photo of tower near waterfront
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.

people standing on a railway platform next to a train
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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.

tourists walking on wooden bridge near medieval tower
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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.

grizzly bear beside river and trees
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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.

man walking on train station
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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?

Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Bavaria 101: The Ultimate German Road Trip

Southern Germany is known as Bavaria. It’s iconic oompahpah and pretzels are some of the most recognizable symbols central Europe has to offer. Stunning mountains and dizzying switchbacks serve as the backdrop for fairytale castles and historic churches. Bavaria is well worth exploring and with a bit of planning can be memories in the making.

Getting Settled

While Munich serves as the prefect transfer point, digging into Bavaria can be better served by getting out of the city and into the bucolic countryside. My choice is Garmisch. This little resort town is located on the border of Germany and Austria. It connects to Munich by efficient train service and has plenty to offer in the way of lodging.

While the region is laced with rails, the reality that is Bavaria necessitates a car rental. The well maintained roads make driving a breeze and the countryside adds to the fun of the drive. From Garmisch, look for any of the sites that we mention to be no more than two hours away and most are far closer.

Military members and veterans, please take note that Garmisch offers one of four Armed Forces Resorts that dot the globe. Click here for information on Edelweiss Lodge.

aerial view of alps mountains
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Zugspitze

The fabled Zugspitze is Germany’s highest point. Straddling the Austrian-German border, it was once known for it’s mountaintop passport station before the EU and the Euro. These days, casual onlookers and outdoor enthusiasts can all enjoy the mountain as there are plenty of ways to get to the top. From a historic cog wheel train to expertly maintained hiking trails and rock climbing opportunities, Zugspitze is the mountain that caters to every kind of traveler. We took the vernicular right to the top and thoroughly enjoyed the view all the way up.

At the top, there are several moments that make the trip worth it. First, enjoy the view!! On a clear day, it is beyond beautiful. Check out all of the fun things that you can do at the lake at the bottom while you are there. Be sure to get yourself a traditional breakfast of pretzel, cheese and egg at the restaurant that serves up scenic views with it’s food.

Go ahead and walk over to the Austrian side and check out their visitor’s center while you are there. It’s kind of neat to think that this is an international border. Lastly, explore the history of the peak and find out what that gold cross is all about in the very small exhibition located on floor number two. If you are brave and skilled enough get to that highest peak, follow the path toward the outcropping to try it yourself!

Neushwanstein Castle

By far, the biggest and most popular attraction in the all of Bavaria has to be this stunning “how’d they do that?!” mountain home. It’s a huge draw and everyone else wants to be there when you are. We went on a very rainy day and, quite frankly, I think I stuck with it just because I knew that I wouldn’t make the trip again.

Truthfully, the area contains two castles: one for Ludwig the dad and one for Ludwig the mad. The interior of the less famous yellow castle is a far better tour as the entire thing is finished. Conversely, the newer Disney castle perched up high is only about one third of the way completed. in other words, the outside far outpaces the inside.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of amazing things to see especially if you are a Wagner fan like Ludwig. His best buddy inspired lots of themes throughout the castle and inspired good ole’ Walt way back in sunny California too. The best bet is to plan this stop very early as tickets sell out at lightening speed. It is best to see the yellow Hohenschwangau then make your way up by hike or bus to the drop off point. Be sure to take in the Marionbrucke Gorge and Bridge before you end with your guided tour at the upper castle.

Linderhof Castle

Known as Little Versailles, this petite country estate is an amazing example of jealousy at it’s best. Our buddy, Mad King Ludwig, was out to show that he could have a swanky place just like all of those uppity French before the revolution. He did not take the hint that all that pretentiousness would end badly.

Ettal Abbey

Holy cows- Holy beer- Holy cheese. What more can you want?! Ettal Abbey also has a distillery and a seriously packed gift shop. We loved this stop nestled in the mountains and we were totally awestruck by this amazing example of rococo architecture. It was some of the best I’ve ever seen. The little area just outside the is the perfect place to stop for lunch. It certainly is touristy but the weinerschnitzel and beer are just fine. The tiny hamlet of Ettal is the perfect morning stop for both Weiskirche and Linderhof.

Weiskirche

Weiskirche or white church is a pilgrimage site and it is widely considered the finest example of baroque architecture- ever. This church, which literally sits in the middle of nowhere, is an awe inspiring site to see. As in most historical buildings in Europe, start by looking up. The ceiling is painted with a rainbow, a chair, and a decision as to whether the judged will go to Heaven or Hell. We walked around to the side of the alter to light a candle and get a better look at the artwork in the nave. This stop is a perfect hour and has a little tourist cafe next door just to make things easier.

Munich

Here’s the deal: any major European city can offer days upon days of unbelievable sites and experiences. Cities like this can also afford any traveler a jumping off point for exploring the region around it. Munich is no exception. In fact, Munich just might be one of the best examples of it. Highlights in Munich or Munchen include world class museums, countless beer halls like the uber-touristy Brauhaus, and a Glockenspiel that ensures your wait is well worth it. I could go on and on and on. So could your guide book.

It’s The Little Things

But before I cut Munich short, let me tell you about two little moments that may pass you by. First, I totally recommend taking a bicycle tour through the old town. Whether you pedal yourself or allow one of the many guides to allow you to sit back, Munich is a fun town to see on two wheels. Be sure to include the great English Garden in your tour and check in on the lazy river and the surfers. You heard me right- surfers! End your ride at the Bierhaus and you’ve got yourself a pretty perfect afternoon.

Lastly, if you’re a little like me, the stories that are held in the walls of historic places tend to be the ones that stick with you the most. Directly on the Nuerhauser Strassa– the main promenade through the historical district- is the Burgersaalkirche. This particular church is usually not mentioned in many guide books as its larger siblings like St. Michaels usually make the grade. The draw to this particular church is not the sanctuary, although it is lovely, it’s the story that lies below in the crypt. It’s the story of Blessed Father Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit who fought with all his might against the Nazis. The crypt has been turned into an amazing homage to this brave man and explains how the Vatican honored him. This church was his Parish. This church now tells his story.

Bavarian Connections

  • Look for Bavaria to be a great jumping off point to explore:
  • Salzburg
  • Northern Swiss Cities like Zurich
  • Dachau
  • The Black Forest
  • Berlin
  • Prague
  • Vienna
Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Dublin 101: Irish Charm!

Ah, the Emerald Isle! Americans stamp their passports here more than any other country. Why? Because there is simply nothing like the charm and friendliness of Ireland. The Irish are famous for their hospitality and “come join us” attitude. It’s this amazing spirit that allows for so many opportunities to learn and enjoy. The nation’s capital, Dublin, is full of amazing sites and experiences. But, what is actually worth it? We’re here to tell you what to get to fast, what to pass on, and what to see instead. So, pull up a chair, pour yourself a drink, and let’s get to the craic!

Guiness and Jameson’s

The storehouse experience is literally the most visited tourist attraction in the country. Spoiler alert: they do not make beer here. They also do not make whiskey on Bow St. when you visit Jameson’s Distillery. I know!!!!! I’m sure the beer and whiskey enthusiasts would love it but if that is not your cup of tea, consider whether your time is worth it.

guinness glass filled with beer
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  • Verdict: Pass on Ireland’s, number one tourist draw. Instead hit up the Smithwick’s tour in Kilkenny and the Jameson’s distillery in Cork.

Book of Kells at Trinity College

The story of this illuminated manuscript is one of legends. From the age of Saints and Scholars, monks toiled over the pages to create this work of art which is now beautifully enshrined in the grand library at Trinity College. The setting is gorgeous the exhibit is first class. But if you don’t know why monks coloring pages in a bible is important, is this for you?

brown book page
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  • Verdict: Pass if it’s not your thing. Go if you are enamored by art that was created with love under such dire circumstances. Above all, know the story.

St. Patrick’s and Christ Church

Religion can be a touchy topic in Ireland. While troubles were certainly centered in Belfast for years, make no mistake, Dublin was the original epicenter of uprising. What’s this got to do with churches? Many Irish Americans go to pay their respects to their Catholic ancestors who left Erin’s green shores on coffin ships during the famine. These are not their churches. In fact, they are not Catholic churches at all! Don’t get me wrong, they are stunning. However, their architecture is easily found and centered in places like London. Is it worth your precious time?

low angle photo of blue concrete building
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  • Verdict: Pass, unless churches and their architecture are your thing. For those of you looking honor your Catholic roots, check in at Our Lady of Knock Basilica or Croagh Patrick in the west.

EPIC

Speaking of your Irish roots, so many visitors strive to understand the journey of there to here. In fact, the umber one reason people visit Ireland is to trace their roots! Dublin has heard you all and EPIC is certainly the place for you. This modern immigration museum traces the history of the Irish population throughout the world and strives to connect you to your heritage and culture.

brown brick road
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  • Verdict: A must! If you are looking for a place to start understanding your roots, this is stop number one. Leave with the name of a town in a county and set out to find your people.

The GPO

What 1776 is to Americans is what 1916 is to the Irish. It was here at the main general post office that 16 brave men started taking action towards British independence. In short, the story of a free Ireland starts here with the Easter Rising.

The Irish Declaration of Independence
  • Verdict: A must! To go here is to understand Ireland. There are no substitutes for this impactful piece of history.

Kilmainham Gaol

Once you finish at the GPO, head towards Kilmainham. The jail that housed those 16 men until they were all executed by the British authorities. The story is powerful and the building is an interesting mix of tragedy and splendor. you may even recognize some of the areas from famous movies.

hallway with window
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  • Verdict: Top of my list! If you see nothing else in Dublin, see this! History buffs, proud patriots, architecture hounds, and movie maniacs will all connect.

Temple Bar Pub Crawls

If there is one word that should be central to your travels in Ireland, it should be storytelling. And while pub crawls in the US tend to be full of uncontrollable debauchery, this is not the case in Ireland. Yes, you’ll have a drink, yes, you’ll go from pub to pub, but that’s where the similarities end. Pub crawls showcase, music, storytelling, dance, literature, history and more. They are a super fun way to get your bearings on the town and enjoy all aspects of culture.

assorted liquor bottles
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  • Verdict: Certainly! Isn’t this why you came to Ireland anyway? Find a pub crawl to match your interests. If you can think it up, it probably exists!

Dublin Castle

The castle on Dame St. is a conference center, an administrative government building and a tourist attraction. With ornate English state rooms, there is a bit to see with the required tour guides. At 700 years old, there’s no doubt the castle has tons of stories and I’m all for that!

administration architecture building castle
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  • Verdict: Pass, Ireland is full of lots of castles, is this really the one you want to see? Wait for Kilkenny Castle and Blarney Castle. Then stay the night at a private castle found in many places including Air B and B. Better yet, try out fancy schmancy Ashford Castle from the Guinness Family.

O’Connell and Grafton Streets

The two major streets of Dublin, each has quite a distinct purpose. Look towards O’Connell Street to give you a sense of history and Grafton Street to get your shop on. You are bound to wind up here for a bevy of reasons, just enjoy!

The charming streets of Dublin
  • Verdict: Sure! You’ll enjoy both in equal measure.

Croke Park and Aviva Stadium

It’s time to get your sport on! Choose a stripy scarf and join in the team spirit. It really doesn’t matter what side you root for, just enjoy the fun like a temporary local. If there is no game scheduled, take advantage of the stadium tours which wind up being far more interesting than first meets the eye.

man in blue and white striped soccer jersey playing rugby
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  • Verdict: Have some fun! Cheer along with modern Ireland.

Arlington Hotel’s Celtic Nights

Kitchy? Yup. Full of tourists? Uh-huh. So-so dinner? True. Go anyway! This is a great, old school first night stop. Get a table close to the stage so your mashed potatoes clatter in time to the dancer’s feet.

Irish musicians
  • Verdict: Yes, only if you have a sense of humor and you’re looking to unwind a little. It’s a great stop to help get rid of your jet lag. Otherwise pass for one of the more serious options above.

St. Michan’s Church

I love Irish humor. And this might have been one of the funniest stops I’ve ever made. St. Michan’s is an active church with a little bit of a skeleton in the closet. Each day, visitors can take a look down in the crypt at the amazingly preserved residents. What makes it so much fun? The guy taking you on the tour has a great Scooby-doo quality that just can’t be ignored.

low angle grayscale photo of empty brick stairs
Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com
  • Verdict: Enjoy the storytelling with no crowds then hit the pub afterwards to reflect on the surreal experience! It’s a quick stop to fit in.

Viking Boat Tour

Dublin, above all else, is a working city. With the River Liffey running through it to create north and south banks, getting out on the water may seem like a fun time. but make no mistake, the banks are not filled with charming sites or historical buildings. Instead, you get a great look at the back side of the studio space U2 use to record some music.

bridge under the blue sky
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  • Verdict: Pass. The WWII duck boats are unique but it’s not worth the time to make the splash.

Leprechaun Museum

There’s no doubt that Ireland is connected to the grumpy little fellows along with fairies and banshees. This lo tech stop will have the kids finding that ever important storytelling aspect of Irish culture. Make no mistake though, Americans link leprechauns to the Irish far more than the Irish do! (The same goes for green beer and 4 leaf clovers.)

green and brown floral ceramic vase
Photo by Lucian Petronel Potlog on Pexels.com
  • Verdict: Take the kids, pass with the teens, get a pint with the adults.

When all is said and done…

Dublin is a dynamic springboard to a country full of unbelievable things! Northern Ireland, The Wild Atlantic Way, and Southern Counties await you. Be sure to balance your time and not put all of your eggs in one Dublin basket. Enjoy with balance. Dublin can be enjoyed in about 3 to 4 days.

Use these apps to hear stories about all of the different public art throughout town. Try, also, the 1916 historical walking tour.

Art Trax

Storymap