Italy is a popular family holiday destination; pasta, pizza, sandy beaches, child-adoring locals and favourable weather, what more could you ask for? Well, quite a few of us parents need an injection of culture or something at least to engage our brains while we’re on holiday. Can you still amble through an Italian city admiring the art and architecture with young kids in tow or are you better off retiring to the seaside until your offspring are in their teens? Well, I think if you pick the right part of Italy you can definitely have your torta and eat it. So, here are my top five Italian holiday destinations for families with young children.
Piazza del Duomo, Syracuse
1. South East Sicily
Sicily has culture and sandy beaches in spades so it should appeal to everyone. It’s a huge island so if you have small kids I’d recommend just concentrating on one area. I love the Baroque towns of the south east, particularly Modica which, even in a rain storm (or perhaps because of the rain) felt incredibly atmospheric when I visited. The food and wine in this region require a mighty appetite; the pasta dish (more of a cauldron actually) I consumed at Modica’s Osteria dei Sapori Perduti could have sated my appetite for a week if I hadn’t been aware of the town’s famous chocolate shop, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. So, once you and your family have filled your tummies with pasta and chocolate, head a few miles south for your pick of the endless sandy beaches which run for miles along the coast. If your children can tolerate a two-centre holiday, include some time in Syracuse a little further north for car-free streets galore, perfect for little ones to burn off some energy while you admire two thousand years of Sicilian history in one setting. The city’s Piazza del Duomo is my favourite square in the whole of Italy (so far) and just the place to introduce your little ones to Sicily’s delicious granita.
Calabria has a special place in my heart as I have wonderful memories of camping there as a student and spending hours snorkelling off the stunning beaches. Add to this some wonderful coastal towns such as Tropea and Scilla plus delicious spicy food and great value wine and you have the perfect seaside holiday! Pretty cliff top Tropea is my top recommendation for your base in this region. There are no major sights to explore and all the better for it, it’s all about soaking up the atmosphere and watching the world go by. Enjoy an obligatory morning cappuccino or gelato in charming Piazza Ercole and once the children have tired of browsing the enticing food shops, head to the sandy beach below the town with your bucket and spade!
3. Valle d’Itria, Puglia
I’ve visited Puglia several times and what sticks in my mind is the fantastic sandy beaches and the amazing seafood. The beaches attract Italians from all over the country, with vast stretches of sand gently shelving into dramatic turquoise waters. Children will love exploring the conical trulli houses which scatter the towns and countryside. Alberobello has the biggest concentration of these dwellings, it’s quite touristy but fun nonetheless. Nearby, the white washed towns of hilltop Ostuni and pretty Locorotondo will vie for your attention. There are some enjoyable seaside towns too such as the much-photographed Polignano a Mare, perfect for introducing (or attempting to) your children to Puglia’s famed seafood.
4. Southern Marche
The delightful town of Ascoli Piceno in the south of Le Marche tends to be overlooked in favour of the big hitters of Tuscany and Umbria. However, it has a particularly spectacular Renaissance square, the car-free Piazza del Popolo where you can try the local delicacy of stuffed, deep fried olives. As with most historic Italian towns, Ascoli is perfect for aimless wandering although there’s plenty to occupy art and architecture enthusiasts should the kids allow it with an impressive art gallery, Pinacoteca Civica, and many fine buildings. Half an hour east of Ascoli sits the coast where mile after mile of sandy beach awaits you. The seaside isn’t in the same league as Puglia or Calabria but it is incredibly child friendly (plenty of toilets and little play areas). I wasn’t a fan of the regimented deck chairs when I first visited but the area has grown on me over the years. I particularly like the umbrellas which on some beaches come with a safety deposit box for your valuables, such an Italian touch! And I also love the way Italians take passeggiatas through the shallows on the beach as if on a high street, stopping to chat to friends and relations along the way. Heading back inland, the area is very rural so good-value and family-friendly agriturismos abound with delicious homemade food as standard.
5. Northern Tuscany
I know this may be a boring cliché but Tuscany is a brilliant place for families. The region is pretty big with some long (and dull if you’re a small child) driving distances. For ease, I would recommend staying near Lucca, a charming city big enough to have a good range of sights and eateries but small enough to enjoy with children. The city walls are great for toddlers to run along (not as dangerous as it sounds) and Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is the perfect square in which to contain little ones while you stop for lunch or a coffee. Lucca is around half an hour from the coast so you can split your day between sightseeing and sandcastle building. If you hanker after those infamous green Tuscan landscapes and idyllic rural villages, head half an hour north. Children will have fun crossing the medieval Ponte della Maddalena (or bridge of the devil as it’s also known) near Borgo a Mozzano while the nearby picture postcard hilltop town of Barga is guaranteed to satisfy those Tuscan cravings.