European Adventure # 2- Italy with kids

Italy is a perpetual feast of the senses. The sights, sounds, tastes, and smells infuse us with a sense of aliveness as we experience the abundant wonders of travel to this country. It’s no wonder it’s the birthplace to the greatest artists, poets, and lovers. We spent two weeks and whether we were throwing coins in the Trevi fountain, gazing at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or climbing the stairs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, each day was an amazing adventure.

Highlights of Italy

Colisuem, Rome
Rome Getting there: We flew from London to Rome. We took the Leonardo Express Train from the airport to Rome (about 30 minutes and $20 for four of us. Train runs every 30 minutes – see below for directions from terminals to train. You can buy tickets at a ticket booth or quicker at the self-serve kiosks. Be sure to validate before getting on the train). We took the train to the main train station and transferred to the metro. The metro ticket machine does not take credit cards so have some cash ready. There were annoying people standing next to the ticket machines trying to help us (they want tips and will probably pick-pocket you so be careful). We told them firmly that we were fine.

Coliseum and Forum – Our hotel was about a block from the Coliseum and Forum so this was our first stop. We arranged ahead of time a tour with Angel Tours which was great. We met them at 9:00 and saw the two places with them while learning the history.
Tip: If you’re not with a tour, get your tickets on-line as the line is very long (hours) or you can get your tickets at the entrance to the Forum where (past the Arch of Constantine and not marked but amidst scaffolding). There was no line at the Forum ticket office and the ticket is good for both places. To use either the on-line ticket or ticket purchased at the Forum entrance at the Coliseum, walk down the middle line of the three lines cuing up to the turn stile and you’ll go right inside. For kids, I recommend buying the $12 book outside with overlays of how the sites looked originally. It gives a good perspective for the kids.

Since my daughter is a huge horse lover, we splurged on the $120 one hour horse drawn carriage ride from the Coliseum to sites in the area. It was a nice way to get an overview of the city.

Vatican City, St. Peter’s Cathedral and Sistine Chapel -   These are must sees. We went to St. Peter’s Cathedral first as we read that it’s less crowded in the morning. You do not need a ticket to see St. Peter’s. The line was about ten minutes long. There is a dress code (no sleeveless tops for women or shorts or too short of skirts. We read that men needed long pants, but they were allowing men in wearing shorts past their knees. You have to pass through a clothing inspector, so dress appropriately.) The Pieta sculpture by Michelangelo is breathtaking as is the dome of St. Peter’s.

The Sistine Chapel -  Buying tickets on-line in advance is a MUST. The line for the Sistine Chapel was at least three hours long in the hot sun. We bypassed the line to the reservations line and were inside in three minutes. There are tour guides outside who will tell you that the only way to bypass the line even if you have advance tickets is to go with them, but don’t believe them. Be prepared that inside that you have to walk about a mile through the Vatican Museums to get to the Sistine Chapel. There’s a lot to see, but it’s not air conditioned and it’s very crowded (especially when you first enter and the line is bogged down). We pretty much headed straight to the Sistine Chapel which was about a 30 minute walk through the Vatican museum. Once there, you can spend as much time as you’d like. It’s crowded, but you can sit on the floor near the back and gaze at the ceiling. There’s a no picture policy, but everyone was taking pictures anyway. To be honest, our kids weren’t that into it, so we told them they had to sit down and wait while we took our time to enjoy it.  I know they’ll appreciate it one day!

If you don’t have an audio tour to return (I downloaded a Rick Steves podcast tour onto my ipod that was great), you can take an exit from the back right corner that leads to St. Peters and save yourself having to walk miles back through the museums.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain – Very beautiful and magical. Legend has it that if you throw coins in over your shoulder, you’ll return to Rome. We threw a lot of coins because we all want to come back.

Spanish Steps – Was fun for my husband and I to see, but didn’t hold much interest for the kids.

Pantheon – I loved this temple  probably because of its simplicity and the open oculus. It’s also extremely well preserved. We had a great dinner in the square outside it at Di Rienzo Restaurant. The light of the setting sun on the Tuscan yellow and red buildings and the street musicians playing accordions made me feel like I’d been transported to the set of an Italian movie. It was sheer heaven.

La Bocca della Verita (The Mouth of Truth) - is an image, carved in marble, of a man-like face, located in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It’s thought to originally have been a manhole cover, but its most famous characteristic is its role as a lie detector. Starting from the Middle Ages, it was believed that if one told a lie with one's hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off. The piece was featured in the 1950’s movie Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.

Tips: Rick Steves has many podcast audio tours of attractions in Rome that are worthwhile.

Hotel:  Hotel Rosetta, Via Cavour, 295 00184 Roma http://www.rosettahotel.com/ No frills, but the location is GREAT). Francesca who works there speaks English and was extremely helpful. $160 night for quad room.

Rick Steve’s book guides to Italy are great.

www.roninrome.com/  This is a GREAT website and was really helpful for the little, but important things like how to buy train tickets from the Kiosks, how to find the Leonardo Express when you arrive in Italy. It’s very detailed and with photos. They sound like little things, but you’ll feel confident and like a pro when you arrive prepared and ready to go!

Packing – bring carry on luggage and a light backpack for each person. Pack light. You don’t need much and can wash small amounts of clothes along the way. See Rick Steve’s packing guide. http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlist.htm 
 Money - Carry money and passports in a money belt. The best way to get money is ATM's. Some places charge more if you use a credit card. In the big cities credit cards seemed to be okay and the exhange rate was fine for the credit cards. **Be sure to call your bank and credit card company before you go to let them know the dates you will be out of the country so they don't put a hold on your card for unexpected charges.

Eating: Eat in small places away from the touristy areas if possible. The restaurant I mentioned outside the Parthenon was excellent (Di Rienzo). Avoid places where someone out front tries to get you to come inside. They usually aren’t very good. Ask the front desk clerks for good local places. There are lots of small pizzerias with sandwiches and slices of pizza that are cheap. Sodas at restaurants are expensive ($4-$5 each). We stopped ordering them or had the kids split one.


Getting there: We took the train from Rome to Florence.  We bought our tickets a few days in advance (we weren’t able to purchase them on-line from the U.S.) at the train station when we first arrived in Rome. The lines are long, so we bought from the Kiosks and it was really easy. We bought second class on the EuroStar – ES (fast train – definitely use this one and not a regional train) and second class was perfectly fine. We arrived about 45 minutes early to the train station and couldn’t find our train posted. We saw another one going to Florence and went to that track and were told by the not so nice train worker that we were at another track (this train was a Regional one). When we got to the other track it said Venice and we realized that was its final destination with Florence as a stop so be careful about that and check for the train number as well as the destination.

Florence is a great city for kids. It’s small enough that it’s easy to get around walking, yet big enough that there’s enough to keep you occupied for a few days. I suggest spending two or three days there. It’s also a good home base to visit other towns in the area like Siena and Pisa (see below for more on those towns).

Florence Highlights:

The Ponte Vecchio   is a Medieval bridge over the River Arno. It’s noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.

The Museo Galileo is all about the scientist Galilio and his inventions. The kids enjoyed seeing is thumb that was cut off encased in glass. It is situated in Florence's historical centre, near Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria. Family ticket (2 adults + max 2 children under 18)

Piazza della Signoria.  Great place to walk around. The plaza is the focal point of the origin and of the history of the Florentine Republic and still maintains its reputation as the political hub of the city. There are various eye-catching statues in the square including a copy of  Michelangelo’s David.

Santa Maria del Fiore (also known simply as the Duomo) is the cathedral of Florence known for its distinctive Renaissance dome.

A morning guided tour of Florence including a viewing of Michelangelo's David .http://www.tickitaly.com/tours/florence-guided-tour-morning.php

The tour began with a drive up the romantic Viale dei Colli to Piazzale Michelangelo, a strategic viewpoint that offers open views across the splendid skyline of Florence to the hills beyond. Then we drove back down the hill and into the historic city center for a walking tour of the area around the Duomo with the stops at the famous dome designed by Brunelleschi, Giotto’s bell tower, and the famous carved baptistery doors.  After this we walked to the Accademia where we bypassed the lines and headed straight in to view Michelangelo's famous David, an awe inspiring experience. This costs about $60 per person, but was well worth it.

Climbing the Duomo steps. You never really know what’s going to be a hit with kids, but this definitely was one of their favorite activities. I guess it was the curved staircases and being able to go into the dome and then stand on the top for the magnificent view.  The Duomo has 463 steps.  Hot Tip: We went at the very end of the day about 45 minutes before it closed. There wasn’t anyone in line and we avoided the crowds going up and down the stairs. We then had the top almost to ourselves. This cost about 8 Euros for adults and they let us split a ticket for the kids (

Segway rental.- For kids 12 and older. This was one of my son’s favorite parts of the trip. My husband and son (my daughter was too young) cruised around Florence on the Segways.

Hotel:  We stayed at the STROZZI PALACE HOTEL**** - Via dè Vecchietti www.strozzipalacehotel.com. It was wonderful and centrally located (3 minute walk to the Duomo) and easy walk to everything else.  I booked it on Hotels.com and a quad w/breakfast was $147 a night. Usually it’s about $200 a night.

Restaurants: Restaurant Garibardi www.giribardi.it  (near the Piazza Mercato). The Gelato store across from it, Le Dame, was very good and the guy who worked there very nice and patient with us.

Side trips from Florence

Siena - We took two side trips from Florence. One was to Siena. It was 1 ½  hour train ride through Tuscany. It’s an easy bus ride from the train station to the city (see Rick Steve’s guide for more details). Siena is a beautiful walled city with narrow cobblestone streets, shops, restaurants, and a great Piazza square. I’m glad we went, but it didn’t have a lot to hold the kids’ attention, so I’m glad we only did it as a daytrip. The day before we were there was their annual horse race, so we were able to join a parade going through town celebrating the winning horse. We also saw the winning horse, when its owner walked it through town, so that we fun.

PisaThe leaning Tower of Pisa was a must see for our family. The train ride from Florence was only an hour. Once at the station, purchase a bus ticket and catch the bus across the street  to the tower (see Rick Steve’s guide for more info on this). I purchased tickets on-line in advance to be able to walk to the top of the tower. This is a definite must-do if you’re at Pisa. It was really fun to walk up the slanted stairway and stand on top of the Tower. The kids were a little freaked out at the top because you can definitely see the lean and how it slopes when you look from one side to the other. Another fun thing to do is to take the goofy pictures of the family acting like you are pushing the tower back up (everyone was doing it, so you didn’t feel too nerdy).

Naples and Pompeii

From Florence, I would suggest going either north to Venice and then to Cinque Terre area or south to the Naples area. With kids, I wouldn’t try doing both on one trip (but that’s just me. I didn’t want to try to do too much with kids in tow). We chose to do the southern route because we really wanted the kids to see Pompeii. My husband and I are into ancient history and had been there before and thought it was a must-see for the kids. 
cast of body at

I’d read in my Rick Steve’s guide that Naples could be a little scary (sit near the front of the train at night, etc.), so I was on guard. The last time my husband and I had been there a nicely dressed man approached us as we got off the train and said he worked for the tourism board and would help us. He told us we needed to hurry to catch the local train to Pompeii and told us he’d take our luggage and store it for us. After letting him help us get our train tickets, I realized something wasn’t right and told him to leave and had to shout for help to get him to leave us alone. When we got off the train this time, we noticed some guys just like the one who tried to help us before and ignored them and walked quickly away.

We took the Circumvesuvius train from the main train station to the town of Pompeii. This was the train that Rick Steves said to ride close to the front at night and to watch for pickpockets. The train was mainly locals and I was a little worried at first. Then the train conductor came and checked with us that we were one the right train and told us when we’d arrived. It was the nicest anyone had been to us on the trains thus far. As I settled in, I quickly felt more comfortable and would come to really enjoy and like the people in the Naples area.  The train sped along through graffiti painted stations with young beach-going locals getting on and off at the stations.

Mt. Vesuvius. The volcano that erupted
on Pompeii.

hiking Mt. Vesuvius
We stayed in Pompeii for three nights at Hotel Diana (great place!). We were within walking distance to the ruins and spent a day there (really cool), and a day at another site called Herculaneum (short train ride to the town and short walk to the site). Herculaneum is much smaller and there are no crowds. It’s really well preserved, but there aren’t any body casts there (they found hundreds of dead people in the boat houses, but their bodies have been excavated). We also took a day trip up Mount Vesuvius and did an hour long hike along the crater (really, really cool). We set it up through the hotel with transportation from the hotel up to Mt Vesuvius for $10 each. It was definitely worth doing.

The town of Pompeii was a nice stop off the beaten track. The people were really nice and we found two great restaurants. One was called Pizza and Pasta and was off the main square about a block from the train station. The other one was right next to Hotel Diana (sorry, but I forgot the name). It was excellent and they were really friendly.

Hotel:  Hotel Diana (I highly recommend) http://www.pompeihotel.com/ 
Tour Company to Mt. Vesuvius: Campania. http://www.incampania.com/en/http.  I highly recommend them as well. They also have inexpensive transfers (transportation) for day trips to the Amalfi Coast from Pompeii.

Sorrento is magnifico! It was a half hour by the Circumvesuvio train and as we got closer the graffiti disappeared and it became more beautiful and Mediterranean.. Sorrento overlooks the beautiful Bay of Naples with Mount Vesuvius in the distance. We are not Hilton people, but since we had Hilton points from my husband’s work travels, we weren’t about to turn down three free nights, and boy we’re we happy. The Sorrento Hilton is on a hill with great views and a fabulous pool, grounds, and playground area. It was a little bit of a hike walking up the hill from town, but our kids were old enough to survive the ten minute walk (hint: you can cut time off from the walk by taking the elevator in the hotel down to the pool area and walking down a service path/entrance to the street). We were also upgraded to the Executive Club and had the 7th floor Executive Club lounge at our disposal all day with free breakfast, snacks, and drinks all day! It was awesome!

Capri – this is a rancy fancy island off of Sorrento where the wealthy Italians vacation. It’s a 20 minute hydrofoil (fast boat) ride to the island. The big tourist attraction is the Blue Grotto, a cave with magnificently blue water. We took the boat to the island, and got in line to take the smaller boat to the Blue Grotto only to find the water was too choppy and Blue Grotto trips were cancelled for the day. Instead, we took a boat around the island to see the beautiful rock formations. After that, we took the funicular to the town and walked around. It was beautiful with a lot of shops and restaurants. There wasn’t a lot to do with the kids, so we took the boat back and went and hung out by the pool at the Hilton.

Amalfi CoastSorrento is the gateway to the Amalfi Coast, a windy road with amazing cities like Positano perched on cliffs above the beautiful sea. Never say on a trip, “Wow, this trip has been great there haven’t been any glitches,” because as soon as we said that we were jinxed. We awoke our last day ready to take the ½ hour bus ride from Sorrento to Positano on the Amalfi Coast only to arrive at the bus station to find that the buses were on a one day strike. Wondering what we were going to do on our last day, I remembered that they rented boats at the Marina Grande. We walked there and found a little boat rental shack and rented a zodiac boat for three hours. We grabbed sandwiches and drinks at a little shop in the marina and were soon on our way exploring the beautiful coastline. We found a little cove and anchored the boat and swam in to a beach and jumped off rocks and swam into our own little “blue” grotto. It was great and the kids said it was one of the best parts of the trip.

That night we had a great dinner in Sorrento at a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves. At the hotel, we we watched the sunset over the Bay of Naples I cried at having to say goodbye to beautiful Italy.

The next day we took the Curreri Viaggi bus from the train station to the airport in Naples (10 Euros each) – great way to get to the airport (took 1 ½ hours) and flew to London for the night and home to next day.

London and Italy were a great start to what we hope are many more trips abroad with the kids.  I highly recommend them both for your fun travel with kids. Wishing you happy and safe travels with yours!!