Austria’s Saint Johan im Pongau. Truly a “kinderparadise” and a Family Vacation Gem! Part 1

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My husband loves Austria, and I don’t blame him.  The entire country is full of beautiful landscapes and marvelous cities.  While I’m a little more of a fan of places like Vienna and Salzburg, Austria is one place that a city girl can enjoy the outdoors with her adventurous husband without having to hike 10 miles with mountain gear on your back.  Maybe a 20lb toddler instead.  Here is our arrival and day one in this beautiful part of Austria that turned out to be one of our BEST family vacations!

Burg Hohenwerfen in Werfen, Austria.

Burg Hohenwerfen in Werfen, Austria.

For this trip, our destination was determined by what was available through our timeshare exchange that would sleep five people (a majority of European properties are for two to four people).  There happen to be an exchange with a hotel in Sankt Johan im Pongau.  It was a large sports hotel, next to a mini shopping “mall” and across the street from a lovely park with a playground.  The Alpine Sports Hotel lived up to its name.  It had its own racquet ball courts, a large swimming pool and a group fitness/dance room.  The staff was incredibly friendly and offered tour and vacation planning services as well as housing two restaurants within the hotel.

Immediately after hitting up the tourist pamphlet stand for the whole Pongau area, I wished we had planned for longer than three days.  Our reservation was just for three nights and four days (Monday through Thursday) as that was all that was available when we booked through RCI.  Our plan was to go into Slovenia on Thursday for two days before returning to Munich.  After our late arrival in Austria on Monday night, I came up with a proposed plan for how to spend our few days in the Pongau region.  As it turned out, the world’s largest ice cave was located just 20 minutes north of our town!  It immediately became a priority for our trip.  Across the highway from the mountain with the ice cave was a hill top castle as well.  The Tuesday morning goal was to feed the kids then head to the castle followed by an afternoon tour of the ice cave.  On the drive to the castle, I happened to read the brochure for the ice cave again and it said to allow for 6 hours! It also said that the last gondola up to the top of the mountain was going to be at 4:45 p.m. that day.  Still, I was not discouraged!

We arrived at the castle with the threats of rain looming over us and about an hour behind schedule.  To get to the castle, there was the choice of a 15-20 minute walk up to the top or quicker option, the gondola.  To save time, we took the ride.  The castle, “Burg Hohenwerfen” turned out to be a gold mine for the kids! It was well kept, had the feel of walking into a knight’s strong hold, and had marvelous programs and activities specifically for kids!  At the ticket office we were given a story book map for each of the kids.  There were stations around the castle that you have to answer the questions for to solve a puzzle at the end.  When you got them all correct, you could take your booklet to the office at the exit for a little treat.  This immediately captured the attention of our two boys (6 & 4 years old) who had grown accustom to walking around Castles and Palaces that sometimes got boring.

The ride up to the castle.

The ride up to the castle.

In order to go into the interior rooms of the castle, you had to meet in the courtyard for an official tour.  Fortunately for us, the English guided tour was to start about 15 minutes after we arrived and the line was much shorter than the German one.  In addition to the guide, we also had the electronic wands that gave added information about each room.  The kids got their own special wands with a unique children’s program that highlighted more interested points for them in a fun story book kind of way.  I listened to a few and had wished we all just got the children ones!  While there were not elaborate rooms with lots of furniture in this castle, we did get to go up into their working clock/bell tower.  It should be noted that this included some narrow and steep stair passages.  I had my 18 month old on my back in the Ergo.  Had I been alone on this particular tour, it may have been difficult to guide the two boys and balance myself with the baby on my back up and down the stair cases in very tight quarters.  One parent who had carried their child in their arms, even accidently whacked the poor little one’s head on a wood beam while trying to descend. I was thankfully with my husband on this part of our trip so we managed, and the view from the top of the bell tower was worth it!

A special kids guide in English for the tiny tourists.

A special kids guide in English for the tiny tourists.

After the tour of the castle, back in the courtyard, we played with several old fashioned games they had set up in different stations.  There were walking stilts, wooden unicorns that you tossed rings over the horn, and then a ball pendulum that you tried to knock over pins with in a circle.  All three of the kids had a wonderful time playing the games.  It was tough to drag them away, but I was bent on getting to that ice cave before the last tour and their booklets with the scavenger hunt puzzle was a nice incentive.  We didn’t sit to watch the hawking show because we wanted to finish the kids’ hunt and go to the ice cave.  This I regret.  Even though we spent about 4 hours at the castle, I felt we could have spent the entire day!  But, it was time to get on over to the ice cave in my mind.  Despite me being in a hurry, the kids wanted to walk down to the car through the trails, so we did.  It provided a nice conversation about why we stay on the path at historic and natural sites and a brief lesson in soil and root erosion.

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Top of the bell tower.

Back at the car we headed the short distance across the highway to the road up to the next mountain for the ice cave.  I didn’t know what to expect as we approached the parking lot stages.  We arrived at a place to park rather close to the “entrance” and had one hour before the last tour was going to start.  We weren’t sure if we should take the stroller or just the ergo.  Since we were in a hurry, I thought we’d try the stroller.  By time we got up to the ticket counter, we had 50 minutes left to make it to the cave entrance and they told us it was a 20 minute walk to the gondola and then another 20 minutes to the cave entrance from the top of the gondola. The whole time my husband kept telling me that we should just wait till the next day, that they kids couldn’t do it, that we wouldn’t make it.  But my stubborn self would not listen.  I knew the kids could do it, and just felt he didn’t know them as well as I did and I would “show him” that he was wrong.  So we purchased the tickets after asking if a full refund was possible if we didn’t make it.  They said yes, the ticket had 2 parts, one for the gondola and the other for the cave tour and they tear off a piece of the ticket at each stage, so which ever wasn’t torn off, we’d get the refund.

View of the castle from the ice cave mountain side.

View of the castle from the ice cave mountain side.

With tickets in hand, we started up the mountain.  Now, one would think, knowing that it was a mountain we were going up, that I would have anticipated just how steep the walk was going to be.  However, as gradual as the path up looked, it turned out to be pretty exhausting to push the stroller up the path with a toddler in it!  We pushed on, panting, and my husband incredibly annoyed at the speed I was trying to push everyone.  After 18 minutes, we made it to the gondola station, only to find a really long line.  I was still optimistic that we would make the last tour, until 5 minutes went by and no one moved.  Then 10 minutes and the gondola had then come 2 times and we barely made progress.  I’m ashamed to admit I was in a full 2 year old pouting fit.  It was clear we weren’t going to make it up in time for the tour.  I was so mad and even blaming the ticketing counter for selling us a ticket when they clearly must have known there was no chance that we’d make it.  “If they had just told us there was no chance to make it, we wouldn’t have suffered through the first leg of the hike for nothing!” I reasoned.  But in fact, my husband told me this, and the ticket counter told us what the hike times were.  Even without a wait at the gondola, we only had a 5 minute window for error on the hike times alone.  I learned a tough lesson that day, actually a few tough lessons and reminders.  1. Your attitude effects everyone on the trip. 2. Sometimes your spouse IS right. 3. Don’t rush your experiences, quality rather than quantity is going to give you the better outcome and memories on a vacation.  Had I just resided myself to the fact that we were going to just do the castle that day, we could have also learned more about the birds and scene the falcon and hawk show and, if something (like the ice cave) is important enough to visit, you will make time for it.  As we did the next day of the trip.  With so much to see and do in that area, I was so set on getting to try out as much as I could.  But the thing is, you won’t really miss getting to do the thing you don’t see, but you will miss getting to do the stuff at the place you do visit and rush through.  So, learn from my mistake and take your time!  And check out the next post coming soon about our big day in the ice cave!  We did make it, the following morning, and from parking lot start to finish, it was a 6 hour adventure that was well worth the wait!!!

The boys checking their final answers from the scavenger's hunt.

The boys checking their final answers from the scavenger’s hunt.

Brussels, Belgium. Home of the Waffle, Fries and One of Europe’s Most Beautiful Town Squares!

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Belgium, that country Americans only associate with waffles and other Europeans, a fountain of a peeing little boy.  Even though Brussels, the country’s capital, is also home to the capital of the European Union, it doesn’t get much play on being a popular tourist town.  I don’t often hear “I’ve dreamed of visiting Brussels my whole life!” But trust me, if you haven’t, you are missing out!

Our first year in Germany we lived 2 hours by car from Brussels.  The city’s beautify and proximity to our new home made it our go to “let’s get out of town” weekend destination, much to the disbelief of our German friends who thought we were crazy to drive some where so far away just for the weekend.  One of the cultural difference between Germans and Americans, our perception of how far is too far to drive and how long even “short” get-a-ways are.  Our first trip to Brussels we did in just one day.  I had moved to Germany 2 weeks prior and I was bursting at the seams to explore and see other countries now that we were there and everything was “so close.” We literally woke up that morning, in the snow, and decided that since it was the weekend and my husband actually had the day off, we needed to go somewhere.

The Cantillon brewery in Brussels, Belgium

The Cantillon brewery in Brussels, Belgium

 

A friend of ours, who had met up with us from her travels in Italy, mentioned a really old Belgium brewery that she wanted to see in Brussels.  It is the oldest continuously family operated brewery in Belgium, over a 100 years.  The name of the brewery is Cantillon.  So, off to Brussels we went.  To be sure we got there before they closed, we went to the brewery first.  At the time, my oldest son was just 22 months old and my other son was just 2 months old!  The brewery was charming, not very big, but just what I had expected in my mind when I imagined a quaint family owned European brewery.  At the end of the tour you got a sample of their beer, which is actually bottled in glass bottles that look more like champagne than beer bottles.  It is also more of a fruity beer too, which was wonderful for a person like myself who isn’t as fond of beer as I am wine.  While all three of us adults were starting to enjoy our free refreshment, my little toddler started reaching up towards our glasses and indicating that he wanted some.  Apparently the server noticed this before I did as by time I figured out what my son wanted and started to tell him “no you can’t ha…..” the server had already poured him a small glass and then held it up to his mouth so he could take a drink! I was shocked.  Not so much in the fact that my toddler just took his first sip of alcohol, but because someone just gave it to him without asking.  It was definitely one of those things that would have never happened in the U.S.  The server just smiled at him then set the glass down on the table as to indicate that we could then do what we wanted with it.  My little guy of course wanted some more of the “juice” as it was rather sweet.  I looked at my husband and we agreed we would let him have one more sip.  I’ve always maintained a bit of the attitude that if you don’t make a big deal out of things you don’t want your kids to have they will be less likely to want them.  So after his second little sip we gave it back to the server, thanked him, and told him we were done with it.  All I could think the rest of the day was “Welcome to Europe Heather. We’re not in Kansas anymore!”

The small taste of fruity Belgium bier the server gave our son to taste.

The small taste of fruity Belgium bier the server gave our son to taste.

After our tour of the brewery we headed into the city center.  Even with the gloomy and snowy January weather with the sun barely cracking threw, I almost lost my breath when we entered the square.  The Grand Place (or Grote-Markt in Dutch) lives up to it’s name.  We were surrounded by tall, detailed buildings, some painted with gold accents, with the clock tower of the Town Hall building reigning supreme over the square.   It was what I imaged the rest of Europe to be like, each street doused with palace like building facades.  However wrong I was about all of Europe looking this way, in Brussels, you can walk through the square and feel like you are royalty and that this is your private court yard and the hustle and bustle around you are simply your courtiers carrying about the business of the land on your behalf.

The Grand-Place (Main Square) in Brussels, Belgium.

The Grand-Place (Main Square) in Brussels, Belgium.

Of course to make the city center even better, as you wander the little alleys that shoot off in all different directions, you encounter tempting chocolate shops and the ever popular waffles!  Restaurants galor also occupy the surrounding streets around the Grand-Place.  Brussels is also famous for mussels and traditional restaurant food is described as “French quality with German portions!”  We came across what looked like a more traditional French restaurant and decided to stop there for lunch.  I was looking forward to trying out my rusty French since my German was non-existent at the time.  Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch, and German.  Of course many people also speak English.  We had a nice meal in a crammed booth, but were excited to get in given the size of our party (5 is considered large, especially with a stroller to tuck away).  But we managed and my oldest son even got his own dish of “frites.”

Learning to be a sophisticated little boy in a French restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.

Learning to be a sophisticated little boy in a French restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.

We wondered back to the town center for dessert, we HAD to get a waffle!  Somehow you are supposed to eat all the piled high yumminess that is a Belgium waffle with an itsy bitsy tiny fork.  I was willing to try, despite my Celiac and the risk of being sick for the next few days, I took the plunge right into the whip cream and ate the waffle.  I did of course share with my older son.  We lingered about the square as we finished our waffles before breaking out the map and seeing what else was near by.

Beligum waffles, they do actually exist in the real Belgium.  Just don't expect syrup!

Beligum waffles, they do actually exist in the real Belgium. Just don’t expect syrup!

I noticed the royal palace with a park that looked within walking distance so we headed that direction.  The snowy park wasn’t exactly covered enough for a beautiful winter wonderland, but it provided enough sliding fun for my toddler with the palace providing a regal backdrop.  As we were approaching the end of the day, and the temperature was starting to drop, we headed back.  Had we ventured just a little further away from the palace, we would have found a nice playground, which we did visit on our next trip.  We also did not make it over to The Atomium, from 1958 when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair.  Paris got the Eiffel Tower, Seattle got the Space Needle, Brussels got The Atomium.  While it is a tourist draw, we drove by it and sadly it seem like Seattle and Paris got the better deal for long term landmarks.  There is so much more to explore in Brussels than we were able to do in all of our trips.  Mostly because each time we go we get mesmerized by the city center and just want to hang out in the beautiful scenery and chocolate shops.  By far the best times to go is in August when they have the annual Flower Carpet in August, and in December for the Christmas markets.

In the "Parc de Bruxelles", in front of the Palace of Brussels.

In the “Parc de Bruxelles”, in front of the Palace of Brussels.

(This trip was from January 2010)

5 Favorite European Cities for Family Vacations

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When my husband and I first started traveling with our children, and later as I traveled alone with them, we never really picked out a place based on how “kid friendly” it was.  My three children all took their first international trips before the age of 2 years old, and since we were living in Europe when they were all under the age of 5 years old, they went to several different countries at very young ages.  At first, they were just along for the ride.  We went to places that we wanted to see, and then just found something cool for them to do once we got there.  What we found during those toddler years was that the kids just want to be like us.  If we’re excited about something, they are too.  It’s all about how you present the activity.  Amidst our hit and miss journeys with the kids, I chose to highlight 5 of the city vacations we took as a family that stood out the most for being enjoyed equally by parents and kids.

1. Budapest, Hungary.  I’m putting this charming capital city right at #1! It earns its spot not just because we enjoyed our time there so much, but because we didn’t have enough time to see everything the city has to offer and I long to go back.  We visited in January, so our winter experience will be a little different from a trip in the summer.  We chose to do the Hop-On-Hop off tour that left from a park across the street from our hotel (Le Méridien Budapest).  At the time of travel our two boys were 2 and 3 1/2 years old.  They got a big kick out of the large bus and listening to the headphones.  Highlights of the trip included: Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Hungarian Parliament Building, the Szechenyi Baths,  and the Városliget (the main “City Park”).  The Városliget has so much to offer families – both the zoo and circus are located here – but we did not make it to visit either of them on our 3 day trip.  Since we were there in the winter, we were able to ice skate outdoors on the lake in the Városliget.  It was a magical setting with the beautiful Castle Vajdahunyad in the background.  Our dining highlight was at the New York Cafe. It’s as glamorous inside as any palace in Europe.

Ice Skating in Budapest

Ice Skating in Budapest

2. Paris, France. I know, typical tourist you’ll say.  But who can resist the city of lights.  There’s a reason our travels have taken us back there time after time.  There is always more to see, and yet I often end up back at some of my favorite 3 or 4 spots each time.  Plus, Paris has an abundance of playgrounds that are really cool and very close to all the other “adult” attractions.  As awesome as the Metro is for getting around, I now find walking and the bus much more enjoyable with the kids than the smelly underground that is constantly posing a risk to theft from pick pockets.  While visiting, make sure to take the kids to the playground on the side and back of the Notre Dame (get wiggles out before you visit the cathedral or as a bribe for good behavior after the tour).  Spend your lunch in the Tuileries at the large playground in the middle of the park next to the carousel.  Then take the kids to the Lourve after they’ve had some fun running around.  For parents that are nervous about art museums and kids, try going on a Wednesday or Friday night if your little ones will sleep in a stroller, the museum is open until 9:45 p.m. on these nights.  The Jardin du Luxembourg and the Jardin des Plantes are also favorites of ours with enough to keep both adults and kids entertained for days.

Playground in the Tuileries. Paris, France.

Playground in the Tuileries. Paris, France.

3. London, U.K.  How can you not love London, except for the perhaps the prices?!  We had so much fun on our first trip there with our kids that we ended up extending the holiday an extra 2 days!    An entire day can be spend just roaming Hyde park.  Its 3 major playgrounds are wonderful stops in between wandering rose gardens and memorials.  The favorite was the Peter Pan themed, Diana Memorial Playground next to Kensington Palace.  No wonder Prince William and Princess Kate decided to make Kensington their family home.  While we didn’t take our kids to the Tower of London or Windsor on our family trip, we’ve always had success with castles and kids so a trip to these sights would be worth it for the whole family.  After you’ve watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, walk through St. Jame’s Park where there is a small playground as well as an abundance of different types of birds walking around, you’ll then end up at the Horse Guard Parade next to the British Cabinet offices and the famous 10 Downing Street.  After watching the horse changing of the guard it’s a quick walk over to the beautiful Westminster Abbey and Big Ben at the Parliament Building.  A ride on the London Eye is well worth the wait and the money.  We did it with a 3 and 1 year old.  There is also a wonderful playground across from the London Eye.  Use these different playground stops to get get rid of some energy in between some of the more formal sights and museums that “mum” and dad want to enjoy.

View from the London Eye.

View from the London Eye.

4. Munich, GermanyI may be a little bias to Munich because I actually lived there for 2 years, but I think most tourists who have visited the city with kids would agree that it’s a gem for families.  Munich in general is a very clean and safe city with an excellent public transportation system.  Beyond the traditional tourist attractions mentioned in guidebooks, a few things make Munich stand out as a fabulous family destination.  Beirgartens with playgrounds!  Yes, you can bring your children to the “bar” so to say.  Munich is full of wonderful biergartens that serve traditional Bavarian food and the all famous Mass of beer.  Outdoor seating is first come first serve and, besides being able to bring your kids to play on the playground while you have a “cold one”, you can also bring your own food!  You must purchase your drinks there, but while food is available for purchase, it is perfectly acceptable to bring your own picnic lunch to eat at the beer garden while enjoying a nice Helles or an Apfelschoeler for the kids.  We spent most of our beirgarten hours at Hofbräukeller (not to be confused with the Hofbräuhaus) and The Chinese Tower in the English Garden due to the proximity to our home.  However, the Hirchaugarten on the other side of the city is also extremely popular for families.  Additionally, Munich has several restaurants that will offer an indoor play area for kids and often includes child care workers to watch them while parents enjoy their meal.  It’s typical to tip the workers 1-2 Euros per child for this service.  Brenner Grill is a great Sunday brunch spot with this service.  And since it is right next to the Residence (city palace), you can feed them and let them play before taking a tour inside the palace.  Munich has several world-class art museums for adults as well as the famous Deutsches Museum that is a hit for the whole family!  All these attractions have playgrounds nearby.  And no one can mention Munich without emphasising the Englischer Garten.  Spend the day there for loads of fun with the whole family! You’ll also find numerous activities at the Olympia Park where the 1976 Olympics were held.  You’ll find activities such as putt-putt (mini-golf), ice skating (indoors), boat rentals for the little lake in the summer and the BMW Museum (BMW Welt).  Plus lots of green park to explore! This city is definitely one of the most relaxed urban environments in Europe!

Playground at the Chinese Tour Biergarten in the Englischer Garten, Munich, Germany

Playground at the Chinese Tour Biergarten in the Englischer Garten, Munich, Germany

5. Vienna, Austria.  Austria continues to be one of our favorite countries in Europe overall.  We took a trip to Vienna in November and then again in December for Christmas.  To even our own surprise, we did the most “adult” things on our visits with our boys (ages 3 and 4 1/2 at the time) and yet they still had a blast.  We visited the fewest number of playgrounds; I am pretty sure we only went to one the whole time.  Yet even their young eyes were fascinated by the glittering gold and paintings in St. Peter’s Church. We took them to the Albertina and Belvedere Art Museum and had fun asking the boys to tell us what they saw in each painting.  At the Schloss Schönbrunn, you can tour the remarkable grounds of the palace and the imperial apartments, and then let the kids get a taste of what it was like to be a royal child in the children’s museum.  This offers a whole wing of the palace dedicated to hands on child-centered museum activities and dress up.  While we visited the palace at Christmas, we got to experience the Christmas market that featured extra craft huts for kids and games in the market center.  The most memorable experience for me was taking our boys to a classical music concert in the very room where Mozart performed for his first time in front of the Empress Maria Theresia at The Auersperg Palace.  It was too cute seeing them listening and watching the music and some dancers and then occasionally pretend to be the conductor with their arms.  While we did not see the performance of the Spanish Riding school, it was a big regret and it is highly recommended by other travelers.  Also recommended by others but missed by us is spending the day in the Prater.  We did sneak in a tour of the Hofburg (main palace), though. Overall, half the fun was just walking through the beautiful streets of Vienna and letting the kids see the horse drawn carriages and delightful cake and pastry shops, and of course sampling a few!

Sharing Vienna with other children via the Flat Stanley/Flat Sarah project.

Sharing Vienna with other children via the Flat Stanley/Flat Sarah project.

Clearly there are more things to do in each of these cities than we were able to fit in. However, the experiences left a lasting impression on our whole family and we found it quite easy to see many of the sights one wouldn’t normally think to take children to.  Europe in general is a great place for children, and it was quite difficult to narrow it down to 5 favorites to highlight.  Some other cities in the running were Edinbourgh, Scotland; Brussels, Belgium; The Hague, The Netherlands, Berlin, Germany and Valencia and Barcelona in Spain.  Keep checking back for more posts on our trips to each of these cities!

3 Must See Museums and Sights With Kids in Cologne, Germay

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Read through as many guide books as you want and you’ll see that the items of interest for Cologne are a lot shorter than some of the other more popular cities in Germany.  But here are the best attractions I’ve found for kids (besides the zoo) that can even be done all in the same day that you don’t want to miss.

The Dom (The Cathedral) is an impressive structure both inside and out.  It is the icon of the city and conveniently located right next to the main train station so if you only had a stop in Cologne for a couple hours on your route to another destination, you could easily take in this gem and let the kids stretch their legs.

The Cologner Dom!  So big it's hard to fit it all in a single picture.

The Cologner Dom! So big it’s hard to fit it all in a single picture.

Schokoladenmuseum Köln (The Chocolate Museum Cologne)
We failed to visit this museum while we lived in the Cologne/Bonn area.  Not for the lack of trying though!  You really have to check their website to be sure they are open on the day and time you plan to visit.  Rick Steves can be great, but he doesn’t give this museum a very positive review, which is one of the reasons we never ensured that we made it there while living in Cologne.  However, I found it to be gem for children, beyond the obvious chocolate. My two boys were dazzled by the hands on maps and interactive exhibits on growing and processing the cacao bean, well before we even got to the part of making it into the chocolate and the free sample. The machinery on display was even more fascinating as they followed how the gears and wheels turned to move the machines that would help in the making of one of their favorite treats.  You can view their website (in German) here http://www.schokoladenmuseum.de/start.html then just right click on your mouse to have your browser translate it to English.

Standing in front of the bridge that leads to both the Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum) and the German Sport and Olympic Museum (Deutsches Sport und Olympia Museum).

Standing in front of the bridge that leads to both the Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum) and the German Sport and Olympic Museum (Deutsches Sport und Olympia Museum).

Deutsches Sports & Olympia Museum (The German Sport and Olympic Museum)
This museum was made with kids in mind!  There was an old fashion gymnastics apparatus station for them to climb on, a track to practice running a sprint race, and many other interactive exhibits that made this museum fun for the whole family.  There were also several videos as well as pictures and memorabilia documenting the triumphs and defeats of German sports teams and stars through the centuries.  The only thing that lured them out of the museum was the promise of the chocolate samples in the Chocolate Museum that was directly next door!  For more information, check out their website http://www.sportmuseum.de/index.php It is in German, but again, having your browser change it to English will give you a good enough idea for the general information.

Playing on an old pommel horse at the German Sports & Olympic Museum.

Playing on an old pommel horse at the German Sports & Olympic Museum.

One of the best things about these 3 attractions is their location.  The two museums are on the Rhein (Rhine) River and you can take a beautiful stroll along the water’s edge up to the Dom.  Or, if the kids need a break from walking, you can catch a touristy little motorized train from in front of the museums through the historical parts of Cologne’s tourist center and then stop at the Dom to get off.  Here is the website in English for more information on the “mini train.” http://www.cologne-tourism.com/guided-tours/mini-train.html

“A” is for Austria and “D” is for Dornbirn

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City center of Dornbirn

City center of Dornbirn

While I’m not exactly on track with my goal to highlight one country a month, I’m determined to finish up all our travels and recommendations for Austria.  This time, Dornbirn is our next stop in the land of The Sound of Music.  Dornbirn is near Bregenz, and the Kaese Strasse region.  While it won’t be on the top 10 places to visit in Austria, it is a wonderful central point in Europe and a great stop over for travels between Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy and other Austrian cities.

Because of the nature of my husband’s job, he has traveled for work quite a bit and is a Starwood Preferred Guest member.  Anyone can join this program and earn points through frequent stays.  Your points can be redeem for free or reduced cost of nights at their hotels!  So when we travel, we look at what Starwood hotels are offered near by.  That is how we found the Four Points by Sheraton Panorama House in Dornbirn, Austria when we were looking for something thing to break up the drive when traveling between Northwest Germany and Italy.  We found a little gem in Dornbirn and a welcoming experience at the Panoramahaus, a Four Points by Sheraton hotel. The Panorama House offers generous size rooms, good food in the restaurants and a partnership with a spa, housed in the same building that offers free childcare while visiting the spa! You can learn more about the hotel here.

View from the restaurant patio on top of the Panoramahaus Hotel.

View from the restaurant patio on top of the Panoramahaus Hotel.

Directly across from the Panorama House is a shopping mall with a supermarket.  In the mall is a fantastic children’s play area with a forest theme climbing area with slides.  It is free to enter this area but it also has little merry-go-round rides that just cost 20 euro cents per ride and often fit 2-3 children on each ride. Next to this play area is a drop in “kindergarten” where you can leave your child to play while shopping for up to 3 hours.  There is a small fee of just .90 Euro Cents and hour (about $1.10) and the age requirements (between 3 and 7 years old can participate) must be proven with the child’s passport.  Note however that this “kindergarten” is only allowed for the use while the parents shop inside the mall.  There is an intercom system and the possibility of calling you on your cell phone and they must be able to reach you when called.  I found that the prices throughout the mall were noticeably cheaper than the same stores in places like Munich and Vienna.

Play area in the Messepark Einkaufzentrum (Shopping mall across from the Panoramahaus)

Play area in the Messepark Einkaufzentrum (Shopping mall across from the Panoramahaus)

Dornbirn itself also has a funicular that you can take up to access some panoramic trails and a small scenic restaurant. It has a very small playground, nothing compared to Bregenz, but the main attraction for the kids was the funicular ride itself and wandering around.  There is a charming little town center (zentrum) with a few traditional half timbered painted buildings and a lovely protestant church in the main square. The famous Rotes Haus restaurant serves traditional Austrian cuisine in a beautiful historic building in the town square. It is a nice place to eat with a moderate price.

Rotes Haus Restaurant

Rotes Haus Restaurant

Here are a few great places to travel in any direction from Dornbirn by car:

1. Lietchenstein-Use Dornbirn as your base, get to the capital, Vaduz in just 30-45 minutes.

2. Zurich, Switzerland-Can be reached within an 1.5-2 hours, dependant on traffic and weather.

3. Munich, Germany-Reach this German jewel within 2-2.5 hours.

4. Milan, Italy-Just 3.5 to 4 hours away to the south.

5. Innsbruck, Austria-Approximately 2 hours drive.

“A” is for Austria, “B” is for Bregenz

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Austria is one of our favorite countries to spend time in.  It has abundant opportunities for families in both city and country environments. This month I will highlight the areas we’ve been able to explore with our children.  Some trips I did without my husband and some I did with him.  And since it is my goal to start this year off by highlighting one country a month in alphabetical order, I’ll start our Austrian locations in order too.  First up is a Bregenz, a small town on Lake Constance (Bodensee in German).

“The Bodensee” or Lake Constance in English is the German/Austrian equivalent of the French Riviera.  Many native Germans and Austrians will have spent a few weeks of their life here at some point.  Bregenz, Austria sits right on the lake.  Yet this town is also right at the base of a large mountain range.  We only spent the day here but it was a wonderful stop for the kids.

Here are the highlights for children…

1. Walk around the Lake’s pedestrian promenade and take in the beautiful sights, then sit at a cafe and have delicious ice cream creations all while taking in the beauty of the lake.

A yummy ice cream mustache.

A yummy ice cream mustache.

2. Take the Pfänderbahn funicular up to the top of the mountain. It’s walkable from the marina. We easily took our stroller with us into the cable car and each station at the top and bottom had a wonderful play area for the children to entertain themselves on days when the wait was long to get on the cable cars.  http://www.pfaenderbahn.at/en/

Little explorers.

Little explorers.

Checking out the lake from the cable car.

Checking out the lake from the cable car.

3. Once you arrive at the top, you are immediately met with a “kinderparadies” (A children’s paradise).  The first thing that will catch their eye is the playground, with a towering slide.  Then off to the side they may notice the animal “farm” of boars, mountain goats and other native animals of the region.

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4. There were several trails for easy strolling to advanced hiking that all began at the top station of the Pfänderbahn.  We set off on one leading to an open grass field where my boys looked like they were trying to recreate a scene from The Sound of Music.

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5. Use this town like we did; a starting off point for the “KäseStrasse” or “Cheese Road” in English.  Not a road in the traditional sense but a collection of towns in this area that all make wonderful and unique to the region cheeses.  It will not only be a fun but delicious vacation! http://www.bregenzerwald.at/w/en/kaesestrasse-bregenzerwald

Our 28 Days with 28 Pictures in Germany, France, Austria and Slovenia

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As you may know, I’ve been trying to catch up on getting all the posts out from our recent vacation to France, Germany, Austria and Slovenia.  It’s been slow. Too slow.  There is so much I want to share with everyone, yet so many times I sit down to write and I look at the screen and think…boooooriiiing!  Especially since half our trip was just seeing friends and doing the everyday things we liked doing before.  Not exactly what everyone will want to do or care about if they take their own vacation for just a week or two.  While the type A side of me wants everything in chronological order, my creative side says, “Just put up the exciting stuff now!”  So this is my compromise with myself.  A full snap shot of our month away in Europe without so many boring words that will then allow my type A side the freedom to elaborate on the more interesting parts of the trip as I see fit in future posts.  I hope you will enjoy and maybe even post a comment letting me know which pictures you found the most intriguing and would like to know more about?

Day 1:  Arriving in Frankfurt and Bonn (Alfter), Germany on August 1st.

Getting comfortable with new surroundings.

Getting comfortable with new surroundings.

Day 2: Adjusting to the new time zone, playing at the neighbor’s house and a little shopping in Bonn.

Keeping the kids occupied at 3:00 am local time while the rest of the house is fast asleep.

Keeping the kids occupied at 3:00 am local time while the rest of the house is fast asleep.

Day 3: More time with old friends in our village and our old neighborhood playground, a trip to the Waldau in Bonn.

The Waldau has one of Bonn's biggest playgrounds and animals too!

The Waldau has one of Bonn’s biggest playgrounds and animals too!

Day 4: A trip to the Rheinaue park in Bonn and later spending time with friends who became our family and enjoying a nice Rheinish meal.

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Homemade reibekucken by our adoptive “Oma and Opa” neighbors.

Day 5: We traveled by the little regional train into Cologne to revisit the Dom, and go to the Chocolate Museum and Olympic and Sports Museum.

The Cologner Dom!  So big it's hard to fit it all in a single picture.

The Cologner Dom! So big it’s hard to fit it all in a single picture.

Day 6: One last visit with friends in the city center of Bonn before taking the train to Berlin, Germany.

Water and playground fun in front of one of Bonn's old city gates.

Water and playground fun in front of one of Bonn’s old city gates.

Day 7: Woke up in Berlin after staying in my first ever hostel.  First stop was Checkpoint Charlie followed by a hop on hop off tour of the city.

Had to pay 2 Euros for a picture, would have been another 2 Euros for me to be in the picture with my kids!

Had to pay 2 Euros for a picture, would have been another 2 Euros for me to be in the picture with my kids!

Day 8: More Berlin sight seeing.  The cathedral, museum of the former DDR and the Reichstag building.

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The dome on top of the Reichstag, we took the circular ramp up to the top inside the dome.

Day 9: Said good-bye to our former neighbor girl and toured Potsdamer Platz, Legoland Discovery Center and did some shopping.

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A portion of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz, showing where the boarder actually was.

Day 10: Went to the famous Fassbender & Rausch Chocolatiers, walked through the Brandenburg Gate again and to a playground in the Tiergarten before hopping on another train, this time to Munich, Germany.

The Brandenburg Gate.

The Brandenburg Gate.

Day 11: Woke up in our beautiful old neighborhood of Bogenhausen in Munich.  Took a stroll around our old stomping grounds and ate with friends.

Our old apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse, Munich.

Our old apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse, Munich.

Day 12: Repacked for our flight to Paris that evening. And went through our old neighborhood again to met up with some friends at a playground before making a MAD dash to the airport to fly to France.  I actually took NO pictures this day, somehow, so here is one from a different day in the same area that we walked around.

Prinzregentenplatz and building that was once Hitler's Munich residence.  Now a police station.

Prinzregentenplatz and building that was once Hitler’s Munich residence. Now a police station.

Day 13: Woke up to our first day in Paris. Decided to give the weather a try and took the 3 kiddos to Disneyland Paris! We got rained one twice.

Disneyland Paris.

Disneyland Paris.

Day 14: Out and about in Paris!  We started in the Tuileries Garden and went to 6 other playgrounds around Paris from there!

Taking in the view of the Eiffel Tower from a seat in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Taking in the view of the Eiffel Tower from a seat in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Day 15: Went to the Champs Elysee and 5 more playgrounds! Best sights in between were the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Saint Sulpice.

Saint-Sulpice, Paris, France.

Saint-Sulpice, Paris, France.

Day 16: Flew back to Munich from Paris at 7:00 o’clock in the morning. Then had some delicious Bavarian food with friends in the Munich city center.

Scweinbraten at Paulaner im Tal Bräuhaus.

Scweinbraten at Paulaner im Tal Bräuhaus.

Day 17: Attended our former church, Peace Church.  Then met with our friends for some “mini-golf” at the Olympia Park while waiting for my husband’s flight to land.  He got to join us for one week of the month.

The Olympia Tower, Munich Germany.

The Olympia Tower, Munich Germany.

Day 18: Breakfast again with friends, then packed up for a week in Austria and Slovenia. Drove to Sankt Johann im Pongau, Austria.

Even the rest stops in Austria are pretty!

Even the rest stops in Austria are pretty!

Day 19: Went off to explore the Pongau area and the castle and mountains of the small town of Werfen with my husband.  A truly wonderful place for kids and adults!

Hohenwerfen Fortress. Werfen, Austria.

Hohenwerfen Fortress. Werfen, Austria.

Day 20: One of the most intense and beautiful days of the trip! A hike up a mountain to the world’s largest ice cave! At the Eisriesenwelt! I could not have done this activity with the 3 kids alone.

Here is a postcard purchased from the site. No cameras were allowed in the cave. Photo credit: Verlag Eisriesenwelt GmbH.

Here is a postcard purchased from the site. No cameras were allowed in the cave. Photo credit: Verlag Eisriesenwelt GmbH.

Day 21: Our last day in Austria. Went to Sankt Johann’s Alpendorf and explored the ghost themed, yet child centered, Geisterdorf and playgrounds. Then walked along the breathtaking path through the Liechtensteinklamm, one of the longest wild river gorges that you can walk through in the alps. From there we drove to our next hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

One of the play structures on top of the mountain at the Geisterdorf. Sankt Johann-Alpendorf, Austria.

One of the play structures on top of the mountain at the Geisterdorf. Sankt Johann-Alpendorf, Austria.

Day 22: Woke up in Ljubljana, Slovenia. We wandered around the city center, to their central market, and an old Roman wall.  In the evening we drove out to Lake Bled and took a row boat to the famous church on an island before taking the long drive back to Munich.

The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Day 23: A much needed sleep in back in Munich.  Then our friends watched our kids so that my husband and I could climb on the roof of the Olympiastadion in Munich’s Olympia Park then zip line across the stadium field.  Dinner that night at a delicious Augestiner Bräuhaus.

The Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) in Munich where we climbed on the roof.

The Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) in Munich where we climbed on the roof.

Day 24: My husband got the day to himself to go visit his friends.  The three kids and I spent the afternoon with some of my friends at two biergartens in the Englischer Garten (English Garden). First near the Kleinhesseloher See (a small lake) then at the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower). The Chinese Tower biergarten completely remodeled their playground!

The new playground at the Chinese Tower Biergarten in Munich's English Garden.

The new playground at the Chinese Tower Biergarten in Munich’s English Garden.

Day 25: It was time to say good-bye to my husband who was flying back to the US that morning.  The two boys went to a German/English day camp at Gymboree while Madelyn and I saw my husband off at the train station.  Then all the kids went to a German friend’s birthday party!

The unicorn craft that the birthday party entertainer had the kids made at our German friend's birthday party.

The unicorn craft that the birthday party entertainer had the kids made at our German friend’s birthday party.

Day 26: The boys had another day at the Gymboree camp. I took my friend to the doctor then had a walk through Marienplatz, shopping at the delicious Dallmayr deli/market. Later that afternoon we met some friends at the Natural Science Museum at the Schloss Nymphenburg.

Heading to the Natural Science Museum in the Schloss Nymphenburg.

Heading to the Natural Science Museum in the Schloss Nymphenburg.

Day 27: Our last full day in Europe. The boys did one last day of camp at Gymboree followed by some play time during their open gym with a friend and her daughter.  Then she blessed me by watching my 3 kids for a couple hours so I could have a few moments to myself in Munich’s city center before the long trip home alone with the 3 kids.  That night we took a late train to Frankfurt to stay the night in preparation for our flight back to the US the next day.

The Neues Rathaus in Marienplatz. Munich, Germany.

The Neues Rathaus in Marienplatz. Munich, Germany.

Day 28: Woke up in Frankfurt and had a nice German breakfast at the hotel.  Took the tram and train into the airport and flew home on Condor Air.

My 4 year old and my 18 month old watching a movie together on the plane.

My 4 year old and my 18 month old watching a movie together on the plane.

And there you have a snap shot of our month in Europe!  More detailed post of the best parts of the trip with kids to come!