Child-Friendly Italy: Bologna, Florence, Lucca and Venice by rail. Part 2 – Florence and Lucca

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Florence was the next stop on our Italian adventure. Read Part 1 here.  Famously beautiful, its compact city centre is a World Heritage Site and very simple to navigate on  foot, making it easy to walk around with children. Many of the main attractions sit either side of the River Arno and are located around the Ponte Vecchio; a medieval bridge crossing the river at its narrowest point.

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Framed by a typical Tuscan landscape; rolling hills with rows of Cypress trees in the distance, Florence is seriously easy on the eye. We managed to arrive just as the biggest heatwave in over a decade turned Southern Europe into the weather equivalent of opening the oven door to check if your roast potatoes were ready. For the three days we were there, the city sweltered. Even a light breeze felt like a blast from a hairdryer on full heat. The Uffizi gallery closed for the day because its air conditioning broke down and everywhere, people were sticking their heads and arms and feet, you name it, under fountains to keep cool. If you are visiting in the summer, you’ll definitely need to stay somewhere with a pool – we did, meaning that we could see the sights in the morning,  safe in the knowledge we could cool down in the water in the afternoon.

Where to stay 

The very reasonably priced and smart, Hotel Kraft is situated in a quiet part of town, in a beautiful location right next to the River Arno. The hotel has a fantastic rooftop pool and outdoor dining terrace with incredible views of the city meaning you can watch over the hills and rooftops of Florence as you ignore your family whilst sipping an aperol spritz play with your kids in the pool.

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The hotel is a perfect base for a morning of sightseeing, an afternoon of swimming and sunbathing and an evening stroll into town for an aperitif and dinner. Its rooftop terrace is an added bonus for a nightcap under the stars after an evening out, the street lights of Florence twinkling below.

Where to eat and drink

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To make a general, non Florence specific point, I found the Italian menu confusing. Possibly because I confuse easily, who knows? Anyway, this may be obvious but I would have liked to have been clearer about what I was supposed to order and when. So, you order antipasto first – starters or snacks like crostini. Then you order a primi – which is usually a pasta course. Then you can order a Secondi which is a meat course with a Contorni which is a salad/veg course. No one expects you to eat it all and you’re supposed to mix and match. I didn’t realize this and thought you had to order it all or risk being seen as an uncultured swine. I would personally just have starters, a primi and a salad or a Secondi and no Primi.  Kids don’t need a Secondi – a primi and some bread is perfect. We generally skipped dessert in restaurants preferring to grab a gelato and wander home with it.

Anyway, there was plenty of great food in Florence to get confused about. We found that the Oltrano district, the other side of the river from many of the main sights, offered the best selection of cool places to eat. Children were welcome everywhere we went. We found that the more upmarket the place, the longer the food takes to come out so bear this in mind if you have kids that get bored in restaurants.

Riva di Arno in the Oltrano, is a fantastic, pretty hipsterish, pizza place, perfect for a tasty lunch. Sit outdoors and don’t let the fact that your table is by a road put you off, it’s not busy or intrusive. These were some of the best pizzas we ate in Italy. They also do take- out.

The Mercato Centrale has a trendy food court upstairs from the main market. It has an amazing choice of food; authentic stone baked pizzas, pastas and a good choice of Italian wine. I love eating in markets and food courts with kids.  I think children are more likely to try different foods if they can see what they’re choosing and the informality of a food court makes the whole experience of eating out with kids just easier. This place had a great atmosphere in the evening, you just grab a table and eat you way around the market.

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Piazza Santo Spirito is a beautiful square and a perfect place to enjoy an aperetif whilst the kids run around. We really liked Popcafe, where for a few euros, if you wanted to eat cheaply, you can enjoy a vegetarian buffet with your drinks. Pretty much all of the cafes and restaurants in this square looked good and all had space for dining al fresco.

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Trattoria Giovani is located in the Oltrano. We ate hearty, rustic Tuscan food here; goose liver on crostini, wild boar with polenta and ribolitta, a traditional Tuscan soup.  It was one of our favourite meals in Italy and I really recommend this place. I felt like I was eating classic, home-cooked food from secret recipes passed down through generations of Italian Nonnas.

Trattoria 4 Leoni is located in a beautiful little square, Piaza della Passera, in the Oltrano. We booked a table outside and ordered a Tuscan classic, Bistecca alla Fiorentina (also known as giant T Bone Steak). This being a classy Italian restaurant, the waiter will bring you the steak to ‘approve’ prior to it being grilled (for one hideous moment I thought I’d ordered completely uncooked steak). Great location and food, but a bit tricky for kids as the menu is a bit more adventurous. Although they can join in on the steak, it was that big.

Across the square is an amazing gelateria, Gelateria Della Passera. Go here for dessert – I recommend the passion fruit gelato. Hands down the best gelato we had in Italy.

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If you are really brave, you can enjoy a Florentine classic, the Lampredotto (tripe sandwich to you and me). We liked the look of Da’vinattieri, nestled in the maze of streets by Dante’s house. We were not brave enough to try it though. Next time…

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What to do

The enormous Duomo at the heart of Florence is striking with it’s white, green and pink marble exterior and famous orange dome. Many people climb it for the amazing views of Florence. We chose to walk round it and then sit on a bench, eat a gelato and gawp at it because, heatwave. This is one of the most popular sights in Tuscany and the whole area around it is incredibly busy. Entrance to the Duomo is free and it’s worth going to see it at night as well.

We really enjoyed all the free art in Florence. Living in the UK, I am pretty much allergic to paying entrance fees for galleries and museums, so I had no intention of joining the crowds at the Uffizi or the Academia when you can go into a church or walk through a square in Florence and see amazing works of art for free. Also, most children have a limited attention span in art galleries – although in fairness, our 5 year old never got tired of laughing at the willies on the statues. Head to Piazza della Signoria to see the replica statue of Michelangelo’s, David. The original one, now in The Academia, stood here until 1873 when sensibly, it was moved to avoid any more pigeons crapping on its head*.

*not the official reason.

There is an open air sculpture gallery of Renaissance art in Piazza della Signoria where you can see some amazing sculptures that will generate some interesting questions from your kids! As you walk along the Uffizi gallery there are lots of sculptures of artists set into the walls. Our kids really enjoyed looking at everything here. I don’t pretend to have a deep understanding of any of it by the way. I start and end at, ‘Oh that’s a cool statue/sculpture/painting’ and then move on to the next one.

We didn’t plan to visit many churches as we thought the children might find them dull but we found ourselves just ‘popping in’ to them to have a look and being amazed to find priceless works of art and incredible frescoes covering their walls and the ceilings. These pictures are from the beautiful Ognissanti Church, which is also the resting place of Botticelli fyi. I had to look him up too.

Florence is well connected by train and I would definitely recommend a day trip to Lucca.  Lucca is a beautiful walled city only an hour by train from Florence (if you stay on for another half an hour you hit the beach of Ventimiglia). There are many reasons to visit Lucca. For a start, you enter the city via a hidden entrance in a large wall.

In the summer, Lucca hosts a music festival with some really big names playing in it’s main square – quite amazing for such a small city – a bit like in The Simpsons when Green Day play Springfield. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are there in July.

As well as secret passageways, huge medieval defence walls and Elton John cropping up every summer, Lucca also has a tower with large oak trees growing on the top.  The Guinigi Tower in Lucca is an easy climb, 230 easy steps to the top where you get an amazing view of Lucca, the walls and the surrounding hills.

Try Trattoria Gigi for lunch. We ate panzanella and pasta al pomodoro and steak and tiramisu and played gin rummy with the kids. Beautiful.

Lucca is a lovely town for wondering around. You can grab a coffee or a gelato in the square that was once an old Amphitheatre and is now home to shops, restaurants and cafes. Make sure you hire bikes and cycle the 5km loop around the wall.  We hired a family bicycle built for four from Cicili Bizzari, a bike hire place by the entrance gate, and cycled around the walls for an hour under the shade of the trees. There are places to stop and get a drink or a gelato or have a swing in the shaded play park.

We will definitely come back to Florence as we did miss out on quite a few sights because of the heat.  We wanted to take a trip up to Fiesole in the hills, visit the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens. We wanted to climb up to Piazzale Michaelangelo and watch the sun set over the city and visit Basilica de Santo Spirito. If we had more time in Florence, we would have headed out on day trips to Sienna and to Sam Gimignano. Such a great introduction to Tuscany, we were already planning the next trip before our train pulled away and on to the next place…Venice!

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