Luxembourg, long known as a center for business and industry with an undeserved reputation for being expensive that puts the “luxe” in its name. A Grand Duchy — whatever that is, anyway. An important strategic position in World War II that most of us learned about in an afternoon history class but likely forgot. It’s time to remember, because this charming country is not only fascinating, but beautiful, digestible due to its small size (about the state of Rhode Island), and filled with medieval castles and modern wonders that make it a must-do for families. Here’s why.
Luxembourg is on the euro, so even if it’s not your primary destination in Europe — although it should be — it’s quite convenient to hop around if you’re in Germany, France or Belgium via train or rental car. A ride from the airport to city center is just 20 minutes, and, in 2019, the newly elected Democratic party voted to make all public transportation free. You’ll want to take your time exploring the myriad bridges, public green spaces and stunning vistas, however, on foot. You and the kids will find the Grund and its fascinated tangled jumble of cobbled paths (a UNESCO site) like stepping back in time.
Once upon a time — 963 AD, to be exact — a count built a fortified castle that soon became the cradle of the city. Impressive towering walls and towers were added over the centuries to foil invaders. Although that plan didn’t exactly work, Luxembourg became known as the “Gibraltar of the North” and its 23-kilometer-long network of tunnels (of which 17 kilometers remain) are open 24/7 non-summer months for exploring.
Juxtaposing all that’s ancient is the modern and massive Pfaffenthal lift, the exhilarating experience with clear-glass walls that transports people 70 meters from Pescatore Park to the Pfaffenthal area at the bottom of the valley. You’ll see soaring skyscrapers, the snaking city walls and charming little houses. Don’t miss out on the elevator at Luxembourg City History Museum, either, where the internal elevator transports visitors from century to century, each layer revealed as excavation and restoration continued.
Luxembourg’s got these in spades, and while it’s hard to choose on a shorter trip, it’s easy to please all of the people all of the time (that’s you, Mom and Dad) in the Mudam area. The I.M. Pei-designed modern art museum is just small enough to get through with the little ones without getting exhausted, and there’s plenty of videos, fun indoor fountain installations and hands-on crafts to keep them engaged. The on-site Sunday brunch is a can’t-miss feast with local meats, cheeses, fruits and pastries; fill up before hitting up Musée Dräi Eechelen next door, in the restored keep of fort Thüngen. You can learn a bit about Luxembourg’s military history and defense with colorful uniforms, swords, and, of course, more than a bit about the casemates, all in a wonderfully restored building that looks like a castle.
It’s a Disney fan’s Shangri-La here and ancient stone walls aren’t only about fortifications — there’s plenty of princess playing and knight fantasies to be had, especially when you get outside of city center. It’s likely older kids will be fascinated by “Family of Man,” a photo exhibit that toured the world in the 1950s as a MoMa initiative. Curated by Edward Steichen, a war photographer and Luxembourg native, the photos depict moments of joy, work, play and sorrow from around the world — all without names. It’s housed in stunning Clervaux Castle, where younger kids can enjoy mini replicas of more than a dozen of Luxembourg’s finest standing structures. Vianden is just a short drive and the Disney village is lauded over by a 9th-century castle open for tours. You can also stay in a castle at Château d’Urspelt; manga comic books portray its history in cartoon form for the little ones, with a story that stretches back hundreds of years, including being used as a field hospital in WWII before restoration.
It’s fun to do a 180 if you opt for a night at majestic Château d’Urspelt, then head to modern Hotel L’Ecluse in the Moselle wine region. It’s like stepping into an IKEA catalog, with angular, contemporary colors, textures and fixtures that all manage to be warm and welcoming. Bonus? Both hotels have pools, open in the summer months.
Hiking and Biking
Speaking of summer, Luxembourg’s got hundreds of miles (or kilometers!) of biking trails in city center and throughout the country; there are some of Europe’s most comprehensive hiking trails. They and some stunning vistas, earned the country’s oldest city, Echterauch, the title of “Little Switzerland.”
Everywhere you turn, there’s an American flag, a huge debt of gratitude toward the U.S. troops who saved Luxembourg from the Nazis. It’s pretty much a living history lesson almost eight decades after World War II, and kids can get experience in real time about things most folks only learn about in books. Luxembourg American Cemetery is just a short drive from the airport, and it’s where General Patton’s grave lauds over about 5,000 other casualties (they have an educational children’s program). The National Museum of Military History has an amazingly extensive collection of tanks, weapons and uniforms depicting mostly WWII and the Battle of the Bulge, along with life-sized dioramas sponsored in part by former U.S. GIs.