This fall we embarked on our first international trip as a family. Jeff, myself and our two boys, Finn (11) and Gus (8) took two weeks and headed east to visit London UK, Moneglia Italy and Paris France. Traveling has always been important to Jeff and I and we’ve done a fair bit ourselves. It’s always been a goal of ours to take our kids on at least one international family vacation before they get too old. The boys have done enough traveling in their short lives that they know what’s expected of them. They understand that there’s almost always something that goes wrong or is unexpected and you “have to be flexible!” They know they have to carry their own bags and help to be more responsible (than they normally are) for their own stuff, and they understand that traveling takes time.
We also understand that they are kids and they get burnt out too, and we planned our trip so that we would have just as much down time as we would exploration time. Gus, the younger of the two needs breaks especially. He’s only 8 after all, plus he just gets overstimulated and he needs time to reset his cute little brain – as do I!. We factored that into our trip as well. Every place we stayed at had a pool, the kids love swimming and it’s was a good space for us all to relax. We tried to have every other day be a kid centric or chill day. On the days where Gus needed to slow down, Jeff and Finn would often go out into the city for a few hours and explore. It’s okay for everyone to vacation at their own pace, and it’s important to know what everyone is expecting out of the trip before heading out on your adventure.
Here’s how our itinerary was broken down.
The kids loved England, Gus says it was his favorite place on the whole trip, but I have my suspicions that’s because England was the most similar to America, the food is familiar and he loves talking in a british accent. We started by fighting back the jetlag – we pushed ourselves to stay awake and spent the afternoon visiting the Coca-Cola London Eye. This thing is way over-sponsored, but the kids loved it. It gave us a good view of the city and the kids were able to see some historical landmarks, like Big Ben from way up in the sky. We purchased tickets in advance, which was a good call – the line was huge. Jeff and I also upgraded our tickets to involve a glass of champagne, but don’t let it fool you folks. There is not champagne on the actual ferris wheel itself. You have to go through the shit-show that is the Coca-Cola London Eye gift shop to get your beverage. We skipped it. All and all it was a fun first step into seeing a new country, and we’re glad we pushed ourselves to stay awake. Then we crashed hard.
We did a fair amount of sightseeing in London, probably the most of the whole trip. We visited the tower of London which the kids thought was pretty cool. It easily took us three hours to get through, and we even waited in line to go ride the conveyor belt to behold the crown jewels – which I liked, no one else really did though. I was actually surprised by how much our kids didn’t hate the Tower of London, Finn loved the ravens that the beefeaters tend to on the grounds.
I wanted to see one of the many historic churches, and we decided Westminster Abbey would be our destination. The building was amazing! Awe inspiring for myself, but not so much for a couple of kids. It was super reserved and quiet and that was pretty boring for a kid. I thought they’d be impressed by all the dead people they were walking on top of like Darwin’s and Isaac Newton’s, but nopers.
On one of our more chill days we ventured into hyde park and had lunch at the serpentine bar and grill. The place was nice and casual and we might have saved a few of our fries to feed to the ducks and the swans out in the park. It was the perfect way to get out and be in London without being overwhelmed by London. The kids had hot chocolate and we slowly strolled around the park.
Onward to Italy, of course our flight was cancelled – and we expected for something bad to go wrong. We were re-routed on another plane via Holland which would have us arriving in Italy a few hours later than expected with a 6 hour layover. We were all happy that we’d be getting to our destination without too much inconvenience, and we all thought we had gotten the one unexpected travel adventure out of the way. Once we arrived in Genoa, Italy it was up to us to navigate the train system. Italian trains aren’t the most intuitive modes of operation. Lots of times there will be a train sitting on a track and you just have to ask around to see if its the right train or not. After connecting to our third train we were all rejoicing because we were nearly to our villa in Italy. We reached our stop, but the train only slowed for a few seconds and then continued on before we could figure out how to open the door to get off. What we didn’t know is that you need to be ready(!) at the door of the train when the train arrives at the depot. Lucky for us, our airbnb host was very generous and he picked us up at the next train station and drove us back to Moneglia. The kids were burnt out and upset after we missed our stopped – of course they thought we were lost in the world forever. When we entered our villa they revived quickly realizing how super awesome it was.
I was excited to visit Italy but I wasn’t sure how cool it would be, I mean I knew it would be cool, but I just didn’t know how cool. Get it? I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the country was, how good it smelled, how the light was different and just how wonderful it all was. I hope I get the chance to back someday. After watching all the “‘Bourdains” about 10 times each, we knew that Italy was somewhere we wanted to visit. It couldn’t possibly as magical as Anthony Bourdain makes it though, could it? Yep, it could, easily – even with two kids in tow. We visited the region known as Cinque Terre which consists of five towns along the shore of the Ligurian sea. We stayed in a small village called Moneglia about half an hour by train from the heart of Cinque Terre. When I booked our AirBnb I didn’t have a ton of requirements. I wanted something with good reviews, and a pool. We ended up with the most beautiful villa located on the most beautiful piece of property at the top of the hill. The home had been in the family since the 30’s and the owner had put so much effort into terracing and growing beautiful plants, fruits and vegetables on the grounds. The photos on AirBnb didn’t do it justice.
The pool overlooked a view of the Ligurian coast. The moon and sun rose on one side of the mountains and set on the other. It was magic every single day.
This was meant to be the chill and relaxing part of our vacation, which it was! We stayed up late and slept-in as best as our jet-legged brains would let us. Jeff and I would venture out into the small town below on occasion and have a glass of wine or bring home a pizza. We bought a lot of fresh food from the local grocery store and cooked for ourselves, and our host let us take anything we wanted from the garden at the vill. It was amazing how Italy made us better cooks!
For a day trip we took a train into Riomaggiore, one of the Cinque Terre and we explored a hiking trail in the city. The city is located on a hill overlooking the sea, and the buildings are all painted colors of the sunset. It’s truly amazing. After our hike we had lunch on a patio along the narrow streets – it was the best meal of the trip for me. Olives, and pasta, and capers, and wine get me. We stopped at a small shop and grabbed more ingredients (and a pizza) and headed back to the villa.
On the evening of our last day we took our kids down the the beach. It was a Sunday and lots of families were finishing up their slow day enjoying the view, the waves and the breeze. Our kids are from Minnesota, so when they see water, they jump right it. They loved it. I grabbed a few marble rocks that had washed up on shore and brought them home to remind me of what an amazing time we had as a family We were sad to go, but thankful that we got to stay in such beautiful scenery.
We headed into town, and dropped off our car. A car is necessary in Italy, we made the mistake of not renting one our first day, but quickly realized it was the only way we would be making it up and down the giant hillside with groceries and kids. It was easy to park at the train stations in Moneglia and set out on our day trips from town to town.
From Italy we were headed up the French Riviera and into France via train. We took a total of two trains. One was a commuter train that went north along the coast of italy. We passed through Monaco and made it to our destination within a few short hours, Nice. Our plan was to stay at a small hotel in Nice for the night before heading to Paris the next day. Nice was nice, we didn’t stay long enough to really explore it. Jeff and Finn headed down to the coast while Gus and I recouped in the hotel room. We had the window open and the curtains blew into the room off the balcony, just like you would expect it would in France.
Taking the super high speed train from Nice to Paris was a great way to travel. We’ve traveled by Amtrak quite a few times in the US, and this was similar travel to that, just at 185mph. We rode in first class (a very inexpensive and worth-it upgrade) which gave us access to food and snacks, a table, comfy seats and a place to plug in our devices. The french countryside looked a lot like Minnesota and Wisconsin, rolling hills and small farms. Their farms were just smaller sized, and there were a lot more grape vines! I was surprised by the similarity though to the land and trees itself.
Our train station was close to the apartment we were renting in Paris. We met our host and settled into our house in the third district/ward/section. There were shops and restaurants everywhere! If only we could go sit for hours on the sidewalk of our cafe. At this point our kids were pretty much over it. They spent a lot of time playing video games and “chilling.” We got them out the door and we went on a very easy boat tour down the river Seine through the heart of Paris. From the boat tour we got a lay of the land, the kids weren’t impressed. They thought the Notre Dame fire was pretty cool though, and were asking a lot of questions about the fire. We ordered them burgers every night for dinner from uber eats! Jeff and I would sneak out for an hour or two and have something to eat on the street below our apartment. It made me want to come back without kids to get the full experience.
The kids needed some kid time, so on one of the rainier afternoons we headed out to get french sweets and visit a cat cafe. The kids were homesick for their cats, and hot cocoa and cats lifted their spirits, and gave us a reason to get out. We had pre purchased tickets to do a few touristy things like see the crypts, but we never made it, which was just fine. It was a small investment to hold our place, and it wasn’t the end of the world to miss out on the 40 bucks we spent. On our last night in Paris we made a reservation to go up the Eiffel Tower. I know, so cliche right? It was so cool though! We took the elevator up to the second level and then walked around and looked out at the city lights in every direction. At 10pm there was a light show and the entire tower lit up for a few minutes. Insane, it made us laugh it seemed very overdone. On our way down we decided to walk down the stair instead of take the elevator. We were the only ones out of the mass of people that were on the decks at the tower to take the stairs. I’m so glad we did though, it was a fun experience walking down all those stairs, and my thighs were only a little sore in the morning.
We headed back to the USA on a Friday, we landed at noon which gave us the entire weekend to recover from our trip. Super. Pro. Move.
This isn’t really a travel post with lots of tips and stuff, more of just a journal of our trip and peak into our family. I did want to share one little nugget of information. French fries, chips and sweets exist everywhere in Europe, so your kids won’t starve. We were SO worried what our picky picky eater would eat, but we could find something for him almost everywhere. We even traveled with a tiny loaf of bread, a plastic knife, and a container of nutella to make him his beloved “chocolate sandwiches.” We felt like we had hacked the system!