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Welcome back for the final installment of our 18-day European vacation recap! We’re super excited you’re here.
In Part 1, we discussed our stay in Munich and Verona. Part 2 focused on our stay in Rome and our side trips to Pompeii and Positano. Today’s final piece will discuss our stays in Florence (with a side trip to Cinque Terre) and Switzerland. Like in the previous pieces, I’ve also included a list of resources at the end.
There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it!
Resetting the Basics
In case you haven’t read the previous pieces, here’s a quick recap of who was with us and our financial strategy for the trip:
- Our Group – 3 adults, 2 children (age 6 &8)
- Flights – Booked all 5 flights with credit card points
- Trains – Used trains to move from city to city; booked in advance here
- Tours – Booked tours using points and credit card portals to save money
- Daily Spending – Budget allowed $200 a day for meals and souvenirs (We came in under budget!)
Florence Day 1: Santa Croce and Cooking Class
After a short 1.5 hour train ride to Florence, we left the Santa Maria Novella train station and made the short 15-minute walk toward the Duomo. Florence has a very walkable city center, so staying anywhere in the old city means you’re in a great location. We rented this wonderful apartment which was literally across the street from the cathedral. Search thousands of Florence vacation rentals here.
We got situated in our condo, then took a short walk to one of my favorite churches, the Basilica of Santa Croce. This is the world’s largest Franciscan church and home to the final resting place of notable Florentines such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. Not a bad group, eh? Here are a couple of quick snapshots:
Our first day in Florence also happened to be my youngest daughter’s sixth birthday. We planned a special evening for her, including this fun cooking class! We had a blast making (and eating) our own pizzas from scratch. The end of the evening also included a taste of chocolate gelato we made. It was a memorable night and a birthday she’ll never forget!
Florence Day 2: Duomo Complex, Medici Tombs, and Pitti Palace
Day 2 in Florence was all about the Medici. Holly and I started the morning off with a self-guided tour of the Medici tombs. It was something we weren’t able to do last time, and I’m glad we were able to hit the site on this trip. You can cover the tombs easily within an hour, but make sure you book a skip-the-line reservation ahead of time.
After the tombs, we walked about 3 blocks to meet up with Brian and the kids outside the Duomo. Our Florence Duomo Complex Tour included a guided tour of the cathedral, baptistery, and the Duomo Museum. It also got us reservations to climb the 463 steps to the top of the duomo, providing absolutely breathtaking views of the city. Please note, you can’t climb the dome without a reservation. I suggest using a tour like the one listed above that covers everything.
For those who don’t know, the Florence Duomo was once the largest cathedral in the world. (That honor now belongs to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.) While it looks big in pictures, when standing next to it, the place is absolutely gigantic. The crowning achievement, Brunelleschi’s dome, was the first domed structure built in over 1,000 years! This magnificent piece of architecture took about 16 years to complete and is considered one of the first great works of the Italian Renaissance.
For me, the highlight of the tour was a single statue located in the Duomo Museum. There, you can see the original doors from the baptistery and a replica of the cathedral’s original facade. But the best part is at the end. There you’ll find Michelangelo’s last work, a masterful sculpture called “The Deposition.” In this work, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus hold the body of Jesus after he was removed from the cross. The face of Nicodemus is believed to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. It’s the first time I’ve seen this sculpture and it instantly became my favorite work.
After the tour, we grabbed a quick lunch before Holly and I crossed the Ponte Vecchio on our way to this Pitti Palace tour. The palace was purchased by the Medici family in the mid-1500s and served as home to the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. After the male line of the Medici dynasty became extinct in the 1730s, the palace became the property of the new Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francis I of the Austrian Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty… who also bore the title of Holy Roman Emperor. Napoleon Bonaparte and Victor Emmanuel II both stayed here as well.
The palace is definitely worth a look. It’s an art lover’s paradise, with room after room filled with masterpieces. Here are a few pics:
Florence Day 3 & 4: Cinque Terre, Academia, Uffizi Gallery
Ever since we started traveling, I’ve always wanted to visit Cinque Terre. The area is named after the “5 lands” (tiny villages) that compose it. We decided to take this whirlwind Cinque Terre day tour, hopping between 4 of the 5 villages by water taxi throughout the day.
As tempting as it sounds, resist the urge to visit several of the villages quickly. You’re better served to visit just one or two spots. (4 stops in like 8 hours was far too rushed.) The highlight was easily the beautiful beach in Monterosso al Mare. Hangout here for several hours, then hit one of the other villages (I liked Riomaggiore) and you’ll be happier.
The next day, Brian and I booked a combo tour (with the kids) to see Michelangelo’s statue of David at the Academia Gallery and the art lover’s paradise, the Uffizi Gallery. Like at the Vatican, skip the line is very important… but skip the guided tours. I’d recommend this self-guided combo tour of Academia and the Uffizi Gallery, featuring fast track entry and access to audio guides.
As a nice break, we also brought the kids to the hands-on Leonardo da Vinci museum. There, we got to touch and feel several replicas of da Vinci’s inventions.
To complete our time in Florence, Holly and I took the kids to Piazzzale Michelangelo, a beautiful square overlooking the city. We ate a great dinner across the street, complete with a fantastic view.
The next day, we made a scenic 8-hour train journey to the Jungfrau Region of Switzerland. Now, Switzerland is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – maybe THE most beautiful. The entire country is pristine – from the ridiculous mountains to the incredibly clear lakes. Heck, even the bathrooms seem like hospital rooms! With that said, the country can be über expensive… but don’t worry! We’ve got some articles coming soon outlining ways to save in Switzerland.
After doing some extensive research, we decided to stay in the village of Grindelwald. There are plenty of hotels here, but we booked a room at the Mountain Hostel. The price was right, the room was acceptable, and it also offered free breakfast. Upon check-in, they gave us a Grindelwald discount card which provided discounts on lift tickets, free access to the nicest indoor pool I’ve ever seen, and free rides on the city’s bus system. And when you’re hauling luggage with you, getting a bus ride up the hill is freakin’ awesome!
Grindelwald is an extremely cute mountain village that is very family friendly. There is an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, and plenty of free playgrounds to use. Food can get spendy, so make sure to do a little research before choosing your restaurant. (We liked the Eiger+ Cafe Lounge, located right next to the visitors center… and a great little park/playground). While there, we also took an amazing hike to Bachalpsee Lake. Here are a few pics:
Down the Mountain Slide
After completing our 2-night stay in Grindelwald, we made our way back down to Interlaken. There, we picked up a rental car and drove 45-minutes to Kandersteg, home of the longest alpine slide in Switzerland. This was an absolute blast, and it was relatively cheap – like 20 CHF for 5 rides. Of course, you’ll also need to purchase a lift ticket unless you want to hike up the mountain yourself (not recommended). We have a video of the alpine slide up at our new YouTube channel, but here are a few still shots to give you a quick taste of the slide.
Hotel Villa Honegg
After riding the alpine slide several times, we jumped in the car and headed toward Lucerne for a 2-night stay at the Hotel Villa Honegg. This place is absolutely amazing! Located near the top of a mountain, and with just 23 rooms, the hotel caters to visitors looking to get away from it all. While it won’t fit into every traveler’s budget, it’s the perfect spot to spend a special night or two. Besides the great service, you’re treated to one of the world’s most spectacular pool views. I don’t want to give too much away because we’ll have a full review on the blog this week, but here are a couple of pics to get you excited!
On the way to the Hotel Villa Honegg, we drove past one of the most beautiful lakes we’d ever seen. Since our last day in Switzerland was open, we decided to drive back to Lungern and spend the day at the beach.
If you ever get the chance to visit, you have to do it! Seriously guys, the water is refreshingly cool and it’s probably the clearest lake water I’ve ever seen! I mean, look at the color… it’s freakin’ turquoise! The beach and park are also nice. There are a couple of water slides, a water trampoline, and some diving boards. The park also features a snack shack where you can order pizzas, pulled pork sandwiches, fries, salads, and more – complete with beer and ice cream to purchase. Pedal boats and kayaks are also available for rent. Entrance fees were about 5 CHF, which is basically $5 for adults, and we spent the entire day there. It was fantastic… and here are some pics!
European Vacation Recap: Wrapping Up
Needless to say, we had an incredible time on our 18-day European family vacation. The trip was amazing, the kids were fantastic, and we got to spend a lot of quality time together making wonderful memories. Honestly, it was worth every penny… and I can’t wait to do it again!
Of course, we learned a lot too. Over the next several weeks, we’ll get even more specific about some tips you can use for your travel plans – like tips for traveling with children, saving money in Switzerland, and more. And don’t forget, if you’d like help creating a credit card rewards plan to save on your next trip, we’re glad to help. Just follow the link in the resource list below!
Thanks again for reading Part 3 of our trip recap! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing it with you. Until next time, happy traveling!
- Free Travel Rewards Advice
- Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards
- Florence Vacation Rentals
- Academia and Uffizi Gallery Self-Guided “Skip-the-Line” Tour (Florence)
- Florence Duomo Complex and Museum Tour
- Pizza and Gelato Cooking Class (Florence)
- Medici Chapels – Skip the Line Reservations (Florence)
- Pitti Palace Tour (Florence)
- Cinque Terre Day Tour
- Mountain Hostel (Grindelwald, Switzerland)
- Hotel Villa Honegg (Lucerne, Switzerland)
- Eurail Global Pass
- Swiss Travel Pass – Rail Europe
- Club Thrifty YouTube Channel