Italy With Kids
With an exciting history involving Roman heroes and gladiators, a natural beauty ranging from snow covered alps to soaring sea cliffs to rolling, vine covered hills and a culture that’s as rich as the creamiest of cream sauces, Italy is a place that has something for everyone in the family. In the north is the Italian Riviera, the Alps and one of the world’s most exquisite cities, Venice. The north central area produces some of the world’s most popular wines. But Tuscany’s rolling green hills dotted with medieval fortress cities is a fantastical place for kids as well. Central to Italy is the town that started one of the world’s largest empires, Rome and today it is filled with attractions and activities that will bring that history to life for kids. South of Rome, Naples is the birthplace of pizza and the Amalfi Coast south of there is famous for its dramatic scenery.
As the birthplace of the grand Roman empire, Rome has a history and culture that is palpable in the very air you breathe. The city is filled with famous historical attractions like the Roman Colosseum
(pictured left), which was built in the 1st century and could hold 50-80,000 people for gladiator games. The architecture with its sweeping arches is amazing and the kids are intrigued by the mazes on the floor that would have held gladiators and wild animals until the time of the fight. Another impressive ancient building is Rome is the Pantheon
(pan the camera left to see the dome). Built in the 2nd century, today the domed ceiling of the Pantheon is still the biggest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. As exciting as Roman history is, its hard to keep kids engaged in it when there is so much of it here, but there are tours and activities aimed specifically at kids that helps. We did a tour of the sites with Walks Inside Rome
. Our guide, Sal, was great with the kids and really got them excited about the historical buildings and events. We started our day at the Vatican Museums
, where Sal took us to the front of the line (a definite bonus since the lines can be hours long). He told the kids stories that got them really interested in the artifacts in the museum and asked them to find things in the murals to help them stay engaged. He knew to go right to the Sistine Chapel (it’s less crowded right when the museum opens) and then work our way back through the museums. In St. Peter’s Basilica
, we went below ground where the popes are buried and Sal showed us the size of the cathedral compared to other large ones in the world. After the Vatican we passed the Circus Maximus, where chariot races were held and had lunch at local’s hang out, where we were treated to authentic Roman cuisine and then Sal took us over to the Colosseum, where he breezed past another line (he had ordered our tickets ahead of time online – definitely something you should do if you are planning a visit. Your hotel should be able to arrange it for you or, if you are there on the day with no tickets try buying a combined Rome Colosseum Pass at the nearby Palatine Hill, which gets you entrance to Palatine Hill, Colosseum and Roman Forum and past the lines). Another fun things to do with kids in Rome, that really brings history to life, is Gladiator School
. The kids (and adults) get to dress as gladiators and then it’s training time. Run through swinging sand bags, hop over twirling bars, and learn to swing a sword. Then, time to put the training to test and fight trained gladiators. The whole family had lots of fun learning to fight like gladiators
and the kids took it to a new level putting on a show (you got to keep the tunics and we bought masks and swords) for tourists later that evening in Piazza Navona, a popular square where families stroll away the evening around fountains and street entertainments and feasting from nearby gelato stores.
Another famous Italian city, Venice is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Most people think of Venice as a romantic destination, but it is very kid-friendly as well. With a fairly small tourist area and no cars to worry about, Italy is easy on parents’ stress level. And with unique transportation options and an almost Disney-like atmosphere (theirs is re-created this is the real deal), kids love Venice as well. There are no cars in Venice, so how to get there. There are train tracks crossing the ocean so you can take a passenger train from parts throughout Europe, or park your car and take a shuttle. Once in Venice, there are public water bus-boats called vaporetto
, which whisk locals and tourists up and down the Grand Canal. There are also private water taxis, but they tend to be very expensive. To see the smaller canals by water, a gondola is the way to go and they’re not just for couples anymore. Nathan and Seamus had a blast learning to steer a gondola
! We saw lots of other families enjoying a tour of the town from the water and the kids loved watching the crabs along the walls, going under the bridges, and the gondolier even gave them a chance to try their hand at rowing. One of Venice’s other famous attractions is St. Mark’s Square, where a visit to St. Mark’s Basilica is a must. The vaulted golden ceilings and carvings are impressive, even for kids, but what the boys liked most about the square was feeding the pigeons. Bring a crumbled bag of chips or an old roll and you will have dozens of feathered friends climbing your arms and on your head! When it’s time to feed the kids, try cicchetti, snacks, along the canal or head to Rialto Market
for some fresh fruits and vegetables. Another fun activity for kids in Venice is mask making. Masks are an important part of Venice’s history – they were worn almost half the year here in the 18th century – and there has been a renewed interest in the masks in art and culture in the past decades. At Ca’ Macana, visitors can buy beautiful masks executed in true Venetian artistic style or design your own. The kids had lost of fun learning about the history of the mask and painting their own mask to take home.
Florence and Tuscany
In the north central area of Italy is the Tuscany region. Famous for its wines, Tuscany has been a traditionally romantic destination, but like Venice, Tuscany has much to offer families as well. Florence is the capital of the region and has an amazing history dating before the Romans. Florence is known its art. most of which can be credited to the patronage of the Medici family during the Renaissance. In fact, many people attribute Florence as the birthplace of the Renaissance movement. We arrived in Florence by overnight train from Paris (as part of our Eurorail pass
) and were heading directly to the south of Tuscany, where our hotel Tenuta Lupinari
was located. So we decided to fit in all the sites, we should hire a tour agency. We booked with Tours in Tuscany
and Marco, our guide, did a great job fitting it all in for us. Our train arrived at 8am and we went immediately out to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower
and then to the next town over, Lucca to ride bikes along its renowned medieval walls and through the ancient city. After a quick lunch at a cafe overlooking the city of Florence, we headed into town to see the fabulous architecture of the Duomo
and the nearby Basilica of Santa Croce, where such famous Italians as Galileo and Michelangelo are buried. After our day with Marco, we rented a car and headed south to our hotel tucked into the vineyards between Arezzo and Siena. From the small, restored village of our hotel (see below) we visited Siena with its famous piazza (said to be one of the grandest in all of Italy, which says a lot considering the piazzas in Italy!). After climbing the Torre del Mangia for a better view of the town and the countryside rolling out in green hills beyond, we relaxed in the square with some gelato and watched Italian life go by. In San Gimignano
, a bit north of Siena, the kids were impressed with the soaring towers (there are 15 of the 72 towers still standing) and narrow alleys and some of the best gelato they’ve tasted! Back at our hotel, we all participated in a cooking class where the Italian-speaking chef taught us to make meatballs, pasta sauce and tiramisu. The kids had lots of fun rolling meatballs and stealing pieces of the chocolate shavings for the tiramisu. Near our hotel, we found Polo Club Villa Sesta
, where visitors can watch this exciting game (originally played with over a hundred players at a time) and ride horses through the vineyards and hills. It’s a great way for families to experience Tuscany.
Amalfi Coast – Positano
South of Rome on Italy’s west coast is the Amalfi Coast. Accessible from Naples to the north and Salerno to the south, the Amalfi Coast has been featured in many movies such as The Talented Mr. Ripley
and Only You
. The soaring cliffs plunge into the ocean here while small white and pastel colored buildings seem to defy gravity as they hang along the cliffs in small villages. We took the train
from Rome to Naples and then on to Sorrento and then a bus from Sorrento to Positano where we stayed in a villa overlooking the ocean. The village was beautiful and there were plenty of local and tourist kids to play with at the beach. However, remember the villages are built on cliffs, so there are lots of stairs (almost 100 stairs to get from the center of the village to our villa), so it may not be the best choice with little kids. There are some fun family-friendly activities near the Amalfi Coast as well. The island of Capri lies just off the coast here and makes a great day trip. Boats leave from Positano a couple of times a day. There is snorkeling, biking and hiking on Capri as well as gondola ride and a great excursion to Blue Grotto. Just north of the Amalfi Coast is Mt. Vesuvius with its lava encrusted ancient towns ofPompeii
. The still-life scenes that remained after Vesuvius’ explosion in the 1st century has long attracted visitors and gives a timewarp type view of life in ancient Rome. Some kids love it, others are grossed out by the body-shaped lava left by the deceased.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Italy
It’s all about location in Rome. The area near the Piazza Navona makes a good base as it is close to all the major tourist attractions, and at night Navona is filled with families strolling the evening away. We rented an apartment in one of the buildings surrounding Piazza Navona through Parker Villas
. It was spacious and had a lot of character with antique furniture and high ceilings. The full kitchen made it easy to make breakfasts and a few dinners while we were in town.
Venice is relatively small, but keep in mind you will mostly be walking to attractions. Definitely stay on the island of Venice, not the mainland or the surrounding islands, if you want to take advantage of the quiet time after all the day trippers pack it in for the evening. We stayed at Hotel Flora
, a quaint, family-run hotel. The art and period furnishings in rooms set around a garden courtyard made for a beautiful setting, but the friendly staff and preparedness to handle kids is what really made this hotel a hit with our family. They have cots and strollers for guests use and will pre-order any necessities you might need like diapers or baby food.
The Tuscany region in renowned for its villa rentals, but sometimes staying in a villa entirely on your own in the countryside is a bit intimidating. At Tenuta Lupinari
, they’ve created the perfect balance. Villas are arranged around a wide center public space in this restored ancient Italian village. In addition to the living areas and full kitchen in each villa, there is a public living space with T.V. and movies, a restaurant and a swimming pool. It is set amongst beautiful green vineyards and olive trees between the towns of Siena and Arezzo. We found this villa through Italy Perfect
, which has great options like this in other areas of Italy as well.
: We stayed in the town of Positano on the Amalfi Coast. It is about an hour south of Sorrento. It is a small town, but is well set up for tourists. We rented a villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with Parker Villas
. The views were extraordinary and the town is cute. However, keep in mind that this villa is 100 steps up a cliff from the town, so it may not be a great choice for families with small kids.
Getting to/Around in Italy
Although Italy is host to several international airports, it is also easily accessible from the rest of Europe and Western Asia by train. Rome is the best choice for cheap international flights, but if you cannot get a good deal by air, it takes less than 12 hours to get to Italy from Paris. We found a great deal into London and then, in conjunction with our rail pass
, took an over night train (after a ride with Eurostar through the Chunnel) from Paris to Florence. The accommodations on the train were fine…two bunks in a set of two connecting rooms. The kids thought it was lots of fun to sleep on the train (in fact they wanted to take the train back instead of flying) and we saved on one night’s accommodation. Italy is also accessible by bus and car on the E70 and E80 from France, the E35 from Switzerland and the E45 and E55 from Eastern Europe. As Italy is a giant peninsula in the Mediterranean, there is much in the way of ferry service
as well. On the Adriatic Sea (west side of Italy), ferries connect Sardinia to Genoa, Cittavecchia (for Rome) and Naples. There are also ferries from Naples to Palermo in Sicily. Ferries also link Italy to Spain, Morocco, Malta, Tunisia, Croatia and Greece. One of the most popular routes for tourists involve crossing from Bari in Italy to Patras in Greece (which has continuing bus service to Athens). Tourists can use their Eurorail pass on this route.