Since we started our trip in Ireland (more on our Northern Ireland leg here) in order to take advantage of less expensive flights, we got a bonus day and a half or so in Dublin on our return. Truthfully, I didn’t spend much time planning this part since we had so little time that I figured we would just take things as they went. That approach worked out well for us and we were able to plan things organically to fit in with what the kids were up for.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the StayCity Aparthotel on St. Augustine Street (I booked through Expedia since Booking.com’s rate was higher). We had a 2 bedroom apartment with laundry and they provided a pack and play for us (although it BARELY fit in the room), which helped with our this-season-of-life set-up of 1 parent and 1 child in each bed/room. The location was great – we walked pretty much everywhere we wanted to go. Our main complaint was the weird set-up of the apartment and the building – it’s in “hives,” so you have to to travel through multiple buildings (and multiple elevators/stairs with multiple fire doors) to get from the front door to your apartment. This was challenging because the fire doors are really heavy and the elevators are a little noisy, so it was at least a 5 minute production to get in and out of the apartment every time and couldn’t be done during nap time.
What We Did
After a cab from the airport (love the Irish cab drivers – they’re so friendly!) and getting settled into our apartment, we had just enough time to get an early-ish dinner around the corner and then rest up for the next day.
Our full day in Dublin was jam-packed, but somewhat child-led since we had no set agenda. Julia really just loves a good playground, so after breakfast, we walked over to the St. Stephen’s Green Playground. The fantastic playground is hidden away behind some hedges and is fenced in, so a lot of the street noise is buffered and kids can’t run away too quickly.
There were several climbing areas, swings low enough for Julia to get on herself, and benches for parents to sit on. Julia could have stayed there all day, but after an hour or two, I realized that there are literally no public restrooms anywhere nearby. I walked around the perimeter a bit to check out coffee shops and see if they had restrooms, but there were no obvious ones so we headed to a bonus stop: The National Museum of Ireland – Natural History.
The (free!) museum is in an older building and resembles something out of a movie with all of the taxidermy animals over two stories. We were there at the same time as a few school groups, but managed to avoid being on the same floor for the most part. It felt like there was an example of every animal I’ve ever heard of (and some I hadn’t), although I did have some complicated feelings about how the animals were likely procured, especially some of the baby animal specimens.
After a picnic in the park with sandwiches from around the corner, we walked the kids in the stroller/baby carrier to convince them to nap while we checked out the signs about the Easter Rising and rested on a park bench. Somewhat rested, we headed to Dublinia. This museum is in the same building as Christchurch Cathedral and has exhibits about the Viking and Medieval history of Dublin. It was also mobbed by school groups, but we trailed far enough behind them that it didn’t feel overwhelming. The lower floor has exhibits about Viking Dublin, most of which are interactive. Julia liked “cooking” over a fire, writing her name in Viking runes, and of course, the now infamous “Tooty Guy.” Our toddler and all the middle school boys were obsessed with the exhibit showing a Viking-era toilet (complete with sound effects and moss toilet paper). We’re still talking about it nearly 3 months later…
Upstairs, you move forward in time to Medieval Dublin, including a walk through fair area that James loved because most of the exhibits were at his eye level in the baby carrier. One of the best parts of our visit was climbing the stairs to the top of the tower where we enjoyed views over Dublin.
After Dublinia, we attempted to go to Evensong at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (schedule here; at the time of writing, evensong is on Thursdays at 5:30 pm). In our pre-kids lives, attending a service was a great way to see a famous church for “free” (we usually drop something in the offering box; I loved Westminster Abbey in college) and it made the experience more authentic. We were welcomed inside with open arms, even with the kids. Figuring that James would probably sleep in the carrier while Julia drew on a mini magnetic drawing table, we even had a chat with her about the importance of being quietly respectful. She did so well, but ultimately about 10-15 minutes in, James decided to sing along. He didn’t cry, but burped loudly and then started babbling. While no one looked at us unkindly, we decided it was best to cut our losses and head out to an early dinner.
The next day, we had just enough time to revisit our favorite stops (breakfast at the same place and an hour at the playground) before heading to the airport to go home. One advantage to the Dublin airport is that you pre-clear customs, so while it meant we had to get to the rather dull airport (not great food options, no play area for kids anymore) earlier than usual and go through security an extra time, we were able to get right off the plane to claim our bags in Seattle.
Where We Ate
Brother Hubbard (South) – We ate breakfast here on both days because it was relatively close to our next destination (St. Stephen’s Green) and had some great options for Peter’s allergies. He can’t usually eat eggs (because chickens typically eat corn and soy), so there was a good porridge bowl and an egg-free avocado toast option. The avocado toast with eggs was amazing (and there are chickpeas in the mix for extra protein and texture) and Julia loved having scrambled eggs with toast and their unique jams (they had cardamom and rose in the jams, which were just light accents). The coffee was also fantastic, and we took a pastry to go as a snack.
Green Bench Cafe – this little lunch spot (no seating) is down an alleyway near St. Stephen’s Green. It was full of business people in suits on the weekday we visited, but everyone was very kind to us. Their sandwiches were so delicious, and we also loved the soup (vegan, if that appeals to you, but still creamy and filling) and coffee, as well as a little bottled smoothie for Julia.
LL Mulligan Grocer – our dinner spot on the second night in Dublin (first night not worth repeating) was fantastic and was on the North side of the river, so it gave us a nice little walk. I’d call it a gastropub – there were lots of Irish beers and they use high quality Irish ingredients in their food. Despite being busy, they checked on a few things for Peter’s allergies without batting an eye and the food was great. We shared a cheese plate to start, followed by a lamb dish and a pork chop (the preparations for which have already changed). While I don’t recall seeing high chairs, we felt right at home with our two children.
We loved our short stay in Dublin and felt we were able to see enough of the sights without getting bored. Comparing to our experience when we visited several years ago, seeing the countryside is definitely more interesting for me than the big cities. I’d love to go back for a Vintage Tea Tour on a double decker bus with Julia someday when she’s old enough (children under 6 aren’t permitted and their vegan menu contains soy, so Peter wouldn’t be able to eat it). It was generally a little more difficult finding things that fit with Peter’s allergies in Dublin than in Belfast – menus did often have allergen footnotes, but were less likely to proudly tout their suppliers, which made us less certain that meat wouldn’t be fed corn/soy, and there was more use of corn flour or egg in the fish and chips. I would definitely use Dublin as a hub to the rest of Europe again, particularly if we’re able to leave enough space on one side (like we did at the front end of our trip) to take day trips out of the city.
You can’t fly through Greece and not stop in Athens, right? While we wanted to spend most of our time on a relaxing Greek island, Athens ended up being a nice stop after an initial headache.
Important note on that headache (TLDR version: get an international driver’s permit if you’re in Greece):
You (probably, definitely) need an international driver’s permit to rent a car in Greece. In my personal opinion, this is a pretty silly requirement for licenses that are written in English/Latin characters since most people can read those. Also, they don’t even translate the license into Greek, so it’s extra ridiculous for Greece. We had no issues renting a car in Crete, but after waiting for over an hour to connect with our rental car shuttle (they claimed they “couldn’t find us” but they didn’t call my phone number and didn’t answer the first 9 times I called) and driving all the way to their office with two small children, they refused to rent us a car because we didn’t have the permit. Now, yes, I should have read the fine print (which was not written on the Rentalcars.com website unless you specifically click on an e-mailed link to read it, rather than listed with the requirement to have a valid license), but while we got a permit a long time ago to drive in France, it was expired and it’s really inconvenient to get another one since you have to physically visit a AAA visit. Also, we’ve literally never been asked to provide it by a car rental agency or anyone else, so I didn’t bother adding it to my checklist for this trip. Luckily, since James didn’t do super well on long stretches in his carseat for our Southern road trip, I had cancelled our Nafplio apartment and extended our Athens stay so we didn’t need a car. The host of our Athens apartment was wonderful about connecting through WhatsApp and helped call the car rental shuttle company, who then called us what ended up being one of the nicest cab drivers I’ve ever had to drive us into Athens. The situation could have been a lot worse (like if we were on an island where most of the activities require a car), but it was frustrating and obnoxious.
On to the good parts!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Athens Short Rentals. I reserved on Booking.com, but I believe they’ve since taken the property off the website. The address was Likomidon 10, Athina 118 51, Greece if you’re trying to find it again (their website is only in Greek). We loved the apartment, which had a large living space, 1 separate bedroom, and another bedroom area with bunk beds and a big open sofa bed that was partially closed off with a curtain. It was less than a mile to the Acropolis and around the corner from a restaurant we loved, and the host (as mentioned above) was phenomenal about working with us when our rental car situation hit a snag. She waited for us for over 2 hours past our expected arrival time because of all the hiccups and wasn’t stressed at all. The place was also family-friendly with the bunk beds and a pack and play in the bedroom for James.
What We Did
After settling into our apartment, both kids were sorely in need of a nap and something cold (it was SO hot while we were in Athens, but got even hotter after we left to the extent that they closed the Acropolis for a few hours). We started to head towards ice cream, but Julia fell asleep before we got there, so we had to eat it all ourselves and were so sad about that… We kept walking and ended up in front of the entrance to the Agora. It was late in the day, so they were scheduled to close in about 90 minutes, but it seemed like a beautiful spot for a walk. Also, the combination ticket available was still roughly even if we only did the Agora and the Acropolis (there are other less well-known sites included, see list here), plus it would save us some priceless time standing in line, so we bought combination tickets and headed in. We had enough time to briefly poke through the museum and stroll along some of the less rough paths, and for me to play with Julia at the bottom of the hill where the impressive Temple of Hephaistos is while Peter climbed up to get a closer look.
It was really beautiful during the “golden hour” a little before sunset, and it reminded me of our experience in Rome last year where we had a rough travel day and then made it to the Forum in the evening and were just able to enjoy without feeling like we needed to see every little thing. We headed to dinner and then took a short walk to see the Acropolis lit up beautifully at night. Our apartment was just around the corner from a great view, so we didn’t need to go far.
The next day was dedicated to the Acropolis, so even though we were mostly on “vacation time” during this trip, we managed to get out the door a little before 8 a.m., stopping for some yogurt and a spinach pie for breakfast before continuing our walk. I was so proud of Julia because even though it was already hot, she walked all the way from our apartment to the top of the hill (over a mile) by herself, despite some complaining along the way. It made her a little grumpy once we got there, but after filling our water bottle at one of the on-site fountains a few times, she was a little more ready to stroll with us. We probably spent a couple of hours checking out the site before walking down and it felt like just the right amount of time for us. Without a guide, we didn’t learn as much, but we were also able to be flexible and adapt to Julia’s need to run around a bit. It was crowded, but not nearly as much as I was expecting, and everyone was very friendly to our children.
We strolled down past the Theater of Dionysus and grabbed a snack at one of the cafes below the Acropolis. Touristy? Yes, but we needed some coffee and carbs to make up for the early wake-up call. Next, we walked towards Parliament to pick up the Athens Happy Train. This wasn’t the adults’ most favorite attraction. The commentary was less than happy, or particularly informative, since the woman doing it seemed more interested in sharing a cigarette with the driver. However, Julia loved riding around in the little train car and it was a nice break from walking in the heat with two small children, while still getting to see a bit of Athens. We popped Julia in the toddler carrier after the ride and she fell asleep almost immediately, which meant we were able to grab a sampling of baklava-type pastries without sharing.
We tried to see if visiting the Acropolis Museum made sense for the afternoon, but the line to get in was SO long at that point in the day. I’m not the greatest tolerator of heat and carrying a huge sleepy infant on my chest all day was wearing on me, so it was at this point that I decided to walk back to our apartment to try to rest while Peter continued on. He walked to the Roman Forum and a few other sites and I played with James in the air conditioned apartment.
During his PhD work, Peter took several classes from a professor who is Greek and had since moved back to Greece, so we were able to meet up with him for dinner. Julia was unfortunately in a mood to look for attention by poking James or yelling at him, so Peter and Yannis caught up while I spent quite a bit of time taking Julia for walks to the nearby small park to try to work out some energy. James was also in quite a mood and wouldn’t eat, so I stayed behind and literally sat on the pedestrian street to try to feed him after dinner (repeating to myself “travel with kids is rewarding, damnit!”) while the others walked towards ice cream. I was able to catch up with them and made sure that I ordered myself a double scoop. While it was a challenging evening, it was still really nice to see Peter’s former professor and he was unbelievable kind and gracious about our little hooligans, as well as a wonderful window into some information about Athens and life in Greece. That seemed pretty typical for our entire stay in Greece – our young kids acted like young kids and Greek people just accepted it as a fact of life and either gave us space or tried to help distract/entertain/pacify whichever child was causing a ruckus.
The next day was supposed to have on and off thunderstorms, so we started off at the Acropolis Museum. There was a special line for strollers/families (yay!) that we hadn’t noticed the previous day and we were inside in no time at all. They have various map hunts for kids that you can pick up at the information desk, which was a really nice way to get Julia more interested in the museum. However, they seem to be oddly strict about the age limits rather than letting parents decide what might interest their children (like they wouldn’t let us borrow the cool kit with more activities because she was “too young,” and would only give her the little kids’ treasure hunt) . So, Julia enjoyed the first half of the hunt and then got bored because the story line was a little juvenile and everything was clustered in one place, but it was definitely easier than making up my own treasure hunt! The best part of the museum for us was a section with videos about how statues would have been painted during Ancient Greek times, including displays of the rock pigments that would have been used.
Julia fell asleep not long after we left the museum and while we had planned to go to a sit-down restaurant for lunch as a means of avoiding heat/rain, keeping her moving in a stroller is usually the best strategy for uninterrupted sleep, so we found a great little pop-in souvlaki place. They serve 2 things – a meat stick, and a pita sandwich with the meat inside (pork was the only option) and toppings of lettuce, tomato and a yogurt sauce. 3 sandwiches were something like 6 EUR and I thought they were so delicious!
It was looking increasingly like rain, but Peter got a second wind and decided that he didn’t want to skip our second plan for the day, which was to ride the Lycabettus cable car to the top of the mountain. The cable car ride is only about 3 minutes each way, but we had to do a lot of zig zagging to get to the base station in order to try to avoid steep stairs, so it was quite the adventurous walk. There’s a small cafe at the top of the mountain and we stopped for a drink while it rained heavily. A kindly female janitor who had just had a baby herself showed me where the restroom with a changing table was so that I wouldn’t have to change James on a chair. There was a short thunderstorm in the area and it was kind of magical, albeit a little scary (lots of lightning poles up there) to be on top of a mountain during the storm. After a very quick visit to the church on top to check out the wonderful views, we headed back down the mountain, stopping for ice cream at Le Greche, the same place we’d been the night before, because it was so delicious, and then repeating the dinner we’d had on our first evening.
The next morning, we had just enough time for a yogurt breakfast and some play time at the playground with a view of the Acropolis before heading to the airport.
Where We Ate
Gevomai & Magevomai (this shows up as Savor Charms on Google Maps) – This spot was recommended to us by the host of our apartment and was literally around the corner. Not fancy from the outside, but with such delicious food and wonderful service that we ate here twice during our very short stay. We ordered a bunch of small plates, mostly vegetarian because there were so many options, but our two favorites were the eggplant in the oven, which was meltingly tender (if you hate eggplant, eat this dish and you’ll change your tune), and the dolmades, which had a wonderful yogurt sauce. Wine was something like 8 EUR for a liter, and the servers loved on our kids so much that they even carried James around to meet the other staff one night while we ate.
Kuzina – this is where we went with Peter’s former professor (we wanted to eat near our apartment because of having small children, so he said this was a good option despite being in a touristy area). Rather pricey, but there was a nice slow-cooked pork dish with a sweet potato puree that Peter enjoyed, and Julia loved my chicken. The setting is really what you’re paying for – it’s right alongside the Agora with views of the Acropolis (and the metro goes right by, so Julia got to count train cars).
Full Spoon – great small gelato place in the neighborhood adjacent to the Agora. We sat here on our first afternoon while the kids slept and never told them about our clandestine frozen dessert. Whoops! They also had some good vegan options (I’m not vegan, but I liked the coconut ice cream with ginger a lot).
Le Greche – Peter’s former professor took us to this delicious ice cream place and we went back at least once during our stay. They had some really neat flavors (there was a basil sorbet that I got every day because it was so refreshing in the heat) and the servers were really sweet with the kids.
O Kostas – no website, but the address of the little hole-in-the-wall souvlaki place we went to is Pentelis 5, Athina 105 57 (it’s right around the corner from Le Greche).
Because we had spent the majority of our time in Greece on Crete and Athens was a bonus, we were able to just focus on a couple of key activities and revisit eateries we liked rather than worrying about cramming in as many stops as possible or eating at a different restaurant every night. That was particularly helpful because of the heat, which really limited this nursing, baby-wearing mother from a full day of activities. I enjoyed Athens in the way that I enjoyed Rome – there are wonderful things to do and it’s very child friendly, but it’s not somewhere that my heart pines after, like Paris, although it makes a wonderful spot to branch out to other destinations.
After our quick little jaunt through Northern Ireland, we took a RyanAir flight from Dublin to Chania for the start of about 8 days on the Greek island of Crete. Peter’s PhD advisor and his wife are Greek, so I reached out to them when I started planning our trip and told them about all these grand island-hopping plans I had (I originally thought of doing Naxos and Santorini). When Helen asked what I was most looking forward to doing (some hiking, eating, and the beach), she suggested Crete as a way to do all of those things on one island. Crete really was a perfect family destination for us – it was relatively easy to get to since its airports (Chania and Heraklion) are served by European hubs and several flights from Athens, there were many different activities to do, and the food was delicious.
Where We Stayed
I booked accommodations for this trip months before James was born and wanted to be able to scrap the whole trip if birth didn’t go well or if he was a terrible traveler, so I used Booking.com because everything was cancellable. Book via this link for $20 off your stay.
In Chania, we stayed at Frida Apartments in a family room, although the “apartments” are more like a hotel with larger rooms (1 separate bedroom and a twin bed and sofa in the living area). I loved the other places we stayed in Greece, too, but this was truly special. The owners really took care of us – they helped organize a taxi pick-up from the airport for us (who waited 2 hours for us when our flight was delayed and passport control took forever), they squeezed in an extra night in the same family room when the flight times didn’t work out the way I hoped, and everyone on staff treated our children like royalty. There was also a 2 foot deep kiddie pool and a similar depth shallow end in one of the 2 larger pools, so they won Julia over and she still won’t stop talking about it. My favorite parts were the views over the ocean and breakfast. I almost never like hotel breakfasts because they seem like an after thought (cold cereal and waffles from a mix? No thank you, I can get those at home). Frida offered different daily baked items (like spinach pies and other pastries I couldn’t name for you if I tried), eggs, meat, amazing Greek yogurt with homemade jams (the orange marmalade is to die for) and strong coffee. We had a leisurely breakfast every day because we could.
In Heraklion, we stayed in an apartment called Home Away From Home. This had 3 bedrooms and was in a middle class neighborhood just outside of the city center. It felt a lot like living amongst locals – we could walk to downtown in 20 minutes, but there was a playground right up the street with local kids playing on it (who befriended me, Julia and James one night while we hung out) and we had space to stretch out. The best bedroom had 2 twin beds and toys for Julia, including a little puppet theater. It was also the most well-equipped kitchen of anywhere we stayed. There were not only dishes and ample cookware, but also basic supplies like salt, pepper and olive oil. As a result, we actually cooked dinner at the apartment twice during our stay.
What We Did
We arrived in Chania super late on a Friday, woke up late the next morning for breakfast and enjoyed swimming and lunch by the pool before walking down to downtown Chania. Both kids fell asleep, so we were able to stroll along the waterfront, where we saw a funny half-submerged submarine in the harbor water. It ended up that we were just in time for Sea Adventures’ last ride of the day, so we quickly hopped on and took about an hour cruise around the harbor. The ride was kind of lackluster – it was pretty hot even with AC and we were the last to board, so we had seats that were exposed to the sunshine, and there wasn’t much to see other than a handful of fish. The other passengers (all adults) spent most of the ride looking at their phones… As if the captain could sense our disappointment, he found a sea turtle swimming around in the last 10 minutes that we were able to watch for awhile.
After getting off the boat, we had a cool drink at the sailing club and then walked all the way to the lighthouse at the end of the harbor. It’s a gorgeous walk, particularly in the late afternoon, but not stroller-friendly (very rocky, some places where you have to go up stairs and then walk along a wall), so we were happy to have James in the baby carrier.
The next day, I realized that I’d made a little snafu with our car rental. Since I knew we would arrive late on Friday and would need a day to recover, I had planned for Peter to take a bus from Chania to the airport to pick up the car (a minor nuisance compared to schlepping all of us there, and less expensive than a taxi). However, the car was in my name and Enterprise wouldn’t let us change it. So, we cancelled the car and Peter managed to find a little company in town called Vacanza that not only had a car available in town, but would also drop it off at our hotel for us and had no issues with a one-way rental to Heraklion. Score! So we hung out by the pool and waited for the car. Of course, we had wasted some time figuring out a back-up plan, so rather than our original road trip for the day, we stayed fairly local and went to Iguana Beach, which is not far out of Chania town. It wasn’t the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to, but it was convenient, full of locals, and had chairs and umbrellas to rent (10 EUR with no specific time limit) that made our stay at the beach lovely.
On our 3rd full day, we left for Elafonisi Beach right after breakfast since it’s about a 1.5-2 hour (beautiful!) drive from Chania. We were really happy to have left early because we were able to park relatively close and easily get chairs and an umbrella. We went to a spot that seemed to have the least possible wind (it was really windy and wind-blown sand stings!), so we never ended up doing the much-discussed walk across a lagoon, but it was a wonderful day regardless. The water here is warm and shallow and the edges have pink sand from ground-up seashells. There were even little fish darting about in the water.
We spent about 2 hours at the beach, including a little stroll around, before heading back to Chania via Elos, a little village with a few quaint restaurants along a waterway. Our restaurant for dinner was alright (Portes), but the real highlight was finishing in time to catch the sunset at a little playground on the water.
In the morning, we headed off to an olive oil tour with Vamos Village. I had originally inquired about the Local Producers tour, but there weren’t enough people to run it, so the Olive Oil Path was a good back-up. We enjoyed the tour and felt like it offered a nice view into local industry. The whole tour took about 4 hours, but we drove ourselves and the tour guide (who was driving the other couple on the tour) was very patient with us since loading up two small kids in a car takes a long time. We stopped in an olive grove and learned about growing olive trees (so labor intensive – farmers everywhere are amazingly dedicated) and tasted the oil pressed from the grove – there isn’t much that’s better than copious amounts of olive oil poured over fresh bread with a little sea salt and fresh oregano. Then, we went to a modern oil press and looked at the high tech way to press oil, followed by a visit to a monastery that had its own mill, and then lunch in a little village restaurant. The monastery was particularly beautiful and really well cared for even today. Our tour guide moved from Athens several years ago with her young son, and it was a great way to learn about life with children in Greece. She loved James and Julia and even held James while we listened to parts of the tour.
Even though the drive from Chania to Heraklion is only about 2 hours, we wanted to break up the time with a stop. We’d already done some beaches and a whole day of learning about olive oil, plus it was really hot, so we decided on the springs of Argiroupoli. We parked near the springs and only intended to take a short walk, but ended up on a trail that led up into the town above and were so glad we did. The springs were gorgeous and refreshing to see, and the town looked like quintessential Greece with its windy pedestrian streets.
A bunch of gossiping grandmas fawned over the kids in Greek and offered Julia biscuits, an old man noticed me admiring a beautiful door and opened it to show us Venetian olive mill hiding inside, and a fountain outside a church had refreshingly cold water when we were thirsty since we’d left our bottle in the car (only expecting to take a short walk). We had lunch in town and then made our way back to the car. It was also a really neat way to see the way kids bounce back during travel (and a lesson in why we should bring more snacks) – Julia loved the springs, HATED the hike and complained the whole way about the heat and how “tired” she was (literally 50 feet in after she’d been sitting in the car for an hour), but then that granny offered her a biscuit and she was suddenly ready to explore the town.
After arriving and settling into Heraklion, we took a look at the weather forecast and the following day was supposed to be the least hot, so we decided to brave the Minoan Palace of Knossos with the kids. This was a site I really wanted to visit, so I’m glad that we went, but it wasn’t the most fun or kid-friendly activity we did while in Crete. Even though we visited early, the tour groups pretty much stood in the way or ran us over at every turn, and reading the limited signage was challenging with two kids. Also, most of the site’s frescoes have been moved to museums, so what’s left is largely a re-creation (as opposed to frescoes we saw in Egypt that are still original and well preserved many years later, albeit with an even drier climate). However, it is still really amazing to stand in a site that was built 4,000 years ago and I would have been sad to go all the way to Crete and not see it. There are tons of stairs and crumbling boulders here, so we were all grateful for the baby carriers, even if carrying the kids around in the heat was challenging. We made our way back to Heraklion and went to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum as an opportunity to borrow their air conditioning while learning some more about Cretan history. Julia was too interested in the jewelry and giant vessels for wine/olive oil to nap (pros/cons of toddlers in museums!), but the museum was a nice place to walk around for an hour or two. It was another place that we probably would have enjoyed more without kids and with a tour guide, but I think part of travel is that you appreciate it at all stages of life and this is the one we’re in, so I’m going to appreciate staring at the amethyst and gold jewelry for 5 minutes simply because it’s purple and sparkly, while walking right by things that I might personally find more interesting. The night before, we had befriended a fruit seller whose apricots were delicious, plentiful and cheap. It was so hot and our kitchen was well-equipped, so we decided to have a light dinner that was heavy on fruit and did some shopping at the little local markets for vegetables, bread and cheese. Vegetables and fruit in Crete are so inexpensive and delicious that by eating a simple vegetarian meal of sauteed vegetables, bread and cheese with apricots for dessert, the whole meal cost less than 8 EUR.
With another hot forecast ahead of us, Peter took over planning for a day and we headed to the Lasithi plateau to go spelunking. There are two cave locations considered to be the mythical place where the Greek god Zeus was raised and hidden from his infanticidal father, one of which is the Psychro cave. We stopped at the even smaller Kronios cave on the way up, which felt more rugged – it was a short drive off the main road with a little hike and there was even a goat skeleton in the cave and a cave toad! Parking at the Psychro cave was relatively simple, although we were glad to have cash to pay the parking attendant. It’s a short but hot hike up a relatively unshaded path (there are donkeys you can ride, but they didn’t look too excited about their work) to the entrance, which costs 6 EUR for adults. The inside was deliciously cool and beautiful and easy to navigate with the kids in their carriers (i.e., handrails and largely paved paths, so we just exercised caution, but didn’t need to watch our heads or anything). There does seem to be less care taken to prevent evidence of humans than at similar caves in the U.S. – for example, most of the pools were full of coins people had thrown in, and other visitors felt up the stalagmites like teenagers, which can degrade them over time. At the bottom of the hike there are a coupe of restaurants and a juice stand, so we indulged in some fresh pomegranate juice to cool off after walking back down.
On our last full day in Heraklion, we took another day trip down south to Matala, which is a beach with caves! The cliffside caves were either ancient tombs or dwellings, depending on whom you ask, and hippies lived in them for awhile in the sixties. The beach is pebbly and has waves, so it was very different from western Crete beaches like Elafonisi. Julia had fun digging in the pebbles and splashing in the waves, and similar to other beaches, there were umbrellas and chairs to rent (we didn’t realize there was a parking lot just behind the beach for a small fee, so we parked along the street much further away and walked). We didn’t spend too long at the beach because we wanted time to explore the caves before the kids turned into pumpkins. There’s an entrance fee of about 2 EUR per person and the guardian gently warned us to be careful with the children. It was a windy day and there are no guard rails other than a chain link fence preventing unauthorized access to the site, so there’s nothing to prevent falling and it can be a little slippery since the cliffs are basically just soft sandy stone. The caves range in size, but the smaller, lower ones are perfect for kids to play in – Julia made herself a pretend restaurant and could have stayed all day, but it was uncomfortable for the adults to stand in the sun with the wind whipping sand and dust on us, so we spent about 30-40 minutes climbing around before heading for lunch. I don’t think any of the restaurants along the beach are going to win Michelin stars, but they provide a comfortable place to look out over the beautiful scenery and sip a beer, so I was still glad we ate where we did.
Where We Ate
We ate at some fantastic places, some okay places, and some places that were really just locations for the view. Highlights included:
Hotel breakfast (Chania) – no but seriously, it was so good. See notes in where we stayed above.
Theodosi (Chania) – this place was geographically very close to our hotel, but we didn’t figure out the best way to walk to it (on a little hillside trail below the restaurant) until the way home. It’s high on a hill where there are epic sunset views and the food was delicious. There was a pretty good kids menu (Julia had some chicken souvlaki that was really good), non-alcoholic drinks so she felt special, great local wine, and excellent food. I had stuffed vegetables that were delicious, and the local specialty apaki pork appetizer was phenomenal. It’s also on a very low-traffic street, so Julia and I were able to take a walk to get some energy out while we waited for our food.
Taverna Lappa (Argiroupoli) – nestled under a large olive tree that has some toys for kids, this little place had one of the best moussakas in Crete and great dolmadas, as well as good draft beer (it was called Karma, and we never saw it on tap elsewhere).
Peskesi (Heraklion) – for the most part, Greece was a vacation from my husband’s corn/soy allergies because it’s not as common for animals to be fed those things in Greece as in the U.S., and they aren’t part of the traditional cuisine. Peskesi actually uses corn starch in their sauces, but the food preparation here was so interesting and unique, and they really knew what was in their food and were not only helpful with finding the right things for us to eat, but also tolerated some really challenging behavior from Julia. The coolest dish we ordered was a sage-smoked pork chop – they put burning sage in a wax paper dome with the pork chops when they come off the grill and then lift off the covering when they get to the table. Other great touches included a changing table in the bathroom (so uncommon!) and the complimentary raki at the end of the meal, as well as some lemonade for Julia so she would feel included. Raki is commonly served as a gesture of hospitality, but this was infused with a local flower that smelled similar to geranium and it was amazing.
Erganos (Heraklion) – another very kid-friendly place (changing table right in a side dining room!). This spot had delicious antikristo lamb (Cretan specialty) and the sauteed greens with lemon that were common on menus in Crete were particularly good. They were super friendly with the kids and the location was neat – it’s right on the other wide of the Venetian wall from a large park and outdoor concert venue. There was a classical concert the night we ate there, so we got some relaxing dinner music with our dinner.
Overall, we loved our stay on Crete. We met many couples who have returned annually over decades, so clearly we aren’t the only ones. People just love to chat up a family with small kids, which is one of the many reasons we chose Greece as James’ first big trip. Despite some occasionally horrific behavior (mostly from our threenager) in restaurants, no one looked even remotely bothered and in many cases they would do their best to entertain/distract/pacify either or both kids. The food was great, too – I felt like we were always eating, yet with all the walking (and sweating), I lost weight on vacation because the Cretan diet has so many vegetable options. It was a welcome “vacation” from Peter’s allergies and would be a great fit for vegetarians, vegans, or people who can’t eat gluten (yes, there’s lots of bread, but rice and potatoes are also common and readily available). Crete was also relatively inexpensive compared to Santorini or other European vacations, so we spent about $100/night on really great accommodations and didn’t blow our budget on food, either.
Once we confirmed with our Southern road trip that baby James was a good little flyer (see parts 1 through 3 here, here and here), we set our sights on an even longer set of flights – Europe! I’d been planning a trip to Greece for months and had booked cancellable accommodations, but getting to Greece was still up in the air. There aren’t any direct flights from Seattle, and the less expensive flights with stopovers had inconvenient times or layovers that were too long/too short so it made more sense to stop in a hub for a few days and then fly on. I looked into Amsterdam, but hotels were expensive and flight prices increased by about $2,000 between when I started looking and when we felt comfortable booking them. Dublin, on the other hand, had shorter flights and was significantly less expensive than Amsterdam (as in, enough to pay for the whole trip to Ireland). Since we’d already seen Dublin and the southern half of Ireland several years ago, we decided to rent a car and drive north to Belfast. Side note on the car rental – we just had to tell our car rental company (Europcar) that we were going North and pay about 35 EUR; we also had to bring a letter from our credit card company dated within 3 weeks of travel saying that they cover Ireland in order to waive the collision damage coverage. This was easy to get by calling Chase – they just e-mailed us a standard form letter with our name, sufficient credit card details, and the dates.
On our last trip, we had tried and failed to visit Newgrange because you really have to be there first thing in the morning to get tickets. So after landing in Dublin, we took a quick drive north to a B&B in Drogheda (Rathescar Grove, which is about 15-20 minutes from Newgrange). We ate at an Indian restaurant in town (Garam Masala; delicious and very friendly. Our waiter made my chai masala to order) and tried our best to keep the kids quiet while we all dealt with the throes of jet lag. We were all more or less awake from about 12 – 4 a.m., so despite our best intentions, we didn’t get to Newgrange until around 10 a.m. However, since the visitor’s center is undergoing construction, admission was free, and since it was quite rainy, we didn’t have to battle too many crowds and got timed tickets for the 11:15 a.m. tour. You have to take a tour to visit the site and can choose to see Newgrange, Knowth, or both. We chose just to do Newgrange since the combo tour is about 3 hours. We waited in a small tent with a scone and coffee from the onsite food truck (surprisingly quite good) and then took a short walk to the shuttle bus for our tour. The tour guide was friendly and knowledgeable and we really enjoyed the tour – the space inside the mound is quite small and it made everyone very chummy. It is so amazing what people were able to engineer thousands of years ago with very few tools and no computers! Also, it’s impossible not to love the people and their love of the wee ones. James had a blowout and the bus driver let me change him in the back of the shuttle as if were just no big deal while he chatted with Julia and Peter up front.
Belfast (Northern Ireland)
Our first afternoon in Belfast was pretty much consumed with picking up a new changing mat (I left ours in the Seattle airport bathroom – whoops!), checking into our apartment, attempting a walk to the botanical gardens (we got rained out), and going to dinner. We stayed at the Malone Lodge & Apartments, which was near Queens University. We had a 2 bedroom apartment with a kitchen and free parking for a pretty reasonable rate, and it was right up the street from a convenient bus into town. We did have to go to the actual hotel to check-in and get the keys to our apartment, but they weren’t particularly far away from each other. For dinner, we went to Made in Belfast. It was so delicious that we went back again (to their other location, although we preferred the Wellington address) the next night. They had a killer kids’ menu with options that weren’t just french fries. Julia had a really juicy roast chicken with broccoli and mashed potatoes, and she was so pleased to have what looked like a miniature adult meal. I had a lamb duo, and Peter had fish and chips, both of which were so phenomenal.
When I originally planned the trip, I really wanted to drive out to the Giant’s Causeway. However, the forecast for essentially the entire time we were there was rain, rain and more rain. It didn’t seem like the best choice to go clambering around slippery rocks with small children, so we headed to the Titanic Museum instead. One of the things we loved about Belfast was the fact that you can use an app (mLink) to purchase a digital day use ticket, so we didn’t have to visit a special office for passes or have exact change on a bus. It made it much easier to take an awesome double decker bus and then transfer to a streetcar to get to the Titanic. Once we got to the museum, my favorite part was the intro, where you learn about life in Belfast at the time the Titanic was being built (there was a huge linen industry, for example). There was also a ride (small, slow, and very kid friendly) where you learn about the building of the Titanic while coasting by different levels in a small car. The riveting was most impressive – people heated individual rivets, tossed them up to the riveters, who then worked in pairs to pound them into place against each other. Everything at the museum was really interactive and it captured all of our attention, including James and Julia. There were also bathrooms and seating areas throughout, which I appreciated for breastfeeding and changing James’ diaper.
Tickets to the museum also include entry to the SS Nomadic, which was a tender (a smaller boat that took people from shore to the huge ocean liners) to the Titanic. Another really well done and interactive museum, with dress-up, games to play, and places to climb.
We decided to walk to dinner along the waterfront, which let us cross Lagan Weir (a nice pedestrian bridge, which also had some temporary Game of Thrones art installations that went with an exhibit nearby) and see the Salmon of Knowledge sculpture.
The next day, we needed to drive to Dublin in time to check-in to our apartment, but wanted to take breaks along the way (it’s about a 2-2.5 hour drive from Belfast to Dublin without stopping). Peter found the coolest park for us to visit – Slieve Gullion. I’ll never be able to pronounce it correctly, but this completely free park had a wonderful playground, as well as the Giant’s Lair trail. It was about 1 mile or so in length and had fairy houses, an amazing fairy kingdom playground, and some other fanciful stops (like musical instruments made of natural materials, etc). There were also very clean restrooms and a cafe on site with pretty good lunch choices (a variety of prepared salads, sandwiches and soup and some good coffee).
We also stopped about a half an hour toward the coast (just over the border into Ireland) in the village of Carlingford. There were beautiful views and the town was very cute to walk through, but we didn’t spend much time there.
We spent one night in Dublin that was a little bonus in order to make sure we were at the airport on time the next morning. We booked an apartment through Booking.com (it had a beautiful view, but we only got that apartment because the owner accidentally double booked our original reservation) and walked to the Old Spot, a gastropub nearby, for dinner. We had just enough time the next morning to have breakfast at The Queen of Tarts before heading to the airport. Our Northern Ireland experience was really wonderful, and the food was honestly significantly easier to find good things for Peter than in Dublin, oddly enough. I would go back in a heartbeat, especially if we could see more of the northwestern coast.
I posted previously about how I love using Google’s My Maps product to plot out things I want to do in a city we’re visiting, which then helps me decide where we might want to stay, as well as plan specific days’ activities based on proximity to each other.
When I was planning the Rome portion of our recent trip, for example, I had originally booked an apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood, which is on the south bank of the Tiber river. It has a great reputation as being beautiful and walkable and feeling kind of artsy, which was true. However, when I started plotting out the things we wanted to do, particularly our day trip to Tivoli and getting to and from the airport, it became clear that staying in the area would make using public transit more difficult, primarily because of the length of the train trips or number of transfers. By switching awhile before our actual trip, we found a great studio near the Termini station that allowed us to walk 5-10 minutes to the train, and it was easier to walk to other destinations (like the Colosseum and the Villa Borghese). We still visited Trastevere for an evening, but didn’t spend large chunks of our stay commuting across town.
Since we were going to have date nights in Paris and my husband has several dietary restrictions (and was testing out gluten and dairy intolerance shortly before our trip), I also made a separate map for restaurants in Paris and categorized them by type (e.g., ones from a Food and Wine list I found that just looked like they would have options, vs. places that were specifically mentioned by other blogs or sources as accommodating restrictions).
If you’re looking to plan trips to Paris, Normandy or Rome, I invite you to take a look at the maps I created as good starting points. I’m no professional, but I loved using layers to split out things to do, restaurants, our apartment and transit stations (as well as markets in Paris, although we never ended up going to one), as well as using different colors and markers to differentiate sites from each other.