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Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

There is something incredible about driving up to a castle, and knowing you will be staying there that night. For someone as castle-obsessed as I am, it gives me goosebumps. What if I told you that I found a castle you can stay in for 130€ a night for a family of four. Breakfast included. That’s the total, not per person. And it’s a 40-minute train journey from Amsterdam.

I know. I know!

You can get a good sense of the castle and grounds from this drone video my husband shot while we were there.

On our last visit to the Netherlands, we bounced around a lot, staying in a few hotels, and a couple nights in the StayOkay Heemskerk hostel – which is in the Assumburg Castle. There are pros and cons to staying in a hostel, and I’ll go through those too.

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.

The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.

A bit of history

The Assumburg Castle was built in the 15th century as a showpiece for the van Velsen family. At this point, castles were not necessary for defensive purposes, so this one is more on the fanciful fairy tale end of the castle spectrum, compared to the squat protection-from-cannons kind of buildings. Like most castles, it has been through several families and, consequently, several rounds of renovations. 

One of the great things about its current function as a hostel, is none of the furnishings or decorations are too fragile. The tables in the pub and restaurant rooms are big functional wood ones, and there’s just enough suits of armour and decorative swords around to make you feel like you’re in a castle. Which you are, for real. 

The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.

The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.

What you should expect staying in a hostel

Now, a hostel is not a hotel, and there are important differences. The rooms are barebones, in a sleepaway camp for kids type of barebones. The beds are all single indestructible bunkbeds, and the bathroom is very no-nonsense. There are cubbyholes for your belongings. You pick up your sheets and towels from a giant wooden wardrobe when you check in, and dump them in a giant wooden chest when checking out. No one cleans your room when you’re out. To a certain extent, I don’t mind this for a short stay because while it’s not cushy, there is literally nothing for rambunctious children to break. All the corners have been rounded off already. 

Was it noisy?

Well… I will be totally honest with you here and say yes. But not with partying 22-year-olds getting drunk. We had the misfortune of staying in the room below two different groups of traveling schoolchildren, so we had rooms full of 12-year-old boys above us. Was it loud? Oh yes. It ended around midnight though, and because I’m also a parent of an eight year old it didn’t really wind me up all that much. I was prepared for noise. If you have very small children, or a baby, this may not be the place for you. School-aged children and older will be fine, and having the run of a castle at night makes up for a lot. 

We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?

We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?

Dungeon, winding staircases, and moats

With all that said, it was pretty incredible to wander around the castle. The breakfast room has windows that look out across the moat to the formal gardens. So many of the rooms are open to hang out in on the ground floor, it makes it easy to have a bit of an adventure on a rainy morning too. There’s a tiny winding stone staircase in the corner of the bar that is terrifying, but quite fun to explore. As we were standing outside filming the drone footage for this post, a man came over for a chat, and he told us to ask the staff about the dungeon! When we did, they laughed and said to check out the fourth floor above our room. After dinner we climbed the stone staircase and on the fourth floor, there it was… a room under the eaves with a peephole in the heavy wooden door. There was a skeleton chained up in there! Hilariously no one had mentioned this beforehand. 

The prison door!

The prison door!

View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay

View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay

Eating at the castle

Breakfast featured the usual European spread of several kinds of bread, buns, butter and jam, boiled eggs, sliced cured meats, fruit, muesli, and yoghurt. There were welcome Dutch additions of excellent chocolate sprinkles and the squigy Suikerbrood (sugar bread), which my son was thoroughly in love with (of course). Everything, including the coffee machine, was serve yourself, and you were expected to scrape your plates at the end and stack them in the trays in the kitchen hatch. We chose to eat dinner at the hostel one night for 20€ for the grown-ups and half that for our son, and it was fine–an Italian buffet including two kinds of pasta and two kinds of sauce, meatballs, several salads, bread, soup, and tiramisu for dessert. We ordered wine from the bar in the next room, and brought it in to have with our dinner. After dinner, we spent the evening giggling and exploring the castle after dark. There are vending machines on the main floor if you’re desperate for a late-night snack.

StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring

StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring

Heemskerk

The hostel is located in the small town of Heemskerk, which is nice enough but not particularly interesting itself. There are a few restaurants and some shops for stocking up on snacks. It’s worth noting you’re not supposed to keep food in your room in the hostel. The castle itself is surrounded by formal gardens, which are managed separately from the hostel, so if you want to explore them, keep in mind they are open from 10am to 6pm, and in the summer until 9pm on Fridays. 

My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland

My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland

The dunes and beaches

Heemskerk is not far from the Nordhollands Duinreservaat (North Holland Dune Reserve). It’s one of the largest nature reserves in the Netherlands, and besides protecting many different plant and animal species, it’s also where drinking water for many of the surrounding regions comes from. To access the area, you need to purchase a ‘Dune Card’ which helps to fund the non-profit that takes care of this natural resource. It only costs 1.50€ for the day, or 5.50€ for a week. You can buy it online here ahead of time, or from the green vending machines in the park. To get to the beach in the reserve, you can take a train to Castricum, and then a bus straight down to Castricum aan Zee, which is next to the beach, about 35 minutes one way. 

We were heading south after leaving Heemskerk, so we visited the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland. We had lunch at Parnassia aan Zee, though the kitchen seemed a bit overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people the sunny day brought in, and we had to wait awhile for our food. It’s nicer than your average beachside concession though, this is a proper restaurant with soups, salads, burgers, cake, and coffee. There’s a lovely Greek-inspired terrace, though most of us who tried it first came in after the wind picked up. Judging by the parking and road infrastructure into this area of the park, it looks like it gets very very busy in the summer months, so if you’re here during high season be prepared. To get to this park from Heemskerk, you take a train to Haarlem and then a bus, followed by a 25-minute walk. It’s probably best to approach it by car if possible. 

Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don't you want to be staying here?!

Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don’t you want to be staying here?!

Getting to the castle hostel in Heemskerk

The hostel is a 25-minute walk from the main train station, which I’m sure you’d rather not do with luggage. Unfortunately the local bus doesn’t come very close to the castle, so you’re best bet would be to take a taxi once you arrive in Heemskerk station. If you’re driving, the parking lot is a bit of a walk from the castle, as it is surrounded by public gardens –– you won’t be able to drive up to the front door, even to unload. 

Getting to Amsterdam from Heemskerk

After the 25-minute walk to the train station in Heemskerk, there is a direct train to Amsterdam Centraal that takes about 35 minutes. There’s no need to book these kinds of regional trains in advance, the machines at the stations can be switched to English easily.  

Final thoughts

The StayOkay Heemskerk is an incredible deal for the price, but there are reasons why it is this cheap. We agreed after leaving that it was worth staying there, but one night is probably enough. Make the most of your time there and stay in for dinner so you can explore the gardens in the afternoon and the castle itself in the evening. It was fun to stay in a castle and not feel like we had to be careful of everything, or keep the noise down. If you’re traveling with a large group, this could be a great way to have a night in a real castle without breaking your budget entirely. 

Tell me what your favourite castle hotels are! You know I’ll add it to my spreadsheet…!

StayOkay Heemskerk hostel
Tolweg 9, 1967 NG Heemskerk, Netherlands +31 251 232 288

Rates range from 130€ – 150€ a night for a private room that sleeps 4, breakfast included, during high season. Triple rooms are 110€-127€. The private rooms book up fast, so book as early as possible.

 

PS – We had a great day in Amsterdam, but there were a couple of things we could have skipped

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Camping near Venice: Union Lido Review

Camping near Venice: Union Lido Review

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

When you’re thinking about visiting Italy, camping is probably not the top of your accommodation wishlist. But this is not camping in the North American sense of the word. We spent a week camping near Venice, and had air conditioning, a kitchen, and real beds. For a fraction of what it would have cost to stay in the city itself and it doesn’t involve a tent. Welcome to the concept of European camping villages. 

The view from our little mobile home at Union Lido.

The view from our little mobile home at Union Lido.

How can I camp without a tent?

Throughout France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Germany, there are these big camping resorts that offer various ways to ‘camp’ without the bare-ground sleeping, wet-tent-collapsing fun we associate with camping in North America. You can opt for a tent, but it will be a big safari-style tent with camp beds, and a camp stove. And everything is set up when you arrive. Including pillows and blankets!

That’s what makes this a viable option for families traveling from North America. And you really should consider it, because they are often much cheaper than staying in a hotel, or even an Airbnb, with the added bonus of amenities in the campgrounds themselves, and lots of space (and tolerance) for kids to play.

Waterslides at Union Lido

Waterslides at Union Lido

Union Lido is a five-star camping village in northern Italy, not far from Venice. We stayed in a three-bedroom mobile home, with air conditioning, a kitchen, dining table, two bathrooms, and a balcony built on the front with a drying rack and table and chairs. There was even a gas BBQ out front ready to use. I packed nothing that was camping specific. We went in the shoulder season of late April/early May, but paid 380€ for a five-night stay. This is not unusual if you know your dates and can book early. 

The interior of our Union Lido mobile home was very modern

The interior of our Union Lido mobile home was very modern

Union Lido itself

Union Lido is the camping resort, and you can either book through them directly, or through a tour operator like Eurocamp.

On site, there are two grocery stores, over ten restaurants, a pharmacy, and several clothing stores, a shoe store, a photo shop, and an everything-you-could-need-while-camping store. I assumed the prices on site would be 40% higher than everywhere else, but I was pleasantly surprised to find they weren’t. We did a food shopping trip both on site and at a grocery store in the next town over, and it was only about 10% less, if that. 

The main plaza at Union Lido camping village

The main plaza at Union Lido camping village

The pretty outdoor patio at one of the many restaurants.

The pretty outdoor patio at one of the many restaurants.

The real draw for families, though, are the kid-orientated activities. I thought my son’s mind was going to explode, there was so much to do. He was vibrating as we drove through the site when he saw the fenced park full of bouncy castles and a giant inflatable slide, and that was after we passed the adventure mini-golf, small-scale water flume ride, and the arcade. I’m not even mentioning the two waterparks, both with kid pools centred around a big playground structure in the water, and the collection of waterslides at the biggest one. There’s even a playground on the ocean beach that faces onto the Adriatic. There’s faced playground area as well, with more traditional playground structures, some outdoor pingpong tables, and a zipline. Like a cruise ship, there is a kids club, though we didn’t use it, so I can’t speak to how that works. 

My son scooting along the roads inside Union Lido camping village

My son scooting along the roads inside Union Lido camping village

Adventure mini golf at Union Lido

Adventure mini golf at Union Lido

Inside the camping village, it’s all very pedestrian friendly, and in fact cars are not allowed during quiet time in the afternoons. There’s even a system of minitrains that will take you from one end of the place to the other. You may laugh, but from our little mobile home to the main street of the village it was a 12-minute walk. After a long day of swimming, bouncing, and running, it’s a welcome break. 

As we went during the shoulder season, a few things were not open. There’s horseback riding and archery across the road in the nearby sports complex, a five-minute walk outside the camping village – but it wasn’t open yet. Half of the big pool complex was shut, and only three of the five waterslides were open. We barely noticed, as there was still so much to do.

Looking for another beach holiday idea? Check out Are We There Yet Kids

Lazy river at one of the pool complexes at Union Lido

Lazy river at one of the pool complexes at Union Lido

Adult sight-seeing one day, waterparks and arcades the next

This is what made what could have been a very overwhelming trip to Venice doable for us. Because we were staying in such a mellow, easy, kid-friendly place with lots of space, when we did go into busy Venice, we all had much more patience. We chose to spend two days in Venice doing walking tours and adult things, and alternated with days all about the waterparks and beach at Union Lido. It worked so well, we all came away feeling satisfied and happy. Not only that, we were able to spend more time there than we could have at a hotel. It helped that he began and ended most days playing football/soccer with the Polish kid next door in a kind of German/English hybrid. That kind of thing is priceless. 

Can you really do Eurocamp without a car?

Well, this depends massively on which site you choose. On the stuff you need front, yes definitely. The kitchen is fully stocked with utensils, plates, and cooking pots. You can request sheets and towels to be provided for a small charge, and most other bits you can pick up at the shop on site – but do check this is available where you’re staying. Each camping village will be different. However, for Union Lido, you definitely don’t need a car once you’re there. During the high season, they even run a bus service from the local airports. If you plan lots of excursions, then it might be worth it. For visiting Venice, or the islands of Burano and Murano, from Union Lido, it’s not necessary. 

My son relaxing on the boat ride back from Venice

My son relaxing on the boat ride back from Venice

Getting from Union Lido in Cavallino to Venice

The camping village itself is just outside the town of Cavallino, and you’re looking to take a waterbus from Punta Sabbioni. We chose to drive our car to Punta Sabbioni (about 12 minutes) and park there for the day, which costs about 5€ – 7€ depending on the season. We just went with a private lot along the main road, and it was fine. There is a public bus that goes straight there, with a stop directly outside the camping village.

From Punta Sabbioni, you can either take a public waterbus or a private one. The ride was 20-25 minutes for public transit ferry to St Mark’s Square, and a bit shorter for private ones, but private boats run less often. Public waterbus cost 20€ for a day ticket for adults (kids are half price) which allows you to grab the waterbus all over, including through the Grand Canal and over to Murano and Burano (which we did). You can get a 5€ return from one of the private companies, but you’re more limited on when you can come back (like that one only ran boats once an hour, and if a big tour group is boarding you might get bumped) and ends around 5pm or 6pm on some days. The public waterbuses run every 20 minutes pretty much 24 hours a day. I would say go for the public ones. 

 

We came back from our holiday satisfied and happy – my husband and I were thrilled we got to see Venice, and our son felt like he got a full-on holiday experience. This was such a hit, we’re planning to do the same thing in the Loire Valley next summer. 

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Things to do in Venice

Things to do in Venice

Like most people, Venice has always been on my must-see list. We drove down to Italy and went camping outside Venice, and chose to spend two days in Venice itself, as day trips. At the end of it, we felt like we covered a lot of what we wanted to see. You could definitely do a weekend in Venice and feel satisfied.

The canals in Venice, as lovely and dilapidated as you imagine.

The canals in Venice, as lovely and dilapidated as you imagine. And less stinky in May.

Venice in May

Venice gets very hot, and we wanted to avoid the famous stink from the canals. The weather was quite good while we were there, hovering around 24ºC, but I could tell the distinctive pong was rising. Then again, I’ve spent many years living in old damp buildings in Europe, so maybe I wasn’t even noticing it! The crowds were a bit intense around St Mark’s Square, but as soon as you get out of that district, things calm down quite a bit. If you or your kids find crowds stressful, just visit the square early in the morning, and then avoid it. A lot of the charm of Venice is just the city itself, so there’s no real reason to stay where all the people are. If you really want to avoid crowds, do not visit Venice in February or early March. Carnival is a huge spectacle in this city, and people have been traveling specifically to attend these special Venetian masked balls for hundreds of years. Our guides told us it is still the very busiest season.

The Doge's Palace is full of details. Those horses up top were stolen from Constantinople.

The Doge’s Palace is full of details. Those horses above the first arch were stolen from Constantinople.

A bit of history

It is an odd place, there’s no getting around it. In Professor Thomas F. Madden’s series of lectures A History of Venice: Queen of the Seas, he describes the city as an empty grand house, and you wander around it wondering what it was like when the people used to inhabit it. To be fair, it’s not a new phenomenon. Ever since the well-heeled did the Grand Tour (17th and 18th centuries), Venice has been mainly a tourist city. Their shipping trade never really covered from European nations figuring out how to get to India and North America on their own. 

It’s worth knowing that Venice was a republic, like a country unto itself, from 767 until Napoleon  took over in 1797. The leader of the Most Serene Republic of Venice was the Doge, sometimes translated as Duke though it was never a hereditary title, who was elected by the aristocracy of Venice. The powers of the Doge were carefully monitored and overseen by the other nobles, as each powerful family jockeyed for power with the others. The Doge’s Palace is an incredible building in Venice, and is full of secret passageways, double message slots, and creepy prison cells. Venice’s golden age was from about 1100-1600 or so, when they controlled the trade in luxury items like spices and silks coming from the East.  When Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch ships started making their own way over there, Venice quickly lost their monopoly, and their trade never quite recovered. 

Venice’s income now is entirely centred on tourism, and living in the city is incredibly expensive. If you don’t want to work in tourism, you leave, explained both of our local Venetian tour guides. 

Speaking of…

The spectacular Doge's Palace in Venice

The spectacular Doge’s Palace

Venice tours

While wandering the city is great, and well worth a couple of hours, it’s easy to miss things. I’m not normally one for tours, but in Venice it’s really worth the time and money. That being said, research your tour operator and read the reviews. I saw so many tour guides with huge groups of people, shouting at them, and getting in everyone’s way. We did two tours with The Roman Guy (which is a company, not a specific person!) and heartily recommend them. Both guides were locals, and showed a depth of love, pride, and respect for their city that I definitely did not see in other tour groups we passed (and we passed a lot of them). 

The fantastic Baroque interiors of the Doge's Palace.

The fantastic Baroque interiors of the Doge’s Palace.

Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries & Skip the Line Tour with The Roman Guy

Our guide Cristina took us back behind the scenes in the huge Doge’s Palace, where were alone with our small tour group of seven people and the official from the Palace that had to accompany us. We saw the old prison cells, offices, torture chamber, and even Casanova’s own cell… this story stuck with my son and I don’t think he will ever stop telling it with relish! We peered through secret doors, startling tourists in the other public galleries. I loved popping out of a cupboard as well, concealing the staircase we had just come down, making me look at every other large piece of furniture in a different light! A real highlight was seeing the fascinating support structure of the great hall from above. It was built like an upside ship, as that’s what most Venetian carpenters were familiar with. Long metal screws hold up

We also had the chance to cross the Bridge of Sighs ourselves, mimicking the journey from the Doge’s Palace courts to the new prison building across the canal. Having our guide there to explain the important pieces of art in the busy public galleries with a discrete earpiece was excellent value. There’s no way I would have gotten as much out of a visit there without her input. 

A view of the canal from inside the Bridge of Sighs.

A view of the canal from inside the Bridge of Sighs.

It’s worth noting that this tour would probably be too much for kids under 8. There are many stairs, and it’s not stroller friendly. If your child is easily frightened, or not into stories about prisons, then this is not a great choice. However, my son who has listened to the entire How to Train Your Dragon series on audiobook and all of the Percy Jackson books really enjoyed it, and said his favourite part was seeing the prison cells, and hearing about Casanova’s escape as well as seeing the very cells and staircases he escaped from. It is a two-and-a-half hour tour, so be prepared with sensible shoes. A huge benefit to this tour is skipping the monumental line to get into the Palace in the first place. 

How gorgeous is this first stop on our Venetian food and wine tour?

How gorgeous is this first stop on our Venetian food and wine tour?

Venice Food & Wine Tour with Gondola Ride with The Roman Guy

We had a second Venetian guide take us around the city itself for this excellent food and wine tour. We lucked out and had our guide to ourselves, which is obviously never guaranteed if you book a regular tour (though the Roman Guy does private tours as well). I must admit I was at a total loss when it came to choosing where to eat in Venice, everything is so geared towards tourists it was hard to know how to choose. Following in the wake of a local was just a terrific experience. Giuliano took us down a few little streets and then we ducked inside a small cicchetti place, and walked straight through to a beautiful little courtyard with an archway through to a canal. We were handed glasses of Prosecco, and a provided with a selection of small fried bites. Cicchetti are what you would call tapas in Spain, and there are a few different types. These little fritters featured various mashed potatoes and vegetables, as well as some pieces of ham, and were breaded and fried. With the tang of the Prosecco it was lovely. We walked for a short time, and our guide Giuliano explained how to walk down the narrow streets (single file always), and what the porters lugging deliveries around Venice shout when they want you to move (can’t remember the Venetian –– sorry! It involves ‘gamba’ and translates to something like ‘Watch your legs!’). He pointed out the toy shop near where he grew up which is now a tourist shop, though it still has a giant Daffy Duck made of LEGO in the first floor window. 

We took a public gondola across the Grand Canal to the Rialto Fish Market, which has been in the same place for 10 centuries (yes, you read that correctly), and then followed Giuliano through some twisty turns until we came to a small square. We joined a group of locals around a barrel with a tabletop, and tucked into little sandwiches made with some heavenly salami, and Venetian spritzes. Giuliano will have to bear some responsibility for my pestering of every shop here in Heidelberg for Select, the Venetian aperitivo liquor, because it is the perfect spritz in my opinion. I am completely with the Venetians on this one. It’s less sweet than Aperol, but not as dry as Campari. With the fatty salami it was just excellent. Next to us, a couple of older local men in impeccable casual suits were tucking into their own and I felt like I had properly experienced a little corner of the old Venice. Is it the best cicchetti in Venice? I’m not sure, but I’d make a beeline back to that one if we are in the city again. 

The spanking fresh seafood at the Rialto Fish Market.

The spanking fresh seafood at the Rialto Fish Market.

Sharing a small table with some locals, drinking Venetian Spritzes and eating small sandwiches full of heavenly meats.

Sharing a small table with some locals, drinking Venetian Spritzes and eating small sandwiches full of heavenly meats.

Finally, Giuliano took us to a little restaurant where he takes his own friends, and we had bruschetta (always bru-sketta, by the way) and plates of homey, wonderful carbonara, gnocchi, and pasta pomodoro, accompanied by a glass of local wine. We finished our tour at a family-run gelato stand – excellent as expected. It was such a fun way to experience several different kinds of foods, and ask a local all the questions you’ve got about why things are the way they are in Venice, and what it was like to grow up there. Anyone who has been a tour guide for 20 years will have good stories, and Giuliano said he pointed out Johnny Depp to a group of young girls when they were in a gondola… which ended with them all rushing to one side of the small boat and dumping them all in the water. My son thought this was hilarious and amazing and must have asked me about it about ten times in the following days! Again, I was impressed by the pride and respect for the city our guide showed, and I felt a little less uneasy about the toll our visit took on this beautiful yet fragile city. 

There is a lot of walking on this tour, but it’s broken up by stops to eat and drink, not all of it sitting however. Non-alcoholic drinks are no problem. I think children younger than 8 would find this tour a bit of a challenge, and very picky eaters probably won’t get much out of it, though none of the food is what I would call challenging by any means. If you’re looking for a proper gondola ride, this probably won’t satisfy you, as it’s merely a quick trip across in a public one, but it gives you a taste of it. Come hungry, you won’t be disappointed by the amount of food. Save space for the full-size plate of pasta at the end! 

Okay yes we did it, the expensive limousine gondola ride in Venice.

Okay yes we did it, the expensive limousine gondola ride in Venice.

>>Visiting Tuscany after heading to Venice? Life Unexpected has a great list of activities for you

How much is a gondola ride in Venice?

And should you fork out for it? I see this question a lot on travel forums, and the answer is… maybe. A 30-35 minute limousine gondola ride (in the fancy ones) is 80€, but they will start talking about ‘the complete tour’ once you’re in the boat which is an hour for 160€, but when we balked at that, they offered a 45-minute jaunt for 120€. But it was more like 35 minutes, so that was a bit frustrating. We decided to go for it in the end because I don’t think we’ll be back to Venice in the near future, they look so inviting, and my son really wanted to do it. Was it worth it? It’s so hard to say. It felt a bit magical to be doing it, but our gondolier was not a very good tour guide, and after having the two amazing guides in the past two days, it felt like a bit of a letdown in that department. They are very comfortable, and it’s hard not to start imagining you’re in the city during the Golden Age, heading out to some amazing costume ball… okay maybe that’s just me. If the cost is prohibitive, or would prevent you from doing a tour, I would do a tour instead for sure, and take a public traghetto (the unfancy gondolas) somewhere to get a sense of being on the boats. 

The incredible artwork by Lorenzo Quinn, titled Support.

The incredible artwork by Lorenzo Quinn, titled Support.

Do some reading beforehand

I know, it sounds like I’m assigning you course material, but with a city like Venice, you will get so much more out of it if you know a bit about the history. If history lectures like the ones I mentioned above aren’t your thing, read Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan, a story of a high-class courtesan that escapes the sack of Rome and moves to Venice in 1527. It’s a vivid portrait of the city during the Golden Age, and it will for sure fuel your gondola daydreams!

PS – Looking for a cheap place to stay near Venice? I really recommend camping – it’s super kid-friendly and will get you out of the bustle of Venice

Disclaimer: Both our tours were complimentary from The Roman Guy, but all opinions are my own. 

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Amsterdam in a Day

Amsterdam in a Day

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my work!

Can you do Amsterdam in a day? Well, no. This spring we hopped around the Netherlands exploring all sorts of things, and we ended up doing Amsterdam in a day. Obviously we could never cover everything, or even more than one museum, but it was a good first taste. We are city wanderers and history lovers, and so planned our day accordingly. There were a couple things we would not have bothered with had I known a bit more, so I’ll share what we learned.

I could stand on canal bridges and photograph houses forever.

I could stand on canal bridges and photograph houses forever.

I could have spent an entire day just photographing boats, houses, and bicycles! Definitely make time to just walk and wander, this city is full of little side streets, and side canals, that are worth exploring and experiencing. I really recommend not limiting your visit to museums and sights –– take time to for an unscheduled wander and see where you end up. 

Even when the trees are bare, Amsterdam is fun to photograph.

Even when the trees are bare, Amsterdam is fun to photograph.

Hop-on hop-off… on a boat

We always like to do a city tour when we arrive somewhere new, and because so much of Amsterdam is canals, we decided to go for the City Sightseeing Amsterdam boat and bus hop-on, hop-off tour, which worked out really well. We like these particularly with kids as it allows you to grab a place to sit and still see things while kids chill out and maybe even nap. The Amsterdam City Sightseeing folks have an app, which I highly recommend downloading ahead of time (Google Play or Apple), which shows you where the buses and boats are. It cuts down on waiting times tremendously. Tip: don’t bother with their free tour of the diamond-cutting museum, it is very boring and you are herded around in huge groups, you hardly see anything at all. The boat tour itself was quite lovely, and we enjoyed sliding through the quiet Jordaan neighbourhood the most. Do check what time they finish running and make sure you’re in the neighbourhood you want to be in –– the last boat was doing its rounds about 5pm. We just hopped on a regular tram to get back to the station, but if you want to avoid paying for more transit, keep an eye on the time. 

The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. And yes, you get to go on that ship.

The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. And yes, you get to go on that ship.

The beautiful Amsterdam, a replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship built by young people in the 1980s

The beautiful Amsterdam, a replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship built by young people in the 1980s

Climbing all over the Amsterdam at the National Maritime Museum.

Climbing all over the Amsterdam at the National Maritime Museum.

There's an amazing climbing area in the cargo hold of the Amsterdam.

There’s an amazing climbing area in the cargo hold of the Amsterdam.

The crew quarters on the replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship Amsterdam.

The crew quarters on the replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship Amsterdam.

The National Maritime Museum

You can get the full description of our visit to the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam soon, but tl;dr version: it is so cool definitely go, even if you don’t have kids. If the big restored ship in the harbour doesn’t grab your attention, know the galleries are designed well with lots of interactive pieces to explore, and story narratives to take you through the history of this sea trading nation. It doesn’t shy away from the Dutch history with slave-trading and colonialism, which I found lacking in lots of other tourist narratives around the city. You can clamber all over the Amsterdam, the incredible replica 18th-century Dutch trading ship moored outside as well, which was definitely a highlight. It’s worth noting you have to put large bags and coats in lockers downstairs before visiting the main galleries, and the ship – though you can grab your coat before you head outside to the ship. What we skipped: the NEMO Science Museum. I hear lots of cool things about it, but we had an excellent hands-on science centre in Vancouver, and incredible huge technology museum near us in Germany, so we didn’t feel compelled to go. 

The gates of the co-op playground in Amsterdam.

The gates of the co-op playground in Amsterdam.

Co-op playground in the centre of Amsterdam

Co-op playground in the centre of Amsterdam

Wandering with a goal… sort of

We walked around a section of the city and found little sidewalk playgrounds, and a wonderful co-op playground in the middle of some houses. We played in one of these in Haarlem as well, and they look like such a wonderful resource for parents with small children. It reminded me a lot of our housing co-operative in Vancouver. They are open to anyone, so definitely drop in to let your kids blow off some steam. Peering into living room windows, canal boats, and just about holding my bike envy in check, we wandered with a general direction in mind. No garden space means Amsterdammers take their container gardening to the next level, lots of front steps were surrounded by 10-15 pots of herbs, flowers, and shrubs. 

Beautiful and classic canalside scenes in Amsterdam.

Beautiful and classic canalside scenes in Amsterdam.

Super cute bottles in an Amsterdam window.

Super cute bottles in an Amsterdam window.

Floating flower market: should have skipped it

One of my goals was to visit the floating flower market. I imagined open boats with flowers spilling out everywhere… I should have checked Google Images first! It’s a row of greenhouse-shaped shops that are indeed floating, but you can barely tell if you walk along the canalside. Also, in mid-spring there isn’t much to see except bags of bulbs, and lots of tourist tat. So, if you happen to be nearby it’s worth a little look, but definitely don’t walk for ten minutes to get there! Though if we hadn’t we might not have seen the best sandwich shop sign ever.

Best sandwich shop name ever? I think so.

Best sandwich shop name ever? I think so.

Where we ate

By complete accident we ended up in Betty Blue for lunch, a quirky cafe and restaurant with a sort of Mexicanish slant. We had nachos, burritos, and a sandwich, and some excellent coffee –– fairly reasonably priced for Amsterdam. They had a great selection of cakes as well, it would have been a perfect coffee and cake pitstop as well. It’s definitely not a tourist spot. By dinner time, we slide into the back garden of Herengracht, a bit of a low-key hipster restaurant with lots of seating out front by the canal and in the back in their garden, plus a few seating areas scattered inside an old house or two. This was a bit pricier but excellent, with local craft beer and decent house wine, and great nachos (they don’t serve them much where we live in Germany, so we were taking advantage of the great cheese and going a bit nacho crazy!). My son and I split steak frites, and my husband had a burger, everything was excellent. Not geared for families in particular, but we had no trouble finding things for our eight year old. Interestingly, this seemed to be a locals place, because we heard nothing but Dutch all around us. 

Love this neon in Betty Blue.

Love this neon in Betty Blue.

A friend of ours was visiting her family in Haarlem, and canvassed her relatives for restaurant recommendations – they suggested Moeders for some classic Dutch cuisine. They were booked up unfortunately, but the menu looks amazing: rijsttafel, stamppot, and spareribs. 

Tip: if you want to eat somewhere in particular, you need to book as much in advance as you can! Several places we wanted to try were fully booked up. 

A very skinny hotel in Amsterdam.

A very skinny hotel in Amsterdam.

Hotels in Amsterdam

It’s a pricey place to stay, and there’s no way around that, but some digging on booking.com will throw up some deals.



Booking.com

However, we took the popular choice of staying in Haarlem, a short train ride away, and saved quite a bit. The Ibis Styles is a short walk from the Bloemendaal train station (one beyond Haarlem Central) and super easy with kids or without. Their breakfast is often bundled with the room rate. 

We felt like we got a good taste of this famous city, and are looking forward to coming back for a few days to really dig in. What do we need to see next time?

Fifi and HopTwo Traveling Texans
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Lingoda review: The best way to learn German?

Lingoda review: The best way to learn German?

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I’ve approached learning German in several ways, most recently using Lingoda. Lingoda is a web-based language learning program that connects you with live teachers via audio and webcam. The system is based on the CEFR language certification (A1, A2, etc) which is what most people understand when you’re explaining to schools or employers your language proficiency level. You can also receive your certificates through Lingoda, without having to pay and take a test at a local language school. They offer courses in English, German, French and Spanish. 

I will write about my own journey with language learning shortly, but the tl;dr version is I’ve gone through Duolingo in German, group classes at university in French, to private lessons here in Germany in German – so I’m familiar with many ways of learning languages. I’m finishing up my A2 in German. 

My kitchen table desk set-up, where I'm often doing my Lingoda German lessons.

My kitchen table desk set-up, where I’m often doing my Lingoda German lessons.

How does Lingoda work?

You pay a monthly fee, and receive class credits. You can choose all group classes, all private lessons, or a mix of both. I went for a mix of both. I have to say, the group classes are very small, only 4-5 people, so you won’t get lost in the mix. I personally like the chance to gather my thoughts and plan an answer when I know my turn is coming up, so four or five people in the class is perfect. The classes are based on skills, conversation, reading, and writing. You can see all the options laid out for your particular language level.

You select days and a range of times, and your options for classes pops up. You select your classes from there. What I particularly like is being able to choose a class quite late on. Say you realize you have time this evening, you can still sign up for a class. Though by the same token, cancelling requires seven days notice, so I would suggest not to book everything ahead, but book as you go. You can do the lessons in order, or just pick what interests you to start. I picked a few at random to start, and honestly wish I had stayed more with the official order as I think I was a bit over my head to begin with!

I recommend having a notebook and pen beside you to make notes as you go along in class. It helps when you know you’re going to have to answer something as you can attempt to work it out a bit first, as well as making note of something you’d like to ask about later. For my learning style, it helps cement concepts in my mind to write them down. I recommend going through the learning materials before class starts so you’re not completely new to the subject matter.

Related: Five tips for not losing your mind when you move abroad

How were the teachers?

I’ve had a few now, and I would say they are quite good. They are experienced with the system and the material, so they kept things moving ahead, but I didn’t feel rushed. The teachers are all native speakers, which is so critical to getting your pronunciation right. I felt like they didn’t gloss over mistakes, but matter of factly corrected students, but didn’t get overly hung up on sentence structure when we were trying to answer more freeform questions. That is so crucial, because it’s so important to feel like you’re making some progress with conversational language, and it’s easy for language learners to get bogged down in details. 

As with any language learning experience, you get what you put in. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you don’t understand something a teacher has said and put yourself out there a bit. Obviously it’s important to wait your turn in class, and even more so when we’re all remote, but there’s a button for raising your hand. I understand feeling embarrassed for not knowing something, I so get it. In fact, I get a cold sweat before class starts sometimes! But you will enjoy learning, and your teachers will enjoy teaching you when you go into class thinking positively about participating. They can’t help you learn if you don’t try and make mistakes! 

How do I know my language level?

If you haven’t been taking language classes, I would start at the beginning, even if you know a little bit. Speaking a new language is as much about confidence as the vocab and the grammar, so if you have a little time to get into it without being faced with new words, that can really help. You can do a level test online – I tried this language level test online and it accurately reported what level I’m at – or book a customized private class on Lingoda and a teacher can tell you. I already knew what level I was at from my previous lessons, so I didn’t need to do this. 

The view out to the balcony from my kitchen table.

What I’m often looking at while I’m doing a Lingoda German lesson.

Is Lingoda any good?

It is good. As with any language learning experience, if you put in the time you will reap the benefit, so you need to buckle down and do your classes. Being able to structure the pace of classes to my timetable has been a huge benefit to me –– particularly when I have more free time I can take a few more, and slow down when things get busy. You get the benefit of a live teacher instead of automated system like Duolingo, so your pronunciation is corrected, as well as having to think on your feet. Lingoda has a lot of the benefits I was missing from a local class, but on my random schedule. 

Is it cheap? Well relatively yes, you are benefitting from native speaker teachers in a small-class size environment, so I would say it’s quite competitively priced. I can only find local language classes that are every day all day, or one evening a week, but nothing in between. This allows to me to study at a sort of middle intensive level. Granted I hear German spoken all day everyday around me, so your mileage may vary if you’re learning a language in isolation. However, I still think this would be the best way to do it, particularly when it comes to pronunciation as you will for sure have a native speaker as a teacher, which is harder to come by when you’re learning somewhere else. It’s so critical to getting your pronunciation right to learn it correctly the first time!

Obviously every platform has its downsides, and my main issue with Lingoda is the seven day class cancellation policy. I definitely value teachers’ time, but even three days would be more realistic. Because you’re dealing with an online platform, sometimes there’s some messing around with students losing the connection to the class, or your teacher losing their connection and having to come back in. In my experience, it’s been minimally disruptive, as the teachers seem to have a good handle on the system. 

The bottom line: should you try Lingoda?

If you’re serious about learning a language, and you’re finding it difficult to find live classes that fit in your schedule, Lingoda is a great alternative. Having native speakers as teachers, and being able to take more classes when you have more time, and fewer when you have less is great for parents, working people with unreliable schedules, and freelancers. If you’re looking to pick up a language in a casual way, this will probably be more than you want, and I’d encourage you to find a once-a-week class at a local community college or try Duolingo for free for a bit. As an immigrant trying to learn the local language, it’s a life saver. 

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