In 2011, at 29 years old, I landed my dream job: on-air TV journalist for KNBC. As an early-morning reporter, I covered almost every story imaginable — from presidential visits to wildfires and mudslides. For more than a decade, my schedule consisted of waking up at 1:30 a.m. and being ready to go on air by 4 a.m.
I love my career, so even after my husband and I had children, we still managed (with my mom’s help) to make the schedule work. I would get home from work by lunchtime, which enabled me to pick up our daughters (now 9, 5 and almost 2) from school, help with homework, get dinner prepared and do bath time. My goal was to be in bed by 6:30 p.m. And so, even though I had the afternoon and early evenings with my family, there was still so much that I was missing out on. I missed out on bedtime stories and tucking my daughters in — and I wasn’t there in the mornings to have breakfast with them or comb their hair. We FaceTimed as they walked to school. But even the weekends never gave us enough time to catch up.
When an opportunity for my family to spend several months traveling to South America and across Europe came along, my husband and I said a resounding yes!
Yes! to learning about different cultures, customs and languages. And yes! to spending every moment with my favorite little humans while making incredible memories. I pressed pause on my TV journalism career to embark on this amazing adventure with my family.
Traveling with young kids was not new to us. My husband and I have always been passionate about travel, and we didn’t stop when we had our first, second or third daughter. We want our daughters to be global citizens. Before the pandemic, we traveled with our girls to several countries, from Japan to Brazil and all across Europe. By opening the world to them, they’ve been able to see how their actions at home and in their community can impact people thousands of miles away.
As we prepared for this longer journey that started last winter, there were so many things to get squared away. At the top of the list was making sure that our 9-year-old daughter, who was leaving in the middle of the school year, would be able to continue her work abroad. We met with her third-grade teacher and principal to get her academic material for the remainder of the year.
Then, we researched international health insurance plans and chose one that gave us access to specialists, pediatricians, clinics and hospitals in the countries we planned to travel. Somehow, packing turned out to be more complicated than choosing our health plan. In case you’re wondering how you pack for five people who are going to live abroad for several months, here’s how we did it: We placed suitcases around the house, and when we came across something essential, we’d put it in. We were able to fit everything in four suitcases.
We also made a trip to our local pharmacy to fill prescription medication for at least eight months and purchase several over-the-counter medications for the whole family.
A bit of advice for anyone who’s thinking of traveling for an extended period: Don’t overpack! Remember, you’ll be dealing with strollers (we had two), plus carry-ons, purses and diaper bags — and your kids. Less is more. We were juggling so many bags on our flight from L.A. to Paris that we lost our most important carry-on backpack. It contained our baby bottles, medicines and contact lenses. Thankfully, we were able to replace the items, but it was frustrating.
Navigating through a new country —from figuring out public transportation to finding well-stocked grocery stores — but there are always people willing to help. Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned along the way is to make the journey fun for the whole family. Yes, monuments and museum visits are great, but if you really want your kids to immerse themselves in a new culture, then make friends with local residents. Find playgrounds and take them often. Our daughters (who are fluent in Spanish) learned pretty quickly how to communicate with other children in multiple languages. And even though they weren’t always able to understand each other completely, they were able to bond and still have a great time.
At the time of this writing, we are still touring a variety of countries. Here are some highlights and tips gathered from the European slice of our journey-in-progress:
The key to exploring a city like Paris with young kids is to be flexible. Allow kids to play and have fun. Maintain reasonable expectations and remember that while you can spend the whole day at the Louvre, they (at least my kids) really don’t see that as their idea of fun.
- Best kid-friendly indoor museum – Centre Pompidou, a colorful building with lots of modern art on display. Kids can make their own interpretations here. For example, there was one piece of white-colored giant artwork. To my 9-year-old, it looked like a tooth, but my 4-year-old thought it looked like Olaf from the movie “Frozen.” There’s even a section where children can play and paint.
- Best kid-friendly outdoor museum – Musée Rodin. The gardens are simply beautiful, with many of Rodin’s sculptures on display outdoors. Children can get their wiggles out here, and there’s a garden café in case anyone gets hungry.
- Best playground – There are many across the city, but Jardin Du Luxembourg holds our favorite. The large playground is located right next to the tennis courts. There’s also a carousel, and if you plan your visit well, you can even catch a puppet show at the Theatre des Marionettes. My daughters loved “Les Trois Petits Cochons” (“Three Little Pigs”).
- Public transportation – Get ready to burn some calories! You’ll be going up and down countless stairs at the Paris Metro. Not all stations have elevators; in fact, most don’t. But Parisians are very kind, and often offered to help us carry our baby stroller at the Metro. Uber works well in Paris, but beware: Some drivers will cancel your ride if there’s more than four passengers.
There’s so much to see in Italy, but here are a few recommendations based on what our kids enjoyed the most:
- Florence – We loved visiting Pitti Palace and letting the kids run around Boboli Gardens. You can take food and snacks and have your own picnic.
- Milan – Our kids enjoyed Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” mural, located in Santa Maria delle Grazie. Tickets are tough to get, so make your reservation well in advance. This is a great visit for kids because you’re only allowed to see the mural for 15 minutes, which leaves plenty of time to play and eat gelato. At the Milan Cathedral, we watched the kids chase pigeons around the Piazza del Duomo. Another favorite was Castello Sforzesco, a medieval fort in the city center.
- Venice – We visited Venice during its Carnival festival the week leading up to Fat Tuesday (which was also my oldest daughter’s birthday). Carnival in Venice is a family-friendly atmosphere. Dress up in your favorite costumes and buy masks. Check out the street performers — from puppet and magic shows to stilt walkers. The kids loved it all. There’s even a costume contest at St. Mark’s Square. Also, check out Rialto Bridge. Of course, a gondola ride is a must! One caveat: Venice is not a stroller-friendly city. There are bridges and stairs around every corner. Baby carrier all the way!
- Rome – Make sure to catch the city’s double-decker bus, which offers a 72-hour pass, a perfect way to tour the city. In addition, visit St. Peter’s Basilica, tour the Colosseum, check out Circus Maximus and luxuriate in the Gardens at Villa Borghese.
Our venture into Europe’s southernmost country was a feast for the senses! Here are our top picks in Athens:
- The Acropolis – Dedicated to mythological Athena, this ancient sanctuary is a must. Strollers are not allowed (and there are lots of steps!), but there is an area where you can drop them off.
- Plaka – We strolled through this oldest Athens neighborhood to pick up great souvenirs for loved ones back home.
- Hellenic Parliament – Watch the changing of the guard at the parliament, located right across from Syntagma Square. It happens every hour.
- Glyfada and Vouliagmeni – We loved these beautiful beaches. Vouliagmeni is located along the Athens Riviera.
- Restaurant recommendations – You must try Leonidas for hot chocolate and pastries, Baldo for pasta and Diva Plus for pizza and delicious Greek salads.
- Best day trip from Athens – Going to the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion.
This has definitely been a once-in-a-lifetime journey. We have always believed that the most precious thing we have in life is time — the time we have with our children. Taking a break from my career to live this experience with my family has been worth it.
Annette Arreola is television reporter in Los Angeles.