Thursday, 26 June 2014

Florence With Children

It's fair to say that Florence isn't the most obvious place to take children. For children under 10 there aren't really any obvious 'hooks' - no theme parks, river boats or big, open spaces - to grab their attention, and although there's pizza, pasta and ice cream in abundance, there's only so much of that stuff you can eat in any one day. If you have older children or teenagers, however, or if you find yourself in the enviable position of having a child-free weekend at your disposal, Florence makes a beautiful setting in which to soak up a bit of culture. When we recently visited with our 6 and 10 year old, we were pleasantly surprised by their appetite for exploration and willingness to go with the flow. 

Whether you have children in tow or not, avoid visiting Florence in July and August - high summer here is literally steaming, and the tightly packed, medieval streets that criss-cross the city seem to hold the heat, turning it into one giant, boiling cauldron...not conducive to a busy schedule of sightseeing. That said, come in January or February and it can be freezing, so Spring and early Autumn are the best times to plan your visit. 

While Florence does have a small airport, most international airlines fly into Pisa, a route served by EasyJet in the UK. At the other side you can get to Florence by train or coach, a journey time of just over an hour. Trains to Florence's Santa Maria Novella Station run frequently and the service is cheap. Be warned that until January 2015 there is no direct train from Pisa Airport due to major engineering works, so you need to make your way to Pisa's central station to travel on to Florence. 

So, what to do when you reach this legendary cultural hotspot? Whether you have children with you or not, my advice would be to pace yourself. There's so much to see that it can be overwhelming. Of course, I'm assuming you have at least some interest in art and history; it you don't, Florence really isn't for you! If you do, you'll quickly realise that the key attractions come with epic, round-the-block queues. Don't bother with the Uffizi, Michelangelo's David or the Cathedral Bell Tower if you're visiting with kids - they'll become quickly dispirited if joining an endless queue forms the main part of their day. But if you're on your own, do try and squeeze in a visit to see David - it's one of life's bucket-list experiences. Don't forget you can take the kids to see the replica David standing proud in the Piazza della Signoria - a much more child-friendly way to feel like you've 'done' a bit of Michelangelo.

We managed to make it into the Duomo and my favourite church in Florence, Santa Croce. Both are spectacular inside. The latter houses some beautiful frescoes by Giotto as well as the tombstones of luminaries such as Michelangelo and Gallileo. It's a very peaceful, awe-inspiring place to spend some time. But if churches aren't your thing I would recommend visiting one of Florence's smaller museums if you want something a bit more manageable than the Uffizi - the Bargello is a good option. 

For something completely free, head over to the Piazza della Signoria, a large, picturesque square where your kids can let off some steam and look at some sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi, a sort of outdoor bit of the Uffizi. When you're here you're just a few moments' walk to the Ponte Vecchio, a real must-see and the perfect venue to watch the sun set over the Arno. 

For a more bohemian, less touristy outlook of the city, continue across the bridge, arriving in the Oltrarno area - the equivalent of Paris' Left Bank. You could head over to the Boboli Gardens while you're here, one of the few green spaces in Florence, where you can wander around formal gardens and fountains - a good place for a picnic. Piazza Santa Spirito encapsulates the bohemian vibe of this area and is a good place for a coffee - the square is lined with some cool cafes and bars with an alternative feel. Our kids spent ages chasing pigeons on the steps of Santo Spirito church.

Further out still is the pretty church of San Minato al Monte, on a hill overlooking the city. Take the bus and stop off first at Piazzale Michelangelo, the only place to get a truly panoramic, breathtaking view of Florence's unique skyline. It's worth paying a bit extra for a coffee at the outside cafe so you can lap up the views while the kids enjoy an ice cream. 

Back in the heart of the city a trip to the Mercato Centrale makes for a diverting change from art history. This massive food market is a great place to wander round with kids and there some truly eye-popping foods to feast your eyes on, from huge slabs of cheese and exotic seafood to salumerie hung with spicy salami, Parma ham and wild boar. Your kids might not be so keen on the stalls selling tripe, a particularly revered local speciality. It's bustling, noisy and colourful and there are lots of opportunities for tasting. Upstairs has a more up-market, trendy feel, where you can stop for a coffee and a cake or enjoy a wood-fired pizza and a beer; a great, good value option for family eating. 

While you're in this area you might as well stroll through the market stalls of San Lorenzo and let the kids choose a tacky souvenir or Italian football shirt. You could then walk the short distance to the pretty church of Santa Maria Novella, with its distinctive stripy facade, and then walk a little further to the gorgeous Farmacia Santa Maria Novella, an old-fashioned pharmacy selling amazing perfumes, colognes and tinctures based on recipes dating back some 400 years. You're quite welcome to take a look around and have a spritz of cologne even if you don't intend to buy.

When it comes to eating and drinking, there are limitless options at all price ranges, but anywhere really central might be beyond your budget (and not always the most authentic.) A great option for lunchtimes are the hole-in-the-wall pannini and pizza places - tiny little shops where you can get a slice of pizza or a hunk of ciabatta with porchetta and a glass of Chianti to be taken away or simply eaten right there on the street. All' Antico Vinaio on Via dei Neri is perhaps the city's most famous paninoteca - be prepared to queue for one of its legendary pannini or schiacciata (flatbreads) stuffed with tasty fillings. We also ate a delicious, good value lunch at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, another good option for filling sandwiches to eat on the hop.

For your afternoon pick-me-up don't miss Vivoli, generally regarded as Florence's best gelateria - your kids will love choosing from the extensive range of sublime flavours on offer. If you feel like splashing out on a posh cappuccino, the cafes around the Piazza della Republica are particularly chic and you can watch the world go by from the outside terraces. Another nice spot is Scuderi, an elegant cafe, patisserie and sweet shop right next to the Duomo. 

For something more substantial, some of the best value options can be found over the river, where you can avoid the tourist traps serving over-priced Italian standards and eat the more authentic, meaty fare for which Florence is famous. We had an amazing meal at Trattoria 4 Leoni which occupies the corner of a pretty square and has lots of outdoor dining space. The food here pretty special and affordable - highly recommended.

I'd advise doing some research before you go as there are so many restaurants in Florence it can be hard to make a choice - we found this article on the Guardian website helpful in seeking out some budget-friendly options. 

Florence might not be ideal as a base if you have young kids but it's definitely worth adding to your itinerary if you're looking to stay in the surrounding Tuscan countryside and do the odd day trip. It's also not the cheapest place you can visit but you can cut down on costs by staying in an apartment or a budget-friendly hotel. On a visit to Florence pre-kids we stayed at the Hotel Globus, near San Lorenzo market. That trip was some years back, so I can't personally vouch for its quality now, but we thought it was fantastic value back then, and the TripAdvisor reviews are very positive - take a look here. You can visit the hotel's own website here.

If you'd like to read more tips on travelling with children to Florence and Tuscany take a look at my other blog posts here and here.


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