One of our family goals while we live in Germany is to see as much of Europe as we can. A lofty goal, for sure. We’ve come to accept that we won’t see all of it during our two year assignment in Frankfurt. Nevertheless, we love exploring new countries and cities together… it’s our favorite hobby as an expat family (and thirty vacation days a year definitely helps… thank you, Germany!)
Our destinations and itineraries tend to look a little different than what Rick Steves may suggest, considering that we have our favorite four-year-old travel companion with us. While that may mean that we don’t always see every top-rated museum or famous historical site, we still have managed to find a travel itinerary “flow” that suits our family well. Our “win” for a trip is that every member of our family, adults and kid, has an experience that is memorable, educational, and fun. We don’t do all kid-stuff and we don’t do all stuffy museums… instead we find try to find a nice, happy middle ground.
So how do we actually do it?
I’m so glad you asked. As you can imagine, that question can’t be easily answered in one blog post. So, today will be the first of ROOTS & REISE’s new series, Family Travel Tuesdays. For eight Tuesdays, we’ll share tips and ideas from our own experiences for how to make the most of your family travel.
Whether you’re headed two hours down the road for a weekend trip, across the country for a week-long summer vacation, or around the world for an epic travel odyssey, our hope is that you can find ways to make travel memorable, educational, and fun for YOUR family… no-matter the age of your kids, where you live, or the size of your budget.
Today we’ll dive into itinerary research and planning a long-weekend trip (2-3 nights) in a new city.
A typical Wilkins family itinerary for a new city is usually a good mix of pre-planning + allowing for free time to just “experience” the city spontaneously.
The pre-planning consists of consulting various sources: guide books (our favorites are 36 Hours: 125 Weekends in Europe and Rick Steves), Trip Advisor, Googling “What to do in (insert city name) with kids”, and most importantly, chatting up friends who’ve already been there.
To be honest, the pre-planning can get overwhelming, especially when you only have 2-3 nights in the city and there is just so much awesomeness to see (my husband and I love history and cultures, so this can make it hard to narrow down the list!) So we try to select one to two historical sites, museums or attractions to explore in depth. If it’s at the top of the must-see lists OR it’s super-interesting to us personally AND it’s relatively kid-friendly, we’re there.
To see more of the city, we also allow time to walk through the old town or stroll through famous parks. It’s always nice to at least visit from the outside some of the famous sites that we may not have time to enter. This paints a vivid mental picture of the city that we can forever keep with us… the best kind of souvenir.
Sometimes we’ve guided ourselves through the streets by walking and reading from a book as we go. Other times we’ve jumped onto the hop-on, hop-off bus or a city boat tour. These have been good experiences and a great way to see a lot of a city in a short amount of time, but we’ve learned that when possible, a tour guided by a local is especially engaging and fun. Not only does the history of the place you’re visiting more personally come to life, but you get to hear more about the local culture and super-interesting quirky stories. And with Lylah in tow, the more unique the tour transportation, the better (ie. walking for three hours, especially without a stroller, is not her cup-of-tea.)
So in Paris, Nice and Berlin, we took a bike tour. We were able to cover a lot of ground in the city, get a really good workout, and Lylah got to enjoy the view from the back of Jay’s bike. (And actually, she snuck in a few naps, too. Parenting win!) In Antwerp, we climbed aboard a little tourist train and wound our way through the cobblestone streets. In Lisbon, we held on tight as we rode a tuk-tuk through the winding, hilly streets of the Alfama (the old town district). The tuk-tuk tour takes the cake as the most unique city tour yet!
While having a plan and touring the city are definitely important for maximizing our trip and not missing out on the must-sees, we’ve learned not to over-plan. And this is especially key with a four-year-old (and for our sanity). We have to allow for free time.
Some of our most memorable family travel moments have been simply sitting on the patio of a local café and people watching. Or letting Lylah chase the enormous bubbles made by a street entertainer at the main city square. (And as a bonus, there’s usually a beautiful church or building as the backdrop to the bubble chasing!) We make frequent ice cream stops. And we always seek out at least one local playground. (Europe has awesome playgrounds! We’ll share our favorites in a later Family Travel Tuesday post.)
This is the flow that works for our little family. Some pre-planned stops at top sights, mixed with an engaging tour, and made complete with a good dose of free time discovery of the local life. For us, this has made for our best weekend adventures. With each new city, we leave with great memories, we gain insights into local history and culture, and we have fun together. By stepping out of our community and into another, we learn a little more about this amazing world we live in and the people who make it beautiful. And we also learn more about ourselves and often have new interests and passions ignited.
During this current season of expat life, these adventures have taken us to places like Paris, Berlin and Lisbon. And while I know that for many of you, these are not your typical weekend destinations, I think this aim for adventure and discovery wherever you live, is good and possible… even if it just means loading everyone in the car and driving to the next city down the highway. The effort is more than worth it.
What are your favorite ways to explore a new city?