By Ginger Stickel
When I begin planning a family vacation, I turn to my best source for information and recommendations: friends. Social media has made trip planning easier and more exciting, as I draw inspiration for travel itineraries from friends’ Facebook and Instagram feeds. My family’s summer getaway to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic is a perfect example of how suggestions and photos from a few friends turned into an incredible trip filled with fairytale castles, spectacular lakes and important history lessons.
The Bavarian Alps
Our vacation began in Bavaria, the southeastern region of Germany and home to some of its most iconic castles, crazy kings, and festive biergartens. We booked a day trip from Munich with Mike’s Bike Tours, visiting Neuchswanstein Castle, Linderhof Palace, an alpine coaster, and ending with a swim in Lake Plansee. The Neuchswanstein Castle is definitely worth a visit. It was the brain child of eccentric King Ludwig II and inspired Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Walt Disney World. Each year, thousands of visitors flock here, especially during the summer. We chose to visit toward the end of the day, when the crowd had thinned out. We are a family that loves to document our travels with pictures. For the best picture, we hiked to Mary’s Bridge on our way up to the castle. Though less grand than Neuchswanstein Castle, Linderhof Palace is small but impressive, and the only one that King Ludwig II lived to see fully completed. Versailles was its inspiration, and the palace is surrounded by French gardens and a fountain with spray over 25 metres high.
Dachau Concentration Camp
Visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp was a somber experience. From the moment we walked through its wrought-iron gate bearing the “Arbeit macht frie” – “work sets you free” – sign, up until we returned to our tour van, not many words were exchanged between us. We used an audio guide as we walked through the museum, learning about how Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp, initially established to house political prisoners, artists and intellectuals, eventually becoming a death camp where thousands of Jewish prisoners died.
While in Munich we went to the Marienplatz to watch the Glockenspiel, the BMW Welt for our car-loving son, and a number of biergartens, including the world-renowned Hofbrauhaus. With a heat wave in the forecast, we spent a day biking and swimming in the Englischer Garten. The beauty of this park revolves around the Eisbach, a side arm of the Isar River, which provides a welcome reprieve for both tourists and locals on hot summer days. With the help of our guide, we were able to find a spot along the river to use as a home base, while enjoying the rope swing, floating down the rapids, and cheering on some of the world’s best surfers. Though we are a family that surfs together, river surfing is reserved for experts as it involves a different technique. It was mesmerizing to watch them ride the waves back and forth and then fall backward to get swept down the river. Our guide told us that we had just missed Ryan Gosling, who caused quite a scene surfing in the park.
Our pursuit to visit historical landmarks led us to Bertchtesgaten, home to the Eagle’s Nest and Lake Konigsee. The Eagle’s Nest was Hitler’s command post during WWII, and provides a bird’s eye view over Germany and Austria. Getting there is quite a feat, as you must drive up a long, windy road to the bus station, book a ticket to the top, and then take a bus and elevator up. It’s best to arrive early in the morning. On a clear day, the view makes the long journey worth it. Lake Konigsee is Germany’s highest lake, surrounded by mountains. We did not opt to hike around the lake as our kids grew tired after we left Eagle’s Nest (and so were their parents!).
Austrian Lake District
Our favorite part of the vacation was our time spent lake-hopping in Salzkammergut, Austria’s lake region. Thanks to friends who recently moved to Austria, we booked rooms at Schloss Fuschl, overlooking Fuschlsee, the lake featured in the Sound of Music. This hotel proved to be the perfect retreat for us to get some rest and relaxation. We went swimming, paddle boarding, fishing, and golfing here. It provided a central location for other scenic lakes including Wolfgangsee, Mondsee, and Hallstaat. In Wolfgangsee, we took a cable car up to the top of Zwolferhorn Mountain and watched hang gliders take off and soar above us. We visited the water park at Mondsee, where water sports abound. Mondsee is also home to the basilica featured in the Sound of Music. We also spent time in Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, which offers a number of interesting tourist destinations such as the Hohensalzburg Fortress, Mirabell Palace, and Salzburg Cathedral. One of the most memorable sites we visited was the Hellbrunn Palace, a “pleasure palace” built by Archbishop Markus Sittikus, who had a great sense of humor. Its crown jewels are the trick fountains that adorn the property and offer an unexpected spray at every turn. We took the Trick Fountain Tour which was full of welcome surprises. Following the tour, we visited the gardens featuring the Sound of Music gazebo, as well as a playground for kids of all ages.
Prague is an enchanting city filled with architectural wonders, fine dining, music, art and culture. We spent a long weekend exploring the city, that left us wanting to return. We chose to stay at the Mandarin Oriental, housed in a former 14th century monastery, because of its quiet location and close proximity to attractions. Upon arriving in Prague, we couldn’t wait to begin sightseeing, which is easy to do given that beautiful landmarks abound at every turn, the most central of which is the Charles Bridge. This historic bridge crosses the Vltava River and was originally commissioned by King Charles IV. A trip over the Charles Bridge can take a while given the throngs of people who stop to listen to musicians, purchase novelty items, and photograph its statues. The most famous monument on the bridge is that of St. John of Nepomuk, which marks the spot where he was drowned in 1393 for allegedly refusing to divulge the queen of Bohemia’s confession secrets to King Wenceslas IV. The king reportedly had him thrown into the Vltava, where Nepomuk’s body is said to have miraculously lingered at the surface with five stars shining above it. Tradition says that if you rub the plaque at the base of the statue, you will receive good luck. We made sure to partake in this tradition.
Next on our list was Prague Castle, which offers a stunning backdrop to the City, and has been an important symbol of the Czech state for more than a thousand years. It is one of the largest complexes in the world, made up of palaces, offices, churches, and the awe-inspiring St. Vitus Cathedral, where many past coronations for Czech kings and queens took place and the tomb for some of their remains. We took a private tour of Prague Castle, which concluded with the Changing of the Guard at the main gate. Following the tour, we stumbled upon Kuchyn right outside of the Castle entrance. This unique restaurant is run by a famous Czech restaurant entrepreneur, and offers an original dining concept by inviting patrons to the kitchen (Kuchyn), to choose their own meal right out of pots on the stove.
One of the best ways to enjoy Prague is via a walking tour, which we reserved through our hotel. On the tour, we visited the Old Town Square, Prague’s principal public square since the 10th century and home to the astounding Astronomical Clock, as well as the Jewish Quarter and John Lennon Wall. We learned a tremendous amount more with our private guide than we would have had we explored these sites on our own.
- Find hotel deals through Credit Card and Reward Programs. We used American Express Platinum Travel and Starwood Preferred Guest to secure hotel deals that included benefits such as one free night, complimentary breakfast, food and beverage credits and more.
- Consider your transportation method. We had a number of Griswoldmoments on the trip, most of which had to do with our transportation – the rental car. Despite Google Maps, navigating the roads was confusing and there were a number of instances when we had “arrived at our destination” but we weren’t actually there yet. Additionally, we did not realize that you need a new permit sticker to drive on the autobahn of each country. We found this out several days into our trip when we were pulled over and ticketed for not having one.
- If pre-booking activities through your concierge, be sure to re-confirm a day or two before your trip. A few of the tours we booked through the concierge were canceled or changed in advance.
- If traveling in the summer, consider hotels with a pool, spa and/or gym. Because we were traveling as a family, we found these luxuries to be a welcome escape on hot afternoons. We loved the pool and gym areas of the Kempinski Hotel in Munich, Schloss Fuschl in Austria, and the Mandarin Oriental in Prague.
- Consider adding these nearby cities to your itinerary: Venice, Budapest, Vienna, and Cesky Krumlov
- Visit anytime of year! Though tourism for this area peaks in July and August, these cities make a fantastic destination in any season due to a variety of indoor and outdoor activities.