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How to Travel Italy with Kids

Disney World. San Diego. Breckenridge or Durango. Each resonates as a kids’ spring break destination far more than, say, Venice or Rome.
But for my fourth grader and me, timing quite literally was everything in our decision to travel to Italy. Our best friends, who moved to London in November 2013 with their two young children, plan on returning permanently to the Dallas-Fort Worth area later this spring. We all saw an Italian adventure as our last overseas hurrah.
A flurry of research, much of which consisted of lingering over scenic shots on Pinterest and Instagram, helped us hone an ambitious itinerary. But the opinions of two 10-year-olds —Chip (mine) and Nate, his best friend — as well as Nate’s sister, Jenna, 8, helped shape our plans as well. We sought to balance outdoor activities (gondola rides and Roman ruins) with indoor experiences like art museums and old churches. One travel day in the middle of the trip allowed everyone to rest up before our grand finale. And when all else failed, promises of more gelato worked wonders on everyone’s mood.
Chip and I travelled overnight to Marco Polo Airport in Venice to maximize our daylight hours on the ground. We heard from friends that the city of canals was overpriced, overcrowded and underwhelming. The six of us (including the adults) respectfully disagree. Admittedly, we visited during the off-season, which also helped mitigate costs. But Venice unanimously impressed us as clean, safe and absolutely breathtaking.
We wasted little time making our way to the vast Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) in Venice filled with winged lions and architectural wonders including the Basilica, Campanile and the Doge’s Palace, each of which has existed in some form for more than a millennium. Anyone with younger children should consider allowing most of an hour for pigeon chasing. If we hadn’t already booked a boat cruise, our kiddos might have persuaded us to stay there for half a day.
Traveling by motorboat, we spent the afternoon on a trio of other islands in the Venetian Lagoon: Murano (we toured a glass factory), Torcello (renowned for its Byzantine churches) and Burano, our gang’s favorite of the three. A lace-making town that none of us had ever heard of, Burano boasts row houses painted fuchsia, royal blue, canary yellow and other vivid hues. We followed the kids as they wandered along the canals against this vibrant backdrop.
Somehow Florence managed to top those visual delights. As the epicenter of the Renaissance, the most populated city in Tuscany remains a true cultural treasure. We made the arduous, 463-step ascent to the top of the Duomo, part of the world-famous cathedral. (Boy, did those three children complain during the climb, but all three pumped their fists in victory as they beheld the magnificent views.) That afternoon, we might have pushed their patience by spending more than three hours at the city’s most important museum, the Uffizi Gallery. But can anyone blame us for wanting to show them Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus along with renowned paintings by da Vinci, Caravaggio and Raphael? The kids had clearly had it with the old masters by the time we stepped back into the Palazzo Vecchio, half a block away from our flat (see sidebar). Then it was off to Accademia Gallery (without the kids). I’d worried that Michelangelo’s14-foot masterpiece David couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Silly me. I now understand why art lovers have made pilgrimages to Florence since 1504.
At Nate and Chip’s request, we made a three-hour stop the next day in Pisa en route to Rome. Our least favorite destination on the trip, Pisa was really about the photo op. The kids posed like they were karate chopping, ninja kicking and pushing the venerable tower over. The area around Piazza dei Miracoli — which houses the gray marble cathedral and Baptistery — feels chaotic in a way that belies the buildings’ spiritual intent. (Case-in-point: We were approached no less than a dozen times by roving vendors hawking selfie sticks.)
After a tranquil train ride along the Tyrrhenian Sea, we emerged in Rome on a cloudless afternoon. The Eternal City impressed us all in terms of scale and scope: Ancient ruins sit beside modern hotels; ornate churches straddle the same blocks as luxury boutiques. We pushed to conquer the Coliseum, Forum, Palatine Hill, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Pantheon in a single day. Everywhere we looked, the traffic astounded. We held the kids in a death grip as we headed out to dinner in the waning light of evening.
An undisputed highlight of the journey was the Vatican, which we toured on St. Patrick’s Day. Friends encouraged us to book advance tickets with a knowledgeable guide. We opted for a three-hour package. Happily, the kids exceeded our expectations and remained engaged throughout our time inside the Papal Museum, frescoed Papal Apartments, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. As the largest church in the world in the smallest country (Vatican City has its own seat in the United Nations as well as its own currency and security force), the vastness of the cathedral amazed. Some 65,000 worshippers fit into St. Peter’s for Mass. To put it into perspective: The Statue of Liberty could stand upright inside and still not scrape the multi-domed ceiling.
At one point, we looked over and the kids were lapping up holy water out of a giant basin flanked by marble cherubs. Fortunately, no one looked askance at these three young Americans who, in that moment, were literally drinking in all Italy had to offer.