Kazanlak Bulgarian Rose Festival

It seems to me that the off-the-beaten-path places are usually our favorites. Last summer we found our way to Kazanlak, which is in the middle of nowhere, Bulgaria. When we showed up to our hotel, the woman at the front desk (or rather, front bar) pulled out a notebook full of handwritten scribbles. There wasn’t a computer in sight. They lost our reservation, no surprise there, and then just happened to have a free room that was exactly what we had booked. I stood there trying to figure all of this out via a game of charades, as there was no one around who spoke English. It was half frustrating and half fantastic.

IMG_4761Just outside the the city center there is a place known as “the valley of the roses.” Seventy percent of the world’s rose oil is pressed from the roses grown in that little basin in the Balkan Mountains. Every year, over the first weekend in June, they commence the rose picking season with a local festival. We showed up for the “rose picking ritual” and found ourselves loners and outcasts among two sets of people: the native Bulgarians (dressed in traditional red and green clothing) and an asian tour bus group (dressed in fanny packs and DSLR cameras). The Bulgarian locals were gathered on large family-style blankets surrounding copious amounts of home cooked food. The tourists congregated to stare at them through their camera lenses, like people gathered around a very important fish tank.
IMG_6404Our four-year-old got away from us in the crowd and plopped herself right onto the lap of one of the Bulgarian grandmothers, and instead of being scolded she was promptly fed and fawned over. This led to an unspoken invitation for the rest of our little family to join in the household meal. Our baby was passed around from grandmother to grandmother, and in return we were passed musaka, palachinka, banista, and other amazing local foods. IMG_6423You guys, THIS is what I am talking about when I tell you that traveling with kids opens crazy doors. Without our naughty little children we would have missed out on this amazing moment. The festival continued with dancing and celebration followed by the crowning of the rose queen and the picking of the roses — which we actually got to help with. Awesome, right? And they let us keep as many roses as we could carry. We took ours home and turned them into potpourri, and pressed them into the pages of our journals. It was so much fun!

Okay, now for the important logistical information. To GET THERE you’ll need to rent a car. There is pretty much no other way to do it unless you go with a tour group, but the roads are well paved and driving was easy in Bulgaria. It’s about a 3-hour-drive from Sofia or a 2-hour-drive from Burgas (Side note: I would very highly recommend seeing Burgas and the surrounding areas of Sunny Beach and Nessebar). Once you are there you will want to stay in the city of Kazanlak. Hotels are sparse online but not impossible to find. We stayed at Complex Artemida which was a bit backward but totally beautiful. I would absolutely stay there again. Make sure to book early if you are going to be there the weekend of the festival. It’s probably the only time of year that they get guests, but the hotels definitely fill up.IMG_4822

The actual rose picking  ritual is about a 15-min-drive from the city center (located in село Розово, also known as Rozovo) and anyone can show you how to get there. We had no trouble finding it as it is a very small town. The entrance cost us 10 Bulgarian Lev/ person and you have to pay in cash. Our kids (all age 4 and under) were free. There were also free festivities going on all weekend long in the city center, including performances and parades. You’ll also find lots of vendors set up everywhere, selling anything and everything rose themed. We came home with some rose extract and some rose oil. We also tasted rose water, rose jam, rose candy, and rose everything else.

I like to know what is going on before I get somewhere, but I had the hardest time tracking down any information about the festival online.IMG_4778 I finally figured out the schedule by tracking down and emailing the local tourism office. They sent me back an email with the itinerary as well as a link to Kazanak.com. It might still have last years schedule listed but the itinerary is relatively the same from year to year. The website is in Bulgarian but if you open it in a browser with a translation option (like Google Chrome) it is easy to navigate.


Also on this trip, we made stops in Burgas, Sunny Beach, Nessebar, Plovdiv, and Sofia. Honestly, this is one of my favorite adventures we have had yet. The Bulgarian county side is beautiful, the Bulgarian beaches are wonderful, and the Bulgarian ruins are truly unique. Don’t live you life without taking a road trip across Bulgaria. Just don’t do it! And trust us when we tell you that you should go in June so that you can stop and smell the roses.

Stockholm, Sweden

IMG_5714Why did no one tell me about Stockholm sooner? I’m a little bit jaded toward all of my travel friends for failing to inform me just how amazing Sweden is. Especially for kids. Our family recently took a little weekend trip up north, and we give Stockholm 5 great big, gold stars for family friendliness. What an unexpected delight. We spent 2 days here but I wish we could have spent 2 weeks. Kids of all ages will find loads of fun activities in Stockholm, Sweden.

IMG_7337Gamla Stan: This is Stockholm’s old town. The architecture and the little streets are packed with old world charm.  This is a really fun place to explore. There are lots quaint shops and cafes and places to see. Not to mention that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the buildings in this area date back to the 1300s. The streets are made of cobblestone, so we would recommend going without a stroller if you can; try to opt for a child carrier instead (see our review of child carrier backpacks here). If you really need the stroller try to take one with nice big wheels because it will make a difference.

Here are a few things not to miss in your wanderings around Gamla Stan:

  • Royal Castle – This is the actual residence of the Swedish Royal Family, and it is packed with things to do and see. You could spend a whole day here if you had the time. Some of the highlights for kids might include a tour of the Royal Stables (Saturday’s at 1:00pm), the changing of the guard (Daily at noon*), the Royal Armory, and a brand new exhibition of Princess Lilian’s dresses that little girls are sure to love.
  • IMG_7374Polkagris Kokeri Candy Shop – We happened upon the cutest old fashion candy shop. It’s in the southwest quadrant of Gamla Stan. If you are in the area make sure to wander in for a demonstration and a free sample of peppermint candy. Both the Swedes and the Finns lay claim to the invention of salted licorice candy, but regardless of where it actually originated you can try a taste of it here. Even if you miss the demonstration, you can ask for a sample of almost anything in the little store and they will likely indulge you.
  • Great Views – Our kids also loved just standing on the edge of the water and watching the big cruise ships come in and out of port. There is a great birds eye view of the city from an outlook deck called the Skyview. It’s free with the Stockholm card or 130 SEK for an adult ticket. To get there, you take the T-bana (metro) to the “Globen” stop and then walk southeast for about 250 meters.
  • Yummy Food – If you’re looking for restaurant suggestions, check out this link for places to eat with kids in Gamla Stan.

*note that the changing of the guard is a very busy time at the Palace. So, if you want to see anything, you’ll want to get there early.

IMG_5826Djurgårdsbron Bridge – It’s about a half and hour walk or a twenty minute tram ride (tram 76) to get from Östermalm (the main island) to Djurgården (the eastern island).  If the weather is good, we suggest the walk. You’ll  cross the bridge and see some amazing views, with the harbor on one side and some stunning architecture on the other. Keep your eyes open for the statues of the 4 Old Norse Gods (HeimdallGjallarhornFrigg, and Thor) that line the walkway.

Djurgården: This is the big island that is just to the East of Gamla Stan. It’s more open with some great parks and things to do outside. There are are also some fantastic kid friendly museums. Keep in mind that the prices for a hotel stay are much cheaper over here than down town, so you may want to consider booking your hotel in this part of the city. We stayed in a family style room at the Scandic Hasselbacken and would highly recommend it. Here are the must see ticket items in Djurgården:

  • IMG_5697The Vasa Museum: This is our #1 pick in Stockholm — for adults and kids alike. The Vasa is a Swedish War ship that was built in about 1628. She sank on her Maiden Voyage, less than a nautical mile from port. Yet, because of this tragedy, the Vasa is one of the most well preserved shipwrecks in history. It’s honestly amazing. If you only had 2 hours in Stockholm, this is what I would tell you to see. Actually, if you only had 2 hours in Scandinavia, this is still probably what I would tell you to see.
  • IMG_7422Skansen – The best open air museum/zoo we’ve ever seen. Everything, and I mean everything, is taylor made for children. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun on an outing with my kids. I feel like the people that designed Skansen thought to themselves, “how could I best explore this place if I were 5-years-old?” I wish we could go here every day. If you have little kids, do not miss it! I would say that the target age is 2-12 but there is plenty to entertain older kids as well. There are lots of little shops and cultural experiences, as well as a fantastic zoo. Plan to spend at least a half a day here.IMG_7439At the entrance, I would recommend paying the extra fee to take the tram up to the top, because the walk up is very steep and will be difficult for kids. You can also ask for a map and a timetable of events: there are demonstrations and feeding times that will help you make the most of your time. You can also download a free app that will help you navigate this amazing childhood treasure.
  • Gröna Lund – An awesome little amusement park. It’s right on the water and has a whole bunch of great looking rides and roller coasters. There are attractions for both smaller and bigger kids, making it a great place for the whole family. Note that Gröna Lund is closed during the winter and usually opens again around early April. Check the website for official opening dates.
  • IMG_5864Museums – There are several museums that we didn’t have time to visit, including: The Nordic Museum (pictured), The Junibacken (children’s museum), and The Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology. You might also want to pop by The ABBA Museum. It’s right around the corner from Gröna Lund. Go ahead and get your Dancing Queen on — we won’t judge. If you make it to these places before we do, be sure to let us know how you liked them.

Drottningholm: If you are looking for a good day trip, Drottingholm is about a 45 minute train ride from downtown. It’s probably only worth going on the weekend as Drottningholm Palace is only open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 to 3:30pm. Other things to see in Drottningholm include: The Drottingholm Palace Theater (also a UNESCO World Heritage site), The Lovön Church, and the Chinese Pavilion.

IMG_5820Getting Around: As far as getting to the city center is concerned, it’s pretty straight forward from the airport. You can take a train from the airport terminal to the central train station. The train is called the Arlandae Express. The trip takes about 20 min. There is a kid’s car in the center of the train, and children up to age 17 ride for free! If you come by boat or by train, you should be dropped off right in the city center. Once you are there, Stockholm is completely walkable. Public transportation is also very well laid out, and Taxis are plentiful. You won’t have any problem finding your way.

We love our family travel adventures and we have good things to say about almost everywhere we have been, but from a family travel standpoint Stockholm tops the list! I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a more kid friendly city. We loved our short trip to Sweden so much that we are already planning the next time we can go back.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and let me tell you what — Russia did not disappoint. This is a city that is filled to the brim with culture. It’s one of those places I could visit again and again . . . and maybe again. I would say that you probably want to spend at least 3 or 4 days here, but if you stayed for a week or two you wouldn’t run out of things to see. We’ve put together a list of our top recommendations for exploring the “Paris of the north.”

IMG_2999The Hermitage – One good thing about visiting this museum during peak tourist season is that while it may be crowded and noisy, it is crowded and noisy. Thus, your kids don’t have to be the portrait of perfection. No one will notice if they are a little bit wiggly or even a little bit loud. Even in the off-season, the Hermitage is a pretty busy place, so plan for a crowd almost any time of the year. With the little ones in tow you’ll never see it all, so here is a great top 10 list if you are looking to hit the highlights. Also, before you brave this epic gallery, you might want to read our tips on taking kids to museums. (Note: The Hermitage is closed on Monday’s.)

IMG_2162St. Isaac’s – This Cathedral took 40 years to construct. It is 333ft. tall and is plated in pure gold. From both the inside and outside it is a beautiful building. The interior used to have canvas paintings, but due to the cold, damp environment, the paintings began deteriorating, and have been replaced almost entirely with mosaics. There is a ticket office on the North East side of the structure (near the tour bus parking), where you can buy tickets to enter the museum and the dome, which you can climb for a fantastic view of the city. There are 200+ stairs to get to the top. We carried our littlest one but our 3-year-old made the trek just fine. The top is completely protected, so there is no worry of kids falling from a height. Keep in mind that St. Isaac’s, as well as many of the other top tourist sites in the city, is closed on Wednesday’s.

IMG_3012In the park to the north of the cathedral, there is a wonderful little playground where the kids can take a break and play for a while. It’s about half way between St. Isaac’s and the statue of the Bronze Horseman (and just a bit to the east). The Bronze Horseman is a giant statue of Peter the Great, and is situated atop the thunder stone (the largest stone ever moved by man). The statue is about a 10 minute walk from St. Isaac’s, so be sure not to miss it if you are in the area. It is akin to the Statue of Liberty for Russia.

IMG_3024The Peterhof Palace – This gem is often called the Russian Versailles — and for good reason. The interior is both interesting and beautiful, and for an extra fee you can take a short tour. The real reason to go, however, is to see the gardens. Wow! 500 acres of fountains, sculptures, and immaculately groomed flora: all right on the waterfront. You can spend a whole day here, but you can certainly squeeze it in to a half day if you are short on time. As you wander, you’ll find lots of fun things for the kids. Many of the fountains are designed to splash in and get you wet. Our kids had a great time playing in the water and skipping through the shaded pathways. What a backyard. This is a wonderful way to spend a summer day. Here is a great list of some of the fun things not to miss with kids at the Peterhof.

You can get there by bus or train from the Baltiskiy Station (about 45 min. to an hour). If you have a car, you can also make the drive in about an hour. However, the best (and most fun) way to get to the Peterhof Palace is by Hydrofoil (35 min). At the end of the Marine Canal, you’ll find several companies that run regular waterfront services to and from the main entrance of the palace.

IMG_3908The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood – This was our FAVORITE thing that we saw in St. Petersburg. When you picture Russia in your mind, this is what your imagination draws up. The church was built  on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II. It is constructed in the classic 17th century Russian style. Bright colored mosaics and onion domed towers adorn the outside of the church. The exterior is stunning, but pales in comparison the interior. Once inside, you’ll find more than 7,500 square meters of mosaics: the majority having been made with real gold leaf. This church, all by itself, is worth the trip to St. Petersburg (Closed Wednesday’s).

IMG_2295The Peter and Paul Fortress – This fortress is a  bit off the beaten path, but it’s a fun area to walk around and explore. Every day at noon, a blank shot is fired from the cannon at the Naryshkin Bastion. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1873 as a way for the citizens to synchronize their watches. On Saturdays, after the shot is fired, you can watch the ceremonial changing of the guard. Aside from the Naryshkin Bastion, the fortress houses a museum, a bell tower, and the beautiful Peter and Paul Cathedral.

If you are looking to grab a bite, there is a fantastic, family friendly restaurant in the area. It’s called Koryushkyu, and it’s located on the southwest corner of the fortress island. DO order the corn soup. DON’T order the bottled water – it’s imported and REALLY expensive. Go for an apple juice or a soda instead. The food is fantastic and there is a great play area for the kids. Sometimes I still dream about this place. SO good!

IMG_2101Getting there – Overall, just remember that Russia has very strict entrance and exit laws. Thus, you will most likely need a visa to enter. It can be a bit confusing, so we would recommend going through a third-party organization to secure your visa’s and make sure can safely enter and exit the country. However, if you enter by Ferry from Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn, you can sidestep the visa requirements (but you are only allowed to stay for 72 hours). The St. Peter’s Ferry Line (now operated by MOBY travel) is the only company that makes the journey. We’ve entered and exited Russia by boat, train, and plane. I will say that if you can afford the Visa fee, the process of coming in by train (from Helsinki) or by plane is much smoother. The ferry feels a bit more stressful, but it is absolutely doable with kids.

All in all, we found St. Petersburg to be a warm and friendly place. We felt safe and comfortable and had a great stay. It’s a fun vacation spot for kids and adults alike, and by far my favorite city in Russia.

The Baltic States

The Baltic States are some of the most underestimated locations in all of Europe. They don’t really fit in any category. It’s not Western Europe, it’s not Easter Europe, and it’s not quite Scandinavia. Instead, this area has a charm and a vibe that is completely original. If you haven’t been to this region before, we would highly recommend a visit. And if you avoid traditional Lithuanian food we promise you’ll have a fantastic time. To help you out, we’ve mapped a course of our favorite cities in the neighborhood.

Northern Poland

b16Gdańsk – While Poland is not technically a Baltic State, there are a few places in the northern part of the country that border the Sea and are worth a visit. Our first must see stop along the Baltic Coast is Gdańsk, Poland. It is a great city with a long, rich history. The entire Old Town of Gdańsk is really remarkable. Right along the water there is a beautiful and well-preserved medieval port crane. It was built in 1442, making it the oldest one in Europe. We would also recommend that you don’t miss the National Maritime Museum (where you can board and explore the SS Sołdek), The Green and Gold Gates, Artus Court, St. Mary’s Church, and the beautiful Amber shops. For a half day trip, you can sail (on one of the fancy ships in the harbor) to the Hel Peninsula. That’s right, you can take a Pirate ship to Hel!

b18The big highlight for our kids in Gdańsk was the Ciucui Cukier Artist Candy Factory. This shop is located at 64/64 ulica Dluga and every hour they do a free demonstration. Here, they hand make traditional Polish Rock Candy and sometimes lucky customers – like our 2-year-old daughter – get invited behind the counter to help! Every demonstration ends with big smiles and free samples. It’s a must see and a must taste on the bucket list.

 b20Sopot- Just a quick half-hour train ride north from Gdańsk is the city of Sopot with its legendary Boardwalk. The Pier itself is totally empty and costs money to walk along (not worth it in our book). But everything leading up to it is full of fun and color. It’s a quirky little town with a whole lot of character. Street performers, vendors, and art fill up this little city with charm. The Sopot Beach is a beautiful (but crowded) place to relax on soft sand and swim in cold water. Try visiting in May or September when school is in session. That way the crowds are low but sun is still high and the weather is beautiful.

b14Malbork – In the opposite direction, another great day trip from Gdańsk is the Malbork Casltle. It’s just a half hour train ride to the south and well worth the short journey. Malbork is a Teutonic Knight Castle. It was built in 1406 and is the largest castle in the world of its kind. I would plan at least 3 or 4 hours to get through the whole thing. Make sure not to miss the Amber Museum that resides in the basement under the gift shop. It’s also nice to cross the bridge and get a view of the castle from across the river.

The city of Malbork itself is quite small and beside the castle you won’t find much to see. It’s mostly made up of overpriced vendors trying to capitalize on the castle’s presence by selling the same cheap and gimmicky clutter.  However, there are some pretty great ice cream shops around town that make it worth an hour-long wander.


b3Kaunas – Just a bit inland and to the North of Poland is Kaunas, Lithuania. It’s a great place to stop for a day or two. The main street leading up to the town hall is lined with fun and traditional Lithuanian shops and art galleries. Some great things to see in this city include: The St. Michael the Archangel Church (pictured), The Žmuidzinavičius Museum (Also called the Devil Museum. This may be a little scary for the under 5 crowd), Ninth Fort, and The Kaunas Castle. Directly south of the Castle, you’ll find a lovely park. It’s great for a stroll on a sunny day. Just as the path curves, there is a little playground where the kids can stop and run around for a bit. If you continue on, you’ll eventually run into the river. Just across the bridge there is a tall staircase where you can climb to get a great view of the city. For an off-the-beaten-path experience, take a 20 min. drive east to visit the Pažaislis Monastery. Open Mon.-Fri. from 10am-5pm and Sat. from 10am-4pm.

b12The Hill of Crosses – One of the most interesting and unique places we’ve ever been to is the Hill of Crosses just outside of Šiauliai, Lithuania. A couple of years a go, we drove from Kaunas to Riga. This Holy site is about half way between the two cities. Travelers have been making pilgrimage to this hill for more than 200 years. There are now over 100,000 crosses that cover the site. It is honestly an amazing thing to see.

Vilnius – Truth: We’ve never actually been to Vilnius. Second Truth: We really really want to go. SO, if you make it to the Lithuanian capital before we do, let us know what you think. We’ve heard that the Uzgavenes festival held yearly in February is amazing. Lithuanian tradition says that you have to scare away the winter. So, every year men and women dress up in big devil masks and put up witches all around the city to fight off the cold winter spirits and welcome in the spring.


IMG_1636Riga – Riga is one of those cities that you visit and think “I can’t believe I never thought to come here before”. It’s not Paris, it’s not Rome. But it is worth a weekend stop. Every August, this city puts on the annual Riga City Festival. We’ve been 2 years in a row now. It is definitely the time to be there. During the festival there are lots of free performances and activities.b4 All up and down the river you’ll find lots of booths selling yummy local street food. And in the main square, there are hundreds of vendors set up to sell hand crafts and homemade goods. It really brings the city to life.

Jūrmala – This city is about a half hour drive from Riga. It’s very reminiscent of the little coastal towns that dot Oregon and Northern California. The beach itself is great but it’s also fun to meander in and out of the little shops and farmers markets inside the city.


b2Tallinn – Tallinn is our very favorite of all these Baltic cities! This is one of those cities where it is best just to wander. Everything in the old town is worth seeing and exploring.  While Tallinn was originally settled as early as 2500 BC, the old town has preserved most of its historic architecture from medieval  times. The old town is divided into Upper-Town (Toompea) and Lower-Town and is best explored on foot. However, it is not all that stroller friendly. So, backpacks or baby carriers are advised. The views from Upper-Town are quite picturesque and make it worth the hike.

IMG_1938Outside of old town you might consider taking time to see the Estonian Open Air Museum, the Tallinn Zoo, or to have a beach day along The Gulf of Finland. While we were there in August, we also took a bus out to see the Tallinn TV Tower (about a 30 min. bus ride) which has a viewing deck on the 26th floor. On a clear day, you can see a pretty spectacular view from the top. It is a completely enclosed and very child friendly space. Just a couple of bus stops shy of the TV tower is a beautiful botanical garden as well as a ruined 14th century monastery. We cannot say enough good things about Tallinn and always recommend it to our traveler friends.

Five-Petalled Rose Renaissance Festival: Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I’ll admit that the last time I was at a Renaissance Festival I was probably 12-years-old. So, I was way overdue for my fill of Amateur Actors, Sultry Maidens and Drunken Fools. That’s why we decided to visit the Five-Petalled Rose Celebration in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic. It is now one of our very favorite family memories.

IMG_0884Český Krumlov is about a 2-hour drive south of Prague and even without the festival this adorable and authentic medieval city would be worth the trip. If  you don’t have a car, the best way to get in is by bus. It’s a 3-hour bus ride from Prague or 4-hours from Vienna. The festival is held Annually in the month of June on the weekend of the Summer Solstice. This year it will take place from Jun 19 – Jun 21, 2015.  The festival lasts three days but on our trip we stayed in Prague and just made a day trip down to the Renaissance Faire.

For the duration of the festival, the entire historic section of the city closes to all outside traffic. You can park (for a small fee) at several parking lots just outside the center and walk in. We parked in the lot by the southern bridge. Tickets are sold, for cash only, at  every the entrance into the historic downtown. When we arrived we received a little map of the city as well as a schedule of events (which can also be found on the official website). Once inside, the city itself is a fun place to wander. It is tucked nicely into a large curve in Vltava river. The historic town dates back to the 13th century and has been relatively untouched since then. Here were the highlights for us:

IMG_0952The Sights: The view of the faded but colorful castle tower is visible from all over the town. There are several great points where you can get a really great look at it. Across the northern bridge you will climb by ramp and road to the castle. It’s bumpy in places but fairly stroller friendly. If you continue up the hill past the castle, you will find the castle gardens as well as a great view of the city. The town is very small making it pretty easy to find your way around.

IMG_1636Shops and Venders: At the Castle base are booths where authentically dressed vendors sell all kinds of handmade goods. We came home with some local honey as well as some beautiful and fragrant lavender soap. Also, as you wander through the tiny streets you will find little shops that sell all kinds of children’s toys, trinkets, and treats. During the festival, in the main square, there are lots of food tents set up. It’s a street food kind of feeling but it’s all quite yummy. Make sure to bring cash as most places won’t take a credit card.

IMG_0887Performers: In the main square, you will also find a large stage. The majority of the performances happen here. However, as you meander in and out of the ally ways, you will likely run across some smaller performances. We happened upon a fantastic 2-man puppet show. The actors were over the top and very kid friendly. They were so animated and fun that it didn’t even matter that the performance was entirely in Czech.  We also ran across some jugglers and other street performers that were hired by the festival. You can check the schedule for these performances as well as for larger demonstrations like sword fighting and jousting.

IMG_0894    IMG_1633    IMG_1641

IMG_1646Kids Rides & Games: Just on the other side of the city wall, there is a great big children’s section. This was our very favorite part. Here we found all kinds of old timey carnival rides. The target age for this area is probably 2-8 but our 1-year-old did just fine. This section was full of all kinds of swings and games. There was also a medieval style merry-go-round.IMG_1651 A large man pushes a large wooden arm as he runs side-by-side with the carousel to propel the children as they sit in little brown baskets. Our kiddies couldn’t get enough. We spent several hours here and it wasn’t long enough.

This festival is a perfect vacation destination for families. If you are looking for a fun European spot to take your kids this summer – look no further. The Czech Republic, that’s where it’s at. Can we come back and do this every year? Pretty pretty please!

*7 Things That Can Ruin Your Vacation

There are things in life that were designed specifically with the intent to ruin your day. In our travels, we have come across a few “vacation spoilers”. So, below we’ve done our best to help you outsmart the travel blues. Here’s a list of 7 things that can ruin your vacation and how to prevent them wrecking all the fun.


Catholic Holidays or any religious or government shutdown for that matter. When you have time off you likely want to travel. The problem is, when you have a day off from work chances are that so does everyone else. In Europe, where the religious climate is a bit more rigorous than in the U.S., everything seems to shut down on holidays: shops, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. This doesn’t mean that you can’t travel on holidays. It just means that you will need to do a little more planning. When we were traveling in Paris for the Christmas we did some research and found what things would be open Christmas Day. Most of the museums and Christmas markets were closed. However, the Opera House was open along with The Eiffel Tower, The Moulin Rouge, and – of course – all the shops in the Jewish district. Likewise, the Pompidou Center is closed on Christmas but it is one of the few places open on New Years Day.

Remember that it’s not just big holiday’s like Christmas but little ones like 3 Kings Day in January and The Assumption of Mary in August. Just check a country specific calendar before you go so that you can plan for it.  Also, it’s good to be aware of the holy day of the country you are visiting and know that there is a good chance things will be closed.

071018_coldmeds_hmed_630.grid-6x2Sickness. Whether you get a cold or a sunburn, a sickness can turn a fun family vacation into a tough situation. When you are traveling, you often don’t know where to find a pharmacy and if you are in a foreign country you probably don’t know what to look for even if you find one. So, we like to take a little medicine kit with us when we travel: sunscreen, aloe-vera, children’s Tylenol, cough drops, essential oils, etc. You don’t have to pack the whole medicine cabinet just bring a few emergency essentials. If you are traveling by plane, remember to check the carry on size requirements for liquids and gels. Security WILL make you throw things away if they are too big.

It’s always a good idea to prevent where you can. Put on sunscreen, wash your hands, don’t eat “questionable” food. There are some ailments that can be avoided.

With sickness, you may have to change your plans a little bit. When we were in Hawaii a few years ago we had a family member throw out her back. We had planned to go for a scenic drive but that was out of the question. So, we set up camp on some blankets and had an extra beach day instead. In Copenhagen this winter, our 3-year-old came down with a temperature and we had to forgo our planned day trip to Malmö, Sweden. A bit sad but not the end of the world. Sickness isn’t any fun, especially on vacation, but be prepared and try to roll with it as best you can.

IMG_8571Weather. Rain, snow, wind… we don’t want them but they come anyway. This is another thing that can ruin your fun if you aren’t ready for it. So, be ready. The snow is colder in t-shirts, I promise. But it’s really not that bad in a winter coats with hats and gloves and all the fixings. The biggest thing to make sure the weather doesn’t hurt your travel is to embrace it. Check before you go and pack for it. I know it sounds like such a simple thing but a poncho can save your vacation. This is another place where will also benefit from some planning. If the weather says rain on Tuesday, consider making that your museum day.

Lost Luggage is more likely than you might think. The Huffington Post has some tips on how to prevent lost bags but just in case it does happen you will want to have a backup plan. We like to use our carry on space as a kind of emergency bag. We pack the essentials for at least 24 hours after we land. Toothbrushes, extra changes of clothes, electronics, diapers, medicines, and other essentials ride with us and not under the plain.

unnamed (1)We also take extra care to protect our wallets  and passports when we travel. I cannot even imagine losing these items in a foreign country. Keep them close to you and watch for pickpockets. Keep your wallet in your front pocket and your passport close. You might even consider wearing them on your person. Just in case you do lose something as important as a passport make sure you know where the embassy of your home country is located. The United States Bureau of Consular Affairs recommends that you make a copy of your important documents to leave with a friend back home in case of emergency.

Overspending can also put a damper on your excitement. Try your best to budget ahead of time but plan for things to cost more than you anticipated. Have a talk with your travel partner(s) before hand about their views on overspending. It can be a contention point so it’s good to discuss these things before you are standing in the ice cream line.

49540Getting Lost can be a big pain. Make sure you have a good map of the city and always write down the address of your hotel. Make note of landmarks and street signs. Make a special effort to pay attention to how you got somewhere and don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Even if you don’t speak the language, charades can get you pretty far.

On the flip side, sometimes getting lost can be the best thing that ever happened you. You might wander into some fantastic sights and memories. Go with the flow and enjoy the experience.

Melt Downs. If you can make it through a normal week at home without your 2-year-old throwing a tantrum, please come teach me how. If you can make it through a week-long vacation, you must be the child whisperer. The point is, your kids will not suddenly be immune to being kids just because you are inside the Taj Mahal.

IMG_8251That being said, there are some things that you can do to help. 1). make sure that your trip has things for both child and parent fun. You have your list of things to see but don’t forget theirs. Traveling with kids, you will see things that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. They want to visit the park and the zoo and the toy store. Sometimes these stops are more fun than you might have originally thought. You’ll get a real feel for the people and the culture by experiencing some of these more normal, day-to-day activities. It will also help your children feel like this trip is for them. We’ve found that an hour at the park or an hour-long nap can work wonders for their mood and their willingness to be dragged along to the next destination on the bucket list. 2). Never underestimate the power of a bribe. The promise of ice cream once bought us an extra two hours in the Louvre. SO worth it! 3). We’ve found it helpful to plan some extra time in your days. Everything just takes a little longer with kids. Good time management when you travel is a great stress fighter.

Parent your little heart out and just do your best. If your kid does have the melt down to end all melt downs in the middle of time square, just chalk it up to a win that you don’t know any of these people and you will never see them again.

If you have other thoughts or ways to help avoid classic travel pitfalls please share with the peanut gallery by leaving a comment below.

* The Castles of Transylvania

We love European cities. We love the art and the culture and the food. We love the old buildings and the museums and the people. But  a word of advice when visiting Romania, get out of the city! Rent a car, and leave it all behind because the Romanian countryside is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. On our recent trip to Romania, we flew into Bucharest and immediately hit the road. Best decision ever!rupea2

First off, the Transylvanian region of Romania is much safer than Bucharest. You don’t have to worry about pick pockets, stray dogs, and drunkards. We felt 100% completely safe traveling through Transylvania with our 2 little kids. Besides that, it is almost completely surrounded by the breath-taking Carpathian Mountains. Adding to the beauty of this region, ancient castles and citadels dot the landscape and make you feel like you have taken a step back in time.  Below is our recommended travel plan.  It will only take you about 5 hours to drive the whole loop (map here) but of course you’ll want to stop in each place and soak it all in. We took 4 days, which was just a bit rushed. I would have liked to have 5.peles2

Peles and Pelişor Castles – Peles is the larger of the two but they are situated within walking distance of each other. We actually only paid to go inside of the first one but I don’t feel like we missed out by not seeing the other. Peles is absolutely stunning from the outside. You can park just to the East of the castle and then walk (about 10 min.) up to it. The inside is remarkable as well. It has a very Baroque feeling with lots of dark wooden carvings. I’m not sure if it was just our guide or the entire staff, but she seemed to have it out for children. And not just ours.  So, just a warning: they’ll let them in but not in a baby carrier, and they make no promise of friendliness. The museum is also very strict and if you so much as breath on something wrong, you’re sure get a scolding look. All in all, however, it was incredible to see. They have a website where you can look up tour times and prices.

img_1352Rasnov Fortress – The best thing about this fortress is its placement in the Mountains. I still dream about that view. The second best thing about it are the actors. There are about 5 or 6 paid actors who dress up in old medieval clothes and pretend to be people from the time period. We’re not sure if they are famous or not because they all sell autographed photos, postcards, buttons, and kitchen magnets of themselves in their costumes. It’s so great! There is such a fun feeling in the air here. My new dream job is to work at Rasnov.  It’s a good little hike to get to the top but it’s worth it. Again, I say, look at that view! Rasow

Photo Credit: rolandia.eu

Bran Castle – Just a 15 min drive from Rasnov is this amazing structure, also know as “Dracula’s Castle” for its fictitious ties to Bran Stoker’s novel. This is by far the most popular tourist destination in Romania. We waited in line for about 30 min. just to get in. The surrounding area houses an old marketplace with lots of vendors. Right along the strip they are mostly selling tourist junk like “I love Dracula” t-shirts and fake vampire teeth. But turn the corner and you’ll find that others are selling more worth while items like hand painted pottery and homemade Romanian sweet bread called Kurtoskurtos”. SO yummy! It’s hard to get a decent view of the outside of the castle unless you are willing to drive away from it. But the inside is beautiful. Funny that it’s closest fictional ties are to Dracula when it feels as though it should be home to Prince Charming (except for maybe the torture room, but that’s an extra fee anyway). Once inside, the self guided tour takes about an hour. It really is rather impressive. For more information on visiting the castle, click here.

Rupea Fortress – One of the best things about Romania is that grande fortresses, like this one, just appear along the side of the road. We had no plans to see this castle, but on our drive up to Sighișoara, there it was. And we just had to see it. Let’s just say that the hour detour was well spent.

Sighișoara Tower- Actually the entire town of Sighișoara is worth seeing.  The Tower itself cost a small fee but you can see the whole city from the top and it really is amazing. We just wandered around town for half a day and took it in. sighisoara The cemetery and the church at the top of hill are also worth the hike. Sighișoara is said to be be birth place of Vlad the Impaler – Dracula! And they won’t let you forget it. You can even pay about a dollar to see “the room where Dracula was born”. Which is just an old man dressed like a Vampire waiting to scare you in a dark attic as some corny music plays in the background. So funny. But maybe not for the kids. The food at the Dracula House restaurant (on the second floor) is quite delicious. This is a great little city.

biertanBiertan Fortified Church – Another spontaneous stop. We saw a sign that said “Castle 2 Kilometers —>” and we went. A bit off the beaten path, but that’s part of the charm. The castle is the focal point of this tiny town as it reigns supreme from its home on the hill-side. It’s surrounded by a little farming community of about 1,500 people. The tour isn’t expensive but it closes at 5pm and they won’t let you in after 4:30. We barely made it and we’re glad we did. Biertan is also just a short 30 min. drive from the city of Medias (where you can’t drive a car anywhere in the old town so plan for a little walking).

Hunyad Castle. Photo Credit: rolandia.eu

Făgăraș Caslte – What a tragedy that we ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to see this castle.  I’ve included in on the must see loop because I regret that we didn’t make it here. Făgăraș is completely surrounded by the original old moat. This castle was the home of the Transylvanian Princesses and has many items, like wedding dresses and veils, on display. If you’ve ever been here, let us know what it was like. We’re dying to know. If you have an extra day, Hunyad Castle (also called Corvin Castle) is about a 2 1/2 hour drive west of Făgăraș. We didn’t make it out that far but the pictures look amazing! We hope to make it back someday.

brasovIf it’s a city that you are looking to see, we would suggest staying in Sighișoara and Brașov. The city of Brașov is right off the main highway and it’s adorable. It is nestled right up against the mountain and has a great little old town square. Not to mention the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted in my life. And we’ve been to Belgium. It’s a little shop called “chocolat” (yes, without the e). It’s right across the street from the old town square. Don’t miss it! When traveling through Romania, remember that this country is not nearly as developed as some of its neighbors. You probably won’t get a map of the city from the hotel and you might not always be able to find wifi. We were also warned not to drink the tap water. But despite all that, or maybe because of it, it holds a peaceful and preserved charm like nowhere else we’ve been.

Oh, Romania! I can’t imagine a life where I never met you. So GO! Start planning your trip. I promise you won’t regret it.

*The Great American Road Trip

Originally posted on Let’s Get Together**

Dear President Eisenhower,

On behalf of every car-driving, gas-guzzling, interstate-cruising, great-American-road-trip-loving person in these here United States of America, I just want to say thanks! Thanks for bringing us memories of drives to “the world’s largest can of Spinach” route_66and hours of Pat Benatar mix tapes.  Thanks for the sibling bonding that came from having to sit on “the hump” in the middle of our station wagon between my squabbling sisters every summer as we drove across the vast Nevada desert. Thank you for recent remembrances of driving with my own kids as we sang “Old McDonald” across the entire state of Kansas. Thanks for making the tradition possible.

Sincerely, A Road Trip Lover

As warm weather approaches, let’s all just take a minute to rejoice in the fact that we probably get to take a 10621_101415059875790_2417720_nroad trip this summer! If you are anything like me, you can’t wait to get behind the wheel of your mini-van and cross a state border or two. But the truth of the matter is that on this side of 22, road trips are a decidedly harrier tale than they used to be: especially if you have little ones.  So, here are some tips on how to help your kids love road trips just as much as you do.

IMG_0331Make sure that you can reach them. If there is an extra seat in the car, it goes next to the baby. That way you can sit next to them if you need to. For the very little ones make sure to bring a bottle. If you are nursing, bring a breast pump so that you can feed them without having to take them out of their car seat. Bring along toys that are brightly colored and make noise. Check the car seat before you leave and make sure they are safe and comfortable.

Toddlers: One of the biggest concerns for toddler age children is potty training. If you know
huggies-pull-upsyou are taking a long trip soon, you may want to wait to start potty training until you get home. If you are already in the full swing of things, you might consider putting some extra planning into your road trip bathroom strategy. You may let your toddler wear pull-ups for the duration of the trip. You just never know how long it will be until they can get to a bathroom. You also might consider brining along their little kiddy potty. Then you can pull over on the side of the road wherever you are. If neither one of these ideas is your style, just make sure to take frequent potty breaks and have extra clothing easily accessible – just in case.

2Ditch the Devises – Ok, not completely: you’re not a crazy person! But just remember that a family road trip isn’t just about getting from point A to point B. There are memories to be made. Sing songs, play games, read a book together. There is totally a time to bust out the Diamond edition of Beauty and the Beast on DVD. All I’m saying is that if the road trips of our generation turn into 10 hour-long Daniel Tiger marathons, we are severely missing the mark.

Here are a few websites that have some great game ideas for little kids:

sf3Road Trip Presents – A fun tradition that we have in our family is road trip presents. Take a trip to the dollar store before you go and buy things like stickers, special sweets, and small toys. We even wrap them up in wrapping paper and pass them out throughout the trip as fun surprises. These little presents are nothing expensive but just fun distractions. It’s amazing how exciting fake mustaches can be after 7 hours in a car.

UntitledSnacks – How ever many snacks you think you should bring – double it. Make them fun. A snack can be an activity too. Also, you’ll want to pack things that are travel friendly. Make your life easier and don’t bring anything that requires a spoon. You can even pack everyone his or her own individual snack box.With older kids, you might consider letting them come to the store to choose some things that they are excited about.

imagesStrategic Packing – How you arrange the car is more important than you might think.  Take a few minutes and make a list of things that you think you will need on the drive. Things like snacks, garbage bags, wet wipes, diapers, toys, games, maps, phone chargers, etc. I like to use boxes to organize these things into groups. Then, put them somewhere that you can reach them (like at your feet or at the feet of a toddler). I like to ask myself “what are we going to need in the next 12 hours?” Everything else goes in the trunk or out of the way.

 Mess Control packing list:1

  • Wet wipes
  • Paper towels
  • Trash bags
  • Spill proof Snack Cups
  • Sippy Cups or closed containers (even for older kids)
  • Zip lock bags
  • Bucket or sturdy plastic bag (for unexpected car sickness)

Another mess help is to pack everyone his or her own little backpack. This is a place to put shoes, jackets, Mr. Bear, coloring books, etc. Keeping things organized will go a long way for your sanity. At least it does for me.

IMG_1664-2Don’t buy into the myth that you can’t take your little kids on long trips. So many people think “My kids couldn’t possibly sit still for 10 hours in a car” (or a plane or a train or a minivan or whatever). Here’s why it’s a bad idea to wait: If they don’t learn to road trip as children they will only hate it more as teenagers. Teach them young and they will get used to driving long distances; wait until they are older and they will probably hate it forever. Your kids will be better travelers at 5, 12, 16 and 40 if they get used to it at age 2. So, buckle up, hit the road, roll down the windows and breathe in that warm summer air.

**Jack and Jill Travel was recently asked to guest blog on a family site called Let’s Get Together. You can see the original article here. You should spend some time looking around this amazing blog full of all kinds of family fun. From Birthday party brainstorming to the world’s best brownie recipes, they have it all. Happy reading.

* The Jet Lag Woes

Jet lag, you sly dog, you’ve done it again. You’ve fed them after midnight and turned my sweet little angels into sweet little monsters. Well, we’re not going down without a fight. Here are our best tips to help with the jet lag woes.

IMG_6042Hydration – Studies show that one of the best ways to prevent jet lag is to stay hydrated. Use this as a preventive measure even before you take off. In the days leading up to a long flight make sure that everyone in the family gets plenty to drink and give your kids get lots of water on the plane. Don’t be afraid to ask the flight attendant for an extra round of apple juice. Flying is notorious for causing dehydration so, you will want to drink more than you think you need. For the adults in the family, keep in mind that alcohol and caffeine can actually cause dehydration so it’s best to avoid them around travel time.

Keep a Schedule – As much as possible you’ll want stick to your normal schedule. As soon as you land (or even before) change your clocks to the local time. Try not to think about what time it “really” is back home. That only makes it worse. When traveling west it can be very tempting to go to bed at 5:00pm. Don’t. And try your best to keep your kids up until as close to bedtime as possible. If anyone wants a nap don’t let it be a long one (when I say long I mean longer than normal). The first day is always the hardest but I have found that if we can keep a good schedule we can kick the jet lag in just a couple of days.

Sometimes vacations are scheduled for you with very little wiggle room. So, if you are traveling for a special event, like a wedding, you might want to consider getting there a few days early so that your kids have some time to adjust before they are paraded around for inspection and cheek-pinching by your friends and relatives.

IMG_1363Soak up the Sunlight – use it to your advantage. The sun naturally signals to our bodies that they should be awake. So, do your best to spend your first day of jet lag outside. When traveling East, your kids might want to sleep in. I know… that sounds SO wonderful! But don’t let them sleep too long. Get them up and take them outside. Let them see the sunshine. It will help their internal clocks (and yours) regulate to the new time.

IMG_1065-2Midnight Snacks and Stories – Especially when we are traveling east, our kids will almost certainly wake up bright-eyed and ready to go sometime around 2:00 in the morning. If they do wake up, the first night or two you might consider letting them get up for a little while. Keep this time calm and quiet. Sing lullabies instead of running around, don’t turn on too many lights, etc. Make them a sandwich, watch a short movie, read some stories and tuck them back in bed.

IMG_1906Roll with it – Confession: last time we got home from an overseas trip I crawled into the crib and slept there with my one-year-old son. It was 1 in the morning and even after a snack, a story, and an episode of Dora he would not fall asleep. So, I just climbed on in for a little snuggling (drastic times you know). Mind you, this in not a normal practice in my house but it worked. After half an hour he was asleep. Later that night our two-year-old found her way to our bed and was not removed for several hours.

Avoid Un-prescribed Medication – Many parents have been known to give their children some Children’s Benadryl or other similar medications to help kids sleep. I’m the kind of person that is weary to take medication even when it’s prescribed so you can imagine what side of this controversy I’m on. Even so, I’m not one to judge. If you are considering medications, let me just suggest that you ask a doctor about it first and make sure that you talk about proper dosing as overdose is the largest concern. Also, it’s important to know that while antihistamines have known drowsiness effects in adults, they can actually have very different side effects in kids. Children’s Benadryl says that it may cause “excitability” in small children, which is kind of what you are trying to avoid in the first place.

With all the risks associated with giving children medication without doctor approval, I would recommend just avoiding it all together. Instead, you might consider a more natural solution. Lavender, for example, has natural soothing and calming properties. I have some essential lavender oil that I rub on my kids feet and pillows before bedtime the night we get home from a long trip. It’s not going to knock them out but it is a much safer sleep aid.

IMG_0213Culture Shock vs. Jet Lag – If it’s been a week and you still think they might have switched out your kids for different ones at customs you might recognize that maybe jet lag isn’t the culprit. Sometimes kids have a hard time being taken our of their home environment. New beds and new faces can contribute to grumpiness just as much as a new time-zone. You might want to take a special stuffed animal or toy with you on your trip to remind them of home. Be patient with them, make sure to show extra love, and they’ll get used to it.

If you have any other ideas on how to help kids with jet lag please leave us a comment. We love to hear from you.

* Vienna, Austria

Austrian National Library

We have taken our little family on a lot of European Adventures. Every place we’ve visited has only been enhanced because we had our children along for the ride. That was until we got to Vienna. Don’t get me wrong, Vienna is a beautiful city and certainly worth visiting. To be fair, I think  that our rocky experience may have been because of lack of planning but Vienna was by far the least family friendly place we have been to in Europe. Thanks to some great friends, we had a good list of things to see in the city. We just forgot ask all the “kid questions”. If we had to do it again, there are so many things I wish I would have known about bringing children to this amazing city. In short, go to Vienna! Take your kids! But do your research before you get there.

Vienna Town Square

Vienna is a performance city. From the Opera and the Symphony to the violinists on the street corners, people want to entertain you. It’s one of the reasons that you go. January and February are considered “ball season” and you can attend dance lessons and dinner events in grande 15th Century style ball rooms. Obviously, children are not allowed at these parties and performances. So, this city would be a good place to bring along friends, family, or a nanny to watch the kids.

Crown Jewels of Austria

Not only are the events closed to children but even the tour of the buildings themselves can have limited age access. The Opera House, for example, does not allow children under the age of 6 on the tour. You will want to check the age limits for all the places you plan to visit. Vienna isn’t afraid to turn you away if you have little children. We were denied admittance to churches and other places because our kids were too young. The Spanish Ridding School for example, has an age limit of 4 and up. We had told our 2-year-old all day that we were going to see the horses dance. There was some heart-break when we found out that she couldn’t go inside.

Schönbrunn Palace

There are some family events in Vienna but you have to look  a little harder for them. We would highly recommend a visit to the Schönbrunn Palace as it has a lot of activities specifically for kids. There is a Children’s Museum as well as the Imperial Zoo (this is the most amazing Zoo I’ve ever been to… as well as the oldest in all of Europe). Kids are also allowed on the tour of the palace (about 45 min.). And it was quite nice just to let them run around and explore the extensive gardens after the tour.

Imperial Zoo

Also, on the grounds is a puppet show theater but don’t assume that just because it sounds like it’s something for kids that you can take them. We made that mistake. Our last night in Vienna, we planned to see a performance at this quaint little theater but when we got there they turned us away because we had kids. My apologies, I didn’t realize that a puppet show was “no place for children”. Here’s the good news: they do special matinée performance for the wee ones. So, just get tickets in advance and make sure it’s a kid friendly performance.

Stephen’s Dom

St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the very center of the city is quite beautiful and free to enter. For a fee you can see the bell towers as well as the crypt. We wondered if the crypt would be too scary for our young kids but decided to risk it… and I’m glad we did. It’s not as spooky as it sounds and it was pretty awesome. The Royal Hapsburg Family’s bones are buried here and their innards are displayed in opaque jars where they have been preserved with alcohol. Creepy! Your 9-year-old boys will love it. If you have a chance, we recommend getting high enough to see the roof of the Cathedral. It’s really impressive.

Grave site of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Make sure to find yourselves some Schnitzel and Apple Strudel. The Austrians also know how to rock a bowl of ice cream. So, you won’t want to go home without tasting some gelato. When it come to food, just be aware that Viennese will nickel and dime you so be careful how you order. Some other family friendly activities might include: The Royal Treasury, The Naschmarkt, The Hoffburg Palace, and the Zentralfriefhof Cemetery (where Beethoven and Mozart are both buried).  All in all, Vienna was an awesome city: one I think we’ll try again in 20 years.

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