Tokyo’s Asakusa District-Japan Day 1

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By 6:00 a.m. my 2 year old was wide awake, and the rest of us were quick to follow.  It was time to start our first day in Japan!!!  We finished up what was left of the airplane food and some of the granola bars and prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I had packed for the plane. I allowed the kids to watch some shows while I rearranged some of the luggage and backpacks and took a shower.  I knew we couldn’t get any official information from the front desk until 8:00 o’clock in the morning, which I also took to be the general starting time, or later, for most attractions.

The neighborhood of our hostel.

The neighborhood of our hostel.

One of the main reasons I went with the hostel that we did (K’s House Tokyo Oasis) was because a friend recommended their chain and I didn’t need anything terribly expensive for such a short single night stay. There also seemed to be some popular attractions in the area. The Senso-ji temple, the oldest temple in Japan, was just a couple blocks away from the hostel. There was also an amusement park and a short train route to the Skytree. Asakusa as also an older, more traditional area of Tokyo so I figured it would be a good starting off point. Once I got everything settled with the front desk for our official “check in” we found out we could keep all of our stuff in the room and didn’t have to check out until 12:00 p.m. I figured with our early start, we could see most of the stuff we wanted to before noon. So we headed out towards the temple to start our official vacation in Japan!

Senso-ji and Asakusa Temple.

Senso-ji and Asakusa Temple.

Seeing everything for the first time in the daylight was less intimidating. For still being part of the crowded Tokyo metropolis, this was a sleepy neighborhood that was barely getting moving at 8:00 a.m. Within 2 or 3 minutes we were at the entrance to the Senso-ji temple grounds. The traditional images of Japan bloomed suddenly before our eyes. There were little shrines throughout manicured garden and pathways along a pond complete with a man-made waterfall and koi fish. As we wandered around the grounds we made our way over to the main temple itself. Here’s where I find myself ignorant. I really don’t know much about the Buddhist religion or any of the other religious practices in Japan. I made a point of telling the children that our primary purpose was to see how the buildings are different to what they’ve seen before and to just observe people. I reminded them that it was a holy place for the people of Japan, just like a church is in America and Europe. That we needed to be respectful of their desire for peace and prayer and to therefore, not run around and be loud. After walking through the main temple, we saw the area for the fountain and the incense. There was a statue of a man holding a dragon and the fountain has several dragon heads sticking out from around it, each a spout of running water. We watched the people use the ladles, made out of tin cups with a wood handle, pour water over each of their hands and some even drank it. I was confused about the drinking verses spitting out because people were doing both. The boys and my 2 year old naturally wanted to participate as they love any kind of water “play.” So I told them that they could do the hand washing but not drink it. This was a little complicated while trying to help all 3 of them without doing something that might be horribly disrespectful, which is my biggest fear for this trip. After they were done, I asked a Japanese woman there if she spoke some English and if she could tell us what the tradition/meaning of the fountain was. We were told that you are washing your hands and cleansing your heart, then you go to the incense and then you pray. I thanked her and we continued to stroll through the grounds of the shrine.

Cleansing fountain.

Cleansing fountain.

When the kids stopped by a tree for a rest, I noticed an elderly couple taking some pictures in the direction of our children. At first I wasn’t sure if they were just taking pictures of the shrine or my kids. But as the kids started moving around to different spots, his camera moved too. We then started to leave towards the market in front of the shrine and he began to follow in front of us, taking more pictures of Madelyn. It was a full paparazzi moment, something I was told to expect, and had also experienced when we traveled in European countries and came across Asian tourists. I take these things in strides as I know that the main motivation is curiosity and seeing a different people in your home country. This happened a few times throughout the day.

As we left the shrine we started to walk towards the river where I had seen some greenery on the map and I hoped to find a playground for the kids. About a 10 minute walk from the shrine we found just that. Along the west bank of the Sumida River, between the Skytree train bridge and the Kotoibashi bridge is the playground in the Kuritsu Sumida Park. It was a really cute playground with some traditional climbing structures with slide combos, a sand box, some free standing rocking toys, swings and a giant whale slide. Another feature of the playground, is one that I’m not sure was meant for the kids or the adults. It was an adventure type log course that went in a circle with beams, bars, and wood logs. All I know is that my kids had a blast climbing on it and occasionally an adult would come over and do a few exercises on a part of the structure. Our playground experience offered a picturesque view of the Tokyo Skytree in the background. My intention had been to talk to the tower too. I wanted to go to the top and our hostel host said it was a 20 minute walk to the Skytree from the hostel, and we had to at least have been half way at the park. As I looked at my watch I had to make a choice, it was 10:00 a.m. at that point and I knew that kids really wanted to check out the old amusement park near our hostel. I knew we could only do one of the two things and still make it back by noon. So, taking into account the popularity of the Skytree and my husband’s probably desire to see it over the amusement park when we all returned to Tokyo, we headed back towards the amusement park.

Playground in Kuritsu Sumida Park.

Playground in Kuritsu Sumida Park.

We decided to walk back through part of the shrine grounds on the way to the amusement park and encountered 2 young Japanese women dressed in Kimono. At first I thought, “Maybe they are advertising some tour or show in the area?” But then I saw that they were taking pictures of each other with their phones. Being how people had no problem photographing my children at will, I asked the two young ladies if they would take a picture with my kids. They seemed a little confused at first but then said of course. As I snapped a few quick photos, another group of Japanese women came by and went crazy over our kids with excitement. After I was done taking the pictures with the Kimono girls, the other women asked if they could take their pictures with my children. My little 2 year old girl was once again the most coveted of the three. When they were done, the Kimono girls came back over to us and asked if they could take pictures with their camera with my kids. Mason, Tristan and Madelyn took it all in strides and smiled and waved at the attention. As soon as we walked out of the shrine gates I saw a sign for kimono dressing. It became clear that it was that shop where the girls had gotten their clothing as an experience I’ve seen offered before in my research to get made up in full Kimono dress and then have a chance to walk around in a shrine area or special district.  What I learned from all of this is that the Japanese people are just as much of tourist in their home country as we are.

The amusement park we headed to next was literally one street away from the shrine and 2 from the hostel.  It is called Asakusa Hanayashiki, an old and very small carnival type amusement park where the term small is only to describe the surface area it takes up.  The little carnival has several rides overlapping in some areas to give kids over 20 choices of rides and attractions.  The cost to get into the park was 1,000 Yen (roughly $10 U.S.) for children age 6 and older and just 500 Yen (roughly $50 U.S.) for adults.  Children 5 and under were free to enter.  Then you had to buy the tickets separately to enjoy the actual rides.  A wrist ban for unlimited rides were available with prices varying by age.  Adults accompanying a child under 4 years old did not have to pay to ride (something that I overlooked in the English instruction sheet they gave me at the entry).  In total, we spend 7,800 Yen on entrance and ride tickets, about $62 USD.  But we could have saved $10 had I paid more attention to the part where I didn’t need tickets for myself.  The park was cute and had loads of rides for the whole family.  It definitely was a good choice and we got through all but one of the rides that my 2 year old was eligible for, which was quite a lot!  In all, we were there about an hour and a half.  Time quickly slipped away from us when I looked at my clock and saw 11:40 a.m. on the screen.  With the close proximity of the hostel, we were out of the park and at the door of K’s House in 5 minutes.

Asakusa Hanayashiki Amusement Park

Asakusa Hanayashiki Amusement Park

We checked out of the hostel and got directions to Ueno Station where I could exchange my Japan Rail Pass voucher for my actual pass.  The vouchers were purchased back in Seattle and are for foreigners only, they cannot be purchased in Japan, however, you then have to exchange the voucher for the pass in Japan.  The hostel staff directed us to a short walk to a subway station that would then take us to the Ueno station.  Again we encountered the subway entrances not having an elevator or escalator.  There was a neighborhood map next to the station which said an elevator was located around the corner. We walked in that direction and never found it.  Another maps said the station we need was just 1.2 kilometers away, under a mile, so I was hopeful we could just walk.  But soon the kids were tired of walking so I found a bus stop that went to Ueno. For a mere $1.50 we hopped on and were there in 5 minutes. The handicap/stroller area is smaller than European busses, but we fit and everyone was helpful in getting us all on, suitcases and all.

Signs were easy to get the passes and once that was done, we went into the JR office ticket office to get our tickets on the bullet train from Tokyo Station to Kyoto.  Getting to the platform to Tokyo station was easy.  They told us 3 or 4 and I just followed the signs.  The train came within 5 minutes of us getting to the platform.  The ride was quick and there were English announcements for each stop.  Next came getting us all off the train.  I did as I normally do, back the stroller off the train.  But this time, I was wearing flip flops and the heel hit the edge of the platform, pushing the sandal off my foot, and since I was in motion, my foot also moved back, allowing it to slip and fall down to the rail tracks!!!  I now just had one shoe, but needed to get the boys quickly off the train with their suitcases.  I got them off the train and away from the tracks amidst their questions as to why I only had one shoe on.  Thankfully, since we had all our luggage, I had a spare pair of shoes in the outside pocket of my suitcase.  Lesson learned, no more flip flops on train days!

My flip flop that fell down between the train and platform while I was getting off the train.

My flip flop that fell down between the train and platform while I was getting off the train.

Once inside Tokyo station, it was a bit more difficult to know where to go for the bullet train.  I forgot to ask which platform when I got the tickets and didn’t remember the Japanese name for the bullet trains (it’s Shinkansen by the way).  My ticket provided no useful information.  I went to a sign board to try to figure it out and while there, a beautiful young Japanese woman came up and asked me if I needed some help.  She direct me towards the Shinkansen train entrances where I then asked a worker for the platform number.  We still had 30 minutes to kill and picked up some snacks.

Kyoto here we come!

Kyoto here we come!

Once the train arrived, we had to wait about 10 minutes for it to get on so it could be cleaned by ladies in pink uniforms and gentlemen in blue jumpsuits. We found our seats and I got the kids settled in. To save money, we just did the JR passes for myself and my 7 year old. Children under 6 are still free if they don’t take up their own seat. I figured I could have the boys share one seat and my 2 year old could sit on my lap. With a fold up arm rest there was plenty for us to sit arm and arm, and there was also tons of space between the aisles so I put the blanket that I packed on the floor for my daughter. In about 2 and a half hours we arrived in Kyoto and made our way to the hotel shuttle pick up. And now, here we are for a full week in one place! My husband has a conference the whole week at the hotel where we are staying, so we have to still be completely on our own and invisible. Which is fine, I’m sure we’ll find plenty of adventures to take! But after 36 hours of solo travel and a foam and wood bed on our first night, I am thankful for a real Western hotel, for now.

Flying to Japan Solo With 3 Kiddos

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Well here we are in Japan! I just woke up on our official Day 2 and am excited to have internet access and a cup of tea, at 4:30 a.m. local time. Our jet lag has been minimal but has included starting our days at 6:00 a.m. and today 4:30 a.m. But I can’t complain! It turns out that taking an evening flight, where the kids were tired and then landing in the country at that country’s night was a great idea. We didn’t have a “red eye” per say, but we did leave at 8:00 p.m. Seattle’s local time, which after the 9 hour and 50 minute flight to Tokyo, we landed at 10:00 p.m. Japan local time. Over-night flights can be risky with kids. The hope is always that they sleep, but then sometimes they don’t because of the new environment, cramped quarters, and, in an international case, unlimited free kids tv!   In our case, the kids slept for about 5 hours and I got 3 hours. Which meant just enough for them not to be completely exhausted and cranky when we landed so they could walk off the plane and help with their luggage and get us to the hostel we were staying at for the night. That’s the part I was worried about. Since I was flying alone with the 3 of them and would have to figure out how to get from the airport to the other side of Tokyo, I was praying for just enough sleep for them to manage but then still being tired enough to go back to bed once at the hostel. I got both, 5 hours on the plane then 4 more hours for all of us at the hostel, bringing us to 6:00 a.m. Monday morning in Tokyo with everyone in a good mood and ready to start the day!!!

Loving our shirts by Baby Bird Designs!

Loving our shirts by Baby Bird Designs!

Here’s a little recap of our journey just to get to Tokyo for what will be an 18 day adventure!

The Plane

To help me quickly be able to spot my children in a crowd and help others see which ones belong together in case one wanders off, I like to dress them in similar clothing.  I had a friend (Baby Bird Designs) makes special shirts with numbers on them so I asked if she could do a travel pattern with the numbers 1, 2, and 3 for my kiddos.  They turned out so cute and were very helpful, and drew lots of compliments.  They also each get their own backpacks with a few fun items for the plane and gives them something to be responsible for.  Once we got checked in, breezed through security, and then killed the extra time at the airport’s playroom, we headed to our gate.  The plan ride itself went much better than our last 6 hour trip to Mexico. My 2 year old daughter sat in her seat this time and didn’t complain about the seat belt (too much). The 5 and 7 year olds, who have been traveling since infancy, were a breeze and I always welcome the extensive free inflight entertainment options that Delta provides on international trips. We had special gluten free in flight meals pre-ordered as well as kids meals, however due to a delay error on our part and my oldest son’s separate reservation (his ticket was purchases and ours were on points), we weren’t able to get him a kids meal. The special ordered meals were good, but the regular adult options for the flight were not very appealing at all to my son. So the was mistake #1, not ensuring we requested all the special meals far enough in advance. But there was enough “dinner” to share and make everyone happy. We all slept through the mid-flight ice cream snack, but sleep was more important! An hour before we landed, they handed out egg and cheese sandwiches with yogurt to all the passengers and I got a gluten free breakfast package in a draw string baggie that included a yummy chicken salad, grapes and a gluten free Udi’s roll. The special breakfast snack for the kids included cheese sandwiches, grapes, a bag of chips and a piece of chocolate. They were still pretty tired and after already having had their normal dinner, I stowed away the snacks so they would have something to eat at the hostel in case they woke up ready to go before anything was open. The draw string bags that these came in were very handy!

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Kids breakfast snack packs.

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Creative sleeping solutions.

Arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport

Arrival in Tokyo was fairly smooth. It was a long walk to get to the first part of customs from the plane, but we took it in strides and there were moving sidewalks, which is still something my kids are mastering. Of course we also needed a pit stop at the bathroom, which was a fun experience for the kids in itself!  A modern Japanese toilet is almost like a video game, and this one was mild.  Our first top was to go through the immigration control, then we got our luggage and heading through the customs control. The process was relatively quick and the personnel were both polite and helpful. Once we cleared all that, we were out in the open and on our own to discover our transportation options. Our hostel, K’s House Tokyo Oasis in Asakusa, gave some distances by foot to their building from the public transportation stations in their area. I didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that there were two stations with the name Asakusa on them and just picked up on the “3 minutes walk” from a station with the name Asakusa. That would prove to be mistake #2.  I asked the information agents if they could tell me how to get to Asakusa Station. She told me which train I needed to take, where to get cash and where to buy the tickets. Everything was really close together in the terminal. From the time we got out of customs and onto a train into the city was about 20 minutes. The ride into the city was about 40 minutes though our walk from the train station to the hostel, was more than I had planned.

Japanese toilet at the airport.

Japanese toilet at the airport.

Taking the subway to the hostel

The subway train was clean and we had enough seats at 11:30 at night. But the map for the lines and stops were hard to figure out and the English didn’t start till you got close to the main stations. Nonetheless we found our stop and managed to get our stroller, the 3 kids with backpacks and 3 suitcases off the train. The bad news was that elevators and escalators only got you so far up and then we were faced with two flights of stairs to get out of the train station. The boys managed the small suitcases fine. At this point I was so glad that I decided to take my Baby Jogger City Select.  The back wheels on this baby are big and that made it possible to pull the stroller up, step by step, without too much impact on the child in the seat. Mind you, I still wish we DIDN’T have to do that and I’m a little concerned about the use of our stroller with the subway for the rest of our trip. We’ll see what’s in store.

My 2 year old helping with the map on the subway.

My 2 year old helping with the map on the subway.

The last piece of bad news is that my free data roaming with my T-mobile plan is SLOW and will not render maps in detail, which makes navigating, especially at midnight in a foreign city with all signs in kanji, very difficult. After struggling to get to the top of the stair and looking around aimlessly, a nice Japanese man asked if we needed some help. I gave him the address of the hostel and he tried his best to look it up and point us in the right direction. He did point us in the right direction, but the walk was a little over a mile. We finally arrived at the hostel, and encountered two Australians who were smoking outside the door. They greeted us and asked if we needed the door open and we learned that the check in staff was not on duty after 10:00 p.m. I started to panic before we even got inside, it would be just my luck that we made it all this way and had no place to sleep at 1:15 a.m.!!! We quickly saw that there was a tiny shoe foyer were we needed to take off our shoes. It wasn’t so much of a problem for having to take off the shoes, but my 2 year old was asleep in the stroller and I wasn’t sure I could manage taking her out and getting everything else inside. So we pushed the stroller through. Thankfully, at the counter there was a little envelope with my name on it! We had keys and a room after all. There was also a small elevator that the stroller fit, which was a huge relief! At 1:30 a.m. we were in our tiny room with a set of bunk beds, a single twin and a closet bathroom. I was ready for bed! So were the kids, for about 10 minutes, then everyone was hungry. I pulled out our airplane food, laid out a towel on the floor and we had ourselves a picnic. Then we were all ready for bed. And that my friends, is how we got through our first “night” in Tokyo. More to come soon!

The World’s Largest Ice Cave. Our St. Johan im Pongau Vacation. Part Two

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As you may remember from Part One of our August Austrian vacation in Sank Johan im Pongau, we tried to visit the world’s largest ice cave in one hour.  Maybe I should have paid a little more attention to the fact that this was the WORLD’S LARGEST ICE CAVE! After our failure on the first day, we decided to go back the next morning, because, I have to say it again, the world’s largest ice cave!  This was not to be missed, and even though there were several other things in the region that looked very appealing, and this was our last full day, I was determined to see it.  Now, my husband was still unsure that we should attempt such a feat with the kids.  Now, I know that I told you last time that you should listen to dissension among the ranks sometimes, but this was not the time.  Why was this time different than not listening to him before?  Because I knew he wanted to go see it too, he was just unsure the children would make it up to the top.  But, we now had the whole day, not just an hour.  And we’ve been through this debate before “Let’s just go next time. We love this place so much, we’ll come back.”  And then we never do.  So, knowing that the kids actually did fine on the 1st part of the hike we tried before, I was determined that today, with the whole day open ahead of us, we would make it up to the cave.

Brochure for the Eisen Welt (Ice World)

Brochure for the “Eisriesenwelt” (World of Ice Giants).

Arriving just 30 minutes after they opened that morning, we were already parking three phases further away from the entrance, unlike the evening before when we were in the first parking lot.  The weather was gloomy and supposed to rain that day, but the temperature was still mid 50’s Fahrenheit.  We were warned however that it would be much colder in the cave. But having done the first part of the hike the day before, I knew how hot you could get just on the way up.  So, we decided on pants and short sleeve shirts that morning and jackets that could be taken off and tied around the waist.  I knew the stroller was not a good choice to go up the mountain, but I couldn’t remember how far the walk was to the entrance, and that was already up hill.  So we took the stroller up and left it in the locker rooms that were available for rent. Though we just stashed it on the side as it wouldn’t fit.  A risk, but one we figured would be ok given the area.  We purchased our tickets again and started the walk.  This time, I kept it at a pace more enjoyable for all.  With the boys and husband walking along and my 18 month old strapped to my back in the Ergo, up we went.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

The path started out wide and remained nicely graveled, and even paved in some areas, all the way to the gondola.  At the gondola entrance, there was a snack shop with some benches for a pit stop going up or coming down the mountain with drinks, packaged snacks, ice creams and a few hot snacks.  The best part was the bottled water.  The line for the gondola started further back this time, it took us 30 minutes to get to our turn.  The ride itself was smooth but startling if you look down as you get closer to the top.  At one point we were literally being pulled straight up rather than the gradual across and upward slope direction.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

Once at the top, we were greeted by a restaurant, which we noted as an ideal stopping point for the way back.  The 2nd trail of the hike up was more narrow than the first, but plenty wide enough for people to stand 4 by 4 across so you could go up and people could come down without a problem passing each other.  Some parts of the trail were covered with a nicely built awning.  The scary part was, you were winding up the side of the mountain, and it was steep up at the top.  There was a guard rail the entire way up to the mouth of the cave, however it was merely two wood logs between posts.  It was a good thing Madelyn was content with riding on my back, at one point she even fell asleep.  Our children, fortunately, are used to traveling and trusting in our guidance in new situations,  so when we’d tell them not to do something or where to walk, they listened.  But if your children are a bit more adventurous and don’t always like to stop climbing or running around when you tell them, this could be a more stressful or dangerous trip.  Just on the other side of the “fence” is a deadly drop over the side of the mountain.  This again reminded me of how lucky I was to have my husband for this experience.  Even with my daughter on my back, it was necessary to have those extra set of hands, and I hadn’t even saw what was in store for us INSIDE the cave!  After winding our way up the 2nd hiking path to the mouth of the cave, there were several terraced benches with a steep view of the valley below and surrounding mountains.  We were all happy to have a rest on the benches after the long hike.  There were a couple benches along the way to stop too.  But it was nothing like finally reaching your destination.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

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A view of the winding trail up to the mouth of the cave.

While the parking lot was crowded, the wait for the actual tours once you got to the top was not long at all.  We only had to wait about 5 minutes for our English speaking tour to begin.  As we gathered around to hear the rules before going into the cave, they handed out our open flame lanterns to light the way.  Only natural light is permitted inside the cave for preservation purposes.  The guides use magnisium strips to light certain areas once inside.  After the door was open to enter the cave, you experience a huge rush of wind.  Then with your open flame lanterns in hand, you proceed on a short path to the first flight of stairs.  We were ultimately about to climb up and down a total of 1,400 steps throughout the tour.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

We had to climb two very tall flights of stairs in the beginning of the tour.  Then there were some flat trails along boardwalks around some of the sculptures.  The ice “sculptures” as they called them, were very beautiful and impressive.  There were about 5 different main formations along the way.  The hardest part was being stressed over the lanterns and making sure that however we held them that one of the kids didn’t turn slightly into the flame.  There are also a couple main areas along the tour where you and another tour group pass by each other on the way in and out of the turn around.  There is only a bar rail separating the path and not a full barrier and some of the other tourist would just carry their lanterns in the hand next to the rail so that it risked brushing up with the tourist walking on the other side.  Several times I had to step to the side so as not to get burned by their lanterns.  Besides the acute awareness you must have while walking up and down the stairs and along the paths of this 70 minute tour inside the cave, the ice sculptures themselves are breathtaking.  One the one hand, I was really sad that I would not be able to take pictures inside the cave.  I desperately wanted to catch the beauty and magnificants of this place.  But, I will admit, being forced to experience very second with wide eyes and not camera lense, did make me appreciate what I was seeing even more.  You really got to take it all in rather than worry about taking a picture.  And in the end, that was the best part.  It was like we were lost in an exciting underground world.  I did however purchase a couple of postcards from the gift shop to remember how amazing it was inside.  Here is one of the official postcards from the visitor’s center.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

You might be wondering how the kids did trekking up and down all 1400 stairs?  Well, the 18 month old slept through half of it in the Ergo on my back, and when she woke up, I think she was so confused she spent the rest of the time just looking around trying to figure out where she was.  As for the 4 and 6 year olds, we didn’t get much complaints at all.  During the longest stair stretch of about 200 steps, there were one or two questions of how many more.  But they got a kick out of counting the stairs and that kept them pretty amazed on those parts since it was a new thing that year to count up to 100, and now they were past that!  Our 4 year old did complain of being too cold when we got into the deepest part of the cave, but other than that, they did great, especially with the promise of hot chocolate and kaiserschmarrn waiting for them at the restaurant we saw at the top of the gondola.  Once we got back to the mouth of the cave and returned our lanterns, we look one last resting break on the terraced benches to take in the view before the walk down.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

The walk back down the trail to the gondola decent post and restaurant was of course much easier and faster than going up.  We ducked into the restaurant just as we realized that we had left our umbrellas at the mouth of the cave where the tours meet (they were not allowed inside the cave and we wouldn’t have been able to carry them anyways).  Had they just been one or two cheap umbrellas that we bought at a drug store, we would have left them, but they had been gifts so my husband graciously agreed to hike back up to the mouth of the cave while I saw at a nice warm table in the corner of the restaurant.  It was very crowded and we just lucked into a corner booth table and chairs just before a big rush came in.  There were several tables with people that had reserved signs on them, so I think that you can make a reservation when you get off the gondola so that you have a table to come back to after the tour.  We did not do this and took our chances and it turned out nicely, that time.  But given the crowds, service was very slow.  In fact, it took my husband nearly 40 minutes to go up and get the umbrellas and come back and we had only ordered and received drinks.  But the kids got their Austrian, powder sugar dusted, crumbled up pancakes (kaiserschmarrn) and hot chocolate so they were all happy campers.

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

By time we got back to the car, we had been gone for 6 hours.  I couldn’t believe we had spent that much time on one attraction, and I had no regrets, including the 2 hours it took to have “snack” at the restaurant before going back down the gondola.  I was so proud, not just of my kids, but of us as a family.  We endured a fairly physical activity, supported one another through it, and got to experience a “once in a life-time” sight with the five of us all together!  It was a good day.

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