When you think “family-friendly European vacation,” Düsseldorf, Germany, likely isn’t at the top of most travelers’ lists.
But this German business hub has become even more accessible to leisure travelers, so intrepid mom Margot Black set out to find out how to create a successful European vacation with a 3-year-old in tow.
For those who tend to travel en masse—in my case with a husband and a 3-year-old—convenience is everything.
A city that’s even slightly off the grid is generally a non-option, since dealing with multiple flight transfers only increases the odds of something going wrong in transit.
So when Air Berlin announced its seasonal non-stop flights from LAX to Düsseldorf, a once-exotic-sounding destination became feasible.
One of my major concerns of traveling with a child is how the airline manages its smaller passengers.
Air Berlin came through by offering games and puzzles to keep our son occupied on the 14-hour flight, and I noted that deep bassinets are available for infants.
However, note that there are few bassinets available, so if you want one, book well in advance.
Mom tip: When traveling on long flights it’s a good idea to have a day or two worth of supplies packed carry on, just in case. For us, that included an extra change of clothes for each of us, two changes for our son, and plenty of pull ups. For a long flight (14 hours is a lot for kids of any age) so pack lots of snacks, activities and, if you have a portable player or laptop, DVDs.
The next major hurdle, always, is figuring out where to stay.
Though options abound, our most important criteria were: affordability, convenience and, as any kid will tell you, a pool. We ended up booking the Holiday Inn in Düsseldorf online and all three requests were satisfied. As an added bonus, breakfast is included in the room rate, which is always a good option when lugging around a small child on a limited budget.
And, it’s a breakfast buffet, so you’re guaranteed to find something to satisfy even the pickiest eater. Just try to steer them away from the sugar-loaded carbohydrates or they’ll crash and burn before you get to your first stop.
Kids will be particularly delighted with the bunk beds (in the family suites), which we all took turns jumping up and down on—hey, sometimes the big kids have to let off steam, too. Our hotel in Düsseldorf had a glass elevator, which our son thought was a ride to be enjoyed at least 20 times.
FINDING KID-FRIENDLY EXPERIENCES
It’s hard to express to a child what awaits them in Europe, so we broke down our trip in a way that he could understand: transportation (trains, planes, trolley), towers and castles. He had something to look forward to each day.
Like many mid-sized European cities, you don’t have to travel far to get to anywhere in Düsseldorf. The open-topped red Hop On-Hop Off buses stop at eight locations on both sides of the Rhine but much of the city is accessible on foot.
Mom tip: We always travel with a light, collapsible stroller as we find that anything too heavy will be challenging pulling on and off of trolleys and buses. Don’t be tempted to ditch the stroller: There are miles of scenic walkways to enjoy in Düsseldorf, and kids will welcome a break. They might even take a nap. Heaven.
When traveling with a small child, the trick to avoiding a meltdown is keeping them interested and engaged in their surroundings.
By choosing to experience the city on foot, he was able to appreciate the unexpected sights: amazing street sculptures, fountains, outdoor cafes, bridges, plazas and the St. Lambertus Basilika, where legend has it, if a real virgin marries here the winding tower will right itself. Shockingly, it’s still cockeyed.
Shopping is plentiful in Düsseldorf, and easy if you have a stroller—head to the Konigsalleeto part with your hard-earned cash—but with a little boy to entertain, a better option was to walk along the River Rhine.
From there, the Rhine Tower, which sits in the MediaTower harbor, boasts a viewing platform and revolving restaurant.
Sitting atop the Rhine Tower we drank in the panoramic views of the city. Our son, who was enjoying every minute of being up so high, had fun studying the map, plotting where we should go next. The tower was a huge hit, and so easy to get up to (no waiting in line, immediate gratification) and gave us a great view of everywhere we had been, and the places we still needed to go.
Though we just missed out on the city’s biggest festival, The Largest Fair on the Rhine, which attracts a whopping 4.5million visitors in July, we did stumble across Japan Day billed as “Manga, Sushi, Fireworks!” Just about everything I attribute to life in Germany. Hmmm.
For those of a delicate disposition, you may want to look away from the cheeky photo of the well-built gentlemen wearing just skimpy strips of fabric to cover their modesty, but this unique day was created to honor the many Japanese who live here.
Let’s face it, what says “honor” like men in florescent thongs?
Try explaining to a 3-year-old the concept being in an ancient German square to watch women in bright kimonos and men in daring costumes!
He just thought it was one big costume party, and joined in by wearing his Spiderman T-shirt and making a mask for himself out of another shirt.
Mom tip: The festival, while fantastic and dazzling, was also crowded, so we used packing tape and wrote our phone numbers and hotel info into our son’s pants, shirt and shoes, just in case.
Since my kid and boats are about as compatible as ducks and water, there was no missing the hour-long boat tour along the Rhine, starting at the Burgplatz and ending at MediaHarbor, via Altstadt.
This is the oldest part of Düsseldorf and because of its plethora of bars and cafes is known as The Longest Bar in the World.
Here, you can buy Düsseldorf’s famous altbier (old beer) brewed from a traditional recipe.
Kids love old buildings and our son is no exception (he’s a big Shrek fan) so anything with castles and palaces is sure to get his attention. We purchased a three-day trolley car pass and headed out to Castle Benrath, which is situated in the south of the city.
A reservation is required to tour the amazing building, which dates back to 1222, but visitors should take the time to experience the outdoor area as well. We were transported back in time and also back to nature. We all had the chance to feed the geese in the manicured grounds, and literally hugged trees. The smallest member of our party had one of the best days of his life.
MEALTIME WITH KIDS
People may think that the food in Paris is the best in the world, but my experience tells me the opposite.
For me, Düsseldorf definitely gives Paris a run for its money in terms of cuisine and there are plenty of child-friendly restaurants and cafés—ample outdoor seating, great people watching, and staffs that were happy to let us linger.
Always trying to integrate education with fun, we had to experience at least one traditional German meal at Zum Schiffchen (Little Boat) in Old Town. This restaurant is 380 years old with high beams, chandeliers and German art on the walls.
Stews, sauerkraut and of course, giant sausages, dominate the menu, which the adults washed down with pints of beer.
Mom tip: Since Germans like their sausage, we kept telling our son they were European hot dogs and he was delighted. (And if your child is a budding foodie, don’t miss the town’s sausage market—never will you see more varieties of sausage in one place).
Thankfully, unlike other European cities we have visited, we never wound up eating at any sort of American fast-food chains. There were had plenty of sausage stands and good healthy meals at restaurants that were happy to accommodate families.
To Düsseldorf we say “Ja! Ja! Ja!”—that’s a yes from every one of us.
Be creative when trying to explain to your child what you’re going to see. Museums sound like a bore, but knights, castles, towers will engage their little minds.
Plan time for children to run free. Kids are everywhere, so find out where the parks are.
Bring a lightweight stroller with you. Europeans don’t often sell items that are as easily disposable as Americans favor (think umbrella stroller) and once abroad they are most likely going to cost you three times the price.
Don’t underestimate how fun a train or trolley ride can be, same goes for escalators and elevators.
Keep shopping expeditions to a bare minimum—how many times a day do you want to scream “Don’t Touch!”?
By Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com. Visit Margot on the Web athttps://blackinktravelwriting.com.
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