Parents looking for family-friendly adventure in Germany will find double the fun in Bremen and Bremerhaven in northern Germany, cities only 30 miles apart but dramatically different in character and ambience. What they have in common, however, is an entire menu of attractions designed to both entertain and educate children.
The main attraction for kids is the blockbuster German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, which opened in 2005 and added an Immigration wing in 2012. Built to complement New York's Ellis Island, the museum was the highlight of a recent Bremen-Bremerhaven visit, thanks to its interactive, realistic and in some ways harrowing glimpse into the lives of the 7.2 million emigrants who sailed to North America from Bremerhaven during its 300-year history as an emigration port.
On arrival, we were given a boarding pass, which acts as an electronic key card, along with a brochure with the name and photo of an immigrant each of us could follow.
A re-created waiting room led to a harbor filled with life-size figures of people in period costumes huddled by the water at the foot of an enormous ship. We then boarded the vessel and explored the cabins and facilities third-class passengers would have endured, passing corridors with portholes looking out at simulated water and catching glimpses into the more pleasant first-class accommodations.
The real draw, however, is the so-called Gallery of the Seven Million, a registration room filled with tiny drawers, each telling the story of an emigrant who passed through the facility. Listening stations along the way offer more information about passengers, most driven to leave their homeland as much by desperation as by hope for the future.
The museum also depicts the Ellis Island arrival experience and Grand Central Terminal, which is where most of these emigrants headed once they cleared the immigration process.
The museum, which attracts nearly 2 million visitors a year, offers 90-minute guided tours and individual, self-guided explorations.
Adjacent to the museum on the waterfront is another kid-pleasing attraction: the Klimahaus or Climate House. Shaped like a cross between a cloud and a futuristic ship made of glass, the museum is both entertaining and sobering as it takes visitors on a journey through various climate zones around the world at 8 degrees longitude, the point at which Bremerhaven sits on the map.
Plan on several hours to tour the facility, and when they offer to check your coat at the entrance, take them up on it. Yes, you'll be chilly in Antarctica's icy landscape for a few minutes, but most of the rest of the zones are steamy.
A re-created Samoa beach scene, complete with sand underfoot, lapping water and waving flora, is contrasted with another tableau in which the visitors are dwarfed by huge vegetation and insects and a mammoth, unsightly soft drink can.
The facility, celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, attracted a half-million visitors in 2013.
Bremerhaven, both a container port and a hub of activity for wind farms, also has special-interest tours that go behind the scenes of these two industries.
I confess that my excitement about Bremerhaven so outweighed my interest in neighboring Bremen that I was unprepared for how over-the-top charming the city is for families.
In the 14th century, Bremen was an important port city, but the port has since been filled in, and the harbor area is in the process of being revitalized as a center for restaurants, art galleries and shops.
During our visit, adults stopped for a spot of artisanal brandy tasting at Birgitta Rust-Piekfeine Brande, a shop owned and operated by one of the few female brandy distillers in Germany. A popular activity for visitors of all ages was window shopping at Koch & Bergfeld, one of Germany's oldest silversmiths, where visitors can watch artisans create soccer trophies.
Luckily, visitors don't have to wait for the port project to be finished, because the real place to be in Bremen is Schnoor, the oldest district in the city and one that fulfills most Americans' requirements for an Old World European town. Half-timbered medieval dwellings — most of which were undamaged during World War II bombings that destroyed much of the rest of the city — have been restored and transformed into restaurants, cafes and one-of-a-kind stores.
Take the time to visit the older of the two town halls, a 13th century Unesco World Heritage site that optically dominates the town and boasts a series of small wooden ships that hang from the interior ceiling outfitted with guns that really shoot.
Another must for families is the Ratskeller, known for its collection of rieslings and pinot noirs, made all the more remarkable considering that the nearest vineyard is hundreds of miles away.
Kids can enjoy the warren of ancient rooms, reminiscent of the Hansel and Gretel tale, while adult wine lovers can buy wine that dates from 1727 for about $2,000 for less than a half liter, or just a glass of Germany's oldest wine, a rose that dates from 1653 and is said to be still drinkable.
A Unesco World Heritage site, the Ratskeller is made all the more dramatic by being housed at the end of a cave lit only by candles.
No matter where in the city you go, kids will spot statues inspired by the fairy tale of the Bremen Town Musicians — a rooster atop a cat atop a dog atop a donkey — the most famous of which is a bronze sculpture in city center. A massive stone statue of eighth century Frankish military leader Roland also presides over the main square, erected in 1404 to symbolize free trade and thumb the city's collective nose at the powerful clergy of the time.
On another playful note, a statue of Heini Holtenbeen, a lovable con artist from the 18th century, also graces the Schnoor district.
Finally, step back in time at the Bremer Geschichtenhaus, where costumed actors tell the story of life in the city during the 30 Years' War. English guides are available, and children are welcome.