos to the castle, check out the Donjon, the enceinte, and the Sainte-Chapelle before letting them roam around.  But, keep off the grass – this is France, of course.Thrifty Travel Mama | Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with Kids

The Donjon & the Enceinte

The Donjon (an eclectic mix of Don Juan and dungeon?) happens to be the highest medieval fortified structure in Europe.. which says a lot when one considers the sheer amount of castles on this continent.

Home of the royal family, the fortress was kept safe by incredibly thick walls (the enceinte) and a deep moat. More on the history and architecture of the donjon can be found here.

The enceinte, or fortified wall, impressed my boys immediately. More than a kilometer in length, the wall is armed with nine towers and a moat nearly as large as an Olympic swimming pool.

Practical Tip: The only restrooms at Château de Vincennes are located inside the Donjon, and visitors are required to purchase a ticket. Thrifty Travel Mama | Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with Kids

The Sainte-Chapelle

Started in the 14th century, the Sainte-Chapelle of Vincennes (see first photo in this post) is an elaborate Gothic chapel, albeit smaller than the more famous Paris version.

At one time, it housed the crown of thorns relics. The interior was destroyed during the French Revolution but has since been restored. For further reading on the history of the holy chapel, click here.

The Gift Shop

Okay, okay, you want find the Château de Vincennes gift shop on any list of French national treasures. But, I actually enjoyed browsing the wares here. Compared to the rest of Paris, prices weren’t astronomical and the selection of goods was exceptional.

Doc Sci ended up with a small yet sturdy knight’s helmet, and the boys both picked out medieval action figures.

Parc Floral de Paris

With purchases pocketed, we went once more around the perimeter of the castle before heading back to the apartment. Along the way, we discovered the gigantic sign for Parc Floral de Paris which lies just beyond the château.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to explore the park (which I hear has an excellent playground for kids), but we did have a little fun with our cameras.Thrifty Travel Mama | Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Peaceful Paris: A Morning at Château de Vincennes with KidsThe Verdict

After nearly suffocating from the sheer mass of people all week, our morning at the Château de Vincennes was a breath of clean forest air. We all needed a bit of quiet and a lot of space to stretch out, and a walk to the castle was an ideal ending to our last day in Paris.

I’m sorry to say that before our time at Château de Vincennes, I had never even heard of the place. I’d love to know – have you heard of or visited this castle before?

For more Paris with Kids posts, click here.Signature-Marigold

Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with KidsParis is nearly always picture perfect. Photos of Paris are incredibly popular on Pinterest, because let’s face it: the city is just gorgeous and completely unique. No matter how you feel about the City of Light, there’s no place in the world quite like Paris.

In honor of Valentine’s Day tomorrow and some friends of mine that are visiting the city this weekend, I want to share my top picks as well as some honorable mentions for where to find the best views in Paris.

Sacré-Cœur

If you’re an Amélie fan, you’ll be quite familiar with the amazing panorama that can be had from the famous Sacré-Cœur and the park in front of the basilica.

It’s free to walk up to the Sacré-Cœur and even inside of it (remember to wear appropriate clothing). However, to go even higher, ambitious ones can climb 234 steps to the top of the dome.

Details:

Metro: Anvers. Walk up the stairs or use the funicular (costs one metro ticket). Dome is open 9am-530pm and visitors must pay 5 euros each. To avoid crowds, come on a weekday or by 930am on a weekend.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

Climbing up to the Sacré-Cœur.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

View from the Sacré-Cœur.

Galeries Lafayette

Am I really recommending a department store for one of the best views in Paris? Actually.. I’m recommending two department stores! And since these gigantic shops don’t charge admission, you can visit both for free.

Galeries Lafayette has the best view of the Garnier Opera House, and a good view of the Eiffel Tower.

Details:

Metro: Auber or Chaussee d’Antin. Open 930-8pm M-Wed, Fri-Sat (until 9pm Thurs). Take the escalator as far as you can go, and then the stairs to the roof (7th floor).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

View from Galeries Lafayette.

Printemps

Just down the street from Galeries Lafayette, Printemps offers a higher vantage point (9th floor) and a bar/cafe with indoor and outdoor seating. Plus, it’s possible to see the Sacré-Cœur from Printemps which is another advantage over Galeries Lafayette.

The sky started sprinkling as we arrived, so we only stayed long enough to snap a few photos and admire the view. But, boy was it magnificent! The Eiffel Tower was all lit up, and the color of the sky? Unbelievable.

Details:

Metro: Havre Caumartin. Open From Monday to Saturday from 9:35 a.m. to 8 p.m. Late night Thursdays until 10 p.m. Take the escalators or the lift to the 9th floor.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

View from Printemps.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

View of the Sacré-Cœur from Printemps.

Tour Montparnasse

Higher than the competition (56th floors up!), the view from Montparnasse faces the Eiffel Tower and affords visitors 360° views.

Just a heads up for budget travelers: Montparnasse is one of the more expensive options, but at least the price tag includes the luxury of a lift and a climate controlled room.

Details:

Metro: Montparnasse-Bienvenue. Open every day of the year. For current opening times and prices click here.

Trocadéro Gardens

Okay, this one is cheating a bit because the view isn’t the best for the whole of Paris. But, for a fabulous family shot in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Place du Trocadéro can’t be beat.

It’s free, but beware the competition for photographic space.

Details:

Metro: Trocadéro. Open access at all times.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro Gardens.

Honorable Mentions*

*All sites listed charge admission to enter the viewing area.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

View of the Arc de Triomphe at night.

While you won’t find this last one in any guidebook, it just might be the best… There’s no place like your own space, and there’s no better time to see the pink light of Paris than sunrise. Breathtaking, no?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Go for the Best Views in Paris with Kids

Paris at sunrise from our apartment.

Now it’s your turn – what is your favorite view of Paris? Would you add anything to my list?Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: The Swiss Castles of Bellinzona with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)On Tuesday, I told you all about our time in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, on our way back to Germany from a totally rad two weeks in Italy last summer.  Apparently, order isn’t very important to me this week because I’m sharing today about our very first stop on that road trip before we even made it to the Italian border – Bellinzona, Switzerland.

Never heard of it?

Honestly, I hadn’t either. But that’s what you get when you start randomly grabbing names off a map.

How do I come up with these places?  Well, my pit stop selection process usually goes a little something like this…

  • Chart the route in Google maps.
  • Decide how many segments we’ll need to complete the trip.  My kids can usually handle 3 hours if awake and offered food, 4 if asleep and forced to wear eye masks.
  • Search for a city or attraction in the targeted area that we’re interested in seeing anyway, or…
  • Find a park, hiking trail, vista, or other outdoor wonder to explore.

Sometimes the second option is the best because it ensures that the wiggly males from the back seat can just run around and be loud, obnoxious boys for a while instead of having to sit quietly in the back seat like little girls.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

When I found Bellizona, I hit the jackpot.  This small city is big time famous for its three castles (Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro) that have together been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.

Check out this blurb from Bellizona’s tourism website (emphasis theirs):

These fortresses number among the finest examples of medieval fortification architecture in the alpine region. As they appear today, Bellinzona’s fortifications, whose origins actually go much further back to a prehistoric settlement on Castelgrande hill, are mainly the result of intensive and complex building activity undertaken by the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century… These battlements, towers and gateway, included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000, are still a source of wonder today.

For more history, lore, and practical visitor information click here and here.

Since we could only spend a few hours in Bellinzona, I decided we should concentrate our time at only one of the castles.  Our options:

  • Castelgrande: the largest and the oldest.  Located in the city center, access is via a steep set of stairs, a long and winding path, or an elevator.
  • Montebello: smaller, and stands guard 90m above Bellinzona.  Access is via a footpath from Piazza Collegiata in the center or by car/bus on the Via Artore.
  • Sasso Corbaro: austere yet solid new kid on the block.  Only possible to visit by car.
Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Castelgrande

While the Catelgrande might be the first choice of many (check out Urban Bliss Life’s visit with kids), we opted for Montebello instead for two reasons (1) ease of access by car, and (2) it’s possible to see the other castles from Montebello.

The GPS took us right to the parking lot of the castle (free).  While we cleaned up the poo explosion from the birthday boy‘s car seat, the older boys discovered a decent playground adjacent to the parking lot (score!) with a typically Swiss fresh water fountain.  Once all the muck had been removed, I strapped Big Foot to my back, and we all went to have a look see.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Doc Sci was about to go all gaga on me about the drawbridges when I reminded him that the purpose of this visit was for him to nap.  We’d been up since 3:30am, and he still had another five hours of driving to do.  Safety first, boys & girls!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

I was instantly enchanted by this castle.  It had everything you could ask for in an old fortress – walls to walk, bridges to cross, heavy doors to heave, and absolutely marvelous views.

Plus, it was deserted.  I love having the place to ourselves.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)The boys and I scrambled up and down stairs, scurried in and out of every available doorway, and burst out into the meadow in front of the castle.  I was surprised at how close the Castelgrande seemed from Montebello and that I could see the Sasso Corbaro peeking out from the trees further up.

But, T-Rex?  He was just surprised at how fun it was to tumble down the grassy hill.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

See the Sasso Corbaro up there?

The walls belonging to the actual castle of Montebello are rigged with modern metal walkways and railings for visitors to traipse about as they please.  Unfortunately, the outer walls are not… or at least I couldn’t find a way up.  I might’ve tried harder if I didn’t have a baby on my back.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

In short, these little-known castles are gems.  They’re brilliant for boys, history nerds, and weary-on-the-way to Italy travelers.  I only wish we’d had more time to fully appreciate all three castles at Bellinzona!

My snapshot of the castles at Bellinzona: silent, ancient, fantastic, and worthy of all the time you can spare to explore.

Have you been to Bellinzona?  I’d love to hear about your visit or why you might add it to your own bucket list!Signature-MarigoldBe sure to check out What to See in Zadar from Chasing the Donkey as well as all the other fine Sunday Traveler posts!

How We Found Ourselves in Love with Touristy Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsRothenburg ob der Tauber… It’s in all the guidebooks (even Rick Steeves!), often touted as the most charming city along the Romantic Road.  Anything I’ve ever read about the place has made me want to go. right. now.

But, the flip side of all that press is the onslaught: tourists, buses, and hokey souvenir shops.  Seeing as I’m crowd averse, I needed a way to visit Rothenburg and actually appreciate its magic.

So, how do you cut through all the hype and actually enjoy this town?  On a Sunday, early in the morning… and, preferably, in bad weather.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsOkay, this might not be everyone’s ideal picture of an enjoyable day out in medieval Rothenburg ob der Tauber, but it certainly worked for us.  And, actually, we didn’t even plan it this way.

You see, I wanted to make the most of our six hour drive home from Berchtesgaden.  Sure, we could have driven directly home, but what fun is it to arrive at 10am with only dirty laundry to look forward to?  Better to add a one-hour detour in your travel plans in order to knock out a long-standing member of your bucket list, right?  Right!

We nabbed some free, off-street parking, loaded up the backpacks, and set out around 8am (which that means we left The Hölbinger Alm around 4… I told you we like to leave early).  A blanket of fog settled in around us while a subtle, spit rain coated the streets.  Needless to say, we had the city (mostly) to ourselves.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Best Part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Hands down, the best thing about pretty little Rothenburg is her undamaged, 14th century city wall.  What once served to protect now provides unique views for visitors.  Climb up the steps at one of the many entrances, and walk for as little or as long as you’d like.  You’ll be among the rooftops, gazing across the cityscape at half-timbered houses, turrets, gables, even two church towers.

My boys loved gallivanting around, looking down on the few souls we found here and there.  With plenty of secure railing, I felt comfortable enough to let them run ahead while Doc Sci and I trailed behind, occasionally squeezing ourselves through a narrow passage.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsPerhaps equally as exciting as the walls, the Spital Bastion is a little boy’s delight since it boasts a few (defunct) canons poking out from the cavernous interior.

When we’d had our fill of imaginary medieval adventure, we cautiously approached the center.  I knew we’d find the most tourists here, and I dreaded it.  Thankfully, the Sunday-morning-in-crappy-weather hordes only ended up being a few groups of about twenty.  That, I can handle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Christmas Craze and Why Asians Love Rothenburg

One of the groups huddled around the entrance to the Weihnachtsmuseum (Christmas Museum).  Christmas is a big deal, year round, in Rothenburg.  While I didn’t see Santa, I did spot some fun, albeit expensive, holiday decor.  Even if you give the shops a pass as we did, don’t miss the gigantic nutcracker.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Perfect for this year’s Christmas tree – an Oktoberfest beer maid, complete with pretzels.

Speaking of shops, I couldn’t help but notice that many signs were written in Asian languages.  Then, I realized that most of the visitors who braved the morning’s conditions were.. Asian!  Why Asians love this place is a mystery to me.  Best guess?  Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a quintessential, quaint old European city so vastly different from what they’re used to seeing at home.

Actually, our know-it-all friend Wikipedia helps out with an explanation:  “This place has become a popular tourist destination for Japanese because of the animated film “Sugar a little snow fairy”, where the main character lives in Rothenburg.”  Ahh, medieval manga… got it!Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Chugging Coffee at Cafes and Where to Picnic

When your eyes have gone cross trying to read Chinese and your hands are numb from the damp fog, duck into one of the many cute cafes to relax and warm up.  Try to find one away from the main square (Marktplatz) unless you particularly like parting with dozens of euros.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Main Square – Marktplatz.

We spotted a few bakeries selling Schneebälle (snowballs) which are essentially tangled masses of dough strips that have been deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. The European equivalent of funnel cakes, perhaps?

P.s. – These pastry creations are totally for the tourists and, in our experience, not very tasty.

On a nicer day, we would’ve brought along a picnic and sat in the castle garden (free, open to the public) to munch.  The park has charm that changes with the seasons: new buds in spring, fully floral in summer, tinged with color in autumn, and a silent romanticism in the snow.  Views from here across the neighboring valley are extraordinary, even in crummy weather.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Castle Gardens

The Verdict

While diehard Rothenburg ob der Tauber fans might argue that I missed most of the action by skipping the Criminal Museum, Train Museum, Toy Museum, churches, and the über-popular Christmas market, I beg to differ.

My Rothenburg was quiet, empty, peaceful… perfect.  I couldn’t have asked for a better experience skipping along the walls and exploring the forsaken fortress.  It is because of this Sunday morning serenity that Rothenburg surpassed all expectations and earned its place as the true jewel of the Romantic Road.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsSignature-MarigoldPractical tips for families visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber:

  • Reach Rothenburg by rail or by car.  If by train, make sure to enter Rothenburg ob der Tauber as there are several Rothenburg stations throughout Germany.
  • Parking is available outside the walls.  All lots (P1-P5) charge 1 euro/hour or 5 euros/day.  If you arrive early, you may be lucky enough to nab free off-street parking.  We found ours on Kreuzerstr. near P5.  Make sure to check for signs indicating that the area should only be used by residents.
  • Use a backpack carrier if you want to take little legs up on the walls.  Otherwise, the rest of the city is quite pram-friendly. 
  • Surprisingly, plenty of free bathrooms can be found at various points around town.  I didn’t notice any baby changing tables in the public facilities, only inside cafe restrooms.
  • Restaurant and cafe prices can be hefty, so bring a picnic. The only takeaway joints I noticed were pizza or bratwurst.
  • If you want to shop for a sack lunch while visiting or pick up some German supermarket souvenirs, Rewe, Aldi, and Lidl all have locations outside the walls, but Edeka’s E-Aktiv Markt is the closest to the old town at Ansbacher Straße 15.
  • Inside the walls, some streets are not pedestrianized, so keep an eye on kiddos in these areas (though it’s not nearly as awful as Italy).  Everywhere else is mostly safe to allow roaming.
  • Last, but not least, a great playground can be found outside the walls on the west side of the city along the path that leads from the Klingentor (bell tower) to the castle gardens.

Other adorable European small towns:

Stein am Rhein Switzerland for Kids and Families

Stein am Rhein

Strasbourg France for Kids and Families

Strasbourg

San Gimignano Italy for Kids and Families

San Gimignano