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There’s only one time I’ve come close to cut­ting a trip short, call­ing it a fail­ure, and buy­ing the first avail­able tick­et home. I was in Vien­na. Yes, beau­ti­ful, enchant­i­ng Vien­na, on a fam­i­ly trip with our kids. Don’t get me wrong, my wife and I were lov­ing Vien­na’s rich his­to­ry, stun­ning archi­tec­ture, and delec­table melanges.



Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a three- and five-year-old had hijacked our trip and were run­ning it off the rails at an alarm­ing speed. They whined, they fought, they were cold, they refused to walk one more step. 




Now you should know, my wife and I aren’t afraid of trav­el­ing with chil­dren, nor are we rookies.


As Amer­i­cans liv­ing in Istan­bul, we not only live in a sprawl­ing Euro­pean city with small chil­dren, but we also trav­el to the U.S. and oth­er coun­tries with our chil­dren at least twice a year. 

So one year when Christ­mas was approach­ing and we had Cap­i­tal One miles burn­ing a hole in our pock­et, we booked a last-minute flight to Vien­na just in time for the final night of Vien­na Christ­mas World on Rathaus­platz.


Our Family Trip Through Austria

The trip start­ed out great with fun times at a Christ­mas mar­ket in Vienna


We ice skat­ed, sipped mulled wine and hot choco­late, and munched on sausage. Day one: suc­cess. We’d even wise­ly booked an Airbnb apart­ment with plen­ty of liv­ing space from which we could reach the city cen­ter on foot or by train. But after the first day or two, the kids got tired of the same old routine.

Walk here, walk there. See this muse­um. Eat at that restau­rant. Real­ly, mom’s stop­ping for cof­fee again? Even out­ings that they enjoyed, like the his­toric Schön­brunn Zoo, could­n’t seem to sal­vage the trip. The afore­men­tioned whin­ing con­tin­ued and increased. 


Go Solo

My wife and I even took turns tak­ing in the sites indi­vid­u­al­ly and stay­ing at the apart­ment or a park with the kids. But we could­n’t help feel­ing like we’d made a big mis­take. We’d trav­eled with kids before, but we real­ized that it was­n’t usu­al­ly to cities. And we real­ized that we had booked the trip for our­selves and dragged them along. In order to save our trip we had to come up with activ­i­ties that would appeal to both the kids and us.

We had planned to stay five days in Vien­na and then con­tin­ue by train to the Salzburg area, stay anoth­er five days, and return to Istan­bul from Salzburg. But after just three days, we start­ed research­ing return flights from Vienna. 

We had­n’t booked lodg­ing near Salzburg yet and with low last-minute avail­abil­i­ty and high prices, we asked our­selves why we would keep pay­ing mon­ey to be mis­er­able? Unfor­tu­nate­ly, (or as it turned out, for­tu­nate­ly) tick­ets from Vien­na to Istan­bul were just too high. We were stuck.


Scavenger Hunt Anyone?

But then came my trip-sav­ing idea. One day when we were out see­ing sites, I decid­ed to make a scav­enger hunt for the kids. Eat a sausage, drink hot choco­late, go inside a church, eat a pas­try, ride a train, eat Schnitzel, go ice skat­ing, see a Christ­mas tree, vis­it a palace, see a manger scene, etc.

I made the check­list in notes on my phone and let them take turns choos­ing an icon to go with each item and then check­ing the item off once com­plet­ed. The kids loved it. Sud­den­ly our trip and our Aus­tri­an buck­et list became theirs, too.

We con­tin­ued on our trip with renewed hope and our new secret weapon in my back pocket—literally. After vis­it­ing friends out­side Vien­na, we trav­eled across the coun­try by train to Gmunden, a small resort town on Lake Traun­see, about an hour out­side Salzburg. 

The train ride was a real cul­tur­al expe­ri­ence as we saw how Aus­tri­ans trav­el. We also enjoyed the scenic land­scape start­ing with the out­skirts of Vien­na and mov­ing through the open countryside. 

We had one trans­fer and just enough time for a quick snack. We ticked off items from our scav­enger hunt as we rode and every­thing went real­ly well. It was a vast improve­ment from the days before.

A few nights ear­li­er we had decid­ed to stay in Gmunden, a beau­ti­ful Aus­tri­an vil­lage with an authen­tic old-time feel, after a brand new Airbnb list­ing mirac­u­lous­ly popped up at an incred­i­ble price. As a new list­ing it had no reviews, so the price was low, but with a super host list­ing it (Airbnb super­hosts have oth­er list­ings and are, there­fore, more reli­able), we snatched up the spa­cious apart­ment with brand-new, nev­er-been-used furnishings. 

After arriv­ing in the quaint lake-side town, sur­round­ed by moun­tains, we were so thank­ful we had­n’t giv­en up and gone home. 



Viennese Lake Country 

The next day, we con­tin­ued with our scav­enger hunt­ing in Gmunden. Find a coin, touch a church build­ing, drink hot choco­late, cross the bridge, go on a hike, see a tram, catch a snowflake on your tongue, see moun­tains, feed birds. The list went on. We roamed the city with a pur­pose and the kids enjoyed every minute of it.

If we saw some­thing inter­est­ing, we added it to the list, then checked it off. I want­ed the kids to have their eyes open to inter­est­ing things around them. After all, they were learn­ing how to be good travelers. 


Our Family Trip Through Austria

A pic­ture of the snow-capped moun­tains on the way to Hallstatt


The fol­low­ing day, we took a breath­tak­ing train ride from Gmunden to the more tourist-heavy Hall­statt. We had heard about this pic­turesque vil­lage from friends and knew that no trip to Aus­tria would be com­plete with­out see­ing it. Halfway through the ride, the land­scape turned from brown and green to pure white as a fresh snow paint­ed the Aus­tri­an coun­try­side out­side the window. 

After fer­ry­ing across Lake Hall­statt to the pic­turesque hill­side town, my wife and I could­n’t wait to dis­cov­er its trea­sures and our kids could­n’t wait to get start­ed on yet anoth­er scav­enger hunt. 

See the Aus­tri­an flag, touch a stat­ue, hear a bell, see a pink build­ing, find a hik­ing trail, go in a store, eat a ham and cheese sand­wich nice­ly (that was added when lunch was­n’t going so well), play in the snow, see a water­fall, go in a tun­nel, build a snow­man … and more. 


Our Family Trip Through Austria

A joy­ful of snow


After a long day of explor­ing and hunt­ing, we jour­neyed back to Gmunden by train, dis­cussing the high­lights from our day-trip. 

On the last day of our trip we caught an ear­ly train to Salzburg, stashed our bags in a lock­er at the sta­tion, and set off on anoth­er day of scav­enger hunt­ing before our evening flight home. 


Our Family Trip Through Austria

Hap­py times at Mari­bel Gar­dens thanks to my lit­tle trick


After watch­ing the Sound of Music as a fam­i­ly a day or two before, we had our list ready to go. See a fortress on a hill, sing a song, go to Mirabel Gar­dens, see a water foun­tain, run, skip, jump as high as you can, see a horse, go in a store, see the name Mozart. 


Traveling With Children? Don’t Forget the Scavenger Hunt

At the end of the day we board­ed our plane back to Istan­bul, grate­ful that our once-fail­ing trip had been turned around by such a sim­ple idea. We’ve since used the scav­enger hunt trick on oth­er trav­els, like our trip to Hei­del­berg last spring. 

Go to a cas­tle, cross a bridge, go in a church, go up a tow­er, take a pic­ture with LEGO Mar­tin Luther (if you haven’t done it, you real­ly should), take a secret pas­sage, see pigeons, stay away from your sis­ter, be calm in a restau­rant (again, the meal had tak­en a turn for the worse), see a dog, touch a tree. 

So, whether you’re tour­ing Europe or dri­ving to the city for the day, give it a try on your next trip. Hap­py hunting!


John Thomas is a free­lance writer. He has writ­ten for numer­ous pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing 5280 Mag­a­zine, Min­neso­ta Month­ly, and Chris­tian­i­ty Today, among others. 



Our Family Trip Through Austria