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Italy rates as perhaps the most child-friendly country of all, and few Italian regions are as seductive as Tuscany. Despite being a major tourist destination, it retains the detached beauty and laidback charm that drew the first tourists. Indeed, for many Brits, Tuscany is the very image of Italy – a vision of lines of thin cypress and olive trees and red Renaissance hilltop towns.
Several Tuscan cities and towns are world-famous for their art, architecture and culture, especially Siena, Florence, Pisa and Lucca, but just as important when it comes to family holidays are its lively festivals and the superb regional food – parents fighting the fondness of their kids for fast food will be happy to hear that the Slow Food movement is big in Tuscany.
The only problem is the tourists, especially in the cities, but there are great swathes of idyllic country to escape into, as well as enchanting hilltop towns and villages. If you find the crowds have followed you there, too, your family can always de-camp to the island of Elba for some beach life.
Though it can be an intimidating city for the small of foot, no family holiday to Tuscany is complete without a visit to Florence in the north of the region, once the heart of the Renaissance, and still an awesomely lovely city with an unrivalled collection of art and architecture. Too many people, too many touts, and too much unrelieved history make it a place where you need to take it easy with kids – a trip down the Arno, an extended gelato stop, a stroke of Il Porcellino, a carousel ride or three, a run around the Boboli Gardens with their statues, ponds, fountains and grottoes…
With older kids, you can be more adventurous in Florence, taking in the Uffizi with its Botticellis, Michelangelos and Leonardos and then the Museo di Leonardo da Vinci with its working machines, venturing up the Duomo for its awesome city views, and checking out the science museum (Museo dei Storia della Scienza). It's worth checking out the Museo Ragazzi di Firenze or Children's Museum, which is an association rather than a physical entity, organizing kids' workshops and events at various museums, usually the Palazzo Vecchio, albeit mostly in Italian.
Go west for a gander at the Leaning Tower of Pisa within the setting of the city's truly miraculous Campo de Miracoli – it's a genuine marvel that no amount of photographs can prepare you for (you have to be 8 or up to climb it; to do so in high season, you also need to book well in advance). The other must-see is the Cantiere delle Navi Antiche di Pisa, where you can see, in progress, the excavation work on 11 Roman shipwrecks that were discovered in marshland once occupied by Pisa's harbour. Otherwise, there's little to hang around for in Pisa with its many tourist-trap restaurants and endless trinket stalls – if you're here at lunchtime, buy takeaway pizza slices or panini from one of the modest bars on Via Roma and head to the botanical gardens for a picnic. A tried-and-tested ice-cream (and crêpe) stop-off is the Gelateria Orsobianco, also near the botanical gardens on Via Santa Maria.
Pisa is also the starting point for boat-trips into the Parco Naturale Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli, with its impressive wildlife, birdwatching trails around Lake Massaciuccoli itself, cycling and horse-riding.
Discover Lucca just northeast of Pisa. It's the only town in Italy still to be fully surrounded by its walls, dating from the Renaissance. You can bicycle along these tree-lined walls – hire outlets have all kinds of bikes and attachments, including adult-child tandems, trailers, and baby seats. Another highlight is the mummified body of St Zita in its glass shrine within the Basilica di San Frediano, but if you don't go inside, have a look at the extraordinary golden 13th-century mosaic on the façade, perhaps from the terrace of the friendly Bar San Frediano, where you might be given a free panino with your drinks. Another scenic sight is the Piazza Anfiteatro, an oval-shaped piazza by virtue of the fact that its charming medieval houses were built within the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. On a rainy day, the Comic Museum (Museo Nazionale del Fumetto) is an option.
Also north of Pisa lies the Versilian Coast with its large beaches and shallow waters, perfect for younger kids. The best resort is Viareggio, where, for a moderate sum (about €25 per adult, but with variations according to the day and season and deals for week-long bookings), you can stake out your space for the day on one of the private stretches of Mediterranean beach, some of which have play equipment and small seawater swimming pools too. The sea isn't the cleanest, but the setting – a backdrop of mountains behind a seafront of beautiful Belle Epoque buildings – is sublime.
Those mountains are the Apuan Alps, running parallel to the coast and good for hiking, caving, horse-riding and other outdoor activities. The Parco Avventura Fosdinovo here offers treetop circuits, mountain-biking and quad-biking, or from December to March you can even ski, at Abetone. The Alps information centre, the Centro Visite Parco Alpi Apuane, is in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. The Garfagnana region itself, adjoining the Alps to the east, is wild, wooded and full of wiggling hillside roads, its chestnut forests roamed by wild boars, porcupines and the like. Apart from food (yes, you can eat the porcupine as well as boar), the highlights are the Grotta del Vento (Wind Cave) formations, and the donkey-backed Ponte del Diavolo near Borgo a Mozzano, named for a legend that has it that Satan himself intervened to finish its difficult construction.
Looping back down towards Florence, Pistoia is most famous for its zoo, with touching sessions at weekends and, in summer, Moonlight Zoo guided evening visits (10pm, 1hr) to see animals that aren't very lively during the daytime. Also near Pistoia (but heading back towards Lucca) is the Parco di Pinocchio, a slightly faded attraction with bronze statues of characters from the classic tale by Carlo Lorenzini, set within a maze, plus a mechanical puppet theatre, live shows, weekend face painting and other oddball fun.
West of Florence, it's worth stopping off to see the enticing hilltop town of San Gimignano, which evokes the spirit of life in the Middle Ages more than any other Tuscan site, with its thrilling skyline – often described as a 'medieval Manhattan' – of medieval towers. In high season it can be spoilt by crowds.
Further west still, the Tuscan coast sweeping down from Livorno to the Maremma is popular with Italians, especially the 150km of white beaches and clear water of the beautiful island of Elba. Though package tourism has well and truly found this little gem, it's a great place from which to go island-hopping, or you can ride the cable car up to Mont Capanne for stunning views of Tuscany and its Mediterranean coast. Never ever come to Elba in late July or August (May and Sept are glorious, on the other hand).
Otherwise, the big draw of this coast is the Parco Regionale della Maremma, with deserted beaches amidst a landscape of pine trees. The birdlife here is spectacular, and there are walking trails, bike hire, horse-riding and canoeing trips.
The biggest attraction inland from here, amidst the idyllic rolling hills and vineyards of central Tuscany, is Siena, the stunning medieval town best known for its bareback horserace, the Palio, held on two days in July and August. The event can be challenging for those with children, however, as there's lots of standing about in crowds in the heat.
Note that the award-winning walking tours firm Context Travel can make Florence more accessible to those with kids with its family walks.
Eating is an art form in Tuscany perhaps even more than it is in the rest of Italy, and few places on Earth can boast such wonderful raw materials: the region's olive oil, meat, vegetables, beans and fish go into a host of internationally famous dishes such as risotto with cuttlefish ink, ravioli stuffed with ricotta in a tomato sauce, hearty fish soups, boar sausages, ham… We could go on interminably. And don't forget the delicious fruit, cheeses, wines and coffee. Oh, and the ice cream isn't bad, either.
Staff in restaurants are as welcoming to kids as they are in the rest of the country, and outside the major cities and seaside resorts there are wonderful bargains to be had in many small, family-run, rural restaurants.
Foodie families might even like to sign for a Gastronomic Family Adventure for ages 6+.
May and June are beautiful, with snow lingering picturesquely on the peaks and the lush meadows thick with wildflowers – perfect for picnicking. July and August are very hot, and while the heat drives many people from the cities, the coast is congested. It is, however, blissfully refreshing in the mountains.
Autumn offers many fabulous clear days of sunshine, with the wooded slopes blazing with seasonal colour. Indeed, harvest time is the best time to visit Tuscany, with lively festivals celebrating everything from truffles to chestnuts and fabulous autumnal produce showcased in the region's restaurants, street markets and shops well into November. For half-term trips for foodies, see our partner Sapori e Saperi.
If you happen to be here in February, the seaside resort of Viareggio hosts the country's largest carnival after that of Venice.
Pisa is the main international airport serving Tuscany, but you can also fly to Florence or, if you are visiting southern Tuscany, Rome. Flights from London to Pisa take just over 2 hours. Search for great flight deals with our partners Expedia.
If you're feeling more adventurous, hanker to revisit your Interrailing days, or want to get into the Slow frame of mind before discovering the region's Slow Food, think about catching the Eurostar to Paris and then the overnight train to Florence.
If you're thinking of driving to Italy, it's an estimated driving time of 13hrs 30mins from the ferry/Eurotunnel port of Calais to Florence, costing an estimated £60 in tolls and £120 in petrol. If that's too much driving, you can put your car on the French motorrail from Calais to Nice and then drive into Italy, albeit it at quite a high price. Alternatively, you could take a ferry to the Netherlands and put your car on the train at S'Hertogenbosch, alighting in Livorno (near Pisa) or further north, at Alessandria (Piedmont). The best source of information on this is The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com).
Tuscany's cities and best-known tourist draws are generally expensive; the countryside is much cheaper both for accommodation and restaurants. If you're looking to save some pennies, try Lucca and the Garfagnana region, which are unspoilt and not overrun by tourists even during high season, meaning that prices are low.By Rhonda Carrier
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