Written by Tanya Thelen
A family vacation to Europe is an impossible dream for many but it doesn’t have to be. Using the services of a travel agent can be very beneficial. Agents can assist you with the ins/outs of using packages to bring down the costs. Fortunately, I’m my own agent here at Classic Travel. For my family trip we were able to off-set our costs by stock-piling credit card points to pay for our air. All I had to save for was my land portion of hotels, transfers, food, and any excursions – wouldn’t we do that for a road-trip to Florida anyway? Why not Europe instead? That’s what my family of 5 decided to do for summer break – 2 weeks visiting Paris, Venice, Florence, and Rome.
Our first stop was 3 nights in Paris. We stayed at the Hotel Excelsior Latin Quarter. A cute European hotel that had an adjoining room for the 5 of us. We made sure to see all the highlights of Paris to give our 3 teenage girls the best experience. We visited:
*Notre Dame – we were lucky enough to attend a Catholic Mass (in French). Free to get in unless you want a tour.
*Champs Elysees – famous avenue for shopping and restaurants.
*Arc de Triomphe – famous monument at the West end of famous Champs Elysees Avenue.
*Louvre Museum – I highly recommend Skip-the-Line tickets. You can choose an option for a guided tour with the tickets. We were happy walking through on our own.
*Dinner Cruise on the River Seine – I recommend a late evening cruise. We were able to cruise down the river in the daylight and cruise back in the dark to see the “city of lights” and the Eiffel Tower sparkle. Two totally different views of the city in one dinner cruise!
*Eiffel Tower – I highly recommend a Skip-the-Line Tour with Summit Access. We loved hearing the history of the tower’s construction. The guided tour only goes to the 2nd level – we had an access ticket to the Summit on our own. Incredible views of Paris!
*Monmartre and the Sacre Coeur – one of our favorite spots of Paris. This is where you’ll find the artists of Paris. We enjoyed a Parisian Café and my 18yr old’s first glass of alcoholic wine. My two oldest daughters had their portraits painted in the streets of Monmartre. This was Paris to us!
Paris was amazing to all of us! Not only did we enjoy these famous sites but we enjoyed the little things like eating dinner on the Champs Elysees, ice cream on the steps of the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, crepes filled with Nutella, and figuring out the metro together.
Our next stop was Venice, Italy. People don’t realize how affordable flying within Europe can be. You can easily get a flight under $100 per person when you book well in advance. It was only 1 ½ hour flight from Paris to Venice so it didn’t take much time at all. We were greeted by a private boat transfer right from the airport to Venice Island. My girls were all smiles speeding across the water to the island and standing in the boat while cruising into the Grand Canal. What a unique city to experience – no cars/just boats cruising through the water-filled streets. Here we stayed 3 nights in an Airbnb because it was less costly for the 5 of us than the Venice hotels. Although this saved us money on our accommodations and we were in a good location, we quickly discovered that the Airbnb’s was not our favorite type of accommodation, especially when the little old lady neighbor was yelling at us (in Italian out her window) for being too loud rolling our suitcases across the floor. It was nice to have the large apartment however, we missed the amenities of a hotel with fresh towels, beds made, and the services of a hotel desk. We were limited on towels and had to follow the rules of the owner with cleaning dishes, taking care of our own trash, etc. It was especially worry-some in Venice because they have strict rules on which bins to put trash in and hefty fines if done incorrectly. We missed having a hotel take care of those things for us in Venice. Besides that, we enjoyed the uniqueness of this city – like no other we have experienced. Using water-taxis (day pass was about 25 Euros), walking the narrow streets over canal bridges, etc. was a unique experience for all of us that we won’t forget. We visited:
*Doges Palace – I highly recommend a Skip-the-Line Tour. We enjoyed having a guide explain the palace rooms and the history of their kings and prisoners. We only wish we would have included St. Marks Basilica Cathedral. Although it’s free to enter, the line was just too long. Had we included it with our “skip-the-line” tour, then we would have seen inside.
*Gondola Ride with Serenade – we were lucky enough to get our own boat but shared the serenade with other boats. Still, it was a great experience for us. If you want to spend the extra money, then a private boat with private serenade would be extra nice. Especially for couples.
*St. Marks Square – famous square in front of the Doge’s Palace and St. Marks Cathedral. It is filled with lots of people enjoying the outside air and shopping. Take a walk down the narrow streets for more shopping and more gelato.
*Rialto Bridge – famous bridge over the Grand Canal. Full of shops and eateries and a good place for picture taking. We attempted walking back to our apartment down the narrow winding streets of Venice from here. Some-how we found our way back.
I highly recommend visiting Venice. All you need is just a few days here. Alternatively, you can do a day trip from Florence to Venice by train. We found Venice to be our most expensive city to eat and stay but we loved its uniqueness – definitely to be experienced.
We then railed from Venice to Florence – about a 2hr train ride. We were surprised how easy the rail system was – unlike most airports. You don’t have to get there so far in advance – trains aren’t even displayed on the monitor until about 20 to 30 minutes prior. We loved sitting in First Class too – it’s very affordable to rail in Europe.
We spent 3 nights in Florence as well. It was a perfect amount of time in each city. We stayed at the Residence La Contessina – booked through Delta Vacations. It had a 2 ½ level junior suite type room that slept the 5 of us comfortably and included breakfast. This was in a perfect location –only a few blocks from the train station and close to the Duomo – perfect walking distance to everything we wanted to see. There is no need for a car here, since everything you want to see is close-by. Streets were easy to walk around – we almost forgot there were cars driving down them at times. Shopping is great in Florence! Very affordable, especially Italian leather purses, wallets, belts, coats, etc. It was so much more affordable to eat here over Venice too. We visited:
*Accademia Museum – I highly recommend “Skip-the-Line” tickets. You could also purchase a tour but we enjoyed walking around on our own. This is a small museum, so it only takes about 1 ½ hours to get through on your own (or less) – it just depends on how much time you like. We really enjoyed seeing the Statue of David here (incredible work of art) – highly recommend.
*Uffizi Museum – I highly recommend “Skip-the-Line” tickets (unless you want a guided tour explaining the art). This is a larger museum that could take more time getting through. If you like art and museums, then it’s good to see. Otherwise, the Accademia was enough of a museum for me and my girls (my husband can go to museums all day).
*Duomo Cathedral – free to enter, however, long lines, so I recommend buying a “Skip-the-Line” tour to get in. OR, if you attend mass in the morning, then you can get in (no tours allowed during mass). Wish I would have bought a Skip-the-Line on this one.
*Ponte Vecchio Bridge – famous bridge and shopping area.
*La Carria – BEST gelato in town! Second bridge over from Ponte Vecchio Bridge
We enjoyed Florence SO much more than we expected. We loved everything since it was within walking distance from each other, so no need for any transportation while staying here. We enjoyed sitting in the Palazzo area in front of the Uffizi and watching the performers in the square – particularly a marionet show. The food was wonderful and so much more affordable. We did notice, however, that some restaurants had a cover charge for sitting at their table they would charge about $2 – $5 per person.
During our stay in Florence, we decided to take a day trip to Cinque Terre along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s easy to do, we just walked over to the train station while in Florence and bought ourselves train tickets for the day. We railed as far as La Spezia, then bought our Cinque Terre Day Passes (with local train) right there at the La Spezia train station. We then hopped on the local train that goes up and down the 5 villages of Cinque Terre. SO beautiful!! I HIGHLY recommend visiting this area! We were able to see 4 out of the 5 villages by hopping on/off the train. We jumped off large rocks and swam in the Mediterranean Sea. This was our favorite day out of our whole trip! Unforgettable!
We were then on to Rome for 4 nights. Train only took about 1 ½ hours from Florence to Rome. We stayed at the Best Western Springhouse located near the Vatican. We really liked this hotel, very Americanized and a very good breakfast was included with our Junior Suite. It was very convenient, being so close to the Vatican for our tour of the museum, St. Peters, and the Sistine Chapel. We also enjoyed mass with the Pope and a local gelato place called the “Old Bridge” next to the Vatican. You know it’s good gelato when you see the priests and nuns lining up. One slight disadvantage is that this hotel is quite far from the other main sites of Rome, however, we familiarized ourselves with the metro right around the corner from us. It only cost about $1.90 per person each way on the metro to get to the other attractions, so not a problem at all. We visited:
*Spanish Steps –famous to see but not so exciting. Picture moment and then moved on.
*Pantheon – free to enter, but need shoulders covered and shorts down to your knees. Not a must-see, but it was close to the Trevi Fountain, so we decided to go in. Don’t let the line scare you, it moves through quite fast.
*Colosseum and the Ancient Roman Ruins – I highly recommend a Skip-the-Line tour. We really enjoyed listening about the gladiators that fought in the arena and visiting the ancient Roman Ruins nearby. We really loved this “old” historical area of Rome. This is a must!
*Vatican Museum, St. Peters’ Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel – I highly recommend a Skip-the-Line tour for this too. It’s important to hear about the history and its beautiful architecture. Incredible seeing the Vatican City!
*Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius — we took a day trip by motor-coach about 3 ½ hours South to Pompeii. We included a hike up Mt. Vesuvius crater that wiped out Pompeii back in 79 A.D followed by a guided tour of the Pompeii ruins. Incredible learning experience for our girls and ourselves! Amazing to see that only 80% of Pompeii has only been excavated and they had archeologists digging as we toured. In fact, they had just found another petrified body about 10 days prior. SO interesting!
Wow! We had such a wonderful time on this 2-week vacation to Europe. It was an experience of a lifetime to share with our children. They learned so much not only from the history it has to offer, but experiencing things like money exchange, using the metros, railing between cities, etc. This is a family vacation definitely worth taking and SO educational!!
Tanya has been in the travel business for 25 years. Tanya started at Classic Travel over 20 years ago and spent the past 9 years in outside sales. She recently returned and specializes in leisure travel. Some of her favorite destinations include Mexico, the Caribbean, Australia, and New Zealand. Email Tanya: firstname.lastname@example.org