The best way to visit Florence with small children

Traipsing around the museums of Tuscany with three children may seem more like a nightmare than la dolce vita, but Florence is the perfect city to introduce a little cultural adventure to the kids, writes Amanda Cassidy 


“We are going to see St David’s willy” my six-year-old announced loudly to his grandmother over the phone the night before our trip to Florence. So far so bad parenting, but I was determined to push on with my mission to show my children as much as the world as possible despite the obvious challenges – small legs, crowded cities and a flair of the dramatic (me).

Last year we tackled Venice, Saville and Girona successfully and now we found ourselves under the Tuscan sun, bound for the Italian city that is famous for its culture, Renaissance art and architecture. In fact, Florence’s artistic heritage has meant it is ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world.

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Does that really matter to a three, six and seven-year-old? Probably not. But never underestimate the power of nostalgia. I’d spent a year living in Siena during university and the idea of bringing my own children back to bask in its pink loveliness has always been a dream of mine.

My main issue was getting them to enjoy it and feel something for the places they see which is why I started with the stories.

Somewhere like Florence is filled to the brim with real-life stories of princesses and castles, of battles and dreams and creations and victories. When you are little, there is nothing more fascinating that arriving on the set of those adventures. I’d painted some seriously exciting stories of Leonardo Da Vinci’s life and the Medici family tree in their heads.

I’d recounted tales of the breathtaking Cattedrale di Santa Maria Del Fiore and how its famous Dome by Giotto was the fourth largest in the world and I’d told them about Michaelangelo’s creations (including the famous statue of David…and his willy).

 

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Child-friendly culture

Once we arrived in the old city, our first stop was the Palazzo Vecchio. The Palazzo Vecchio or ‘old palace’ is the town hall of Florence. It is located at the Piazza della Signoria which also boasts the copy of Michaelangelo’s David and the adjacent gallery of statues (Loggia dei Lanzi).

This is a great first stop for children and gives everyone a true taste of what this lively city is all about; History and romance and a fascination with the past.

We had great fun examining the incredibly detailed statues of Hercules and Nessus (‘That man is a horse!’) which is sculpted from one solid block of white marble. The Head of Medusa ( ‘ewwwwww, gross!’) and the Medici lions (‘no, you can’t climb on them’)– but mostly you get that jolt of imagining what life was like inside these walls all those hundreds of years ago.

Picture-worthy stops

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The Palazzo Vecchio offers a ‘Life at Court’ tour, especially for families. It is advisable to book in advance and it lasts an hour and a half. It costs €14 per adult and children under six are free. It also means you beat the queues which can be up to two hours long in some places (NOT the trip we were looking for). The children were fascinated by our tour guide, Victoria. She explained that the castle had belonged to the Medici family – once the ruling class of Florence.

She showed them the five chambers of the lady of the house, Elenore and how the rooms were covered in real flowers from floor to ceiling. She let them touch samples of the intricate tapestries and let them feel the gold leaf that adorned the ceilings. The two best parts of this trip were the secret passages that she let them discover and travel through around the palace and the dressing-up part where the children get to put on the traditional garments from the 1400s – including the masks, high shoes and stunning dresses.

We all learned a thing or two along the way and most importantly, the history was suddenly really relevant to the children. We left a few hours later delighted that we had crammed so much culture into the heads of our unruly offspring. They were simply happy that it was time for gelato.

The must-visit

Next stop was in search of the best ice-cream we could find. I had a note that Venchi was the best in Florence but with little ones comes unpredictability and we had decided that much of our day would be deemed ‘going with the flow’. That’s why we were thrilled to find it along our walk. Venchi has its own chocolate fountain wall and we can confirm it was the best gelato any of us had ever tasted… (and we consider ourselves pros).

Off the beaten track

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Onwards, we headed up Via Roma to the Piazza Della Republicca – a famous meeting place for writers and artists. There stands the Picci carousel – an antique gilded structure with twenty horses and two gilded carriages. It is run by Carlo Picci – the fourth generation of the family to run it, the fifth generation helps out and the sixth still ride the carousel. It dates from the start of the 20th century but has been lovingly restored. Our three loved picking their colourfully hand-painted horse and in a family first for us, none of them wanted us to stand beside them or ride with them.

Unneeded, we watched from the path as they whirled away from us in a blur of smiles and shouts, round and round, and came back waving. We waved too, delighting in their shrieks, trying to catch a glimpse of their little faces and wishing moments like these could last forever. Not bad for one euro...

Florence is a great first continental European city to visit with children because many of the attractions are all within a very short distance from one another and the historic centre is compact. We would have liked to have seen the famous Boboli Gardens across the River Arno and the Galileo museum but of course, with little ones there are limitations.

Lunch on the go

Never underestimate the importance of refuelling often on a break like this. In fact, this was the loveliest part of our trip – moseying along without rushing, allowing ourselves the time to look in the shop windows, really discovering all Florence has to offer, at the children's pace and through their eyes.

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We were keen to try the Mercato Centrale (central market) for lunch near Piazza San Lorenzo.  It is a huge converted indoor market that is a true assault on the senses as you enter. It is one of the results from the time of the risanamento – the period when Florence was the capital of Italy in the late nineteenth century.

The bottom floor is a lively, loud, smelly (in a good way) working market with vendors selling all the prime ingredients for typical Tuscan meals. We happened to enter the side of the equine butcher which we didn’t like to point out to our horse-mad daughter. We marvelled at the colours of the vegetables piled up like a climbing wall of grapes and dried figs, artichokes and pink pears. Even our hardest-core veggie hater agreed that it was something special.

Upstairs there are counters selling everything from black aged steak to creamy Burrata. Champagne bars, pizza stands and stalls with pasta you have never heard of, cooked in front of you to order, filling the pans with impossible to identify shapes. There are stalls and stalls of shaved Tuscan meats and best of all, everywhere there is the garlicky smell of olive oil along with that faint whiff of freshly grated parmesan.

The desserts were equally as amazing but I tried to steer the kids clear after our earlier gelato fun. The food was delicious, authentic and it was nice to be the only tourists in a traditionally Florentine setting.

Do expect it to be hectic though. We don’t mind hectic in our family, but each of us picked something from a different stall so it is simply a matter of timing, coordination and trying not to lose anyone in transit. It is also worth visiting the leather market directly outside San Lorenzo too for some seriously eye-catching bags.

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Memory making

Our last stop was the Leonardo da Vinci museum. There are two a few streets apart so make sure you choose the more family-friendly one. Located on Via Dei Conti, we were all excited to get an all-encompassing view of a man who is arguably the greatest genius the world has known.

This museum has samples of some of his engineering feats that our little ones adored trying out. There are working models of some of Da Vinci’s earliest attempts at gym equipment, underwater breathing apparatus as well as an intercom system. Our little adventurers pulled the ropes, twirled the loops and rotated the chains, fascinated how one man could have come up with all these brilliant ideas.

The flight room was of particular interest to our daughter who claims she wants to be a pilot. There is also an interactive room with jigsaws of the Mona Lisa, a sample of a Roman bridge that the children can build and the earliest forms of Lego-type wooden bricks.

Our youngest loved the mirror writing and the knocking everything down afterwards part. It was a really great way to spend an hour or two play-learning.

The tug of Tuscany

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Florence is a city that is not only beautiful, but it is a great gateway destination to foster a love (or at least an interest) in the past for children of all ages. Ours happened to be quite young, but we all took that in our stride and got as much out of the trip as we felt they needed. Never underestimate the power of plenty of stops to refuel, have toilet breaks and do take that skateboard attachment for your pram for those tired little legs.

We found ourselves ending up in some parts of this city that we would never have gone otherwise. Sometimes the road less travelled really is the best – as long as there's somewhere to stop for Aperol Spritz along the way.

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