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Hogmanay for families with young kids

As the official Edinburgh website puts it Hogmanay is, basically, a New Year’s celebration of,

THREE DAYS of spectacular events, incredible bands and amazing crowds from every corner of the globe.

Maybe not the most child-friendly sounding event, but I still think it’s worth a visit.

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Two years ago, our family was lucky to spend New Year’s in Edinburgh and it is something I want to repeat again soon. While we couldn’t (or didn’t want to, at least) attend the crowded concerts and many events, we still did a lot. We took in the city’s sites, visited their Christmas Markets, took a day trip to St. Andrews, and participated in one of the coolest events I’ve ever experienced.

Edinburgh’s Torchlight Procession

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To kick off the three days of “spectacular events”, the city hosts a torchlight procession. It starts in Old Town, winds down the streets and park until turning on to Princes Street, then marches past the shops, restaurants, hotels, and bystanders until it ends at the top of Calton Hill.

There is absolutely nothing as exhilarating as being part of this procession. Last year there were 35,000 participants. That’s a lot of people. Watching the lit torches ahead of and behind us, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, sent shivers down my spine.

My son had just recently turned one when we went. I worried that the crowds would be too much, but decided we could just step away at any moment if they were. It turned out they were never a concern. There wasn’t a mad rush to make it to the end. It was a peaceful walk.

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Once we started the climb to Calton Hill there were electronic signs letting us know event details. We made it to the top, extinguished our fires, grabbed a quick sandwich from the food truck (one of my best meals in Edinburgh), then listened to the live music, bagpipes, and watched the fireworks show over the city.

For most people reading this, it’s probably too late to book tickets for Edinburgh for Hogmanay this year. If you can make it there, the procession is a free event. The torches are available at a low-cost, but advance sales are sold out. There’s limited supply available the day of, so check there on December 30.

I highly recommend it.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE. I’LL SEE YOU IN 2014.

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Düsseldorf’s Christmas Markets for families

With Köln and Düsseldorf being only a short train ride from each other, there’s a lot of friendly(?) competition between the two. Which is a better place to experience Karneval? Which is a better place to work? To live?

While Köln has a lot going for it: a huge cathedral on the Rhein, direct train to Paris via Thalys, and a beautiful city center, there’s at least one area that Düsseldorf wins – hands down. It’s the better place for families with young kids to see the Christmas markets.

Why Düsseldorf’s Christmas Markets Reign Supreme (over Köln’s) for families

1| Less crowds

Köln’s main markets start right next to the train station. In Düsseldorf, you have to go three stops on the subway to get to them. There are also a lot of markets. If you find that one’s crowded, move on and circle back later. Chances are the crowds have subsided.

2| Family activities

In our short time in Düsseldorf I saw a ferris wheel, several rides, and an ice skating rink. Seriously: family fun at Christmas right in the heart of Düsseldorf.

3| Space to wander

Yes, the crowds are smaller, but there’s also generally more space. The markets seem to have wider “halls”. Not to mention, they’re all located near the Rhein River promenade and the Hofgarten. Have an antsy toddler? There’s plenty of space for them to run around.

 


disclaimer: My most recent trip to Düsseldorf was with Farrah from the Three Under. Although I have gone to the markets before with my clan, this particular trip was without kids. My thoughts above are based on a combination of our girls’ trip and other trips I’ve made in the past. Alternatively, I’ve only been to Köln’s Christmas Market once. I was with the whole family, it was harder to see all the markets to give a proper judgement on some of the topics above. I very well could have missed the super family friendly area with lots of rides and few people. My tip: they’re less than an hour from each other so do both!

Either way, Köln still wins my heart for the Christmas Market with the best food. And not just between it and Düsseldorf, but for all the markets I’ve been to in Germany. 

After exploring a million markets in Düsseldorf, Farrah and I headed to an afternoon tea

 

 

This post is part of the Instagram Travel Thursday linky hosted by Skimbaco LifestyleDestination UnknownChild ModeHines Sight BlogLive.Do.Grow.House of AnaïsLuxury Travel Mom. Click on any of those links to access all Instagram travel posts.

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Köln (Cologne) Christmas Market with Kids

Yes, I’ve written a lot about Christmas markets recently. ‘Tis the season and all that jazz.

Fact is – I love them. It really livens up the fall-to-winter transition around these parts, plus there’s always this great feel of community. Even if the community feels like a million people you don’t know all cramming into one small square in the spirit of the holidays.

Last weekend I took my first trip to one of those super-busy markets, Köln’s Christmas Market. I’ve been hesitant to go there because of silly reasons. My parents went a few years ago and their pictures didn’t really impress me. But, it’s only a short drive from where we live, it’s free, and what else are we to do on a Sunday afternoon in December?

Getting there

There’s currently some construction going on downtown. This didn’t seem to make the traffic any worse (or better), it just is what it is. Four of Köln’s big markets are focused around the cathedral area, which means it’s easy to just take the train to the main train station. So, traffic shouldn’t be an issue for most people.

(Please note: Vodafone did not sponsor this post… 😉 )

Parking, for those that need it, is actually easy to find. There are several signs letting you know which parking garages have free spaces, how many they have, and which direction you need to go to get there. We parked really close to the markets and there were still a lot of spaces available in our garage. The crowds must have all come from the trains.

Crowds: The bad and the good

I went on a Sunday. It was crowded. As I mentioned in a previous post, Christmas markets along the border tend to be more crowded during the day, and especially on weekends, because of the influx of people from other countries. It was difficult to navigate with a big double stroller, but I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I made my walking boy walk. There were just far too many crowds.

The good news is that even on a Sunday afternoon, the market crowds are really concentrated at the Christmas Markets. The surrounding areas, while busy, are nowhere near as busy. Plus, a walk along the Rhein is always fun.

The best part: the FOOD!

I don’t think I’ve been to a Christmas Market in Germany that made me want to return all the gifts I’ve purchased so that I could have money to eat more. Aside from the standard fare (bratwurst, mushrooms, crepes), they had cheese spätzle, grilled beef sandwiches, raclette, baked apples, these delicious thick noodles that I can only describe as bigger and tastier gnocchi with an assortment of toppings, soup, grilled garlic bread with an assortment of toppings, apple strudel, and so much more. Seriously, the best food options I’ve seen.

Our highlight

Other than the food we did eat, I really loved our ride on the small ferris wheel. Many Christmas Markets have large ferris wheels that seem intimidating for me, as a mom of 2 toddlers. If Köln has a larger ferris wheel, I didn’t see it. This small one, though, is at one of the markets (the busy one pictured above). It was built in 1902. Watching it go, it seemed to go so fast. Still, my son wanted to go on and I went with him.

Upon sitting down and the wheel lifting us about 5 feet off the ground, I remembered I’m terrified of heights. All of a sudden I couldn’t really see my surroundings, held on to my son for dear life, and tried to get back into myself. It took a couple of rotations until I calmed down and enjoyed the ride. My son loved it the whole time.

Overall, this has jumped into my top 3 favorite markets. I loved it so much, I’m contemplating getting a hotel there for a few nights so that we can beat the crowds, check out the other markets, and eat some more cheese spätzle.

(Also, Thrifty Travel Mama is doing a series this month on expat holiday celebrations. My post is up there today about how we celebrate in Germany. Don’t worry, I talk about more than just the Christmas Markets. Check out my post and the rest of the series. It’s really interesting!)

This post is part of the Instagram Travel Thursday linky hosted by Skimbaco LifestyleDestination UnknownChild ModeHines Sight BlogLive.Do.Grow.House of AnaïsLuxury Travel Mom. Click on any of those links to access all Instagram travel posts.

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There’s no place like Berlin for the holidays.

Berlin, in December, is fantastic.

It’s magic.

Walking through the city will have you singing your favorite Bing Crosby’s holiday tune –

City Sidewalks, busy sidewalks, in the Holiday Style. In the air there’s the feeling – of Christmas.

There are many things to keep you and your family in the spirit.

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Weihnachts Zauber Gendarmenmarkt

For starters – Christmas markets. Everywhere. My favorite, one of the best I’ve been to, is at Gendarmenmarkt. For a small fee you can enter the small market and enjoy the crafts, food, and drink. All the stalls are white with greenery and twinkle lights. One of the many things that makes this market stand out is the frequent music, theater, and dance performances.

There are two foods you have to try if you go, both are desserts. Poffertjes are small pancake-like tasty treats covered in powdered sugar original. They’re Dutch, but We’ve had them at many markets in Germany and the Netherlands and nothing has compared to the ones we had at the Gendarmentmarkt. The other (pictured below) is the Baumkuchen. Unfortunately they don’t allow photos of the process at this Christmas market because it’s pretty cool. There’s a rod spinning over an open fire, and cake batter is poured on it. Slowly, the thin layer starts to cook, then another layer of batter is poured over it. This is repeated until you end up with multiple layers. Once it’s sliced it looks like the cross-section of a tree, this the name Baum (tree) kuchen (cake). In Berlin you can pick several toppings for it or go plain. It’s a must try.

Tips for Berlin Christmas Markets

  • The Gendarmenmarkt chargess a small fee for the evenings (I think we paid less than 2EUR per adult), but is free in the afternoon. The crowds are also much smaller then. It is completely worth the small fee to enter, but visiting in the daytime is nice.
  • There are Christmas markets all over Berlin. I made it to several, and missed so many that I have to save for a future trip. For more information on all the markets, see Visit Berlin.
  • I find Berlin hotels really affordable during the holiday season. Maybe people fear the chill. If you can afford it, stay as close to one of the Christmas markets as possible. I stayed at the Hilton on Gendarmenmarkt which made it hard to resist heading down to that market every evening. There are many options in the area, and it is a convenient base for site seeing with easy access to public transportation.

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O, Christmas Tree – O, History

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Checkpoint Charlie

A short walk from the Gendarmenmarkt in one direction and you are at Checkpoint Charlie – the former gateway between East and West Berlin. Take a moment to enjoy the history of this spot. Yes, there are plenty of touristy things that weren’t here 25 years ago, but see past that. This was where foreigners and Allied troops could enter East Berlin. Soviet and US troops in tanks faced off here in 1961. Any spy movie set in Berlin between the 60s and 80s most likely include this area. There are several museums in this area, but the Open Air Exhibit along Friedrichstr., Zimmermanstr., and Schützenstrasse, is an easy way to learn more. With images and information depicting the escape attempts, the symbolism, and the history of this area.

Brandenburg Gate

Walk for a little while in the other direction and you end up walking along Unter den Linden. Along the way you will find tons of shopping options, the Rittersport chocolate shop (where kids might enjoy a chance to make their own candy bar), and the hotel made famous by Michael Jackson. At the end of the street, the Brandenburg Gate.

I think the tree here is the largest in Berlin, it’s quite the sight. I bet it’s even better at night.

The Reichstag building is just around the corner. It’s free to tour, but you have to make a reservation in advance. It’s suggested to do it early so there’s space available. The audio tour is one of the best. As you walk up the building, the tour stops and starts automatically based on your location. I hear there’s also a good tour for children, but ours were asleep in the stroller for most of the visit.

 

Fun for kids

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Berlin has a lot of activities for kids, and most of those places go the extra mile during the holidays. The Legoland Discovery Center at Potzdamer Platz is one of those places. We didn’t make it during the day, but at night the surroundings had many seasonal Lego sculptures. Some interactive. The kids, mine and everyone I saw, loved it.

 

More Berlin Tips

  • U-bahn (subway) maps indicate which stops have elevators. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be operational, but it’s good to know.
  • If you wear the proper attire, Berlin’s Zoo and the Tiergarten are a good escape from the crowds in the winter. And kids will love it.
  • KaDeWe, the second largest department store in Europe, offers child care service during their operating hours. A perfect way to shop or visit their famous international food hall.
  • Be on the look out for Eltern, Spiel, Eltern-Kind, Familien or Kinder cafes . These cafes are specifically for families, with a small play area for the kids and a dining menu for the adults. (Use google translate on this page to see if there’s one in the area you’re visiting: Family Cafes in Berlin.)
  • Visit Berlin offers special packages, at reasonable prices, for families. These package include hotel stay, admission and discounts to several sites, and a map for the kids.(Also, check out their site for more tips on things for families in Berlin.)

 

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler link up hosted by Chasing the Donkey, Latitude 34, Ice Cream and Permafrost, Pack Me To, A Southern Gypsey, A Brit & A Southerner, and Frank About Croatia. Click here for more information about the link-up and read other travel related posts.how to check my google rankingtop google keyword searches

San Francisco CityPass

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We recently spent a few days in San Francisco.

We bought the CityPass.

It’s really easy to use. A coupon per attraction, 4 attractions, valid for 9 days, and a public transportation and cable car pass for 7 days. We already planned to go to all the places listed, so purchasing admission via one pass was the economical way to go. The question then becomes, are the sites included worth it? Here’s my feeling about the things we did and places we saw.

MUNI & Cable Car 7-Day Passport

The cable car, and MUNI, both get very crowded. With all the hills it’s understandable. As a family with two young kids, on vacation, we do a lot a walking. We keep our stroller with us. We didn’t use the public transport too often because it required folding the stroller if the bus/trolley was full.

In the mornings when we set out, awake and without any souvenirs crowding our baskets, we took the bus. At the end of the day one of the kids was likely sleeping and it was too much of a hassle. So, we just walked back.

Unfortunately, due to the long lines when we ready, and shorter lines when we weren’t, we didn’t get a chance to go on a cable car. But, we also didn’t go out of our way to try to find a way to ride one. It just wasn’t a priority for this trip. Don’t worry, San Francisco, we’ll be back when the kids are older.

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Exploratorium -or- deYoung Museum

With the CityPass you can either go to the Exploratorium or the deYoung Museum. We’re a science center family so the Exploratorium was the obvious choice.

I loved this museum and wish we had more time there. It never felt crowded. The exhibits were not only captivating, but ranged in difficulty levels that kept the one-year-old, the almost three-year old, and the two thirty-somethings interested.

Among our favorites? A water fountain built into a toilet bowl (daring you to take a sip out of it), a stop motion camera set-up (that you can then email to yourself), and the marble machines (pictured above, and doesn’t it look easy to recreate at home?).

Aquarium of the Bay -or- Monterrey Bay Aquarium

With Aquarium of the Bay being right at Pier 39 and Monterrey Bay Aquarium being 2 hours away in Monterrey, my guess is most people will go with the Aquarium of the Bay when they buy the CityPass.

Unfortunately, the Aquarium of the Bay wasn’t one of our favorite aquariums. We enjoyed the two tunnels giving you a nice underwater experience, seeing all the schools of fish is amazing. Even with the two-year old who stopped at every fish, though, it was a quick tour. Our time would’ve been better spent in other areas of the city.

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Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise

There are a lot of options to cruise the Bay, but this is the only one offered with the CityPass. I don’t know if it is the best or the worst, but it is one of the busiest.

The Blue & Gold Fleet is conveniently located between Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. The boats leave several times a day. The line gets long quick, so get there early to up the chances of securing a better seat. We sat on the top deck. Our preference is usually to sit inside (with two young kids it’s just easier), but the windows were extremely dirty. I don’t know if sitting inside is ever an option (there weren’t chairs there either), but if so, I do hope they clean them!

The information shared during the one hour cruise was interesting. It included facts about the different places we passed on the coast and how the Golden Gate got its name. We also cruised around Alcatraz to view it from a different angle.

Whether you go with this line, or another, definitely take time to see the city from the water.

California Academy of Science

Our short time in the city meant that we had to miss this stop. I’ve only heard good things, but can’t review it from personal experience.

San Francisco’s CityPass – Last Thoughts

If you are planning to see these sites anyway, get the pass. While the pass is valid for 9 days, each coupon can only be used once. It doesn’t allow multiple visits over the validity of the pass. The Exploratorium and Aquarium of the Bay, however, do allow same-day reentry.

We were able to do everything on the pass, aside from the California Academy of Science, in one day. And that’s with two children two and under. We could have easily spent more time at the Exploratorium. I think that’s worth a day on its own. However, we also could have completely avoided the Aquarium.

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