9 Tips for Train Travel in Europe

Europe Train Travel Tips

We love Europe’s efficient and well-organized rail system and trains are our favorite way to travel while visiting there. Trains are very convenient when traveling with kids. They’re less stressful, more comfortable, have built-in bathrooms (no stops!) and we can enjoy the passing scenery. We hope these tips and lessons we’ve learned can help with your train travel in Europe.

1. Buying Europe Train Tickets
Book your Europe train tickets in advance to save money and time and to avoid hassles, especially when you’re traveling on popular routes and high-speed trains. A great and comprehensive site to start train travel planning is The Man In Seat 61. It lists train information by country and provides recommended routes, train times and approximate prices. Also, check German Railways’ site, which has an online schedule for all of Europe’s trains.

We’ve usually booked directly with the country’s railway company like Italy’s trenItalia, Spain’s Renfe and Britain’s National Rail for the best routes, travel times and discounts. There are also third-party sites like Rail Europe or Loco2 to buy tickets, but prices tend to be higher. Shop around to get the best deals and look for family or weekend specials. Research your options.

If you’re unsure about your itinerary or if your destination’s weather is a huge factor, tickets can also be purchased on the day of departure. However, you also risk that tickets may be sold for your desired departure time. Most ticket sales close 15 minutes before departure. We’ve bought tickets for day trips from Madrid on the day of travel on two separate trips. However, we weren’t traveling during holidays or summers.

Most trains also have first- or second-class seat options. First-class cars are roomier, less crowded, quieter, and may include drinks, meals and newspapers on some of the high-speed trains. We’ve always ridden second-class to save money and still found it roomy and comfortable.

2. Secure Seat Reservations When Possible
Check to see if your train ticket includes seat reservations. If it does not and you have the option, it’s worth paying extra to secure seats in advance when traveling a long distance, especially with kids. You won’t need to rush to the train in hopes of finding open seats, and your whole party can be seated together. Seat reservations also eliminate the risk of standing for an extended time. And if your kids are like mine, window seats are a premium to watch the scenery.

Family compartments on some trains are convenient and more secure. Trains within cities that are to/from airports don’t usually have seat assignments available, but high-speed trains typically do.

3. Tips for Overnight Trains in Europe
The biggest appeals for overnight trains are the savings on hotel stays and having more time to sight see during the day. There are sleepers (private cabins), couchettes (shared cabins with bunk beds) and reclining seat options. We haven’t booked an overnight train trip, but friends who have suggest booking in advance and getting the sleepers to ensure safety and comfort.

Book non-stop trains so you won’t have to transfer, allowing you to sleep longer and undisturbed. Keep valuables within reach and locked up. Remember that sheets, blankets and pillows incur extra charges. Bring eye masks and ear plugs in order to sleep more comfortably.

4. Eurail Passes
Rail passes include train travel in several countries for a certain number of days or months. Eurail passes are for non-European citizens, while European citizens use Interrail passes. For anyone planning a multi-country, extended trip around Europe, rail passes may be a good option.

Do a price comparison on your itinerary’s total rail cost versus a rail pass to see if it’s worth getting. Be aware that some high-speed trains (e.g. Italy, Thalys) have surcharges for rail pass holders. Check Rick Steve’s site to see pass options and what’s not covered.

5. Eating on Europe Trains
While many trains have bar-buffet cars or food trollies, we usually bring our own snacks and drinks to save money. Station food shops will still be cheaper than buying food aboard trains. I always stock up on snacks because well-fed kids make for better travel companions. Rail Europe’s site describes the food options available for trains.

6. Bring Additional Entertainment
The scenery can be pretty, but after a while kids will want to do something else. Bring books, activity sheets and electronic devices to keep the kids occupied.

7. Double-check Everything
Schedules sometimes change. Check online a couple of days and a few hours before heading to the station. Look for the train station’s electronic signboards to double-check departure times and platform/tracks. Be alert, especially for last-minute changes.

8. Verify Your Stops
Know your station names and double check station stops. Some cities can have multiple stations with similar names. Pay attention to your estimated arrival time so that you can be ready to get off at the right stop. Some regional trains don’t have signage or announcements telling you what is the next stop.

9.  Storing Your Luggage
Most trains have overhead racks above seats that are ideal for carry-on baggage. Larger bags can be stored at a section at the end of carriages. Passengers are held responsible for their luggage. Lock your bags and keep a close eye on them. For extra precaution, use bike locks and attach luggage to the racks. Allot extra time to get your larger luggage off the racks before your stop.

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Good Eats at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles

I love visiting Los Angeles for the sights, the people watching and, of course, the food. On my last visit, I was introduced to Grand Central Market which offers the freshest produce, unique shops and several vendors with the best eats in L.A.

Located at 317 S. Broadway, this open air venue has an extensive selection of global cuisine that even the pickiest eater will enjoy. Parking nearby can be tricky, but it’s absolutely worth the time to visit. I love how the market has so many affordable options that are made-to-order with the best ingredients. Once you and the family have purchased your food, find an open table or head outside for some sunny seating.

Eggslut is so much more than breakfast food! This egg-centric menu has delicious sandwiches and burgers that range from $3 to $11. It’s SUPER popular no matter when you stop by so definitely be prepared for a line, and yes certain items run out.

Sticky Rice
Looking for Thai comfort food? Sticky Rice is the place for you. This restaurant uses locally sourced and organic ingredients to give you authentic Thai food. The Thai BBQ Chicken and Crying Tiger Beef are some of my favorites. Be careful when they tell you it’s spicy because it’s the truth!

The Oyster Gourmet Bar

From the restaurant that’s known to serve some of the best oysters in Los Angeles, the quick service concept of the Oyster Gourmet Bar does not mean inferior quality. Instead, be prepared for some fine dining and the highest quality experience with every oyster.

Horse Thief BBQ
This BBQ stand opened by two Texas natives offers pulled pork, brisket, chicken, ribs and sides — all Texas-style with very generous portions that will feed even the hungriest traveler. Everything at Horse Thief BBQ is delicious and the 3-side plate or 2- and 3-meat plates on the menu are perfect for sharing.

Did you leave room for dessert, especially a massive frozen dairy treat? With unique flavors like Turkish Coffee, Eureka Lemon & Marionberries Ice, you will definitely find your favorite at McConnell’s. Plus, the shop lets you have a scoop, float or build-your-own ice cream sandwich.

G&B Coffee
Coffee lovers rejoice! With G&B coffees coming from around the world you will fall in love. The baristas are very knowledgeable and can modify your drink order to accommodate allergies and tastes. Grab your favorite G&B beverage, a baked good and a stool to watch the world go by.

Bonus: Hilton Checkers Los Angeles is only a 1/2-mile from Grand Central Market.

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

5 Reasons Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is Perfect for Young Kids

Traveling to Orlando with young kids can be entertaining, exciting, and…exhausting! To make the most of your trip I recommend choosing age appropriate activities and finding a place to stay that works well for younger guests. Here are 5 reasons I recommend Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek resort as a great Orlando hotel for families with young kids.

1. Pool and Cabanas
After spending hours riding rides and meeting characters, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek’s three-acre pool and lazy river offers a refreshing break for splashing and playing. The pool area is a young child’s dream with a slow moving lazy river where you are allowed to ride floats or inner tubes, a water slide, and a shallow water play area for the youngest kids.

As a treat for the entire family, consider one of the private pool-side cabanas. This provides shade and space for a napping child, chairs and a sofa for family members who want to relax, a stocked mini-fridge, and a television with Disney Junior!

Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek review - Private cabana
A private cabana at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek resort is a real treat.

2. Variety of Restaurants
When traveling with young kids, it’s nice to have restaurant options nearby so you don’t have to venture too far first thing in the morning or after a long day of sightseeing. Whether you want a quick bite or a full meal, there are many restaurant choices at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek.

On our earliest morning heading to a theme park we picked up a quick to-go breakfast at Muse in the hotel lobby, and when we had more time for a leisurely breakfast we ate from the breakfast buffet at Harvest Bistro. Guests can easily eat at the adjacent Waldorf Astoria as well, meaning there are a total of 12 restaurants to choose from in the hotel complex. And as a bonus, kids 12 and under get free breakfast and dinner at Harvest Bistro as long as they are with paying adults!

3. Proximity to Disney Parks
Visiting the theme parks is the main event in Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is surrounded by the Walt Disney World Resort. Besides being convenient to Magic Kingdom, the hotel is particularly close to Disney’s Hollywood Studios which is a great choice for younger kids. Attractions include Toy Story Mania, Muppet*Vision 3D, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure. Character meet and greets include Disney Junior favorites Sophia the First and Doc McStuffins.

Disney's Hollywood Studios
Its convenient location to theme parks such as Disney’s Hollywood Studios is one of the reasons Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek resort is a great family hotel in Orlando.

4. Transportation
Walking from a theme park parking lot with a stroller or tired child is tough, but Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek resort offers a free Walt Disney World Shuttle that goes to all four Disney theme parks. What a relief to have a ride home after a busy day walking around one of the parks. The hotel also offers a shuttle from the airport to the hotel for a charge.

5. View of Fireworks
The fireworks shows at the Disney parks are spectacular, but it can be tough for young kids to stay awake for a show. At Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek resort, certain rooms have views of the fireworks at Epcot so the little ones can go to bed while the older kids and adults can enjoy the show. Be sure to ask about having a room with a view when you check in.

Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek review - Epcot Fireworks views
Some of the rooms at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek resort have views of the fireworks show at Epcot.

If you’re traveling to Orlando with young kids, it’s important to find a hotel that is comfortable, convenient and offers plenty of things for little ones to do. We found that Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek offers just the right mix of amenities for young families.

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Know Before You Go

  • If you’re visiting the Walt Disney World® Resort, be sure to pack adequate walking shoes. The resort is close in size to San Francisco!
  • At Universal Orlando™, the general parking is $25.
  • International Drive is known as the tourist center of the city – you’ll be close to trendy restaurants, bars, and sightseeing activities.

Roma Checklist: Top Things to do in Rome, Italy with Kids

Rome is my beloved home away from home. I lived in Rome as a college student and then as a young working woman. Though I eventually moved back to my hometown of Chicago, Rome is always in my heart, and I visit whenever I can. One of the biggest delights of my life has been sharing the eternal city with my two kids. Family and friends often ask me to share my picks for the best of Rome, and having just visited recently, I’m happy to share my list of the top things to do in Rome, Italy with kids (in addition to all the standard stuff like the Vatican Museum, Foro Romano, etc.).

1. Walk around the Fontana della Tartarughe three times, just because.

2. Sip a limonata in a grand, glorious piazza. Every day. Piazza del Popolo, Piazza del Pantheon…there are so many to choose from. Pick a piazza and settle into a café for an afternoon drink with a view. Ask for some salatine (salty little treats, usually mini pretzels or peanuts).

3. Insert a coin to see one of Caravaggio’s paintings illuminated. The best place to find Caravaggios in Rome is in the small church of San Luigi dei Francesi near Piazza Navona. Inside in the Contarelli Chapel you can see the master’s Saint Matthew cycle: The Calling of Saint Matthew, Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Entrance to the church is free, though it will cost you a few euros to activate the lights to view the paintings.

4. See an opera at the Terme di Caracalla.

5. Cross the Ponte Sisto from Campo dei Fiori into Trastevere.

6. Climb to the top of Aventine Hill and see a spectacular view of the city from a keyhole. (Pictured above)

7. Walk down the Spanish Steps from the Trinita dei Monti church to Piazza di Spagna in a pretty dress. Find that dress in one of the many boutiques in Via dei Condotti.

8. Eat an entire pizza. You don’t share pizza in Italy. Eat it with a fork, a knife and a beer. Try Dar Poeta.

9. Buy a bouquet of flowers for your lover (or yourself!) at the Campo dei Fiori morning market. Brighten up your hotel room the Roman way. Later in the day, sip a glass of wine barside at the Vineria in Campo dei Fiori. Vineria Reggio is at #14 in the piazza. Pay homage to Giodano Bruno, the man burned at the stake here, memorialized in statue at the piazza’s center.

10. Find the giant marble foot on Via del Pie di Marmo (Marble Foot Street).

11. Explore Tiburina Island.

12. Ride on the back of a Vespa holding on tightly to a cute Italian. Or rent a Vespa. I recommend Rome for You (Vicolo S. Nicola De Cesarini, 4; +390645437855; romeforyou.net).

Top things to do in Rome Italy with kids - Renting a Vespa
Renting a Vespa is one of my top things to do in Rome, Italy with kids!

13. Eat a scoop of gelato every day. Consider it a daily vitamin pill. I recommend Cremeria Monteforte (Via della Rotonda 22), located on the street running along the right side of the Pantheon. My kids love Della Palma (Via della Maddalena, 19-23) for its wide selection of flavors.

14. Explore a less touristy neighborhood. Try Testaccio or San Lorenzo.

15. Go back in time on the Rome Time Elevator. If you have kids, step aboard the Rome Time Elevator (Via dei SS. Apostoli, 20; 39-06-97746243). It’s a super cheesy, 45-minute panoramic movie that highlights Roman history with special effects (think moving seats and steam). I loved the way it summed up Roman history for kids and set the stage for 1,000 questions (“Mom, why did Nero laugh when the city was burning down?”) that could be explored and answered during the rest of our stay.

16. Wander Via Appia Antica. An entire day should be devoted to the Via Appia Antica. Go down deep into the catacombs of San Callisto. Meander down the Via Appia Antica, stopping for panini at the Bar Appia Antica (on the corner of Via Cecilia Metella and Via Appia Antica; 338-3465440). To get there, take the metro or bus to Piramide, then take the bumbling bus 118 on to the Catacombs of St. Callisto. Be on the lookout for Dante (usually found near the entrance to the Circus of Maxentius), he’s the man that sets up a small table selling handmade flute-like instruments for calling sheep, an inexpensive, musical souvenir.

17. See the Trevi Fountain in the wee hours of the morning. Watch La Dolce Vita pre-trip for a little inspiration. Throw a coin in to ensure a return to Rome. Make a wish.

18. Attend mass at St. Peter’s.

19. Go to the crypt of St. Clement’s and get to know Mithras.

20. Head to the tippy top of Castel Sant’Angelo on a starry night. Castel Sant’Angelo (Lungotevere Castello, 50; 066-819111), which was built by the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) as a mausoleum for himself then later converted to a fortress, is a child’s dream. Scale the 400-feet long winding ramp to the top level, where you’ll find an angelic messenger about to take flight. Each summer, Castel Sant’Angelo stays open into the late evening hours for magic shows, mock sword fights, and musical performances. Nothing beats the view from the top on a starry night.

21. Spend a perfect afternoon in Villa Borghese. The best way to get there is to climb up the monumental 138 Spanish Steps from the Piazza di Spagna, to the Trinità dei Monti church above.

22. Drink some water from La Barcaccia aka The Ugly Boat, a rowboat-like fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps, attributed to Pietro Bernini, father of his more famous son Gian Lorenzo. The hundreds of fountains, aka nasoni (big noses) because of the shape of their spouts, populate Rome and flow with some of the best water in the world, so drink up! Bring a reusable water bottle to Rome and you’ll never have to spend a cent on bottled water. The environment will thank you, too.

23. Eat a slice of watermelon on the Lungotevere overlooking the Tiber River. Cross the Ponte Garibaldi into Trastevere and you’ll see a stand on the Lungotevere Raffaele Sanzio. Grab a slice of fresh watermelon, and watch the world go by on the Lungotevere.

24. Walk through the gardens above the city, and count the hundreds of domes that dot the skyline, on Pincio, the area overlooking Piazza del Popolo. Here you’ll find a tiny amusement park for children, including a small merry-go-round where children can indulge their vespa-riding fantasies. Rent bicycles or a surrey and explore the landscaped gardens. In the summer months, take in a puppet show at the Teatro Stabile San Carlino, which features classic shows with favorite puppets such as Pulcinella and Arlecchino.

25. Wheel and deal at Porta Portese. Sunday mornings in Rome are not complete without a trip to Porta Portese, the largest and most popular weekly street market in the city. You can find anything at here, from giant lion-headed door knockers to glittery costume jewelry, vintage postcards, dish soap, parakeets, sundresses, toy trucks and baby buggies. Anything. Be careful of pickpockets and don’t bring too much cash. Let your kids get a true taste of Italy by letting them bargain for their own souvenirs.

26. Wander the Ghetto di Roma and eat a carciofo alla giudea, a fried artichoke. Try Giggetto in Via del Portico D’Ottavia, 21

27. Test your truth-telling ability. Plan to arrive at the Bocca della Verita before it opens at 9:30 am to avoid the long line. Afterwards, head into the adjacent church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Look for the altar to St. Valentine; his skull is encased in a gold box above the candles.

28. Eat a tartufo in Piazza Navona. Grab a seat at the piazza-side cafe Tre Scalini. Their specialty is Il Tartufo which is a ball-shaped chocolate ice cream cake topped with whipped cream and a cookie.

29. Spend a day swimming at the luxurious pools of the Rome Cavalieri. Set atop Monte Mario, the highest hill of the seven hills of Rome, the Rome Cavalieri is the first Hotel in Europe to be part of the exclusive Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts. As the preeminent luxury hotel in Rome, it possesses an art collection that rivals many museums, a stunning ancient Roman style Grand Spa three outdoor pools that are feature marvelous, panoramic views of Rome as a backdrop.

30. Contemplate the swift passage of time and seize the day. Older kids will be impressed by the Capuchin Crypt beneath the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception (1645), located on Via Veneto, near Barberini Square. The entire crypt is adorned with the bones of over 4,000 monks. A large clock is impressively composed of vertebrae, foot and finger bones. The cheery message posted in the last room, “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.” reminds me, as Rome always does, that we are just tiny grains in the sand of time. Enjoy today and appreciate the gift of life. Carpe Diem.

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Know Before You Go

Aventine Hill Keyhole View photo by Stefano Costantini / CC BY-SA 2.0

Flamenco in Madrid – Experience the Soul of Spain

Flamenco at Corral de la Morería, Madrid, Spain

By the time it was over we were speechless, tingling with emotion. It was impossible to adequately describe the experience we had just taken in, but some of the words that came to mind were: passionate, fiery, intense, magical, moving, extraordinary.

It was the last night of our family’s four-day visit to Madrid and we attended a flamenco performance at Corral de la Morería, Madrid’s finest tablao (flamenco club). We had many memorable experiences while visiting Spain’s capital, but everybody in our family agreed that this one trumped them all. I now understand why many people say you can’t visit Spain without seeing a classic flamenco show.

Flamenco and its origins
Flamenco is a genuine form of Spanish art and an important expression of Spanish culture, originating from Andalusia, the southernmost part of the country. Many associate it with gypsies, often referred to as “fathers of flamenco,” but different cultures and civilizations that dominated Spain during its rich history, such as the Arabs, also had an important influence on the development of flamenco.

Exact origins of flamenco are subject to much debate because, just like the art form, the stories about flamenco have been passed down through families, and flamenco has only been documented for the last 200 years. Early flamenco is said to be purely vocal, accompanied only by rhythmical clapping of hands, known as toque de palmas.

The word flamenco as it is used today refers to three forms: cante, the song; baile, the dance; and guitarra, the guitar music. A unique musical expression, flamenco conveys the deepest of emotions, usually melancholy and sadness as a result of a heartbreak or loneliness, and when performed artfully, it is known to evoke a special bond between the audience and the artist, known as duende. Various forms of flamenco are performed on stages all over the world. However, at its core, flamenco remains a deeply intimate kind of music and is in my opinion best experienced in small settings and where it was born…Spain.

Madrid Tablaos (Flamenco Clubs)
Today, Madrid is considered the world’s capital of flamenco. We were told that to make it as a flamenco star, be it a dancer or a singer, you have to make it on the stages of Madrid, which is famous for its tablaos, the flamenco equivalent of jazz or blues clubs. Tablaos, which flourished in the 60s, have their own flamenco troupes, referred to as cuadro (although the most famous stars will perform at multiple tablaos and stages). Cuadro flamenco often consists of eight well-known artists: two guitarists, two singers or cantaores, and four dancers or bailaores.

Best Flamenco Show in Madrid Spain - Corral de la Morería's cuadro flamenco (flamenco troupe)
Corral de la Morería’s cuadro flamenco (flamenco troupe).

Some of the most well-known tablaos in Madrid are Torres Bermejas, Café de Chinitas, Las Carboneras, Las Tablas and Corral de la Morería. They are all great venues to enjoy classical flamenco and many internationally famed flamenco stars started their careers at one of them, but my research prior to our trip (confirmed with the Madrid locals) suggested Corral de la Morería was the very best. It is even listed in the New York Times bestseller “1000 Places to See Before You Die.” Of course I immediately made our reservation!

Corral de la Morería
Established in 1956, Corral de la Morería is considered the oldest, as well as the most famous Madrid tablao in the world. It is located at Calle Morería 17, in the historic center of Madrid, very close to the Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral. From the very beginning, its owner, Manuel del Rey, had a vision to create a superb experience for his patrons, hiring only the best chefs and most famous artists and striving for impeccable service.

In addition to its nightly electrifying performances, Corral de la Morería is known for long list of celebrities that have visited its premises over the years: from royals and dignitaries like the King of Spain, King Hussein of Jordan, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, to actors and artists like Sofia Loren, Liza Minnelli, Rudolph Nureyev, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Demi Moore, Sting and Jennifer Aniston. Photos of these and many other celebrities cover the walls of the entryway, immediately testifying to its reputation.

Best Flamenco Show in Madrid Spain - Corral de la Morería wall of celebs
Pictures of past celebrity visitors cover the walls of the entryway at Corral de la Morería. Can you spot Hugh Grant, Michael Douglas, Sarah Jessica Parker or Nicole Kidman?

The club seats approximately 150 guests, which surprised us because the setting felt much more intimate. The décor (furniture, lamps, artwork) from the 18th and 19th centuries and low lighting give it an authentic and slightly mysterious vibe, making you feel like you have stepped back in time.

Dinner and Show
Corral de la Morería offers two shows every night (8:30 pm and 10:20 pm), which last approximately one hour. Guests can choose from three different ticket options: “show plus dinner from one of the three fixed menus” which you can find and preview on their website or, alternatively, “show plus dinner a la carte.” If you are not in the mood for food, you can opt for “show only,” which includes one drink.

I should mention that the TripAdvisor reviews I read prior to our visit made me a little skeptical of the food (several reviews praise the show, but suggest the food is not great and overpriced). I could not disagree more. The flamenco performance we witnessed was only elevated by the outstanding cuisine and service we experienced. Some of the dishes we sampled were the house selection of jamón, scallop salad, sea bass and beef tenderloin. They were all fantastic and artfully prepared, delighting both our eyes and pallets. The “Childhood Memories” desert was an amazing sweet finale to our dinner.

The performance was spectacular and impossible to adequately describe. The guitarists, the singers and the dancers were each remarkable in their own way. While Corral de la Morería only presents top flamenco artists, we were extra lucky the night we visited. “Jesús Fernández is here tonight!” whispered our waiter as we were ordering our dinner. When he saw our slightly confused faces, he continued, “He is considered to be one of the top male flamenco dancers in the world at the moment.”

Indeed, his dancing was incredible, but then again, so was the entire experience. It must have been duende we all felt during and after the show. The best part for me was the feeling that the group was not there to entertain anybody. They were on the stage of Corral de la Morería baring their souls, expressing their deepest emotions, so very personal, yet universally understood. We, the audience just happened to be there.

Best Flamenco Show in Madrid Spain - Corral de la Morería exterior
Entrance to the Corral de la Morería. We were very excited about our visit to Madrid’s finest tablao to see the best flamenco show in Madrid.

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge for a Great San Francisco Day Trip

San Francisco is my hometown, so when we go back for a visit it’s like a trip back to the old stomping grounds. But now with the kids in tow, it’s a bit of a different experience. No more explorations South of Market for drinks at the latest dive bar or adventures in Asian dining on Clement Street where you play “Guess That Meat.” Instead, I get to show them the cool stuff I remember as a kid growing up here.

The City by the Bay has an excellent public transportation system with BART, the MUNI and any number of other modes of transportation to help you get from here to there. If you are staying at the very well located Hilton San Francisco Union Square, it’s really easy to get around via a variety of transportation modes, even your feet.

Still, it’s worth it to venture beyond those seven square miles that make up San Francisco proper. A short day trip across the Golden Gate Bridge is just the ticket. (Bring snacks.)

Cross the GOLDEN GATE Bridge for Amazing Views
Obviously an iconic landmark associated with San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is even more impressive when viewed from the other side. Seen from the city, views are often partially blocked by buildings, or even more often, that pesky fog. Get up and pack the kids into the car after breakfast to take the easy drive along Highway 101 North, crossing the famous bridge before it gets too crowded. Open all the windows and the sunroof if you have one, smell the salty ocean air and look up to ponder the gargantuan towers.

Best question from my kids: “Why do they call it the Golden Gate Bridge when it’s actually painted red, Daddy?” I dunno kids, I dunno. (But they are right – it’s clearly red, not golden.) If you’re curious now, find the answer here.

San Francisco Day Trip - Golden Gate Bridge Scenic Overlook
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge on the Marin County side, the scenic lookout offers unmatched views of the bridge and San Francisco, Alcatraz, Bay Bridge, and more.

From here, take the first exit on the right after you cross the bridge at the Scenic Overlook, pull into the lot and park the car. From here, you can get out and walk back along the pedestrian walkway on the bridge as you marvel at the views of the city, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge and the areas beyond. It’s much less crowded on this side of the bridge, and here’s the secret — the views are much better from this side! Pose for family selfies that are sure to end up on your holiday card next year.

Second best question from my kids: “Why do the bad guys always destroy the Golden Gate Bridge in every action movie we’ve ever seen, Daddy?” Once again, I dunno, but it does make for a dramatic sci-fi disaster scene.

Now get back in the car and cross under Highway 101 to the other side of the bridge, an area called the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From here, there is a two-lane road with many scenic turnouts, where you can park and look back towards the bridge from a different vantage point. An old military fort built long ago to protect the city from foreign marauders, the battlements at the Marin Headlands still exist. You can even climb around where the cannons used to sit, walk inside the old barracks, and see into the long-abandoned ammunition storage bunkers.

However, the best part of this journey is the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from this side – the outside, looking back towards the city with the bridge in front of it. TREMENDOUS PHOTO OPP!

San Francisco Day Trip - Golden Gate Bridge
Drive into the Marin Headlands for postcard-perfect views of the Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco framed behind.

Best kid question from this area: “Is it always so cold and windy here, Daddy?” Yep, it is. So bring a sweatshirt because it is NEVER warm here. No exaggeration.

From there, get back in the car and continue along the tiny road away from the bridge. Note: the road gets a bit windy but only for a few miles. The vistas are so worth it, and you can stop a number of places along the way if anyone gets a little urpy.

San Francisco Day Trip - Marin Headlands
Located within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Marin Headlands is a picturesque drive just minutes from the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

When you get down to ocean level, there are a bunch of fun and easy hikes, especially the one to the lighthouse. Park the car in the parking lot and follow the signs along the path to the old historic Point Bonita Lighthouse. It’s still active and they give great guided tours. The views back toward the bridge are quite impressive, with the rocky shoreline and wind-twisted pines in the foreground. This is a good place for a snack break too.

A very short drive beyond, stop at beautiful Rodeo Beach. The water is wetsuit-chilly, but the warm red and green pebbles that make up the beach feel welcoming on your bare feet, beckoning for a little nap break. Our kids gathered interesting stones and shells here; the seagulls left us alone when they realized we had no food; and the warm sun allowed a perfect respite before we hit the road again.

Inevitable question from the kids about now: “I’m hungry! Is there a restaurant around here, Daddy?”

Leaving the historic Fort Cronkhite buildings and Rodeo Beach behind, drive to nearby Sausalito. A postcard-perfect seaside enclave, Sausalito has many restaurants to choose from, most of which are extremely kid-friendly. Luckily, these establishments are accustomed to hungry masses, and you can choose from many delicious cafés with good menus and friendly staff.

Another great thing about Sausalito is the plethora of photo-worthy spots throughout the village. Perfect for visitors, the village looks ready-made for Instagram moments, complete with seals on the rocky beach, quirky houseboats floating on the water, fishermen with lines in the surf, rich people on custom sailboats and many, many views of downtown San Francisco across the bay. Originally a hippie hangout and now home to wealthy ex-pats of San Francisco’s successful tech community, Sausalito still has a bohemian flair. (Think tie-dyed shirts over Lulu Lemon yoga pants). Fun people watching!

After a quick Starbucks bracer for the parents, we snapped some selfies and got back into the car to retrace our path across the bridge. We were back in San Francisco proper within 15 minutes and ensconced in the Hilton garage lickety-split.

Tip: The bridge has a whopping $7 toll in this direction, but no one manning the toll booths. Either self-pay, or plan to get a notice in the mail that you owe the toll ASAP. (The toll compounds surprisingly quickly for those who lag, which I found out the hard way.) You can arrange to pay in advance through your rental car company as well. More details here.

Hope it’s as fun for your family as it was for ours!

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Know Before You Go

Day Trip to Exotic, Adventurous, Mystical Tangier, Morocco

Day trip to Tangier Morocco

The very mention of Tangier evokes images of exotic mystery, fascinating history, dream-like vistas and unspoiled beaches. This Gateway to Africa offers a dazzling mix of cultures from North Africa, Spain, Portugal and France.

And for the kids…where else but Tangier can they “rock the Kasbah,” ride a camel, wrap a snake around their necks, feast like little princes and princesses…all in one adventure-packed day? Excited about the intrigue and temptations, the six of us (my husband, our two girls then ages 8 and 11, my parents and I) hopped the modern ferry from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco, and our unforgettable day trip began!

Big recommendation: Before you arrive in Tangier, I strongly recommend contacting a reputable tour guide. We found one of the best, Said’s Private Tours. We were sold once we learned that Said: (1) Spent time in New Jersey, and (2) Has provided tours of Tangier to David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen! If he’s good enough for “the Boss,” he’s good enough for us! A tour guide will help you efficiently and safely navigate the city and enhance the local experience.

Tip: I also recommend telling your guide if you plan to shop or prefer to skip it. Said respected our wishes and at no point were we asked to consider buying anything.

Our Family’s Top 5 Things to Do on a Day Trip to Tangier, Morocco

We felt like actors in a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, standing in amazement just feet from the mystical snake charmer! The girls watched with eyes and mouths wide open as the charmer (and his two tambourine-tapping assistants) worked his magic, and sure enough, his skills and the hypnotic rhythms magically coaxed the snake up and out of its basket!

We knew we would never forget this snake-perience, but to be sure, we each actually posed for pictures with a snake wrapped around our necks! (Shh! – don’t tell anyone – but the snake in our photos was not really alive.) Your guide will find you a charmer of your own just outside the walls of the Kasbah.

Top things to do in Morocco, Day Trip to Tangier - Snake Charmer
Get charmed by a day trip to Tangier, Morocco.

Kids and caves are a natural match. But this cave in Tangier is not just any cave, the Grottes d’Hercule, according to legend, is where the mythical figure, Hercules, used to rest after finishing his 12 labors!

The cave is set among a picturesque beachfront and with a stunningly dramatic opening unlike any we have ever seen. The girls loved this place almost as much as my dad/photographer did. We all learned a fascinating fact: the shape of the cave’s opening is uncannily similar to the map of Africa (if you were looking at the cave from the ocean).

We all delighted in seeing and hearing the crashing waves and being covered in the surf’s mist. It was a true multi-sensory experience. Another surprising treat for the kids was being able to casually shop inside the cave where local artists sell their wares and souvenirs.

Top things to do in Morocco, Day Trip to Tangier - Caves of Hercules
Explore the beautiful beaches near the Caves of Hercules.

Imagine in your mind an African scene, and you’ll probably conjure up romantic images of locals riding camels along the sand. Well, when in Tangier, you can put yourself as star of that scene. We did!

After mounting our camels (perhaps the scariest part of the experience), we formed our own caravan along the sandy beach, with the sparkling Atlantic Ocean as the picturesque backdrop. While it may not have been a true camel trek, using a little imagination, my girls thrilled in the exotic feeling of their journey and so did I!

Tip: Keep in mind that the there are no safety harnesses. Be sure your child is able to hold on tightly during the bumpy and jerky ride. My younger daughter was 8 and she was fine, smiling the entire time.

Top things to do in Morocco, Day Trip to Tangier - Camel ride
Taking an exotic camel ride is one of the top things to do in Morocco on a day trip to Tangier.

Probably the most exotic experience of our entire two-week, adventure-filled trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco was immersing ourselves in the medina, the old walled city. Upon entering the 15th century fortress walls, we were immediately transported into a world so very different than our own!

My girls were fascinated and delighted as they wandered the narrow alleys of the medina, discovering thrills and surprises at every turn. We were able to truly see and feel how the locals work, shop and live in the medina. We peeked into the spectacularly colorful thread stores. We watched the bakers preparing the daily bread. We admired the sparkling silver designs in the jewelry stores. We saw seamstresses hard at work, creating intricate garments right before our eyes. All of this activity was going on amidst the sights, sounds and smells of a world we never knew.

To top it all off, we visited the medieval Kasbah, the walled fortress of the Sultan, which is surrounded by absolutely stunning views of the Strait of Gibraltar. The entire visit was a priceless, eye-opening educational experience for our children.

Food shopping on vacation? Really? Oh yeah! In Tangier it’s an experience not to be missed! The Moroccan markets are called souks, and they are jam-packed with local shoppers and sellers in colorful costumes with exotic offerings beyond the imagination. Spices, seafood, meats, cheeses, native handicrafts and anything, and everything, else you can imagine are all available for sale.

Our family market adventure started in the bustling fish market where the noisy bargaining, the sights of unusual sea life, and especially the odors of the seafood literally stunned my girls into silence. Then the kids’ eyes widened as they ventured through the narrow stalls of the meat market with entire slabs and sides of beef, whole chickens hanging from stalls, baskets of mysterious animal organs and, the most precious of Moroccan delicacies, cows’ heads!

Finally, our senses were rewarded as we strolled through the fragrant exotic spice and vegetable market, stopping to examine the goat cheese being sold by the indigenous Berber women in traditional garb. Our girls couldn’t believe this is how Tangier families do their daily grocery shopping, a far cry from a trip to our local grocery store!

Tips: For the ultimate Moroccan shopping experience, start with a coffee in the bustling Grand Socco (Big Square), the gorgeous iconic entrance to the medina. Channel your inner Jason Bourne or conjure up visitors of the past such as Tennessee Williams, Henri Matisse and Jack Kerouac. Soak in the palm trees and beautiful fountain. Then explore the bustling square filled with vendors selling second-hand goods, fruits and spices. For a stunning view, hang out on La Terasse, a balcony across from the police station.
And remember to wear sneakers as the ground in the markets may be wet and dirty.

Top things do to in Morocco, Day trip to Tangier - Market
Wander the aisles of the many different tempting markets in Tangier.

The Royal Treatment at Lunch – FEAST LIKE MOROCCAN ROYALTY!
After our trip to the fascinating, but unusual souk market, I must admit I was fearful of eating in Tangier and told our tour guide, Said, that I was packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to play it safe.

Said laughed and assured me that the Restaurant Hamadi would be more than safe; it would be a delicious and luxurious experience. Boy, was he right! Hamadi is an other-worldly oasis in the middle of the wild hubbub of the city. As we were ushered into a palace-like atmosphere, our senses were immediately absorbed in the inviting smells of spices and the hypnotic melodies of a quartet playing traditional Moroccan music. We were shown to a sumptuous red booth, where we royally reclined on plush pillows and soaked in the ultra-rich atmosphere.

And then the feast began, course after course after course of delectable Moroccan cuisine. Seems my girls were totally into Moroccan food! They dove into every dish and even begged for seconds of the harira soup. My girls discovered tremendous flavorful dishes of couscous with vegetables, tagine meats, piles of olives and tapenades. We ended it all with a cup of mint tea and honey soaked pastries. Mmm…Mmm…Morocco! Lunch was more than a meal; it was truly a royal experience which turned out to be one of my girls’ favorite meals anywhere they have traveled!

Where to stay
With flights around one hour, Tangier is a manageable day trip from Madrid, Spain. The Tangier airport is just 20 minutes from the center of the city. Consider staying at the conveniently located and delightful Hilton Madrid Airport. Tangier can also be reached via a short high-speed ferry from Tarifa, Spain.

What a day! What an experience! Let Tangier tempt you — you won’t regret it!

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Visit Disneyland Like a Pro

Take it from a local, you can do Disneyland in a day — you just need to know where to start. There is so much to see and a ton more to do, but if you manage your time properly, you will be skating thru the park like a pro. I get many emails asking for Disneyland tips, tricks and hints from faraway friends planning trips to see the Mouse, so I thought this would be the perfect place to compile answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Over the next 18 months, there are many special Diamond Celebration events planned at Disneyland for the 60th Anniversary, so you are not going to want to miss a beat. Some to make note of:

Should I Wait to Get Our Disneyland Tickets?

No! Get started at home and secure your Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme park tickets and Park Hoppers prior to your visit online. If you purchase a 3+ day ticket in advance, you will be able to enjoy one Magic Morning early admission.

Hire a Disneyland VIP Tour Guide

Consider customizing your perfect day with a Disney VIP Tour Guide. Not only are you guaranteed the highest level of service and special park perks, you are bound to have an unforgettable day. You and up to 10 guests will embark on a carefully curated tour customized to your personal interests, score special seating at restaurants, and enjoy reserved viewing for parades, stage shows and nighttime firework displays.

Where Should We Eat Inside the Park?

Well, that depends on your family’s needs. Are you looking for character dining? Fast-served food? Fine dining? Healthy choices? Believe it or not, there are some great healthy choices throughout both parks. A few of our favorites:

Or perhaps you want a break from the crowds and to eat in peace at Downtown Disney. The options are endless, but make sure to call far in advance for Disney dining reservations at (714) 781-DINE.

Disneyland Restaurants

Use the Fast Pass system

If you snooze, you lose. The early bird really does catch the worm at Disneyland. If you wait too long to snag a Fast Pass for your favorite ride, you may not get on until much later that evening. Yes, as in after 8:30 pm when Junior needs to go down for an eight-hour siesta. So find out which of your favorite rides offer access via Fast Pass and head there first thing before you do anything.

When is the Best Time to Visit Disneyland?

Secret: Despite what you think, come summer months, steer clear of the Disneyland parks during the week! It’s a myth that weekends are most crowded during spring and summer. From May to early September, the park is crawling with students on class trips, grad nights, campers, field trips, and most of all: tourists trained to avoid attractions during the weekend. Come mid-Septemer, you simply can’t believe how nice Disneyland can be on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Weekends do start to become extra-crowded once October rolls around into the winter months.

Disneyland Souvenirs

Grab a pair of ears and call it a day! Why worry about dragging bags of goodies around the park with you when you can have them shipped directly to your home? That’s right! Even that extra-special Disneyland swag available only in the park! The park’s DelivEARS department at (800) 362-4533 is ready to take your order over the phone and do the shopping and shipping for you! This is a great number to have handy in case you remember something you wanted from the parks way beyond checkout.

If you don’t know, ask!

Disney is swarming with helpful cast members ready to help you navigate the park in a moment’s notice. Seek and you shall find.

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Know Before You Go

Disney California Adventure photo by Vincent Lock / CC By 2.0

Top 5 Orlando Activities for Adventurous Families

When most people think of Orlando they think of theme parks and dinner theater. While it’s true that Orlando does have world renowned attractions and shows, the city also has a more adventurous side. It’s a side that many people may not even be aware of, but I hope that will change once you see all of the adventurous things to do in Orlando for thrill seeking families.

Come prepared to get dirty. Really dirty. There are several places in Orlando that offer off-roading experiences. My favorite place, both for price and experience, is Revolution Off Road. Revolution is a family owned business that specializes in ATV tours, Dune Buggy rides, 4×4 Jeep off-roading, and the one of a kind, Mucky Ducks, all-terrain and amphibious vehicles. If you aren’t quite on board with all that adventure, don’t worry, you can enjoy a leisurely day of fishing or an hour or two of archery instead. Recommended ages: 6 to adult.

Adventurous things to do in Orlando FL - Off-Roading
Get down and dirty at the Mucky Duck Experience at Revolution Off-Road.

Hot Air Ballooning
I grew up watching the yearly hot air balloon races in Reno, NV and have always dreamed of boarding a giant balloon and letting the wind carry me away. I finally got my wish this year thanks to Orlando Balloon Rides. This once in a lifetime experience is a must do for any adventurous family. Getting up before dawn, helping unload and inflate the balloon and finally soaring above Orlando is something that I will never forget. Because the route changes daily due to weather patterns, you will never have the same experience twice. Recommended ages: 4 to adult.

Top 5 Orlando Activities for Adventurous Families- Hot Air Balloon Ride
Sit back and enjoy the view from Orlando Balloon Rides’ hot air balloon.

Airboat Rides
Airboats are a fun and exciting way to get to know Orlando nature. Cruise though Orlando’s waterways at top speed and get a crash course on Orlando’s wild side. Your guide will introduce you to birds like the American Bald Eagle, local vegetation and the occasional gator. (Yikes!) There are many places to take an airboating adventure, but my two favorites are Boggy Creek Airboats and Spirit of the Swamp. Recommended ages: 3 to adult.

Adventurous things to do in Orlando FL - Airboat Ride
Going on an airboat ride with gator sightings is one of the adventurous things to do in Orlando.

Swimming with Manatees
This is a once in a lifetime experience for any adventure loving family! Riverventures offers three-hour manatee tours that include snorkeling with the gentle giants. On these tours you travel down the Crystal River while learning about manatee conservation efforts and what is being done to protect these majestic animals. Once you arrive at your destination you are given a safety speech and the dos and don’ts of the experience, and then you will be set loose to swim and engage with wild manatees. Pretty awesome, right?

All swimmers must be comfortable in the water, and children under the age of 18 require an adult to be in the water with them. Recommended ages 4 to adult.

Tree Trek Adventure Park
Let your family embrace their inner monkeys. Tree Trek Adventure Park has a variety of challenging ropes courses for different levels and ages, including suspended bridges, swinging surprises, Tarzan swings, nets and a giant zip line. Plan on spending at least 2-3 hours completing the courses and it is highly recommended that you book your reservations ahead of time, especially in the busy summer season. Recommended ages: 7 to adult.

If you haven’t experienced these adventurous things to do in Orlando yet, what are you waiting for? Book your trip to Orlando now and make sure you stay at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, where you can relax after a day of excitement at the world class spa while the kids unwind in the three-acre lazy river.

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Know Before You Go

  • If you’re visiting the Walt Disney World® Resort, be sure to pack adequate walking shoes. The resort is close in size to San Francisco!
  • At Universal Orlando™, the general parking is $25.
  • International Drive is known as the tourist center of the city – you’ll be close to trendy restaurants, bars, and sightseeing activities.

5 Best Day Trips from San Francisco

There’s a lot to see in San Francisco, there’s no doubt. Hilton San Francisco Union Square and Hilton San Francisco Financial District can also be a great home bases from which to take some quick and easy day trips. When making any plans, though, there is one term your family needs to become familiar with: “microclimate.” The San Francisco Bay Area is full of these atmospheric zones where the climate differs from an area that is just a few miles away. A little preparation will go a long way in achieving a successful day trip.

Should you decide to venture outside the City by the Bay, here are five of the best day trips from San Francisco to consider.

Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore includes more than 70,000 acres with more than 70 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails as well as numerous campgrounds. Is any further proof needed to confirm that this national park exists for sole purpose of getting people out into nature?

Wild coastal beaches and headlands, estuaries, and uplands make up the peninsula of this preserve. It also offers plenty of opportunities to watch the gray whale migration, observe the raptors, shorebirds, and other animals. Kids can set off on searches for oyster shells and sand dollars. There are also opportunities to learn about the San Andreas Fault and 16th century maritime history.

Best day trips from San Francisco - Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore includes more than 70,00 acres with more than 70 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails.

Microclimate Tip: Summers in Point Reyes are often cold and foggy while winters are generally clear. Your family can prepare themselves for this microclimate by bringing a jacket or sweat shirt that can be tied around the waist should the day warm up.

Muir Woods
This majestic collection of redwood trees ranges in age from 400 to nearly 1,000 years old and each tree stands more than 250 feet tall. Just a hop across the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods feels magical in many ways. Douglas fir, maples, tanoaks, and red alders sprout up in the sprays of light that squeeze in between the redwoods’ huge trunks and wildlife like owls, deer, chipmunks, and woodpeckers play and live among their branches and roots.

Best day trips from San Francisco - Muir Woods
Old growth Redwood trees in Muir Woods stand over 250 feet tall.

Flat easy trails loop through the park and several of them include ways to cross Redwood Creek, which flows all year long. Read more about Exploring Muir Woods National Monument with Kids.

Microclimate TipDaytime temperatures in Muir Woods rarely pass the 70°s because ocean moisture from the San Francisco Bay creeps up over the headlands and into the valley where Muir Woods is located, often becoming trapped under the massive trees. If you visit in the summer months, be sure everyone in the family has a sweatshirt or light jacket handy; a visit during the winter months may require a warm jacket or an umbrella.

Sausalito/Tiburon/Angel Island
Get a different perspective of San Francisco’s cityscape by visiting the quaint little village of Sausalito. Located just across the bay, it also offers fun educational opportunities to explore like the Bay Model, a working hydraulic scale model of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta System. Families with young ones particularly enjoy the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s exhibits, play areas, and educational activities.

Best day trips from San Francisco - Sausalito
Located just across the bay, Sausalito is one of the best day trips from San Francisco.

Picturesque Tiburon is just down the road and that island that you can spot off the coast of both towns is Angel Island State Park, where sweeping views and ample hiking and biking trails are a mere 10-minute sail away.

Leave the car behind! If you really want to drive to Sausalito and Tiburon, be aware that Bay Area traffic can be a challenge. All three of these spots are accessible by ferry boat. Getting out on the San Francisco Bay not only brings visitors closer to the marine life in the area, it offers a closer look at iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

Microclimate Tip: It can be breezy on the bay then warmer in any of these locations once you arrive. But then again, you may be lucky enough to get a day where the weather is warm on the bay and even warmer on land. Dress in layers so that clothing can be shed or a layer added according to what the weather may dish out.

Located on the eastern part of the bay, Berkeley has a long history of activism because it is where the University of California Berkeley is located. It is also home to some high caliber and highly unusual family friendly attractions. The Lawrence Hall of Science has been offering hands on experiences in math and science for more than more than 45 years. Located in the Berkeley Hills, they haven’t taught just kids a thing or two about science; parents find that they come away with a better understanding as well.

If your crew likes getting dirty, then you’ll want to check out the Adventure Playground. Adjacent to the Berkeley Marina, it is a playground built by other kids. All of the materials are recycled. There is a zipline and a lot of other surprises in the place. If your kids are handy with a saw, hammer or paint brush, they are welcome to add onto or alter what it is already there.

Best day trips from San Francisco - Berkeley Adventure Playground
Adventure Playground in Berkeley is a playground built by other kids where all of the materials are recycled.

Not far from this attraction, in nearby Richmond, Playland-Not-At-The-Beach pays homage to the beachside amusement park. Challenge the kids to the arcade games of your youth and revel in the fact that you lived to tell the tale of taking on thrill rides that would be considered a liability these days.

Microclimate Tip: Berkeley may only be about 30 minutes from San Francisco, but it is often more than just a few degrees warmer than the city. Be prepared to shed a layer of clothing here and be sure to have sunscreen in your bag. Afternoons in particular can get comfortably balmy in this part of the Bay Area.

Napa Valley
Fine wine and culinary arts may be the first things that come to mind when folks think about the Napa Valley, but there are also family-friendly attractions to enjoy in this bucolic area one hour north of San Francisco! Take the kids love to see the Old Faithful Geyser erupt; conduct a geological study in the Petrified Forest, and get a look at Napa’s rural heritage at the Bale Grist Mill, a restored water-powered grist mill. About 78 wineries also offer family-friendly features on their tours that include grape juice and coloring books for the kids.

Best day trips from San Francisco - Napa Valley
Find several family-friendly attractions to enjoy on a day trip to Napa Valley, just one hour north of San Francisco.

Microclimate Tip: You are most likely in for a clear comfortable day in the Napa Valley. The climate is considerably warmer than San Francisco’s, often by as much as 10 to 15 degrees. Bring sunscreen!

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Know Before You Go

Visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa with Kids

Leaning tower of Pisa with kids

There is something about the Leaning Tower of Pisa that has fascinated my kids since they were little. Visiting the tower and “eating pizza in Pisa” were at the top of my kids’ bucket list for their first trip to Italy last November. We spent an afternoon here on our way to Florence and enjoyed our brief visit.

Leaning Tower of Pisa Facts
The Leaning Tower is located in Campo dei Miracoli or Field of Miracles in Pisa’s city center. This complex also includes the Pisa Cathedral, Baptistery and monumental cemetery. My kids were so excited to get their first glimpse of the leaning tower. Surprisingly, the lean is so much more prominent in person.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa Complex - Day Trip from Florence
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is located in Pisa’s city center. The complex also includes the Pisa Cathedral.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was originally built as a bell tower and started leaning after completion of the third story due to the soft ground its foundation was built on in 1178. It took over 200 years to complete the tower’s construction due to interruptions from wars, debt and structural issues.

This white marble structure has 207 columns. Its lowest point has sunk by about 10 feet. Many efforts have been taken to stabilize the tower and preserve it. The tower is located in a very well maintained area including the vibrant green grass we couldn’t walk on.

We couldn’t resist doing the fun tourist poses with the tower. But, it was more entertaining to watch the other tourists do some crazy poses. My kids actually “researched” which poses they would do with the tower before our visit. We probably spent more time orchestrating these poses than necessary.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa Complex - Day Trip from Florence

Climbing the Tower
Don’t miss going inside and climbing the tower for a memorable experience. Unfortunately, children under 8 years old aren’t allowed to go up. We highly recommend booking tickets in advance online to skip lines and to get your preferred times. Tickets are sold for 18€ in 30-minute segments throughout the day. The visit must be booked at least a day and a maximum of 20 days before your visit.

Backpacks, bags and purses must be deposited at the free luggage storage, with security guards, before entering the tower. This area is located in a yellow-orange building nearby, by the giant torso sculpture. Cameras, including DSLRs, were okay to bring up.

We felt the tilting as soon as we entered which was a bit unsettling. It was a surprise to see the inside so hollow. The staff gave a brief history talk on the ground floor before letting us go up.

Climbing eight stories up and 297 spiral steps in a single file line took about 10 minutes. It got a bit dizzying after a while and going down was worse. The marble steps weren’t even and the stairwell was narrow so slow and steady worked best here. The climb didn’t feel too claustrophobic because there were windows along the way.

We were rewarded with beautiful views of the city and the rooftops of the nearby structures once reaching the top. There were several bells here but also a high fence around the viewing area. I felt safer standing there with kids. Tower visits were limited to 40 minutes which was enough time to enjoy the whole experience. We loved this part of our visit.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa View, Day trip from Florence
After a dizzying climb, enjoy the beautiful views of Pisa below.

Please take some time to visit the other buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage site. Kids 10 and under have free admission everywhere except the tower. The tower ticket includes admission to the cathedral. The cathedral was stunning inside and out. Give the kids a camera and see what they capture in here. It almost felt like a museum. The domed Baptistery is Italy’s largest and worth visiting to test its acoustics.

I wish we had more time to explore other parts of Pisa beyond the square. It looked like an interesting city. Pisa was an easy day trip from Florence. It was a short visit but worth it for the experience of climbing the leaning tower of Pisa.

Know Before You Go

  • Use the LAM Rosso or Red Line bus to get to the square from the airport or Pisa-Centrale train station. They run every 7-15 minutes. Tickets were 1.10€ one-way and were valid for an hour. Tickets can be purchased at the airport information desk, machine or train newstands. They must be stamped after entering the bus.
  • Buses were located outside the baggage claim area at the airport and across the street from train station by the Pisa Jolly Hotel. The bus stop for the tower is Torre.
  • We came from the airport and stored our luggage at the Pisa-Centrale station. Price was 3€ per piece for 12 hours.
  • Keep a close eye on your belongings when taking pictures and especially when riding the buses.
  • Eating pizza in Pisa? We ate at Pizzeria Toscana located on a nearby side street. It was family-friendly and frequented by both locals and tourists. Various pizzas ranged from 7-8€ and they also had delicious pasta dishes. Don’t forget the gelato afterwards!

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Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

Know Before You Go

10 Great Reasons to Stay at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek

How do you decide where to stay in Orlando with so many hotel choices your head will spin? Look no further than the happiest place on earth (hint: I am not talking about Walt Disney World). Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek resort will transport you and your family into a refreshing oasis of friendliness and relaxation like no other hotel you have ever visited.

Surrounded by a serene 482-acre nature preserve and conveniently located next to Walt Disney World, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek offers a mind-boggling amount of amenities and activities for the whole family. And if you thought one hotel didn’t have enough amenities, the adjacent Waldorf Astoria Orlando allows guests to take advantage of their pools and activities as well! Watch out Walt Disney World, the competition is stiff! With the combination of activities available from both hotels you will feel like you scored a BOGO!

With a recent renovation, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is a reasonably priced luxury hotel with a modern and hip vibe. Although our family traveled to Orlando to spend eight days exploring Walt Disney World, we actually had more fun just hanging out at the hotel and wished we had spent more time taking advantage of everything offered! They even offer complimentary luxury transportation to and from the Disney theme parks. All you have to do is sit back and relax! Here are 10 reasons why this hotel should be your top choice in Orlando:

1. Happiest Place on Earth
They say Walt Disney World is the happiest place on earth, but I think they take a back seat to Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. Seriously, I have never been to a hotel like this one where every single employee is friendly, helpful and obviously enjoys their job. It was enjoyably infectious! Everyone from the valet, front desk employees, concierge, and housekeepers to the wait staff and pool personnel always offered smiles and wanted to help in any way they could. That alone is priceless and reason to return!

2. Comfy Rooms
All of the rooms at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek from the deluxe rooms to the suites will provide the utmost in comfort. True to Hilton style, the beds envelop you, enabling the best sleep possible! For our family of four, we spent a week in a deluxe room and had plenty of space to stretch out and relax after long and exhausting days.

We were happy to have a room on an upper floor with a Disney view and I recommend this if possible. Every night we would race back to our room to watch the fireworks at Epcot and Magic Kingdom. On select holidays, the hotel even displays their own fireworks show over the Signature Lagoon behind the pool area. All of the rooms also feature a small refrigerator to keep snacks and drinks cool.

3. Activities and More Activities
When a hotel has a dedicated Recreation Team, you know you will be in for a good time. Both Hilton and Waldorf Astoria with their combination of year-round activities deliver on that promise. During your stay you will find an endless array of family friendly activities, especially on the weekends.

During the summer be sure to check out SummerBlast! which is an all-out splash of fun! There are music, games, prizes and a promise of a good time! Make sure you join in the Ducktona 500 on Saturdays and win a prize if your duck crosses the finish line in the lazy river!

4. The Waldorf Astoria Kids Club
Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek guests enjoy full privileges at the active Waldorf Astoria Kids Club and your kids will think this is more fun than being at Mickey’s Playhouse. Kids can choose from a wide array of activities that include biking, arts and crafts, movies, scavenger hunts or exploring the latest game equipment with Wii and Rock Band.

In addition to the daily Kids Club activities, the Waldorf Astoria also offers “Astoria After Dark.” The After Dark program is held nightly from 7 to 10 pm and includes a specially prepared dinner and activities. When you want a little alone time, rest assured the kids will not feel neglected in this program! There is a nominal fee and reservations are required.

5. Indulge in Some Spa Time
While the kids are being taken care of at the WA Kids Club, make sure to indulge in a luxurious spa treatment at the Waldorf Astoria Spa. As a guest of Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, you have full access to their menu of spa services and facilities to include the whirlpool and steam room. Ahhh…sheer relaxation and bliss that I am missing right now.

6. Get Your Swing On
Orlando isn’t just known for Walt Disney World, it’s a mecca for golf as well. If you enjoy golfing, then you will be thrilled to find an 18-hole world class Par 72 course amidst the Bonnet Creek nature preserve. Golf magazine cites it as one of the “Top Courses You Can Play.” If you didn’t bring clubs, don’t fret as they are offered complimentary to guests. There is even an impressive practice range and putting green if you don’t have time for a full game.

Best Family Resort in Orlando - Hilton Bonnet Creek Review - Golf Course
Tee off at the championship golf course nestled in a lush nature reserve.

7. Walk, Jog, Run, Lift!
Fitness buffs won’t be disappointed with the options available to get a good workout while in Orlando. There is a one-mile walking, jogging, biking path that winds around the perimeter of the property which I took advantage of every morning before breakfast. It was nice to get some exercise in such a serene environment before my day started full throttle.

For family fun and giggles, rent a surrey bike, the kids will love it! Also on property is a well-equipped 24-hour fitness center that over looks the gorgeous pool grounds. This 4,000-square foot facility houses top of the line Precor exercise machines so there is no excuse to slack while on vacation! Yoga is even offered at neighboring Waldorf Astoria Orlando on the weekends for a nominal fee.

8. Pools and Cabanas
The heart and soul of Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is the amazing mini water park which features an exhilarating three-acre lazy river pool complete with a zero-entry section, three hot-tubs, a water slide and a wading pool for the littles. Squeals of delight echo throughout the resort as kids and adults equally splash around the lazy river as it twists and turns though an oasis of lush tropical gardens and gorgeous rock borders.

I am not a huge fan of pools as they are usually cold and often boring, but I had so much fun racing my kids around the lazy river! And don’t forget to try the slide. Although it’s not super big, it is adequate to get a few screams as it corkscrews down into a smaller, separate pool with its own lifeguard. To ensure no tears, please note there is a height requirement: kids must be 40″ to ride the slide and those under 48″ must use a life jacket which is supplied if needed.

Be sure to set time aside for the outdoor pool cinema on Friday and Saturday evenings! Pull up an inner tube and maybe a refreshing cocktail from Beeches, the poolside café, and take your place in the water to watch a family-friendly movie. It’s a unique and fun experience!

If you can splurge on a cabana, I wholeheartedly recommend renting one for the day. We were fortunate to spend our first day in Orlando relaxing in this private poolside oasis and it was such a treat after a long day of traveling with a sick child the day before. The service is simply impeccable. I want to give a big shout out to the cabana manager, Sherry, who transcended our day into exceptional first-rate day of fun!

The cabanas are outfitted with welcome refreshments, wifi, HD flat screen television, ceiling fan and amazing personalized poolside service. Seriously, they will make you feel like you are the only guests at the pool. OK, I am ready to return right now!

Best family resort in Orlando, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek Review - Cabana
Splurge on a cabana and enjoy service so impeccable you’ll feel like the only guests at the pool!

9. Fun Zone
Be sure to visit the on-site Fun Zone which is an arcade full of games for most ages located next to the Disney gift shop. My son and I spent a fun-filled hour in here one late morning playing different games and earning points, but be forewarned: it’s easy to burn through a lot of money in a short amount of time, like the equivalent of a Disney ticket amount of money. Weigh your fun, I say.

When you are done playing and accumulating points, there is an unattended prize machine to dispense prizes dependent on how many points earned. True to any arcade, it does take a lot of points to get even the cheapest of prizes, but the kids love it!

Tip: Have a set spending limit in mind before going in so you have a stopping point; otherwise it’s easy to get a bit carried away.

Best family resort in Orlando, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek Review - Fun Zone
The Fun Zone offers a great diversion for kids at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, but know your budget.

10. Food and Drink For Every Palate
Rounding out Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek’s assets is an amazing assortment of restaurants and bars, including room service. With all of the choices available, even the most discerning culinary enthusiast will be delighted.

The Harvest Bistro serves up a scrumptious breakfast buffet every morning so make sure your reservation includes the breakfast option for the best deal. Hilton Gold and Diamond members are offered complimentary continental breakfast with an option to upgrade to the full buffet for a nominal fee.

La Luce serves up amazing Italian food with recipes that are apparently passed down from several generations. I felt like I was back in Rome with the authentic flavors of my meal! Located in the lobby, Myth, was my favorite place to relax with a cocktail in the evenings after running around Orlando. Another perk is that kids eat breakfast and dinner free at the Harvest Bistro with a paying adult.

Overall, I was blown away with the friendly staff and all of the activities offered to us as guests. Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek effortlessly wrapped our family vacation into the perfect package and created the most magical memories that keep my family smiling. This will definitely be our top choice hotel for our next visit to Orlando!

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Know Before You Go

  • If you’re visiting the Walt Disney World® Resort, be sure to pack adequate walking shoes. The resort is close in size to San Francisco!
  • At Universal Orlando™, the general parking is $25.
  • International Drive is known as the tourist center of the city – you’ll be close to trendy restaurants, bars, and sightseeing activities.