2019: A recap of our year in travel

The Old Man of Storr is one of the best things to do on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Where we travelled to in 2019

We’ve had another fantastic year for family travel in 2019.  Altogether we visited eight countries in two continents (mostly Europe, it has to be said) and saw a mix of amazing nature and fun filled cities.  We also found plenty of activities and tours that we all enjoyed, and that we’d recommend if you’re thinking about taking your family to the same destinations.

Read on for a quick recap of each country we visited, and find out what our favourite activities of the year were.


View over Odaiba's Rainbow Bridge at sunset, Tokyo, Japan

We started the year in Japan when we spent almost three weeks travelling the country by train.  Japan is a really special place and the whole family fell in love with this beautiful, friendly country (well, the others did – my love was cemented years ago on my first visit!).

We’re already wondering when we will be able to return.  Read our first timer itinerary for Japan here.


Llancaiach Fawr Manor, the Valleys, Wales

We had time to squeeze in a weekend break in the Welsh Valleys just as spring began.  We explored the haunted Llancaich Fawr Manor and tried our hands at mining in the Rhondda Heritage Park – all very interesting!  It’s one of our new year’s resolutions to get over the Severn Bridge more this year!

Find out about what to see and do in the Valleys here.


Visiting Porto with kids is fun for all the family

Easter saw us visit Portugal for the first time.  We spent three days in Lisbon exploring its hills and pretty streets.  The science museum and the yellow trams were firm favourites with the children.

After Lisbon we travelled to Sintra where we spent two magical days looking around the castles and palaces in the town.  Even the rain couldn’t dampen our enjoyment of Sintra which has to be one of the prettiest towns in Europe.

Our last stop was scenic Porto, which we all loved and would really recommend!  The kids especially loved the World of Discoveries which charted Portugal’s trade history around the world, while Derek and I enjoyed relaxing in Vila Nova de Gaia admiring the views.


Ahus pier in southern Sweden is a fun place to take the kids

I also managed to get out to Sweden to see my sister and her family.  The kids had been to Sweden before but were too young to remember.  This time we had a whole week to play with cousins and look around the local area, which is near Kristianstaad in the southern region of Skåne.  We found beautiful gardens filled with modern art at the Wanås Foundation, and played on the beach at Åhus.  But we spent most of our time relaxing!

It was nice to have a bit of downtime on holiday for a change instead of running around making sure we’d visited everything for the blog.


Colourful buildings at Nyvavn in Copenhagen with kids

Our summer holidays began with a trip to Copenhagen.  I counted that we passed through Copenhagen airport six times this year on our way to and from Japan, Sweden, and finally Copenhagen itself.  So it was nice to finally be able to explore the city!

Copenhagen didn’t disappoint.  We took bike tours, boat tours, visited brilliant museums and the kids terrified themselves on their first rollercoaster at Tivoli Gardens (might be a few more years before they pluck up the courage to try another).

We had a fantastic three days in Copenhagen and it was helped by a heatwave – we got absolutely perfect weather.  You can read our bumper guide to Copenhagen here.


View of Edinburgh Scotland from Calton Hill

For our main summer trip we decided to stay put and explore more of the UK.  We went on a road trip to Scotland, visiting the Highlands, Skye and Edinburgh.  We also stopped in at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland on our way home.

While we didn’t get perfect weather (well, it is Britain) we all agreed that we saw some of the UK’s best scenery in the Highlands.  It really is unmissable.

Read about the best things to do in Edinburgh with kids.


Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau is one of Barcelona's hidden gems

Before the year was up we managed to squeeze in two city breaks.  Beautiful Barcelona was our break in October half term (still t-shirt weather and a bit quieter than I expected).  We spent three days here but we could have spent a whole week – there’s so much that we didn’t manage to see.

Our highlights were learning about the works of Antoni Gaudi, taking a boat tour in the harbour, trying chocolate at the Museu de la Xocolata and visiting the huge stadium that’s home to FC Barcelona.

We can totally see why Barcelona is one of Spain’s busiest cities – we loved it.


Christmas Market at Rotes Rathaus in Berlin Germany

We spent five days in Berlin at the end of 2019 which was a very different experience to Barcelona.  We soaked up the city’s Christmas Markets – plenty of festive food and drink was consumed and the kids loved the traditional rides at the Rotes Rathaus.

Inside a Trabi car on a tour of Berlin Germany

The best thing we did was to take a tour in East Germany’s famous “cardboard car,” the Trabi.  This slightly hair-raising experience is not to be missed!  Keep an eye out for some Berlin posts – coming soon!

Our favourite travel experiences of 2019

Here are our favourite experiences of the year…

Taking a trip on an iconic steam train

Harry Potter train crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct, Scotland

This one is one of my top things we did this year – we took a trip on the real life Hogwarts Express, the Jacobite Steam Train.  We splashed out on this and rode First Class from Fort William to Mallaig and treated ourselves to an afternoon tea on board. The scenery along the way was amazing – despite the torrential rain!

You can read more about our experience here.

Finding new favourite foods

At Pasteis de Belem cafe, Lisbon, Portugal

Both our kids are fussy eaters but that didn’t stop them trying new foods this year.  The boy in particular enjoyed trying foods in Japan and Portugal.  He still talks incessantly about the melon pan we ate in Japan – thanks to Arigato Japan Food Tours!

Eating mochi balls in Japan - Japan bucket list

Two other great loves of his this year were mochi balls (also Japan) and the ubiquitous custard tarts (Pasteis de Nata) we discovered in Lisbon – Pasteis de Belem had the best ones.  Find out more about Lisbon here.

The girl was less convinced (read: she’s fussier than the boy) but at least she gave them all a try.  I’m sure we’ll make an adventurous eater of her one day.  She did go crazy for the giant rainbow coloured candy floss in Tokyo, though!

Looking for fairies in Scotland

The Fairy Glen is one of the best things to do on Skye with kids

Magical Skye is one of the UK’s loveliest places.  While many of Skye’s great hikes were beyond our kids’ capabilities, the child friendly Fairy Glen was a big hit with them.  They played on the little hills, running up and down, and the girl had great fun imagining what sort of fairies might play in the fairy circle in the centre of the glen.

Find out just how family friendly the Isle of Skye is in our post here.

Castles, castles everywhere

Matsumoto Castle Japan in winter

This year we visited so many castles!

We saw the beautiful, raven black Matsumoto Castle and the modern Osaka Castle in Japan.  Japan’s castles are definitely worth making the effort to get to – they are all very different.  Find out more about castles in Japan here.

View from balcony of Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

In Portugal we spent two days in Sintra and saw five of its exquisite palaces and castles – I think Pena Palace had to be the most dramatic one, but we all preferred Quinta da Regaleria’s mystical gardens.  And a little off the beaten track, the Moorish inspired Monserrate Palace is worth making the effort to get to.  Read more about Sintra here.

Rosenborg Castle seen from Kongens Have, Copenhagen, Denmark

We also saw some of the castles and palaces in Copenhagen – Rosenborg and Amalienborg are great stops on a trip to the Danish capital.

Eilean Donan Castle is a great stop before you visit the Isle of Skye

And on our Scottish road trip we visited seven castles – Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness; Eilean Donan Castle near Skye; Dunvegan Castle and Armadale Castle on Skye itself; Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh; and finally Alnwick Castle in the English county of Northumberland.

Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Germany

Finally, while in Germany we’d intended to visit Potsdam which has several palaces, but as I wasn’t feeling well we had to leave it out.  However Charlottenburg Palace on the western edge of Berlin has some stunning interiors, so we still managed to get our fill!

Seeing the best of Gaudi in Barcelona

Even kids will enjoy visiting La Pedrera, Barcelona

In Barcelona we discovered that architecture can be interesting for little kids!  Our kids really enjoyed their visits to Gaudi’s buildings.  The highlight for them was spotting the dragon on the roof of Casa Battlo, and finding all of the nature themes throughout the building. 

They were even impressed by the Sagrada Familia – the rainbow colours from all the cathedral’s stained glass kept them interested.  But Park Guell was the most suitable place for children that we visited – more room to run about.  

Click here to find out what to do with kids in Barcelona.

Cargo bike tour in Copenhagen

Derek and the kids with cargo bike, Copenhagen

We took a couple of great tours this year.  Our favourite was seeing the best of Copenhagen by cargo bike, which was perfect for a family with young kids who aren’t confident cyclists.  The tour was easy even for someone like me, who hadn’t cycled in years! 

This tour was the highlight of our trip to Copenhagen as we got to see off the beaten track and explore places we wouldn’t have thought to visit otherwise.  

Read more about the experience here.  

Best animal encounter: Seeing snow monkeys in Japan

Visiting the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park Japan

Seeing the Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park was a bucket list item for both Derek and me.  The snow monkeys are semi-wild and crowd around the park’s hot springs to keep warm in the winter, so it was a perfect time to see them.

As so many people visit the area the monkeys go about their business completely ignoring their human visitors.  It’s a great way to observe the macaques up close (even if they got a bit too close to the boy for his liking).

Read about our snow monkey visit here, and find out what else to do in the area.

An honourable mention goes to the giant pandas and hippos in Berlin Zoo – for once our kids actually enjoyed a zoo visit and it was possibly their favourite activity in Berlin.

Incredible views in Scotland

Glen Coe in Scotland is one of the UK's most scenic places

Without a doubt the best views this year go to Scotland’s Highlands.  It’s hard to say whether Skye (top photo) or Glen Coe (above) had the best vistas.  Even the weather doesn’t matter much.  Just go and see for yourself! 

We became glamping converts

Excited kids at The Apple farm Glamping Snitterfield Warwickshire

We tried out glamping twice this year – once in Stratford Upon Avon where we stayed in a bell tent, and on Skye where we had an enormous yurt complete with wood burner.

Glamping is the perfect lazy solution if you think that camping sounds like too much hard work and planning.  You’ll find that many essential items are provided for you and you’ll usually have access to a kitchen for cooking.  Most importantly of all you get to sleep in proper beds – gone are the days when crashing on the floor means a good night’s sleep.  You also get a lot more space for the family to spread out – our yurt was cavernous! 

It’s safe to say that we are glamping converts and we’ll have to try to fit some in in 2020 too. 

Favourite new local destination: Stratford-Upon-Avon

Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Stratford Upon Avon

We also love exploring our local area and this year we were able to spend a weekend in Stratford Upon Avon, which is about an hour away from where we live.  Stratford Upon Avon is one of the UK’s most famous and interesting towns, as it’s where William Shakespeare used to live.  As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit to see here!

I’m a big fan of historical houses and so it was the perfect place for me (we went to five of Shakespeare’s houses).  But there was plenty more for families to do.  The kids loved our boat tour along the Avon, the butterfly sanctuary, the interactive MAD Museum, and running around in all the gorgeous gardens.

Read our guide to Stratford Upon Avon here.

Worst experience of 2019

Scotland again – being eaten by midgies on Skye was pretty appalling.  Don’t forget your midgie spray! 

What’s planned for 2020?

2020 is shaping up to be pretty busy!  We’ve just returned from seeing in the New Year in Berlin, and we’ve got another fantastic European city break lined up for February half term.  I won’t say where but February is party season in this famously unique and very beautiful city.  

We’re road tripping at Easter in a new country (and continent) for the kids – we’ll be seeing a mix of cities and exploring some beautiful natural scenery too.  One celestial city has a star-making industry; another is known for its zoo; one has an iconic bridge (and prison) and another has an aquarium.  There’s a famous coastal drive we’ll be taking on, and a huge park filled with commanding mountains, bears, waterfalls and very tall trees.  Can you guess?

The summer holidays are taking shape as I’ve got some European interrailing in mind, although nothing is set in stone yet. (Where would you go?) 

As well as all of this we’re going to be exploring more of the UK’s best cities and sights – so expect lots more about our home country.  Bristol and Oxford are on my radar, as is the Lake District…

Watch this space!

Thank you to our readers

Finally, a huge thank you to all of our readers for following along, and for all your comments and questions. We wish you all the best for 2020.  Happy travels!

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Kids and Compass family travel round up of 2019 - read about where we travelled to and our favourite things to do. Covers UK, Japan, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Germany #familytravel #travel #inspiration

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