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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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Thanksgiving abroad, done right

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. As an expat, though, it can be difficult. Work continues as normal, shops are open, and no one seems to care about turkey, black friday, or American traditions. Well, that is everyone except for other expats and some people in the city of Leiden, NL.

For a little background on how Thanksgiving, Leiden, the Travel Turtle family, and the Three Under family decided to hang out together check out my post from last Wednesday, The Most American Thanksgiving.

One thing you might not know reading that post is that I was nervous. Again, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I was really worried that the choices we made for last Thursday were going to leave me homesick for the U.S. I worried things might border on tacky, or exhausting, or a sad combination of both.

I’ve never been so wrong.

Pieterskirk Special Thanksgiving Service

It was like a dream. Here I was, an expat listening to a Thanksgiving service, in English, on Thanksgiving Day, surrounded by other Americans (and, at the very least, others who wanted to acknowledge a foreign holiday on a Thursday afternoon), while in the Netherlands, home of the Pilgrim’s first expat experience was pinch-me perfect. I think Farrah, from the Three Under, used the word camaraderie, and that was exactly what it was.

The kids surprised me. They did great.

For those with young children considering the Thanksgiving service in Leiden in the future, know this: it’s child friendly. It’s full, but it’s not crowded. When my one-year old was tired of sitting quietly, we headed to the very back of the church where she walked around quietly with other small kids.

After the service, the church offered cookies and drinks. Amongst the choices: snickerdoodles! turkey shaped frosted sugar cookies! speculoos!

 

Thanksgiving dinner at the Holiday Inn, Leiden

Most of my 30+ Thanksgiving dinners have been in the comfort of someone’s home. One exception was a trip I took to London in my 20s (so much fun!). Another was the year I visited my grandmother in Massachusetts and she opted to go out to eat instead of cook. That one did not go so well. The restaurant overbooked, we waited and waited, then felt rushed. The food was, well, boring. If you imagine the minimal items you need to make a Thanksgiving dinner, that’s what we had. On top of this, it was crowded and hard to enjoy each other because no one wanted to be there.

My nerves for Thanksgiving day mainly focused on dinner. The Holiday Inn’s Thanksgiving buffet was the only option I saw online for Leiden. (While walking through the city after church I saw at least one other restaurant had a Thanksgiving meal. My internet search prior to the trip found at least two in Amsterdam, which isn’t too far away. For future reference, those were at the Hard Rock Cafe and the American Book Store.)

Back to the Holiday Inn. I wondered, would it be crowded? Would the food be ok? Would it be cheesy? Would it make me homesick because it’s impossible to recreate the feeling of the holiday being far away from home?  How are the kids going to deal with sitting at a restaurant after a day of driving to Leiden, attending a church service, walking all over the city and the museums? Can the Dutch make Thanksgiving not only special to me as I know it to be, but to my kids as well?

My concerns were put to ease immediately.

A friendly host greeted us and walked us past a display of American flags, pumpkins, and other season-appropriate decorations. They brought us to our long table seating 9 people. The first thing I noticed was the space. We weren’t cramped so close to other tables that we had to whisper our conversation. There was a large group of about 18-20 people sitting next to us and we didn’t even notice them.

On the other side of the restaurant there was a small playroom for kids of all ages. In it was a ball pit, an indoor climbing and slide contraptions, and several playstations. Our kids alternated between hanging out at the table and running around in the playroom.

I had low expectations for the food. This particular Holiday Inn has a family buffet night once a week anyway. I worried that it would be a slightly nicer version of that, but still not very good.

I don’t know what their family buffet is like, but this Thanksgiving dinner buffet felt special. Someone took good care in making a bunch of expats feel like they were home. There was an assortment of appetizers (I had the crawfish), soups (clam chowder and pumpkin), a salad bar with a lot of choices (and the best waldorf salad I’ve ever had and can’t believe I didn’t get seconds), as well as all the traditional Thanksgiving fixings, plus sweet and sour chicken, steak, (and who knows what else, I stuck to tradition) and a large variety of Dutch and American desserts (including an ice cream bar).

Everything was delicious. The ham, as always seems to be the case in the Netherlands, was amazing. The only complaint I heard, and agree with, is the stuffing had way too much gizzard and the pieces were way too big.

The buffet started at 6:00 and ended at 9:30. Your table was your table for the night. There was no rush, no lines of people looking in waiting for you to get up so they could sit down. You could do the one thing Thanksgiving is known for – graze. It was, without exaggeration, what Thanksgiving should feel like without all the family drama, loads of dishes, and rush to Target’s Thanksgiving day sales… it was perfect.

Would I do it again? I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

Tips

  • If  you’re an American and anywhere near Leiden for Thanksgiving, please go to the service and this dinner. It’s a really nice way to keep traditions alive while abroad and you’ll still get a cultural experience you would not get at home.
  • The doors to the Pieterskirk open at least an hour before the service starts. Obviously, the earlier you get there, the more choice of seating you get.
  • Our GPS was not working properly in Leiden. In a first for us, there were multiple times we were told to turn onto a street that no longer existed. Thus, the city streets then seemed really confusing.
  • Reserve your table for dinner at the Holiday Inn in advance. We booked at least 2 weeks ahead of time and I noticed that all the tables were reserved.
  • Get the pumpkin pie early. I overheard someone say it’s the first dessert to run out every year. I didn’t go back to check if it was there later, but I wouldn’t take any chances with pumpkin pie.
  • Book a night at the Holiday Inn Leiden. It’s a nice place. Then you can relax before and after your meal without having to drive anywhere.
  • Take Friday off. Part of what helps make Thanksgiving feel like Thanksgiving is the three-day work week.
  • There is an American Pilgrim museum in Leiden that we missed. We didn’t want to push our luck with our kid’s patience and it didn’t seem to be too double stroller friendly. If you don’t have those limitations, go.
  • For more tips on what to do during the day, check out the Three Under for their review of Thanksgiving in Leiden and on instagram: #amostAmericanTgiving

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.car cover porsche 996 4snews release servicesDefender Discovery MS-630 Black-blue

Christmas Markets with young kids

‘ Tis the season for… CHRISTMAS MARKETS!

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Now that we’re in our fourth Christmas season in Germany, we’ve come to look forward to the Christmas markets. We try to see as many as possible. It means a lot of advance planning to get the perfect combination of big city, small city, big market, and small market experiences. I usually rely on recommendations from friends and the information on the major markets on the German Christmas Market website. Don’t worry, my own family-friendly recommendations will be at the end of the post. (Also, updated 9 Dec 2013: I added a chart rating some of the German Christmas markets I’ve been to at the bottom of this post.)

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The wonderful thing about Christmas markets is that there is a little something for everyone. Matching stalls and twinkling lights, selling anything from handmade items to antique treasures to mass-produced decorations, fill the city centers. There’s usually at least one carousel ride for the kids, someone selling large balloons, and maybe even a ferris wheel to see the city from a new perspective. German festival food staples, such as bratwurst, mushrooms in garlic sauce, and fresh waffles and crepes are plentiful. Some markets include food stalls from other countries making it easy to try a variety of food in one place. Then there’s the drinks: beer, glühwein (hot mulled wine), hot chocolate, and kid punch – usually in some cute souvenir cup that’s worth collecting.

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Plus, it’s really inexpensive overall.

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The hardest part, especially for families with young kids, is the crowds.

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But, this isn’t the Black-Friday-snatch-the-last-barbie-doll-before-someone-else-gets-it type of crowd. It’s a community crowd. Young and old, it’s rare to find people who don’t want to be at the Christmas market. It can easily be an all day adventure. People stroll. They grab a small bite, stand at one of the benches, and chat. Check out the vendors, maybe grab a gift or two, and repeat. They keep warm with the drinks. The children ride the carousel. Young kids, snuggled up in their stroller, will likely fall asleep. There’s no rush. So, don’t let the thought of crowds deter you!

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If you’re thinking of going to Germany around Christmastime, it will be almost impossible to avoid the Christmas Market scene. Here are some tips to keep in mind when planning:

  • Though most, if not all, of Germany’s neighboring countries have their own Christmas Markets, German markets are extra special. Markets along the border can get busier during the day and on weekends because of the influx of day-trippers from other countries. There can be smaller crowds at night at those markets.
  • Most markets are located near big shopping areas. Most shopping areas are closed on Sunday.
  • While some vendors accept credit cards, most food and drink vendors do not. Bring plenty of cash.
  • For all drinks there is a deposit, or pfand, on the glass or mug. It’s a fun game to try to figure out which vendor has the best mug at each market. You can keep the mugs, or return them and get your money back.
  • Big cities will usually have multiple markets running at the same time. One that is always fun is the medieval market. The market doesn’t rely on electricity in their stalls for lighting or cooking.
  • If at all possible, stay at a hotel that offers a view of the city.
  • Most markets are free. For those that do charge an entrance fee, it is usually small. The only Christmas Market I remember paying an entrance fee for was the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. It was completely worth it. The white stalls and twinkle lights are beautiful. The market is small compared to others, but with the atmosphere of the grand buildings, the orchestra playing, and the most amazing food I’ve had at any market, it’s a place I want to return to every year.
  • Erfurt’s Christmas Markets are another place worth visiting year after year. There are many markets between the New Town, over the quaint Merchant’s bridge with permanent shops set up on both sides, then down to the very large Domplatz in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus. Erfurt is beautiful throughout the year, but there is definitely magic in the air in December.
  • German Christmas Market season ends December 23. Many neighboring countries will continue their markets until the first week of January. See as much within Germany before they end, then venture to other countries. My favorites are in Antwerp and Edinburgh.
  • Holiday Nomad has a great comprehensive list of specific European markets visited and loved by other travel bloggers. Check it out.

Here’s a photo of my son looking down into Erfurt’s Christmas Market from our room at the Radisson Blu a few years ago.

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Wherever you live, do you have a favorite Christmas celebration?

Updated 9 Dec 2013: I’m including a table rating different Christmas markets I’ve visited on different aspects that I like looking for personally when traveling with my kids. In regards to the column “Stuff for kids” – any high score means that there’s a few rides for kids. Lower scores indicate there are no rides, but it’s possibly still child friendly. A score of 10 would mean that there’s rides as well as a children’s program that we attended.

[table caption=”German Christmas Markets” ]
City, Market Name, Time of Visit, Crowd, Food, Souvenir Mug, Quality of Goods, Atmosphere, Stuff for Kids
Berlin, Gendarmen Markt, Night, 9, 7, 10, 8, 10, 2
Berlin, Gendarmen Markt, Afternoon, 2, 7, 10, 8, 8, 2
Essen, Multiple in the City Center, Afternoon, 5, 7, 8, 8, 8, 7
Essen, Multiple in the City, Night, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, 7
Erfurt, Multiple in the City Center, Night, 7, 8, 10, 8, 10, 7
Oberhausen, Centr”O” area, Afternoon, 7, 8, 5, 7, 8, 10*
Düsseldorf, Altstadt and Kö area, Afternoon, 7, 7, 8, 8, 7, 7
Köln, Zentrum/Dom area, Afternoon, 9, 10, 8, 9, 9, 4
[/table]

*Oberhausen’s Centr”O” area has a Sea Life Aquarium and Adventure Park, plus a Legoland Discovery Center. So within the vicinity of the Christmas market there are lots of activities for kids anyway. (But, I do believe they have Christmas market season-only activities for kids, too.)

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