16 October 2014

Free Walking Tour Zurich

Last weekend, my brother was visiting so I took him to Free Walking Tour Zurich, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was great! Even after living in Zurich for over nine years, I was delighted to find I still had a few things to learn about my adopted city. We really liked our tour guide Maria (with me in the above pic), who was very enthusiastic and had a fun story-telling style. The guides have different specialties and interests, so while the main information is the same, some of the details with differ.

Although the tour is not specifically designed for kids, I think the tour is a good option for families, not only because it's a good tour, but it's flexible. For the free tours, you don't have to book ahead, so you can decide minutes beforehand whether your kids are up for a tour or not. Since the tour is free (tips are appreciated, but not expected), it's not a big deal if your kids have a meltdown halfway through and you have to leave early.

The tour lasted about 90 minutes, starting at Paradeplatz and ending at Grossmünster, about 2km long. For those with strollers, there are two long stair sections that you'll need to carry your stroller over (photo below), but otherwise it's stroller-friendly. Most stops on the tour are in open squares and pedestrian-only zones, so kids can relatively safely run around while you're listening to the tour guide.

The tour is full of fun, interesting facts about Zurich. For example, did you know that the Bahnhofstrasse used to be called Fröschengraben (ditch of frogs) because so many frogs lived in the water canal running down that street? I quickly put together a "quiz for kids" for the Downtown Zurich Tour, where kids can match the tour stop with a picture representing a story about that location. Maybe this will help you keep the kids interested. Remember to bring along some chocolate as a prize for your kids if they finish the quiz. You can see and print the quiz here.

They offer several tours, some free, some paid. I did the Downtown Zurich tour. The Architecture tour is the next one on my list. There is a Downtown Zurich tour almost everyday, more on the weekends. Check their website for details.

Now for a few pics of the tour...

Find out why these saints are carrying their own heads around town.

Find out what old name is hiding on this old roman tombstone.

Enjoy the view and learn which buildings are which.

Find out why this lady from 1291 is wearing armor.

Here are the two stair sections over which you'll need to carry your stroller.

Look up a Zahringerplatz to see a fancy sundial.

Walk down some new-to-you streets and learn how to tell which buildings are really old.

See an old map of the city.

Find out the super cool reason this model was built and how it brings good luck.

Don't forget to retrace your steps after the tour and get a hot chocolate at Cafe Schober!

10 September 2014

Ebenalp - Seealpsee hike

Summary: cable car up, then downhill hike to lovely lake

Ebenalp is a mountain area near Appenzell, where you'll find lots of hiking options. This time, we rode up the Wasserauen-Ebenalp cable car, then hiked down a steep mountain trail to Seealpsee, a pretty lake with stunning views all around (took us about 1hr30min). This lake is very popular, so don't expect to be in an empty, remote spot after working so hard to get there; many people simply walk up the service road from the parking areas. But you can hike around the lake and find a nice quiet place to relax and wade in the water. At the lake, you'll find a couple restaurants with large outdoor seating areas, a small playground.

Later, we hiked down more steep switchbacks all the way back to the valley station (took us about 1hr15mins). This hike is possible with children, but requires a motivated crew and some caution (more on that below). I also recommend walking sticks to provide stability as you navigate many stairs and some slippery slopes. This hike is a bit longer and more challenging than most hike I post here, but it's worth it.

For those of you with kids that are too small to walk and too big to carry, you can take the paved road from Wasserauen up to the lake (about 1 hr one way), which is appropriate for strollers unlike the other trails. The paved path is steep in parts, but completely doable with a stroller. For a less demanding option, see the Ebenalp-Wildkirchli Hike post that describes the short trail to the cliff restaurant.

Car: ~1:30 from ZH Trail: ~2.5-3hrs Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: ~2:10 from ZH, 1 change Stroller: no Fire pit: yes
Cost: medium Theme: no Playground: yes

Details. Drive to Wasserauen and park near the base station of the Ebenalp cable car. There are a couple large parking lots, but on sunny weekends, it can fill up quickly. We usually go here in May when it's very quiet. So when we went on a sunny Saturday in late June, we were disturbed to see a couple hundred cars filling up two lots, a farmer's field and lining the main road (shown below), all requiring a small parking fee. Wasserauen is easy to reach by public transportation, as the train drops off directly across from the cable car station. It only requires one change from Zurich HB.

At the cable car station, buy a one way ticket as you will be hiking all the way down. It's relatively inexpensive and they accept Halbtax and Juniorkarten. In 2014, it was 20CHF/adult, 6.50CHF/child for one-way. We were worried about the crowds, but happily, we didn't have to wait in a long line for the cable car. It was packed with people at the top and along the short trail to the Wildkirchli (wild church) and restaurant. Once we split onto the trail to Seealpsee, there were less hikers and they were more spread out.

At the top, follow signs to Seealpsee, Wildkirchli-Höhlen, and Gasthaus Aescher. Pretty much everyone else is walking the same way at the beginning, so you shouldn't get lost. This part looks like you might be able to take a stroller, but no. It gets very lumpy and narrow. It also briefly passes through a dark, wet cave, that can be wet and slippery.

After a few minutes, you'll reach the hermit cave and this little house and a church built into a cave.

A few minutes later, you'll reach the Gasthaus Aescher (shown below), which has a restaurant and some outdoor seating. The food is typical Swiss fare, nothing special, but the views are fantastic. On busy days, expect the small restaurant to be completely packed, as this is the main destination for most visitors.

To continue the trail to Seealpsee, walk through the patio seating and rejoin the trail on the other side, always following signs to "Seealpsee."

There are a couple paths going down the mountain, but ignore them until you see this sign below, with the yellow trail sign pointing to Seealpsee. At this point, the trail splits. The right fork goes back up the mountain on a narrow switchback and eventually ends up back at the Ebenalp top station. The left fork goes down the mountain to the lake. Take the left fork.

This warning sign says: "Descent to Seealp lake is a dangerous mountain trail! Secure children with a rope. Ropes are available in Gasthaus Äscher!" I was quite worried by this sign and imagined us scuttling along the edges of sheer cliffs. We proceeded with caution, but no rope. It wasn't nearly as bad as I imagined.

As shown in these pictures, it is a steep narrow mountain trail, with lots of stairs, but no more than other steep mountain trails we've been on. There are sections where the mountain descends steeply on one side of the trail (look at the pic above right), but no drop-offs. We kept our kids (6 and 10 at the time) close but I never felt that they were in danger. I wouldn't recommend it for very small kids (like under 5), particularly those that run off, don't always heed your warnings, trip a lot, etc. This is a trail for confident walkers that can go the distance.

After about an hour, the mountain path with join the paved road, where you'll probably encounter more people walking up that road, those who didn't want to hike down like you did.

After about 10 mins after you join the paved road, you'll see a few barns, buildings and cows.

A couple minutes later, the road ends at the lake. The day we were there, lots of families were spread around this area, splashing in the water. It's a nice spot, but you'll probably want to walk around the lake a bit to escape some of the crowds. A narrow dirt path circles the lake. It's easy walking but not particularly stroller-friendly.

There are 2 restaurants with outdoor patios overlooking the lake. Directly to your left is Gasthaus Forelle, with lots of outdoor seating and a small playground. We didn't eat there, so I can't tell you about the food.

You can rent rowboats from the Gasthaus. I think it was 8CHF for 30 minutes. It's very informal; we didn't have to sign anything or leave a deposit or check in when we were done. But they wouldn't let us rent it for longer than 30 minutes because they want other people to have an opportunity to use the boat. That's not much time, but we managed to row our crew around a bit and drop them off on the other side of the lake. I rowed back and returned the boat, then walked around to meet my family. They didn't have life vests, so use at your own risk.

If you walk through the restaurant patio and follow the path through a small forest, you'll end up on the narrow eastern leg of the lake. Lots of people were sunbathing here and some even splashing around in the water. It's shallow here and probably the best section if you have small kids that want to get wet.

I didn't see any official fire pits, but there were lots of informal ones around the lake. It was a little tricky to gather up enough firewood, but we managed it in the end. We tried to swim, but it was so icy cold, none of us got in very deep.

A little more of the view, this time looking north back to Ebenalp.

When you are ready to walk back to Wasserauen (and your car or the train), you can either take the paved road you came up on.

Or you can take a hiking trail, which I'll show you below. This trail starts on the east side of the lake, a little southeast of the restaurant, at the same spot I mentioned above that was shallow and good for splashing around. Below we are just starting the trail away from the lake.

The trail starts through some wide open fields.

Then lots and lots and lots of stairs and some switchbacks through a dark forest. I thought this was the hardest part of the trail. Some of it was under construction and was a little difficult to manage. But it looked like they are repairing the trail, so hopefully it will be in better condition when you go.

A little more than an hour after leaving the lake, we had the car park in sight. Our knees were hurting a bit from all the downhill. But it was a great day and I'd definitely recommend it.

Our 2.5 year old was about to fall asleep in the backpack so we decided to take that as an opportunity to do a more strenuous hike & try to lose some of the crowds. The trail from Wildkirchli to Seealpsee is down a lot of steep steps and is definitely not child friendly. I thought a quiet & remote Alpine lake would be the reward for the punishment that my knees were taking. However, our trail merged with a paved trail just before the lake & we were once again amongst the crowds.

Note: This is my update to a 2007 post written by my good friend Inga, who has since left Switzerland and is hiking in other parts of the world now. We miss you!

Lenzerheide Rothorn - Geology Trail

Summary: geology trail at 2,900 m above sea level

Lenzerheide is a big mountain resort, with lots of family friendly activities both in the valley and the surrounding mountains. The Rothorn cable car on the east side of the valley, takes you up to a high mountain peak with a sweeping 360 view of the alps. We first went in 2007, when I was nine months pregnant, so we didn't hike, just enjoyed the view and a delicious meal. That simple experience was nice enough to recommend the place. But it gets even better if you explore a bit. In Sept 2014, we went back and did the geology theme trail at the top of the Rothorn cable car. It's a barren rocky landscape at the top, but it's beautiful in its own unusual way and the views are fantastic.The restaurant was even better than I remembered and I'd go back just to eat there.

22 July 2014

Golm Mountain Resort for Family Fun and Adventure

Summary: family-friendly mountain resort with fun theme trail and other attractions

Golm Austria is an all-star of family-friendly mountain resorts. It has a theme trail with play equipment, a super fast alpine coaster, a ropes course, a crazy long zip line, multiple playgrounds, etc. The whole place is geared to family fun. Plus you're in the mountains with beautiful nature all around you. Below, I've detailed our visit from 2011, but things may have changed since then. So see the Golm website for current information. Golm is part of the Montafon area, which has many other great resorts with family activities (like the Gargellen Smugglers Trail). It would be a nice place for a long weekend or summer holiday.

Car: 2hrs from ZH Trail: 3.5 downhill Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: local buses Stroller: no Fire pit: yes
Cost: medium Theme: nature exploration Playground: yes

Details. Drive to Vandans, Austria as shown in the above map and follow signs to the Golmerbahn. There is dirt car park next to the Vandans Golm cable car station. First, let's get oriented. I couldn't find a trail map on the website, so I've scanned in an old map I have from 2008. Obviously, things have changed since then but the basic elements are there.

This first cable car takes you from Vandans to the middle station Latschau (you can also drive here, I'll let you figure that out). The alpine coaster starts here and you'll find the ropes course and Flying Fox zip line nearby. More about that at the end of this post. For hiking, take the cable car from Latschau up to Grüneck.

You can buy tickets for each piece separately. If you are doing the Golmi Exploration theme trail, there is a ticket specifically for that, which includes the appropriate cable cars. See current prices here. But there are discounts if you combine activities, like trail with ropes course and alpine coaster. See combi offers for details.

We started the day by riding all the way up to Grüneck (shown below). Here's you'll find a restaurant with a big terrace and lots of playground equipment.

My pics of the playground are quite terrible, sorry! There's lots to keep the kids busy here. There are slides, sand pit, climbing wall, bouncy castle (at least when we went in 2011), slack line, swings, etc.

The Golmi Exploration Trail (aka Forschungweg) starts right next to the restaurant. Follow the blue trail signs as shown below. Start by snapping a pic with Golmi, the blue cartoon marmot. There's a human-sized marmot hole (shown below right) where kids can crawl in and look out the window. My kids said it was a little dirty in there, spiderwebs and the like.

This nature exploration theme trail has 21 stations, a mix of education and play. Happily, the text appears in both German and English. It's recommended for children over 6, as some of the quizzes and games are targeted to older children. But our 4 year old enjoyed it as well. It is not stroller-friendly; although it starts as a wide gravel path, it has rough sections that would be tough to navigate with a stroller. It's downhill and not particularly difficult, but it might be a little long for very small children. Be prepared to carry them at the end.

A sample of the views at the top. There are other non-themed trails that head off into this wilderness.

A couple of the stations. The signboard below has the kids match the animal with their home, a green light illuminating if you make a correct match.

A water play station and picnic area.

A few animal sculptures along the way, a little beat up and need of repair.

One of our favorite stations where you try to jump as far as the animals can.

I don't know what we learned at this station, but we sure enjoyed teetering back and forth on this seesaw that filled water buckets on each side then spilled the water across the see saw to the other side.

Adorable station where you can play songs by hitting the correct bells. There's sheet music in the book telling you which bells to hit.

On the left, a sample of a rocky portion of the trail, no strollers here. On the right, the restaurant at Matschwitz, the middle station of the Latschau-Grüneck cable car. You could continue walking down the mountain, but the Golmi theme trail ends here. We ate a hearty meal here then rode the cable car back down to Latschau.

Back at Latschau, you'll find various amusments. The ropes course and Flying Fox zip line are in the forest, on the far side of the big (not attractive) reservoir, about a 10 minute walk. We didn't do the ropes course, but it looked good. There are three levels of difficulty. Kids with a height of 100cm-130cm can do the lowest level course. Kids over 130cm can do the other courses, accompanied by an adult. It can get very busy, so they recommend making a reservation ahead of time.

The Flying Fox is a super long zip line (565m) that starts on a hill in the forest and crosses the entire reservoir, reaching speeds up to 70km/hr. My husband and 7 year old did it. I was more nervous than them, especially watching his little body sail far, far away high above the ground and water. My husband went first so he could help my son on the other end. I sent him off, then walked back with my 4 year old.

Last, but not least, the alpine coaster. This is a different class of alpine coasters than others I've ridden in Switzerland. It's 2.6km long, the entire length of the cable car down to Vanduns, and reaches speeds up to 40km/hr. A little scary, but super fun! The cars are sturdy, comfortably fit two people, and surprisingly have seatbeats. Children must be 3yrs old to ride with an adult, 8yrs old and 140cm to ride alone. Just do it!

21 July 2014

Gargellen Smuggler's Trail

Summary: mountain trail with interactive stations along old smuggler's route

Another theme trail, this time just over the border in Austria in the Montafon area. The Gargellen Smuggler's Trail follows an old alpine smuggling route, with ten interactive play stations, educating little hikers about smuggling. The area is beautiful, the play stations creative and fun, the playground large, the food tasty, the prices moderate: all the ingredients for a fun family outing.

Car: 2hrs from ZH Trail: 2.8km loop Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: difficult from ZH Stroller: yes Fire pit: yes
Cost: low Theme: smugglers Playground: yes

Details. Drive yourself to Gargellen, Austria. The area is served by local buses, but public transportation from Zurich would be rather complicated. There are a couple large parking lots next to the cable car station and overflow lots a short walk down the road. Make sure to pick up a SmuggiLuggi trail brochure, which includes a map, history of smugglers, and a short description of each play station. It's in German only, but maybe you can use the images below to translate beforehand.

At the top of the cable car, you'll find a big restaurant with lots of outdoor seating and a big playground. You could spend a couple happy hours simply lounging while the kids run wild. We had a delicious hearty Tirolean meal at half the Swiss prices, always a treat.

The 2.8km trail starts near the restaurant through the Smugglerland gate shown below. It's impossible to miss. Almost immediately, you'll reach the first station, Schleichweg, which is a barefoot path, including mud and water. I didn't want to lose momentum or have wet clothes/shoes ruin our hike, so we skipped this station and went back at the end since it's a loop trail. There's plenty of fun coming up, so don't worry.

The second station is a goat stall (shown below), a typical place where smugglers would hide.

The trail is a wide gravel path, suitable for all-terrain stroller. The trail starts slightly downhill, wraps around the hill, goes uphill for a bit before looping back downhill to the restaurant.

At the Fernblick station, you try to spot SmuggiLuggi the smuggler on the mountain. This was surprisingly difficult. It took a long time to find but we were quite proud when we finally did. The brochure to note what SmuggiLuggi has in his hand and report back at the restaurant to receive a smuggler's badge. I didn't read this note until just now while writing this post, so I can't tell you what he has in his hand or what you might receive from the restaurant. So leave a comment if you do.

At the Kraftprobe station, there are rocks of different weights, representing bundles of salt, that you can try to pick up. Based on this test, I would have been a terrible smuggler.

At the Am Wasserand station, you are encouraged to fill up your water bottle in the stream. What??? Do not do this! There are cows grazing and pooping upstream. You do not want to get sick!!!

At the Auf der Flucht station, there are two footprint paths along the rocks and you're supposed to race each other like a smuggler trying to outrun the fuzz. This was our favorite station.

At the Kletterbaum station, you walk on this tree trunk. We made a game of trying to walk across the length without touching any of the branches, harder than it might look.

At about the 2km mark, the Marend station has a picnic area with a grill pit and firewood. Above this, there is a small, not particularly attractive, reservoir shown below. FYI, "Marend" means "Jause" which means "a meal or snack consisting of bread, cold cuts, cheese etc., usually between breakfast and lunch or in the evening."

The last station, In Sicherheit (aka Safe at Last!),  is back at the restaurant, where the kids can play and you can rest in the lounge chairs.

For extra credit, you can hike Smuggler's Circuit, a loop trail that connects Gargellen, Austria to Madrisa, Switzerland. They provide a GPS device to help you find hidden stuff along the trail. It looks like a challenging hike, but they website says "perfect for families!" The package includes an overnight in a mountain hay loft and "smuggler's feast." It's definitely on my To-Do list. Let me know if you do it.