Welcome to Top Picks Touring

148_IMG_2646

Here we share our touring vacations starting with the most recent and working back. This section will continue to grow. Please share your touring vacations with us in our Traveler Forum section.

Switzerland

This particular “tour” was a walk down memory lane. It was the first time we returned to Switzerland as a family since we moved back to the states in 1997. We decided to use Geneva as a base and take day trips around Switzerland and nearby France. We kept our day trips to a maximum of 2 or so hours each way in the car. This turned out to be the perfect travel “max” since it allowed ample down time in the afternoons or early evenings. We traveled in August which is a busy time to travel in Europe since basically most of Europe is on vacation; however we didn’t find this to be a problem and the weather was wonderful.

148_IMG_2721In Geneva we stayed at the Hotel Royal which is part of the Manotel Group. This hotel offered comfortable connecting suites, with a small kitchenette. The location was an easy walk to sites, restaurants and the main train station. We rented a car however the trains in Switzerland are extensive and easy to use. For the train schedules and booking go to http://www.sbb.ch/en/ the official site of the Swiss Train network.

Geneva is an expensive place to visit and we found it important to have the option of “eating in” and using public transportation. There are a number of casual places to eat, including familiar fast food places if you chose that route. We liked shopping locally for breakfast items and staying in for breakfast. For lunch we usually had our main meal which is common practice in Europe.148_IMG_2770 In the early evenings we found an abundance of casual cafes where we could have a light meal or dessert. Although Geneva is expensive it is possible to find places to dine and enjoy the lake and the views of the mountains.

French is the main language spoken in Geneva however it is an international city and it is not difficult to get by if you do not speak the language. The locals are patient with your “high school” French– if you chose to use your language skills–and will work with you.

Each morning we started out with a day trip and usually spent the afternoons walking around Geneva and taking in the local sites.

148_IMG_2687Here is a list of easy day drives/trips from Geneva:

Hermance

Village along the lake with a small beach and quaint shops and cafes. A number of local artists have studios with their work on display. There is a small entrance fee for the beach area–but a nice place for a picnic on a sunny day. The beach is rocky, so if you plan on swimming you will need water shoes. Lake Geneva doesn’t really warm up until late August so the water might be too cold for your particular tastes!

Yvoire, France

A short drive from Hermance this medieval French Savoy village is one of our favorite places to visit. Ancient buildings, small winding streets, shops, and restaurants all on pedestrian only streets, no cars! So very safe and easy to maneuver with your child. Don’t miss the medieval walled garden (Garden of Five Senses) where you walk through a garden maze designed to appeal to all five senses.

During the warm months most of the restaurants and cafes offer outside seating with wonderful views of the lake and surrounding areas.

There are daily boat trips from downtown Geneva to Yvoire if you prefer not to drive.

Chateau de Chillon

Just past Montreaux, this is a great place to experience a true medieval castle. The chateau is an old fortress (dating back to 1150) built on the lake perched over a rocky promontory. The Duke of Savoy used this as the principal military base for hundreds of years. Inside you will walk through dungeons, crypts, kitchens and courtrooms and even see a medieval toilet!

There are kiosks at the chateau where you can pick up a snack or cold drink. A visit to the chateaux can be combined with a visit to Montreux.

Gruyeres

The town of Gruyeres is picturesque and perched up high on a hill. There is ample parking but be prepared for a hike up to the town. Be sure to visit the Chateaux which is small and easy to see. Inside the Chateaux there are public toilets if you need them as well as the usual souvenir counters. The streets of Gruyeres are cobblestones as are most of the medieval towns in Europe–be sure to wear comfortable and flat touring shoes or sneakers. There are numerous cafes offering local specialties and of course fondue made using gruyere cheese.

There is a cheese factory which has tours showing how they make the cheese. We didn’t go since it was pushing the limits of what our child could tolerate in a day trip.

Interlaken

Although we visited Interlaken as a day trip, it was a stretch. It is a long ride from Geneva and if you decide to go this will be “it” for the day. We drove there to see

Jungfrau (“maiden virgin”) one of the main summits in the Bernese Alps. It’s quite a site and worth seeing. In this part of Switzerland the main language is German. An interesting aspect of Switzerland is the switching between languages which also includes Italian.

Annecy, France

On the shores of Lac d’Annecy, this beautiful medieval city has parks, playgrounds and canals of water running through it! You can rent pedal boats for the lake or just walk around and enjoy the scenery. Shops, restaurants and cafes line the streets so it is easy to spend an afternoon here. One of our favorite spots, Annecy is also has a Chateau. There is parking in outdoor and indoor parking areas. Follow the signs to the old town and explore the narrow streets, shops and cafes.

Chamonix, France

The site of the first winter Olympics in 1924, Chamonix is home to the Mer de Glace glacier. From the center of town, take the cog train to the summit and visit the glacier. You can actually walk inside the glacier and see the work of local artists, ice sculptures. The glacier is always moving, slowly yes, however you can see the openings that visitors before you used to enter the glacier–just amazing. Please note if your child doesn’t like heights, this might not be a good choice– since the stairs you walk on are open and while quite safe can be disorienting. Our son was fine with the cog train and the walking and the short elevator ride to the glacier entrance. Inside the glacier it is cold and damp, so be sure to have a waterproof jacket with you.

Save your appetite and eat at the summit–there is a snack kiosk and a good restaurant with a view of the glacier.

Geneva Sites

The Jet d’Eau is a Geneva landmark. This large fountain shooting high into the sky is only active in the spring and in warm weather. Another landmark is the flower clock at the edge of the Jardin Anglais (English Garden) on the banks of Lake Geneva. Made entirely of flowers which change according to the season, this clock keeps “precise” time and is beautiful to see.

Just near the clock you can pick up the Mini Trains, there is a white train and a red train, each runs on a different side of the lake and offer a fun option for touring with smaller children. Geneva’s parks just along the lake and nearby have wonderful playgrounds and easy walking paths. Parc Mon Repos and Parc de la Grange are great for younger children.

It is also fun to take a boat ride along the lake and see the beautiful homes and famous spots.

The “Old Town” of Geneva with it’s winding streets, cafes, shops and art galleries is a good place to wonder and have a meal or a cold drink.

Other Points of Interest

There are many other places to visit in Switzerland but they require overnight stays. These include: Bern, Gstaad, Neuchatel, Luzern,Zermatt and Zurich.

Spain

Planning a trip to Spain was more difficult than our previous trips to both Italy and Greece (soon to be posted on this site). Eating in Spain can be a challenge since dinner starts around 9pm or later. We got around this by having our main meal in the afternoon and finding a light meal in the early evening in the form of “tapas”–a variety of appetizers and small plates that can either be hot or cold. We sometimes had tapas for both lunch and dinner. Tapas gave us the variety to meet the food preferences of our autistic child as well as the rest of the family. Our trip was over the kids’ April vacation so we were able to eat outdoors most of the time when the weather cooperated. If you travel in the summer you will find that cafes and restaurants serving tapas often offer outdoor seating which we find more relaxing.

We needed to keep the trip to a maximum of 10 days and cover the major points of interest. This required flying within the country to save on travel time. We found the “Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Barcelona and Top 10 Madrid” guide books to be helpful for paring down the sites.

We flew into Barcelona, an easy city to get around on foot–so no need for a car. We spent a few days there, then flew to Granada where we picked up a car. If you have a lot of time and kids that are ok with long car rides (ours aren’t!) then it is possible to do this trip with a car. We toured in Granada then made our way north to Madrid where we flew home after spending a few days there. En route to Madrid we visited Cordoba. There are a number of interesting small towns along the way–if you have time–however we were pressed for time and wanted to be sure to include Madrid on this trip.

Favorite Sites

There are many wonderful sites in Spain–however wanted this to be a relaxing trip and find sites that our kids would enjoy. For this reason we chose to stay in a hotel that was in the same square as the Barcelona Cathedral–in the heart of the old town. The streets for the most part are pedestrian walk ways with interesting shops, restaurants and sites. This allowed us to have “touring time” and ample down time since our hotel was close by.

A trip to Barcelona would not be complete without a trip to Parc Guell where the entire park is made up of Gaudi’s amazing work. It is fun for kids to walk around the colorful statues of giant lizards and fantasy like grounds. We took the public bus to the park–the bus was crowded and not something I would recommend if you child is not comfortable with a long ride and crowds. We took the subway back which was faster and actually a better option for travel in the city.

Sagrada Familia–another landmark to visit in Barcelona. It is beautiful from the outside. We did tour inside the cathedral however it wasn’t something that our kids enjoyed and the echo in the mostly unfinished cathedral was not comfortable for our autistic son.

La Pedrera is a beautiful block of apartments with amazing facades all emblematic of Gaudi’s works. We walked along the block and covered this as part of a long walk we took.

Another nice walk is to the coastal area of Barcelona. The beach side cafes and restaurants are casual and we found it fun to visit a beach in a large city.

In Granada the Alhambra is the main attraction. You need to purchase tickets prior to going. There are ticket

services available on line for this. Stay close by and walk to the Alhambra–the area is breathtaking and the views of Granada are beautiful. We did not have an official tour but instead did a self guided tour which allowed us to move at our own pace and take breaks which is important when traveling with an autistic child.

In Cordoba we visited the Great Cathedral and Mosque and walked around the city.

Madrid is a cosmopolitan city with wonderful museums and parks. Unfortunately for us the weather turned cold and rainy so we didn’t spend a lot of time in the parks but walk through them despite the rain! Top two sites in Madrid for us were the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Prado Museum.

Parc Guell Barcelona

Parc Guell Barcelona

Alhambra Granada

Alhambra Granada