Varenna, Lake Como, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Europe by car
Varenna, Lake Como
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
One of my favorite vacations of all time was an amazing European road trip traversing six countries in the course of 17 days. Although it was our 25th wedding anniversary, we wanted to share this experience with our three kids who were 19, 17 and 11 at the time. The proximity of Europe made us want to take full advantage of our time there. It is an incredible place to drive and the journey became just as much a part of the trip as the beautiful places we visited.
We began and ended in Dusseldorf, Germany because it was the most economical place for the five of us to fly into. I reserved a Volkswagen minivan equipped with GPS from Sixt, our favorite car rental company overseas. Wanting to mix up the style of lodging, I read countless reviews online for unique places. Among those were a car less village at a century old family inn, a medieval castle, a fully equipped lakeside apartment, a villa in Tuscany, a cosmopolitan modern hotel, a bare bones hipster inn and some enchanting bed and breakfasts. Since my family was not privy to the details ahead of time, it lent for a fun surprise upon arrival. Each hotel was quite special and I will link them below on the bell icon. Many included a wonderful European breakfast. I'm also including tips on traveling with teens.
Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
A three hour drive from Dusseldorf, this small European sovereign state is a great place to rest and acclimate from jet lag. The Old Town is perfect for strolling its boulevards, lingering at cafes and enjoying the view of Chermin de la Corniche "Europe's most beautiful balcony. There is not too much to do so its easy to unwind and get a taste of the history and beauty you will see on this trip.
A modern and eclectic hotel on the outskirts of Kirchberg, it is just 1.5 km from the city center and links to public transport. We found it an easy walk to town. The contrast between the modern and the historical was fun.
My son, who was a Minecraft player, got a kick out of the bold, block architectural style of the hotel.
Relaxing at a cafe and excited for our European adventure to begin!
Midway to our destination in Switzerland, we stopped 2.5 hours in at Strasbourg for a day trip. Known as "Petite France", Strasbourg is a colorful and cobble stoned town straight out of a fairy tale. My husband marveled at the raising and lowering of boats at their canal lock and I was charmed by the aesthetics of its timbered chalets and Notre Dame Cathedral.
In fairy tale fashion, the kids couldn't resist riding the carousel in town. They enjoyed choosing candy and biscuits for the road at La Cure Gourmande.
Nestled among the Swiss Alps is the incredible car less town of Wengen. From Strasbourg drive 3.5 hours and park at Lauterbrunnen station. Take note of this village in the valley of the Bernese Alps. It is like stepping into a summertime Christmas village! A yellow mountain railway encircles the town and takes you on a 25 minute ride up to Wengen. Enjoy the spectacular vistas and the sound of clanging bells from the Swiss cows grazing. There are hiking trails, trams, cable cars, water falls, viewing plateaus and quaint towns to enjoy.
Founded in 1895, this historical family lodge was comfortable and peaceful. our kids loved the traditional parlor equipped with a piano they could play. The old fashioned metal keys and elevator made us feel like we traveled back in time. When you get to the train station, use the free phone to call the hotel porter to help you with your luggage upon arrival.
Give them the challenge to find dandelions while hiking and have a "Sound of Music" moment on the mountain top. Stop for a fondue lunch. After an active day, the kids enjoyed simple family games that we brought along such as playing cards and Bananagrams. It was a wonderful way to connect with them and we had them in our backpacks for times we rested at a cafe as well.
Staubbach Waterfall in Lauterbrunnen. You can walk up and behind the falls.
The Swiss Alps were shrouded in the clouds but we did get a small peek.
Drive from Lauterbrunnen to Lake Lugano
Sometimes following the GPS leads to an incredible surprise. We did not plot the route to Lake Lugano and thus we were rewarded with one of the most memorable drives we ever had. Start early in the morning and make your way up into the snow covered alps. What a treat to see snow in July! At Lake Lugano we had a quick lunch and stretched our legs. If you see zucchini flowers on the menu, definitely try them!
Snow in July!
Varenna, Lake Como, Italy
I first learned about Varenna because it's a favorite of travel guru Rick Steve's. We drove 3 hours to Menaggio, checked in with the property management agency and rode the ferry, along with our car, across Lake Como to Varenna. They leave about every 45 minutes. Our rental apartment was a five minute drive to the neighboring town of Fiumelate. We found our rental convenient because it had a parking garage, full kitchen, plenty of room to spread out and a washing machine. Our rental agency made it very easy to book a small motor boat to cruise Lake Como the following day. They drove the boat to us and we enjoyed a day on the water stopping at towns such as Bellagio, having an al fresco lunch lakeside and pin pointing George Clooney's villa.
Fontana Del Lago Apartments
A modern complex with direct lake views. We took a break from the car, left it in the garage and walked to town. Be alert as there are no sidewalks and you are walking alongside traffic. At night its best to take a taxi back.
The kids really enjoyed boating on Lake Como. At night there is music in Varenna. Fun to see people fishing with long poles. Their first taste of gelato was in Menaggio and that was a hit. Delizioso!
Cinque Terre, Italy
On our way to Florence, we drove 4 hours for a day trip to Cinque Terre, a string of five ancient seaside towns on the Italian Riviera Coastline. You will be captivated by the pastel buildings and vineyards hugging the steep cliffs as small boats linger in the waters below. There is a train that runs through the mountains to each car less village. For the more adventuresome, there are strenuous hiking trails between them. We began at the most northern and largest of the villages, Monterosso Al Mare. Try your best to park in the la Spezia and take a train instead of driving to Monterosso with your car. We found no parking and decided to chance it. It was a nail biting journey on a one lane serpentine road down the mountain. Once there we found parking by the beach. What an incredible beach! Candy colored umbrellas lined up by the azure Mediterranean. Picture postcard perfect! Stop for lunch and enjoy some lemon soda. We decided to brave a hike to the next town Vernazza. Be prepared for a grueling 2-3 hour hike. You will need good shoes and trekking poles as there are many stairs and rugged terrain. The views along the way were stunning. The great reward is seeing Vernazza from up above. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth! Make your way down and have a well-deserved break. Take note of the ladies stringing laundry out the window, divers jumping off cliffs and kids wading in the shallow beach. We took the train back to Monterosso and it was just a five minute ride. If you can stay the evening in one of the towns, do so. I wish we had but we had reservations in Tuscany that evening. Cinque Terre was one of my favorites destinations on our trip.
My kids loved to search for mud skippers and crabs among the rocks. We sat basking in the sun with or feet in the water as they hunted for critters. A "dolce far niente" moment!
Dolce far niente - the sweet do nothing
Just a three hour drive to the Tuscan Hills, we continued our journey to an 800 year old villa called Villa Campestri. Driving the countryside at night was a bit daunting but our trust GPS did an excellent job. An olive oil resort, Villa Campestri is elegant and romantic featuring lovely appointed rooms, tapestries, an incredible viewing deck with swimming pool, a gourmet restaurant and a 35 km drive to Florence.
Yes, there are villas in Tuscany!
Cradle of the Renaissance, Florence does not disappoint. Art lives everywhere, from its architecture to its many outdoor galleries. There is so much to take in for a day trip! Make your way to the historic center and revel at the massive Duomo down the city side streets. The outdoor statues by Palazzo Vecchio, Logga della Signoria, is my favorite. If you can, visit Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria Dell’ Accademia. It is breathtaking in person! It’s best to purchase tickets online to avoid the que. The "artsy" photo of random people I took on the left is one of my favorite shots of the trip.
In the evening we attended La Boheme at St. Mark’s Anglican Church. Divine to partake an opera in such an intimate setting. The kids really enjoyed their first opera experience.
A three hour trip from our villa in Tuscany, Venice is truly a wonder. You cannot believe you are even there! It is pure delight to just stroll and become enraptured in its magic. Stop at Piazza San Marco to take in the view, see the pigeons and enjoy refreshment and live music at Caffe Florian. Watch your food though! A seagull flew off with a man’s sandwich! Take a vaparetto to Rialto Bridge in the morning and see the fish and farmer’s market. The Grand Canal is a must. In the evening enjoy a classical music concert after dinner.
A sweet boutique hotel located close to Piazza San Marco and many shops, Hotel Flora offers a breakfast in their lovely little garden courtyard. Get to know Stefano, the most charming Italian man you will ever meet! Here is a helpful link on arriving in Venice by car.
All three of our children are musicians so the Vivaldi concert was a big hit. Shopping is a lot of fun. My daughter loved the masquerade shops and my son liked to purchase glass art collectibles. We took the kids to see glass art blown at a factory in Murano, an island nearby. Within minutes the artisan fabricated a glass horse! I cannot say Murano was a favorite overall though, but do try to see the creation of Murano glass. On a return trip years later we visited Burano and that island I highly recommend! Check it out at my Italian Adventure article.
A five hour drive from the Venice station, we got a passing view of the Italian Dolomites along the way. We stayed near the historical town center and strolled along the Inn River, admiring its candy colored houses lined up against the Nordkette Mountains. The town is a feast for the eyes with baroque and gothic architecture. Stop for a pic at the “Golden Roof” and find a place for some sausage and sauerkraut. Yum!
A modern and bare bones hotel that lives up to its name, Basic is a minutes’ walk to the town center and has incredible views of the Inn River. To the left is my favorite pic of the kids. When they came into their room and saw that incredible view from their window, their faces just lit up!
En route to Fussen, Germany stopping at Oberammergau and Linderhoff Palace
Travel time to Oberammergau was under 1.5 hours. The town is known for its Passion Play and for its painted houses. Summer is probably not the best time to visit. The town was sleepy, uninteresting and its restaurants shut down early so we had to find lunch elsewhere. We proceeded to Linderhoff Palace 20 minutes away. Although quite small it was an interesting side trip and we liked the gardens and grotto. We found an amazing roadside biergarten and had sausage and roast chicken for lunch. I wish I remembered this place because it was one of our best meals. If you see a biergarten in the middle of nowhere, odds are in your favor that its pretty good!
Ludgwig's teeny tiny castle. One of the funny moments of the day was me standing next to it asking where the castle was. I thought it was the guest house!
Crazy good German food! Joey wears his new German hat.
Beautiful and charming Fussen! A short distance from the castles of Neushwanstein and Hohenschwangau, it was a perfect place to stop for a peaceful couple of nights. Buy castle tickets ahead of time and, if you can, see them both. They are equally wonderful. Make sure and walk the bridge to take that perfect picture of Ludwig’s dreamy chateau that inspired Cinderella’s castle. You’ll notice many older Germans wearing lederhosen and traditional German apparel. I love that photo I took of the elder couple dressed up strolling in town.
This hotel is elegant and comfortable with beautifully appointed rooms and an outdoor restaurant patio you may never want to leave. The kid’s room had a castle mural on the wall and the hotel hallways were filled with beautiful antiques and furnishings.
The huge pretzels were a hit with the kids. This is where I bought my son his proper German hat that he prizes to this day (For more on that read the article "Peter Pan Boy").There was a spinning contraption in town that was a lot of fun to ride.
This vibrant city was just 1.5 hours north of Fussen and well worth a visit. See the Glockenspiel clock perform at Mariensplatz, the city center. We visited the famed Hofbrauehaus and enjoyed a literstein while feasting on German fare and lifting our huge beer mugs to the Oom-Pah band. Be on the lookout for the pretzel boy in lederhosen! So much fun! Stroll through the immense English Gardens and don’t miss Eisbach Wave.
The river surfers on the Eisbach was very entertaining for the kids. This is located on the southern ends of the garden. The kids really enjoyed playing in the park. We did not know there was a nudist park so spotting a naked old guy walking around was hilarious! My oldest son really enjoyed being in a major city for a change so that goes to show that its good to mix up the itinerary. Munich was his favorite.
A 2.5 hour drive from Munich, we ended the night at an authentic 13th century castle! Arriving at night set the mood perfectly. Once we had dinner at their restaurant and were settled, I unpacked mini flashlights and we went on an exploration of the “haunted castle”. There is armor, antiques, swords, old paintings, stuffed animals and dark, tucked away rooms that lent itself to Scooby Doo moments! My “meddling kids” had a ball! Jeepers!
Add some fun and plan ahead for a scavenger hunt or an "Amazing Race" where kids look for clues. This haunted walk through a dark castle was a blast.
Just a 15 minute drive from Colmberg, we were excited to take the kids to this well preserved medieval, walled town since we first visited 23 years prior. Although we remembered it as a vibrant little town, it was sleepy the day we went. Still we enjoyed our day there.
One of my sons liked to scale and climb the outer walls of the village. The “Gegen Nazi” signs in town led to interesting conversation. A sweet memory of the trip was a man playing Christian songs on his lute underneath a bridge. My kids were so captivated that they took a photo with him. Sometimes it’s not the sights you see but just meeting someone special and partaking in their gift of music that becomes the best part of the day.
Rothenberg ob der Tauber
That was the end of our trip! We headed 3.5 hours back to Dusseldorf, Germany and crashed at the Sheraton Airport Dusseldorf in Terminal 4 before flying home the next day. Some final tips on traveling abroad...
Get an International Driver's License before you go. They are available at your local AAA office.
Months before, consider investing in the Global Entry program to speed your way through customs.
Certain countries require a vignette sticker for driving on principal motorways. Rental agencies do not offer them. They may be purchased at gas stations or near borders. If you do not do this you may be stopped and fined on the spot as we were in Austria!
Plan your laundry time. Laundry mats can be found on Trip Advisor. As hot as the weather was, I cannot see wearing an outfit more than once. That said, pack light and smart. One medium/large rolling bag and backpack pp worked for us. Pack a wine opener, baggies and utencils for picnics.
Although we planned an itinerary, there is much we did not do. Go with the flow and just enjoy being there. A sense of humor is key as there are always mishaps. Packing the car became a game of Tetris and a broken elevator at checkout a silly photo op. Have fun and be flexible!