Zurich at Christmas

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Christmas has long past, but we had a great weekend getaway to Zurich a couple of weeks before the holiday.  We had been meaning to get to Zurich for a while now and since it sounded quite festive at Christmas,  we figured it was high time we check it out!  We stayed at the the Hotel Helvetia in their large family suite, which was within walking distance to Old Town and right next to a tram and metro stop.  I loved the Kiehl’s cosmetic products they offered and the restaurant did a great brunch.

Our favorite market was the beautiful Weinachtsdorf in front of the Opera House.  This market is a newer addition to the city at Christmas time and it’s very well done.  Lots of cute stands selling interesting trinkets, good variety of food to choose from, plenty of gluhwein, and my favorite-the hot chocolate with Bailey’s stand!  There’s also an ice skating rink and a carousel that our kids enjoyed.

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On Sunday we took the train out to Rapperswil, a lovely mediaeval village about thirty minutes from Zurich.  With over 200 stands, this market is one of the largest in Switzerland.  The highlight for the boys was definitely the donkey ride around the market.  Very fun!

After we had seen all of the market, we wandered through the rest of the village and it was really lovely.  We were glad we made the trip out, especially after sampling the most delicious apple donuts with vanilla cream!  I was expecting the kind of apple cider donut we get back in the U.S., but it was really just a ring of apple with a deep fried coating.  Yum!

We made it back from Rapperswil just in time to head to the Singing Christmas tree performance at Werdmühleplatz and Jonah and I even got to participate!  It was so fun ringing the bells and singing Christmas carols.  Definitely a memorable experience.

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We enjoyed wandering around the Old Town and seeing all the gorgeous lights.  There is another Christmas market in the Old Town, but most of the stands had closed for the day by the time we made our way there.  It was still very picturesque to wander through the city!

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On Monday morning we were hoping that the Opera House Christmas market would be less crowded since school was still in session in Zurich…and luckily it was pretty empty when we arrived.  We almost had the whole skating rink to ourselves-much different from the packed scene Saturday night!

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I loved the different food selections at this market.  The boys had pizza, I had some fantastic Japanese ramen and Lukasz had Indian.  Everyone was happy!

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Zurich is a beautiful city and now we want to visit in the summer too!

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Before we left we had one last stop to make.  I had read that candle dipping is very popular around the holidays on the Swiss German side-so much so that there are places set up just for the holidays where you can pop in and dip some candles and even drink a coffee or hot chocolate in between waiting for your layers of beeswax to dry.  Even kids get in on the action and there are vats of beeswax that are much lower so they can easily reach.  I thought the boys might enjoy so we stopped in to the pavilion on the Bürkliplatz and tested it out.  It was very calming and the boys were enthralled-for about the first 10 minutes!  Full disclosure I did wind up finishing all 3 candles on my own, but it was a really unique and fun thing to do.

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Also, only in Europe is it totally normal for kids to be dipping string into vats of scalding beeswax!!!  But after explaining it to the boys and of course helping the little one, they were quite careful and cautious.  At any rate, we were glad we tried it out and we came home with a very special souvenir.

I’d definitely recommend a weekend in Zurich at the holidays.  There’s plenty to do, in fact we didn’t even see everything we had planned for, but we did have a great time!

Now Christmas feels like it was ages ago; sorry for the late post!  But here are some ideas for Valentine’s Day since it’s just around the corner.  🙂  A romantic weekend in Lyon is a perfect way to celebrate…or a cozy weekend in the Italian Alps!  So many options in this beautiful corner of the world.  ❤

Paris En Famille

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We spent a magical weekend in Paris this past fall when my mom was visiting.  She’s dreamed of visiting Paris since we moved to Europe six (!) years ago, so it was high time.  And the boys were also very anxious to see the Eiffel Tower so we decided to travel en famille for a long weekend.

Lucky for us, Paris is just a 3 1/2 hour train ride on the TGV so it’s quite easy to access.  We stayed at a perfectly located Airbnb apartment just a 5 minute walk from the Louvre and had a great weekend exploring the city.  Since my mom has a hard time walking for miles, we did the Hop On-Hop Off bus one day as a way of seeing what we wanted to see without as much walking.  Even with the metro, there are lots of stairs up and down, so the bus was an ideal way for people with limited mobility to get around.

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I think there’s clearly no bad time of year to visit Paris, but fall was especially beautiful.  We had mostly good weather and the leaves changing color all over the city were gorgeous.  Since Lukasz and I had only visited Paris on our own before, I did a bit of research and was surprised at just how much kid friendly stuff there was to do.  Here is a list of some of our favorites:

  1. Pictures and Posing at the Louvre-

Since our guys are just too little to drag through the crowded museum, we settled for showing them the famous pyramid and letting them have a little run around one of the courtyards.  We have a few books about Paris, so they were excited to see this iconic sight.

2.  Jardin des Tuilleries-

Our two little wild men had a great time strolling running through this famous park, drawing with sticks on the dusty paths, riding the carousel, and stopping for hot chocolates with a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.  There is also a small playground (more for older kids) and a paid area with mini trampolines.  Definitely a great place to burn off some steam when your littles need a break from sightseeing!

3. Being Mini-Foodies-

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While you generally won’t find kids menus at most restaurants (French kids eat what their parents eat), we found everywhere we went quite receptive to kids and perfectly willing for them to share a full size entree.  When we would stop for a drink and a snack, the waiters would bring the kids a syrup to drink along with a small snack of popcorn or bread which was much appreciated!  Generally the brasseries are more casual, thus making it a laid back option to dine with kids in tow.  And what’s not to love about crepes, pastries, and croissants as big as your head?! The other thing to note is that most restaurants don’t open until 7 or 7:30 for dinner, so staying in a self-catering accommodation is a nice option if you don’t want to have lots of late nights out with the little ones.  If you have older kids, there are some food tours that sound amazing…Paris by Mouth is one I’ve heard great things about.

4. Stepping Stones at the Palais Royal-

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We stayed close to the Palais Royal, so we had to check out the famous black and white stepping stones, which the kids enjoyed hopping and climbing on.  The palace is also supposed to have great gardens, but unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to check them out this time as we had other things on our agenda!

5. Notre Dame Cathedral Playground-

Although it’s small, the playground between the river and the Notre Dame Cathedral is a perfect place for the kids to burn off some energy-especially if they had to wait in line to get into the cathedral!  If the weather is nice, you could pair it up with a boat ride along the Seine as there are several tour companies docked just across the bridge.

6. Eiffel Tower-

Of course no visit to Paris is complete without a stop at the Eiffel Tower!  It was certainly the highlight of the trip for the kids and for my mom too.  We went around 4:30 pm along with some snacks and champagne we picked up at the store on the way there.  The nice thing about visiting in the fall is that it gets dark earlier so the lights were turned on at 6 pm, which left us plenty of time to check it out and then head back for dinner.   The kids had a great time playing at the playground (with the most amazing Eiffel Tower views), and they were mesmerized when the lights came on and then even better the twinkly light show.

7. Jardin du Luxembourg-

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My favorite part of the trip was whiling away a sunny morning at the Jardin du Luxembourg, just like the Parisian aristocrats used to do.  The park itself is incredibly beautiful and there was so much for kids to do.  From sailing miniature boats on the little pond, to pony rides, to playgrounds, there are lots of options to spend a whole day here.  All the activities, even the enclosed playground, comes with a fee so be prepared, but fees are minimal.  Our kids had an absolutely magical time riding ponies through the fall leaves and sailing boats along the pond.  If you travel with kids to Paris, make sure you put this park at the top of your itinerary!

Paris is a great city to visit with kids and ours certainly had a great time.  What are you favorite kid friendly tips for Paris?

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Exploring the Douro Valley

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Travel and Leisure magazine named Portugal as one of the top travel destinations for 2016 and maybe because it’s been on our travel radar also, or maybe it’s just been in the spotlight lately, but we’ve been seeing articles about the Douro Valley all over the place.  After seeing pictures of these terraced vineyards clinging to the hills above the broad Douro River, we knew we had to go see it for ourselves.  Locals like to say that in the Douro, they have 3 months of winter and 9 months of hell as temperatures soar to above 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months.  Fall was actually a perfect time to visit-the temperatures were mild and comfortable and the colors in the vineyards with the vines changing colors were just spectacular.

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After researching quite a bit, we knew that we wanted to stay in one of the quintas, not just a hotel but a wine-growing estate.  We needed to see where the magic happens!  😉  Our first night we stayed at Quinta do Vallado in Peso da Regua, about an hour and a half from Porto.    We were greeted with a welcome glass of Port when we arrived and we had just enough time to stroll around the lovely grounds before making our way over to a complimentary wine tour and tasting.

The wine tour was very…long thorough, which we probably would have appreciated more without the kids!  Let’s be real, we were just in it for the free tasting at the end. 😉  But anyway, it was informative and they were fine with us having the kids along-and thankfully the kids were well behaved! We really enjoyed the wines and port we sampled and only wished we had enough room in our luggage to bring back a case!

Since there was not much around the hotel, we had made a reservation before our arrival to have dinner there that night.  It was a three course meal with wine pairings and they prepared something also for the kids.  The food was great and the service too, and it was just a lovely evening.  We had the suite in the newer building and the room was very spacious with a gorgeous slate bathtub and also complimentary fruit and a mini bottle of wine.  Love those little touches!

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Breakfast was included with the room and it was a really nice spread.  Before we checked out we took turns having massages, which were so good and so incredibly relaxing.  It was a great stay and we were sad to only have one night there to enjoy.  We arrived just after the harvest had finished, but if you decide to come in the fall you might want to time it for harvest-you’d even have a chance to stomp the grapes since they still keep this tradition alive here!

We were surprised that the Douro Valley is such a foodie area-we stopped for a very gourmet lunch at Castas e Pratos before driving to our next destination farther along the Douro River near the town of Pinhao.  The Douro Valley has typically been a fairly impoverished region aside from the estate owners and although tourism is rapidly growing in this area, you still see the juxtaposition of  fairly poor towns next to luxury hotels and restaurants.  The Douro Valley is quite a self sustaining region, which has been their key to survival.  It is a microclimate that is ideal for growing grapes, but also plenty of other things too-nuts, fruits, olives, citrus, and family gardens as well.

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Our last night we stayed high up in the hills at Quinta Nova de Nossa.  The roads were a bit hair-raising to get here, but the views from the top were well worth it.  So about this hotel…I have a mixed review.  It was our most expensive hotel so I had the highest expectations for this one; and after staying at Quinta do Vallado, we had a great experience to compare it to.  The staff at Nova de Nossa were courteous, but not overly friendly.  We had booked the suite, as they said it was the only room that could accommodate a family, but we were not informed that it had twin beds.  And more than that, two of the twin beds were those incredibly high sleigh beds that you have to have step stools to get in.  The decor of the place was very old-fashioned…and not like hip, vintage old-fashioned; just like my grandparents house old-fashioned.  We had dinner at their restaurant since you are virtually in the middle of nowhere and there is nowhere else to go.  The food was good, but there were only two options…that night it was either octopus or veal which I wasn’t very excited for.  They had said via email that they had a kids menu, but when we asked that night there was only one option, which was beef.  We don’t eat beef, but after some confusion with our server they did wind up preparing some really delicious pasta with tomato sauce.  And my final gripe-they offered wine tastings, but it was 8 euros to taste 3 wines.  Which wouldn’t have been a big deal had we not had the experience the previous night where we got a two hour tour and tasting of about 10 wines and ports all complimentary as guests of the hotel.

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Now on to the plus side.  The views were absolutely stunning.  Which I think is a big part of what you pay for.  The port tonics were delicious and the grounds were extensive with paths to explore them.  There is a beautiful infinity pool which I imagine must be heaven in those hot summer months.  They have baskets for guests to pick fruit from their orchards when it is in season, which would be really fun especially for the kids.  There is a bar where you can also get a sandwich or small snack to eat, and in retrospect we probably should have just done this for dinner.  They also have lots of areas both inside and outside to lounge and relax and also some games you can borrow in one of the sitting rooms.  And for me, their saving grace…we realized after we got home that we had left my younger son’s stuffed cat that he takes everywhere in the room we stayed in.  I emailed them and not only had they found it, but they mailed it to us free of charge…it arrived in just a few days.  They saved the day!

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We had one more day to fill before our flight home at 8 pm, so we headed down the scary road to Pinhao for a sailboat tour on the Douro River.  Our guide was so informative and it was a very relaxing way to spend the morning.  There had been heavy showers overnight and a drizzle in the morning, but thankfully the weather cleared just in time for us to set sail.

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We had lunch in Pinhao and admired more beautiful tiles before making one last stop at a quinta we had read about, Quinta do Seixo owned by Sandeman, the famous port producer.

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In the interest of time and our sleeping toddler, we skipped the tour and just went straight to the tasting.  I did a wine tasting and Lukasz had a port and chocolate tasting that was divine.  They were also sweet to bring a big orange juice to the kiddo who was awake still.  The views from their vineyard were amazing and the good thing about being a big producer is that they sell at the airport so we were able to bring a few bottles home without the luggage restrictions!

Our trip to Porto and the Douro Valley completely exceeded my expectations and I was surprised at just how kid friendly this trip was.  The people we met, especially in Porto were so warm and kind and the scenery was sensational.  I’m so glad we finally made it back to Portugal and now we are already plotting our next trip to this beautiful country-maybe Lisbon and the Algarve?!

 

 

Fall Fun in Porto

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Portugal has been on our list for a long time now and since we have only spent a night in Lisbon, we knew we needed to go back and check out more of the country.  After doing some research, Porto and the Douro Valley seemed like the perfect fall destinations and when our friends who are from Porto assured us that it is quite kid-friendly, we were sold!

I must say, we have been to a lot of beautiful cities, but I think Porto may be the most photogenic city I’ve ever seen.  Between the beautiful tiles, colorful Ribeira houses, and the wide Douro River, this place is absolutely a photographer’s dream!

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We stayed at Cardosas Boutique Apartment and could not have been happier with our stay.  We arrived at our hotel on our anniversary, which I had mentioned when we booked because we were looking for a babysitter for one night so we could enjoy a dinner out.  We were so surprised upon check-in to be greeted with rose petals on the bed, a bouquet of fresh flowers, the most delicious chocolate cake, and a small bottle of port.  What a way to celebrate!  The apartment itself was spacious, centrally located, and beautifully decorated.  Sarah, the property manager, also babysat for us one night and she could not have been sweeter.  A gem of a place that we would highly recommend!

We had never done one of the Hop on/Hop Off bus tours, but since the things we wanted to see were a bit spread out and it was super cheap, we decided to give it a try.  The kids loved it and we were happy it included discounted admission to the Sea Life aquarium.

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On our first full day we had fun exploring all the beautiful architecture of the city.  We hit all the main sites including the Ribeira district along the river, the Sao Francisco church, and the Se cathedral.  Mostly though, we just enjoyed wandering and seeing beauty around every corner!

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The beautiful Sao Francisco church

Loved the colorful Ribeira neighborhood

The picture above is of a rabelo boat, a traditional Portuguese boat built to haul people and cargo, specifically the port wine that the town is famous for.  The boats are now used to carry tourists instead, but they are still beautifully made.

And oh my-all this gorgeous blue and white tile!  Love! ❤ <3<3

Another beautiful spot is the Sao Bento railway station.  There are 20,000 hand painted tiles in this station depicting important moments in Porto’s history.

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There are stunning views from the Se Cathedral!

 

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After a busy day of seeing some beautiful sights, we were ready for a bit of a rest.  Luckily there was an outdoor market happening right outside of our apartment along with a little cafe where we were excited to try port tonics (my new favorite drink) made of muscatela port and tonic.  Delicious!

Speaking of delicious, we enjoyed some great food in Porto-highlights were our dinners at Tasco and Cantina 32.  We went to Tasco the night we had a baby-sitter and really enjoyed it.  Helpful tip–Cantina books up like crazy, but they open unofficially at 6:30 pm and you can come grab a table if you don’t stay too long.  A perfect option with the kids!  And finally, don’t forget to try the famous local pastry when in Porto-pastel de nata.  I may have eaten my weight in them because they are sooooo good!  The best ones we had in Portugal were at a little cafe next to the bookstore Lello.

On Saturday we hopped on the bus and headed out towards the ocean!  The morning started out drizzly, but turned into a gorgeous, warm fall day.  We spent the morning at Sea Life aquarium, which was quite small, but the kids enjoyed it.  Then we had lunch down by the ocean before heading back downtown for some afternoon port tasting.  We like to include a little something for everyone when we travel! 😉

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Amazing views on the drive out.

 

The Hop On/Hop Off tour also included free port tasting at a few different cellars so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample some.  All of the port houses are on the other side of the river, across the Dom Luis bridge in Vila Nova de Gaia.  There’s also a little playground right next to the river on that side, so it was a good place to stop after our tastings to let the kids burn off some steam.

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After the tastings, we took the cablecar back to the top half of the bridge where we stopped for some breathtaking views and then it was just a short stroll back to the apartment.

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On our last morning, we visited Lello, the famous bookstore that inspired J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series.  This little shop must be amazing without the crowds, but unfortunately word has gotten out and it is so packed you can hardly even browse without being knocked out by a selfie stick.  Even in spite of the crowds, I am glad that we got the chance to pop in and take a peek.

We are so glad we had the chance to explore the gorgeous city of Porto!  We were sad to say goodbye, but it was time to pick up our rental car and head to the scenic Douro Valley.

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Why It’s More Important Now than Ever to Travel with Kids

Like many Americans, the recent election has left me reeling and I haven’t posted about our recent travels because it just feels frivolous in light of all that is going on in the world right now.  But the more I think about, it’s never been so important for us to continue to travel with our children and to hopefully inspire you to do the same if you aren’t already.

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Traveling with kids is one of the best ways to raise our children to be global citizens and to foster tolerance and understanding for this future generation.  Seeing people of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions also ‘normalizes’ our differences and teaches children to be curious and open minded about people who are different than themselves rather than to fear those differences.

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Of course we have seen some amazing sights and beautiful landscapes in our travels, but the thing that makes traveling most special is the people you meet.  When we explore other cultures we find that we are more alike than different-we all love our children and we all want to leave this world a better place for them.  Some of my fondest travel memories have been grown men cooing over my babies in Turkey, a Thai woman who played with my son for an hour on the beach helping him build sand castles and find seashells, a Spanish waiter who carried my infant son around for our entire meal so we could eat in peace-and I could go on and on.  Children connect us and allow us to see a softer side of a place-they allow us to see how much goodness and kindness there is in the world.

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We will continue to travel with our kids in order to teach them the most important lessons in life because clearly what we all need now is a little more tolerance, understanding, and compassion for one another.

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And if you can’t travel, you can do the next best thing-read!  Read with your children about different cultures and about diversity.  I’m personally making a list of children’s books that celebrate diversity that Santa will be bringing this year.  A few on my list:

  1. Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester- This book talks about race and how all people deserve to be treated with respect and kindness-a message we all need to be sharing at home right now.
  2. The Peace Book and It’s Ok to Be Different both by Todd Parr- We love Todd Parr around here.  The illustrations are colorful and bold and the messages of his stories are great.
  3. The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss- a classic Dr. Seuss story with important moral lessons about tolerance, diversity, and fear of the unknown.
  4. You and Me Together: Moms, Dads, and Kids Around the World by National Geographic-Take a look at everyday family life around the world.
  5. Whoever You Are by Mem Fox- We already own this one, but it is one of my favorites.  Beautifully written and illustrated-I get teary every time I read it because the message is so powerful.

For me, there is nothing more important to teach my children than the values of kindness, tolerance, and empathy.  When I feel paralyzed with fear of the hate that seems so prevalent in our world or inadequate for not doing enough, I remind myself that my job right now could not be more important-to pour myself into raising kind, tolerant, global thinkers.

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that

in diversity there is beauty and strength.”

–Maya Angelou

5 Family Friendly Destinations for Fall

We just got back from a wonderful few days in Portugal for this year’s fall break after much deliberation about where we would go.  It’s always a bit overwhelming to decide where to go in the fall (now that we are locked into the school holidays) since late October is not quite warm enough for a beach destination, and the weather can be a bit unpredictable elsewhere.  Nevertheless, we’ve gotten lucky with some great spots and have some ideas in case you need some fall travel inspiration!

1. Innsbruck, Austria

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Innsbruck is a small town with a charming historic center, but the best part is that there is a cablecar at the center of town that can take you up to the Alps in minutes.  We went all the way to the top only to find snow already in October, but it was nice and warm when the sun was shining!  If you get off mid-station there are some really nice hikes and there’s even an Alpine zoo that the littles are sure to enjoy.

2. Loire Valley, France

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The Loire Valley is known for its castles and it’s a great place in Europe to see some beautiful fall foliage.  Stay in Amboise and venture out to see the stunning chateaux such as Chambord, Chenonceau, and Villandry.  Many of the castles have things that will entertain the kids too and if nothing else, there are huge gardens to explore and run off some steam.  More details here and here.

3. Nuremberg, Germany

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Nuremberg is a pretty town in Bavaria where most of the historic center was painstakingly rebuilt after World War II.  There is a lot of World War II history here, including a Holocaust museum, which might be interesting if you have older children.  For families with younger children, a suburb just outside of Nuremberg is home to Playmobil Funpark- a thematic park geared towards children 10 and under based on the different Playmobil worlds.  It is wonderfully entertaining and extremely engaging and much less crowded in the fall…and best of all, it’s cheap!  Around 10 Euros to get in and you could easily spend the day there.  We enjoyed a night at the NH hotel in Zirndorf which was right next to a forest with nice walking trails.  Perfect for a long weekend getaway!

4. Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

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Lauterbrunnen is in a beautiful region of Switzerland famous for three big peaks:  Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger.  There are 72 waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnen Valley and with many surrounding mountain villages, cablecars, and hiking trails, there is  no shortage of things to explore!  Stunning scenery and the leaves changing in the fall make it even more beautiful.

5. Douro Valley, Portugal

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I’ll write a full recap soon of our most recent trip to Portugal, but it definitely should be on this list as a gorgeous fall destination.  Stay a few nights in the charming city of Porto with its gorgeously tiled buildings and old world charm before heading out for a night or two in the Douro Valley, famous for their port wine production.  The Douro is certainly one of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful wine growing regions and the colors with the vines changing in the fall are really just magical.

 

So there’s our top recommendations…what are your favorite fall travel destinations?  We are always looking for inspiration to add to the bucket list!