Julia Slatcher and her family in Carcassonne, France // © 2016 Julia Slatcher
Feature image (above): Floating in the Aare River is a must when in Bern, Switzerland. // © 2016 Julia Slatcher
Family Travel Association member Julia Slatcher wears many hats: She’s a mother of two, a wife to an international professor, a travel blogger and a go-to travel advisor among friends and family. Her most recent adventure has taken her to Switzerland, where she and her family will live for a full year.
Slatcher says she caught the travel bug at a young age from her father, who’s now well into his 80s and still touring the world. Her own passion for travel was solidified by a study-abroad stint in Ecuador and a post-college job in international health — she helped plan trips for members of Congress and their staff, which brought her to Africa, Latin America and China.
Once she had a family, Slatcher took her brood to multiple Central and South American countries, plus Hawaii and much of the U.S. via road trips. Eventually, her husband’s sabbatical became another opportunity to wander. The family ended up in Switzerland, where Slatcher’s sons attend a French-speaking public school. They also have the luxury of traveling throughout Europe on long weekends and holidays. Following are Slatcher’s five top recommendations for getting off the beaten path on the continent as a family.
Amsterdam is well-known for its scenic canals and bike-friendly nature, but Slatcher also loves the city’s art and World War II museums. Two top sights for visitors of every age are Rijksmuseum, which showcases the art and history of Amsterdam, and Van Gogh Museum — and Slatcher is impressed with how well both cater to children. For example, at Rijksmuseum, kids and parents alike can engage in a treasure hunt via a downloadable app. Note that it’s crucial to get tickets to these museums ahead of time.
Additional considerations for those with older children include sites that shed light on Amsterdam’s WWII history, including Anne Frank House and Resistance Museum. If traveling with younger children, Slatcher recommends heading to the city’s incredible parks instead, especially the centrally located Vondelpark, which is more than 100 acres in size, and Westerpark, where kids can play in waterways and even zipline.
Cathar Region of Southern France
Slatcher sees the Cathar region of southern France as an ideal one for a road trip, and she recommends that a family’s route include the fortified city of Carcassonne and the city of Toulouse, known for the unique pinkish terra-cotta bricks that make up much of its architecture. History buffs will also enjoy the Cave of Niaux, which houses many quality prehistoric wall paintings from thousands of years ago. Seeing the famous pictures of bison, horses and ibex is an adventure in itself, as the caves are not lit and guests find them via flashlight — another hit for Slatcher’s sons.
If it’s within the budget, book a room at the upscale Hotel de la Cite. It’s the only accommodation within Caracassonne’s walls, so guests here are privy to seeing the city after the vast majority of tourists have left for the day.
Families can stay and play in Salzburg, Austria, but they can also use the city as a jumping-off point for exploring nearby sights. Parents and kids who love “The Sound of Music” will adore city tours that show off how the capital was turned into an extensive set for the production of the classic film. Those willing to venture outside of the capital’s boundaries might take a peek at the baroque Hellbrunn Palace, known for its playful “trick” water fountains. Another option is Salt Mine Hallein, a historic mine that began operations in the 1500s and now gives visitors a glimpse of mining life. Children as young as 4 can explore mystical underground tunnels or opt to slide and swing on the above-ground playground.
Sweden’s capital city is beautifully situated on the water, and during summer, days are extra long — Slatcher says that’s always a fun experience for kids. She suggests booking a boat trip into the archipelago — options range from one-hour trips to eight hours or more — and penciling in a museum or two. There’s the maritime Vasa Museum, which features an extremely well-preserved 17th-century ship, while Skansen museum and zoo offers replicas of Swedish towns in the 19th century and craftsmen-led demonstrations on glassblowing, shoemaking and more. In the zoo, kids can see regional animals such as lynx, reindeer and wolverines.
Travelers interested in Viking or Nordic history might also be keen on Stockholm, Slatcher says. Her sons took a specific interest to the destination thanks to author Rick Riordan’s “Magnus Chase” series, which is based on Norse mythology. To see Viking life firsthand, Slatcher recommends taking a 25-minute boat ride from downtown Stockholm to the island of Stora Fjaderholmen to Aifur Restaurant & Bar. Here, patrons can enjoy a meal typical of the Viking age.
Now that Slatcher has made Switzerland her home away from home, there’s little she doesn’t love about the country, from the cow-dotted countryside to the capital of Bern. When travelers are exploring the latter, Slatcher suggests taking a dip in the Aare River, which has various pools for public swimming, plus faster waterways for floating. Castle lovers should visit Chateau de Chillon, located right on Lake Geneva, while foodies might stop in the village of Gruyere (complete with a cheese factory, of course) or chocolate factory Maison Cailler — tours here include endless samples of fancy chocolate.
“Sleep in the Hay” is another special Swiss experience, Slatcher says — it’s a tourist’s chance to see what Swiss farm life looks and feels like. Booked via an agritourism organization, adventure hounds who go with this option will park their sleeping bags on piles of hay at participating homesteads.