How to visit the European Parliament in Brussels and the EU Quarter

With it being the day of Brexit, it seems as fitting a day as any to share with you our trip to the EU Parliament in Brussels. This year for Miss 11’s birthday, she had the choice of a trip or a party- the little traveller chose a trip, so thanks to cheap flights we headed off to Brussels, home of chocolate, waffles, beer, fries and the European Union headquarters. You can read our full itinerary here. We did have a sneaky day off school, but in the words of Miss 11, by lunch time, she surmised that she had likely learnt more than if she had been at School. I’m not allowed to tell her teacher her thoughts though! 

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Outside the EU Parliament

We stayed very near the EU Quarter in Brussels, as when there is nothing on in the Parliament, the hotels are very good value. It is a fascinating and attractive area of Brussels to see, and when researching a little confusing on how to pay a visit to the key buildings and locations so here is how we did it. 

The EU or European Quarter, is also known as the Leopold Quarter. It is a compact area to the south-west of Brussels city centre, about 1.5 miles (2km) from the Grand-Place. In the 1800s the Leopold Quarter was one of Brussels’ most prestigious neighbourhoods, and there are lots of beautiful old buildings left over from those days. During the early 20th century, the wealthy residents of the Leopold Quarter moved further outside the city centre to the new suburbs. Office buildings replaced many of the mansions, and in the late 1950s, new European institutions moved in.

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The Future is Europe – street art in Brussels

Today the area is dominated by politics predominately and business but it’s still surprisingly green and attractive, with many beautiful parks and squares to enjoy a stroll around. It is a nice area to be based in, plenty to see and do, and a little more removed from the central more tourist filled areas. The metro and bus routes are easily accessible, around a 30 minute walk will take you in centrally without any difficulties.  

The European Parliament 

The most significant attraction in the EU quarter is the European Parliament. To visit the European Parliament and the famous hemicycle debating chamber as an individual, you’ll need to take one of the self-guided tours, which run at set times, Monday to Friday. Do check the website here for the opening hours and timings.

 

To join a tour, go to the rear entrance of the European Parliament building, just off Rue Wiertz. There are clear signs  and arrows to get you to the right place from the front of Espace Léopold and Place du Luxembourg (follow the signs for the Hemicyle), but once at the door there’s not a lot to indicate that it’s ok to go in. Don’t worry; if you’re there at the right time just push open the door.

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European Union

You cannot pre book (unless you are a bigger party), and must queue and show your  passport/ ID before going through airport style security checks. There’s no photographs allowed at Security, but once you are inside you can take as many as you want. The whole process was straight forward, and much quicker and simpler than our visit to the United Nations in NYC.  There is a self-guided tour with a headset rather than a fully guided tour. It is available in all EU languages, you can even download it as an app on to your mobile phone if you would prefer. There are free printed guide books to pick up too. 

First stop, a photo op with all the flags of the member states of the European Union, then a model building of the EU and some history about it all.

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Onwards, up in a lift and into an atrium full of artistic gifts given from the different member states including this large sculpture, everything on the theme of peace and cooperation. 

After you leave the atrium, the next stop is the Hemicycle – the main debating chamber of the European Parliament in Brussels. Each EU member country elects representatives in the same way as they would for a national parliament. These Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) meet here and in Strasbourg. Miss 11 was particularly taken with all the translation boxes and learning all about the role of the translators – it is quite the task ensuring that all 24 languages can hear continually. 

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Parliamentarium 

A great stop for a few hours with children. Miss 11 really enjoyed the informative and interactive style in the Parliamentarium. It is very accessible and free entry. You can collect an information leaflet (in whichever EU approved language you speak) at the entry. You go through security, and are given a free interactive audio tour, which was very good.

The exhibition is made up of several floors (lifts are available) of interactive displays about the work of the EU, and a wonderful 360 degree cinema where you can experience being at the heart of the European Parliament. You might even spot some familiar faces virtually around you.  We enjoyed sitting on living room styled sofas and chairs and hearing more about the importance of EU projects from all areas including a few miles down the road for the Peace money given to Belfast to support community work in the Shankill and Falls areas.

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There are many displays about the history of the EU, and the numerous projects it has been involved with. 

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We particularly enjoyed the map room where you could wheel a TV unit over a different place in Europe to find out more about the EU and its impact. We visited quite a few countries.  Recommended for a few hours in this part of the city. 

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Station Europe 

The original station buildings of the Brussels-Luxembourg train station now house a welcome centre for the European Quarter. Here you can get your bearings here, pick up a map and plan your visit to the area. There’s also a branch of the official Visit Brussels tourist information centre which is a good place for some more information. There’s a nice public square with chairs set up in circles perhaps facilitating discussions?

Berlaymont Building 

While you can’t go inside the Berlaymont Building, it’s an impressive sight and is probably the most iconic building of the European Quarter. The Berlaymont Building is the home of the European Commission, where the day-to-day work of the EU is carried out. We stayed right beside it in the NH Brussels Berlaymont Hotel, which made it very easy to get around the area. 

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House of European History  

For an exploration of Europe’s turbulent history, and the events that led up to the formation of the European Union, visit the House of European History in Léopold Park. It aims not to tell the story of each individual country in Europe, but to draw together the themes that European nations have in common. The permanent exhibition covers Europe as a global force in the 19th century and the two World Wars that shattered the continent, before examining the political divisions of the second half of the 20th century. The exhibitions are free to visit, and a multimedia tour is available in all the EU languages.

Outside you can spend some time in Léopold Park05584B21-E70C-4E56-B5A5-7D3FF76A89DF.jpeg

We especially enjoyed reading all about the history of the zoo in the area and ostrich sculptures marking the spot. It is green, beautiful, and even houses bits of the Berlin Wall with the accompanying historical information. 

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All the European Union visitor areas are free, which makes for a very budget friendly day spent in the European area of Brussels. It is interesting and informative and gives you good insight into the development of the EU. 

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Other things to see and do nearby

I’ve also noted some of the other sights and museums in the nearby area that you might want to visit when you are nearby: 

Parc du Cinquantenaire – an enormous triumphal arch, reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The arch itself is slightly more recent but the buildings either side were built for the 1880 National Exhibition which celebrated the Belgian nation’s 50th birthday. The park itself is a very pleasant place for a walk, with lots of flowers, trees and lawns, and it’s a popular place for tourists and Brussels residents alike to relax.

Royal Military Museum – occupies the left-hand side of the Cinquantenaire buildings., holding an impressive collection of arms, armour, vehicles and aircraft. There are also two galleries dedicated to the First World War which devastated much of Belgium. For an incredible view of the European Quarter and the surrounding area, take the stairs inside the Military Museum up to the viewing gallery on top of the arches.

Autoworld – On the right-hand side of the Cinquantenaire arch houses a fantastic museum dedicated to cars and driving. Among the gleaming permanent exhibits and fascinating temporary exhibitions you’ll find information about Belgium’s contribution to automotive history.

Arts and History Museum -also on the right hand side of the complex. More informative than an art gallery, more inspiring than a history museum, the unique collection eventually wants to be as well known as the British Museum or the Louvre.

Cauchie House – If you’re interested in architecture, and especially if you’re a lover of Art Nouveau, you can’t miss the Cauchie House. Artist couple Paul and Carolina Cauchie built the house in 1905 and decorated the front as an advertisement for their businesses; graphic design for him, art lessons for her. In the centre of the facade you can read the words “Par Nous, Pour Nous” – “By Us, For Us”. The house is at the top of Rue des Francs, just across the road from Parc du Cinquantenaire. 

The Museum of Natural Sciences is also nearby, but you can read more about that in our post over here. 

The Hills are alive with the Sound of Music – a few of my favourite things.

Salzburg was one of my favourite things on this adventure. Exploring the streets and landscape made me feel like I am sixteen, going on seventeen. Rising out into the scenery beyond the town made us want to climb every mountain, ford every stream… You may even find a lonely goatherd.  I have confidence that you will want to come and visit the beautiful Salzburg.  Ok, before I make you say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night I will stop with the lyrics. I hope you sang along!

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We are big musical fans in our house, one of Miss 11 greatest loves is Sound of Music. No better place than to head on a Sound of Music tour. There are a number of companies offering it, but after some research we settled on Panorama tour. I’m glad we did, it was spectacular.

The Sound of Music Story 

First it’s a true story, like actually fully real and learning the extra bits made it even more wonderful. If you have been living under a rock, and don’t know the movie, it is based on the unusual and exciting story of Baron Georg von Trapp, an Austrian aristocrat who married his governess in 1927.  Maria the governess ( a former Nun), came to look after the 7 children following the death of their mother. Untold in the film, the von Trapps went on to have another 3 children, bringing the total to 10. A priest (not Uncle Max) gave the family music lessons, and they went on to win first place in a choir contest during the famous Salzburg Festival and subsequent contests became their financial rescue.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 the family immigrated to the USA, unable to reconcile their principles with those of the Nazis. Rather than climb over the mountains to Switzerland they took a train to Italy, then travelled to France, England and then the USA. They went on to build a Salzburg- inspired chalet in Vermont USA in 1941 and have lived there ever since. They went on to continue to tour as singers.

The Tour

The tour lasts around 4 hours and covers many of the main sights from the film.  You are bused from location to location. During the travelling time, the guide will fill you in on all the fascinating history of the story, the time period and of course there is some opportunities to watch clips from the movie and sing along.  We visited:

Mirabell Gardens – Best known as the location where Do-Re-Mi’ is sung with Maria and the children. This is a luscious garden with statues and fountains throughout, it is a wonderful place to spend some time. You’ll remember the scene where Maria and the children are singing “Do-Rei-Mi” on the steps. You’ll also see the vine-covered tunnel and the fortress that appears in the scene in the background.

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The Gazebo – The place where Rolf and Liesl sung ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’, one of Miss 11’s favourite songs. No longer can you enter inside as the local mayor closed it following an 82 year old fan getting too excited and as she jumped off the benches. She went first head first through the glass. She recovered, but apparently when the Mayor considered the madness of Sound of Music fans he decided it was safer that they watched from the outside only!

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Frohnburg Palace – You drive past this palace which provided the facade, courtyard and garden gate of the von Trapp villa in the film.

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Palace of Leopoldskron – this lake was frozen when we were there, but it is the place where the kids and Maris fall from the boat into the lake. The outside of the palace was used as the back of the house. Incredible Austrian views from here! It would be beautiful in any season.

Nonnberg Abbey and the Fortress – This is where Maria was a nun in the movie, but it’s also where the real wedding in 1927 between Maria and the Baron was held.  The fortress  is the real backdrop of the abbey, not the rolling hills from the movie.

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St Gilden/Lake Wolfgang – This spectacular vista is seen in the opening credits of the film. It’s even more impressive in real life!

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Church of Mondsee – The location of the movie wedding of Maria and the Baron.  There was time to enjoy this picturesque little village, for a walk around their Christmas market and the important apple strudel (which was delicious).

The disappointing reality bit – shockingly the Sound of Music is not a well known movie in Austria, there is no hills alive with music ready to burst into song, nor eating Schnitzel with noddles! The tourism industry however of course are experts. Our tour guide told us he rarely has locals on the tour, just if they are bringing America, British or Chinese friends – all these countries love a bit of Sound of Music.

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It was a highlight to our European Christmas adventure, especially if you enjoy the Sound of Music movie. There are incredible views all around the Austrian countryside, and the guides were full of interesting factors. We would strongly recommend it!

Planning a cheap* family adventure 

*cheap as in best value – obviously depending on where and when you want to go it will cost different amounts! Sometimes we travel very budget (think hostels in Moscow for £20) and sometimes we splurge a bit more such as Atlantis in Dubai (however this was a good deal too!)

Christmas is over, it is time that many people start to plan out the year, especially those holiday ideas and suggestions. Apparently one of the most common times to book a holiday is over the Christmas break, Christmas Day itself being one of those top times. If you’ve been reading along, you will know,  we do love an adventure, near or far, and are always looking for ways to stretch the pennies as far as they go. I’ve put together our top tips to get the best value break for 2020. 

Do-it-yourself holidays with cheap airlines and securing good value accommodation has opened up the world for us. However, there can be the occasional location that a package holiday can work out better value. For us, Cuba was better value via a package, and when we had 2 under 2s it could work out much simpler and cost effective to go on a package trip. However, I generally prefer to be able to see more of a country, and do not like to stay in the one location for the whole duration. It is up to you and your own likes or dislikes. Some things like Lapland can save you thousands by booking it all independently. We got 8 days in Lapland for the price of a day trip from Belfast here.

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If you have the right insurance, and book using a credit card you will be covered should anything like a company failure happen. In light of the Thomas Cook and other disasters this year, do be very careful to ensure that you are protected. I do sometimes like pricing up my trip via a travel agent, then doing it myself and feeling great about how much money I have saved. For example if we had booked our Oman adventure via an agent on a tour we would have spent at least 6 times the amount we did!

  1. If you are thinking of flying, Skyscanner is the place to start. Choose your departure location of choice – think about travelling to one slightly further away as it may open up more options. Usually I start by putting in everywhere and cheapest month- this gives me the starting point of places to explore. If I’m after a certain location- I put it in and then cheapest month and check out those for base line prices. I take a note of this, this is what I compare my other flight prices too. CC06998C-A1ED-4663-88D2-043915C7D1FA
  2. Set up a tracker on flight prices – I use hopper or kayak alongside skyscanner.  This means you will get alerted if prices drop. It also means you can look at previous prices – I then get my click price in my head – the price I’m going to be happy enough to pay.
  3. If you are searching a number of flights/ routes, or even just researching,  it can be useful to search incognito as the search algorithm will pick up and potentially increase the price of flights you are keen on.  Open a private browser to do so on your device. Signing up to mailing lists such as Holiday Pirates, Jacks Flight Club and Secret Flyingwill also send you alerts of possible good deals. 
  4. Play about with dates- going a day early or coming back a day or so later can massively change the price. Also think about trying to go off peak. We went to the Middle East in the Summer, yes it was very warm but we managed fine and we got our prices for everything at a steal compared to when the temperature is lower. 
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  5. Budget airlines – easyJet, Ryanair etc. tend to be cheapest the moment the flights are released. Keep an eye out for release dates and it’s worth getting up early to book. If you miss them and they start to rise don’t buy that day the will likely drop a bit when the first surge of buying is over. Sometimes you can get sales and reductions which bring them down again.  We don’t pay extra to book seats together, and we have never been separated. We check in as soon as we can, and have never had any issues. 
  6. Other airlines – if you are not flying via a budget airline then flights are realised around 10 months to a year before travel, they will generally rise in price too as they book out, but by looking at the previous years data it is easy to get a sense of whether it is a good deal or not.
  7. Factor in distance to your departure and arrival airports and the cost of transport/ parking to get there. You might get a much cheaper flight into the outskirts of a city but it might be costly to get in – or the flight times might mean public transport isn’t an option and you end up with an expensive taxi. FB03AA34-2E4D-49A4-8361-31D01890ED0E
  8. Don’t be afraid of a stop over – this can open up another destination to go to. Flying to Florida, you may end up with a  day or two in New York on the way? This summer we went to Dubai via Moscow, which made for a great 24 hour stop over on the way home and getting to check out a bit of Russia. 
  9. Food on planes – budget airlines provide nothing and can be expensive (as can airports). Bringing snacks will save you some money. Long haul flights will provide food on board – when you book you can request any dietary requirements including a children’s meal. We have found them to be very good, usually they are served first, and have activity packs with them. Often the airline only provides for those pre booked.
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  10. Flights booked – great on to accommodation. I like to search on booking.com then check out trip advisor for reviews- it can be worth checking out booking directly or through another third party to get a good deal. Think about booking on a credit card to get your protection if there’s any issues. 
  11. We also often stay in Airbnb– be sensible, look at location, read all the listing! Make sure you are getting the full apartment if that’s what you want and not just a room. Check our the area on maps and read the reviews. Think about public transport – is it easy to get in and out of location? Factor in the costs there too.
  12. If like us you like to explore different places you need a rough itinerary before booking accommodation. I like to research blogs, aimed at families travelling to the locations I want to go too. Instagram can be great too- put in some of the hashtags of the locations and you will get lots of gems. It really helped me research our Oman trip, and got me looking at some great options. 61F33A27-05A7-46C9-A2E3-261C107B37A8
  13. Visas – it is really important to do your research about entry requirements into countries as some of these may need applications very early, and if you don’t get them through in time then you’ve lost your holiday and your money. USA requires an ESTA, there’s lots of sites out there charging more so make sure you get the right one, which is here.  Do this early, as if you don’t get an ESTA you will need to apply for a visa which requires an interview at an embassy which can be a good few months wait.  For other countries, you can only apply a month before you go, and if you are going to a few you need to time it right to get them back and other processed. Our Russian visas were a bit of a headache but part of that was due to passport renewals. Which brings me on to another thing. 
  14. Passports – get your passport renewed early, in the weeks before the summer everyone gets it done, therefore longer wait times. Especially if you are applying for anyone in the family’s first passport as the additional checks can increase the time required. If you are applying for Irish ones do take note that with the increased rate of applications due to impending Brexit they may be slower at different times.
  15. Travel insurance – purchase this from the start, incase you need to cancel the booking or something happens. We have annual insurance – you need to think about the amount of coverage especially for things like medical cover. It’s worth having decent insurance- I’ve only ever had to use it once to come home for a family funeral from Brazil. They were super efficient and supportive and despite being the furtherest away we were home in the quickest time.

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  16. Airport parking can be cheaper if booked in advance, keep a look out for special offers. It may work out as cheap to spend the night before you go in an airport hotel that has parking included or reduced. If you need to get a train/ bus consider booking those in advance as can be cheaper too. 
  17. Getting around your location – this very much depends on where and what sort of trip you are doing. If you are relying on public transport – book bigger journeys in advance such as trains across Europe as you will get them much cheaper. For local transport, check out the tourist options- it might be worth getting a tourist card such as the Salzburg and Brussels ones we used. These not only have lots of entries into places of interest but often include local transport options. 
  18. Car hire – again using a number of search engines to check the prices. Read all the small print. There will be often extra charges for excess insurance which hikes the price. You can buy it annually and save some money there. Most airlines allow you to bring car seats for free. We pack those, as local hiring can be expensive and you are never sure of the history of the seats. It does get easier as the children get bigger. We are now into smaller seats compared with the large bulky ones when they were small. Ensure you check where the car hire is, sometimes they can be on the outskirts of an airport and if you are arriving in late this may not work out. Check the regulations for hiring cars in that country, do you need an International Driving Permit – especially with Brexit looming. You can read more about them here. If you are driving from one country to another, check out the rules and what is needed. You may need special paperwork and insurance to make it happen. 
  19. Trips, activities and tickets – research, research and more research. Have a good think about what is important for your family. If you are booking theme park tickets, there can be deals for a number together, such as attraction tickets direct which can run sales/ black friday deals at time. For a city break, we often do a walking tour of some sort first as it gives us a good idea of layout of the city and things we might want to do. Sometimes there are ones for a donation only. The kids loved a Harry Potter Themed one in Edinburgh. You can read about our Harry Potter adventures in Scotland here. You don’t need to do it all, plan out what is most important and go from there! Shopping around can save you significantly. 
  20. Food – if you are staying self catering making some meals in your accommodation can save you considerably. We will often buy fruit, breakfast, snacks and picnic type things that we can take out with us during the day. We can then cook in an evening, eat out or get a takeaway. We always bring some snacks from home to eat on the way and on the first morning until we get the time to get to a supermarket. When we stay in a resort, often half board can be a good deal – if you eat enough for breakfast you won’t need lunch before dinner in the evening. Atlantis in Dubai worked very well for this.
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  21. Water – bring a water bottle, you can fill them up in restaurants and hotels for free and you save a fortune in buying water, and also help save the environment. We love ones like thisthat keep drinks cool for 12 hours. 
  22. Packing – airlines like to charge lots of money for checked baggage so keep it to a minimum. Even hand luggage has become increasingly restrictive. We love these 40l bags from Osprey as they fit for all (have not obviously checked every airline but had no issues with Flybe, Easyjet, Ryanair etc). We try to travel with hand luggage only and do some laundry on our locations, and if we need to check anything (such as lifejackets/ snorkel gear etc) we only check one bag. You can buy most things in your location, so we bring some starter toiletries and suncream and pick up extra at our destination. 

I am sure there are many other important suggestions that I have left out. If you have other top tips please do comment to share them.

Enjoy your holiday planning! 

Christmas Markets in Vienna

Europe’s Christmas Markets are a wonderful treat for all the senses – especially the taste ones! Miss 11 and I headed off in early December for an Austrian and German adventure to check out as many of the markets that we could manage. First stop was Vienna, the exquisite capital of Austria, home to Imperial history and Baroque architecture, with the musical accompaniment from Mozart and Strauss, and home to Sigmund Freud. Plenty to see and explore. It is importantly also home to over 20 Christmas Markets.

E34BF27D-2F24-48BA-8444-10EBC041DBE6Set in the spectacular backdrops of Vienna, they are an exquisite way to explore the city and feel truly festive. They are an age old tradition, with the forerunner to present day markets from the Middle Ages. The first record of Vienna’s December Market was in 1298, when citizens were grated permission to hold a Krippenmarkt (December Market) during Advent. Early markets started by only selling meat, but evolved to provide other everyday purchases, then eventually seasonal decorations, crafts and treats accompanied with entertainment such as singing and dancing.

Christmas markets received a significant boost in the 16th-century, when the teachings of the German protestant reformer Martin Luther suggested that the birth of Christ was a more appropriate gift-giving day than other saints’ days. This was the beginning of the practice of Christmas gift- buying and festive markets have been popular across Europe and beyond ever since.

 

Christkindlmarkt Rathausplatz

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One of the biggest and most well known Christmas Markets in Vienna, you cannot avoid being in a Christmas mood after this. Here you will find dozens of booths filled with contemporary and traditional Christmas decorations and gifts. Full of live music, it is also full of traditional and classic Viennese cuisine with incredible aromas abounding. There is plenty to do for children, including some amusements and the big wheel. A big hit for Miss 11 was getting to ice skate. The ice rink is fun, with some gradients that allow you to gain some speed which was great fun! It is situated right in front of the City Hall and with a picture perfect backdrop it is a wonderful sight! You can go inside the City Hall where children can make Christmas cookies or candles. As Vienna’s most popular Christmas markets it is also the most crowded, so prepare for that.

Christmas Market, Schloss Schönbrunn

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For an elegant Christmas market Schloss Schönbrunn is a perfect setting with the Schönbrunn Palace as it’s background, it presents the most beautiful and magical scenery. There is a spectacular  towering Christmas tree that will completely mesmerise you. The market offers the perfect Christmas touch, with handmade Christmas decorations, and gifts that are made using natural materials.  Of course, there is a complete food and drinks range including warm Christmas cookies, snacks, and mulled wine. Combined with  visit to the Palace and the nearby Children’s Museum there is plenty of things to do in the area. We also met St Nicholas here.

Weihnachtsmarkt Am Hof

Situated a few streets away from the main tourist zones of Graben and Kaertner Stree. This is a smaller but quality artisan gift market, with ceramics, jewellery, glassware, leather items and hats. The Christmas decorations were splendid. It is also well known for its variety of sausages and ham, along with hot baked potatoes, waffles, and gingerbread.

 

Weihnachtsmarkt Karlsplatz

8EB8B894-D6F1-4F01-89AD-7A5AE3F8D9C7Another large scale market with more than 70 booths from local craftspeople and artisans. Situated  in front of the baroque Church of Saint Charles Borromeo. It is also a popular area for many live concerts on regular basis.  In addition, the Christmas market features many live concerts on a regular basis. It is the place to go for hand made items.

 

Christmas Market on Stephansplatz

Next to the iconic St. Stephen’s cathedral there is a small Christmas market. It is quite small and overcrowded, but worth a walk around if you are in the area.

 

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One of our highlights was the mugs that they used, you could buy your own mug for around €4, and then when you are finished with your drink, you could keep the mug as a souvenir or return it and get your money back. This meant that there is not wasteful disposable couples. Each market has their own design, and I imagine could turn into fun collectibles for the different markets you visit.

 

Did you know? Snow globes were invented accidentally in Vienna . Mr Perzy, a surgical instruments mechanic created one in 1900 as the result of an experiment to try and improve the brightness of the newly vented and not very bright electric light bulb. Inspired by the shoemakers of the time, who utilised a glass globe filled with water in front of a flame to get more light from a candle, Perzy tried to re-create this in front of a light bulb. It didn’t work that well. One day he used a white powder, semolina, used for baby food and poured it into the glass globe. It got soaked up by the water and floated very slowly to the base of the globe- the effect reminded him of snowfall. The beginning of snow globe invention. For the first 40 years of production, a church was always added. Following the Second World War, his son added different designs, such as Christmas trees, Father Christmas and snowmen figurines.  The company continues, and exports the snow globes around the world. You can visit the Snow globe museum there too, and buy many in the Christmas markets.

Top tips for visiting a Vienna Christmas Market 

Pick your favourite market – there are so many to see, so do your research about the ones you want to see. All have stalls with food, Glühwein and cooked chestnuts, but each one has their own distinct style. For kids the to ones are Karlsplatz or Christkindlmarkt Rathausplatz. For excellent photos, Schloss Schönbrunn is superb.
Visit at the right time – they get very busy in the evening, so choose a little before then and be ready to leave when it becomes dark if you struggle with the crowds. It worked for us not to be visiting on a weekend as it was much quieter.

Bring cash – especially small notes. Some stands will accept credit cards but many were cash only, or there were difficulties getting the card reader to connect. Easier and quicker to have cash.

Make sure you try these foods – Maroni (Cooked chestnuts), Kaisekrainer (Sausage with cheese in the middle), the famous Bratwurst (hot dogs), Soup in a Bread Bowl, Pretzels, Waffeln (Waffles), Lebkuchen (gingerbread), Heisse Bauernkrapfen (doughnuts), Glühwein (mulled wine) and Punsch (Alcoholic Punch, if you don’t want to go with the alcoholic version choose Kinder Punsch).

Go to as many as you can –  I’ve only been able to cover a few in this blog, but there are many around the city. Check them out as you sightsee and explore, and of course enjoy! Have a Glühwein for me!

Dress warmly – the Markets are mainly outside, and it can be cold, especially with the wind chill from the River so wrap up. Layers, gloves, and hats are important! The hut punsh and Glühwein help too!

Packing for Lapland – the ultimate family DIY adventure to visit Santa and know what to bring

Two years ago, in the midst of a horrible flu, we picked three little explorers up from school and whisked them off on a surprise adventure, to Lapland. It was an incredible, magical adventure, that planning and booking by ourselves was a fraction of the price compared to the tour companies. We spent a week in the North of Finland for the same price as a day trip from Belfast! You can read all about how we did it here. Since writing the blog all about it, and chatting to others, it  has been amazing how many people have started to take it into their own hands and get an affordable option of a Lapland experience (some it has become an annual event rather than a once in a lifetime trip!)

One thing we get asked frequently is about what to bring and what to wear so we’ve made a magical winter wonderland guide if you are heading off to Lapland this year. 

Consider travelling light (it also saves on the needing to pay for baggage items). Most accommodations (do check it out before you go though) have drying cupboards, which dried the outerwear incredibly quickly. Means you can give base layers a quick wash in the sink and dry if you think you need to. 

CLOTHES 

It is freezing (the coldest temperature we saw was -28 degrees centigrade), you are in the Artic region after all, so it is important to dress appropriately. Many of the tour companies include rental of a snow suit, so check out the prices and think whether you are best to rent or buy.  You  may be able to borrow from friends, or if you plan to go skiing over the next few years it might be worth purchasing. We bought ours in the summer sales and got them at a good price, the children wore their coats at home that winter, and we sold them on when they grew out, so it worked for us. 

Layers are the important bit when it comes to surviving an artic winter, temperatures can vary quite a bit day to day and there’s only a few hours of daylight per day so being prepared to layer up or strip off is a must. You will also be going in and out of warm buildings, so need to be able to strip off quickly if necessary. 

 Many people also worry about bringing very young children. As long as you are prepared you will have no problems (there are local babies in Lapland after all). 

BASE LAYERS 

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Mr 4 modelling his base layers and warm socks

These are basically your thermals layer – leggings and long sleeved tops. Unless you ski and therefore sweat, in the coldness you are unlikely to sweat so they will last a couple of days. We brought 3 or 4 pairs, if I went back we would bring 2 each, one to wear, and one to wash/dry if necessary. 

Tips 

  • Do not buy cotton ones, these hold the cold and feel damp, something synthetic, or merino wool (these are pricey, I would only purchase these if you plan to ski/ use them regularly). 
  • We bought ours in summer sale from Sports Direct and they were really cheap (like £1-2 per top/leggings).  Lidl, Decathlon, Aldi all have good options at times, so check them out.

 

MID LAYERS

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Miss 9 wearing her fleece mid layer – perfect for striping down to in a restaurant

This is the in-between layer – a good fleece top or jacket is a worthwhile investment and something you will likely wear at home throughout the winter. Most days we didn’t need a mid layer on the legs, Miss 11 is always cold and she may have worn this a few times, but the others did not. For our late night northern lights hunting all the layers were required- mainly as we were standing still on a frozen lake. 

Tips

        • Two of these is more than plenty for a week long trip. 
      • Fleece lined leggings or joggers work as a mid layer.
      • For kids fleece pyjamas are a great idea, cheap and they don’t wick in the moisture.

OUTERLAYER 

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Ski jackets and salopettes

Outerlayers need to be warm, padded and crucially waterproof and snow proof. A decent ski jacket and salopettes are essential.  These are bulky items, again, we wore the jackets travelling and rolled up the trousers. You could also use one of the space saver clothes bags and suck out the air with a vacuum,  that would make them go much smaller for packaging. 

Tips 

  • If buying cheaper versions they seem a bit thin, you can always add more mid layers so you don’t need to worry about having the best gear 
  • Keep an eye on second hand options, especially for kids, as they grow quickly. 
  • You may also find a friend has their ski wear in the attic and is more than happy to lend you some! 
  • TkMaxx, Sports Direct, Trespass, and other outdoor stores can do great clearance deals in the summer. My children did wonder why they were trying on Snow suits in July – but with parents who met studying a Geography degree the line it is going to be an exceptionally cold winter worked well! 

 

EXTREMITIES 

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As you can see waterproof is important!

Snow boots – you will need a decent grip. We bought our in Trespass sale, (although i’ve seen good options in Lidl this year) and they worked perfectly. We all wore them travelling which saved space in the suitcases- and gave us toasty toes on the journey. We did pack trainers, but barely used them – if you are staying in a hotel you will, but in an apartment or cottage probably not. 

 

 

Buying tips

  • Focus on grips over style
  • Buy a size bigger to facilitate a few layers of socks
  • Wear them travelling rather than pack and save space 
  • Break them in before you go, they can be rigid and heavy on little feet so let them try them out a few times (we had some puddle jumping to try and not spoil the surprise before we went) 

Socks – along the line of the layering above, it is important to layer socks. A thin base layer – merino wool is the top end, but cheaper ones work well too, and a thicker pair on top. You don’t need a lot, you can rinse them and dry them in the drying cupboard. Lidl, Aldi, and sports stores can have them for a few pounds. It is worth adding a couple of extra layers, as you can be standing about a bit and little toes can get cold. 

Tips 

  • Wool keeps you the warmest, but make sure they are stretchy as you are layering them. 
  • Useful purchase as they can keep you warm at home too around the house! 

 

Gloves – similar principle to socks, layers is important. The kids had thin magic gloves with waterproof ski ones on top. Little people and gloves tend to be an on off on off experience. It was good to have a few extra of the magic gloves and they did manage to get them soaked/ chew on them and then they froze a few times.

 

Hats, scarves, neck gaiters, snoods  – a warm hat is essential, and a snood worked well for the children, more difficult to pull off and less things to loose if you don’t have scarves and other items. I finally understood what a wonderful intervention a neck gaiter was, it saves your face, lips and lungs from suffering from the cold. It helps reduce your lips getting chapped if you keep your mouth covered, makes your neck warm and reduces the cold air getting into your chest.

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These snood hat things were perfect for the younger two

Tips

  • If you’re going to do some skiing, pack a bobble-free hat so your helmet will fit better.
  • If you’re travelling with kids, pack distinctively coloured hats for them, lots of little people sledding up and down slopes can make it hard to spot which one you own. Even more important if you rent the outerwear in resort as all the children then look the same!

 

You don’t need any fancy/ meal out type clothing. You will need to wear your outerwear to go anywhere and then everyone is stripping off inside.

 

Some people asked me about asthma, Mr 5 was an asthmatic baby and we had frequent hospital visits due to his chest in the first years. He turned 4 when we were in Lapland and had no problems, in fact the air was super clean. 

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Other things to pack: 

Swimsuit –  Finland is sauna country and it’s very likely that your cabin or hotel will have a sauna you can use. It is the best thing ever, coming in from the cold into the hold sauna. There’s lots of naked sauna use in Finland, but if you are not up for that you will need a swimsuit. There’s some nice hot tubs and pools at different resorts that you can go to, even if you are not staying there. Levi had a wonderful pool in the Levi Spa Hotel that we enjoyed spending some time in.

Small back pack – with the three little adventurers , I need a constant supply of snacks and water so I rarely leave the house (or cabin) without a backpack. As well as snacks and water, I also packed tissues, lip balm, travel-size hand cream and an extra layer just in case. It is worth making sure it is waterproof for this trip due to the amount of snow.

Snacks – plenty of snacks as always is a good idea with small people. It can be tiring playing in the snow- so pack those high energy snacks. You also can’t have enough hot chocolate to warm up in your room/ cabin after a few chilly hours outdoors.

Battery packs – phone and camera batteries drain incredibly quickly in the cold- like from nearly fully charged to empty in a few minutes sometimes. I found keeping phone in warm of inside pockets helped but sometimes it needed a boost to get turned on again. 

Hand warmers – we didn’t use that frequently as the layers did their job but if someone is likely to get cold, they are a handy option, especially for little toes or little fingers. 

Marshmallows – nothing beats marshmallows over an open fire for some festive fun! We enjoyed roasting ours over the fire in the chalet and in the little huts in kidsland were you also got free hot berry juice – delicious. 

Moisturiser and lip balms – Faces and lips can get sore in the cold- moisturiser and lip balm were essential items for us. Everything freezes- including inside your nose. That’s a weird feeling! I didn’t bother with any makeup but I’m not exactly a make up every day person anyway. 

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Warming up after a successful Northern Lights hunting trip

Packing list 

  • 2x base layers per person 
  • 1-2x mid layers per person
  • 1 ski jacket and salopettes per person
  • Snowboots (plus one pair of other shoes for indoors)
  • 1x hat per person
  • 1x snood/ scarf per person
  • 2x magic gloves / thin layered gloves
  • 1x ski gloves
  • Hand warmers
  • Snacks (you can buy some over there but food can be pricey and you may not get the items you want)
  • Hot chocolate
  • Marshmallows and something to toast them on
  • Normal pyjamas- buildings are very warm, you won’t need really warm pyjamas.
  • Toiletries – normal items but make sure to pack the lip balm and moisturiser
  • Cameras, electronics, battery packs  – we used phones mainly, whatever your electronic device of choice, there is a high chance of battery drain so pack those battery packs.

 

I hope that has been useful to help you think about what you might need for a snowy trip to Lapland. If you have any questions comment below, and most importantly enjoy, it is such a magical adventure.

Visiting the United Nations Headquarters in NYC

If you’ve been following us for a while, you will know that we love to take in all the educational aspects at our destinations and NYC was no different. Miss 10 is thankfully very interested in all things global and has been asking many questions about global issues over the past year. So she was delighted to take in the United Nations Headquarters during our visit to New York. It was high on my list too- I’m a geographer at heart and did my final year thesis on the Millennium Development Goals and their implementation (how I ended up working in mental health I’m not quite sure!) 

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United Nations Headquarters, New York

The UN headquarters was designed by the famous Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer (designer of the incredible UFO type structure in Guanabara Bay  in Niteroi situated in our neighbourhood when we lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Google it – I will write all about our Brazilian days at some point). 

The UN was created in 1945 after World War II. Initially 51 countries signed up to commit to maintaining international peace and security; developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress; as well as improving standards of living and human rights. 

 

 

Currently, 193 countries are members and have the right to vote on issues of global concern. The are 5 permanent members: France, Russia, China, United Kingdom and United States, and 10 that are voted in every 2 years. According to data from the official website, the UN receives about 1 million visitors from around the world each year. 

 

It is situated centrally in New York, not too far from Grand Central Station. We booked our tickets in advance and guided tours only run Monday to Friday. The price is $ 20 (+ tax) per person and it is necessary to choose a time for the guided tour.  Tours are available in the UN’s six official languages:  Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. There is the possibility of the guided tour being available in a number of languages including German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Portuguese, check out the website here.

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Gifted artwork in the United Nations Headquarters, New York

It is clearly stated on your email to arrive 1 hour in advance. You need to gain Security Clearance before going in. This requires presenting at the UN Security Check in office opposite the main building with photo ID. There was a big queue and some people that left it late wanted to jump the queue. This was not allowed. They check your ticket and give you a wristband and an access sticker to the main building – which is right in front of you. Passing through the concierge, there is airport style security then you can spend some time exploring the sculptures and views from the garden before heading into the main building to pick up your tour. 

Our guide was a lovely Spanish man who pitched the tour perfectly for the whole audience of 20 people. Miss 10 was the only child and he ensured that he understood and could see all he was taking about. He explained some details of the architecture, the conference rooms, and how the United Nations operates. It was fascinating. 

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United Nations Headquarter, New York

Depending on the demand of the meetings of the day, it is possible to visit the General Assembly Hall, Security Council Chamber, Economic and Social Council Chamber, and the Board of Trusteeship Council (this last room was where Emma Watson and the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai have already given their speeches on female empowerment- two of Miss 10s current heroes). 

We got to briefly sit in some high level discussions about Cuba and the trade agreements in the General Assembly. Miss 10 was fascinated by the scale and size of the translation ensuring all members can understand in their own language. 

 

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Artistic representation of the Human Rights articles

Throughout the halls and corridors there are many beautiful artistic representations of various aspects of the UN along with incredible gifts from many countries. We particularly loved the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, designed by the Brazilian artist Octavio Roth. 

There is a section about disarmament, where you can see remnants of nuclear explosions in Nagasaki and Hiroshima (coins, bottles, and statue). Miss 10 was shocked to learn some of the tragedies that have happened around the world. 

 

It is a really interesting few hours, well pitched for a child aged 10 and up. A little different than the usual sights of New York such as the Statue of Liberty, but well worth it in our opinion. You can take photos in most places but not record videos. I didn’t take enough as I was so enthralled in all the explanations and views. There’s a lovely bookshop at the end in which we needed to exhibit serious self control. Apparently I still love human geography! We enjoyed a coffee in the cafe and people watched all the different country representatives grabbing their caffeine fix on the way to UN business. 

Lady Liberty – visiting the Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island with Kids

One of the most iconic New York City, if not American sights is the Statue of Liberty – symbolising freedom for all people. A trip to NYC is not complete without a visit to her. It was high on Miss 10’s  agenda of things she would like to see and do during our trip. Lady Liberty was originally made in France and gifted to the USA by France to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. 

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There are a number of ways you can visit, from the water, from the air by helicopter,  or for us we climbed right to the top to stand in her crown. 

A visit to Lady Liberty is high on most tourists agenda, so it can get quite busy with long queues. Book your tickets in advance. There are a number of options available :

A visit to Liberty Island and climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty 

Our chosen adventure was not only to get close and personal to Lady Liberty herself, but to get in her crown for those views. Buy your tickets to visit Liberty Island from Statue Cruises (it is also included in the New York City Explorer Pass). It is the easiest way to experience and learn about the Statue of Liberty.

You can purchase tickets on the day, but pre booking is advisable (even just to miss the huge queues). If you want to go to the Crown, they open around 5 months in advance and tend to sell out 2-3 months in advice. All tickets include a visit to Ellis Island, so you can make a full day of it.

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We arrived at the dock in Battery Park, and made our way to collect our pre booked tickets for the Crown. It is also possible to go to the ferry terminal at Liberty State Park in New Jersey. We queued up, and went through airport style security, before catching a ferry over to Liberty Island. There’s a cafe and some nice places to explore and walk around on the outside, getting good views. There’s a number of tickets options, to the reserve only which includes the ferry over and back, an audio tour, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and the Statue of Liberty grounds, you can add on the pedestal, or crown options.

The National Park Service allows only 240 people per day to climb to the crown; 1,000 daily tickets are available for the pedestal so tickets are limited.

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The pedestal – once in side the Statue of Liberty you can explore the museum and visit the Statute’s original torch. The museum itself isn’t particularly large, but it offers a great deal of insight into the history of the Statue and the excitement around it. It gives you a good understanding  of the importance of this national monument.  There’s an audio tour, with a version especially for kids that was enjoyed by Miss 10.

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The crown – the climb to the crown is strenuous – 393 steps, equivalent to 27 stories of a building– and recommended only for people in good physical health. The area inside the statue stairwell is cramped, with steep steps only 19 inches wide. The head clearance is only 6 feet, 2 inches, and it tends to get very hot in the statue; on summer days, it can be as much as 20 degrees hotter than it is outside. Even on a cold October day, we felt the heat as we climbed up to the stuff. The advice form the National Park Services recommends that if  you suffer from heart or respiratory issues, vertigo, claustrophobia, fear of heights or have any mobility issues, avoid climbing to the crown. Only children who are at least 4 feet tall (around 5 years old)  and accompanied by a responsible adult can climb the statue. Miss 10 was well able to make the climb, I realised how much less fitter than her I was, as I was exhausted at the top. You have to leave your bags in the lockers at the bottom. We brought some water, which was well needed as we went. Coming down is as, if not more challenging as going up.

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From the top, standing in Lady Liberty’s crown, you can see the view across to Manhattan and out to sea. It’s incredible to think about the journey all the immigrants made as they arrived in their New World of opportunity.

 

You can also take a free, ranger-lead tour of Liberty Island daily departing from the flagpole and lasting around 45 minutes. All ages are welcome on the tour, it covers how and why the statue was made, the history of Liberty Island, and many fascinating aspects of the Statue’s importance.

 

Ellis Island Immigration Museum 

3FE7FDD3-FC8D-4257-A272-23CFB0BA68AFEllis Island was the first stop for the 12 million immigrants who arrived to NYC and were processed there. It is a short ferry from Liberty Island. The museum is beautiful and well worth the visit, especially for older kids to learn about the story of immigration in America.  Most of the galleries required a lot of reading, but there were several interactive kiosks that Miss 10 could listen to the immigrant stories. We traced many from Ireland, including the North, and heard about their incredible journeys across to their new lives. There are also digital archives that we were able to search for our relatives, we found a few that were known to migrate to America during and after the Irish Famine. Miss 10 was fascinated by this all.

There is also a free audio tour at Ellis Island near the large immigration hall. With a special feature for children, you can go room to room at your own pace, listening to the narration by a young immigrant following through their footsteps of the process. There are incredibly powerful stories and photos. Miss 10 was interested in all those who were not let in, due to ill health, or possible psychiatric illness after such a journey. She was troubled by the injustice, and it has been something she has discussed many times since. 

 

Free views from the Staten Island Ferry 

FA0BF861-6D92-41E5-959C-E49931F0C8DDIf you want to see Lady Liberty for free the public ferry will take you to the borough of Staten Island, passing by the Statue of Liberty along the way.

To get there, head to the Staten Island Ferry terminal next to Battery Park. The ferry departs approximately every half hour and can get very busy, but don’t be deterred by the masses of crowds around the entrance – the ferry is huge so there’ll be plenty of room for everyone to board. For the best view, go to the right hand side of the boat to secure a viewing spot along the railing. After you’ve passed the statue, you can move to the back of the boat for some fabulous views of the Manhattan skyline. 

 

A Harbour Cruise

4EF49EF9-2AED-4148-AC40-677D6F69389FMany people recommend taking in the Manhattan skyline by harbour cruise, which will take your around Liberty Island to get a good look at the statue from the water. These boats often have cafes or bars on board and are a bit more intimate than the public ferries, so hopefully you won’t have to elbow people out of the way for a good view. Cruises last an hour, and there’s not the queues and security checks required for ferry departures to Liberty Island. A good option if you are short on time, but want to get up close to the statue. Do book ahead, it gets busy especially in peak Summer times.

A helicopter tour 

If you have plenty of cash, or want to splash out there are some incredible photos of people who have seen Lady Liberty from above on a helicopter tour. 

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Top Tips for visiting Lady Liberty

  1. Arrive early and allow plenty of time – you need to get through airport style security and then get the ferry over to Liberty Island. It all takes time so get there early.
  2. It is busy – try to visit during the week and early in the morning to avoid major queues. Tickets are time sensitive so make sure that you get the right ones.
  3. There’s not great food options (and rather pricey) so bring a picnic, there are plenty of places to sit and eat.
  4. Book in advance – especially if you want to see the crown, they often sell out 3 months plus in advance.
  5. It can be cold and windy  on the water, yet warm in direct sunlight so be prepared for the weather. It’s a tough climb up to the top of the crown so makes sure you bring some water for that.

Battery Park 

There’s many interesting sculptures to see around the Battery Park area, including ones depicting the Immigrants. The Sea Glass Carousel, a place were music, art, glass, and steel, all come together in a magical journey of the sea. The carousel contains 30 different types of giant glowing fibreglass fish to the tune of soothing classical music and aquatic sound effects for a virtual underwater experience. Set in the original place of the first New York Aquarium, it is $5 a ride, and a lovely activity to do with children.

Giant balls of steel, and a European Odyssey – review of the Atomium and Mini Europe in Brussels

 

As we prepared for our Brussels visit I kept coming across images of this massive strange looking giant atom structure. At 102m tall, this atom is magnified to 165 billion times the size of an iron crystal. Constructed out of 24,000 tonnes of steel, the nine spheres house a range of different functions. The Atomium is an imposing and intriguing structure on the outskirts of Brussels. 

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Atomium in Brussels

Not quite as high as our summer visit to the Burj Khalifa,  but with specular views nonetheless across the city of Brussels and wider Belgian countryside. We took the lift (once the fastest lift in Europe) straight to the top to see the 360 degree view. Hard to believe that this time last year Miss 11 was pretty terrified of heights. The ‘exposure therapy’ at the top of the Empire State Building last Halloween has worked its magic, as without a blink she looked out at the beautiful views across the area. It felt surreal to gaze below at these balls of steel with the sun reflecting off them. 

A number of the spheres house an interactive museum on the history of the creation. Initially built for the 1958 World Expo, the first one after the World War,  but so loved by the Belgian people that it has become a permanent feature in the Brussels landscape the Atomium feels a bit like a national treasure.

Connecting each sphere is a total of twenty tubes, some with light filled elevators that make you feel you are blasting off to the moon on a futuristic space trip.

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Other spheres host temporary art galleries and we were invited to the opening weekend of the Bruegel- a poetic experience. This immersive and interactive exhibition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel, the famous Renaissance painter.  We enjoyed exploring his paintings feeling like we were part of the oversized images. The temporary exhibition is open until September 2020, check it out if you are in the area. 

 

Miss 11’s favourite ball was the mini spheres within a sphere that allow school groups to come and stay for a night in the little sleeping pods.  She loved that idea, and thought it a good one for a school trip.

 

An unusual afternoon, but one that is worth a visit if you are visiting Brussels, it is incredible to see the scale and size of the Atomium. 

 

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Next door, is Mini Europe, an opportunity to travel around all of Europe in a few hours.  What more could a wanderlust like me and Miss 11 want? Spending our time reflecting on the adventures we have taken, and where next to explore in Europe. 

Mini Europe is a miniature homage to the 27 countries that make up the European Union at a scale of 1/25 the size of buildings. We loved it, if you like the miniland in Legoland this will be a perfect location.  It is educational as well as entertaining, and the adults seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children, sometimes more so with the miniature trains, planes, and automobiles. A family attraction in many ways. 

It opened in 1989, and has been added to over the years as the EU has expanded, now with 350 models. There is something to represent every country, no matter how small. We travelled through Belgium, explored the Brussels we had seen in our walking tour the day previous in miniature form, visited Denmark, Sweden, and checked out where we had recently been in Amsterdam.

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Crossing over water, we arrived at the United Kingdom, visiting the Houses of Parliament complete with placard waving Brexiters, both for and against!

A brief visit to Ireland, and we continued on through France, Spain and Portugal. As we wandered through Italy, Miss 11 began to plan future holidays, before experiencing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on a vibrating platform. We made our way to Eastern Europe, and I remembered that Athens is high on my bucket list! 

 

At the end of the visit, the indoor ‘Spirit of Europe’ exhibition provides interactive quizzes where you can test your European knowledge (vastly growing in this trip with our visit to the EU headquarters),  learn more about the history of the European Union and take part in the big screen movement game. It is an educational and fun visit for all the family.

Both locations are situated right beside each other at the Bruparck area of Brussels,  just beside line 6 on the metro at Heysel/ Heizel, our Brussels card (kindly gifted) took us right there. We were invited by Atomium, but paid for tickets with Mini Europe ourselves. There are options to buy a combined ticket for both locations and save yourself a few Euro. There’s a nice park right beside, a waterpark, and cinemas – a perfect location to spend a day. 

 

We were kindly hosted by the Atomium to visit, and were gifted a Brussels Card for museum and transport access during our weekend trip. 

A Chocolate Trail – walking tour of Brussels

The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the praline was invented here over 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people, that’s a good ratio in my mind. The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world, but they will be the first to tell you it is about quality not quantity.

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Over recent years, I’ve become a big fan of the city walking tour experience, especially if we only have a small window of time in a city. It’s a great way to get your bearings, and make markers of the places you want to spend more time. Gaining insight from a local is priceless too and I feel we get some great tips and suggestions so try to do them quickly after we arrive. I do however have not so pleasant memories when I was marched around Prague with my family in my teenage years for about 5 hours without a break, with my sugar levels dropping I was a shaky mess. (A situation the lovely siblings reminded me of for many a year). The promise of chocolate meant that no such a disaster would befall us. Home to fantastic beer, waffles, fries and famously chocolate you are never more than a few steps from some wonderful sustenance within Brussels. 

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Ready for some serious chocolate tasting

The Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tours promised great things to me and Miss 11 who was celebrating her birthday with a weekend furlong to the Belgian city. Up early and ready to walk, we meet our charming guide, Karla, in the UNESCO protected square, the stunning Grand Place, or Grote Markt. Outside the world’s first Godiva chocolate store we were ready for a taste, sight and sound adventure across the city gaining great insights into Brussels life. 

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Brussels Town Hall

We didn’t linger long — there was chocolate to be eaten, after all. As the only two guests on this morning adventure we were ready to go. 

Some history of the Grand Place to begin, we saw all the stallholders setting hope for the Festival of Folklore that would run all weekend. It was a busy hive of activity. We learnt the legend that the architect of the magnificent town hall was so disturbed when it was pointed out to him that the left and right side were not equal that he threw himself from the top. Legends abounding, under the eye, of St Michael with the slain dragon at his feet we headed off to explore Brussels chocolately goodness. 

Our first stop was at Corné, a pastissier turned chocolatier in one of Brussels’ grandest shopping arcades, of Royal standard nonetheless. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is an exquisite shopping mall, full of cafes, chocolate shops and much more, with many windows to peruse. Eyeing up the range of chocolates, we were told of the differences between white, milk and dark and begin to learn about the amazing cocoa bean. We commenced with a delectable white chocolate Manon blanc- packed full of vanilla cream and hazelnut on top. Delicious, apparently we were starting at the lower end and the quality would rise as the tour went on. Hard to believe! 

A few more steps down the exquisite shopping gallery, we came to Neuhaus, a pharmacist turned chocolatier. Apparently, Jean Neuhaus covered his medicines with a fine layer of chocolate, the early design of a praline . We learnt how pharmacies all have something sweet still across the city. I guess it helps the medicine go down – Mary Poppins had it right after all. 

Feeling a bit like Willy Wonka, we perused the range of chocolates in a variety of shops, tasting a range of samples as we went. Chocopolis, didn’t quite have the grand names of many other shops, but it was home to delicious mango flavoured chocolate. Here began our education into the production of chocolate, seeing the cocoa beans in action, and watching a short video on the production process- a world wide affair, with beans picked in South America, making there way to Amsterdam for roasting before coming to Belgium.

Another spike in the sugar levels, and on we walked, past a few bouncer manned doors, with the beats still pumping people were going to the party at 10am! I don’t think I would have ever managed that in my more youthful days. As we walked there was plenty of time to ask Karla all about the history of Belgium, we learnt about the two main languages – Flemish Dutch and French and the development and history of these. We learnt all about the painting and art on walls, and a range of museums as we went (some notes made for our further plans over the days ahead). 

 

Miss 11’s legs were starting to tire slightly, but we were ready for a pause of the choco-botique browsing for a immersive hands on chocolate making workshop. We arrived at the tour headquarters, took our seats at a long table covered in many goodies – chocolate, fruit, nuts, spices, and more, ready to be given a lesson in chocolate making. Welcoming the coffee, and the delicious hot chocolate , we listened intently as Karla began to introduce us to a range of different chocolates.

Next was over to us, we began to craft our own chocolate buttons and decorate them with a range of toppings. We met Mia, a chocolate expert, who demonstrated how to make pralines, and then we were able to create some wonders too. It was tricker than the experts made it look.

Mia created a spectacular chocolate birthday surprise (and didn’t forget the other two little adventurers back in Ireland who were delighted with the bags of chocolate!) and Miss 11 followed the Belgian custom of standing on a chair to have happy birthday sang to her. A birthday to remember indeed! 

 

And soon we were back on the streets, pounding the pavement in search of the most irresistible chocolate Belgium has to offer. I found it hard to believe that we were likely to top the morning so far, but onwards we continued. Unsurprisingly, we passed the Manneken Pis, and he was clothed in a Spanish number to celebrate the Folkore festival ongoing in the centre.

The next location really was a wonder, home to naturally pink chocolate. Yes, you’ve read that right, not artificially induced, but a product of the pink cocoa bean- ruby chocolate. A lighter taste, slightly berry like, ruby chocolate tasted sweet yet sour. The new fourth chocolate type apparently after dark, white and chocolate. Also home to delicious macaroons, our sugar high was certainly high as we continued on from BS40 on Butter Street (even the street names are food related!)

Onward exploring the streets of central Brussels, gaining many a recommendation for museum, restaurant and bar visits. We had a brief stop at an old bar and learn about the Monks beers (more of that in a separate post!) We arrived at Elisabeths, a flower covered  boutique shop full of more delectable chocolates (some even in the questionable style of our friend Manneken Pis). Priding themselves in promoting the artisan chocolates, Elisabeth will have chocolatiers featured every week, we enjoyed some rose and raspberry infused delicacies.

All too soon, we ended back were we started in the Grand Place at Mary’s. Mary’s is a delectable high end shop, home of the Royal Belgian chocolates. These pralines are made daily, so you are getting the freshest of the freshest. I feasted on a champagne filled wonder , while Miss 11 enjoyed the chocolate truffle.

Delicious and a perfect end to our morning with the wonderful Karla. Not only had my taste buds been on a sensory journey, our minds and bodies too as we took in the sights, sounds and learnt the history of Brussels and wider Belgium. Karla and I found some commonality in our study and work areas which provided wonderful conversation. I’d strongly recommend a Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tour. It’s the perfect way to experience all Brussels has to offer, and leaves you equipped for how to spend the rest of your time there, along with tasting and learning about the chocolate history.  They also offer a range of other tours  including  beer and food, culinarily, myths and legends, and sightseeing. If the chocolate one is anything to go by, they will be a wonderful, unique and special occasion. Go for it!

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Thank you to Brussels Walking Tour for the complimentary tour. We had a wonderful time, a perfect birthday treat for little miss. 

Turtle discovery – spending a night on the eco reserve in Ras al Jinz, Oman

We’ve been practising quiet voices for months, not very successfully for some of the smaller members of our adventure crew. It wasn’t just to generally keep the volume down (that would be an added bonus), but in preparation for our adventure to see the turtles near Sur in the Gulf of Oman. When researching Oman as a possible holiday destination I had discovered that they have a protected area of beach where a number of species of turtles including the Green Turtle and Loggerhead turtles come and lay their eggs and return to the ocean. Most days of the year a turtle can be found, however July is turtle season. Both in terms of the Mummy turtles laying their eggs and the babies hatching and making their journey to the ocean. Our quiet voice practice was in anticipation of being lucky enough to do a beach walk and see a turtle. I had some concerns that this little adventure crew would disrupt the annual breeding of this protected species. I need not have worried, the wonderment on the children’s faces when they witnessed the incredible sight of a Mummy turtle laying her eggs in the darkness of night and returning to her ocean home the next morning ensured the quietest of whispers.

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Wonderment

Situated on the coast, near the city of of Sur, Ras al Jinz Turtle reserve is a functioning research centre that seeks to protect the turtles and educate people on how vulnerable the population is.

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Three excited adventurers about their journey ahead

Turtles don’t come on the beach during the day due to the heat of the sun. So you need to either join one of the guided tours around 8/9pm at night (check with the reserve on their timings). Or if you stay over you get to do the night time guided walk and an exclusive sunrise walk only for those resident in the facility.

Leaving the Muscat area we travelled for around 2.5 hours (plus a stop in the marvellous Burham Sinkhole) down the coastline to an area called Sur. The mountainous landscape transformed to sandy desert areas into a raised coral reef with crystal clear blue waters along the coast.

Upon arrival at Ras al Jinz, we checked in and experienced a fast speed golf buggy up to our tented home for the evening. Beautifully kitted out with two glorious king sized beds, an air conditioning unit, and adjoining full bathroom with hot water, we were able to relax. Within the complex there were 12 similar tents situated on a cliff above the beach. There are hotel rooms within the research facility as well.

After unpacking, we headed back to the main centre to visit the educational museum that informed us all about turtles, their species and the perils that they experience. With handy audio guides the children were engaged in listening to all the information shared. At the end of the museum there was a little tank, with a tiny turtle that had got lost on his journey to sea, swimming there – he was going to be returned to the sea following sunset that evening. The children were enthralled with him or her, delighted that we had already seen our first turtle. There was a small additional charge for the museum visit. It was a little run down in places, but there was plenty of information and well pitched for the children.

We had time to sample the buffet on site, before preparing for our first accompanied walk in darkness to see if there were any turtles. Some external visitors joined this trip, however we were divided into on-site guests and others. On-site do seem to get priority access, remember your room key as it’s the access to the reserve instead of the ticket.

Following a briefing, about the need to be quiet and not using flashes on cameras due to the impact of confusing the turtle. Our guide led the 10 minute stony route walk to the beach, and as our eyes adjusted to the starry seascape, we began to see a number of turtles working away, digging their holes and preparing to lay their eggs. At first, I thought there was one, but quickly realised that there were numerous stretching across the beach. Incredible.

The guides ensured that visitors paid attention to the guidelines and were particularly keen to make sure that the children had a good view and knew what was happening. In the darkness, the guides used some red lights (not as harsh as the white light) and explained the behaviours of the turtles. There were two groups and it was carefully managed so that people were quiet, respectful and not shining lights. There’s no flash photography allowed and of course there were one or two who used it despite the guidelines. I was pleased to see that their phones were confiscated by the guides. In some of the reviews I had been concerned about too many people and not well managed. That was not the case for us at all.

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A mummy turtle working on digging her hole

We learnt that the turtles come on shore, and dig a large hole of around 3 metres. First we saw a turtle working on her hole, spraying sand around us she dug until she had created a large circle of around 2 meters. Next they dig down deep to create an egg cavity, a smaller little nest to lay their eggs.

 

Quietly the guide called us over in small groups and shone his torch through the darkness. Incredibly, we witnessed a turtle laying her eggs into the cavity. Up to 100 can be laid in a small amount of time. Glisining in the moonlight, the brilliant white eggs were carefully covered by the mother turtle. Burying them deep, she then set to work, creating a second hole a few metres in front of this one. This is the ‘fake hole’, amazingly it is a distraction for predators, hoping that the foxes dig in the wrong place.

There are a wide number of predators including birds and foxes, not to mention the possibility of humans trying to take the eggs hence the protection in the eco reserve. The researchers told us that only 2 or 3 out of each 1000 eggs successfully hatch and make it to the ocean. Incredibly low statistics of survival.

 

The sex of the baby turtles depends on the temperature of the sand. If the eggs incubate at temperatures of 27.7 degrees Celsius and below then the babies will be male and if above 31 degrees Celsius then they will be female. If the incubation happens in between these then some may be male and some female. Suddenly we were able to realise the crisis that is climate change even more – there will be even less male turtles.

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As we looked around the beach, in the reflection of the stars on the sea, we could see countless shapes of turtles working away on the beach. Tired, but with our minds alive of the wonder of it all, we returned to our tent and straight to sleep for a few hours, before rising at 4am for a sunrise adventure.

 

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Three tired little people ready for the morning adventure

 

This guided walk was only open to hotel guests, so at 4.20am with the day beginning to appear on the horizon, a more select number of us made our way back to the beach. It was a little colder, and very peaceful as the bleary eyed small group returned down the stony path. In the pre-sunrise brightness, it becomes quickly apparent just how many turtles had been working all night at the beach. We could also see the marks of the predators widespread with foxes footprints galore.

First we were brought over to watch one turtle dig her way out of the hole she was in. It was incredibly slow work, moving the sand to get over the ridge and return to the ocean. She looked exhausted, flapping the sand out of her way. I was struck by the sheer size of her as she looked me in the eye as she worked away. Suddenly with a few powerful movements she made it over the edge and started on a much quicker descent down the beach to the sea. With the powerful movements, she made it rhythmically down before the only remaining sight was her taking a few breathes before she dived into the Ocean deep.

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That is the last time that Mummy turtles do anything with their offspring. Job done – imagine that! When the little babies hatch they make their perilous journey across the beach and into the ocean running the high number of risks along the way. As we stood, watching other turtles appearing out of their nesting holes and making their way down the beach in awe, the researcher called us over, to see a baby turtle on his or her way. I had thought it was a difficult journey for the Mum, but then I saw this little thing with incredibly fast moving flippers working hard down the beach. He even fell into a footprint one of us had left behind and it took a lot of work to get back out again. Birds circled, but with humans watching they didn’t come near. How easily disoriented these little guys could be at night. We named him Lucky, and he made it to the waters edge. A wave came in and suddenly he was upside down, he righted himself and off he went on his lifetime adventure.

 

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Incredibly, the researchers told us that they have put trackers on many turtles over the years and learnt that they travel wide, they have picked up Omani beach turtles off the coast of Australia, around the Malaysian coastline and towards America too. When they reach around 37-40 years old and are ready to have their own babies, they come back to their beach of birth to lay eggs. Isn’t nature amazing?

 

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We stayed and watched the rise of the sun, all amazed in the wonderment of what we had witnessed. Three little minds exploding with all the information they had learned, and determined to do things diffierenlty when we get home to keep their oceans cleaner and work at stopping the rapid pace of climate change. When it was time to leave the beach, we reluctantly wandered up to the reserve, now that it was fully light, we realise that there were many little baby turtles who hadn’t made on their journey, either their eggs had been opened by predators, or one little guy seemed to go in the wrong direction and when the sun came up he didn’t survive. Cue tears from little middle adventurers, devastated to see the reality of the dangers and adversity they experience. I wonder, in many years to come whether she will be there rescuing the little turtles and ensuring they make it to their destination?

 

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We arrived back for a well needed buffet breakfast, and began to contemplate the amazing sights we had witnessed. I’m not normally emotional about much, but as we reflected on our morning and previous evening activities I was struck by the incredible planet we live on and how nature works. I’d really recommend this experience if you ever go to Oman. It was one of those unforgettable and ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences that I’m sure the children will remember for a long time. I’d really encourage you if you go to Dubai, to take the adventure, go a bit further, explore Oman and get to visit the turtles. Let us know if you make it that way!

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We booked through booking.com although you can book directly and do chose one of the tents (well worth a few quid extra in my opinion) and booking was inclusive of the two tours on the beach and a lovely buffet breakfast afterwards. Prices are between £160-300 for the night depending on party size and time of year.

 

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