Thursday, September 1, 2022

Florence, Italy

After a weeklong visit to Switzerland, we got to Florence by train to meet up with some friends who were also traveling around Italy during the same time. It was an easy journey, and we were each excited about different aspects of the trip. My husband was eager to visit the museums and see the ancient architecture, while my kids were dying to eat pasta! I was just happy to be back in Italy, land of endless gelato. 

Where to Stay

We stayed four nights at the Hotel Kraft, which is in a quieter part of the city, about a 10-minute walk from many of the restaurants on my list, 15 minutes from the Ponte Vecchio, and 20 minutes from the Duomo. Our room was spacious and well-appointed (yet ridiculously inexpensive, by American standards), but the best part of the hotel was the fifth floor, where we enjoyed a lavish complimentary breakfast every morning and a spectacular dinner one evening, as well as the rooftop pool. The view from that hotel rooftop really can't be beat! 

Where to Eat

We had so much good food during our stay, it's hard to pick a favorite restaurant. For pasta, the ones I liked best were Ristorante Pensavo Peggio (cozy) and Trattoria Zaza (commercial but fun). At both places, we enjoyed the extensive pasta menu, inexpensive prices, and friendly service. We also sampled the pasta at Ristorante Buca Mario and L'Osteria di Giovanni, although the main course options are the better bet at those places. 

After receiving a recommendation from a local, my husband got himself a Neapolitan pizza as a "snack" after lunch one day from Simbiosi Organic Pizzeria, and declared it worth the extra calories. We'd been hoping to try the pizza at the popular Gustapizza, but the owners were on vacation while we were in Florence, so we missed out.

And finally, we hadn't planned to have dinner at our hotel restaurant, Terrazza Rossini, but the view from the fifth floor rooftop is so amazing that we ended up dining there one night, and everything was amazing. Get the gigantic and perfectly cooked Florentine steak (which easily serves four!) and all the pastas. My son ordered a second pasta that night, after inhaling his first order!

After Catholicism, gelato is the biggest religion in Italy, and I had a whole list of recommendations. Some places were definitely better than others, though, so I'll only list my favorites: Gelateria la Carraia (there's always a line, but it's worth the wait), Gelateria Santa Trinita (try the grapefruit, pictured below), and La Strega Nocciola Gelateria Artigianale. At the last place, the gelato wasn't displayed in a window or even out in the open; instead it was hidden in covered metal containers, which told me that this place was serious  they don't even feel the need to show off their product! 

What to Do

Florence isn't the most kid-friendly of destinations because most visitors are here to explore the art museums and old churches  neither of which really appeals to children (unless you have more worldly children than I do). But it's possible to balance what the adults want to do with some interactive activities as well, and then throw in gelato throughout the day to head off any meltdowns. For older kids, I also highly recommend bringing Mission Florence: A Scavenger Hunt Adventure on the trip, which is an awesome little workbook that covers all the highlights of Florence in a way that'll interest kids. My kids whipped it out at all the major sites we visited, including the museums.

We had two big art destinations on our list: Michaelangelo's David statue at the Galleria dell'Accademia and the Uffizi, home to Botticelli's Birth of Venus. If you can only squeeze in one, I'd recommend David because that museum is much smaller and easier to experience. For both, it's an absolute must to book your tickets in advance, which doesn't cost anything extra and will save you hours of waiting on a long, hot line. Kids pay reduced admission or are free, depending on their age.

At the Galleria dell'Accademia, David is clearly the star of the show, and it's not hard to find him. The kids also liked viewing the unfinished Michaelangelo sculptures that line the hallway leading up to David, because it's so interesting to compare the fuzzy outlines of the unfinished sculptures with the perfection that is David. 

There's a nice long, circular bench that's situated right behind the statue, and that's a good place to park your kids if they need a break. Bringing a sketchbook would also be a fun thing to do.

Of course there are other things to see at the Accademia, but the only other area vaguely interesting to my kids was the musical instruments room. Here you can view instruments of all kinds from past centuries, including what I'd imagine to be a very expensive Stradivari violin. It's also really fascinating to see how the modern day piano evolved from this funky-looking version of the harpsichord!     

Right by the Accademia is a attraction called the Leonardo da Vinci Interactive Museum (not to be confused with the Leonardo da Vinci Museum), and that was a great break from all the serious museum visiting we were doing. At the interactive museum you literally get to play with all of da Vinci's inventions, plus view replicas of his artwork with kid-friendly explanations. 

Just when my son was about to lose it from too much time at Accademia, we brought him to the interactive museum and he perked up right away. The interactive museum is very small and you probably won't be able to spend more than an hour there, but it's definitely hands-on and fun for kids. 

The Uffizi Gallery, while absolutely amazing and grand, is a tougher sell on kids, but the Mission Florence book did keep them engaged for about an hour while we were there. 

In addition to viewing the famous Botticelli paintings, Caravaggio's Medusa, and works by all four "Ninja Turtles" (Donatello, Rafael, Leonardo, and Michaelangelo), the book had us hunting for a baby portrait of one of the Medicis that took us around the entire museum. Finding that baby was probably our biggest accomplishment of the day! 

Another not-to-be-missed Florence sight is the Santa Maria Duomo cathedral, which is truly impressive in its scale and design. You also can and should purchase tickets for this attraction in advance. The Brunelleschi Pass gets you entrance into the main cathedral, plus the bell tower and three other museums in the area (you'll have three days to do it all). 

Out of all the attractions, we most enjoyed the cathedral and climbing the 463 stairs up to the top of the dome. The climb itself is definitely tough and not for very small children, but all the kids in our group (ages 10 to 13) were much faster than any of the adults! 

The good thing about the climb is that there are several sections to it, so just when you think you can't take another step, you wind up in a gorgeous viewing area, where you get a little break to catch your breath and take some amazing photos. When you get to the ledge near the top of the dome, you'll have a closeup view of Vasari's depiction of the last judgment, painted into the dome's interior. 

The level after that is an outdoor viewing area at the very top of the duomo, the highest viewpoint within the city. It really is gratifying to make it up there to take in the views and the breeze!

On another day, we climbed the bell tower, which is another 414 steps. This climb was much tougher for me (maybe because I was doing it on the last day of our trip), but there are also breaks throughout for you to rest, including a landing where one of the old bells is displayed, plus the outdoor viewing point at the top. I'd wanted to be in the bell tower when the (functioning) bells rang, but the schedule for that is variable, and unfortunately we missed out on that experience. 

Even if you're unable to coax your kids into any of the museums or the duomo, there's always the Piazza della Signoria, near the Ponte Vecchio, two attractions that are entirely outdoors and totally kid-friendly. Just buy a round of gelatos and stroll around these grand spaces at your leisure! The Piazza della Signoria is a giant plaza that contains an outdoor sculpture area, plus a fountain that features an impressive sculpture of Neptune. In addition, there's a smaller replica of David for all those that can't make it into the Accademia.

The Ponte Vecchio is Florence's oldest and most storied bridge, stretching across the Arno river. Unless you're shopping for jewelry or leather, there's not much to actually do on the bridge, but you must take the requisite stroll across if you're in Florence. Plus, there are amazing viewpoints at the halfway point that make great picture-taking ops.

The Boboli Gardens are supposed to be another beautiful outdoor spot that's perfect for families, but we didn't have the energy to visit on this trip. Next time!

What's Nearby

We spent one whole day taking a guided tour of Cinque Terre, Italy's famed "five lands" perched over the Mediterranean Sea. Fun fact: Until about a decade ago, only Italians would visit Cinque Terre for the beaches. The area only became world famous after influencers made it a bit deal on social media. Today, droves of tourists (including us), flock to these tiny seaside towns, and I don't think the locals are too happy about it. Still, they did get their very own Pixar movie (Luca) as a result, and seem OK about selling us gelato!

The tour, which we took with a company called Walkabout Florence, started at 7:30 a.m. with a two-hour bus ride from Florence to La Spezia. From there, we were guided along a series of train and boat rides to see all five little towns: Monterosso, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore. At one point, we did an hour-long hike from Corniglia to Vernazza. It was all incredibly scenic, and the water looked amazing. We got to experience it from the beach in Riomaggiore and it was definitely refreshing after a hot, active day. We didn't get back to Florence until 9 p.m., so it was a long adventure, but totally worth it!  

You may also like: Venice with Kids: What to See, Do, and Eat
Rome with Kids: What to See, Do, and Eat

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