The vacation ritual my mom taught me that everyone should do

"Look at all the incredible memories we made"

Climbed to the top
"Been there, climbed that" was my family's tagline while living in Germany.

My dad's job took us to the land of beer and pretzels during my last six months of middle school and my first two years of high school.

During those 2 1/2 years, my mom took on the role of travel agent. Every weekend we ventured to a different German village; every school vacation we traveled to a new country.

One constant: If there was a church — or any tall structure with stairs — we climbed to the top.

I may have complained a lot then ("Another cobblestone street? ANOTHER church to climb?"), but today I'm forever grateful that my mom dragged us up, because just look at all the incredible memories we made ...

Europe is full of incredible buildings and churches, all of which have rewarding views and seemingly endless stairs. This is the Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre-Dame in Strasbourg, France.

The 332-step climb culminates with unparalleled views of the city and beyond. Just another mini-workout sneaked into our vacation by my active mother.

My mom rarely researched which cities had churches to climb; we stumbled upon them as we explored. During our cruise around the Greek islands, we stopped in Split, Croatia, and saw the Cathedral of Saint Domnius standing tall.

Everyone's first thought, "Do you think we can climb that?" The answer was yes. We took the 100-plus stairs to the top for city and ocean vistas.

Then there were a slew of churches we knew we had to climb — starting with St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

We walked into the world's largest cathedral, looked up at the dome (or "cupola"), and prepared for the long trek ahead.

Though there is an elevator, my family — including my grandparents, who were visiting — took the stairs. The wide, shallow steps made it feel more like a ramp than a staircase.

High up in the cupola, we gazed down on the ant-like visitors and got an aerial view of the altar.

We climbed more stairs on the rooftop, but these were more narrow and steep. After 551 steps, we reached the top. Wheezing and out of breath, we were rewarded with amazing views of St. Peter's Square, the Sistine Chapel, and all of Rome.

The views are the main draw, but a church's architecture and details — such as Notre Dame's expressive gargoyles — also make the climb worthwhile.

As we ascended to the top of Notre Dame, we saw the Gothic church from a different perspective. Trying to spot the details that can't be seen from street level made the physical climb go by faster.

As much as my teenage self hated the climb, I still remember the view from the top. Seeing the Eiffel Tower in the distance — which we also climbed, and then re-climbed as the sun began to set — was worth every sore muscle.

Then there was the infamous La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The Gothic cathedral, designed by Antoni Gaudí, resembles a sand castle from the outside. As I climbed the narrow column, I wished a wave would wash out a few dozen stairs.

Mind you, these are stairs we climbed.

Little did I know there were bursts of color topping the church.

The Gothic architecture acted as a natural frame of the city, which I knew we'd be exploring all day after the climb back down.

There was one trip that we planned entirely around climbing a church. On a gloomy Saturday, we drove to Ulm, Germany, to climb the Ulmer Münster steeple. Rising 530 feet, it is the tallest in the world.

After scarfing down loaded crepes larger than our heads, we started up the 768 steps. The final climb was through this door and up the narrow column.

We were church-climbing pros at this point, but none of us could have imagined the view from the top. Looking down on the village gave us all vertigo ...

... so we looked out instead. As I stared beyond the village, this was the Germany I had envisioned before moving here. I had a whole new perspective on the city and the country. And I didn't feel an ounce of guilt for indulging in those sinful crepes.


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