Friday, September 25, 2015

Biking Through Munich with Kids

Getting from point A to point B when sightseeing through a city with kids can be exhausting, exhilarating and exciting (how's that for alliteration!) My kids have delighted in various subways, trains, buses, etc. as we've traveled around European cities. And we've withstood a few epic tantrums on public transit also. But in Munich, we found our new favorite way to get around: bikes!

Truth be told, we love to ride bikes as a family, but we almost always head to places with dedicated bike paths. I'm not very comfortable riding my bike through city streets, in and out of traffic, especially with the boys, so we've never rented bikes during city visits. Until Munich, when after our first day there, we realized it was relatively flat and had bike lanes on almost every major street (often protected by a curb away from vehicle traffic). It was the type of biking that seemed both safe and fun, and we knew the boys would love it.

The weather forecast was glorious on the morning of our second day in Munich. After a quick game of footie in a nearby park (and coffee for mom and dad, naturally), we headed straight to Mike's Bikes rental office. (They offer organized tours that leave from the Marienplatz, but we wanted the flexibility to go wherever we wanted that day.)

We had a route in mind, but the staff there provided us with a helpful map that showed good streets for biking. They got us fitted with bikes and helmets (and a tandem tag-a-long for Big Arrow and a seat for Little Arrow), and off we went. (I'll break down our exact route at the end of the post for those wishing to re-create our day.)

First stop: the big square outside the opera house. I wanted a few pictures and we also needed to make a few adjustments to bike seat heights, helmet straps, etc. that we hadn't noticed at the bike shop. But the boys made themselves at home, as they always do, treating the statue in the middle of the square as a personal playground.

Next stop: Olympic Park. This was one of the reasons we wanted to rent bikes, as its too far out of the city centre to easily walk to, at least from where we were staying. Yet it was gorgeous and lots of fun for the kids. If you wanted to spend more time here, you can tour some of the Olympic venues, but we really just wanted to enjoy the big open spaces for playing and having a snack.

Next stop: Munich's famous English Gardens, and more specifically, the beer gardens found within. Out first beer garden was Hirschau.

At Hirschau, we quickly realized these large beer gardens were awesome for families (buffet-style food service, live music, and most importantly: playgrounds!) We decided to spend the rest of that sunny afternoon visiting several beer gardens throughout the English Gardens.

Next stop: Seehaus. This was probably my least favorite beer garden of the day (though that's like saying whipped cream is my least favorite ice cream topping). The location is gorgeous (directly next to the large lake). But the food and beers were more expensive here, and the playground was very small.

Next stop: Chinesischer Turm. It was only fitting to spend one of our best family travel days at what turned out to be our favorite beer garden of the day. Big trees surround this spacious spot, so there was plenty of shade. The playground was large and fun, and the live band playing from one of the tiers in the pagoda gave it such a lively atmosphere. I could have spent the entire evening here, but alas, those bikes needed to be returned before the close of business.

Final stop: Surfing! We finished our ride through the English Gardens with a stop at the surfing spot. Yes, there's surfing in Munich! Rapids in an artificial stream that runs through the gardens have created a popular place for surfers to take turns riding the waves created.

You know those days where you wish you could freeze time? I'd happily hit the pause button on that day, whizzing through Munich on bikes, the giggles of my kids floating in the air.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

3 Days in Munich with Kids

I'll admit that Munich, and Germany in general, wasn't high on my list of places to travel around Europe. I don't know why. I really don't. It just never had the appeal that other destinations have had for me. But my husband has persistently put it on the top of his travel wish list for years. And so when we began mapping out a week-long summer trip, he finally got me to commit to going.

We were going to kick the week off in Munich for three days. When I began reading about the city, I realized it was going to be a great fit for our family. Plenty of culture, sightseeing, and yet a fun, family-friendly feel to it. Indeed, it lived up to this and then some. It's one of the most laid back European cities I've been to. Maybe it's all the beer and pretzels.

Beer and pretzels. What's not to love about Munich?

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Stories Behind Those Vacation Photos

Like many people, I spent a portion of the last few months drooling over the photos friends posted of their summer travels on Facebook and Instagram. It's probably my favorite aspect of being active on social media: the chance to window shop all sorts of destinations and get a glimpse into what everyone else's vacations were like. I suspect I receive "likes" and comments on my own travel photos for similar reasons.

But anyone who has traveled knows that these brief glimpses don't always tell the full story. Especially when you add kids in the mix.

I don't think there's anything wrong with sharing wonderful vacation photos. I post hundreds each year myself. But I hope it doesn't set an unrealistic expectation for others when they embark on their own journeys.

Our May trip to Scotland is the perfect example. My photos suggested gorgeous scenery, interesting historical places, and 24/7 smiles. But had you traveled with us that week, you'd know there was much more to it than what friends saw on Facebook. Let me give you a few examples, from just one day of our travels there that week.

We started the day in Stirling with a brief stop at the castle there. As we were walking through the very quiet parking lot toward the wall where you could admire the view of the town and surrounding countryside, a car veered away from its lane and over to the walking path we were on. An older American woman rolled down her window and yelled at us for not holding the hand of our 3-year-old, saying he was certain to get hit by a car. A few things to note: He was walking on a pedestrian path. There were hardly any cars around. And the only car that came near him was HER car. Also? Mind your own business, lady.

We shrugged it off although it really rubbed me the wrong way. But this was the photo I posted on social media, taken a few seconds after that irritating interaction:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On the banks of Loch Lomond

I think one of the reasons we enjoy balancing city breaks with time in the countryside when we travel is because of the need to plan vs. wing it. Our trip to Scotland is a great example. In Edinburgh, we had a pretty good sense of how we might fill our time there. Certainly, it had its unexpected moments (who could have anticipated a swim in the Scottish Parliament, after all), but for the most part, we saw and did the things we had intended to do. And it was gloriously busy and exciting and memorable.

But as we drove toward Loch Lomond, at the very southern end of the Scottish Highlands, it became clear we could roll down our window and throw itineraries and guidebooks out into the fields. This wasn't a place where you check sightseeing boxes, unless that list includes shaggy cattle, mountains bleeding into deep blue waters, cozy shops selling wool blankets, and trails that lead you into forests. In which case, check, check, check and check.

This was a place where you want to maximize your time. Not the way Frommer's or Rick Steves might suggest, but instead to simply embrace each ray of sunshine, each passing cloud, each amazing viewpoint.

And so we did.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Swimming (?!) at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

There's a bit of a ying and yang when you travel with young kids. Want to see what a city is like after about 7:30 p.m.? Tough going when you've got little ones already tucked away in bed. Interested in dining at fancy restaurants that you read about in guidebooks? Probably not going to happen very often. Magical moments as you see the world through your kids eyes? Now we're talking.

It is easy to get hung up on the way traveling Europe with young children can limit you. In fact, sometimes when I mention the places we've been to other families around here, I'm met with strange stares and "what exactly did you do with little kids there?" and "did anyone have any fun?" comments.

However... on a daily basis, on each and every trip we've taken, I'm reminded of the ways traveling WITH my kids actually enhances our travels. Experiences that can only happen when you've got a toddler who dawdles or a 6-year-old who asks 8 million questions. Moments that those so-called "fortunate travelers" without little ones in tow miss out on.

Take our evening at the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. We spotted it earlier in the day on an open-top bus tour and my husband and I gave each other "the eye," as in "that would be a good place to let the boys run around later." Big reflecting pools, open areas of grass, gently sloping concrete perfect for running up and down (and skinned knees). To be honest, I'm certain we wouldn't have visited this area if we were in Edinburgh without our children.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Activities in Snowdonia, Wales for Families

I made it no secret in my last post that it wasn't any one activity or site we saw that I'd remember forever about our weekend in Wales. Rather it was the pace of the weekend, the beauty of our surroundings, and the quality time together. But that doesn't mean families will find themselves with a lack of things to do when visiting Snowdonia. Indeed the list of what we wanted to do far exceeded the limitations of our 2 1/2 day trip.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Disconnecting and Reconnecting in Wales

We're just back from a weekend away in Wales, still clinging to the complete sense of relaxation we had while there. I think what brought the most peace to me that weekend was the cottage we rented and its immediate surroundings. Which is ironic because our accommodations were a bit of a headache to plan.

I had originally thought we'd camp that weekend, but my husband had the good sense of questioning whether it would really be warm enough for that. (He's a smart guy... it rained about 75% of our trip and was quite cold... we would have been miserable in a tent!) I then struggled to find a self-catering property suitable for us. Big Arrow is becoming ever more allergic to dogs and cats and so I'm now trying to avoid staying in any property that accepts pets. Yet Wales is a popular area to bring dogs along since it's a great spot for hiking. I was also trying to stay within a 4-hour drive of our house, which meant we were limited to the Snowdonia area. At the last minute, I booked a small cottage I found through the National Trust's website. (Link to the exact cottage near Bets-y-Coed here.)

We had been quite busy leading up to the trip. Lots of commitments, busy schedules, visitors, etc. Something all families can relate to, I'm sure. I was craving time just with just the four of us more than I have since we moved abroad. What better place to cozy up for a few nights than an old, tiny cottage.