The Italian cities are perhaps not the first places you think of when planning a summer holiday for your family; they’re hot, there’s *some* walking required and most children generally have minimal to zero interest in looking at the great art works of the Renaissance. But sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith. My gut feeling was, that if I could combine a city break with a hotel with a pool, we could merge the best of both worlds; sightseeing in the morning and pool time in the afternoon. Add in a bit of adventure with a train journey or two and a couple of changes of scene and we might just have hit on a model that works. Using Italy’s super-efficient and affordable train system, we visited Bologna, Florence, Lucca and Venice over the space of eleven days in the hot, hot August sun and had a really cool holiday!
Our first stop was Bologna, a university city in the Emilia Romagna region, famous for being the gastronomic capital of Italy and only a 30 minute train ride from Florence. Famed for its architecture; its red, rust coloured rooftops are best viewed from the top of the Asinelli tower. With miles of porticoes (arches to you and me) covering the pavements, sheltering the tourists and locals from the elements, the city is an attractive one to visit all year round. I’m not convinced we did it all justice as we generally mooched around eating gelato and talking about what we were going to eat next, but we gave it a pretty good going over.
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Hotel Metropolitan, their recently renovated large and stylish family rooms with a separate sleeping area for the kids are perfect and reasonably priced. The hotel is centrally located, just 5 minutes walk to the central square, Piazza Maggiore, and a 15 minute taxi ride from the airport.
What to do?
Le Due Torri, Bologna’s towers, make a perfect starting point for a day of sightseeing. One tower leans perilously, the other doesn’t. You may be interested to know that the Leaning Tower of Bologna leans more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You can mull this as you lick your first of a thousand gelatos under the shade of the tower as you queue to climb the taller, non- leaning tower. It will cost you 3 euros to climb it, but be warned, you climb a very steep and narrow, wooden staircase and if you look down…well just don’t look down. There are 498 steps and places to rest as you climb so don’t worry about getting out of breath/having a heart attack. We climbed it with an over-excited 5 year old wearing over-sized sandals and it was a bit hair raising but it was so worth it for the panoramic view of Bologna’s red rooftops below.
The Palazzo del Archiginnasio, Italy’s oldest University and home to an ancient anatomical theatre, is well worth a visit. Children will love imagining the gory details of surgeons in training, the slab in the centre of the theatre and the models of skinned men overlooking the gruesome proceedings leaving very little to the imagination. There is also an ancient classroom and library, their ceilings and walls adorned with paintings. Kids will think it looks like Hogwarts.
The Basilica di San Petronio, the World’s 5th Largest Church, sits on Piazza Maggiore. If you want to visit it, as with most churches in Italy, make sure you cover your shoulders and knees. In fact, to avoid being made to feel like the world’s biggest harlot, carry a sarong in your bag and drape it around your body before you go in to any Italian church.
The Museum of Bologna, although a good-looking space, is a medium interesting experience and not massively worthy of the entrance fee. You can get free audio guides that take you through each room and you’ll emerge an expert in the history of Bologna but you’ll struggle to get the kids (and you) really interested beyond about 20 minutes. It looks great though and there is an interactive space that will keep the kids occupied for a short while.
Bologna is great for shopping – it has Italian Designer stores, independent shops and boutiques in the Quadrilatero area near to the main square, as well as high street shops including an excellent Zara and H&M and an & Other Stories. The one thing you should buy from Bologna are the Bologna tarot cards, available from La Coroncina, a shop that seems to sell anything and everything including beard care implements, souvenirs and these ancient tarot cards. The tarots make a great gift but come with no instructions. So who knows what on earth they mean. You can have fun trying to work it out and it’s a welcome break from playing snap.
Where to eat?
There are so many food recommendations on the internet for places to eat in Bologna, it can be overwhelming. We found also, that in August, a lot of places were closed for the summer. We really wanted to eat some amazing food in Bologna so spent a while researching. We found these blogs useful:
Sfoglia Ina is a perfect place for lunch; child friendly (it has a space with books, a black board and chalk to entertain the kids) it serves Bologna’s famous Tortellini en Brodo – tortellini in a clear broth, and pretty much the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Like everywhere in Bologna, it also serves the classic Ragu.
Mercato di Mezzo, an indoor market/food hall in the Quadrilatero is perfect for eating and drinking at any time of the day. You just grab a table on the ground floor and choose what you want to eat from one or many of the food stalls. We went for artisan sour dough pizzas and drank a glass or two of the local Sangiovese. Also memorably good.
Osteria dell Orsa is a popular neighbourhood restaurant; busy and child friendly it serves simple food for reasonable prices. Opting for tasty and traditional, we ate steak and pasta and salad and washed it all down with some of the house red. We skipped dessert to eat gelato under the towers.
Al Pappagallo looked like it should have been the most amazing restaurant in Bologna; in a beautiful location, close to the towers, its tables spilling out onto the pavements – white tablecloths promising wholesome traditional Italian food. It was all perfect until the secondi course which took 27 years to arrive and was pretty average. That said, I’d return for the pasta and the location. I think we just had an off night.
We visited Bologna during the Bologna film festival, an outdoor event that takes place every summer in the city. Each evening, in the centre of Piazza Maggiore, locals would gather with drinks and food to watch an art house film or a performance late into the night. Bologna is a seriously cool city; perfect for lovers of food, wine, medieval architecture, people watching, tower climbing, window shopping and actual shopping. With kids, I’d suggest a day and a night would be perfect. In fact, the only downside I can see is that they’ll never look at your spag bol in the same way again.