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. 

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.

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

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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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Day trips from Stuttgart

Day trips from Stuttgart

As a budget airline hub, Stuttgart in southern Germany is easy to get to. Don’t just limit yourself to the town itself though – there are some incredible things to see you can manage in some easy day trips from Stuttgart. The best way to do this is with a Baden-Württemberg ticket from Deutsche Bahn:

Baden-Württemberg-Ticket


You get an all-day ticket to travel on all trains and most buses, and your own kids under 15 go free (up to 5 people in one group). Castles, palaces, gardens, half-timbered houses, and monasteries, it’s all super close to Stuttgart.

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The breathtaking Burg Hohenzollern

The breathtaking Burg Hohenzollern

Burg Hohenzollern

You’ve probably seen photos of this castle on Instagram, and for good reason. The Hohenzollern Castle is incredibly beautiful, perched on a hilltop with green fields spreading out below it. This is the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollern family, who still own and operate this castle. For castle enthusiasts, this is a relatively new one, constructed in the 1800s, but it’s gorgeous and not too busy. In spring and summer, you can get lunch from an outdoor cafe right in the castle courtyard. From Stuttgart, it’s about one hour by train, with a short local bus ride to the castle parking lot. If you are traveling on a Baden-Württemberg ticket, you get a discount on your castle entrance fee so be sure to present it.




The impressive palace at Ludwigsburg, an easy day trip from Stuttgart.

The impressive palace at Ludwigsburg, an easy day trip from Stuttgart.

Ludwigsburg Palace

Just north of Stuttgart is the impressive baroque splendour of the Residenzschloss Ludwigsburg and its surrounding gardens. Built during the 1700s, the palace and gardens were built in the French style, and served as the home of the Duke Württemberg. It’s the largest in Germany, and has survived intact through several wars. You can tour the interior rooms, and a highlight is the Baroque theatre the Duke had built in 1758 – in fact the oldest surviving castle theatre in Europe with its original stage machinery. As with most German castles and palaces, you can only see the interior rooms on a guided tour – just check with the staff when you buy your ticket when the next English language tour is leaving. If you don’t feel like a full guided tour, just wandering the gardens is incredibly impressive as well. From Stuttgart main station, Ludwigsburg is a quick 15-minute ride on the S-bahn, and a short walk from the Ludwigsburg station.

The massively picturesque town of Schwäbisch Hall makes a good day trip from Stuttgart.

The massively picturesque town of Schwäbisch Hall makes a good day trip from Stuttgart.

The Kloster Großcomburg satisfies that Rothenburg requirements without the busloads of tourists.

The Kloster Großcomburg satisfies that Rothenburg requirements without the busloads of tourists.

Schwäbisch Hall and Kloster Großcomburg

If you’re not in the mood for castles and palaces, try the half-timbered town of Schwäbisch Hall instead. Tucked into a valley around the river Kocher, this town has a surprisingly good museum, several good quality art galleries and endless picturesque corners to explore. I particularly love the covered bridges across the river. Keep an eye out for local festivals like the spring cheese festival, and the Christmas markets. Hop on a bus or take a short hike up to the monastery complex above the town, surrounded by 17th-century walls. This is a quiet spot to experience local history without busloads of tour groups piling up behind you. To get there from Stuttgart, it’s a one-hour train journey and a 20-minute bus ride.

You can organize and buy your train tickets right here, in English.

 


PS – Flying into Frankfurt instead? I have you covered: Great Day Trips from Frankfurt

Oregon Girl Around the World
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The Chocolate Museum, Cologne

The Chocolate Museum, Cologne

Cologne, or Köln in German, is famous for its cathedral, its beer, and its intense Karneval parties. High on our list for our visit also included the Chocolate Museum. I truly didn’t expect to enjoy this museum as much as I did – but it is well laid out, interesting, and fun for adults and kids.

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The Chocolate Museum is on its own little island in Cologne.

The Chocolate Museum is on its own little island in Cologne.

Chocolate Museum history

You can thank Dr Hans Imhoff for this monument to chocolate. Born in Cologne in the 1920s, Imhoff began his chocolate and sweets company after the Second World War, and bought larger and larger German chocolate companies including Stollwerck and Hildebrand. In 1993, he opened the Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum. Lindt has partnered with the museum since 2006. Imhoff’s daughter and her husband continue hold the reins of the museum today.

The museum is full of vintage chocolate tins, containers, labels and more.

The museum is full of vintage chocolate tins, containers, labels and more.

What to expect

There are a few sections to the museum: a look at the cocoa plant itself including a small greenhouse, overview of cocoa production and shipping, the process of making chocolate including a full assembly line, the Lindt Atelier where you can make your own chocolate bars, the history of chocolate consumption, and chocolate marketing through the ages. There’s also a nice restaurant on the ground floor where you can indulge in various chocolate desserts and drinks, and I think my favourite museum gift shop of all time.

The excellent snack and confectionary blogger Lindsay over at Eat, Explore, Etc suggested to head straight for the Lindt Atelier to make our chocolate bars first, as they require 45 minutes to cure. This tip was bang on, as we then took in the rest of the museum, picking up our custom bars on the way out. It’s a little way past the initial part of the museum, but use the map they hand you on the way in to make your way straight there.

Entering the chocolatey world of Lindt

Entering the chocolatey world of Lindt

Making the hard decisions about what to put in his chocolate bar.

Making the hard decisions about what to put in his chocolate bar.

Watching his chocolate bar being made at the Chocolate Museum.

Watching his chocolate bar being made at the Chocolate Museum.

Making your own chocolate bar

I’m going to be honest, this is one of the best parts of the museum. In the Lindt Atelier, you can pick up a form and choose what chocolate you would like, and what else you’d like to add. You queue up to hand over your forms, and pay about 4€ for each custom bar. After, you can watch the chocolatiers make your bar behind glass. You have to wait 45 minutes to pick up your chocolate, so now is the time to see the rest of the museum.

Cocoa plant in the wild! Okay the greenhouse.

Cocoa plant in the wild! Okay the greenhouse.

Have you seen a cocoa plant before?

I certainly hadn’t, not in real life. There is a whole museum section dedicated to the growing of cocoa, the different types, and what it looks like, but the most interesting bit for me was the little greenhouse with live cocoa plants growing there. It’s worth noting that all the information texts are written in German and English, and there are plenty of kid-friendly touching and flap-opening options.

Full chocolate factory action!

Full chocolate factory action!

Factory behind glass

As you approach the Lindt Atelier, you will find a chocolate factory behind glass panels, allowing you to see every step of the process from processing the cocoa to tempering chocolate to pouring it into molds to packaging, all by machine. It’s mesmerizing. I have always loved those ‘How Things Are Made’ shows, so seeing it live was super cool. Kids of all ages love watching the machines too. It doesn’t hurt that there is a giant, and I mean giant, chocolate fountain right there, with a friendly staff member handing out wafers dipped in warm fresh chocolate.

Obviously chocolates are delivered by stork.

Obviously chocolates are delivered by stork.

The Chocolate Museum's vintage packaging section is a dream for typeface lovers.

The Chocolate Museum’s vintage packaging section is a dream for typeface lovers.

Love this chocolate delivery bike!

Love this chocolate delivery bike!

Elephants, windmills – literally anything you can think of has been made into a chocolate box or vending machine.

Elephants, windmills – anything you can think of has been made into a chocolate box or vending machine.

The biggest Lindt ball you've ever seen?

The biggest Lindt ball you’ve ever seen?

Labels, machines, Kinder Surprise!

Upstairs there are rooms upon rooms of old chocolate advertising posters, labels, and packaging, as well as full-size vending machines used to dispense chocolate from all over Europe. There was a great interactive game that my son played with some other random children we met for half an hour up there as well. The display of every Kinder Surprise toy in a big pile was impressive to say the least. I loved the displays of old candy shops with all their drawers and jars. Less interesting for us was the history of chocolate from Central America to the present day. There is a lot to read, and my son wasn’t up for that part.

A drinking chocolate set built specifically for traveling in one's coach. Or a picnic. As you do.

A drinking chocolate set built specifically for traveling in one’s coach. Or a picnic. As you do.

I so want one of these cabinets in my house.

I so want one of these cabinets in my house.

The gift shop, oh the gift shop!

I have never enjoyed a gift shop as much as I did at the Chocolate Museum. It wasn’t just kitchsy chocolates in the shape of Cologne Cathedral (though there were some of those too), but really imaginative bars by smaller chocolate manufacturers as well as chocolate liqueurs, hot chocolate mixes of many types, cocoa nibs, raw chocolate bars, and little tins of chocolate of every description. The prices are quite reasonable for the quality. For the kids there are loads of chocolate cars, castles, keys, soccer balls, people, emoji tins and more. We are still eating our way through our haul a month and a half later! *cough* We may have gone a little crazy in there.

What to do after

After you are all sweet thinged out, a meal of savoury things is in order. There’s not much else down there, so the family-friendly Vapiano right there is your best bet. They have a kids menu which is very affordable but also quite small portions, so if you have a big eater, just get an adult portion. It’s one of these places where you order at the menu station along the wall, and then receive a buzzer that vibrates when your food is ready. It’s really best to get all children situated and then figure out the food.

The Sport and Olympic Museum in Cologne

The Sport and Olympic Museum in Cologne

The Sports and Olympics Museum is right there next to the Chocolate Museum. We didn’t visit as we were all a bit museumed out at that point, but it looks like it would be good fun with kids. You can borrow sport equipment and go play a game on the rooftop field, as well as check out sports memorabilia throughout the exhibitions. If I’m honest, we’re not really sports people, so it wasn’t our thing.

The cute Chocolate Express minitrain in Cologne that takes you from the Cologne Cathedral to the Chocolate Museum.

The cute Chocolate Express minitrain in Cologne that takes you from the Cologne Cathedral to the Chocolate Museum.

How to get to the Chocolate Museum

The easiest, and most entertaining, way to get down to the Chocolate Museum is to take the Chocolate Express mini train. It leaves from right outside the Cologne Cathedral, and you get a little tour of the city as you head down to the Museum. The tour voiceover is in English and German. You can buy a round-trip ticket, which takes you back up to the Cathedral after you’re finished down on the riverside, though check the last train times if you plan to be down there towards the end of the day. The return journey takes a different route, so it’s well worth it.

Getting to Cologne

Cologne is a short trip from Frankfurt, about an hour and a half on the ICE (intercity express) train – I have a direct booking link for you here:
Frankfurt-Köln

Looking for some other kid-friendly day trips from Frankfurt? I have you covered.

From Hamburg, Berlin and Munich, it’s a four-hour journey by train and you’d best spend a weekend exploring Cologne and Düsseldorf. You can book a train right here:




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