Let’s get your assumptions out of the way. You might think Leavenworth is cheesy. It’s fake Bavaria. Leavenworth’s food…well, maybe your great-grandma would like it. Leavenworth is for unsavvy tourists.
OK, some of that is a little true. It was certainly the impression I had after making short visits in the past (an hour or two) without any sense of direction.
But after spending three days in Leavenworth, I have a different take. I looked a little harder, asked a few more questions and found the best spots for a family-friendly vacation.
Yes, the Washington State town’s Bavarian-style building fronts were manufactured during the 1960s and 70s. But the finished craftsmanship is old-world impeccable. On a sunny summer day, when you’re on the flanks of the Cascades – and you can park your car and walk everywhere you need to go – you realize that this dense, populated village has everything you need within a quarter-mile: shops, hotels, restaurants, picnic supplies and movie theaters. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.
Things to do in Leavenworth with kids:
Ride the train with kids. If you’d like to have the complete European experience, take the Amtrak into Leavenworth from Seattle. The train leaves you a distance from the village core (it’s not walkable – don’t even think about it), so you’ll taxi in. Downsides: The travel time from Seattle to Leavenworth is about four hours, the time schedule is wonky and you’ll miss Peshastin’s fun. But train rides are always fun and you won’t mess with traffic.
Fete and feast. Leavenworth hosts fantastic events year-round, most occurring in the downtown, pedestrian-friendly Front Street Park, in front of the gazebo and maypole. From Maifest through the Christmas season, the festivals offer convivial atmosphere, adorable dancers and kid-friendly bounce houses.
Go for gingerbread. The Gingerbread Factory presents trays of just-baked gingerbread, including dino-style cookies for the kids and chocolate-gingerbread with espresso frosting for the adults. You’ll also find outdoor dining in spring, summer and fall – along with hearty sandwiches.
Spot the salmon. At the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, kids can meet coho, Chinook, steelhead and Pacific lamprey eels (ew!) before hiking along the Icicle River Nature Trail, a one-mile loop. But this is three miles from downtown Leavenworth, so bring the car or plan for a long walk.
Pack a picnic. Stop by the Cheesemonger’s Shop for an incredible selection of international chesses and sausages – I even spotted wasabi-flecked cheese behind the case. Pick up a baguette (also sold here) and head down to the next stop.
Rove along the river. The Waterfront Park Trail wanders through a pine-and-fir forest, past the Wenatchee River, over Blackbird Island and through animal habitats. It’s a few blocks off of the downtown streets, and a sweet, easy ramble suitable for kids of all ages – but the trail’s suitable for a jogging stroller, too.
Babies, meet beers and brats. On nice days, children, grandparents and international students share long wooden benches in the Munchen Haus beer garden. Select your (beef, veggie or curry) sausage, then choose your golden sauce from over a dozen mustard options. I even like the apple-smoked sauerkraut – and I hate sauerkraut.
Head South. You’re tired of German food and want something different? Try visiting South, where kids get a pack of Wikki Stix to play with while you order your not-so-spicy Mexican-fusion fare. Go for the guacamole!
Check out the scene. A good option with tweens and teens, the Icicle Junction Cinema runs first-run films in a 88-person theater. Skip the video arcade.
Cap yourself. The Hat Shop offers a head-spinning selection of hats, berets, fedoras and crazy caps, including animal, character and food hats. Next door, The Wood Shop’s shelves are filled with toys and locally made wooden puzzles (including pirate, cat family and intricate paint-your-own options).
Kiss the Küche – Mann (chef). Various German restaurants will vie for your dollar. There’s not a huge variation, but I liked Andreas Keller’s basement-level restaurant. You feel squirreled away in here, inside the dark-wood interior laced with heavy beams. An accordion player accompanies your Bavarian-costumed servers. King Ludwig’s Restaurant rolls out an entire polka band for your enjoyment; the informal dining setting (vinyl tablecloths) works better for parents of very young or rambunctious kids.
Not your average nutcracker. A nutcracker museum? Yawn. Oh wait, there’s a Yoda nutcracker? A Darth Vader nutcracker? A Superman Nutcracker? An ancient Roman nutcracker and over 4,000 more nutcrackers? Well, that’s cool. My kids loved this museum.
Chew on this. Schocolat’s glass cases wait at the back of a store, at the end of a maze of thousand-dollar housewares. Do not bring children inside the store – send your partner in to pluck a orange-dark chocolate or a Montmorency dried cherry-with-brandy ganache.
Things to do (car necessary) in Peshastin, a 10-minute drive:
Find fun on the farm. At Smallwood’s Harvest, there’s a challenging walk-through maze, farm equipment, a small playground, a trike-riding pen, a cattle-roping-practice station and a (cash-only) petting zoo keep kids occupied in summer.
In fall, you’ll find hayrides and a corn maze. It’s a perfect little farm, well-manicured and adorable; overnight lodging is also available.
Meet plucky pioneers. At the Historic Cashmere Museum and Pioneer Village, we thought we’d stop for about 10 minutes. We ended up staying for over an hour – there was more to explore than the humble building suggests. Kids enjoy museum’s downstairs, stuffed with taxidermied animals found on nearby mountains and plains.
Outdoors, original buildings found throughout the region were moved to the museum’s back lawn, then populated with vintage tools, toys and furniture. Look into a blacksmith’s or a barbershop, a boarding house or the Buckhorn saloon.
Visit a Dessert Island. Smack-dab in the middle of a dry, desert-like stretch of road, Anjou Bakery crafts upscale, delectable French pastries and hand-makes each espresso shot with love. The cool interior is rustic and homey; the exterior had a small water feature for kids to dip toes into. Try the baguette sandwiches, or grab one for the trip home via Blewett Pass.
Kid-friendly Leavenworth hotels:
Bavarian Lodge. We stayed here and felt right at home — there’s an enormous buffet breakfast (with a hot egg dish, yogurt, breads and make-your-own waffles), a free DVD checkout library and year-round outdoor heated pool. Centrally located, right across the street from the city’s gazebo, this hotel has even scored a place on Tripadvisor’s “Top 10 Family-Friendly Hotels in the U.S.”
Enzian Inn. There’s an intense Christian theme at this hotel, which may or may not appeal to you. The indoor pool is certainly a spectacle (in a good way) with a maroon rug on the ceiling, a mural with a Biblical scene and a vivid-blue swim pool and hot tubs. On the top floor, the buffet breakfast is served with a glorious panoramic view of the surrounding mountains.
Innsbrucker Inn. It’s a bookworm’s ideal stay — just pick a book-themed room! Upstairs from the adorable A Book for All Seasons bookstore (great kids’ area), you’ll find among others a Secret-Garden-inspired room, a Shakespeare room and even a “Chocolate Suite” with practically lickable walls. Kitchens, too! Cute multi-paned windows look down on the town.
Pension Anna. If you want to enjoy a Euro-style indie hotel right in the middle of town, try this lodge. The basement-level rooms suit families just fine (the rooms are huge). But the real appeal is staying in the chapel suites in a decommissioned Catholic church — also run by Pension Anna. How often do you get to do that?
How to get to Leavenworth:
Located about two to three hours east of Seattle, from Seattle, Bellingham and points north, I recommend taking Highway 2 out so you can approach the gorgeous Stevens Pass from the west. Return via the ear-popping Blewett Pass along 97, then down to the junction with I-90 (you’ll pass near kid-friendly Roslyn and Cle Elum – stop if you get a chance). The latter route is the best way to go if coming from Southern Washington State or Oregon.