Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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When visiting Switzerland with kids, places like the Ballenberg Open Air Museum offer a fun day outside in beautiful Swiss mountains, exploring picture-perfect farmhouses and seeing traditional Swiss crafts come alive with local artisans. Right outside Brienz, close to the Jungfrau region, this museum is the Swiss answer to an American historical state park, including interpretive programs, farm animals, lush nature and a vintage carousel.
We visited this museum for the first time two years ago and liked it so much that we returned yesterday for Memorial Day weekend, with my 12-year-old daughter, my husband and my mother. We also tested the wheelchair access, so if you need family-friendly and wheelchair-friendly activities, this museum ticks quite a few boxes.
Nicknamed ‘Switzerland in miniature’, the Ballenberg Open Air Museum is a collection of 110 Swiss historical building spread over 163 acres of land, with 250 farm animals and thousands of Swiss rural life artefacts. As buildings are grouped according to their geographical origin, it’s also a mini-Switzerland experience for fans of Swiss days gone by. Without modern crowds, Heidi wouldn’t be out of place in some of these richly sculpted wooden chalets.
Needless to say, seeing everything in one day is impossible but kids can get a lot out of exploring a few houses, seeing how Swiss cheese is made in a copper cauldron and interacting with farm animals. Both times, we’ve started at the West Entrance, walked to the East Entrance on the main path and retraced our steps via a different route. It’s the best way to pack the most out of the visit.
We got in at the West Entrance of the museum and stopped at the first house on the right, a majestic multi-storeyed chalet, fully-furnished to reflect a 19th century lifestyle.
As everything is made out of wood in traditional Swiss chalets, it feels very much like walking trough a fairy-tale decor. Uneven wooden floors, wooden alcove beds, wooden children’s toys, there’s definitely a wooden theme and it’s wonderfully relaxing for the mind to see nothing made out of plastic. It’s very authentic and my daughter loved this first house, complete with music instruments and costumes.
Our next stop was the Swiss bakery, one of the interactive exhibits where a professional baker bakes bread in the morning and pastries in the afternoon, all out in a wood-fired oven. We got there right before the end of the bread shift and he opened the oven door to pull out freshly-baked loaves. The aroma of fresh bread was fantastic.
That morning, the baker was making three different kinds of breads, all available for sale at the shop in the big chalet next door. They were a sort of Swiss brioche, a Swiss-style challah and seeded rye bread. Intrigued by the set up, I stepped inside the granary where he showed me the special blend of spelt and rye flour they use at Ballenberg. “You can’t buy that in retail shops,” he said proudly. “A mill makes that specially for us.”
As we got to the museum quite late, our next stop was lunch in the Central Switzerland area of the park. This is every child’s dream and the place where we saw the most families. From afar, we heard traditional accordion “Biergarten” music and as soon as we reached the vintage carousel, saw that the music came from under a kiosque where three musicians in Swiss costume entertained visitors.
It couldn’t get anymore Heidi than that. A small food truck sold Swiss-style junk food (sausages, fries, ice creams, sodas), much to the joy of families on picnic benches.
For a more tranquil experience, we sat at picnic tables outside a pink inn, which was just lovely. My mother’s dog stayed under our table, eyeing two other dogs across the courtyard. As far as the food menu, it could be improved as it’s pretty heavy on local cured meats and cheeses and the dessert menu is mostly industrial ice creams. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, a picnic lunch would be a much better option.
Walking towards the East Entrance, we stopped at the potter’s house where a man was demonstrating how to make cups, bowls and plates.
The mugs he made are incredibly light and we couldn’t help get four for my mother’s breakfasts. She uses them every morning and they are very cute.
Another mission of the museum, besides architectural heritage, is the preservation of local culture and traditional lifestyles. At a Craftsman’s House, we were treated to free herbal infusions by a volunteer who helps with the historical pharmacy project of the museum. If you’re into natural medicine, this restored house is really cool and there’s a faucet outside in the garden where you can refill your water bottles.
You can also sit outside and enjoy herbal infusions al fresco.
It would be too long to describe everything that the museum offers but the other highlights of our visit included walking past cows, pigs, goats, turkeys and chickens, as well as visiting other furnished chalets. Most were heigh-ho heigh-ho charming but one particular display about funeral rites was slightly creepy, featuring the wax figure of a dead child and recorded mourning chants.
This would obviously be a prime Halloween hotspot.
The hairdresser display is a lot more fun and super kitsch.
Let us not forget that this is Switzerland, therefore Swiss chocolate featured high on the list but disappointingly, it’s only a chocolate shop at the East Entrance.
It wouldn’t be fair to say nothing of the gorgeous Swiss nature that surrounds the houses. The museum is above all a nature park and celebrates traditional Swiss lifestyles that were very much in harmony with seasons and local nature. Walking around is a pleasure and its tree groves offer welcome shade in the summer months.
My mother’s had hip problems for years despite a surgery, and I knew that she wouldn’t be able to walk through the entire museum all day. It’s rather hilly terrain and benches are few and far between. Lo and behold, I called the museum in the morning and reserved a free wheelchair for our visit. They asked for our arrival time and which entrance we’d use (there are two) and it was done in 5 minutes flat. When we got there, the wheelchair was ready for us. Honestly, great service.
Navigating trails through the park is not so easy. The main path is graded for wheelchairs but still includes some steep inclines which means that we had to push hard on several occasions and brake hard too when going down (the wheelchair had brakes). Some inclines are graded 18 or 22%, which even on a bicycle would get your heart pumping hard. Imagine pushing or pulling a wheelchair without motor assistance. At one point, we went “off road” and found ourselves on rocky uneven surfaces that I would not recommend to any wheelchair users. Watch the wheelchair icons on the map!
Overall, having a wheelchair was great because it allowed us to spend a full day outside with my mother without her getting tired. However, we pushed and pulled hard so unless you’re a fit wheelchair companion, the experience will be tiring. Also, almost none of the trails are paved, so expect dirt and rock trails as well as many super annoying metal rain drains that can get wheels stuck. At the end of the day, I’m very grateful that the museum offered that option and I hope that they can make trails easier to navigate in the future.
Ballenberg is easily accessible for families with kids:
Enjoy your visit!