Thousands of years of history, art and architecture, and great food make Italy the most popular destination in Europe. Most families tend to stick to the traditional Rome, Florence and Venice circuit, and while this itinerary is certainly worthwhile, two weeks of visiting the big tourist cities can easily wear out even the most heroic little traveler. The solution? Combine an iconic Italian city with one of these three inspirational, family-friendly destinations and enjoy authentic cultural interaction and a truly family-friendly vacation.
Venice and the Dolomite Mountains
Very little about the Dolomites feels Italian. You’ll most likely hear German or Ladin, the local language, before you hear Italian spoken, even though you’re just 2 to 3 hours from Venice or Milan.
In fact, Tyrolean storybook villages, alpine meadows, snowcapped peaks, spaetzle and strudel seem more suited to “The Sound of Music“ than “La Dolce Vita.”
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the area’s numerous natural parks offer unparalleled opportunities for outdoor pursuits.
Children of all ages enjoy ascending into the clouds via funicular or gondola for panoramic views of the distinctive Dolomite mountain range. Hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, ropes courses, and horseback riding are perfect for older children looking for adventure.
And don’t miss the unforgettable open air WWI museums at the Cinque Torri and Monte Lagazuoi. Explore miles of secret tunnels, trenches, and precarious look-out posts, the last vestiges of “the vertical front” in the war with the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Milan and The Italian Lakes: Como and Maggiore
Often overlooked by families because they tend to be viewed as a playground of the rich and famous, the Italian Lakes are within an easy one-hour drive or train ride from central Milan or about a 3-hour train ride from Florence. Here, energetic families can find unlimited outdoor activities, on the lakes or in the surrounding mountains.
On Lake Maggiore, ride the gondola up to Monte Mottarone for spectacular views, mountain biking or easy hiking. Or make an exhilarating descent down the mountain via Alpyland’s bob sled. You can also visit castles and villas, sail the lake, or explore its three charming little islands. Consider hopping aboard the Lake Maggiore Express for a scenic trip on a narrow gauge railway through the Centovalle (Hundred Valleys) to Locarno, Switzerland and ferry back to Stresa.
Lake Como also offers its share of family-friendly attractions, too. Beautiful villas and gardens are fun to explore, including Villa del Balbianello which James Bond fans will remember from the movie “Casino Royale.”
In lakeside Varenna, cross the drawbridge to climb the turrets of the Castle of Vezio which offers stunning views of the lake from its towering vantage point above town, as well as daily falconry shows.
For water sports, try kayaking, wind surfing, fishing, or even swimming in the public, lake-side pool in Menaggio. There’s even a kiddie pool open in summer with organized events for kids.
Rome and Puglia’s Val d’Itria
For a completely different Italian experience, one that’s been influenced by Greece, head due south to the region of Puglia (pronounced “Pool-ya”) which occupies the “heel” of Italy’s “boot.”
A 4-hour train ride from Rome takes you to almost to the very end of Rome’s ancient road, the Appia Antica.
Though Puglia doesn’t have the high concentration of art and architecture of its Northern neighbors, it offers a wealth of fun attractions for families. In particular, kids fall in love with Puglia’s “trulli”-- conical-shaped stone houses that dot the landscape of the Valley of Itria and which look like they’ve sprung from a fairytale. Many of Puglia’s most beautiful hotels also happily accept families, and many have beach clubs and fun organized activities for children, that give parents a welcome break.
Throughout the region, families flock to Puglia’s pristine sandy beaches (some of the best in Italy), and biking the region’s easy terrain and quiet country roads is a popular activity.
The seaside Roman ruins of Egnazia, a former Greek colony, are fascinating to explore. While at the Grotte Castellana, kids ages six and older can don headlamps and venture deep underground with a trained guide to explore the stalagmites and stalactites in an amazing series of caves.