Kids love Italy and Italians love kids, making this one of the best places in Europe for a family holiday. Though only older children will be amenable to the idea of visiting the rich antiquities and art that are on offer, holidays in Italy are also about lingering on a café terrace as the kids play tag around the piazza, playing with a stray cat around a fountain, or spending a sunny afternoon aimlessly wandering around intriguing back streets, dripping gelato down your front. There is also a seemingly endless variety of idyllic landscapes, from hills, mountains, lakes and forests to great beaches and dramatic islands.
These factors, coupled with food that children positively devour, and sunny weather, good transport and a wonderful variety of child-friendly accommodation, make Italy a perfect place to take the whole family.
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Visit Italy's great cities – even with tiny children, Rome, Venice, Florence and Milan can be fun, provided it’s not too hot. Rome can be particularly delightful for a family break in spring. But think of finding a base outside a city, preferably with a pool for cooling off after a trip in to sightsee.
Head for the beaches, especially those of the islands of Sicily, Sardinia or even Elba. As well as fabulous stretches of sand, these offer delicious food and great exploring – you can climb volcanoes, try your hand at a little archaeology or visit some fascinating castles.
Explore Naples and its region, Campania. The splendid Amalfi Coast stretching from Sorrento to Paestum is home the famous resort towns Amalfi, Positano and Ravello. But come out of season, as it gets packed out with Italian holidaymakers in summer. Make sure to take older children to Pompeii in the Bay of Naples, an extraordinary place where history comes alive. Ghoulish-minded kids tend to be fascinated by seeing how people were struck down in the middle of their daily lives.
For something a little more off the beaten track, try Puglia, tucked into the heel of Italy, with Neolithic tombs, full-blown Gothic cathedrals, intriguing trulli houses and beautiful beaches and forests in the Gargano Peninsula and on the unspoilt Tremeti Islands.
Get a triple whammy of culture, peace and beauty in Tuscany. Hire a villa with a pool and sit out in the evenings with the kids, enjoying a meal under the stars with a large glass of local wine. By day make excursions to hill-towns, Pisa or lovely Florence, and fall in love with Italy for ever.
Places to go if you want avoid the tourists but desire beaches and pretty countryside are Umbria on the west coast and the Marche on the east. In Umbria, Assisi has a beautiful basilica and lovely views, Gubbio is a medieval hill town set against the wooded slopes of the Apennines and close to Lake Trasimeno, and Perugia is the sweet capital of Italy, amongst other things.
Check out Abruzzo, another less-visited region of Italy, but one with mountainous landscapes full of wildlife and a number of National Parks in which to spot it, as well as easy access to the Adriatic Coast beaches further north, in the Marche and Emilia Romagna. The latter is of most interest to families for its Riviera Romagnaola, a stretch of sunny beaches with stylish facilities, but its capital Bologna is full of historical interest, especially if the kids are studying the Etruscans, and it's a good base that doesn’t get as crowded as, say, Rome or Florence.
Head for the freshwater alternative to the seaside – the gorgeous Italian Lakes in Lombardy in the north. Lake Garda is especially good for family holidays, with 120 beaches, watersports, a massive choice of places to stay and its own themepark, Gardaland, which is like a giant Disneyland/Seaworld with a little movie magic sprinkled on top.
Discover north-eastern Italy, where the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region is home to the Italian Dolomites, an awesomely beautiful region declared a natural heritage site by UNESCO, with one national park and several regional parks within its confines. With older kids, you might come here to climb the vie ferrate – protected paths created in World War I, or walk the long-distance ‘high paths' (alte vie), which take about a week to cross, with stopovers in rifugi (huts). Other summer, spring and autumn activities include climbing, base-jumping, paragliding and hang-gliding. In winter, the Dolomites are famous for skiing, with Canazei a particularly family-friendly resort, offering good, high beginner slopes but also linking on to the spectacular Sella Ronda circuit around the red-rock crags of the Dolomites, a favourite with competent children. For more on skiing here, see our Skiing in Europe page.
The only thing exceeding the Italians’ love affair with food is children’s love affair with Italian food – the chance to have pasta or pizza at every meal, followed up by a delicious gelato, is bliss for most kids. That said, don’t miss the opportunity to stretch their culinary horizons beyond pesto, carbonara and margarita by opening their eyes to various regional specialities, whether it be pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup) in Venice, schiacciata (a type of pizza crust baked with olive oil and served with greens) in Umbria, or panforte (doughy fruit cake) in Tuscany and granita (the original slush puppy – fruit juice and crushed ice) in Sicily. Just about everywhere you go in Italy, you can count on table staff cooing over your kids and often even whisking them away to the kitchen for an impromptu cookery lesson.
Long, leisurely lunches outside, whether on the terrace of your villa or at a café on a piazza, mean that everybody can take their time while the children run around – and are indeed the essence of a family holiday in Italy. Follow the Italian way of doing things and put food first – let’s have none of that rushed sandwich nonsense as you attempt your third museum of the day. Italy stops at lunchtime and so should you.
School-holiday considerations aside, June and September are fine times to visit both the coast of Italy and its cities, but April, May and October are good too – mild and free of tourist hordes. Easter is lively, with lots of religious festivals and related events.
July and especially August can be difficult, with overcrowded beaches and full hotels – though cities do empty of Italians, meaning less traffic, easier parking, and no queues for tourist attractions. Summer is also a lively time for those travelling with older kids, with live entertainment and dancing in city streets and squares. That said, central and southern Italy can be very hot (dry hot, rather than humid) in the height of summer, and few places have air-conditioning. And Venice really whiffs in August.
November to March you take your chances – it can be pleasant and dry south of Florence, but rain and cold can take much of the joy out of visiting this sensual Mediterranean land. Good deals on flights to Sicily and other southern parts in winter make this a possible option for out-of-season family holidays, although it won’t be warm enough for the beach.
Christmas, New Year and especially Epiphany can be fun – on the latter (6th January), Christmas is bade farewell to with the bestowing of gifts on children by the befana, a benevolent witch, and city squares are filled with toy stalls.
Skiing in Italy, meanwhile, is usually best between late December and the end of March.
Italy’s main airports, some served by budget airlines from the UK, include Rome, Milan, Venice, Turin, Bologna, Pisa and Naples.
Getting to Italy by train probably cost you more than flying. From London to Milan via Eurostar and then a daytime TGV or overnight sleeper takes about 12hrs; to Florence it’s about 17hrs by Eurostar and overnight sleeper, and to Rome 19hrs. You might choose to break the journey in Paris to make it more leisurely.
Raileurope can book both Eurostars and onward journeys, while The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) is a good source of information on timetables, sleeping arrangements and other practical matters. Trains can also be a good way of exploring Italy – the network is extensive, and trains are clean, cheap and generally efficient.
You could also drive to your holiday in Italy, heading to the South of France then crossing into northern Italy. It’s a long journey but you could break it as often as you like. A site such as Viamichelin will help you to plan routes, calculate tolls and even work out your petrol costs. Or you can put your car on a French motorail train from Calais to Nice and then drive, or on a train direct to Italy from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands (autoslaaptrein) or Düsseldorf in Germany (Autozug). Again, The Man in Seat 61 is a good source of information on this.
Though you can spend a good deal in Italy, family holidays don't have to cost a fortune, especially if camp or choose some other form of self-catering accommodation.
Italy's countless options include beach hotels and resorts, some with childcare, self-catering apartments, sports villages, luxurious city hotels, rooms and apartments in agriturismi (farm holidays), self-catering villas and farmhouses, and campsites. For especially eco-friendly options, see our guide to Green Places to Stay in Europe.
There's plenty on offer around Italy in terms of organised family activity holidays, from walking in Abruzzo and cycling from the Italian Lakes to Venice, to gastronomic adventures in Tuscany.
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