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?

mini globe decor
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!”

person wearing beige sweater holding map inside vehicle
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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.

via GIPHY

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.

crop person choosing route near map
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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!

Travel U for Kids

Travel U Library: New York City

Thanks for joining us for our 10 Books in 10 Minutes Facebook Live Event! Sharing stories from around the world is an amazing gift to give any child. That includes these great books about New York City. Putting the world in a young mind’s hands is one of the best ways to create productive, understanding adults. Books like this allow readers to develop life skills like empathy, cultural understanding, and a global sense of self.

NYC at night
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TGC strives to connect travelers with quality literature and media that allows the curiosity in all of us to thrive. More importantly, the most powerful tool we have to be the best travelers we can be, regardless of our age, is gobal literacy. So, for more great reads and connections to travel and culture, click hereNote that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!

New York City Trails

Straight from the publishers of some of the best travel guides for children comes New York City Trails. This book, great for your older explorers, has over 15 walking tours themed for every interest a kid could dream up! From the Battery to the Bronx, this book covers NYC covered. The pages are designed to explore all aspects of culture and get your kids excited about visiting the city that never sleeps.

Lost in NYC

Hang on tight! We’re going to get lost to have a great adventure! Lost in NYC is a great graphic short story perfect for the reluctant tween in your travels. Follow the story in real life or on a map!

Gracias, The Thanksgiving Turkey

There’s a little boy who misses his father a lot! But his dad sends him a little reminder that he’s on his way in the form of a real live gobbler! So, what happens when you’ve got a turkey in the big city? This neighborhood sized book will fill you in.

Balloons Over Broadway

Learn the true story of how the country’s most beloved Thanksgiving parade became the amazing Thursday morning spectacular it is! Start way back in the 1920’s to find out how those giant balloons started making their way down Broadway.

Lily and Miss Liberty

When the Statue of Liberty was gifted to the United States, it had one big issue: where to put it?! During the very hard days of the early nineteenth century, many of the city’s young citizens raised money to lift Lady Liberty up on put her on the pedestal that she stands on today. This great chapter book is perfect for grade schoolers

Little Miss Liberty

What’s a green girl to do when she needs to get ready to represent a generation? Check out this charming take on how Lady Liberty grew up to become the shining light she is now. Perfect for the younger set.

At Ellis Island

What was it like to be one of the masses that passed through the most famous immigration station in history? Read this story to find out the hardships and the triumphs and how Ellis Island became the first words in new chapters for so many Americans.

Roller Coaster

What’s it like to whoosh down the clackety wooden rails of a roller coaster? If you plan on stopping at Coney Island, this is a great read for your little dare devils!

Nana In The City

When your Nana is a city girl, what can you do? Find out in this charming read about how Nanas sure do know how to have fun!

Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief

Native New Yorker, Percy, is having a difficult time at every school his mother enrolls him in. Little does he know that forces way beyond his power are at work in this incredible mesh of New York City life and the Greek Gods. Join him on one crazy journey to discover the thief! Percy’s story takes him to a few NYC landmarks that you can visit today.