Traveling with kids can be a challenge or it can be a delight. Read on, for suggestions and recommendations on how to show your kids family friendly Italy and make it a delight. Expect to move more slowly, not accomplish as much in a day as you did pre-kids, maybe go back to the hotel after lunch for nap time, and not stay out late. But you can still see a lot, eat well, and have a fabulous family vacation.
Italians love kids, and welcome them everywhere, including restaurants. Think pizza, pasta, and gelato. Italian menus are organized by primi (pasta and rice dishes), secondi (meat and protein dishes) and contorni (side dishes). Restaurants rarely have childrens’ menus, but are usually happy to oblige if you ask for a half-portion.
The main square in virtually any Italian city is an open space with no cars, where the kids can run around or hang out and play around the fountain while you sit and people-watch with an espresso, while you discuss the day’s plan.
In Rome, ask them to look for the letters SPQR (hint: look at manhole covers as a reliable source). Ask the kids to try to spot angels, fountains, words, or different animals. Rome is a great place to do a “fountain” walk: visit several and ask which one they liked best (give them each a handful of Euro cents for tossing in). Venice is ideal for identifying favorite bridges or different types of boats (mail boats, market boats, fishing boats, or these types of tourist boats). Have them take photos if they are old enough. In Florence, ask them to keep an eye out for David sculptures. The “angel” or “halo” theme works well if you’re visiting lots of churches with frescoes.
Or ask them to keep their eye out for written words. The list could include: via, cappuccino, espresso, bar, senso unico, duomo, piazza, pizzeria, trattoria, osteria, ristorante, saldi, gelato, aperto, chiuso, orari, albergo. If you’ve found pizzeria, gelato, and saldi, this activity alone may take the whole day.
Let’s face it: after a day of walking around in a city in the heat, even gelato isn’t a cure-all. Balance a busy itinerary by incorporating a day or two of beaches, such as: Elba, Rimini, Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, or Lake Garda, the island of Ischia off Naples, or the Amalfi Coast. Do research ahead of time to check on whether the beach is sandy or rocky. If it’s the latter, pack water shoes.
Do a bit of research ahead of time and pick a few paintings from the museum you’re planning to visit. Then beeline to those paintings and ask the kids questions that force them to really look at the art work.
When I worked as a docent at an art gallery, I’d ask my group of 5-year olds: what are the people in the painting/sculpture doing? Do you think that person is happy? How do those people know each other? Where do you think they live? How old are they? Do you think they are having fun? Would you like to be their friend?
Allocate an hour or two, maximum, for museums, and afterwards go find a gelato.
In most cities, pedestrian zones are a lower stress area (for parents), where kids can amble, and great for window shopping or paying attention to detail. My favorite pedestrian streets are in: Venice (of course), but also Bologna (photo below), Turin, and Siena.
Ask them to look around and find food you don’t have at home. Don’t miss the dairy and pasta sections! Have the kids help pick out food, then head to a green space – see #8 – for a picnic.
As family friendly as restaurants are, how many kids want to spend hours every day sitting at lunch and dinner? Figure out picnic supplies and allocate time to green spaces. In Rome, that’s the Villa Borghese, the Boboli gardens of Florence, the Parco Sempione in Milan, the park of the Palazzo Reale in Monza (a 10-minute train ride – see #15 – from Milan), the Parchi di Nervi outside of Genoa, any of the Villas in Lake Como or Lake Maggiore, or the Botanic Gardens in the city of Parma.
There’s a children’s museum in Rome, the MUBA in Milan, a children’s museum in Siena, and the Chianti Sculpture park is always a hit with both kids and adults.
Tire the kids out but reward them with views from Rome (St Peter’s dome), Florence (again the dome of the Cathedral), Venice (Bell towers), Bologna (lots of towers), Lucca (photo below), and Milan (top of the Cathedral) are great ones. Best of course, if kids have the stamina and are not afraid of heights, and of course if you’re not carrying them in a baby carrier! Many – but not all – of the places I just listed have elevators, so check ahead of time if you’re going to be carrying the child up and down.
Many cities have bike-friendly centers. Ferrara has a very bike-friendly center. In Lucca, you can ride 360 degrees on the top of the walls in about 30 minutes and it’s a great place for a picnic. Or if you have kids with good stamina, go up towards the Austrian border and ride the one-way, downhill bike path into Austria. Then take the train back.
When looking at mosaics in Palermo, Ravenna, or Piazza Armerina (Sicily), or at any fresco or stained glass window. For example, looking at the stained glass window below: What do you see in the picture? What is happening?
Spend half a day at the Disney-esque (but not with Disney characters) Gardaland or another amusement park on Lake Garda; Il Cavallino Matto in Tuscany. The eastern coastal town of Rimini is home to mini-Italy, or Italia in Miniatura. In Tuscany, visit the Pinocchio park. In Puglia, there’s Zoosafari. In Perugia, there’s Citta’ della Domenica. If you’ll be in Genoa or nearby (like Portofino or the Cinque Terre), visit the Genoa aquarium, Citta’ dei Bambini (Children’s museum), or Museum of the sea.
Kids love castles and bridges, and making up stories about them. And there are many in Italy. Some of my favorite castles are in Tuscany and Umbria, as well as the castles around Parma, one in the town of Sirmione (photo below), the castle Sforzesco in Milan, the 3 castles in San Marino. There are so many amazing bridges in Italy, and you can talk about which ones are longest, getting them to count their steps or count the arches across. I’ve written about my favorite bridges in the north and south.
Kids love (short) train rides, trams, buses, subways, and boats. Great boat rides include the Cinque Terre, Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, the Amalfi Coast, the trip from Naples to Capri or Ischia. And, of course, Venice.
Ladybugs photo by Pier Luigi; All other photos by Sanjay Jhawar
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