Florence for Kids
Is it the wine and museum culture that’s making you think Tuscany is only a paradise for adults? It’s a place where kids can run off into the hills and roll around while you let your pants out and finish the best pasta of your life while sipping chianti. Here’s a reality check: the kids tend to think that’s paradise, too.
However, culture in Florence often get too prominent a role, and parents with young children may feel their vacation is spent trekking from one “boring” monument after another.
A little planning time and everyone can appreciate this classic city with some pretty cool, kid-approved activities.
1. Ride the Picci Carousel
In Piazza della Repubblica, there is an enchanting carousel where the horses wear real feathered plumes, and their restored, antique charm couple with the background architecture is Instagram gold. It’s open from 10 in the morning until around 8 at night, so try sunset for a shimmering lesson in the beauty of golden Tuscany.
The operators are darling, too, because everything must simply be perfect in the Piazza della Repubblica. They may wink your way and beckon you to take a ride. They’ve been carousel entrepreneurs for generations and this dolce vita certainly gives them reason to believe life is the brass ring we all wish it were.
It’s topped off with panels of major Italian cities, so you can claim some residual educational value in a spin around the carousel. We talked about which cities looked nicest, then visited more of them as our trip through Italy continued.
The carousel operates November through May, but I’ve heard tell of magical openings at other times. It’s Italy. Go with the flow.
The flower market is open on the piazza Thursday mornings for added perfection.
2. Try Every Gelato in Town
Florence is big enough to be intriguing yet compact enough to have a limited number of gelato shops — you may not get to try them all, but you can cover some serious ground if you commit yourself to the grand scavenger hunt of trying to find the best.
Pro tips: avoid the processed gelato where colors are mixed offsite and flavors are artificial. Those without real chunks of fruit are likely just flavoring. Boo. Those with natural colors are more likely to be fresh. For instance, we had an apple gelato that was white, with tiny, crushed red specks. Nothing has ever tasted like this angel of Honeycrisps. I don’t want you to go through life without having the religious apple gelato experience I have had. So listen good: apple gelato is not lime green. It’s not fire engine red. It’s the color of the inside of an apple. Got it?
Perfect gelato is also warmer and therefore tastier than ice cream. If it’s ten feet high in swirly piles of fluff, it’s been frozen too cold. Great gelato needs to nestle in its silver pan. Move on if it doesn’t.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask how many flavors you can have in a “small” cone or cup, a medium, and a large. It’s not just one!
Top it off with “panna” or whipped cream. Because you’re on vacation.
Favorite gelato contenders of Florence include:
- Perche Non
- Gelateria Dei Neri
3. Marble your own Paper
The St. Regis Hotel offers kid-friendly Florence bookings galore, including a marbled paper workshop that’s hands-on and kid-friendly.
You can also wander into Florence’s best-known book binder artisans and (hopefully) catch the magic happening. Alberti Cozzi’s generations-old shop, at Via del Parione, 35, is one of the most gushed-over gems in Florence. It’s also one of the pricier shops. Pick up a travel diary and sketch the duomo.
Near the Accademia, Il Torchio is owned by a displaced Canadian for whom Florentine bookbinding is he story of her life.
Don’t forget to introduce kids to the (not yet hipster) traditional artisans clustered across the river in the Oltrarno.
Saunter over the Ponte Vecchio, where a bridge has stood since 996, in Roman times. It was even spared by Hitler during World War II, rumor has it, because it was so truly awesome. All of Florence’s other bridges were destroyed.
You may hit up the Pitti Palace or the kid-frielndly Boboli Gardens in the Oltrarno, and close by, you’ll find similar workshops.
There’s also Il Papiro. It’s not one of a kind, but they are also found giving demonstrations in the back as the paper is marbled by hand by artisans. While you’re there, stop into Firenze of Papier Mache, 10 Piazza Pitti, an enchanting little paper mask shop.
Stroll the Oltrarno for smaller workshops off the tourist track. The oldest in Florence is here: Giulio Giannini & Figlio, at 37r, Piazza Pitti. They’re less than happy to have tourists watch their process, however.
When in the Oltrarno, friendly curiosity goes far, but work interruptions may not. Use common sense and avoid bursting into artisan studios.
4. Try the Sweets
One thing that floors me every time we visit Europe is that it’s absolutely insane there is not a bigger import-export business dealing in European desserts.
Caffe Gilli on the Piazza Della Repubblica as an amazing assortment. It’s a sight for hypoglycemic eyes: trays are piled high macaroons, tiramisu, cakes, and candies. They beckon children and the turn-of-the-century Parisian atmosphere will woo adults.
Besides, it’s right on your way to the carousel.
5. Visit David-the-not-so-famous Atop the Piazzale Michelangelo and Take in the City Views
A bronze study for the more famous David down at the Accademia stands atop Florence in a strange parking lot, full of trails into beautiful grounds, but capped with cheap souvenir sellers.
It’s a short walk from the center of town, and a good way to see Michelangelo’s work if you’re not going to heading to the Accademia. It’s also close to the original walls of the city, with great views of the wall stretching out to the countryside. Walking is the best way to tackle this sight, because you really shouldn’t stop at David.
Keep walking up the hill on Viale Galileo Galilei, and just a couple minutes away you’ll finally summit the peak and find an 11th century monastery where the monks welcome you with 5:30 p.m. Gregorian chants. This is San Miniato al Monte. Pinocchio’s author, Carlo Collodi, is buried here, and the views are even more sweeping.
Under the Piazzale Michelangelo, visit the Parco della Carraia for a playground pit-stop (take Via dell’Erta Canina almost due West from the rose garden).
6. Learn about the Secret Rooms at the Palazzo Vecchio
Palazzo Vecchio has kids’ tours that must be booked in advance, and are even themed with costumed guides. It’s WAY above and beyond the usual art walks. We haven’t had very good luck in any Italian art museums with kids. They’re huge, for starters. The layouts also seem to push visitors through miles and miles of rooms without shortcuts to the big-ticket items my kids may actually be excited to see, and this unfortunate architecture has turned them off to Italian art more than once.
Not a problem at the Palazzo Vecchio which as reasonable tours including adults and kids for all ages. Check out their booking page for themes from court life to secret passages.
7. Trampoline your Heart Out While Mommy Uses Wifi
A little outside the tourist center, Isolotto’s large park, Villa Vogel, has go-carts, too. It’s only open in the high summer season, and is tucked away from the city. However, if you’re living like a local, this is your local playground hotspot.
There are concerts and yoga classes, a duck pond, and spots for soccer, picnics, and remote controlled boats on the pond. Sip your espresso. Mommy’s sitting now.
8. Make your Own Pizza
The pizza and gelato cooking class from Florencetown is like that one fabulous teacher you one had and can’t forget — you know, the one no one can speak a single word against. If pizza isn’t your thing, they also have an Arno river cruise that satisfies you need to tour with younger kids’ need to NOT WALK ANYWHERE.
It seems everyone wants the chance to sprinkle their own toppings and toss their own dough in an environment where messy and loud are o-o.k. While the class seems long for smaller kids (a full three hours with a pizza AND gelato session), you also get dinner, dessert, and drinks, including wine for the adults.
Kids under 5 are free, and 6-12 year olds pay 25 Euros (Adults pay 50). All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening. You can even book a 3:00 p.m. class if the 6:00-9:00 session seems too late for your kiddos.
9. Tour on Horseback
Fun in Tuscany is the kid-centric horse touring company, with less emphasis on vineyards and more on fun. Kids are welcome, no experience is necessary, helmets are provided, and tours meet a hop, skip, and jump away from the main train station.
There’s a ride around a medieval town involved, and if one parent wants to be left behind on the Chianti farm where it all begins, that’s allowed, too.
Hate horses? Golf cart, Segway, and biking tours of Florence are also good bets.
Want a shorter trek? Horseback rides for even the smallest kids are offered in Cascine Park. A tram runs through this extensive former Medici hunting ground all the way to the train station, and a swimming pool beckons on hot days. Concerts in the summer make for a delightful evening for the whole gang. The Tuesday morning market is huge, and can be another fun outing along the Arno.
10. Enjoy the Roman Ruins at Fiesole
Fiesole, a mere 6 miles outside of Florence, boasts amazing Etruscan and Roman ruins. The walled town has Roman baths, an amphitheater, tombs, and sites like the hill where Leonardo DaVinci once took his gargantuan flying wings for a spin. There’s a civic museum in the archeological area, and the outdoor stroll through the ruins is a great way to burn off energy.
If you have older, adventurous kiddos, walking the 6 miles (it’s only a 10k, really) offers bar-none the most spectacular views of Florence available. You pass gorgeous villas of the wealthy who escaped city life for the hills above Florence, and you get a physical sense of the defensive position of the town in relation to invaders on the Arno. Try riding up and walking back down to town after dinner in the sunset.
Also in Frisole, the art museum holds kids’ classes monthly where you can get hands-on experience as a Florentine artist.
Fiesole is a short bus ride from Florence. You can take ATAF bus 7 from San Marco Square, or hop off the double decker sightseeing bus in Fiesole. Municipal bus tickets in Florence can be purchased ahead of time at any tobacconist.