Days out in France
There's plenty to do in the Alsace and Lorraine departments of France, from discovering the Maginot Line or the underground citadel at Verdun, to a day with the animals at Amneville Zoo, a trip to Metz to take in the archeology museum, botanical gardens and Pompidou centre, or some thrill rides at Walygator Park. Oh, and if you miss the snow, get your skis on and head to the Snowhall.
Walk through the drawbridge of Malbrouck Castle to see six centuries of history nicely displayed in four turrets and the parapet walk. Originally built in the 15th century by the local knight Arnold VI of Sierck, the Duke of Marlborough once tried to take control of it during the War of the Spanish Succession, which is where it gets its name. The castle was restored in the last century, and although you can’t do a guided tour, you can follow a self-guided itinerary.
The castle currently has an exhibition on René Goscinny, the French comic editor and writer behind the comics Asterix, Lucky Luke, Le Petit Nicolas, Les Dingodossiers, an integral part of comic heritage.
The Castle is Open from April to June and September to November, Tuesday to Friday from 10.00 to 17.00 and at weekends and holidays from 10.00 to 18.00. It's open daily (except Monday) for the latter hours in July and August. Tickets cost €7 but it's free for children aged 16 years and under.
Nearby you can visit Rodemark, and the wonderful walled village, then drive on to Sierck-les-Bains and the Chateau des Ducs de Lorraine, a favourite resting place for the Duke’s family in the 11th and 12th centuries. You can book torchlight guided tours, with guides in costumes, and play medieval games offered by Duke Ernest, or try out the Escape Game. Rodemark is open every day and free to visit without a reservation or booking, whilst the Dukes of Lorraine’s castle costs €6 for adults and €4 for children aged 6 to 14 years, with opening times listed here.
If you want to see Europe’s biggest castle (according to their website), head to Sedan Castle Fort, and a 35,000m² fortress that was built six centuries ago. You can walk the ramparts in the footstepts of the Princes of Marck, and relive the times of the Middle Ages. The tour starts with a film and then takes a circuit dotted with different scenes explaining the daily life of the prince, soldiers, and servants. Audio guides are available in English, tickets cost €7,50 to 10,50 depending on your age. An audio guide is €3. It's open year round and you can find seasonal and holiday opening times here.
Head to Verdun and the underground galleries of the Citadel. You can take a wire-guided gondola equipped with augmented reality glass to dive into moments lived by citizens from a captain, a high-ranking officer, or the baker. The trench experience at the end gives you a re-enactment showing you what it would have been like to be in the trenches. A family tickets cost €40 (although children under 8 years are not allowed), and it's open from February to end December, you can see opening times here.
The Franco-Prussian War Museum in Gavelotte is fairly new and takes visitors through an interactive trip to the almost forgotten war of 1870/71 via a mix of art, old weaponry, uniforms and memorabilia from the period. The Franco-Prussian war ended with defeat for the French and precipitated the fall of the Napoleonic empire as well as the birth of modern Germany. The museum is more than one dedicated to war, as it covers societal and political issues at the time, and a special exhibit looks at espionage in Lorraine between 1870 and 1918. Across the street you’ll find a French/German cemetery. Entry is €7 for adults (but free for children under 16 years) and it’s open February to early December from Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00 until 13.00, and again from 14.00 to 18.00.
We sprinkle it on our food, but how much do you know about the white stuff (salt that is)? The Salt Museum in Marsal takes a look at the exploitation techniques used in prehistoric times to the present day, and has an unusual collection of salt cellars. Marsal itself is home to many salty springs. It's €5 per adult (and free for children under 16 years) and open February to early December, Tuesday to Sunday, from 9.30 to 12.30 and again from 13.30 to 18.00.
Close to the French border with Germany, you’ll find the Bliesbruck Reinheim European Archeological Park, where you can step back to Celtic and Gallo-Roman times. The site hosts the remains of a city containing several mounds dating back to 700 BC, including the tomb of a Celtic princess, whilst the Gallo-Roman ruins date to the 1st century AD. Thermal baths are on display and there are explanation panels with commentary provided in English, French and German. Entry is free for children under 16 years and costs €5 for anyone above that age, and it's open from mid-March to early November.
Fort Hackenberg in Veckring is the largest fort on the Maginot Line. You can follow in Winston Churchill’s footsteps and take a ride on a historical electric train or witness the operation of a 135mm howitzer gun turret. A two-hour tour costs €16 for adults and €6 for children under 16 years.
The fruit gardens of Laquenexy were established in 1946 and now contain 1600 fruit trees and 500 fruit shrubs.
You can sample some in the edible flower garden or visit the forbidden garden, and spend time finding the various sculptures and water features dotted around the garden on a treasure hunt. A visit costs €5 for adults (children under 12 years are free but €2 to participate in the treasure hunt). It’s open Wednesday to Friday from 10.00 to 18.00 and at weekends it closes at 19.00.
The Botanical Gardens in Metz have information for children including some on carnivorous plants, and urban gardens filled with a variety of trees and flowers all identified. Landscaped by Antoine Demoget, as an English garden with curved paths, ponds and statues, it has more than 100 tree varieties, including a rare 140-year-old sequoia, a bald cypress and a caramel tree. Plants include 80 varieities of roses, winter jasmine and ornamental kiwi.
There is a small replica rain forest inside the brick structure, a greenhouse with cacti and orchids, and a pond with water lilies and koi carp, ducks and swans. It’s about 4km from the city centre, and is open from 8.00 until nightfall, with the greenhouses open from 9.00 to 16.00 on weekdays and until midday on weekends. There’s a small train and a playground in the park and entry is free.
Terraltitude is the longest zipwire in Europe, which runs in a bend over the River Meuse and requires nerves of steel. In return you’ll get amazing aerial views of the surrounding woodland. Located in Fumay near the river, you reach the start via a van that rides up the steep gravel tracks that lead up the cliff face. The site also has a treetop course, a catapult, and hires electric mountain bikes. Only children above 11 years and weighing more than 35kg can go on the zipwire but there are other activities younger kids can participate in. You can find the prices for individual items here.
Brumath adventure island and leisure park is the place to relax on a sandy beach and enjoy all sorts of watersports. It is quite a trek (2.5 hours minimum, more depending on traffic) as it’s just outside Strasbourg, so you might prefer to combine it with a city break or overnight stay. Land activities include paintball, treetops courses and ziplines, whilst water ones include a water jump, water slide, and an inflatable aquapark. The beach area has free volley ball courts, table tennis and petanque, plus life guards on duty. Prices are per activity, and there’s a bar-restaurant on site serving meals such as burgers.
If you fancy a change from the rivers and lakes of Luxembourg you can head in the summer months to the Etangs of Lorraine. Ballastiere near Amneville is free and open during summer or a little further you’ll find a water leisure base and beach at Etang de la Mutche.
Animal parks and zoos
At the Park Argonne, you can undertake a number of activities from visiting wolves and racoons in the park (feeding times for wolves and cubs is at 17.00), to trying out the giant string hammocks which one reviewer describes as "like trampolines and lots of fun". There are also plenty of birds, including falcons, which take part in the daily shows, and an opportunity to plunge into the mysteries of the night in a large nocturnal room containing bats, snakes and rodents. There is a programme of activities during the day, although teens might not be interested in everything. Younger children will enjoy the farm area with pigs, stoats, chickens, goats and rabbits to pet. Tickets cost €14 for adults and €10 for children so it is almost as expensive as a zoo.
Also on the expensive side, is the huge Park Sainte Croix. A New World area features animals from the Americas as well as those from Europe, so it will at least be a full day's activity. There’s also accommodation on site if you fancy making it a weekend trip, which we've included in our places for an unusual overnight sleep in the region.
Animals include a huge variety of birds, forest cats and lynx, bears and gibbons, arctic and grey wolves, skunks, red pandas, and several varieties of lemurs. You don’t have to buy a ticket in advance but you can on their website, and you don’t have to wear a mask on the trail so long as you observe a 2m distance from other groups.
Adults and children over 12 years pay €24,50 and children over 3 years €16,50, whilst those under that age go free. It’s open daily from 10.00 to 18.00, with summer hours extending 9.15 to 19.00.
Closer to home, Amneville Zoo has hippos, elephants, giraffe, rhino and gorillas in spacious enclosures. Every cage has glass through which you can view anmails, and the place is stroller-friendly. You’ll also find tigers, panthers, lions, and leopards plus orangutans, and in total 200 species of animals from around the world.
There’s also a bird show and one with sealions plus daily feeding times. Prices are high, €34 for adults and €29 for children, but a year’s pass is not much more than double this, so if you think you might come more than once in a year, it’s worthwhile considering this. You can check opening times for each month here.
Amneville is also home to a small aquarium, which takes about an hour to visit and includes tanks with sharks. It’s open from 10.00 to 18.00 (longer in the summer months) and costs €14 for anyone aged 12 years and over and €11 for children aged over 3 years.
Elfy Park has lots of games combining education and fun, summer toboggans, zip lines, sound games and storytelling, and the odd elf perched here and there that gives the park its name. A good place to entertain smaller children, entry is €7 for children aged 2-4 years and €14 for anyone older, which gives you some indication of the age group it is targeted at.
Not up there with Phantasia or Disney, Walygator is nevertheless much closer and ideal for a day trip. Gentle rides include the monorail or carousel, but there are also stomach-churning ones such as the Anaconda and the freefall Space Shoot. There’s a magic show and several fast food outlets. Tickets cost €29 for anyone aged 11 years or more and €24 for children, or you can buy a family ticket for €98.
Head to Jeanménil near Epinal for Fraispertuis City, a much smaller amusement park but with a Grand Canyon rollercoaster and Timber Drop ride. There’s a steam train, water rides, and plenty of things for younger children. You can also get Old Timer photos or a fake tattoo. Tickets cost between €22-26 and you can book tickets in advance online.
Perhaps not close enough for a day trip but if you’re heading to Strasbourg, Didiland has flying elephant rides and bumper boats and is home to a circus. Prices are a bit cheaper, reflecting the limited thrill rides, at €21-23, and tickets can be bought online.
Metz is a charming small city, and you can reach it by train in less than an hour if you prefer to leave the car behind. Take in the Pompidou Centre, the city’s famous gothic cathedral and the archaeology and art museum complex. Families can find more information on things to do in Metz here.
In less than 2 hours you can alight in the gold-leafed city of Nancy. Start at Place Stanislas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its gilded wrought-iron gates and rococo fountains, then take in the fine art museum, aquarium and natural history museum, or just relax in the Parc de la Pépinière, feed the deer and donkeys, or try your hand at mini golf. You can find out more here.
If you miss snow…
If you prefer colder climes to sun-soaked days, you might enjoy the SnowWorld at Amneville. It’s quite big, taking about 5 minutes to reach the top of the slope, but the lift is quick and it’s open until 19.00. There’s a kids' and beginners' slope, a sledding area, and an onsite pizzeria. You can hire your ski equipment on site if it’s your first time. You can pay per hour, a couple of hours or a day rate, and 12 years and under are counted as children. Helmets are free and skis or snowboards cost €8,25 to rent.