Rome and Vatican City

When my Dad and his fiancée booked a Mediterranean cruise out of Rome I decided to meet them out there for a couple days before they set sail. Originally we had planned to make it a long trip with stops along the Amalfi Coast, Naples , and Pompeii. Unfortunalty… the hubby was tasked for work in America- so the kids and I kept it simple by making it a Rome only trip.

We flew into Rome a day before my Dad arrived and checked into the Crown Plaza St. Peter’s. It’s a massive hotel a bit outside the city. It was comfortable, spacious, great pools and a good breakfast. I will say this isn’t a great place to stay if you want easy access to transportation. There isn’t much within walking distance and a taxi is your only option into the city center. For our needs it was perfect.

Day one we spent swimming at the pool and I took the boys out for their first Italian meal. This is all my kids really cared about- the pool. It was in the 90’s during our entire trip which is vastly different from the weather here in the U.K.   Kellan of course finds a friend immediately and ignores his family while I chase Carter all over the place. No relaxing by the pool for Mama!

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International travel + pool time= early bed time

The next day we slept in a bit and had a leisurely breakfast while we waited for the grandparents to arrive. When they showed up they were pretty jet lagged and tired so we spent the majority of day 2 at the pool and having family time. I know what those long flights can be like!

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Typically I am the planner of the family. I say where, when, how long- all of it. My husband isn’t picky and just trusts I will make our holidays fun (and naturally they are because I am the funnest ever). This trip was a first for me because my future mother in law made all the plans. It was really strange having someone else take control but she did a really great job making the most of our one full day in the city.

Rome is overwhelming. There is SO MUCH to see and do.  It’s similar to London in the sense that you can live there and probably never see it all. So much history and architecture to be seen. So much food to be tasted.

We had a group of 7 including some friends Dad and Diana were cruising with. Diana booked us a Rome in a day tour and it was perfect for fitting in a lot of must see’s in one short day.  They have all been to Rome before and obviously knew how overwhelming it is. The tour was a private air conditioned van that drove us to all the sites so that we had very minimal walking and we didn’t have to navigate ourselves. This saved so much time. It was really hot and the rumors are true- it’s not very stroller friendly. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any sidewalks at all. I did bring my stroller though and we made it work!

The first stop on our tour was the Colosseum. Yes- it’s as grand as you imagine it to be. Breathtaking. We got lucky and arrived on a day it didn’t seem to be too busy. I was expecting much worse. Nevertheless, the line was still long but Diana had booked us a private guide which ensured we passed the line. We walked around for about an hour with the guide giving us  the history of what we were seeing. Everyone should have the Colosseum on their bucket list.

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So happy to be with his Grandpa.

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The next part of our tour was a little hurried because we were already behind on time. The guide walked us around to see the Arch of Constantine, Circus Maximus (ancient stadium for chariot races), Palatine hill, Capitol Hill, and Roman forum. There is so much history and information in the area that one hour couldn’t do it justice. A pleasant surprise were all the fresh water wells to refill your water bottles. Of course my boys thought they were for playing.

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After the Roman forum we hopped in our private van and the driver took us around to see some of the residential areas in the city and stopped for pictures at a few sites including the Aventine keyhole. This is a door with the keyhole designed to give you a picturesque view of the Vatican.

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We also stopped at the Pantheon, an ancient temple that was built in dedication to the Romans gods. It’s arguably one of the best preserved buildings of its time in the world. We didn’t have enough time to tour the inside, sadly.

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Our last stop before lunch was the Trevi fountain. It’s said that if you throw in one coin, you will be assured another trip to Rome. Two coins will ensure a new romance and 3 coins ensures a new marriage. I had Kellan throw in one coin because I would love to return!

There is an article floating around the internet with pictures comparing what famous sites are thought to be like and what they are actually like. It hit the nail on the head with this one. It’s hot. It’s extremely crowded. Everyone is taking selfies and trying there best to get family photos. Police are everywhere blowing whistles at the tourists getting too close to the water. It’s not the picturesque excursion where everyone is picnicking and eating gelato by the fountain. Regardless- it’s the Trevi fountain. It’s famous for a reason.

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Is it lunchtime yet?

Our tour guide asked where we wanted to eat and we said “where you would take your family”. I’ve no idea the area or the name of the restaurant but we ended up at a great spot that seemed like it was geared towards local customers. Delicious!

After eating we had a few hours to spend at Vatican City. Not everyone may know this but it’s actually the smallest country in the world. I had done a bit of reading on what our visit would be like but nothing prepared me for what it was really like. There are no vehicles driving through and you cannot take a stroller. It felt like I was in a never ending labyrinth. It’s very overwhelming and very confusing. We actually lost a person in our group. Don’t worry, it was an adult- and yes, we found him.

Im thankful that it ended up being Carter’s nap time so I strapped him on my chest and he slept a good bit of the time. Kellan, however; did not like having to walk in the heat for so long  (cue the whining).

This is the thing about Vatican City- this is not somewhere you want to be on a time constraint. We had a very specific time and place we had to meet our driver. Being that the others had already visited years before- I said I had to see the Sistine chapel. Well, you can’t just walk directly to the chapel. You are walking though museum after museum, what seems like maze after maze in order to get to it. Not an easy task on hurried time. It was really difficult to keep focused on the fact I had to get to the Sistine chapel and pass all of these historically significant and famous displays without so much as stopping to look. But I knew if I didn’t make it to the Sistine chapel I would forever regret it.

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There is no doing the Vatican in 3 hours. A full day wouldn’t even do it justice. This is where I want to come kid free and read everything. Look at everything. No distractions. We did make it to the Sistine chapel thankfully. To enter you must be covering your knees and shoulders. I brought a large scarf to wrap myself in because there was no way I was going to spend the day wearing long pants in 90 degree heat with a toddler strapped to my body

The Sistine Chapel is the official residence of the Pope and is also the site where Pope’s are elected. This is also the location of the famous Michelangelo painted ceiling: the Last Judgement. Everyone knows this painting and it’s beautiful in person. Wish I could show off a picture but no photos and no talking allowed in here. A check off the bucket list!

After meeting back up with our driver he took us driving around the city a bit more with stops at great views. So that was a Rome in a day! Phew.

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After regrouping at the hotel a couple hours we took a taxi back into the city to walk around the Ponte Sisto area, shop and eat. This is where I had the best gelato of my life. They put this cream on top and it was just perfection.

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Our last morning in Rome we spent relaxing, hanging out at the pool and having family time. It’s always sad saying goodbye but this time we know it won’t be too long before we see them again. The wedding is in October!

I have to give my kids a lot of credit for this trip. Getting used to Daddy being away is always a rough transition but adding in a ton of traveling and that is a lot for little boys to handle. I think at this point they are so used to having to go with the flow that they are pros.

Dubrovnik

We spent 3 nights and two days in Dubrovnik which was the perfect amount of time. We got pretty lucky with clear skies, warm weather, and no cruise ships at port. I can imagine the cruise ships can make the city feel crowded. Dubrovnik now scores as one of my favorite cities we have visited in Europe. The architecture, blue water, hills, the people. Yup, I could live here.

The food did not disappoint either. Food in Croatia was surpringly some of the best we have had and reasonably priced as well. Above all- it’s family friendly. This is a place the kids can enjoy just as much as the adults.

Where we stayed

I don’t know how we snagged this amazing 2 bedroom apartment in June considering I booked fairly last minute. I can’t imagine a better location. Set just above Banje Beach with a view of the old town- we could easily walk to everything we wanted to do. The only downside is the parking was scarce so Ben had to park pretty far away. Well worth it!

Just outside the front door is the steps down the the beach. Very convenient with toddlers in tow. Banje is a small pebble beach which my kids really like because they can stand at the waters edge and throw rocks into the water for hours. Unfortunately, Carter took his rock throwing game to another level. It was like it happened in slow motion. He went on a hunt for a larger rock to throw in the water. An Italian couple were laying on their backs reading books when I noticed Carter pick up a ten pound rock, start heading for the water, and for whatever reason he stopped. He then turned and dumped it right on this ladies crotch.

She never saw it coming.

The sound she made…..

I could have crawled into a dark hole and never came out after that.

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View from our hotel

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Our apartment building

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It’s exhausting assaulting innocent people on the beach

Cable car

The cable car was about a ten minute walk from our apartment. We wanted to go at sunset so we grabbed some snacks and headed up. We were not disappointed. The view was breathtaking. I would visit Dubrovnik again just so that I could watch the sunset. On one side of the cable car there is a viewing area that has tall guard rails which makes it safer for children. Over here the cable car blocks part of your view. If you walk a bit up the other side you will be rewarded with a full unobstructed view of the sunset. We took turns walking to the cliffs edge to look over the city.

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The Old Town

As a UNESCO world heritage site, there is a lot of history here. It’s a really great place to just walk around, eat, shop, and get lost. Parts of the old town are wide and bustling with people. Or you can just choose a path and get lost among the narrow streets. There are so many restaurants to choose from and of course- gelato. I think we ate our weight in gelato. Many artists sell their work here and we picked up a beautiful canvas painting of the old city.

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Small aquarium. It took about 20 minutes to view all the exhibits. Carter screamed with joy the entire time he was so excited. Actual screaming. 

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For one meal we chose an Italian restaurant and for another we chose Mexican. As an American living in Europe it’s always hard to pass up a Mexican place when you see one. Ben and I agreed they had some of the best nachos we have ever had. Eating out in Dubrovnik with toddlers is so nice because- similar to Barcelona- you can always eat at a table on the street. My kids like to sit and people (also, cat) watch while they wait for their food. It keeps them entertained and makes life easier for us!

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While I was taking this photo Carter was sneaky and ate a candy from the barrel. A lady working there scolded him. This kid just loves to embarrass me

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The old city is the main filming location for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. I have always been a fan of the show but now having visited Winterfell (Northern Ireland) and Kings Landing- I’m an even bigger fan. There are plenty of tours you can take but I prefer to just google shooting sites and find them myself. The best location I found was the walk of atonement scene featuring Cersei. The steps are just below a church, which originally denied permission to shoot on the Jesuit steps due to nudity. Eventually permission was granted and the scene is iconic. You can also visit where Joffrey died, or visit Littlefingers brothel (actually a museum).

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Zadar

For our multi city trip in Croatia we based ourselves in a small town just south of Zadar. We only got to spend half a day there but that was really all we needed. I will say that it was probably a highlight for my kids.

The two main attractions for us was the sea organ and the greeting to the sun display. After finding free street parking we walked over to the sites which are located right next to each other. Had I known what a great swimming spot this was I would have dressed the kids in their swim gear. The water was really calm and there were plenty of kids swimming. A group of older boys were jumping from the highest point of the organ which promoted Kellan to strip down to his underwear and ask to join in. Then he remembered he is scared of sharks so he hung out in the safe zone.

The sea organ is a really neat concept but we really could barely hear it. This could be that it was a calm day. There are tubes underneath the steps that play music as the waves come in and out. I would recommend going close to sunset as that is when the greeting to the sun starts .

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Underwear- don’t care

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While waiting for the sun to set we walked around the city. We stopped at a great park that had bounce houses and a small trampoline park. While Ben watched the boys I walked next door where there were some market stalls for souvenir shopping. I scored a beautiful glass sun catcher and of course my usual Christmas ornament. I love decorating my tree with memories!

Zadar has some great architecture and beautiful churches on every street. It’s also a very walkable city with kids. It just has a great atmosphere. For dinner we wanted to find some seafood but opted to grab some fast food since we were running short on time and the boys were getting tired.

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The greeting to the sun is a circle of hundreds of solar solar modules covered by glass. After soaking up the sun all day the panals light up at night. The monument is just magical at sunset. I would go back just to watch it again. I am sure it can get very crowded here but it didn’t seem too bad for us.

Kellan of course made a friend immediately and the boys were running around and having the time of their lives. That’s one of my favorite parts about traveling with kids. No matter where we go Kellan always finds a friend. It doesn’t matter that they don’t speak the same language. They always find a common ground and quickly fall in love with each others company.

Warning- the glass can get a bit slippery as we discovered when both our kids took a fall and prompted us to leave before it was fully dark. Bloody knees do mark the beginning of summer when you are a boy.

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Krka and Plitvice National Parks

Krka National Park

Being that we had flown in at 2am that morning, we elected to only do a half day at Krka.  Everyone slept in pretty late so we had a lazy morning before heading out. We had based ourselves out of Sukosan which was about an hour north of the park. After heading down, the main goal was to find the largest series of waterfalls as that was a pretty spot for swimming. Plitvice does not allow swimming in it’s lakes so the main appeal of Krka for me was being able to swim- and luckily it was sunny and beautiful weather.

For the shortest travel distance to the swimming area we parked at the Lozovac entrance. From here we had lunch and some gelato (the first serving of many that day) before we caught the 10 minute bus to the park. Once the bus dropped us off it took about 20 minutes of downhill walking before reaching Skradinksi Falls.  Along the way there are plenty of viewing areas to take pictures and food stalls selling fruit and sweets.

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The swimming area at Skradinski is breathtakingly gorgeous but it’s not exactly easy with small children. First, it’s crowded. Second, it is very rocky, uneven, and sometimes slippery ground to get down into the water. The lake floor itself is all rocks. There are no soft spots for your feet so make sure you bring appropriate water shoes- we had not!

While it wasn’t exactly the peaceful waterfall experience I imagined it to be…it was still worth it. I would just go again with floaties and water shoes. The water was such relief from the hot sun and the views were simply amazing. Fun fact: of all the places we visited in Croatia this is where we heard the most American accents- mostly college age travellers.

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

Around ten years ago I was watching a travel channel that featured this park. Ever since it has been on my top 5 European travel destinations list. Forget every city in Europe- I would always chose hiking and waterfalls first. The challenge with Plitvice was deciding when to go. I wanted to go when the trees were green and the weather hot and sunny…but I also didn’t want to be hiking amongst the summer tourist crowd. Early June ended up being our choice and it worked out pretty nicely.

Plitvice is huge and planning this trip with toddlers was overwhelming.  This isn’t something you can do with a stroller so you have to plan for a long day of carrying your kids or allowing them to safely walk. I agonized for days which of the various routes we would take. The lower lakes are the most popular for people on one day trips but I wanted to see the upper as well. I was afraid only doing half the park would leave me with a serious case of FOMO. So we decided to hike both. That left us with the decision of taking route C or route H. Since a friend recommended H that was our winner.

After driving 1.5 hours we parked at Entrance 2. I had read pretty much everywhere to get at the park at soon as it opens. We didn’t arrive until 12 pm. This ended up working in our favor. Walking the H route- you start at the upper lakes and end at the lower lakes. Most people doing the upper lakes started much earlier in the day or people were coming from the reverse “C’ route and were walking past us rather than alongside us. We never felt like we were walking in a crowd which was nice being that it was a Saturday in June.

Another benefit of doing the H route is that it is mostly downhill…which means the C route is mostly uphill. The only negative when considering which of these routes to take is the view of the falls. On H- you walk coming from behind the falls and after you pass it it’s behind you. Taking the C route means you are always walking towards the falls and always have the view. I would still choose the H route again with the kids. Walking uphill vs. downhill when you have a child strapped to your body makes a huge difference.

The H route is supposed to take 4-6 hours but from leaving our car to getting back in it took 7 hours. We had eaten first thing before we even entered the park. Then you have to take a bus to where you start the hike so all this adds time to your day. Carter fell asleep right away so the first hour was a breeze. The upper lakes had more wooded, hilly walks. The water falls were thinner but taller.

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This kid is such a trooper
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Just a stroll through the forest with some dead weight strapped on

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The falls felt amazing because you were close enough to feel the mist 

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awake and ready to run free

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After doing the upper falls we had to wait in a long line for a boat to take us to the lower falls. This was the only time we felt crowded in the park. There were some arguments and confusion over which line was for which route/boat. There definitely could be a better system to separate the lines accordingly. After the boat ride you get dropped off at the cafe/rest area of the lower lakes. Here you can shop for souvenirs, have lunch, use the toilets and of course- eat ice cream.

For the lower lakes portion there is a lot of walking on raised plank walkways over the water. At times you are right on top of the waterfalls. We bought a backpack leash for Carter specifically for this trip because the kid knows no fear or the words stop and wait. It ended up being quite the wise purchase because once he woke from his nap he had energy to burn. It was great allowing him to be hands free and semi independent but ensuring he stayed close. Adding the dinosaur backpack only added to the appeal of the Asian tour bus groups. In some cultures it is good luck to touch blonde hair so it’s common for people from places where blonde hair and blue eyes aren’t the norm to ask to touch him, take videos and photos of him. Whenever we passed by these groups he would wag his little dinosaur tail for them to ooh and aww over. Carter hearing everyone say how cute it was really helped with him wanting to wear it. I was afraid it would be a fight but the day went very smoothly.

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I loved the forrest-y feel of the upper lakes but the lower lakes is the winner for me. It had more wow moments. Those moments where you want to pinch yourself because it’s just that beautiful. The lower lakes allowed you to be closer to shorter, wider falls. If you are doing the just the lower lakes you should choose the route that meets the falls head on. Pictures really don’t do it justice. The lower falls is also going to be the more crowded of the two in the summer. We stayed all the way to closing time and there were still plenty of people there.

This trip was one of my genuine bucket list items, regardless of having moved to the U.K.  I’m so grateful that we were able to experience the majority of the park with our boys. I had prepared myself thinking the trip was going to be challenging when it was really pretty nice with the kids.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

During our road trip down the Dalmatian Coast we decided to head into Bosnia for a night. From Zadar it took us about 3 hours to drive to the beautiful village of Mostar. It was a highlight of our trip and would recommend to anyone as a day trip from Split or Dubrovnik. I wish we would have spent even more time there.

Where we stayed

You can get a lot of bang for your buck in Bosnia. Hotel Eden is a 4 star hotel that only cost $100US for a large family room with a gorgeous view-breakfast included. We loved the hotel so much we wished we could stay longer. Not only was the view amazing but the pool also overlooked the city. I don’t think my boys ever wanted to leave the pool. Kellan continued to ask about it the rest of our trip.

Eden also has a spa which can be booked same day. It stays open late and I was able to book a one hour relaxation massage at 9:30 after the kids went to bed. I only paid $45US for this luxury and it was worth every penny. Best massage I have had in years. The staff in general were very friendly and welcoming.

Hotel Eden is a 5-10 minute walk downhill to the bridge. On the way back it is all uphill. The location is great because you get the beautiful views but are very close to everything you would want to see in Mostar.

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Mostar

Mostar is a cultural capital and its famous landmark is the Stari Most-old bridge- which was built in medieval times. Many religious and city buildings were destroyed during the Bosnian war in the 90’s, including the famous bridge. It has since been rebuilt but you can still see the effects of war being that Mostar was the most heavily destroyed city in Bosnia. After the hardships this area has faced the locals are very welcoming to tourists. We never felt unsafe here. They warmly greet those that want to respectfully visit their culture and history.

We first stopped in for some lunch with a view of the river. The food was great in Bosnia. They have a mix of Serbian, Croatian and Mediterranean dishes.  Very affordable pricing as well.

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The bridge is a foot bridge only, a bit steep and quite slick. There are men that will jump from the bridge into the Neretva river for tips. It’s been a tradition to jump from the bridge for 450 years. You can watch on the river bank, at a cafe or from the bridge itself. We wanted to cool down so we went wading around the river while we waited for a jumper.

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After eating and playing in the water we set off to do some shopping. The area surrounding the bridge is filled with cafe’s and market stalls. Some of the products I noticed were imported from Turkey and China but they also had plenty of locally crafted items. I found so many things I liked I ended up buying quite a bit- my favorite being a large decorative copper plate of the bridge. The maker told us what every symbol on the plate meant and took great pride in his work. I also found a rustic wooden painting. We always enjoy finding things to hang on our walls at home that tell a story.

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Tekija Blagaj

20 minutes drive from Mostar is a 600 year old Dervish monastery. The Dervish are Sufi Muslims that take a vow of poverty and simple living. It costs a few marks to get in and although it’s pretty much a tourist attraction nowadays it’s still a holy building and you must exercise respect when entering. Due to the need for silence inside the Dervish house, Ben and I took turns entering so that the kids could play. The women must cover their knees and heads while the men must cover their knees. You cannot wear your shoes. There was a woman offering scarves to those that came dressed inappropriately (which included me because I only brought shorts).

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Where you can dress for entrance into house

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Kellan was playing with bugs and this woman picked him up and made him wash his hands and face. Being that she did not speak English I am not sure the reasoning but she was very adamant that he needed to be cleaned. 

The Dervish house is set against a mountain on the Buna river at the base of a spring. There are restaurants that line the river and also a few gift stalls. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and had an amazing meal at one of the cafe’s with a small play area for the kids. The food was consistent with what we had in Mostar: a mixed meat dish and some trout.

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They didn’t want to eat the fish…just play with it. 

Bosnia has been one of my favorite trips because of the unique cultural experience. I love being able to educate my children on other cultures and religions. These trips are going to shape who they become as adults and I hope that includes having tolerance and a positive worldview.

 

Montenegro

While travelling around Croatia we decided to make a day trip to Kotor in Montenegro. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Dubrovnik so we set off in the morning with our plans. Unfortunately, something was going on at the border crossing and we sat in traffic forever. The line wasn’t long- it just wasn’t moving. So this resulted in cranky kids from the get go.  Once we finally crossed the border though- the drive was beautiful. Very similar to Croatia, but to get to Kotor you drive along the bay. Had we more time I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from pulling over a hundred times to take pictures and swim at the little beaches.

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When we finally arrived my kids were eager to get out of the car and Mama was hungry. I was pleased to see no cruise ships were in port which meant the city wouldn’t be too crowded. I’m imagining how packed it would be in that small city on a cruise port day-no thanks! We parked by the old town and found a fruit stand to get the boys cherries.

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Being inside the old walls felt like being in a miniature Dubrovnik. The crafts and souvenirs were similar as well as the food and friendliness of the locals. We found a great place to eat lunch that had mist fans pointed at the tables. This was a relief because it was hot. Now, 2 years ago I would have never described 83 as too hot. But after living in the mild U.K. climate your body adjusts and no longer welcomes extremes.

A symbol of Kotor is the cat and they are all over the city. Many souvenirs have cats on them and there is even a cat museum. I really wanted to go to it but I had to check myself and think about if I came all the way to Montenegro to go read up on cats. Yes, I am that cat lady. One even hopped up on Kellan’s chair and sat with us for a bit. Instantly happy and entertained kids.

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My entire plan for our day in Kotor was to hike 1400 stairs up the mountainside to the fortress of St. John. That was the whole reason I went. If you google Kotor, chances are you will immediately see pictures of the city from above- taken from St. John. I love a good view so for me it was a must do.

As we were sitting at lunch, sweating, we had a view of the top of the stairs and asked ourselves- Do we really want to do this? It was hot and there looked to be no shade up the mountain. I would have had to wear Carter and Kellan would have to walk/be carried by Ben. After going back and forth we decided we honestly just didn’t feel like it. Guess I’ll never know how beautiful those views are in person.

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After walking around the city, doing some shopping and gelato consuming, we opted to head to a little park with a beach. The park had trampolines, bounce castles and plenty of space for the boys to run around happily in the shade. We had it all to ourselves. Carter even got a little pigeon chasing action in which is his all time favorite activity (after eating gelato). I am really glad we made the change in plans because when they are happy- everyone is happy.

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The pebble beach was right across from the old city on the bay and barely anyone was there. It seemed much cooler on the water. After having a swim and throwing some rocks we hit the road back to Croatia, worried that there would be more border crossing issues. We had a small wait but nothing compared to our outbound trip.

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Stonehenge & Plymouth

For a long weekend we decided to take a road trip down to southwest England. Ben has some family in the Plymouth area so it was due time we made our way to that part of the country. I can’t believe it took us so long because it’s gorgeous down there. I’m even more excited now to visit Cornwall a little father west of county Devon.

The trip was supposed to be about 5 hours so to help break up the ride we stopped into Stonehenge. It’s one of those bucket list items every tourist has to see. Now that I have seen it I don’t feel the need to ever go back. But you have to do it at least once. It was a good way to let the boys stretch their legs and get some snacks at the visitor center cafe. Walking the stone circles itself takes no more than an hour including the bus ride from visitor center to the site.

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Once we arrived into county Devon the English landscape changes from flat to rolling green hills. It’s a beautiful area with so much to see. We stayed at an Airbnb in the little village of Yealmpton which was a close base to family, the city, and beaches. We spent most of the weekend visiting with family and they were great hosts; showing us all their favorite sites.

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Mothecombe Beach

This is a beautiful, unspoiled, sandy beach surrounded by cliffs. It was a few pounds to park and then a 10 minute walk down to the beach. On the morning that we went it was still pretty chilly in the upper 50’s. The wind was also pretty strong but there were still people swimming. Those people are crazy. Thankfully, my boys were satisfied with running around and throwing rocks. It reminded me very much of some of the beaches we have been to in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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Jennycliff

We ate lunch at Jennycliff cafe which overlooks the bay across from Plymouth. This stretch of cliffs is a great place to walk and view the sailboats. There are a series of beaches below as well. Great place to sit and eat ice cream while people watching.

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Mount Batten

Just down the road from the cafe is a peninsula you can walk around to view the bay the city. You can also park here and catch a ferry into the city to avoid driving downtown. This is the scene where Carter decided to take a tumble and bust his face. So our time here was cut short.

Wembury Marine Center

One of my favorite activities in Devon was this beautiful pebble beach in Wembury. There is a car park right by the beach but our hosts had us park in a nearby neighborhood so we could take the scenic walk down to the beach. Perks to knowing the locals!

Something I really admire about many beaches in Ireland and the U.K. is how natural they keep the surrounding areas. A beach like this in America would be covered in high-rise hotels and beach homes. Instead, the scenery at the beach in Wembury included an old stone church and fields of grazing sheep and horses. The area is primarily used for wildlife conservation.

This is a great little beach for small childen because of the rock pools that form on the beach. My boys really enjoyed looking at all the rocks and playing in the water without actually having to go into the ocean. I would really like to come back here with more time. Alas, we had dinner reservations and my husband will tell you I’m worse than a toddler when I’m hangry.

 

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The Odd Wheel Pub

This family friendly pub was so nice we decided to eat there two nights in a row. They have a playground for the kiddos and even allow dogs inside the dining area. At one point there were about 7 sweet dogs sitting behind me as I ate my meal. So nice to eat somewhere this relaxed where the food is actually very good. It has a great community feel to it. The people in general down in Devon were just very relaxed and friendly.

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Plymouth

Plymouth is a small, walkable city that is rich in history. We got to see where the famous Mayflower set sail in 1620.  I’m from eastern Virginia. Learning about America’s beginnings starts young there since it’s also an area rich in history. Funny to be on this side of the history/globe now.

We spent the morning walking around the city and around Plymouth hoe. The boys even recreated a famous shot of the Beatles from the 60’s. Molds of copper were made of how each bandmate sat in the photograph. One day Kellan will look back and appreciate this (I hope)!

We also spent a few hours in the aquarium where the boys had a blast. Carter is really getting into marinelife. He gets very excited and will run at full speed between displays. It was after this trip that I decided this boy needed a leash. I finally bought one. Worth every penny.

 

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Dartmoor National Park

As we headed home we stopped into Dartmoor which is just north of Plymouth. It’s huge and you could spend days exploring just this park. Being limited on time we focused on an area on the eastern border which has the largest waterfall in England. Again, it was hard to belive we were still in England since the area we live in is so flat. I call Suffolk the Iowa of England. Different worlds.

There was a large cafe, playgrounds and plenty of walking trails. We stuck to the main trail which was about a one hour loop up to the top of the waterfall and back down. I’m glad we stopped here as it was a pleasant surprise. The views from the top were incredible. I would love to see what else Dartmoor has to offer.

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The Netherlands

I have been saving visiting the Netherlands for when the tulips at Keukenhof were in full bloom. After pricing out our trip we realized it was going to be a very expensive weekend. Since my husband wasn’t all that excited to go see a bunch of flowers, I decided to take my oldest boy on a special trip- just the two of us!

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We flew to Schiphol on a Friday night and took a shuttle to an airport hotel ten minutes away. The airport is a great base location between the gardens and the city. From there you can take a train or bus anywhere you need to go. The Steigenberger Airport Hotel was a great choice. Good food, amenities and most importantly for me – comfortable beds. By the time we checked in and got into our room it was 1 a.m. with the time change so we got a late start the next day.

We took a train from the airport into Amsterdam central. I didn’t really have much of an agenda aside from walking around and seeing where the day led us. One thing I knew I wanted to do was spoil Kellan. We never get quality one on one time these days. So of course the first toy store we saw I let him pick out a couple hot wheels and a superman backpack to carry his new treasures from the trip.

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We walked around the canals, did some window shopping and came upon a carnival with a ferris wheel. I hate ferris wheels but my kiddo wanted to go so I couldn’t say no. I am fine on them when we are moving but the stopping and swaying is what scares me. At a couple points I was in full blown panic mode and this sweet kid was right there by my side telling me that everything was ok and that he would be brave for me. My 3 year old rocks, y’all.

 

After a couple rides and games we made our way down to nine streets for some lunch. This is an area of the city with great shopping, food and scenery. This is where you will get all the pretty canal shots atop bridges. There are bicycles everywhere houseboats all over the canals. Fun fact: in Amsterdam they don’t use curtains or shut their blinds. This would imply you have something to hide. So even at night you can look into a street level home and see everything! I have American neighbors that don’t even open their blinds during the daytime.

For lunch we found a cute place that served Dutch pancakes. They were amazing. I would describe them as a cross between an American pancake and a crepe. Ham and cheese. Delish.

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Being a very busy weekend in Holland due to the flower parade, I had tried for weeks to get tickets to the Anne Frank House. It was my one must do for the city. Sadly, we couldn’t get tickets. However, at 3:30 you can queue outside and they will allow non tickets holders to enter for the last hour they are open. When we got to the museum I was shocked to see that the line was so long it wrapped around the block and I never did find the end of the line. There was no way we were getting in.

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It was a little upsetting to not get to see the Anne Frank House but I decided to let Kellan decide what we would do instead. He picked the zoo so we took off in a taxi to spend an hour there before it closed. Kellan was happy so that made mama happy! It was a nice little zoo just outside the city center. It deserved a couple more hours but I asked Kellan what animals he wanted to see the most so we headed straight to those.

 

Our next activity was a pizza canal cruise we had pre booked. It was a 90 minute cruise that served us pizza, ice cream, soda and beer. Apparently the boat did not want to waste an entire booth on just me and my son so they awkwardly sat us with a Canadian man that was in Amsterdam on business. Here I was trying to have a special dinner with Kellan and instead I had to sit directly across and eat dinner with a strange man. It looked like we were a family and it was weird. I felt it, I know he felt it- but who didn’t feel it? Kellan. My little social butterfly. Whom proceeded to talk this guys ear off for 90 whole minutes. Weeks later and Kellan can still tell you this guys name, where he was from and the ages of his children.

Aside from that…I would still recommend the cruise to others. The pizza was amazing. They stop on the canal about 30 minutes in to pick it up fresh from a pizza place. Mama got to have a couple beers and the scenery was great. We left happy.

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On day 2 of our trip the plan was to check out of our hotel, rent a locker at the airport to store my luggage, take a bus to Keukenhof and then return to the aiport and fly home. That’s what was supposed to happen.

The first thing that went wrong was we overslept. I’ve never been in a quieter hotel with more comfortable beds. I’m not used to just sleeping until I want. So as soon as I realized the time I had to rush Kellan awake and run out the door as quickly as possible. We took exactly 5 minutes to eat at the hotel while waiting for the shuttle to arrive. Once at the aiport all of the lockers where already full. Great. So now I have to take the suitcase to Keukenhof. We head out to the bus for the gardens and discover the line was a mile long. My heart sunk because I knew if we waited in the line we wouldn’t make it back in time to catch our flight. Keukenhof was the entire basis of our trip. It was why we came. I had to make a choice. One that put me straight on Santa’s naughty list. I created a diversion and I cut the line.

Even though I was now much further  ahead than I would have been, the line was still moving slowly. They were asking for people willing to forego a seat and stand the 25 minute ride to the gardens so I decided we had no other choice. So instead of looking out the window and viewing the beautiful countryside, we were crammed like sardines against the other people standing.

Once we arrived at the gardens I knew we have about 60-90 minutes before we had to head back to the airport. Most people go for around 5-6 hours so I already knew we were going to miss out on a lot. It was very crowded. If I had the chance to go again I would not go on the weekend of the flower parade. You could barely walk there were so many people. Nevertheless, we enjoyed what we did get to see and it was absolutely beautiful. We walked around, snapped pictures and stopped to get some cotton candy for Kellan (where we ran into none other than Canada man).

Kellan was about two bites into his treat when all the sudden out of nowhere it started to hail. Large, fierce, pelt-you-in-the-face hail. It was complete chaos. Thousands of people running to take cover. I am carrying a backpack and a rolling suitcase and trying to run with my toddler. He falls and is instantly soaked. He is screaming in misery because his cotton candy is destroyed. It was a scene. You would have thought his leg was broken. By the time we reached an overhang it was so crowded and we couldn’t get any more wet so I just decided to keep running and get to the bus.

On the bus I had to strip Kellan out of his wet clothes and put on his dirty clothes from the day before. Unfortunately that didn’t help the fact that his shoes were soaked through. I felt so bad for him knowing he was going to have to wear those the rest of the day.  At least on the drive back to the airport we were in good spirits and able to laugh about our misfortune. He still talks about that lost cotton candy though.

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Once we got to the airport I discovered I had booked the wrong return flight. We ended up not leaving until the next day. So all of that panicking and rushing ended up being for nothing! This will definitely go down as one of my biggest travel blunders of all time. Thankfully, I have a really understanding husband. He was actually back home in the emergency room because our friends boy he was watching fell and broke his arm. It was quite the eventful weekend. But I got to have a little bit more quality time with my handsome kiddo. We spent our last day at the hotel. Eating, playing in the arcade and just cuddling and watching movies.

 

Northern Ireland

We loved Ireland so much that I already knew we would love Northern Ireland.  Something about that island feels magical. I desperately needed an outdoorsy trip because sometimes city trips can be stressful on the kids. They are always having to be strapped into a stroller or not allowed to run free. We deal with more tantrums and meltdowns.

Northern Ireland is the place to take your kids. We didn’t have one incident because the boys were happy to run around and explore. We also lucked out (again…Ireland loves me) with the weather. 50’s and mostly sunny the entire trip! People keep saying how rainy this island is but we have yet to experience it. Luck of the very distant Irish I guess! did I mention that the Irish are so nice and friendly? We had great, genuine conversations with strangers and everyone was very social with the boys. I never felt like I was being treated like a tourist.

Portrush

Portush is the cutest little village on the northern coastline. I highly recommend staying at the Portrush Atlantic Hotel. Its within walking distance of anything you would want to see in the village and it is right across the street from the ocean. Unfortunately, being the winter and off season there was a deserted feeling. Not many gift shops were open and the restaurants had more limited hours. I would still stay here again being that its the perfect location to hop on Dunluce and Causeway roads. These are the  scenic coastal highways that will lead you to the top sites on the coastline. Eat at the Ramore- family friendly atmosphere and the food was divine. The food at the hotel was pretty good too.

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White Rock Beach

This is a beach a few minutes drive from Portrush and worthy of at least a couple hours. We put on our boots and ran around the beach, hiked along the cliffs and even had some ice cream (even though it was upper 40’s). The beach is my happy place and I have certainly passed the gene to my children. No old buildings or city landscape will ever impress me as much as some cliffs and the beach. The beach reminded me of a cross between the cliffs of Dover in England and the cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

 

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Giants Causeway

An ancient volcano erupted which created the 40, 000 rock columns at Giant’s Causeway. It’s a World Heritage site and entry is free with a National Trust membership. I want to say it was a highlight of our trip but really can’t since we loved everything about our holiday in Northern Ireland. One thing I know is you can’t come all this way and miss it.

Parking is at the visitor center which has bathrooms, a great gift shop and small cafe. You can elect to take the bus to and from the visitor center down to the site but I would advise you walk down and take the bus back up since its uphill. The walk down was beautiful and we stopped to take pictures and enjoy the beauty.

The boys loved this excursion because they love rocks and stepping from stone to stone. Some areas were a bit slippery so we had to make them hold our hands near the water. Someone tried to be a little too independent and got wet but he didn’t even care because there was too much fun to be had.

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20 minutes walk down

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This is why I love Northern Ireland 

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Carrick-a-Rede

Also along the causeway route is rope bride that connects the mainland to a tiny island. Fisherman used to use bridges to access the island for salmon but it is now used as a tourist attraction. It is free with a National Trust membership. I honestly cant advise how long the walk is from the car park to the bridge but I think it took us about an hour because nap time happened. Carter decided to fall asleep in the baby carrier so we took our time on the walk and stopped a lot to admire the scenery. It was absolutely gorgeous. We lucked out with sunny, warm skies and a fairly small crowd. When the little one is sleeping is when I get my best site seeing in. I love being able to just stop and enjoy the moment. That’s a luxury when you have two rambunctious toddlers.

I was fairly certain there was a possibility I would chicken out once we arrived at Carrick-a-Rede but up until that morning I was prepared to do it. Once we arrived I realized from the starting point of the stairs you cannot actually see the beginning of the bridge. It was hard to judge how far the bridge was above the water. Children can only cross if they are able to use both hands so you would need to wear a child that isn’t old enough. Carter was sleeping in the carrier so I had no excuse other than I was scared. I told Ben and Kellan to go first and that was probably a bad idea because I was able to see and hear Ben go into full paranoia mode on Kellan as they were crossing. “Kellan! Use both hands! Kellan! Slow down!” So I knew it was scary. When they made it back the crowd cheered and high fived Kellan and he was so proud of himself. He asked me to go again so that was all I needed to chicken out and I let him take my ticket. 5 years ago I would have been first in line but lately heights have become a real fear!

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Being brave is tiring

Dunluce Castle

Another must see along the northern coastline is Dunluce castle. The 13th century ruins are set on a cliff with beautiful views. The history is rich here with ties to many battles, vikings, Scottish clansman and royals. The boys made sure to bring in their swords in case we saw a dragon. That’s our way of making castles fun and exciting since we visit so many. The entire grounds had a great Princess Bride feel- like being in a movie.

Below the castle is a small rocky beach. There is no path granting access but we took our chances with the kids and made the steep climb down via our own path. There we got to view the castle from below while the boys had a blast playing with all the rocks. We had the beach all to ourselves and it was fun pretending it was our own corner of the world for the afternoon.

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The Dark Hedges

A lot of this post contains filming locations from the HBO show Game of Thrones. If you watch it, you may recognize some of these locations. I’ll be heading to more filming sites in Croatia soon so stay tuned for that. If you have never heard of GoT then these places are still major tourist attractions in the country. The dark hedges is the only location I went to that served no purpose in my going there -other than it being a Game of Thrones site.

Due to the popularity of the show the dark hedges has become a pit stop for basically any tour bus travelling from Belfast to the northern coast. We stopped in on our way from the airport mid afternoon and the road was filled with people taking pictures. This was a weekday in the winter. I can imagine the summertime is very busy. I said “no thanks” and we decided to come back first thing in the morning on the way to Belfast. We got to be the only people on the road.

The beech trees were planted in the 18th century and have a very mystical feel. The street is featured as the King’s road to Winterfell. Fan of the show or not- its still worth it to swing by. Beautiful

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Inch Abbey

On the southeastern coast we visited Inch Abbey on our way to Tollymore Forrest. Its ruins date back to the year 800. Across the river from the abbey you can see Down Cathedral- the burial site of St. Patrick. Inch abbey also serves as a filming location for Game of Thrones. Scenes include Robb Stark and his army after taking Jamie Lannister prisoner. We spent about 30 minutes here letting the boys run around and of course- fight dragons.

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Down Cathedral-burial site of St Patrick

 

Castle Ward 

Castle Ward is a sprawling 18th century estate near Strangford. It’s a National Trust site with a playground, cafe and lots of walking. Since we were short on time we opted to just see the Game of Thrones shooting locations and didn’t actually tour Castle Ward itself. The farmyard and tower house of the estate is featured as house Winterfell and a few other areas of the estate are featured for other scenes. We had a great time walking around and fortunate enough to have the place to ourselves. I can imagine it being a busy place when tour buses arrive since tours come here for the “Winterfell” experience complete with archery lessons.

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looking for trolls

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Tollymore Forest Park

Tollymore is about an hour and half south of Belfast and is now one of my favorite places on Earth. We stopped into the most picturesque coastal town of Newcastle where we had an amazing lunch before spending our afternoon hiking. You could really spend a whole day here so pack a lunch if you plan to do so. There are several routes you can take ranging from 0.7 km to 9 km. We opted to take the red “river route” which was 5.2 kilometers. We basically had the forest to ourselves and it was a gorgeous day. You will also see Game of Thrones tour buses here since scenes such as the dire wolf pups were shot in the park.

Our route went along a small river and we stopped often to let the boys throw rocks into the water and play. There are so many beautiful spots on this path of old bridges, stepping stones, a hermitage and waterfall. It was so gorgeous I kept thinking to myself if it was this pretty in the winter…I can’t imagine what it would look like in the spring or early fall.  The boys had the most fun and after our hike we sat on a bench and enjoyed getting to know a local couple and their dog.

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Belfast

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the city since we came to Northern Ireland for the great outdoors. We did spend an evening walking around, eating at a Mexican restaurant and shopping for souvenirs. It is a smaller city and a good base for day trips elsewhere. The museums were fabulous:

W5

Hands down- the best children’s museum I have ever been to. They put a great emphasis on sensory seeking, eccentric, fun. The entire time we were there I was dreaming of having a place like this closer to where I live in England. It’s just perfect for two toddler boys looking to have a good time.

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The Titanic Experience

While not exactly a fun time for the kids in comparison to the W5; they did seem to enjoy a few of the displays. They have a small ride like attraction, a projection room with ship blueprints on the floor, and an IMAX screen showing wreckage of the titanic under the sea. Kellan was surprisingly in tune with how serious the sinking was, seemed very concerned and asked a lot of questions. I would love to come back without children and read every display top to bottom.

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Barcelona

Barcelona…where do I begin? It was the dream trip for a family with toddlers. An easy, breezy, long weekend. It has been on my to do list and when I saw tickets come up for $35 a person I jumped on that deal. Perfect place to celebrate reaching 20 countries of travel.

The airport is about 25 minutes outside of the city and it was really easy catching the Aerobus to the city center. I love trips where we don’t have to take car seats. Sometimes we like to go crazy; exploring, renting a car, the whole shebang. Other times I just want simple. Simple is good with toddlers.

From there we took a taxi to our Airbnb. It was a really amazing place in a quiet area of the city. In retrospect, I would have stayed a bit closer to La Rambla-the main strip. Being the low season I probably should have disregarded all the reviews about no AC, open windows, and street noise in the touristy areas of the city. We ended up having to do a lot more walking and public transportation due to our location.

Barcelona is huge and very spread out. This is not a place you can walk to all the sights. The hop on hop off bus alone takes 2 hours to complete a loop. And that is just one itinerary. The HOHO has two different lines for different areas of the city. That’s how much there is to explore here! You can spend over 4 hours on a bus and not ever get off on a stop. I highly recommend the HOHO with kids. We purchased the two day pass in advance.

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Double decker bus

Why I loved Barcelona

Kid friendly, kid friendly, kid friendly. Seriously. Public transportation is easy, the streets are stroller friendly, there are playgrounds all over the place, and most importantly…kid friendly restaurants. So many times we travel and eat fast food because the places we really want to eat are not suited for the littlest honey badger. He is not a great eater. He does not want to go to a restaurant and sit quietly while everyone else eats a meal. He wants to grab a banana from that fruit stand and go about his way.

Barcelona is filled with outdoor dining. Even in January it was around 50 and sunny so eating outside was enjoyable. My kids could people watch, bird watch, get up and stretch their legs if they wanted to. All without us having to sacrifice the quality of our meal. And we ate goooood. I had some of the best food I’ve had in Europe. The seafood was amazing. The tapas! We didn’t have to worry about what Carter was going to eat since practically every other store there had a fresh fruit stand we could grab something and take with us.

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Did I mention the Sangria?

Geography-wise…Barcelona checks all the boxes for me. I am from Virginia where the ocean is not far from the mountains. I like having the best of both worlds. Barcelona is a beautiful city right on the ocean, rolling hills on its backside and in the distance we could see snow capped mountains. Palm trees in one direction and mountains in the other? Yes, I could live there.

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Where I plan to store my future boat

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Sagrada Familia

You can’t come to Barcelona without seeing this beautiful church. It was designed by Gaudi, as many buildings in Barcelona were. Work on this church began 130 years ago and it will finally be completed in about 10 years. The area outside the church has street performers, a playground and food so you can spend a good bit of time here. We didn’t get to tour the towers as my children were too small but what we did get to see was breathtaking. I have never seen anything like it.

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Parc Guell

At the base of the mountain range there is a really great park with great views. Its a good 15 minute walk uphill from the HOHO bus stop so wear your walking shoes. Lots of great cafes and art stores in the area. The park itself has a playground and there is also a Gaudi museum there which you must pay to enter. There is a beautiful terrace with tiled mosaic and salamander statues. Even in the off season this park was busy. Get tickets ahead of time! This was where my boys felt the need to run wild and free so my pictures are lacking.

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The museum

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Barcelona Aquarium

Expensive but well worth it. This is a going to make the kiddos happy. My boys love sea life and there are plenty of interactive displays and areas for them to run around and play. There is also a cafe and excellent gift shop where your kids will beg for toys. It’s located at the Port Vell bus stop and there is a large mall and outdoor dining on the water right next door.

Placa de Catalunya and La Rambla

This plaza and street are the hub of the city. You can walk around, shop, and eat all day. Make sure you go down the little side streets! My kids spent a good amount of time chasing pigeons in the plaza. Plenty of photographers focused on Carter because there is nothing more joyful than watching him chase pigeons. The kid has great facial expressions.

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Parc de la Ciutadella

This is another great park to walk around. There are playgrounds, ponds with wildlife and a zoo inside the park. The zoo was pretty pricey so we skipped that having already done the aquarium. The highlight of this park is the Casacada Monumental. It has a beautiful waterfall fountain and golden statues. The stairs of this monument is where one of my children decided to have an epic 10 minute meltdown. It was so bad that I said “Bye, Felicia” and walked away leaving him there. Thankfully my method worked and he came screaming after me scared that I was really leaving him. It’s not a real family vacation until at least one toddler gets overtired.

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Boqueria Market

We went on a weekday in the winter so I cannot imagine how crowded this market can really get. But it’s a must while in Barcelona. It’s right off La Rambla and has amazing fresh food. We had already eaten dinner when we visited so we bought some macaroons, unique chocolates and people watched.

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This is everything that Carter loves

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One of everything, please!

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More pictures from around the city

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Camp Nou soccer stadium

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Battlo house
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Battlo house

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Casa Pedrera

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