It is not just the gelato bursting with sweet flavour. Or the al dente pasta smothered in Nonna’s tomato sauce. Or the chariot-grooved Roman streets, gladiator battlefields and other “Horrible Histories” relics. It is the graceful warmth and gentle humour showered on young visitors that makes Italy so appealing for families with bambini in tow.
Italy’s 20 regions could practically be different countries, so varied are they in landscape, culture, temperament and, of course, cuisine. Enjoy historical parades and daredevil Palio jockeys racing bareback around downtown Siena one day (2 July and 16 August), learn how to craft a Venetian mask in Venice the next: sheer variety alone makes Italy a tremendous family destination.
The focus for families is naturally on the coastline, which stretches for a staggering 4,582 miles. But even this requires making a choice that can be challenging. The coast extends from the knife-edge cliffs and quaint villages of Cinque Terre, down through the brash theme parks of California-style Rimini, to the cluster of bijou islands bejewelling the Bay of Naples, and Puglia’s superb sand-laced shores - ideal for bucket-and-spade holidays.
Loitering provocatively nearby, on the tip of the boot’s toe, is Sicily and the tiny Aeolian Islands – seven specks of volcanic wonderment ringed with black-sand beaches. Part of a huge 200km volcanic ridge that runs between the smoking stack of Mount Etna and slumbering Mount Vesuvius near Naples, these unique volcanic islands are a Unesco World Heritage Site.
KE Adventure Travel (keadventure.com) has an eight-day Volcanic Islands Family Explorer trekking trip in Sicily aimed at parents and children aged eight and upwards; the land-only adult/child price of £825/£775 during the school summer holidays includes accommodation, most meals and transfers.
Heading inland, green Italy unfolds. In the north a dramatic, unspoilt wilderness of chiselled mountains, forested valleys and glacial lakes like Lombardy’s Garda, Como and Maggiore sets an enticing scene in the Alps and Dolomites for winter skiing, summer walking, cycling, swimming and no shortage of outdoor adventure – not to mention mellow family picnics in lush alpine meadows peppered with wildflowers.
Family activity camping specialist Acorn Adventure (acornfamilyholidays.co.uk) is offering a six-night, self-drive Alpine Adventure holiday from 14 August in Gran Paradiso National Park; the adult/child price of £399/£349 includes luxury tent accommodation near Aosta in Italy’s oldest national park, all meals and an action-packed programme of guided activities and family instruction which includes white-water rafting and raft building, canoeing and kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, rock climbing and abseiling. Suitable for children aged seven and upwards; flights excluded; a car is essential.
With all this natural grandeur and outdoor fun, it is tempting, especially with younger children in tow, to spurn the urban. Don’t. Museums and monuments in Rome, Florence, Turin, Naples and other larger Italian cities are constantly innovating and increasingly catering to younger minds with interactive multimedia displays, touchscreen gadgets, themed tours and hands-on activities.
Islands & beaches
Italy’s second-largest island, Sardinia, is a long-time favourite – I challenge anyone, young or old, not to be instantly smitten by its fjord-like coves, aquamarine waters and swashbuckling sand dunes.
Fishing village Cala Gonone in the gin-clear Golfo di Orosei on the eastern coast; Stintino with its rainbow of pastel-hued cottages brightening Sardinia’s northwest tip; and Santa Teresa di Gallura in the northeast are beautiful, off-the-radar beach spots where families can kick back on white sand in relative peace.
In the Bay of Naples, Procida is a paradise island with colourful houses stacked on the seashore and sun-bleached beaches backed by lemon groves. Its proximity to Naples and the ancient ruins of Pompeii makes it ideal for families looking for a dual-centre holiday combining island beach-chic with blockbuster sightseeing.
Puglia is one long swath of gorgeous golden sand. The Greeks founded coastal settlements here in the 8th century BC and seaside villages on the Salentine Peninsula retain a Greek flavour with their rabbit warrens of dusty parched lanes. Beaches around the Baie dei Turchi near Otranto are sensational – perfect sand castle material.
The island of Sicily sizzles with outdoor fun for all ages. Wish Sicily (wishsicily.com) has a new collection of villa holidays with outdoor activities organised for over-eights, including body rafting, river trekking and canyoning across icy rock pools and black lava walls in the volcanic Alcantara Gorge, near Taormina on the Ionian Coast. Its Mount Etna jeep tours are set up for families with younger children.
Or head to the green depths of rural Tuscany, another beautiful region that begs outdoor action. Explore (explore.co.uk) is offering an eight-day Family Active Adventure holiday, suitable for children aged 11 and upwards, in July, August and October, from £1,192 per person including flights. The price includes accommodation on a farm in the Garfagnana, home-cooked meals and activities including kayaking, canoeing, zip wires, canyoning and trekking along coastal paths in the not-too-far-away Cinque Terre.
Romulus killed Remus on Palentine Hill and Christians were fed alive to lions; the capital, Rome, beats school textbooks hands down. And with a €25m scrub-and-polish of the gargantuan Colosseum (coopculture.it) complete, the ochre-white gladiatorial arena dazzles. New moonlight guided tours in English (last admission 11pm, until 29 October; €20). Ditto for this summer’s Friday-night tours of the Roman Forum (€12).
When enthusiasm for ancient monuments wanes, visit the International International Sports Hall of Fame & Museum (sporthallofameroma.com; €9), a museum dedicated to the world’s sporting heroes, which opened this year on Piazza D’Aracoeli. Or engage young artists in a day sketching their own Rome travel journal with an artist and Sketching Rome Tours (sketchingrometours.com). A private three-hour session for a family of four costs €420, including materials.
Yet, no Italian city is as synonymous with world-class art as Renaissance powerhouse Florence. Creative guided tours led by historical characters at Palazzo Vecchio (musefirenze.it); the brand-new cumulative ticket valid for two days covering all the cathedral sights including the stunning revamped Museo del Duomo (museumflorence.com); and hands-on art workshops at modern art museum Museo Novecento (museonovecento.it) compensate for the lack of child-friendliness at the Uffizi Gallery.
Bespoke art-themed family tours led by art historian Molly Mcllwrath (letterartemente.com) provide a rare chance to experience artistry in both Florence and backdoor Tuscany. Compelling countryside tours this season include a carefully curated medieval monastery visit followed by lunch with monks, and ceramic workshops with a local artisan. A three-hour tour for a family of up to six costs €255.
Plan ahead and Venice, with its weathered web of calle (lanes) and canals, can be fun for families. Get acquainted with the city with a cruise aboard a public water bus (No 1) past ancient churches, palazzi and James Bond film sets on the Grand Canal – then dabble yourself in one of the city’s oldest traditions.
Row Venice (rowvenice.org) runs rowing lessons in traditional wooden, shrimp-tailed bateline boats. A 90-minute private lesson for a family of four costs €140.
Back on dry land, Context travel (contexttravel.com) has the kids chasing lions around St Mark’s Basilica, the Rialto fish market and Marco Polo’s house in three-hour Lion Hunt tours, costing €385 for up to six people.
Where to stay
For the classic hotel experience, Ciao Bambino (ciaobambino.com) has wonderful properties in its Italian family-hotel collection; for self-catering in well-equipped villas consider Baby Friendly Boltholes (babyfriendlyboltholes.co.uk).
This summer’s big family-friendly opening in Sardinia is Falkensteiner’s Resort Capo Boi (falkensteiner.com), one hour’s drive from Cagliari, with a private beach, several pools, spa, golf course and kids’ clubs for all ages. Doubles from €205, B&B.
France-based Pierre et Vacances has branched out into Italy with self-catering residences in Sardinia, Sicily, Tuscany, Puglia and Lake Garda, plus the luxurious Premium Residence Grande Baia (pierreetvacances.co.uk) for families on Sardinia’s north coast. A seven-night self-catered stay in an apartment for four from £749.
Forte Village (fortevillageresort.com) on Sardinia’s south coast is offering its usual range of sports academies for children, alongside DJ workshops, magic classes, Barbie-themed bedrooms and luxury bungalows with play gardens for small children. The resort is offering a seven-night Kids & Family Package from €6,195 for a family of four, including accommodation, breakfast, dinner, bicycle rental, sporting activities for the kids and a spa experience for the parents, a night out bowling and family go-karting. Otherwise, sports academies start at €90 per day.
In Florence boutique apartments at Palazzo Belfiore (palazzobelfiore.it) remain a top family choice, with self-catering doubles from €125. Or dig into rural life on a bucolic agriturismo (farmstay): Barbialla Nuova (barbialla.it) is a gorgeous estate, 45 minutes’ drive from Florence, with bread- and pizza-making classes, fishing, hiking, biking, autumnal truffle hunting and fields of creamy Chianina cows, chickens and pigs to admire. Self-catering stay in a farmhouse sleeping four from €144 per night.
Loney Planet Italy, £17.99 (shop.lonelyplanet.com)
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