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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Switzerland 101: 4 Northern Cities

Northern Switzerland is modern Europe at it’s most efficient. It’s a bit like the highways in New England. Sometimes picturesque and sometimes full of commercial buildings. All of the cities that we discuss today are all about an hour to hour and a half from each other by train

Basel

Basel is an art centric river port where so many of the river cruises start or end their voyages. With a few sites to see, Basal is a one and done kind of town. Walking through the busy downtown makes this working city a cement jungle. Much of the old world charm and creative art lies just under the surface past the utilitarian feel. Use it for its transportation hub.

  • Look for Basel to host the best festivals and have some of the best outdoor art.
  • Take a walk around the historic area for the few old world gems including the town hall.
  • Maybe stop at one of the many cosmopolitan stores and grab lunch from the deli. My favorite part was sitting by the fountain below. 
  • Above all know where the train station is to catch your train to the next destination. 

Zurich

Zurich Modern Switzerland: Lots of buildings and perhaps missing a little bit of the charm that’s plastered all over Instagram. While the lakeside definitely is pleasing to the eye, the downtown and cement laden suburbs are built for swiss efficiency and modern living. That said, as always, the local people are so very nice and it makes the experience beyond worth it. Use it as a layover city.

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  • Enjoy a walk through the downtown lakefront while you wait for your plane.
  • The food is great and the ever efficient swiss train system will speed you right to the airport.

Lucerne

Lucerne is simply lakefront perfection, This gateway to the south of Switzerland does not disappoint. the entire lakefront and riverside areas as well as the surrounding countryside.  Use it for a perfect day trip.

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  • Use the Rick Steves’ walking tour to enjoy a lap around the historic old city center including the iconic bridges.
  • Enjoy a cruise on the lake whether by taking a charter or using your own power on a pedal boat.
  • Have your camera ready!

Bern

By far, Bern which is full of bears and boasts the unbelievably beautiful Aare river is a capitol well worth the time. The picturesque streets that begin at the main train station and continue all the way to the river views are full of interesting sites and wonderful shops. Bern is the perfect gateway to the south where some of the more famous vistas can be seen. Make it a home base for many of your day trips by train.

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  • Check in with the Bern bear!
  • Enjoy the riverside square perched above the river just behind the cathedral. Then, get a book at the tiny library or take on a local with a game of Patong.
  • Join in the Swiss outdoor fun. Take a swim right down the Aare River like the locals. Here are the instructions.

Getting Around

The Swiss train system is one of the best in the world and well worth the time it takes to arrange a pass. Using the train system is very easy. Simply check the multilingual boards, find your track and hop on. Late trains are a rare bird so connections are sometimes close but totally doable.

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Driving in Northern Switzerland is a breeze. Modern roads and highways make this an enjoyable road trip country. Southern Switzerland is full of mountains covered in windy switchbacks. If that stresses you out, use the train and enjoy the view.

Where To Next?

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Study Hall: Essays On Travel, Travel U for Kids

Maps 101: Strategies and Explorations

As a modern traveler, I am constantly working at paring my luggage down to the minimum without losing the comforts of home. It’s true that no one ever says that they wished they had brought more from home! The past few years have given us quite a lot of technological solutions and I readily take advantage of them! From go pros to travel apps, the choices seem endless these days! There is one app that has me taking a step back though- digital maps.

I know, I know! How could THAT be the app I have issues with? Well, it’s not because they’ve gotten me lost. Digital maps have gotten me from point A to point B all over the world. I just miss the art of opening a map and exploring. Imagine finding your hotel on a well drawn map and tracing your fingers through the old town streets of some famous capitol discovering shops and restaurants along the way. I’ve discovered secret churches with priceless art or smaller museums that no one has mentioned in years. I miss that.

Brain Food.

More importantly, my brain misses that. Believe it or not, our brains are the very first virtual map! Each time you look at an unfolded map, it builds more geographical knowledge which, in turn, helps you have a better sense of direction and space. Unfortunately, digital map apps don’t provide this service because it’s almost impossible to see any detail of a larger area on your screen. Research has shown that digital directions actually prevent you from fully immersing yourself into a culture that you’ve just spent time, money, and effort arranging to see. I know what you’re thinking! It sounds like I’m saying, “drop the phone open the map on the Royal Mile and make sure everyone knows you are the new kid in town screaming please pick pocket me!”

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Way back when…

When we think of maps, I guess a lot of us remember those big rollaway maps in our elementary school classrooms. You know the kind, they made a whizzing sound coming down which always signaled either immense boredom or intense curiosity. It was a roll of the dice. There was something about the colors and shapes that seemed to make a young mind wonder- or maybe wander, which was certainly my case!

My love for maps extended well beyond the classroom. I loved any kind of map I could get my hands on. Globes, atlases, the tricky fold out ones, theme park maps, museum maps, the Great Adventure Safari map, the New York City mass transit map; it truly didn’t matter. And I always learned something from those maps. For example, I remember discovering that American highways actually have a grid system that helps you know where you are, the lower the highway number, I 10, for example, the further south or west you were.

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Another young discovery of mine is that all of the light posts in Central Park have a location marker on them that you can follow or use a map to plan with. I spent countless hours in the car with a Rand McNally atlas learning exits and town names and tracing red, blue and black roadways with my fingers. I admit it, I’m a map junkie.

As a teacher, my absolute favorite activity that I ever got to do was rent one of the world’s largest maps of Europe from National Geographic. My first graders and I kicked off our shoes and went exploring. We measured countries we had literature circles around England, we plotted a road trip from Germany to Italy using robots. We matched landmarks with countries. It was so much fun! Maps create a serious sense of logic out of what can seem like total chaos. They give order to our place on earth and help young minds start to see geographic connections as never before. Maps cater to both the linguist’s and mathematician’s mind set. They speak to current events and history. They restore order to nature as man interferes. Maps are the total package.

As a mom, I always seemed to be stuffing a map into my kids’ hands. Whether it was Disney or the Tokyo train system they go a map. Lead the way! My mother loves to tell a story about how my daughter, who was about 8 at the time, was able to take her to the Big Buddha while we were living in Japan. It took about 3 train transfers and you had to know how to walk through a department store to catch one of those transfers. My daughter had no problem. She totally had it down thanks to maps.

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So, take out some maps! Have a treasure hunt, plot a trip using public transportation (which is completely underused in our country) and fall in love with maps! There is no doubt that maps contribute to being globally literate.

Recently, I was walking with my mom in old town Brussels. We were just taking in the scene and window shopping. Walking along, I saw a store window that I fell in love with. And if you’ve been following our page, it might look familiar. So, are you a map junkie like me? I hope so…

What’s a map explorer to do?

I actually think that there is a better (and safer) compromise. Build your brain’s map by exploring all of those maps at home before you take off to your destination. Get a sense of where everything is, how long it takes to get from place to place? What landmarks are along the way, which neighborhoods are worth a look (and which to avoid!) Throw an atlas in the back seat of your car for your road trip.

Krakow from the air! Maps can be the key to any travel success.

Let the kids figure out the national highway numbering system. How do the exits tell you how much further it is to the state line? Take the time to get your bearings and build your map. Then, grab that phone and use it when you need to. I bet it won’t be as often as you think! And if you are not tethered to your screen in directional nervousness, you might look up. You’ll experience more of what you came looking for. A small park, a good falafel stand, a pretty lane, a talented street busker…. the small moments that turn any trip from good to great.

The Verdict.

I can’t say that I will trade in my google maps for a paper map while I’m out and about but I do think that those old school maps have a place in the travel process. Looking at maps laid out on a table does evoke a certain sense of nostalgia doesn’t it? I mean there really is an anticipated delight in finding something new as you connect your list of travel plans to their location. So, invest in the time to explore, it worked for hundreds of years and it still does today. Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!

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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Terri: USA 101

Washington D.C. 101

Washington, D.C. is part history, part culture, and part working capitol. Just as international capitals around the world like Tokyo, London, or Paris, there is so very much to see and do. Any traveler needs to accept that there is just no way to see it all in one go. So, where do you even start? I guess the same place that google maps would drop a pin: The Washington Monument.

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The Mall

Our National Mall is the epi-center of any first visit to the capitol. It encompasses most of the most famous monuments and almost all of the Smithsonian complex (more on that later). From the Lincoln Memorial to The Capitol Building, The Mall is a promenade that has something for everyone. It does not, however, have a superior array of restaurants to choose from.

Food trucks and McDonalds seem to rule the day on the mall, but, with a little bit of digging, you will find that there are a few hidden spots that may be better than a combo meal. Don’t get me wrong, some of the trucks that have a permanent permit mid-mall are really good, but you may want more than a park bench to enjoy your meal. A few options include the cafe at the sculpture garden, the restaurant in the Museum of African American Art, and, at the top of the Mall, the NoMa neighborhood by Union Station.

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Safety First!

Washington, D.C. is, first and foremost, a working city with government responsibilities to accomplish daily (no matter how much we think politics brings things to a glaring stop!) Security is an unfortunate inevitably for any potential visitor. As a result, you may need to jump through a few hoops to visit some of the biggest draws in the city. Both the White house and the Capitol both need to clear tickets through your local congressman while the US Treasury and the Pentagon both need a registered security clearance. Use our direct links throughout this article to get the most up to date information and start the clearance process.

White House

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The most famous address in the country is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Visitors can arrange to take the one way tour through the public spaces on the lower level and main level. It’s important to note that you will not be able to actually enter many of the rooms on the lower level. As you can imagine, security takes precedence on any given day. And, while, rare, the possibility of tours being cancelled at the last minute is a possibility. In my opinion the 45 minute, one-way tour is well worth it if it’s Christmas time or if you have kids that have recently learned about the actual house. Otherwise, the hassle and time might be better placed on other endeavors.

US Capitol

Home to our most prominent politicians, the nation’s business take place here. The Capitol visitor’s Center is the place you’ll meet the intern who will be assigned to you- usually by one of the 50 statues that represent each state. The tour will take you through the lower levels, the chambers of House and Senate (if available) and the grand rotunda. Each intern has seemingly gone through tour guide school and do a great job explaining history, architecture, art, and basic politics. In my opinion, if I had to choose between the White House and The Capitol Building, I’d choose this.

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Getting into the Pentagon, and Treasury both require a security screening but can be well worth your time if these topics interest you. I’d skip if you have young kids or the military or money making are not your thing.

Monuments

Name a president, any president, and I will show you a monument to them. From the Tidal Basin, to the Capital, there are tons of odes to not only presidents, but to those who we lost in war, those who helped shape our country, and those who define what it means to be American. All but one of the monuments are free.

The Washington Monument stands at the axis point of the White House and the Capitol reminding each to mind their P’s and Q’s. It requires a ticket and advance reservation if you want to go to the top. I’d skip it for other venues that give you just as good of a view without the timed reservation.

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Be sure to check in to the WWII Memorial and find your way to the poignant Vietnam Memorial that still packs quite the emotional punch. The tidal basin also holds some amazing tributes to FDR, MLK, and Jefferson. It’s where you’ll get the best view of the…

Cherry Blossoms

Each Spring, Washington gains a pink glow as trees all over the city wake up from their winter nap. The tidal basin is the premiere location for cherry blossom season and is the original home to the 3,020 trees gifted from Tokyo in 1912.

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Smithsonian

One of the largest museum complexes in the world, the Smithsonian Institute offers such a wide array of topics to explore. Eleven of the over 20 Smithsonian sites line the side of the National Mall. They include the most popular like the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Air and Space. A&S is, by far, the most crowded and has the longest security line. These days, many museums are in some sort of remodeling process and you should check the website to know exactly what to expect. No matter which ones you choose, there’s just no way to get to all of them in one go. Check out this video to see all your choices.

National Geographic Hall

One of the best small museums in the city, Nat Geo has three parts. First, enjoy the interactive, ever changing exhibit to the left. Then pass through to the secondary revolving exhibit which has plenty of art and artifacts. Lastly, pop out the back door to the permanent display of Nat Geo covers that illuminate amazing moments in history. I consider this stop the best rainy day pick possible. Get a sneak peak at what an exhibit looks like with Jane Goodall by clicking the video below.

National Holocaust Museum

If you could only do one thing in Washington, D.C., pick this. This world class museum depicts the horrible events leading up, during, and after Hitler’s maniacal final solution. This state of the art facility walks you through the difficult facts with compassion and helps young minds grasp the severity of the Holocaust in terms that they can understand. It is a must do.

Other Museums To Consider

  • National Gallery: a world class collection of art ranging from ancient sculpture to modern art. A great stroll to get out of the heat with a super cool tunnel that lights up as you go from one building to the next.
  • National Botanic Garden: in the shadow of the capitol this venue gives a visitor just the right amount of respite from the busy city. Stroll through the quiet exhibits which include model trains during the holidays.
  • Library of Congress: Our national library has more to see than just a big fancy book room. Check out exhibit on the Gutenburg Bible, Bob Hope, The Gershwins and more.
  • Supreme Court: Our country’s highest court is open to see the chambers when not in session. Little more than the room itself, law buffs will look in awe at the setting of so very much history.
  • Law Enforcement Museum: the thin blue line is honored here with major events in history and memorials to the fallen. Well worth the time as way to view contemporary issues through another lens.

Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts

Our nation’s performing arts center is a treat whether you attend a show or simply tour the 1971-built facility. Broadway caliber stars and shows are often found in house with plenty to choose from off the busy calendar. The spaces are appointed with gifts from around the world in a feat of diplomacy headed up by Jackie Kennedy. Tours are available from trained volunteers daily. Also, there is a huge kids calendar to enjoy. Be sure to check out the hilarious in house production “Shear Madness” for a little interactive theater fun.

Other theaters of note include the National Theater and Ford’s Theater. both are worth tickets to a show but I’d pass on any sort of facility tour. On the other side of the river, you’ll find…

Arlington Cemetery

Find your patriotic spirit as you visit this national icon of the fallen. Arlington is open 24/7-365. These hallowed grounds honor veterans from every American conflict from the civil war to present day military actions. The most famous resident-JFK- is also here. Most visitors make their way around the site by tram but you can hike up to points of interest like the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier or the 9-11 pentagon memorial. Arlington is a lesson in humility and pride and well worth the visit.

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You can get involved with Arlington (or any national cemetery close to you) by registering as a volunteer with Wreaths Across America. This organization lovingly places a wreath on every gravestone each holiday season. Please be mindful of stones or coins left on gravestones as they represent very recent visitors.

Venturing further away from the city center…

Washington is made up of some really great neighborhoods who are proud to show off their little slice of the capital with fin activities and seriously great food. Here are just a few…

Trapeze School

Located next to the Navy Yard in Anacostia, the NYTS gives you a thrilling two hour clinic for anyone who’d like to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Don’t worry! there are plenty of harnesses and nets to keep you and the kids safe!

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Just around the corner is the Anacostia Riverfront with tons of great restaurants and plenty to do including taking in a game or tour at Nationals Park or kayaking on the Anacostia River. Kayaking and boating on the Potomac are also options all along the river. Toward the south side of town on the river is…

Mount Vernon

George Washington’s home is open for tours in any season. The property does a great job of telling its story through animated storytellers and well thought out exhibits in the visitors center. The house itself, is interesting if sparse in that we-are-just-getting-this-country-started way. With lots of events and plenty of outbuildings to explore, Mount Vernon is a great family option and may be just the right remedy if you don’t get that perfect tour up on Pennsylvania Ave.

The town of Alexandria is just north of Mount Vernon and can be just the place for you to enjoy a little of that revolutionary era charm in addition to famous Georgetown. Expect these neighborhoods to have that feel but be full of modern shopping and eateries.

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Rock Creek Park

Answer this riddle: “Central Park is to NYC as ___ is to WDC”. Rock Creek Park on the north side of the city offers plenty for anyone who gravitates to urban outdoor settings. Home to plenty of sporting events including fun (charity/awareness) runs and locals enjoying a bit of nature, RCP is most famous for the national zoo. Pandas have been the marquee event at the zoo since the 1970’s. There is no doubt that those black and white fur balls are the star of the show. Expect the zoo to be completely walkable and doable in one afternoon. Be sure to skip the restaurants inside and opt for some of the yummy choices on the walk back to the metro.

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Also up on the north side of town are The National Cathedral and The National Basilica. Both well worth a look if not on your first visit then on your second. You’ll most likely be far more familiar with the Cathedral as it is often where senior statesmen are eulogized on TV.

Getting in, out, and around

I’m gonna keep it real: WDC is the biggest pain in the you know what when it comes to driving and parking!!! Between double the rush hour, the ever traffic filled beltway, and motorcades that often put a screeching halt to anyone who is trying to get from point A to point B. Hop on hop off buses clog up the streets and parking is an expensive nightmare. There I said it. It’s all true.

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I will, however, say that the metro system is a dream to use for any beginning traveler and will get you from one landmark to another far quicker than your own wheels. For tips on using the Metro, click the link. If you do need to drive, I highly suggest the handy app: spot hero. It will at least let you get to a guaranteed spot and will lock in a price for you. Here are some more great resources to help you inspired and planned for your big trip to the nation’s capital! Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!