The world offers us the ultimate education through its unbelievably packed museums. As adults we worship the artistry of the Sistine chapel, marvel at Mona Lisa’s smile, stand in awe as we take in the breadth of fort McHenry’s star spangled banner. How do you, on the other hand, guide younger ones through rooms of treasure and priceless artifacts without setting off the security alarms? The answer is two fold: first, try to choose kid friendly museums. There are some pretty fabulous choices out there.
Secondly, if you do choose one of the classics like the Vatican or the Louvre, prep them with the facts and translate that into some ownership. Kids will connect with art and history if they can connect some dots. Try familiarizing kids with that wonderful art by ensuring they have opportunities to see it. Books are the best way to start. Then, create some stories of your own about art so there is a reference point when your young mind sees it in person.
Once you decide on a museum, check out their website to see if they offer any kid friendly activities. For example, when visiting the HMS Britannia in Edinburgh, kids can keep a close eye out for stuffed corgis hiding all over the ship. Very clever! Additionally, The Louvre has an entire section of their website dedicated to helping kids understand art.
Probably the most important way to connect kids with art is to help them understand why something is impressive. The power to understand wow is an important tool to unlocking a true interest in art, history and the museums that house them.
Oh, Krakow! You are one of the most under rated European destinations! How I love thee! My love story with Poland began when I was given Polish food as a child from my Polish family. It was very good and I happily ate all the pierogi while Happy Louie and his Polish Band played the Pennsylvania Polka to a frenzied mass of polka crazed people. Don’t believe me? Check out Jack Black’s amazing role the The Polka King!
Listen in to our conversation about Krakow on our podcast! Babcia and Yia Yia Travel The World is a great way to get all kinds of travel tips. Click here to listen to this episode and more!
Over the years, my Americanized, immigrant version of Poland expanded to understand the pride and heartbreak of a people who had been torn limb from limb time and time again. From the Vasas to the Nazis, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of the breadbasket of Europe and really didn’t care about the people who were already there.
But just as the popular analogy tells us, like a phoenix, Poland rises from the ashes, dusts herself off, and bounces back better than ever. So, what makes Poland a traveler’s paradise? It has a little of everything, beaches and mountains, cities and rural countryside, museums and jazz clubs, castles and cooking classes. It is Europe’s best kept secret and I am about to tell you all about it!
Getting to your feet on the ground is pretty straight forward. Most touch down in Warsaw or Krakow and branch out from there. Poland is super welcoming.
Public Trains: While Polish trains work with the Eurail pass, they stand on their own. As with most train systems in Europe, they work very well and can get you to any city center efficiently. Trains are a definite plus when getting from city to city. Start here to explore all of your rail options.
Polish Uber: Uber is recently available in Poland mush to the dismay of traditional polish taxi drivers (who are very honest and sweet). One tap will get you from the airport to the main square for about $15.00.
Walking: All in all, the majority of destinations you plan on enjoying are well worth the walk. Consider your two feet or a couple of bicycles to be your best bet.
The Three Sisters
Just a bit smaller than Texas, Poland is one of the largest countries on the continent and, as with most things, balances it’s size well. It’s dotted with three large cities from north to south along the great Vistula River. Gdansk is on the northern coast and is ground zero for the solidarity movement and Poland’s immigration story. Warsaw, the capital, is right in the middle, is home to the uprising story of WWII, Marie Curie, and Poland’s great palace. Further south is Krakow. In some ways, Krakow is the cradle of Poland’s history with its stunning Wawel Castle. Krakow is filled with Polish culture and history.
Understanding The Basics…
Eye contact: You know how you grab a waiter’s eye in a restaurant? A quick flick of the hand or a knowing look between the two of you. While this is a completely acceptable method of getting the service you are looking for, in some parts of Poland, this will get you the cold shoulder. Why? It looks pushy and makes the waitstaff feel like you don’t think they are doing a good job. In short, it comes across as rude. If you are in a bit of a rush, simply let your server know that you’ll need to leave with an hour or so. They will happily accommodate you. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the five star service!
Lively Churches: Poland is full of amazing churches, The history and architecture are a meld of national pride and overwhelming invaders making for an array of different styles and focuses. While all of these institutions are well worth the visit, be prepared that Mass will be held often as every one of these treasures is still an active parish. If it is, you have two choices: quietly skirt the sides and stay in the shadows as others worship or grab a pew and say a little prayer with everyone else. Either is just fine.
Street Performers: Krakow is full of amazing street performers. The main square has strolling folk music, kids that are breakdancing their heart out, student musicians and more. Summer concerts and performances are plentiful and well worth your time. Enjoy!
What To Do
Food Toursand Cooking Classes: Krakow is a food mecca! Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the next section for a sampler. It is totally worth checking in with a great local guide to get a true feel for all of the yummy choices that are yours for the taking. There’s great street food, communist Milk Bars, fabulous fusion and classic polish cuisine all within the old town. Add to that the fabulous Jewish district of Kazimierez and Krakow become hard to pass up for any true foodie.
Royal Mile: Krakow’s stunning main square sits in the middle of the old town’s Royal Way. Along this route are plenty of churches, museums, shops, art galleries, and restaurants all winding their way up to the crawn jewel, Wawel Hill.
Can’t Miss: Check our the DaVinci masterpiece Lady With Ermine at the newly refurbished Czartoryski Museum. The painting, which is a contemporary of Mona Lisa, is an incredible example of Davinci’s talent. The further story of theft and reclamation prove to be quite fascinating as well.
Royal Beginnings: At the end of the Royal Mile sits gorgeous Wawel Castle. The complex can take a full day to explore with numerous museums and the main cathedral. The cathedral holds the tomb of Poland’s most famous king: Kazimierez, a tribute to Chopin, and the bell tower is fun to climb and get a serious view of the city and it’s lifeline, the Vistula River. Be sure to seek out one of the seven chakras on Earth. The staff may not love it but it’s fun! Also, get down to the river bank and find Smok the fire breathing dragon.
Klezmer and Kazimierez: About a ten minute ride away from the old town (which is surrounded by the Planty park) is the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierez. Here on the square, you’ll find synagogues, mini museums, and restaurants that often have live traditional music called Klezmer music. You often hear this style with a heavy clarinet sound. From here, walk over the Bernatek footbridge and toward the old Jewish ghetto where you will find Schindler’s factory and the Eagle Over The Door Pharmacy.
The Main Square: Dominated by St. Mary’s Basilica (check out that blue ceiling and unbelievable alter piece), Krakow’s main square has quite few treasures to explore. Start at the cloth hall in the center. Go up for a lovely art museum, go down for an underground museum on the archeology of the city. Shop at ground level for all of those polish faves, and go out on the balcony for a lovely drink looking over the hustle and bustle of the square. Use the square as a jumping off point to explore the old town streets full of churches, shops, small museums and plenty of landmarks that relate to St. Pope John Paul II.
Taking on Polish cuisine…
Pierogi: Every culture has a filled dumpling and the Poles are no different! Pierogi (yes, that’s the plural) can be filled with sweet or savory choices. Order them all. Eat them all. You won’t regret it.
Zurek: A “sour” soup served in a bread bowl may sound like a great Winter treat (and it is) but don’t discount this wholesome soup in the Summer. It’s all good!
Zapiekanki: This is basically Polish french-bread pizza. and it’s great! Perfect for a grab and go lunch to eat in the Planty or at the riverside park under the castle.
Lody: Poles love their Summer ice cream! And it is good! Plan on enjoying ice cream as the city wakes up for its evening stroll.
Steak tartare: Slavic sushi. Tartare is high quality minced beef served with several seasonings and usually topped with a raw egg. Don’t be so fast to pass on this regional delicacy, consider it the escargot of Poland!
Exploring Second Cities…
Part of the charm of Poland are all of the individual towns that polka dot the landscape. Each little community has a little city center usually with a train station and plenty to keep you interested. Some of the top contenders are…
Poznan: Close to the German border, this tidy town has an interesting history and continues to enchant with its old town and educate with its Jewish quarter tour. It is also a great jumping off point for those who want to visit the Boleslawiec Polish Pottery factory or the Church of Peace: both are great stops if you have the time.
Wroclaw: This work-a-day college town might not seem like much to begin with but dig a little deeper and you’ll find an enchanting town ready to welcome visitors. Check out the over 300 little statues all over town that give personality to the wheres and whens you will encounter. Try out the food tours and enjoy all of the yummy treats followed by a shot of cherry vodka.
Torun: Smell the gingerbread in Copernicus’ hometown and wander the streets of this charming little college town. Torun is a great half way mark between Warsaw and Gdansk. Whther you are taking the train and spend the afternoon or you choose to spend the night, count Torun in and you won’t regret it!
Day Tripping From Krakow…
As you expand your horizons from greater Krakow, there are a couple of amazing spots to consider. Every popular guidebook will give you the 411 on the details for these particular places. These were among the family favorites.
Wadowice The birthplace of St. Pope John Paul II is the perfect day trip. Explore his home, parish church and charming square then visit Kalwaria Zebrzydowska monastery where he dedicated his life to the church.
WieliczkaSalt Mine Descend deep into this UNESCO heritage site for an experience like no other. Part art installation, part medieval history, this unexpected marvel of engineering tells the story of how miners of salt became prolific artists that celebrated the triumphs of their lives where they spent the majority of their time. A perfect morning trip from the city center.
Auschwitz Birkenau What can I say? The infamous moment in Polish existence is the Nazi invasion of September 1939. It is, by far, the saddest chapter of the Poles. The role that Auschwitz played in this atrocity can not be over stated and visiting will be quite emotional. But visit you must. I truly think that it is our duty as travelers to understand these moments in history so that we can better understand the times we live in now. You are already here. How could you not go?
The Great Outdoors
Poland offers plenty of other amazing opportunities away from the city center. Some of our favorites are:
Zakopane Just south of the Krakow region lie the Tatras mountains. Bordering both Poland and the Czech republic, it provides an amazing mountain escape from the “big city”. Central to that escape is the hamlet of Zakopane. This little resort town is a joy to visit with its apres-ski vibe.
Masuria Well overlooked, the lakes region to the north and east has long been a vacation stronghold for the polish people. With plenty of water fun, there’s tons to keep you interested in this lovely part of the country.
Sopot From the mountains and lakes to the beach! Sopot sits just beside beautiful Gdansk and is a Summer playground for locals and visitors alike. Check out the long pier and the fabulous restaurants as well as the local amber vendors that sell their beachcombing treasures.
The Ultimate Two Week Starter Kit:
Alrighty, you are ready to plan! Check out our handy dandy checklist to start customizing your own itinerary for the trip of a lifetime! Don’t forget to listen to our podcast with all of this information and more to make your trip to Krakow unforgettable.
Thailand. A country of extremes. A place where chaos reigns in big cities and beaches calm the soul with beautiful vistas. This South Asian tourist mecca layers itself with many personalities. Some are bright like Buddhist temples and floating markets. Others are a bit darker like the animal tourism industry or places called Sex Street. So, how can we travel to Thailand and find the right balance of vacation fun and broadened horizons? Let’s dig in!
Lay Of The Land
Thailand has more coastline than Florida. In fact, it would take about 20 hours to drive from North to South. It’s safe to say that a typical two week holiday won’t let you see the entire country. The country is anchored by three famous hot spots. To the north is Chiang Mai, to the south is beachy Phuket and smack dab in the middle is Bangkok.
Nestled between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, Thailand prides itself on some pretty spectacular beaches. The winner of this beach beauty pageant is Phuket.
Pattaya used to be the beach of choice decades ago but now turns its worn eye toward more industrial needs. That industrial emphasis has taken its toll on the tourism industry here. Yet, due to its close proximity to Bangkok, Pattaya it seems to hang on.
Conversely, Phuket seems to be the darling of them all. While it has been in the news a bit because of over tourism, the Phuket area enjoys the bulk of the tourist influx and, therefore has a far better infrastructure to support those numbers.
Half Buried Buddha
Marine Research Center
Gibbon Rehabilitation Center
Lay on the beach
Exotic and chaotic. Those are the first words that come to mind as I think back to Bangkok. Each intersection seems like a starting point of a great migration of cars, trucks, motorcycles and tut-tuts. Intermingled in all of it a precious temples and markers of real heritage. Plan at least three days to see all that Bangkok has to offer.
The Grand Palace
About 700 KM to the north lies this second city of Thailand. While still chaotic and perhaps overwhelming, Chiang Mai has a certain gentleness to it that can not be denied. At a fraction of the size of sprawling Bangkok, Chiang Mai offers quite a few unique experiences.
Wat Phra Sing
Wat Chedi Luang
Doi Suthep–Pui National Park
Bo Sang Village
Yi Pang Lantern Festival
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Asian animal attractions, and for that matter attractions everywhere, are under great scrutiny. They are being scrutinized more and more as to the care they give and the purpose they rely on.
There is an undeniable curiosity about animals. Let’s face it, the bigger and more furry, the more we as a global society are attracted to them. At the top of Thailand’s attractions are tigers and elephants. Much has been reported about the treatment and conditions in which animal tourism in Asia and it’s not without merit. So, what is the right call? I think that it is possible that some attractions have the animal’s best interest in mind while others are far more interested in lining their pockets. Take these three examples:
The Tiger Zoo was a cacophony of sounds and sites. To one side, was a fenced in gazebo with a pig, a dog, and a tiger chasing each other around in circles. To the other, the scorpion lady was covered in creepy crawlies. Straight ahead was the tiger nursery. About 100 juveniles were in “playpens” they eagerly awaited the visitors who they knew had milk to feed them. The place had the feel of a day care facility. Lessons were hastily given as to how to hold and feed these little ones. Once visitors have a chance to interact with the little ones, they were shown through to a circus like ring to watch the older tigers.
There were a lot of interactions with other animals- elephants, monkeys, snakes. They all were happily posed around visitors. I’m not sure how I feel all these years later about this particular venue. Maybe the correct word is uncomfortable. I guess I will leave the evaluation to wildlife experts.
For a different Thai experience, look toward facilities like this. The village is home to retired working elephants that seem happy to be in the peaceful patch of jungle. The village wants to allow these elephants to feel useful and educate visitors with the history of the role elephants played in this part of the world.
When you visit the Village, there are several animals to see and a few experiences to enjoy including an elephant ride. I felt like the elephants were given their space to roam the pathway at their own pace and I even saw the establishment change out an elephant that started showing concerns with one that seemed eager to participate.
One thing that surprised me was the wonderful lunch that was provided. Sitting under a lovely pavilion with that same soft music playing, local women had plate after plate of probably the best food I ate in the whole country. My feeling here was one of relief.
Contrasting the two options above, this sanctuary seeks only to educate rather than blend in entertainment. Here, don’t expect to ride an elephant. Instead, visitors are encouraged to understand the natural habitat life of elephants. From half day tours to week long volunteering opportunities (look to “adopt” a friend for the week and literally handle all of their needs), this sanctuary is the future of animal tourism.
While the sanctuary invites visitors in, it’s with caution. You are there to learn. There to understand how these gentle giants need our protection and there to understand the massive amount of work it takes to maintain the sanctuary itself.
Many of their packages come with meals, add on tours, and other options to make your time memorable. But then again, do you need much more than a baby elephant laying on your legs to be completely fulfilled?
That Famous Bridge
One quest you may be interested in is the bridge that spans the Khwae Yai River. Known because of its infamy on the silver screen. The dark history of what happened on the Burma-Siam Railroad is sad. You can learn more about it by visiting the bridge that sits just over 100 KM from the capitol.
In Thailand’s northeast, the Mekong River is king. This area perfect for nature enthusiasts, is known for its small villages, colorful festivals and impressive temples, this area may be the perfect area to enjoy many of Thailand’s treasures. Food for thought…
Two Thailand Tales
When I think back to visiting Thailand, I realize that I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m not too pleased with myself that I didn’t realize some of the travel choices I made weren’t the best. The Tiger Zoo comes to mind. I also was not prepared for having drivers who shuttled us down Sex Street without giving a second thought to the fact that I had children in the car. I was not the best traveler then and I learned lessons to make me better.
On the other hand, I loved Thailand for all of its gentleness. In fact, it’s that amazing aura that my kids remember most. I recently asked them about their favorite moment from that trip, and they all recall our time seeing the Reclining Buddha. It wasn’t the elephants and tigers that first pop to mind. Instead, they remember the moment we gave them each 100 Bhat.
There, at the reclining Buddha, 100 small pots are lined up. The goal is to say something you are grateful for at each pot wile you add a coin. As you move along, the soft ching-ching sound relaxes you. What a powerful way to start kids understanding the power of gratefulness and meditation. This was what they remember most.
Moments like this make Thailand a destination that is worth exploring again and again.