The Italians may be friendly, but the capital of Tuscany itself can be a notoriously unfriendly place for kids, especially in the wilting heat of August. All that art, all that history, all that beauty…. Would my young sons – six, five and one and a half – appreciate any of that? Still, we were passing through on our way home from the Garfagnana region, and it seemed a shame not to have at least a short break in what is said to be one of the greatest cities in all Italy.
Of course, there’s plenty to see and do in Florence – almost too much. It’s difficult to know where to start, or to know in advance what might appeal to kids of various ages, or how to fit it all into a two-day stay. For that reason, and also because my husband and I are cultural ignoramuses when it comes to Italian history and knew that we wouldn’t be the best guides to the city for our children, we decided to take a special family tour with Context, an award-winning firm including walks especially devised for those with children.
"The real hits of Florence, for my kids, were the carousel, the ice cream and the Porcellino,
which my oldest son insisted on returning to for a third time after the walk was finished,
having learnt that it was good luck to rub its snout."
We took the ‘Family Orientation’ walk, themed ‘Symbols & Legends of Florence’, led by a smiling and endlessly patient young American art historian and improvised as we went along, according to what we were interested in. Although we ended up revisiting many of the obvious tourist sites we’d looked at the previous day, our guide's superior knowledge meant the kids (and I) could find out much more about them without my having to parrot from a guidebook. For instance, though we’d already been to see the city’s famous mascot, Il Porcellino (‘the piglet’ – actually a bronze statue of a boar), we hadn’t known its history, nor that if you place a coin in its mouth and it falls into the slot below, you are guaranteed to return to Florence. (To the boys’ – and my – contentment, the answer came out affirmative). Similarly, although we saw the Duomo for a second time, Elizabeth was able to explain to us the story behind Brunelleschi’s famous dome itself – an engineering masterpiece.
We began in a very hands-on way, in Piazza della Repubblica, where Elisabeth dispensed drawing materials and asked the boys to draw what they could see. This included a statue and a triumphal arch – and also a traditional carousel that they had ridden the day before and were itching to go on again. (By now, baby Zac in his buggy was pointing and shouting ‘Hore-hee, hor-hee!, and at this point it was decided he wouldn’t make it through the walk and was taken off by his dad for more toddler-friendly adventures such as chasing pigeons and eating ice cream).
The boys got quite into the drawing exercise, which Elizabeth used as an introduction to the theme of the city’s Roman origins (the Piazza was the site of the Roman forum). The boys listened dutifully, but I did wonder if much of what was said wasn’t a little above their heads – they’ve heard of the Romans but have only the vaguest idea about them. These concerns were to continue through the walk, when quite advanced topics such as ‘democracy’ were raised. Our guide did her best, but I often found myself ‘translating’ what she said to make it accessible, and the boys began to glaze over a bit, seeming more interested in the lemon granita I bought to perk them up than in the albeit grimly fascinating, ultra-gory history of the Palazzo Vecchio (which included the disembowelling and hanging from the windows of the murderers of Guiliano de Medici).
In the end, I think the walk was more beneficial to me than the boys, and though I would recommend it to other families, I’d advise a minimum age of eight unless your children are extraordinarily precocious when it comes to world history and culture, and I would definitely have liked there to be more interactive elements.
Where to Stay and Eat
The real hits of Florence, for my kids, were the carousel, the ice cream and the Porcellino, which my oldest son insisted on returning to for a third time after the walk was finished, having learnt that it was good luck to rub its snout. We also discovered some great family hotels and restaurants. We stayed in the super-stylish and very central Rocco Forte Savoy Hotel, with views of our beloved carousel from our windows onto Piazza della Repubblica. It offers a family package including a second double room at half-price, breakfast, welcome treats for the kids, and children’s themed bed linen, toiletries and so on. Best of all, under-12s eat for half-price and under-3s for free in the hotel’s chic but very welcoming restaurant, Irene, serving superb Tuscan food.
Another family-friendly Florence hotel worth considering is the Westin Excelsior, which feels slightly more old-fashioned and American in its opulence. Rooms and suites, the majority of which interconnect, are vast, many offering views right onto the Arno running alongside; younger guests get welcome gifts. Its informal ground-floor ORVM restaurant offers a kids' menu that when we ate there ran from toasted ham and cheese sandwiches to spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil sauce, or veal escalope. SE·STO on Arno on the Westin’s roof garden is swankier, with great views.
But the culinary apotheosis of our stay was a meal in the alfresco poolside restaurant of the Four Seasons Florence, which though within a 10-minute stroll of the centre seems more like a swish seaside resort, with its four hectares of lovely gardens, spa and outdoor pool. Among the divine dishes we sampled were gazpacho with avocado. spaghetti with fresh ricotta, cherry tomatoes and mint leaves, and Sicilian grilled scampi with fried zucchini. The children’s menu (which comes in a beautifully designed booklet with quirky sketches and drawing activities) offers something to suit every kid's preferences or whims, from peanut butter and jam sandwiches to saffron risotto or chicken consommé with vegetable ‘confetti’ and noodles. I was a bit disappointed that our boys, in an uncharacteristically unadventurous mood, opted for pizza margharita, but it was an outstanding version of the classic. The hotel – part of a famously family-friendly global chain – has lots of interconnecting accommodation for families, plus some simply breathtaking suites with restored frescoes embellishing their super-high ceilings.
Our last foodie find in Florence was ChiaroScuro (Via del Corso 13R), a charming little bar and café specialising in hot chocolate (my spicy Mexican version was so thick I had to eat it with a spoon). On the first night we visited, a holiday buffet was laid out on the bar and the kids were invited to choose plates of simple pasta and tapas for a modest fee. (We weren’t hungry and indulged in some of the excellent cocktails instead). It was so cosy and welcoming, with its jazzy soundtrack and boho décor (including a tiled floor and modern chandeliers), that we returned for a breakfast of pastries and hot chocolates the next day.
But of course, the most important thing to do in Florence is to sample as many wonderful flavours of ice cream as you can find time for. Even more than in other Italian cities, opinion is hotly divided about the place to find the thickest, creamiest, richest and altogether most delicious gelato in town. Our Context guide recommended Grom (corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche), where many of the ingredients used in the ice creams and sorbets are organic and where the Slow Food ethos prevails. But everyone has their favourite – our family haunt quickly became Festival del Gelato (Via del Corso 75R), which felt a bit more down to earth and less ‘designery’, with its garish neon façade and tiled walls. Of the 50 or so flavours on offer, the rose met my approval, while the boys just couldn’t decide on the best – all the more reason to keep going back for more.
Read more about family holidays in Tuscany.