Why, after years of blissful, stress-free travel, would you ruin a trip to one of your favorite countries by bringing, ahem, the kids? Because they'll never forget it. Because Italy embraces children. Waiters do magic tricks, train passengers read to them, hotel staff offer sweets.
My children were baptized in Italy and have visited my husband's hometown of Bassano del Grappa—a beautiful walled city an hour northwest of Venice—twice a year since birth. But the truth is, they had never, until recently, stepped their little Superga'd feet south of the Veneto. When my husband's brother announced a June wedding date (finally!) in his Neapolitan girlfriend's hometown, we decided to use the occasion as a starting point for the boys' first extended exploration of their father's country.
I never wanted them to have to think too hard about who Julius Caesar was or what Botticelli painted. I just wanted them to know. And Italy is a place where Western history seeps into you practically by osmosis. The evening my husband and I sat in Rome's Piazza Navona with our two sons, five and seven years old, slurping the fourth gelato of the day, we imagined the piazza's first-century javelin throws and the 17th-century flooding that allowed the reenactment of epic sea battles. Cool. Within minutes of stepping off the train from Rome to Florence, my seven-year-old, Francesco, announced that Rome is a city of men—gladiators—while Florence is one of women and paintings. Perhaps he had noticed the many pretty art students roaming the streets. But he'd also intuited the bigger cultural picture: The Roman Empire was about conquering the world; the Renaissance was the blossoming of culture, arguably a more female pursuit.
In Venice you don't have to explain a thing. Children see the magic for themselves; the history is visual, not academic. Likewise in Florence: Climb to the top of the Duomo to see Vasari's The Last Judgment up close. Trust me, giant devils with pitchforks and long tails make quite an impression. (And all those flights of stairs will exhaust the energetic dears.)
Before you and your children hop on a nonstop flight (the first hard-and-fast rule to getting through this with your sanity in check), a few practicalities to consider:
WHO Five- to twelve-year-olds only. The youngest child must be a sturdy, non-whiny walker, the oldest one ideally not yet experiencing hormonal mood swings.
WHEN The full-fledged summer months (July and August) are extremely hot and crowded. So either pay particular attention to the number of times I mention swimming pools or go instead in June, early September, or around Thanksgiving.
HOW Take the trains—first-class compartment, please—and very little luggage. Walk everywhere you can. We flew to Rome, railroaded it to Naples, then took a hovercraft to Capri for two days of de-jet-lagging at the Grand Hotel Quisisana. From there our trajectory went southwest then northeast, starting with Naples and Pompeii, on to Rome, Florence, and Siena, and ending in Venice. Whenever possible we would alternate every two city-scouring days with one at a country villa, relaxing by the pool to keep us all fresh and happy. We took the zero-assistance approach—no nanny, no favorite aunts, no helpful cousins—and found it to be tiring but ultimately more fun. The easiest rhythm for the, say, ten-day voyage goes something like this.
Some might consider Naples, where expensive watches are occasionally ripped off the wrists of unsuspecting tourists, an unusual choice for a family trip. But it has a unique spirit, and the pre-Roman history that links it to other Mediterranean cultures is deeply fascinating. Kids love the sometimes-ghoulish science museum Città della Scienza—think jars of mummified remains—as well as the subterranean aqueducts, theaters, and catacombs of Napoli Sotterranea. Conquerors (Greeks then Romans then Spaniards) would build their new cities on the ruins of the conquered. Naples underground is like a whole other city, beautifully preserved below the modern metropolis. Enter from Piazza San Gaetano, near Via dei Tribunali; ask your concierge to arrange a flashlight-armed guide.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza, that perennial kid-pleaser, so head straight to the source: Pizzeria Brandi, off Via Chiaia, the very place where the first patriotic red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil) pizza Margherita was created for the city's fortunate 18th-century queen.
The Grand Hotel Vesuvio (vesuvio.it) is still the place to stay. It offers great views of the bay, harbor, and Castel dell'Ovo (which children love).
My husband vividly remembers his first visit here at the age of seven, so we expected Pompeii to be a rite of passage for our boys. It's important to have a clear direction in this city. First, make it a day-trip—don't stay overnight. After tromping through the hot and dusty Forum (wear hats and carry water), we decided to spend the afternoon at Villa dei Misteri, an amazingly well-preserved house full of mosaics and frescoes right outside Pompeii's walls. The walk there (you'll see plenty of signs pointing the way from the city center) provides a full tour of this ancient city, from ruins to modern buildings. The kids explored the narrow servants' corridors connecting various rooms and courtyards, trying to imagine the purpose of each.
In exception to my earlier rule about train travel, ask your Naples hotel to provide car service to Pompeii (the creaky, graffitied local train, Circumvesuviana, didn't do it for me). Then, if possible, continue on with the car to Rome.
A tip: Before you leave the States, be sure your family watches the excellent Discovery Channel documentary Pompeii: The Last Day. Our guys had seen it and that made our time here very rich.
The guide to get is Alfonso Onda from Torres Travel (39-333/603-3518; email@example.com).
THREE TO FOUR DAYS
Show up at 8:30 a.m. at the Via del Tempio di Giove entrance to the Roman Forum and you'll be the only souls in sight. I loved how my sons would just plop down on a chunk of ancient pillar when they felt tired. Point out key attractions such as the Temple of Vesta (the vestal virgins were six to ten years old) and the Temple of Romulus. But keep the history lessons to a minimum and assure yourself that your children will one day return.
Head over to the Colosseum, where you can regale the young ones with tales of deadly gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights. Sadly, a favorite stop, Domus Aurea—Nero's 300-room villa that was only recently excavated—has closed for repairs because of structural problems. The Christian Catacombs in the Via Appia Antica, an underground world from an earlier Rome, is an excellent substitute.
In the Vatican City the kids were mesmerized by the popes' tombs in the necropolises—each revealing something interesting about its occupant's secular taste. (Perhaps owing to the fact that Pope John Paul II's face had recently been all over the papers after his death, my younger son, Giacomo, somehow got it in his head that John Paul II had personally baptized him. We've decided not to argue.) After a quick whirl through the church, we went around the corner to the Vatican Museums, which house the Sistine Chapel. When we finally passed through the narrow door into the chapel (it's a long stroll through the preceding galleries), our normally boisterous boys were silenced by the strangeness of hundreds of people standing in darkness, staring at the ceiling. They did the same. Michelangelo's frescoes tell vivid stories, some pretty scary. The boys zeroed in on the brutal images of contorted bodies and thrilled in their own fright.
Back out in the light of day, the thick ramparts of the neighboring Castel Sant'Angelo—the pope's secret hideout during the 1527 siege of Rome— is a great place for children to climb. Afterward it is time to leave the pomp of religion and saunter alongside the Tiber River on the Via Giulia. You feel as though you've made the fastest, most clever retreat from the crowds of Saint Peter's—until you realize that this treelined cobblestoned street is the home to many of the Vatican's ambassadors and dignitaries. In Rome there's no escaping history or power.
The following day, tour Piazza Navona's fountains before heading to the famous Spanish Steps and on to Via Veneto. This fun shopping avenue leads to the Piazza del Popolo, where there is a centuries-old obelisk. A walk through Michelangelo's geometric Piazza del Campidoglio and down the steep Aracoeli Staircase is also a must. The structure was completed in 1348 as an offering to the Virgin Mary so that she would end the plague.
Our first night in Rome we stumbled upon Obikà, a mozzarella bar in the Piazza di Firenze—not far from Piazza Navona—to which we returned again for dinner and lunch (when traveling with kids, the rule of thumb for meals is, If it works, stick with it). The outside seating was great for our spirited children. On another night we attended an outdoor concert where a chamber orchestra played Vivaldi's Four Seasons (we had seen a poster). The kids frolicked with young locals; my husband and I sat back and enjoyed the show.
Skip the Hotel Anglo Americano—too funky. Better is the Hotel de Russie (roccofortehotels.com), because it's just off the Piazza del Popolo, and the Aldrovandi Palace (aldrovandi.com), for its pool. Save the Eden and Hassler for romantic visits. Same goes for Piperno, my husband's favorite Roman restaurant, which is in the old Jewish ghetto—not for kids.
Il Gelato di San Crispino (42 Via della Panetteria), near the Trevi Fountain, makes Italy's most famous pistachio gelato. For cappuccino, it's Gran Café Sant'Eustachio (near the Pantheon). Our boys loved the way the guys behind the counter hand-whipped the milk with spoons.
If your Roman history is a bit rusty, Mercedes Tedaldi (39-347/175-1051) is a superb guide for young ones, bringing the past to life in the most accessible way.
Yes, you must play first-time tourist with visits to the Museo di Storia della Scienza (which everyone knows as the Leonardo museum) and the Uffizi Gallery (there's a Da Vinci exhibit until January), a trek to the top of the Duomo's Cupola, and a pass by the Battistero's famed bronze doors. Stop in the Piazza Signoria and gaze at Michelangelo's enormous David (here, a copy; the original is safely preserved indoors), then simply stroll the city center, taking in the Renaissance palazzi. Skip the guided tours of private villas; we quickly learned they are way too dull for children ("Boooo-ring!" was their one-word review). A sidewalk tour—with occasional peeks at an inner courtyard or two—is plenty. Our guys wanted to stay a while at Palazzo Strozzi, just off the main thoroughfare of Via Tornabuoni. They helped us count all the windows and turned the wide stone bench that encircles the three-story Renaissance façade into a racetrack.
Eating is surprisingly tricky in Florence; restaurants are packed and casual pizzerias are not as easy to find as you might think. We stayed in a frumpy hotel in the center thinking we would be within walking distance of all the treasures. Mistake. Next time we'll stay at the Villa San Michele in Fiesole. This solves the eating problem—the food is good and, more important, convenient. The hotel also has a ten-minute shuttle into town and come 5 p.m., swimming, anyone?
This city can be an endless, noisy carnival—tough on children in the heat. The Villa San Michele (villasanmichele.com), ten minutes away in the Fiesole hills, is an ideal home base.
If you want to rent bikes, motor scooters, or motorcycles, look up Florence by Bike (florencebybike.it).
Perhaps the only reason to time a trip to Italy in the summer is to be in Siena for the Palio (July 2 and August 16; tickets at initaly.com). This splendid biannual pageant and bareback horse race from the 12th century will fascinate little ones. Each contrada (neighborhood) has its own banners, vests, and horses' robes adorned with brilliant animal symbols. The solemn procession into Siena's fan-shaped square gives kids time to identify a favorite "team" and follow it through the race. The horses round the track fast and furiously and never without incident—crashing into one another, young riders being thrown from their mounts. Riotlike excitement immediately follows. It's better than any TV cop chase, so plan to linger in your seats. Even if you don't catch the Palio, the small scale of Siena—the pre-Florentine capital of Tuscany—makes it kid-friendly. Time spent here puts the whole region into fascinating historical context.
TWO TO THREE DAYS
The theater of canals and bridges and the regal palazzi of Venice need almost no explanation. Kids can't believe that boats do all the "real-world" jobs of cars and trucks: fire boats, ambulance boats, polizia and carabinieri boats, sofa-delivery boats. My boys said Venice is like "a giant play-mobile on water." Beyond walking over millions of bridges and seeing the Piazza San Marco, take your children to the open fish market near the Rialto Bridge, or, if in season, visit the city's art biennial in the amazing Arsenale and the Biennale Gardens.
My husband's strategy for eating autentico is to stick to bacari, local pubs that serve appetizer portions of terrific food called cichetti. Kids can chill in the casual atmosphere; parents will feel sufficiently out of the tourist fray. Don't bother with the famous Harry's Bar. Kids don't get Harry's and Harry's doesn't get kids.
For kid-friendly tours, use Follow Me (fenicepr.it; firstname.lastname@example.org), a company run by clever, energetic young women from the Veneto. They have great ideas—such as private gondolier lessons and a ghost tour, which follows in the footsteps of famous Venetians—as well as access to private palazzi, local lore, and personalities that blow me away. Taking a half-day tour of the lagoon islands—such as Murano, Burano, and Torcello—is a nice break from trekking across countless canals. (Don't bother with a Brenta River cruise. They're too long and uneventful for kids.) On the return to Venice, you and the children will experience a new awe at the stunning maze of the city built on once-marshy islands.
In Venice it makes sense to splurge and stay at the Cipriani on Giudecca Island—five minutes from the city by gondola—if for no other reason than the Olympic-size pool. Did I mention how much energy kids burn off by swimming?
The best alternative to the Cipriani is the Westin Excelsior at the Venice Lido—it has a pool. In the center, the Locanda ai Santi Apostoli (39-41/521-2612) possesses the feel of a family home. The original Venetian clan still runs it. The flip-side experience is Ca'Pisani Hotel (capisanihotel.it), which has original thirties- and forties-style furniture.
Photo Credit: Grand Hotel Vesuvio; Hotel de Russie, a Rocco Forte Hotel; Villa San Michele; Getty Images