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?

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

Snapshot: Alone in Dresden..with Kids – Part 1

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Let’s pause the struggles of reverse culture shock for a moment and focus on a completely different kind of struggle – traveling alone with kids!

If you’re like me, travel is your drug, and your eyes are always searching for your next fix. Cheap airfare, hotel sales, and shoulder season deals are just too good to pass up.

What kind of risky behavior would you dabble in just for that next vacation high? Would you tolerate three mischievous boys under 7 as your only travel companions if it meant you could see Dresden, a city you’ve always longed to explore?

Months before I was to drive for a couple thousand miles with the three amigos in the backseat, I put on my big girl pants and took a day trip to Dresden with those three amigos, all.by.myself.

Gulp.

For the record, please don’t endanger your family or finances just for a travel score. It’s only a metaphor, people.

I once read a post about a married mom who travels internationally with her kids but without her husband because he can’t take off work (sorry, I can’t find the link). The post sparked two thoughts.

First, I can’t do that (right?!). And second, I wouldn’t want to do that (you, either?). While my opinion on the latter hasn’t changed, my fears regarding the former have evolved into an ever-increasing confidence.

I can’t believe I’m saying this – but traveling alone with your kids IS possible, and maybe (maybe!?) even enjoyable… Okay, the jury’s still out on that last one.

With three boys and a limited budget, sometimes it’s just not feasible for everyone to go on every trip (such as when I took Alpha to Keukenhof to see the tulips or to Firenze to tour the Uffizi Gallery).

Occasionally, we are presented with travel opportunities too good to pass up, such as tagging along with Doc Sci to a conference in a fabulous destination like South Korea.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

And, every once in a while, I attempt something I ordinarily never would because the payoff has massive potential, enough to outweigh possibly uncomfortable circumstances. Our day trip to Dresden falls into this category.

Let’s get a bit of background, shall we? After our family said our farewell to Freiburg, we rode the rails east and hung out in Leipzig for a few days. Doc Sci needed to attend one last conference, and I saw an opportunity to squeeze in one last little German travel fling before our expat adventure ended.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Now, I always set my expectations for a family trip itinerary rock-bottom low. But, this time, I managed to reduce those even further. I had only three goals: Get to Dresden, see something, and make it back to the train before it chugs off without us.

I’ve wanted to visit Dresden ever since I was an art history student studying Kirchner and his painting Street, Dresden. The “Jewel Box” is a fascinating place, scarred by World War II and the German Democratic Republic.

I researched and wrote a list of must-see sights. Short of a barfing kid or a broken bone, I was going to make it to those few places to view them with my own eyes. But because I didn’t want to be wandering around aimlessly if we clocked in ahead of schedule, I also made a huge list of options – possibilities if time or interest allowed.

Then, I booked our train tickets and prayed for the best.

The Ride

I bought the kids a bakery breakfast at the station (something I never do because I’m cheap thrifty) to occupy them on the train. A friend who used to live in Leipzig recommended Lukas Baekerei, and it didn’t disappoint. Imagine a soft German pretzel smothered in melted cheese. YES. Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

As we polished off the last crumbs, the train pulled into the station. We stepped into Dresden, gained our bearings, and off we trotted down Prager Str. in the direction of the Kreuzkirche.

Kreuzkirche

Honestly, I wasn’t all that interested in the Kreuzkirche. I was more fascinated by the famous Frauenkirche. But, I wanted to climb to the top of the this church in particular for the best and most affordable view of Dresden (plus, climbing stuff is our thing). As is the case in Paris, the best view often isn’t from the most famous landmark but from another tall building nearby.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The lookout from the Kreuzkirche toward the Frauenkirche.

Sweaty but satisfied with die Aussicht, we descended once more to Dresden’s streets, kids starving and mama in need of a loo. We crossed the pedestrian walkway to the Laden Cafe Aha. I had read good things about Aha, so I ordered a white hot chocolate and the boys busted out their lunchboxes.

Apparently, our actions annoyed the server who thought everyone – kids included – should have ordered a full meal. And maybe I would’ve ordered a slice of cake to go with my hot chocolate had I not received the eyeful and earful the server dished up.

When we had been made to feel as uncomfortable as possible, we left. Expert tip: Come for the chocolate, don’t stay for the service.

Frauenkirche

I melted the frustration away with anticipation of our next stop – the restored brilliance of Dresden, the Frauenkirche. You can read all about the history of it here (be sure to check out the photos showing it nearly destroyed and the restoration process).Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The Frauenkirche is once again a gorgeous gem of architecture; and yes, it’s seriously as beautiful in person as it is in the pictures. This moment right here made the trip for me.

Fürstenzug

One treasure I had not known about before researching our trip is the Fürstenzug. The funny name might not sound like much, but this piece is the largest porcelain artwork in the world. Just check out my little people walking beneath it to grasp the scale.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

At over 100 meters long and over 10 meters high, it’s plastered on the outer wall of the Stallhof of the Dresdner Schloss. It’s enormous in person and really quite amazing.

Luncheon on the Grass, er Park Bench

We wandered around the courtyards of the schloss a bit before meandering along the terrace wall on the banks of the Elbe. We parked ourselves on a bench in the Brühlschen Garten to finish our lunches that had been so abruptly cut short earlier at the café. Not pictured: rather sketchy atmosphere with questionable characters on the bench next door and far too much trash by German standards. Hardly a Manet moment.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

While the boys chased each other around the park, I took a much-needed break from carrying Charlie.

We had sold our pram when we left Freiburg since we wouldn’t need it in America. That meant if I wanted to maximize my short hours in Dresden, I had to carry Charlie. Schlepping an enormous two year-old with concrete bones around on my back while simultaneously carrying a backpack with supplies on the front was perhaps the most demanding part of my day. Intermittent whining/complaining scores a close second.

With bellies full and the clock ticking, it was time to zip across the river and see what treasures awaited us in Dresden-Neustadt.

Don’t miss Part 2 when I reveal what nearly knocked the Frauenkirche out of “absolute favorite” position and share a super fun, serendipitous moment on our way out of town. Plus, I’ll include a list of locations we would’ve visited with more time. For Part 2, click here.

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A sneak peak of Part 2 – crossing the Elbe.

Have you been to Dresden or do you want to get there some day? What would you do for your next travel score?

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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

Taking in the Tulips at Keukenhof with Kids – Round 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensTravelers (and especially travel bloggers) often talk about a bucket list, that sacred scribbling of places, formal or informal, to see and things to do before they kick the proverbial bucket.

But, what happens when you plan, scheme, and save in order to make one of those dream trips true… and then it wasn’t what you expected?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me when we showed up at Keukenhof Gardens last year and didn’t see a single tulip poking up from the ground. The only blooms to behold thrived inside pavilions or shivered outside in the chilly late winter breeze.

And those gorgeous photos featuring miles of flower fields we all see floating around the internet every spring? Nothing but mounds of dirt with a reluctant fingers of green to mark where vibrant blooms should be.

These things should not be so.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Flowers are fickle, though, and one cannot control the weather nor their time of arrival. So, I had to make a choice: live with the disappointment and be satisfied with Pinterest pictures, or visit Keukenhof again.

While the decision was obvious, how to get there and when to go certainly wasn’t. You see, the single most important tip when visiting Keukenhof with or without children is to time your visit correctly. Too early and the bulbs will still be sulking underground. Too late and they’ll be dying like it’s 1347.

Plus, I had the distance to consider. To drive from my house to Keukenhof takes about 7 hours. With the three amigos in the backseat, it’s impossible to do that all in one go, which means we’d have to make a weekend out of it. It seemed excessive to drag the entire family along just to indulge my flowery whim.

Solution – take the overnight train and bring one child along to lighten the load of the parent left behind.

To read more about taking the overnight train with kids, check back tomorrow!

Alpha and I arrived a bit groggy at the Schipol Airport train station after our night on the rails. We were both looking forward to this adventure together, but our hearts sank when we saw the line for the Keukenhof Express bus.

People from all over the world stood in a queue that snaked around the building. Luckily, we meet an American couple waiting just in front of us. They chattered away while the minutes ticked by. Before we knew it, we were zooming along the Dutch highway on our way to the flower fields.

Since we had been to Keukenhof before, we knew were the bathrooms were and which direction we wanted to head first. While the layout and the feel of the place was the same, something had definitely changed…

The park was alive with TULIPS!Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Everywhere we looked, our eyes feasted on the electric oranges, intense reds, lovely violets, bashful pinks, fierce yellows. Alpha and I bounced from one plot to another. “Look at these, Mama!” he said over and over until we just could.not.look.any.more.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThis year, we didn’t buy any fresh stroopwaffels at the big Keukenhof windmill, but we did go up inside to have a look. To our delight, many of the flower fields were still in bloom! Swaths of color planted neatly next to each other created a rainbow ribbon that stretched across the horizon.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

When tulip overload set in, we exited the park and headed for the bike rental shack. A few too many euros and two rickety bikes later, we set out to make our own tour of the flower fields.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensWe rode on country roads, swerving away from semis and loaded tour buses, pausing every few minutes to snap photos of the breathtaking beauty. The wind whipped our faces and gnarled our hair, but we didn’t care. We were sailing through the Dutch countryside on two wheels, together.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

With my bucket list wish successfully fulfilled, we headed back to Amsterdam to kill four hours before our return train. I treated the boy to American-style frozen yogurt and a Dutch pancake dinner. We stopped off at the grocery store to stock up on some supermarket souvenirs: peanut butter, speckaloos cookies, hagleslag, and Haribo licorice.

The rain began as the sun disappeared, a slight drizzle that had us running for Centraal station. Just when we stepped inside, the drops became larger until the full fury of a Dutch downpour released.

As the train pulled away from Amsterdam, Alpha waved goodbye to an amazing day and snuggled into his berth for the long ride home.

Would you revisit one of your bucket list destinations if it wasn’t what you expected?

Practical info:

  • Keukenhof is only open March through May. For 2015 dates and ticket prices, click here.
  • In 2013, we visited at the end of March – too early. In 2014, we visited the week of Easter – perfect. Try to time your visit a few days before the Flower Parade, or go during the Flower Parade if you don’t mind the masses.
  • To read about our visit with the Easter Bunny and encounter with an Easter lamb, click here for my previous post.

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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

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

Our Attempt to Experience the Famous Palio di Siena Horse Race

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsOutside of Tuscany aficionados or Italy insiders, few people have heard of the Palio di Siena.  I first read about it in my trusty Frommers family guidebook, and instantly thought it could be a fabulous, insane but authentic Sienese experience.  So, what the heck is it?

In a nutshell, the Palio di Siena is a horse race, held twice per year in the summer.  The bareback riders dash around the main square in Siena, the Piazza del Campo.  The contestants are decked out in colors and patterns representing one of the city’s seventeen districts.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Palio is a really big deal in Siena.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Though I paid attention when the guidebook mentioned that taking small children is problematic in that crowds top 50,000 and getting to a toilet is nearly impossible.

But, a side note encouraged me in this crazy plan: “To experience the event for free, aim for the trial races, also held in the Campo.  It’s still busy but it’s bearable, at least for the morning sessions.”  Perfect.  We aimed to attend the 9am trial race on the 13th of August.

To get a feel for the city, I thought we might just want to visit Siena the day before the race and check things out.  You know, just in case…

As we approached the Campo, the first thing we noticed was that every entryway that led into the piazza from the surrounding streets was closed.  What the?!Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsAfter what seemed like at least a half an hour of searching, we stumbled upon the only open entrance which just happened to be right next to our first destination of the day – the iconic Torre del Mangia.  We noticed that the square was already set up for the race: bleachers erected, dirt track laid, metal barricades entrenched.

Lines for the tower can be incredibly long since only 25 people are allowed up at one time.   Lucky for us, we were definitely within the first group of 25.  Unlucky for us, we found ourselves standing around with the early birds for forty five minutes past the opening time of 10am.

Ready for the Palio di Siena

Ready for the Palio di Siena

When the boys went from restless to obnoxious, we started asking around.  The word on the street was that the horses had already practiced that morning, and the contenders had used the base of the tower as a stable.  Since tourists would hardly be impressed by the unsightly gifts left by the horses, someone had to sanitize the place.. and on Italian time.

No official explanation or apology, no “poop clearance in progress” sign on the door, no estimated time of completion.  When we had wasted an hour of our day in Siena, we finally gave up.

Next stop – a snack and then swings & a slide at the Orto Botanico.  Only it wasn’t open.  Chiuso per ferie.  Closed for the holidays.

Boo.  Hiss.

Determined to keep our chins up, we quickly popped in to the neighboring Museo di Storia Naturale to have a free look at a gigantic whale skeleton and make a pit stop.  Though seeing the big bones like that was totally rad, you have to admit that it’s rather pathetic when the best thing about your morning is a dead whale.

Museo di Storia Naturale

Museo di Storia Naturale

After a sandwich and a bit of gelato lifted our spirits, we took a deep breath and trudged on to face the crowds in the Piazza del Duomo.  The facade of the church is incredible.  I desperately wanted to see the inside, but I had to make a choice.

My boys weren’t going to put up with hours of art, and previous research told me that the Santa Maria della Scala was the more kid-friendly attraction.. Church or old-hospital-turned-museum?  The guidebook insisted on the latter, but my gut wanted to go with the former.

Research trumped momentary desire, and we shelled out 12 euros to enter the Santa Maria della Scala.  As promised in the promotional literature, there’s loads to see in this museum – art, science, religion, archeology, history – and it’s quiet.  The cycle of frescoes depicting medieval medical care is not to be missed, though my boys would argue the best part of the museum was the graffiti wall in the children’s area.

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

The Duomo

The Duomo

But just between you and me, I would’ve rather seen the inside of the Duomo.  Zebra stripes are intertwined with delicate pink marble to decorate a most stunning facade second only to the Duomo in Firenze.  Sigh.  If its this exquisite from the outside, I can only imagine the interior.

At this point, Big Foot decided to give up the fight and fall asleep (the poor kid still has not learned how to nap on the go) which meant we had to keep walking or risk waking him up.  Our route took us by the best gelateria in Siena, the Kopa Kabana.  I’m still dreaming about the Coca Cola gelato!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsBut even the awesome ice cream could not revive our spirits.  The heat bordered on unbearable, the narrow streets were clogged with fellow tourists, our feet ached, our boys whined, and we couldn’t shake our feelings of discouragement.  We had spent nearly an entire day in the city, and yet we had virtually no authentic Sienese experiences to show for it.

The great divide - sun and shade.

The great divide – sun and shade.

To make matters worse, my heart sank when I realized that the next day, the first day of the trial races, would only intensify our frustrations.  We’d have to endure swarming crowds and scorching sun while waiting hours for a 90-second thrill.

Sounds a bit like Disney, doesn’t it?

Dejected, we did what we could to salvage the day.  We sampled pizza and schiacciata and let the boys roam around a few playgrounds as well as the Fortezza.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

But try as we may, we couldn’t catch a break.  At the very end of the day, we forced our tired legs down the stairs of the Fortezza in the direction of our car.  T-Rex stumbled, tripped, and fell face down on the stone steps.  The poor guy landed – smack – on his face.  Blood everywhere.  Three loose teeth.  Massive freak out.

Thank God, he’s fine.  The teeth weren’t broken, and they’ve been hanging on for over six weeks now.

Oh, Siena, I desperately wanted to like you.  But the stars were stacked against you, my friend, and things just did. not. work. out.  I hope we’ll meet again another time, in another season, and things will be different.

If you’re just joining us now for Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series, you might think we had a really awful time in Tuscany.  No, no, no!  Click on the link to read some of our other (awesome) adventures.

Okay, your turn!  Have you been to Siena?  Did you have a beautiful experience, or a rough go like we did? Signature-Marigold

Mainau – The Flower Island

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mainau - The Flower IslandAt the urging of several friends, we finally (FINALLY!) visited the beautiful island of Mainau.  It’s an amazing place full of flowers, gardens, butterflies, and more.  But, be warned: you won’t want to leave!

Mainau is located close to Konstanz on the Bodensee in southern Germany.  For some reason, my GPS couldn’t find Mainau.  I just set it to Konstanz and followed the well-posted signs once we got close.  Of course, I found the coordinates after I returned home here – ha!  The island is accessible either by parking in the lot on the mainland and walking over a bridge or by ferry from a port closer to Konstanz.

Here we go!

Here we go!

Though the island does have a few hills here and there, it’s relatively flat and pram-friendly.  Bikes are prohibited, but children can bring balance bikes or scooters.  In the summer, wagons (handcars) are available free of charge from the main entrance.

The "handcars" are complimentary during the summer season.

The “handcars” are complimentary during the summer season.

For the little ones, the best part of Mainau is the gigantic water playground.  I knew this in advance, so we saved it for last.  I never would have been able to convince boys to look at the lilies when they knew barges and bathing suits were waiting for them!

Don't miss the butterfly house!

Don’t miss the butterfly house!

Instead, we hit up the Butterfly House first.  The building is shaped like a – wait for it – butterfly, and visitors enter through a gigantic caterpillar.  The inside is jungle-like with high humidity, tropical fruits, and densely packed greenery.  If you’re gentle and patient, you might even be able to get a butterfly to rest on your hand!

Beautiful butterflies.

Beautiful butterflies.

We then trudged on past some ginormous trees to the castle on the far end of the island.  A cafe and small chapel are accessible to the public, but the rest of the palace is still the private residence of the Bernadotte family.

A real redwood!

A real redwood!

Here's the inside of the small chapel.  A music festival was taking place during our visit; these children were about to sing in this lovely space.

Here’s the inside of the small chapel. A music festival was taking place during our visit; these children were about to sing in this lovely space.

A lovely rose garden sprawls out next to the castle.  I asked the boys if they wanted to explore the roses or not – I was surprised to hear an enthusiastic, “yes!”

The Italian rose garden.

The Italian rose garden.

Some serious QC going on.

Some serious QC going on.

After a satisfactory amount of sniffing, we moved on to the Italian and Mediterranean gardens.  I was lost in dreamy anticipation of our upcoming Italy trip, wondering if the landscape looked at all similar to Tuscany.  Their interest waning, the boys just wanted to watch people jumping off their boats for a swim in the Bodensee.

The Italian step water garden.

The Italian step water garden.

As I was reassuring them that lunch would come “soon,” we happened upon the petting zoo and pony rides.  T-Rex and Screech went in with Doc Sci to pet the goats, shrieking with delight when they found a baby one.

Side note: I noticed lots of children playing inside the goat pen without shoes.  Um, seriously!?  I get that Europeans want to be all earthy in the summer, but poop pellets between your toes?  G-ROSS!!

Pony rides!  The cost is 2 euros for 3 times around the paddock.

Pony rides! The cost is 2 euros for 3 times around the paddock.

Unfortunately, both boys chickened out when it came time to ride the ponies.  I knew they would like it, but neither would.. pony up.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mainau - The Flower IslandJust as a major hunger meltdown threatened to bring down the house, we made it to the playground.  This area of the island is THE point of Mainau’s existence according to little boys, the entire reason they will put up with flowers, butterflies and other girly things.

The kids can maneuver this raft back and forth by pulling on the thick rope.

The kids can maneuver this raft by pulling on the thick rope.

Back and forth.

Back and forth and back again.

Though the playground is quite extensive and features many fun playthings for children of all ages, the main draw is the water area, complete with wooden rafts that children can pilot around the murky green water (let’s not think about where those children’s feet have been…).

More barges!

More barges!

More of the playground - without water.  An area for toddlers is just on the other side of these climbing structures.

More of the playground – without water. An area for toddlers is just on the other side of these climbing structures.

Screech's favorite thing about the island (even over the water features) was this train.  Put a euro in and the ICE train goes 'round and 'round.

Screech’s favorite thing about the island (even over the water features) was this train. Put a euro in and the ICE train goes ’round and ’round.

I highly recommend bringing a bathing suit, towels, a sack lunch, and a large picnic blanket.  Spread out, and relax!  If not for the two hour drive home, we would’ve lounged ’til sundown.

I had high hopes for relaxing after lunch.  But keeping track of 3 kids near water is a two-parent job.  Maybe next year?

I had high hopes for relaxing after lunch. But keeping track of 3 kids near water is a two-parent job. Maybe next year?

Speaking of sunset, admission is half off starting at 5pm.  Prices are not cheap for adults, but children 12 and under are free!  Along with the privilege of enjoying the beautiful gardens, I was pleased to see that ticket sales went toward maintaining plentiful, clean bathrooms throughout island. I saw several baby changing rooms stocked with complimentary diapers and wipes. Though we didn’t use them, clothes dryers are provided free of charge for those families who forgot to bring swimsuits.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mainau - The Flower IslandAfter I got over the initial sticker shock, I thought the price was fair, considering the amount of upkeep that is required for the extensive grounds.  Of course, it’s best to stay the entire day to get your money’s worth!

If forced to find something negative about our experience at Mainau, I’d have to admit that since the island is so beautiful it’s naturally very crowded.  Expect to share your day with hordes of other eager visitors.

Our whole family loved Mainau, and we hope to return again some day with friends.  Who’s in??Signature-Marigold

Fun, Free Things To Do in Salt Lake City.. With Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Free Fun in Salt Lake City with KidsAs my boys grow taller and taller, the number of free activities available gets smaller and smaller.  I found it challenging to come up with a respectable list of things to keep the boys busy on our recent trip to Salt Lake City, Utah.  Admission for children to all the popular attractions in the area cost almost as much as adult tickets.  Sheesh, all I can say is thank God my kids still think playgrounds are totally awesome.

Here’s a rundown of the best fun, free things we found to do in Salt Lake City with kids!

Liberty Park. This park is one of the best I’ve seen in the US.  It truly has something for every age group.  The little ones have a large play area suited for their size, big kids can amuse themselves with a gigantic slide, and handicap children can join in with swings built just for them.  Most impressive – super sized musical pipes that require lots of banging and produce a whole lot of noise.  In summer, kids can enjoy a splash pad and fountains.

Liberty Park Rotary Playground

Liberty Park Rotary Playground

Liberty Park - making some noise.

Liberty Park – making some noise.

Liberty Park - water fountains for kids to splash around in and cool off.

Liberty Park – water fountains for kids to splash around in and cool off.

Should you find yourself in the mood to open your wallet, loads of fun paid experiences are possible at Liberty Park.  Tracy Aviary is home to hundreds of birds.  Time your visit to include story time with a feathered friend.  Carnival rides, paddle boat rentals, and a public swimming pool will also invite you to part with (a little) cash.

Liberty Park - Tracy Aviary

Liberty Park – Tracy Aviary

Temple Square & Gardens.  Mormon or not, the temple area is worth seeing.  I was intrigued by the architecture, and my boys just ran around exploring all the fountains, sculptures, and flowers.  You can also take a free one-hour tour of the gardens, May-September.

Temple Square.

Temple Square.

City Creek and Memory Grove Parks. Starting just beyond the Temple Square, City Creek Park includes a paved path running parallel to the stream that leads straight to Memory Grove Park.  Filled with statues and fountains, Memory Grove Park is a great place to rest and eat a snack or even a picnic lunch.  Combine this with a walk around the…

City Creek Park.

City Creek Park.

Utah State Capitol Building Though you’ll be out of breath climbing the San Francisco-style street to get here, the view is worth the effort.  We just walked the grounds, but dropping in to the visitor center or joining a tour won’t cost a thing.  Look for the small paths to the east of the capitol that lead down to Memory Grove Park.  P.s. – I highly recommend choosing a backpack carrier over a stroller if you’re toting little ones.

Utah State Capitol Building.

Utah State Capitol Building.

View from the top.

From the top – I sure do love me some mountain views.

Donut Falls Hiking Trail Our family really loves hiking together, and I thought this would be the perfect anti-jet lag remedy.  Except I forgot that it can – and did – snow in Utah in April.  Oops.  Fortunately, the snow was packed down enough that we could walk a ways in our oh-so-appropriate summer kicks.  Unfortunately, we never did get to see that waterfall.

The snow-covered path to Donut Falls.

The snow-covered path to Donut Falls.

Not exactly the waterfall we were hoping for...

Not exactly the waterfall we were hoping for…

Gilgal Sculpture Garden Even if you can’t force yourself to be interested in art, drag yourself across the street from Trolley Square and prepare to be completely creeped out.  While your kids scramble around the stones, you’ll be scratching your head trying to figure out of this artist mocked or admired Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith as the sphinx...?

Joseph Smith as the sphinx…?

More funky art from Gilgal Sculpture Garden.

More funky art from Gilgal Sculpture Garden.

School of rock.

School of rock.

Jordan Park & International Peace Gardens.  Come for the two playgrounds and picnic area, stay for the hortus & culture.  Twenty eight countries maintain gardens that reflect their land, and in the middle rests a monument promoting peace.  Germany’s area disappointed, but Switzerland and Japan delighted.

A little taste of Europe in the International Peace Gardens.

A little taste of Europe in the International Peace Gardens.

Stepping into Japan.

Stepping into Japan.

Downtown Farmer’s Market.  Okay, you’ll have to pay for the rainbow of nutrients you’re sure to bag, but listening to the music and soaking in the atmosphere won’t cost a thing.

What are your favorite Salt Lake City activities to do with kids? 

Headed to Salt Lake City?  See my review of the Thanksgiving Point Gardens Tulip Festival.Signature-Marigold