An essential guide to travelling with kids in Italy, by family travel expert William Gray. Read on for an introduction to holidays with tots to teens, when to go, how to get there and accommodation
Kids are welcome everywhere in Italy. You will have no problem getting them to adapt to the local cuisine (assuming, of course, they like pizza, pasta and ice cream), while accommodation ranges across the entire family-friendly spectrum, from campsites and holiday villages to beach resorts and villas. If there’s one potential fly in the gelato it’s that major attractions can become very crowded and hot during summer – so don't overdo the sightseeing.
Italy promises a well-earned rest for new parents. Most hotels offer babysitting if you arrange it in advance, but a far more relaxing alternative is to rent a villa. Self-catering might not sound like much of a rest, but it suits a lot of new parents desperate to maintain feeding and sleeping routines. If renting a car, check that the safety standards of any children’s seats provided are up to scratch or, better still, consider bringing your own. Don’t forget sunshades for car windows. With a baby in-tow you’re unlikely to want to embark on an ambitious sightseeing tour of Rome (in fact, you’d be wise to avoid all Italian cities during the fierce heat of midsummer). However, even a modest medieval town in Tuscany can reduce you to a gibbering wreck trying to cajole a pushchair along its cobbled streets and pavements. To preserve sanity, take an all-terrain three-wheeler buggy or a backpack-style baby carrier.
That villa with a pool still sounds very tempting with children of this age. However, you do need to be extra-vigilant about pool safety: holiday villages may well have fenced-off pools and lifeguards on duty; private villas may not. For a seaside holiday, Italy has no end of lovely beaches to choose from, especially in Sicily, while the northern Lakes offer a freshwater alternative (just remember to pack jelly shoes for the kids so they can negotiate the pebbly beaches). Historical and cultural sights are always a challenge with children of this age. The concepts of queuing, keeping quiet in cathedrals and art galleries, staying behind security barriers and not mauling priceless works of art are all completely alien to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your Italian sojourn needs to be culturally bereft. Car-free city piazzas can provide toddlers with (supervised) freedom while you admire the façades of the duomo (cathedral) or the palazzo. And you can always take it in turns to sightsee – one parent entertains the kids while the other snatches an hour or two of Bernini browsing.
In Italy, vast swathes of the school curriculum come to life. Few places are more synonymous with famous artists, brilliant minds and ancient cultures. The food is an education in itself; the language is fun to learn; and to top it all, Italy scores top marks on the geography front, with everything from volcanoes to vast limestone caverns. There is a downside though. Few museums and galleries have the special children’s facilities or activities that you find in northern Europe. Nor is there much in the way of hands-on science centres. At this age they at least have the potential to enjoy a full day’s sightseeing and, if not, you can always resort to bribery (a double scoop of gelato for the duomo and we’ll throw in a waterpark for the Renaissance exhibition). Don’t forget, though, that there is far more to Italy’s heritage than shuffling around daunting museums and galleries. Most kids will leap at the challenge of climbing the steps to the top of a medieval bell tower, while sites like Pompeii and the Colosseum instantly ignite a child’s imagination. And then, of course, there’s all the purely-fun stuff, from theme-park rides at Gardaland in northern Italy to snorkelling in the crystal-clear coves of Sicily.
Although sometimes a little too far off the beaten track for their liking, villas (with chill-out pools) are still a good option for teens – particularly if they bring along a friend or two. Holiday parks and resorts, with their clubs and activities, are also a good bet. Pick a location that provides a couple of teen mainstays, such as a city for shopping and nightlife and a beach or lake for watersports and hanging out with mates. For sightseeing, concentrate on the big sights in Venice and Rome.
When to go
Italy has a varied climate, based on its distinct geographical regions. In the north, expect cold Alpine winters and warm, wet summers; in the Po Valley the summers are hot and dry and the winters are cold and damp; the rest of Italy has a wonderful climate of long hot summers (with temperatures consistently over 25 degrees C) and mild winters, with cooler weather and a chance of winter snow in the Appenines.
Italy’s historic sites and cities are busy and crowded from spring to October and the heat can be oppressive during the midsummer months of July and August. Remember, though, that you can always escape to the cooler hill towns when the heat gets too much. Be aware that Rome and the Vatican City will be packed with pilgrims at Christmas and Easter, and that Venice triples its population during Carnevale in February. Consider visiting Venice in the low season (October to March) – everything stays open and gondola rides will be cheaper!
Milan, Verona and Bologna are the key transport hubs in northern Italy; Rome and Naples in the south. The national carrier, Alitalia, flies from Europe and the United States to all major cities in Italy. Check their website for special promotions. British Airways flies to 11 Italian destinations, including Rome, Naples, Milan, Pisa, and Bologna. For budget flights to Italy, easyJet flies to Milan, Turin, Venice, Pisa, Rimini, Rome, Naples and Sicily; and Ryanair covers over 20 Italian destinations including cities in Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia as well as all the major hubs.
Travelling within Italy usually poses few problems, particularly in the north of the country, where the road, bus and rail networks are modern and efficient. Alitalia operates an extensive network of internal flights.
Fly-drive deals are often the cheapest way to arrange car hire. Most rental agencies are located at major Italian airports. Motorways, although generally good, can become heavily congested at weekends and during peak periods. One way to avoid the busy routes is to take the train, which provides good value and is especially useful if you want to link two or more cities (where you’d be crazy to attempt to drive yourself). Trenitalia has an online reservation system.
Italy also has a large and well-developed network of ferries that ply routes between offshore islands, as well as making international crossings. SNAV Collegamenti Marittimi operates ferries between Civitavecchia and Olbia (Sardinia) and Palermo, and from Naples to Palermo, Capri and Ischia. Also try Grand Navi Veloci.
The best way to get around Italian cities varies from place to place. In Venice, waterbuses or vaporetti are abundant; in Rome, buses are most useful, and in Milan there is an efficient metro. You will often find that walking is quicker than taking a taxi or bus through congested streets.
Families are spoilt for choice when it comes to places to stay in Italy – you will find everything from beachside campsites and rural farmstays to resorts, hotels and converted palazzos.
Most hotels welcome children, even if they have no special facilities. Some of the cheaper hotels may not be able to supply cots, but most hotels will provide an extra child’s bed if required. Many of the big international hotel chains have a presence in Italy, including Best Western and Starwood Westin.
Most of Itay’s self-catering accommodation is generally of a high standard, and is often in wonderful locations. The Associazione Nazionale per l’Agriturismo represents more than 2000 farms, villas and mountain chalets and offers reasonably priced accommodation. For something unusual, arrange a stay in a converted trullo in the Puglia region. For an online directory of Italian campsites and resorts, log on to camping.it. For holiday villages offering accommodation in well-equipped chalets and tents, try Eurocamp and Vacansoleil.