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Traveling with Children to Europe During The Holidays

Vienna Austria City Skyline at Night. Danube River Bridges and Reflections.

Introduction

While planning our trip to Europe, I noticed very few guides on how to tour Europe with kids during Christmas. Everyone knows traveling with children is significantly more difficult than traveling alone. Traveling through Europe with children is not the same as crashing in hostels in your 20’s with nothing but the shirt on your back. Children, even older children, will probably find continuous museum hopping and long lines as tolerable as you did. And they simply cannot bear the same ratio of gear to body-size that you can. We created this sample itinerary to help inform your choices about tourist destinations, logistical considerations, and importantly: Christmas markets. By no means is this article an exhaustive how-to guide, but rather a list of highlights, do’s, and don’ts that we learned the hard way, so you don’t have to. Please feel free to comment and suggest changes based on your experiences. Parents deserve the most comfortable and most informed experience they can get!

Preparation

We traveled with a 12-year-old and 13-year-old, which meant that they could pull their carry-on bags while wearing a backpack. Still, that was not enough to carry everything we felt we would need. We added one large, check-in bag that held a variety of additional items. In it, we kept a foldable rolling duffel bag that could be turned into a second checked bag in case we needed it at some point. We found it at REI outlet for roughly $100.

For U.S. residents, the cheapest destination to fly to and from is usually London. From there, you can take the train to anywhere else in Europe. We took a plane from London to Vienna, a train from Vienna to Munich, a flight from Munich to Paris, and the Chunnel from Paris back to London. Except for a couple of long security waits, it all went swimmingly. Each airport and airline recommends you arrive 3 hours early, but that is just for their benefit. We found absolutely no reason to be at the airport more than 120 minutes in advance. The airports in Europe are highly organized and efficient compared to the early 2000s.

Day 1 –

Arrive in London 

Dusk at Westminster Bridge and Big Ben in London

If you arrive at Heathrow airport with other incoming flights, be prepared for up to 50 minutes at customs. Afterward, look for the train station and take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington station. Do not confuse it with the Central London-Heathrow line that takes 45 minutes. The Heathrow Express takes 15 minutes, and the floor is marked with purple directions, guiding you to that train. If you arrive during the business day, you will find agents selling tickets Heathrow express tickets at kiosks in the hallways of the train terminal. You can also use the machines. If you are staying less than a month and leaving out of Heathrow, purchase the return ticket package for less than it would cost to buy them separately. Once you arrive by train at Paddington, you will be a 10-15 minute ride from anywhere in Central London. We stayed in Westminster neighborhood. A traditional black cab taxi from Paddington to Westminster cost us ₤20.

If you stay in a hotel away from the city center, remember that you will be paying more for Taxis and Ubers, especially during the holidays. A hotel in Central London can be worth the price for that reason alone. A boutique hotel close to street level will put you right into the action. A larger hotel will be cheaper, isolate you from the noise, and standardize your experience. Westminster is generally a good location, giving you walking access to the curious neighborhoods, museums, and government buildings all at once. We stayed at the Park Plaza Westminster, but I would not recommend it after security chastised us for having a drink in the lobby while our 12 and 13-year old daughters were “unattended” in the room. Seriously?

Everyone will probably be jet-lagged, but I recommend you pound some coffee and weather the sleepiness. There are plenty of cafes and bakeries serving beverages in any neighborhood. My 13-year old was excited that we finally said yes to a caffeinated beverage at “Love & Scandal.” 43 York Rd, Lambeth, London. The owner was a sweetheart who panicked about insufficient seating for the family and asked a couple of loiterers to leave. I have never had a ground sausage croissant before, but I will have one again.

Seven Dials

Colorful buildings in Neals Yards in Seven Dials, it s a small alley in Covent Garden area. @JJFarquitectos via Twenty20

Keep fighting the urge to sleep by walking to the Seven Dials neighborhood, the birthplace of some of your favorite nursery rhymes. I could not find the Muffin Man who lived on Drury Lane, but I found a reminder of Dickens’ London in the Victorian-era apartments above the boutique shops we patrolled for Christmas presents. I thought I saw the doorway where Marley haunted Scrooge with his ghostly knocking until I discovered the same door on every block. There are plenty of coffee shops to keep powering the fight against sleep.

If you walked to Seven Dials, the kids would be protesting the long walk back to Westminster with the passion of a college freshman decrying capitalism. I prefer the Black Cabs over Uber. London Ubers are functional and relatively cheap, and I would prefer rewarding any company that disrupts a government-issued monopoly. Still, there are few things more quintessentially London than the iconic Black Cabs. Cockney-accented drivers mostly drive them. They called me “mate,” so I wanted to reciprocate with an American expression of familiarity. I went with “brother.” The more my daughters mocked me for that, the more Hulk Hogan I squeezed into my accent.

We went back out to find a traditional London Pub. The advantage of being stuck in a different time zone is that you’re ready for dinner before the crowds. I pumped the cabbie for the most traditional English pub he could name. He responded with “the Albert.” The Albert has, according to the cabbie, “been sitting there for a few hundred years. despite taking a German bomb down the middle in 1940.” It had a selection of beers that were too low-alcohol for west-coast American tastes, but I was able to find one at 5.1%.

Day 2- Tower of London, London Dungeon 

The Tower of London

Exterior Walls of the Tower of London. @sussialfredsson via Twenty20

Traverse the Tower Bridge westward toward the Tower of London. You will notice the cruiser HMS Belfast retired on the River Thames, one of the last vestiges of the U.K.’s Imperial Navy. Its 6-inch guns point toward the sky, still prepared to defend its beloved but evanescent empire, like an old pugilist always ready to defend the honor of his elderly bride.

The Tower of London is a medieval-era complex surrounded by stone walls. The surrounding moat is now a dry lawn, and the adjacent river that filled it diverted to create room for a wharf. Named after the central structure, “the White Tower,” which is only five stories high. Having been built and updated by nearly every monarch since William the Conqueror, numerous legends and stranger-than-fiction stories originated within its walls. Thomas Moore, Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I each spent time as prisoners there. The War of the Roses wouldn’t have begun, if Richard III had not “housed” his nephews there, one of whom was the heir apparent to the crown, only for them to disappear until the discovery of their bones two hundred years later. Children will enjoy the tales regaled by guards festooned in medieval-age uniforms, copious signage, and visual projectors depicting the stories. Beware. One of my children correctly predicted it would give her nightmares.

You can spend a half-day viewing the curiosities, but the highlights are the Norman-built tower and the Crown Jewels. It cost about ₤48 for the family if you opt-out of the optional “donation.” Don’t feel bad about doing that. Unlike the London museums, the Queen of England still owns it and has the right to exclude the public any time she likes. Once finished, there is a café called “Sergeant’s Mess” on the wharf that will give you a close view of the walls. The staff did not know if medieval sergeants actually ate there.

London Dungeon

@syamiza.basirdin via Twenty20

The London Dungeon is a treat for the kids. It is not a dungeon. It is more of a performance art attraction. Groups of visitors walk from one room to another, where actors depict dark stories about London’s seedy underbelly. Guy Fawkes, Jack-the-ripper, and Sweeny Todd are all represented. We were all judged guilty of something, had to witness mock executions, watched the city burn and served as victims of a maniacal barber. Since I knew the Guy Fawkes poem “Remember the Fifth of November,” an actor judged me a “traitor” and made everyone point at me as I received my sentence.

Day 3 – Changing of the Guards, Piccadilly Shopping

Changing of the Guards

@Lifestock via Twenty20

I recommend walking to the Changing of the Guards, but I don’t recommend watching it. The walk from Westminster to Buckingham Palace takes you past London’s incomparable St. James’ Park, where you can view swans and other waterfowl from the walking paths that striate the park. If you walk past while the troops are preparing for the Change, you will see the guards getting ready. The band plays music as the infantry make sharp movements and turns in response to the lieutenants’ commands.

But that is about as good as it gets. Unless you arrive two hours early to wait by the Buckingham Palace gate, you will be across the street watching a procession better more personally displayed on Youtube than in person. Either way, the kids will suffer. I will, however, say that it looks to me that the guards’ spit-shine their boots instead of cheating with patent leather. I Respect that.

Piccadilly

The movie “Darkest Hour” depicts Winston Churchill on the underground metro asking civilians whether they should reject appeasement and fight Hitler even if it means a Nazi invasion. To Churchill’s amusement, one of the determined civilians exclaims, “they’ll never take Piccadilly, sir.” The humor is that Piccadilly is and always has been the shopping center of London.

Across Green Park from Buckingham Palace, you will find the west end of Piccadilly. That is a great place to start. Head east to browse everything from boutique shops to high-end fashion outlets. I came across a rare book store had mint condition leather-bound books of every Anglo writer I could imagine. I expected a crotchety bifocal-wearing shopkeeper surrounded by precarious towers of dusty books. Instead, I found a young professional staff working a shop as pristine as the books themselves.

You don’t need me to tell you how to shop, but if you shop in Piccadilly with kids at Christmastime, you should visit Fortnum & Mason. The upscale department store drapes a giant advent calendar across the front façade and puts mechanical cats and mice in the display windows, who wrap presents and make treats. Immediately inside the Piccadilly Street door is the candy section, with so many varieties of handcrafted candies and marshmallows, I suspect Roald Dahl found inspiration there. The store has a Gentleman’s floor with a bar and plenty of other amenities. It shows that “Fortnum’s” is the only British high-end department store still owned by the British. The employees all wear morning suits complete with coattails, and the doormen wear top hats. It will be memorable for the kids. 

Day 4 – Travel to Vienna

Vienna Austria City Skyline at Night. Danube River Bridges and Reflections.

We took EasyJet for a fantastic price from Luton airport to Vienna. Luton looks a little janky, but we found it very efficient with almost no security wait. Be careful of hidden costs when you fly low-fare airlines. EasyJet allows only one carry-on item, no matter whether it is a small suitcase, backpack, or large handbag, so you will be forced to check and pay for things that you ordinarily would not. The foldable rolling duffel bag came in handy here. We filled it with all the backpacks so we could check it as a single bag. If you do that, beware of the 20kg weight limit.

If you are leaving from Central London, you will want approximately one hour to take the train to Luton. A little more for Gatwick or Heathrow airports. After you arrive at your stop, a shuttle takes you the rest of the way. After getting through security, you will parade through a tasteless gauntlet of duty-free stores so lengthy you might question the claim that America is the more commercialized western country.

Arriving in Vienna is a cinch. I wish all the customs offices were as efficient. Once through, pick up your bags at the carousel and grab a taxi or uber at the door. Without London’s black cabs, only 1 in 5 taxis was large enough for all our gear. Uber came in handy. 

You probably want to stay in the city center. It is bordered by a surrounding boulevard that used to be the medieval city wall. We stayed at the Vienna Trend Hotel Austria. I recommend a junior suite for a family of four. They meet al expectations of a beautifully ornate and baroque hotel room, yet they are modern in all the essential ways- hot showers, good water pressure. The staff was excellent and helpful. The breakfasts were the best breakfasts we had in Europe.

If you are going to any shows, now is the time to hang your dress clothes. If the kids are up for it, hundreds of restaurants are nearby, nearly all of which serve schnitzel.

Day 5- Vienna Walk, Hapsburg Family Crypt, St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Rick Steves prints a pretty good guide for visiting Vienna, although all his books are focused on summertime and sprinkled with anti-catholic sentiment and banal accusations of racism. I have been using Steves’ guides for nearly two decades and find them an adequate balance between instruction and commentary.

Take your guidebook’s historic walk around the city, but with kids, you should focus on the highlights instead of diddling around looking for individual statues.

Hapsburg Family Crypt – Yes, do it. 

Any tour book worth it’s salt will take you to the Hapsburg family crypt, underneath a Capuchin monastery on the South end of the city center. The Hapsburg family is inarguably the most successful and powerful dynasty in the history of the world, having ruled every European country at some point, in some form, from 1272-1917. It directly ruled the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 600 years, and it married into every other monarchy in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. Queen Elizabeth II is herself a descendant of the Hapsburgs, as are all remaining European monarchs. It follows that their Family Crypt is pretty impressive. Franz Joseph, the last emperor of Western Europe, was buried there in 1917. So was his son, Franz Ferdinand, whose unlikely assassination sparked World War I. The last Hapsburg was buried there in 2010. Next to his coffin, I found a note handwritten on college-ruled paper. I could not help but think a mourning grandchild recently wrote it.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

You should walk to St. Stephan’s Cathedral, in part because it is so impressive, and in part, because it will take you on a walk through the main pedestrian artery of Vienna. Since the Notre Dame’s roof burned down in 2019, this was the most impressive church I could tour during our trip. Its south side still bears a cannonball in the side from one of the Ottoman Empire’s unsuccessful attempts to siege the city. And it has a 51,800-pound bell cast from the melted cannons of Muslim invaders. The Ottomans fled the battle, leaving tons of coffee behind. That supposedly started Europe’s coffee craze, although it is not clear to me why its default coffee drink is espresso. If you need to make the church interesting for the kids, tell them the crypt beneath keeps the mummified remains of the Hapsburg family’s organs. Yes, the Hapsburgs were entombed a quarter-mile away from their organs. One would think such a pious family would foresee the logistical problems with that practice during the second-coming.

Performance

I recommend seeing a show, but that might compete with your plans to attend the Christmas markets at night. Choose what you want to prioritize wisely. We wanted to cap off the trip with the Christmas markets on Day 6, but that forced us to attend whatever Opera was playing at the Vienna Operahouse, which happened to be an experimental and objectively awful show.

Day 6 – Royal Palace and Christmas Markets

It is worth visiting the Hapsburg Palace, second only to the palace of Versailles in grandeur. Although it might test the kids if you try to see it the same day as the crypt and the church. It is easy to find on the south side of the city center. Circumnavigating the complex will give you a perspective of its incredible scale, with numerous museums and exhibits to view. Signs outside the main attraction mark bear maps of the palace. It consists of a tour through three smaller museums, which I found to graduate from least to most intriguing, in that order. The first is a museum of the Hapsburg’s household items – silverware, gilded containers, lavish tabletops, chairs, etc.

The next museum displays the life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria (“Sisi”) – the original princess Diana. Sisi was the wife of Emporer Franz Joseph, reportedly loved by the citizens, but lived an unhappy life until she met a tragic end at the hands of an assassin. To maintain her figure, she had a small workout facility built into one of her waiting rooms, where she exercised daily to the horror of her handmaidens. Her beautiful physical depictions stand in contrast to those of the other Hapsburg women. The museum tells the story of her life, beginning with Elizabeth’s German upbringing, through her melancholy adulthood, to her ultimate demise at the hands of an anti-monarchist.

The kids liked the Sisi museum, but the third museum – the Hapsburg royal apartments – was the most interesting for us. It is where the Hapsburgs lived their daily lives, slept worked, and ate. The same décor Franz Joseph would have been familiar with frozen in time. Franz Joseph reigned for 68 years and was known for being attentive to the minutiae of his imperial duties at the expense of the bigger picture. He spent long hours at his writing desk focused on clerical work while his role became increasingly obsolete, and his empire transformed into a democracy. It is difficult not to sympathize with this figure. His adulthood started as the ruler of Europe’s most powerful empire, but then lost a brother to execution, his son to suicide, his wife to an assassin, his nephew to another assassin, and later died during a war that ultimately destroyed his empire.

Christmas Markets

The Christmas markets are easy to find, but there is one that is far more outstanding than the others. You will find it at Rathauspl., 1010 Wien, Austria. It rivals the Munich Christmas market in size and splendor, though not in variety. The words “Froliche Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas) festively adorn the entrance in a seven-foot scale. The trees naturally growing in the center are covered in enormous Christmas lights. There are rides for small children and plenty of mulled wine “punsch” for adults. That said, it is easy to exhaust your interest when the entire market is a repetition of the same schnitzel, sausage, mulled wine, and Christmas ornament booths.

Day 7 – Travel to Munich

The Munich Christmas market is the gold standard. I have seen nothing better. You can stay inside or outside Munich, but if you take a train from Vienna, you will have to go to Munich regardless. Direct 4-hour trains from Vienna to Munich depart all day every day, but the ones that stop in Salzburg take only 15 minutes longer. You will want to book your tickets in advance, primarily because of the holidays.

Once you arrive in Munich, I recommend you have a rental car waiting at the train station. German cities are more comfortable to drive in than French and British cities, in part because of rebuilding with the automobile in mind after World War II. I have always used Europcar when in Europe but they get pretty draconian about the rules during the holidays. If you pay in advance in the U.S., the car rental companies hold your car. In Munich, we arrived an hour late, so they gave our car away and refunded our money. If you plan to fly out of Munich, remember to set your return location to the Munich Airport for a few Euros more. It beats the extra money and time of a taxi.

If you are staying elsewhere in Bavaria, arrive at Munich early enough to enjoy the Christmas market. It is the best and most extensive, with the most variety, of any. There you can pick up any additional presents, decorations, and souvenirs you previously passed up. We arrived on December 22, when it hosted the Krampus parade. Not content to enjoy a holiday like Christmas without giving children nightmares, the alpine people of Southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland co-opted the pagan “Krampus” into their Christmas celebrations. Krampus is the reciprocal of Santa Clause – a half-demon half-goat who spends Christmas whipping and kidnapping misbehaving children. Nearly 50 people dressed in horrible masks with hooked noses and forked tongues marched in a makeshift parade, interacting in good nature with the onlookers. While it was all in good fun and plenty of children walked away laughing, I saw a couple of very young ones crying.

Day 8- Partenkirchen

If you decide to stay in Munich, you won’t need to go far. If you want a more Bavarian experience, I recommend staying on the Partenkirchen side of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which is one hour south of Munich. Partenkirchen is a town with genuinely Bavarian architecture, restaurants, and other fun. Meanwhile, Garmisch is a famous ski town giving you access to the main pedestrian drag with high-end products for more shopping.

If there is one hotel recommendation I would make for your entire trip, it is the Atlas Hotel in Partenkirchen. It is nearly 500 years old and has hosted Bavarian royalty along with dignitaries from a variety of other places. Every decoration has a Bavarian flair, from the upholstery of the sofas to the half-timber structure of the buildings, to the art and décor and gnarled wood. It has four regal-looking dining rooms, each of which is decorated differently. Since it is far from Munich and technically not in Garmisch, the price is reasonable. For a family of four, I recommend a junior or senior suite.

Finally, I recommend at least one meal at the Gasthof Fraundorfer. It is on the quiet main street in Partenkirchen and only two blocks from the Atlas. There you will find all of Tyrolian Bavaria condensed into a single restaurant and beer hall. Beer steins deck the walls besides photographs and even paintings of generations of patrons. The locals all go there to sing folk songs when the accordion player takes the small stage. Don’t be surprised to find young boys dressed in lederhosen performing synchronized traditional dances for tips. Every waitress wears a dirndl, and every waiter wears some kind of traditional outfit. Everyone drinks shots together, patrons and staff. The drinks are Bavarian. The beer is Bavarian. Everything looks genuine, and nothing is staged. You cannot have a more Bavarian experience in one sitting.

Day 9 – Salzburg 

It might be a bit much, but we left our home base in Partenkirchen and drove to Salzburg for Christmas eve. Salzburg’s Christmas market is open on Christmas day.

If you choose to do that, consider stopping by the Durnbach allied cemetery at 83703 Gmund am Tegernsee, Germany. It was one of the few things that really made my children reflect. It contains the headstones of four thousand U.S., British, Australian, and Canadian soldiers and airmen, and what appeared to be one German resistance fighter. The earlier-dated graves were nearly all British air corps personnel who presumably crashed in Germany. The graves of more American, Canadian, and Australian aircrews grew in numbers as the years wore on. The graves of allied infantry and artillery personnel had dates after the 1944 land invasion. It is touching that each stone contains an idiosyncratic sentimental quote. I never saw a single one repeated. The kids had the instinct to run and play in the grassy field but asked me if it was disrespectful. If I died in the war, I would want to know I died so children could play over my grave.

Salzburg is a city with a rich Christmas history. Silent night (“Stille Nacht”) was written outside its walls because when the church organ got damaged, and the priest needed a song that could be accompanied by a stringed instrument. You will hear choirs and carolers singing the song on Christmas eve, especially during mass at the enormous Cathedral or one of the other impressive churches. It is worth the visit just for that.

Salzburg’s Christmas market is smaller but cozier than Munich’s or Vienna’s. And it boasts a better variety of booths than the latter. There is a focus on clothing that the others do not have.

Beware, it’s common knowledge every hotelier in Salzburg is on the take. We got taken for a ride when our concierge reserved us a table at an over-priced Italian restaurant with unimpressive food and a fast-talking owner who exhausted us into paying for more than we ordered. The concierge told us it was the only restaurant available, which was not accurate. The owner’s insistence on knowing where his guests were staying exposed to the hotel was getting a kick-back.

Day 10 – Christmas Day in Salzburg

Wherever you wake up, find yourself a Christmas tree and drop the presents around it. The kids would have been disappointed if we had not. Then take a tour around the Salzburg Christmas market. Since Salzburgers celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, many of the attractions were open on Christmas day, for example, Salzburg is centered around a fortress on a high cliff so massive and imposing, nobody in history bothered trying to conquer it. The fortress is open for viewing, and the cog train taking people up the side of the cliff is operating on Christmas. The attractions can be exhausted pretty quickly, though, so you might want to head back to your home base that evening. We went back to Partenkirchen and had a nearly perfect Bavarian meal.

Day 11 – Horseback Riding in the Austrian Alps 

Time to take those kids horseback riding in the snowy Alps. If you research horseback riding on Google maps, there are several placed to go on the south side of the mountains south of Partenkirchen. We actually had some mishaps on our ride, but I have taken the kids horseback riding enough times to know it can go really well. Choose a guide that takes people trail riding professionally, and not just as a hobby. Make sure you understand all the commands and have good communication with your guide. We paid approximately €70 per person for a three-hour tour of the mountains.

Day 12 – Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau

Neuschwanstein is the famous fairytale castle king Ludwig II built, on which the Disneyland and Disneyworld based its castles. Hohenschwangau is the one in which Ludwig II grew up, several hundred yards away. Each of them is spectacular and appealing to kids, but neither was ever meant to serve as defensive fortresses. I prefer Hohenschwangau because it was built on the foundation of a 12th-century fortress with actual strategic value. After being wrecked and rebuilt several times throughout history, it was utterly decimated by Napoleon. Thirty years later, King Maximilian, I rebuilt it as a getaway for his family. His son Ludwig II grew up in the surrounding hills and ultimately chose to build a larger, more fanciful and extravagant version nearby. He lived in it for 72 days before he was declared unfit to rule (Bavarian Kings were by then controlled by Austria-Hungary and Prussia) and then found dead in the nearby lake three days later. Adding to the Disneyland feel, there is an entire village of shops, restaurants, and hotels dedicated to the heavy tourism the area enjoys. If you climb up to the Hohenschwangau gift shop, show your kids the illustrated book of dark Bavarian children’s stories. My favorite is the one about the boy who never cut his nails, so the scissor man cut off his fingers. Germany.

Day 13 – Travel to Paris for New Year

Make sure you can return your car to Munich Airport. The airport is enormous but efficient and easy to navigate. Americans will find fewer amenities in European airports than American airports, so be ready to wait in an uncomfortable terminal with too few chairs a solid 5-minute walk away from the bathroom.

Arriving in Paris from an E.U. country makes customs a breeze. However, the airport is farther from the city, the train can be daunting, the taxi ride is expensive, and the French are perpetually on strike. We paid 60 Euros to go to the left bank because the train workers were on strike, as they often are.

Start getting vigilant about pickpockets and scam artists. They roam Paris in numbers that you will not see in Britain or Germanic countries. Parents distracted with the demands of their children are great targets. Young men with makeshift badges approached us outside the exit to the airport taxi stand and tried to redirect us to another “taxi” door, where presumably their friends posed as cabbies. If you take the train, look out for pickpockets. You don’t really have to worry about violent crimes or muggings, though. You’ll be fine if you keep an eye out. And you will feel better when you drop your bags off at your hotel.

For one of your Paris dinners, I recommend La Petit Chaise. Its website claims it is the oldest restaurant in Paris. They have a moderately priced menu complete with traditional French dishes. We paid €36 per for full menus and fewer than €30 for a bottle of wine. French onion soup doesn’t get much better than theirs. Neither does escargot.

Day 14 – Museums and sightseeing

If you purchase a Paris museum pass, you will have access to more than 60 major attractions, including the Louvre, the Paris Museum of Modern Art, the Van Gough museum, and Sainte Chappelle. The passes allow you to skip long lines too. We paid €52 for 2-day passes each. Don’t bother buying them for the kids because they enter nearly every museum for free.

We made a mistake taking the kids to the Louvre. Keep in mind that it is a museum of historical art, not modern art. It was badly crowded, which always is on weekends and Mondays when all the other museums are closed. We visited in the early 2000s and often enjoyed corridors to ourselves. We returned in December 2019 to find it absolutely flooded with tourists, which did not help convince the kids to enjoy it. Trying to see the Mona Lisa is like trying to get to the stage at a popular rock concert. They were too young to appreciate the genius behind the art, especially in an era of immaculate computer graphics.

The St. Chappelle church is worth entry if you have the museum pass. If you do not, expect to wait in two lines for a combined total of at least 45 minutes. The upstairs chapel is the main attraction. Inside you will find an unrivaled panorama of stained-glass windows, each depicting various bible stories. The church was built to house Christ’s alleged crown of thorns, retrieved from the Holy Land by Louis IX. At a minimum, it is an impressive spectacle your kids will probably enjoy.

Day 14 – Versailles

You will need an entire day to visit Versailles, the grandest palace in all of Europe. Louis XIV built it in 1682, and the royal family occupied it until 1786 when French revolutionaries arrested and beheaded his grandson, Louis XVI, and Queen Marie Antoinette. It is about 12.2 miles Southwest of the Paris center. You can reach it by train, but it will be a longer ride than you are used to if you typically use the metro. The visual splendor is enough to entertain even younger children, but the options to run and play in this enormous palace are limited.

Day 15 – Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower and surrounding gardens have changed in ways that might affect your plans to visit. It has always had long lines, but they are ridiculous during peak season. We took a pass on that.

My older daughter wanted to have a picknick on the lawn that stretches for a mile under the tower, but all the grass was cordoned off. I don’t know if that’s permanent, but don’t expect much. There are plenty of cafes nearby or benches if you simply must eat there.

The tower is sadly one of the worst spots for scam artists and pickpockets. It has gotten much worse during the migrant crisis. You will undoubtedly witness a couple of shell games with staged players who “win” to induce suckers to join. It can make for some perverse entertainment, though.

It can get intimidating, especially if your kids are old enough to know what’s happening. I watched a group of idle men trying to distract tourists by stepping directly in their path. One tried to get my attention as I walked past but backed down when I gave him a hard look. Another scammer started yelling “thieves” at female tourists in an apparent attempt to distract them. The key is to act with intention and keep moving. If someone asks whether you dropped something that isn’t yours, just walk away. If you get surrounded, be forceful.

Day 16 – Just Paris

You will probably want to spend a day hanging out without the undertaking of visiting a major tourist trap. I recommend it. I would tell you where to shop, but we fouled that up by visiting the Galarie Lafeyette during Christmastime. It is essentially an upscale mall in downtown Paris. It is beautiful, but so overcrowded the workers had to stagger customers going up the escalator, so they didn’t break it. Indoor shopping can be just as exhausting as visiting an attraction. I recommend staying outdoors in the vicinity of the Paris Opera. It has both boutique shops and high-end outlets if that’s your thing.

Day 17 – Back to London

Again, London is the cheapest to fly in and out. If you have a hotel waiting near the train station, it’s interesting to take a train underneath the British Channel. As you breeze under the sea at 175 mph, remember how the difficulty of traversing those waters overhead helped shape history. The formidable Spanish Armada was wiped out over your head. Those waters stopped Hitler’s advance and forced him to defend his west flank while Russia pressured him in the East. The largest land invasion in all history had to overcome that crossing, and thousands of troops lost their lives on the beaches on D-Day. Now you can get from one side to the other in 18 minutes. 

Since you were probably jet-lagged during your first visit to London, now is an excellent time to pick up and enjoy the city the way you should have the first time. If you are going to attend a show in London, now might be the best time to spend those last few euros. There is no way to predict what will be playing when you arrive, but this website serves as a clearinghouse for all major and most minor London shows https://www.londontheatredirect.com/.

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Written by John Fairfax

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