Italy is probably the friendliest family vacation destination in all Europe. Practically, it presents few challenges. But if you’re traveling by rental car with young children, be sure to request safety car seats ahead of time. Let the rental company know the age of your child and they will arrange for a seat that complies with EU regulations. Rail travelers should remember that reduced-price family fares are available on much of the high-speed network; ask when you buy your tickets or contact a booking agent.
As you tour, don’t go hunting for “child-friendly” restaurants or special kids’ menus. There’s always plenty available for little ones—even dishes that aren’t on offer to grown-up patrons. Never be afraid to ask if you have a fussy eater in the family. Pretty much any request is met with a smile.
Perhaps the main issue for travelers with children is spacing your museum visits so that you get a chance to see the masterpieces without having young kids suffer a meltdown after too many paintings of saints.
Remember to punctuate every day with a gelato stop—Italy makes the world’s best ice cream. You will even find creative soya flavors for anyone with lactose intolerance. We also suggest planning fewer long, tiring daytrips out of town, especially by public transportation. And end your trip in Venice, which many children will think was created by Walt Disney.
Day 1: Rome’s ancient ruins ★★★
History is on your side here: The wonders of Ancient Rome should appeal as much to kids (of almost any age) as to adults. There are plenty of gory tales to tell at the Colosseum, where the bookshop has a good selection of city guides aimed at kids. After that, they can let off steam wandering the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. (The ruins of the Imperial Forums can be viewed at any time.) Cap the afternoon by exploring the Villa Borghese, a monumental park in the heart of Rome where you can rent bikes; there’s a small zoo on the grounds. For dinner, head for some fluffy crusts at an authentic Roman pizzeria.
Day 2: Rome: living history ★★★
Head early to St. Peter’s Basilica. They’ll find it spooky wandering the Vatican grottoes, and few kids can resist climbing up to Michelangelo’s dome at 114m (375 ft.). After time out for lunch, begin your assault on the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Even if your kids don’t like art museums, they will probably gawk at the grandeur. Later in the day head for the Spanish Steps (a good spot for some upscale souvenir shopping) before wandering over to the Trevi Fountain. Let them toss coins into the fountain, which is said to ensure a return to Rome—perhaps when they are older and can better appreciate the city’s many more artistic attractions.
Day 3: Rome: underground ★★★
There are, literally, layers of history below the city streets, and kids will love to explore the catacombs of the Via Appia Antica, the first cemetery of Rome’s Christian community, and where the devout practiced their faith in secret during periods of persecution. Context Travel runs an excellent tour of the city’s subterranean layers, which takes in San Clemente and Santi Giovanni e Paolo. It costs €255 per party. Eat more pizza before you leave; Rome’s pizzeria’s are matched only by those in Naples, to the south, and the next recommended stops all lie to the north. Leave on a late afternoon train to Florence.
Days 4 & 5: Florence ★★★
Florence is usually thought of as more of an adult city, but there’s enough here to fill 2 family days, plus daytrips. With multiple nights here, you should take an apartment rather than a hotel room, to give you all the more space to spread out. Check out the website of GoWithOh.com for a good range of quality places. Close to the Duomo, Residence Hilda is a family-friendly hotel that rents large, apartment-style rooms from 1 night and more. Begin with the city’s monumental main square, Piazza della Signoria, now an open-air museum of statues. The Palazzo Vecchio dominates one side; you can all tour it with special family-friendly guides, including a docent dressed as Cosimo de’ Medici. You won’t want to miss the Uffizi. With young children, you could turn your visit into a treasure trail of the museum’s collection by first visiting the shop to select some postcards of the key artworks. On the second morning, kids will delight in climbing to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome on the Duomo for a classic panorama. Get there early—queues lengthen through the day. You’ll still have time to climb the 414 steps up to the Campanile di Giotto, run around in the Giardino di Boboli, and stroll the Ponte Vecchio at dusk. With older, fit children, you could add another day here, to allow time to see the Chianti hills from the saddle.
Day 6: Pisa & its Leaning Tower ★★
If your kids are 7 or under, you should consider skipping Pisa: 8 is the minimum age for the disorienting ascent up the bell tower of Pisa’s cathedral, which more commonly goes by the name the Leaning Tower. Elsewhere in the city, kids will love the hyperrealist monuments of the Campo dei Miracoli and learning about the city’s Galileo links: He was born here, and supposedly discovered his law of pendulum motion while watching a swinging lamp inside the Duomo. Take them to taste a local specialty, cecina—a pizzalike garbanzo-bean flatbread served warm. Your daylong tour complete, whiz up the coast on the Frecciabianca fast train to Genoa. There is a luggage storage facility (Deposito bagagli) at Pisa Centrale station.
Days 7 & 8: Genoa & the Riviera di Levante ★★
The industrial city-seaport of Genoa isn’t the obvious choice for the kids, but it’s here you’ll find one of Italy’s most enticing family attractions. The Acquario di Genova is Europe’s largest aquarium, where you can all enjoy a trip around the world’s oceans. It requires a half-day to see properly, so get in early then head out to the Riviera di Levante, a coastline of pretty ports and rocky coves east of the city. Our favorite base around here is laid-back, romantic Portofino.
Days 9 & 10: Lake Garda ★★★
Slow down for a couple of days by Italy’s biggest inland lake. Take a boat trip, hire a pedal boat or kayak, and generally enjoy lakeside life. Most of the shore towns are seasonal resorts, and the most interesting for families is Sirmione. Here you can scramble up high on the ramparts of the Castello Scaligero the ride the little train out to the Roman ruins at the Grotte di Catullo, supposedly once a villa inhabited by poet Catullus (ca. 84 B.C.–ca. 54 B.C.). Look out for lake fish on local menus. For those with more time to spend—as well as an active family—Riva del Garda, at the lake's northernmost point, is one of Europe's major windsurfing centers.
Days 11, 12 & 13: Venice: city on the lagoon ★★★
In Venice, the fun begins the moment you arrive and take a vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal. Head straight for Piazza San Marco, where children delight in feeding the pigeons and riding the elevator up the great Campanile. Catch the mosaics inside the Basilica di San Marco, which dominates the square. At the Palazzo Ducale, your kids can walk over the infamous Bridge of Sighs. As in Florence, make time for some art: Visit the Gallerie dell’Accademia and San Rocco, where kids view the episodic Tintoretto paintings like a picture book. If it’s summer, save time for the beach at the Lido and perhaps for getting a different angle on Venice’s canals, from the seat of a gondola.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.