Florence has lured lovers of art, wine, food, and fashion for centuries. We can all imagine the artist and the art aficionado, the vintner and the reveler, the chef and the foodie, the designer and the shopaholic wandering the streets of Florence, but what about families? You may not immediately think of a family (parents, 2.5 kids) when you think of the average visitor to Florence, but think again. Trip Advisor recently ranked Florence as the 2011 Traveler’s Choice #1 Family Friendly City in Europe! (See article here.)
Fellow travelers voted on this one, so I think we should all take note. Now, I know some you may not be planning on traveling with a family (now or ever) and believe that this ranking is not relevant to you or your travel plans. Some of you may even be thinking that family friendly more clearly translates as “boring.” Well, let me set you straight. Locations, like Florence, that are praised for being ideal for visiting families are in actuality ideal for all travelers. Such locations rise to the top of the family friendly list when high standards of safety, transportation, and sightseeing are met. For example, last year Florence closed its center off from traffic. So, no more buses or motorini racing around streets crowded with tourists. I imagine that this major change contributed to the general enjoyment of visitors and Florence’s climb to the top of the family friendly list. Travelers young and old, in a group or flying solo, the jetsetter and the backpacker can all appreciate visiting a place that makes them feel safe, that is easy to get around, and that offers a wide variety of activities. As the thousands of insightful reviewers on Trip Advisor determined, Florence does just that. It manages to be a destination that is comfortable without being boring and dynamic without being overwhelming. Florence strikes a beautiful balance that makes a trip there just right.
In honor of Florence’s big win (that is, in the traveler reviewing world), here is a list of favorite family activities chock-full of fun for everyone. Toddlers to teenagers will get a kick out of these. In fact, travelers of nearly every age can enjoy these things to do and see in Florence.
1. Walk and Wander! You can’t go wrong by just getting out there and exploring. Head toward the city center after consulting your city map or your hotel front desk manager. Then, put your map away in your purse or back pocket and just see where the day takes you. You never know which gelato shop, breathtaking piazza, or street performer you may stumble upon.
2. Gardens and Churches and Museums, oh my! Visiting a garden, church, or museum in Florence will be unlike anything that most people expect. More often then not, the lines between gardens, palaces, religious spaces, and museums are blurred. Palaces have gardens and sometimes a private chapel that is famously decorated or a church actually houses world famous artwork and charges admission. Just go with it. As any visitor to Italy quickly realizes, there are no rules here. The Boboli Gardens (yep, it’s one of those blurred lines since you have to enter through the grand Pitti Palace to get there) is always a top destination. From the city center, just head across the Ponte Vecchio (the only bridge with shops on it), continue on straight and follow the road (and the crowds) until you reach the enormous piazza and Pitti Palace entrance on your left. You can opt to visit just the gardens and/or a number of museums all located at the Pitti Palace. The sprawling gardens are enough to keep you occupied and entertained for quite awhile…fountains, grottoes, statues, tree-lined paths, and lots of stairs. There are countless museums spread all over Florence and while the Accademia (home to Michelangelo’s David) and the Uffizi (home to work by Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli) usually top everyone’s to-do list, I strongly recommend the Museo del Opera del Duomo (located just across the street from the duomo, walk toward the end of the duomo with the dome on it) and the Alinari Museum of Photography (in Piazza Santa Maria Novella near the train station). Both of these less-frequented museums are modern, sophisticated, and just plain fun to visit. You don’t have to worry about waiting in long lines and tour groups here. Make sure to bring a sketchpad and pencils (or crayons for the little ones) and see if there is an inner Raphael inside of you.
3. Bike Tours! There are many bike tours to choose from that either stay within the city limits or depart from the city and subsequently take place outside of the city in a slightly more bike friendly environment. Some tours involve sightseeing, food, and wine. These are the tours I prefer and recommend. Tuscany Bike Tours pick you up in the Florence city center and then whisk you away to nearby Chianti. Whether you are 8 years old or 80 years young, you will love this tour and the tour guides that do their very best to make sure you have the time of your life. Between exploring a castle and its tower, sampling bread, olive oil and wine (optional), and riding around Tuscany with the wind in your hair (well, the hair not covered by your protective helmet) you cannot go wrong.
4. Food for Thought! They say that food is a way to a man’s heart, but in Florence food is a way to everyone’s heart. The pizza and pasta are out of this world and you will be scrambling to find a way to bring gelato home in your suitcase. Does Customs allow dry ice? The answer is, no. I am getting off topic, but you get the point. Eating in Italy is an event, it is a sport and a national past-time. Get in on the game and see what the hole-in-wall café or pizzeria has to offer. If you are in town for a few days, visit a new gelateria (ice cream shop) everyday, try two flavors at each place, and rank your favorites. Another great way to enjoy incorporate food into your day is to visit the Mercato Centrale (central market) near San Lorenzo and not too far from the train station. Your senses will thank me. This gigantic multi-level covered market has everything from traditional cheeses, balsamic vinegar, spices, meats, vegetables, fruit, candies, cookies, and even fresh flowers. Everyone can find something spectacular here to take a great picture with (like an enormous slab of ham or giant wheel of cheese), take along on a picnic or take home as a souvenir. FYI – my favorite picnic spot is any grassy area in the Boboli Gardens. They let you bring in picnic food and stay all day. 5. Climb Something! There is always something spectacular to climb in Italy and Florence is no exception. You will have to earn the view, but it will be worth it. The top climbing destination is the dome of the duomo (the city’s main church). You can’t miss it; it is the enormous red brick dome on top of the enormous church smack dab in the middle of the city. Some call it the stairway to Florence’s heaven. The 463 steps to the top certainly make you feel like you are on top of the world. Along the way, you will find yourself on the inside of the dome inside of the church and super close to the frescoes (wall paintings) that decorate it. If you are still up for another climb, head next door to the Campanile (bell tower). It is a faster, more direct climb, and this time your view includes the duomo and its dome. Personally, I really love taking photos looking out of some of the bell tower’s flowery and star-shaped decorations (see photo above).
6. Get Creative! Bring paper, pencils, pens, charcoals, or watercolors with you. You don’t have to be an artist to take a moment and get inspired by what you might find by people watching, window shopping, or taking a breather on one of Florence’s many bridges. Pick up a soccer ball and kick it around with friends or head to a nearby piazza. With a soccer ball in hand you are sure to make some new friends quickly. Otherwise, pull out your camera and use it. If you are not into having your picture taken, then focus on what you do like. Someday you will be glad you did.
7. When the sun goes down! Florence really does have it all when it comes to nightlife. I do not just mean it has a ton of bars and dance clubs (which it does, of course). Florence is the place to be after the sun sets. While shops close by 7:30pm, the city is bustling with activity until much later. You do not have to be bar hopping either. Florence’s piazzas are alive with musicians and street performers. Families are often seen pushing strollers around town very late at night, teenagers are hanging out with friends, and students are looking for the best club to dance or karaoke the night away. The Odeon Theatre, which shows American movies in English with Italian subtitles, is another option for visitors of any age. Piazza della Repubblica around the corner from the Odeon is home to Gigli (a great café and bakery not too be missed) and a glittering carousel. Not a bad way to end the evening.