Italy with kids
I know, I know. It’s as if you’ve never realized that Italy with kids is the easiest coupling on earth. After all, kids love pizza and gelato and friendly games of soccer in open-air squares. Italy is already one of the family-friendliest countries we’ve visited. Getting around this manageable country is easy, and there are almost too many places for kids to enjoy interesting activities, lazy passageata, and indulgent sweets. My notoriously cranky kid should be used as your canary in the mine, and loves everything Italian.
For adults as well as kids, Italy is easy to fall in love with.
But there is also a long history to Italy, and all of the museums to go with it. It can be warm. Crowded. Trains are less cushy than their northern counterparts, and packed full as well. There are gladiators (kidding).
Here are some first timer tips so that introducing kids to Italy can be as magical as ever. Here are some tips to make it easier.
The notorious August shut-down is subsiding in recent years, especially if you plan to hit mountain towns (just do it) instead of beaches (still crowded). This means there is more room in the high season for reasonable hotel rates and last minute booking. However, it’s still not the ideal time to visit Italy with kids.
Europeans come in waves all summer, and the weather can be hot in addition to the influx of holiday-makers. The off-season is typically beautiful in Italy, with Mediterranean temperatures well into the holiday season, but an increased chance of off-days with rain, dark evenings, and museums that close early.
Venice will be crowded nonetheless, but I’ve found Rome and Florence to be more accommodating in the fall and spring, although shortened days really do take their toll. The problem with off-season travel is that Italy is still Italy, and buses and cruise ships and Germans descend quite often. If you wind up behind the bus, the crowds will be just as bad as in the high season.
Early June is considered the sweet spot of crowd- and heat-wave-avoidance, with many schools still in session and vacationers not yet flocking to the sights.
Some find June even uncomfortable in the heat. Heat waves can happen this early, especially in the South.
Many facilities are air conditioned, but Americans may find that rooms are not kept as cold as they would like, or that the A/C only works when the hotel room key is engaged (and you’re inside), therefore it takes a while to cool down. Some places only turn on the A/C in the summer. Others allow it in spring and fall. At the top of the campanile in Venice, we found a pile of plastic fans with a sign reading, “Air conditioning, 2 Euro.”
This is one of those things necessitating a phone call — even when the hotel review says there’s A/C, it may only be turned on in the height of summer. Or only when you complain. Italian laws govern air conditioning (really), so if it is available, push hoteliers to turn it on and confirm that it is, in fact, turned on. We’re a heat-loving, desert family, but this could be particularly difficult if you’re traveling with a fussy, warm, baby.
Old Italian buildings don’t always have duct systems, and cold air with no circulation is sometimes seen as an unnecessary and even unpleasant offering.
For sight-seeing, high season travel should push your family itinerary as early in the morning as possible! Get out, get in line, and reap the rewards! When traveling with kids, even teens, I recommend this all year round, but in the high season it is especially important. Anyone who has ever stood in a theme park line with a toddler understands that every minute counts here. Now imagine the line doesn’t end with Mickey Mouse but with the Vatican museums. GO EARLY, and avoid the lines and the heat.
(Speaking of which, the unofficial tour operators around the Vatican promise line jumping to those who pay. The lines aren’t as long as they say. Ignore).
LISTING SITES Apartment travel often works better in Europe with families, but be sure your choice has air conditioning. An apartment also leaves open the possibility of returning home, cooking everyone’s favorites, and spreading out as a family. Homeaway and VRBO aggregate apartments from multiple sites and charge owners listing fees. They let you correspond directly with owners and see reviews.
AIRBNB-STYLE SITES Housetop and Wimdu work a lot like Airbnb, and if you have time, you can check reviews on all three from guests that have actually stayed at the property. This protection is golden when abroad, and guarantees a level of protection and professionalism. Further, booking is paid upfront to the service but not released right away to owners until after you have checked in. If the property is not suitable (or doesn’t exist!) you have some recourse and the owner does not get the booking fee.
AGENCIES Rentavilla.com and interhome.us are agencies that work with renters to find what you need without the frustration of searching through listings and corresponding with owners. Agencies can help with the ideal location for your party as well as the amenities of the place.
Credit cards are always better for fraud protection than online pay portals which adjudicate their own cases when there are disputes. Using a portal that allows you to pay with your credit card is a good idea for any accommodations.
We’ve stayed in many different kinds of spots across Italy, and have made some of the best friends we could ever ask for on Airbnb. We’ve eaten limoncello almonds we never would have eaten otherwise. We’ve gotten rides and tours and lifelong friends. We’ve gotten laundry, which is always hard in a hotel or on the road. We’ve had problem bookings resolved well.
All in all, the English-language sites like these are more expensive than local classified listings. But the overall fees are fair — often far less than a family would spend in a hotel in a big city. Besides, with a large group, the benefits of an apartment can cost much less than multiple rooms in a hotel.
HOTELS In general, I’ve had a hard time working with the spotty wifi in many an Italian hotel. Perhaps I’m always in the wrong room? Extra attention when scouring the ratings websites is called for, or you may find yourself spending lots of time in the hallways, as I have. Yet, overall, hotels are beautiful old world, traditional spots worth checking outing generally more affordable than comparably awesome cities in the U.S.
They run the gamut from minimalist spa hotels of the Dolomites that reckon with anything aiming to be cool in Seattle to those with charming crumbling 14th century brick walls in Venice, with glass chandeliers.
The affordable hotels are not populated, as in the states, with shady characters using street drugs. They’re mainly family-run places without a big budget. This is a bonus when trying to stay cheap. However, more affordable hotels may not be manned 24-hours a day and your late train, coupled with lack of phone service abroad, could lead to being stranded. Nicer hotels make this problem disappear (in all fairness, this is an Airbnb problem as well — remember, Italian transportation is not as reliable as northern countries).
Family run, affordable hotels can be seen as far safer than in the U.S., stocked with visitors that mirror those in most expensive hotels. We’ve never run across drugs, monthly renters, or hotels sending their guest lists to the police nightly.
This is a bonus when trying to stay cheap. However, more affordable hotels may not be manned 24-hours a day and your late train, coupled with lack of phone service abroad, could lead to being stranded. Nicer hotels make this problem disappear (in all fairness, this is an Airbnb problem as well — remember, Italian transportation is not as reliable as northern countries and make sure you have a way to communicate).
As in most of Europe, small is the norm. Ask if the room can accommodate a crib. You may even have to ask if the elevator accommodates a stroller. Elevators are not in all buildings, and you may have to compromise to enjoy older architecture.
Kids can fray under the pressure of heat, crowds, and history. The historical sites that offer the most freedom of movement are best, and with older kids, the more macabre (or cool and underground), the better. Some ideas include:
The Christian catacombs on the Appia Antica in Rome
Pompeii/Herculaneum, the seaside villages that met Vesuvius’ wrath in 79 A.D. (Vesuvius can also be climbed, which is fun for older kids)
Rome, Ostia, Lazio ruins
Puglia beaches: Get out of the museums and dig something. There’s also a zoo safari park to explore.
The Dolomites: Winter or summer. Family-run ski places for the smallest of tots.
Venice: Because, of course. Masks, blowing glass, pigeons all over you?! Boat rides? Yes.
Pisa and its tower: Pisa is an easy, affordable, little college town where the clippity cloppety of horses making their way to the tower passed by our hotel window every morning. We picked out our favorites. After hitting the tower, the sites were done, and we were immediately relieved of our duty to do much of anything. My older daughter could walk to pizza alone (“una pizza margharita, per favore!”) and really started feeling like this manageable little tourist town was her own. This is the ultimate goal of traveling a welcoming place like Italy with kids — finding spots they can truly call their own. Others might substitute Lucca (where you can bike on the city walls!) or even Siena, with its friendly, laid back square and relatively tame tourist presence compared to Florence.
Traveling in Italy with kids should be incredibly friendly. For example, there is no section in this guide on eating because, well, if we can do it, you can. Try all the gelato. Take all the boat rides. These moments away from the tourist crowds offer some of the best education on the finer points of life, Italian style. And most of all, let me know your favorite tips for Italy with kids!