Last Monday we came back from two and a half weeks of vacation in Italy with our two sons, three and seven years-old. A lot of people we’ve met on our trip or talked to beforehand called us “brave” (a euphemism for cray cray) for doing this. While two little boys may not be the perfect candidates for appreciating Italy’s rich history, architecture and art, we had an unforgettable experience travelling with them. There is, however, always room for improvement. Below is a list of some of the mistakes we’ve made during our trip. Hopefully you can benefit from our experience.
When booking your accommodations, do not rely exclusively on travelers’ ratings found on travel websites as they may not reflect your family's needs – Booking a five-star hotel is a no brainer. Since we’ve decided to splurge on the duration of our stay rather than the hotel’s rating, recommendations were crucial. While all three of the hotels we stayed in were recommended by other travelers, a couple of them were far less comfortable and family-friendly than the third one (the highly recommended Hotel Panorama in Florence). Your kids probably won’t care one way or the other as long as there’s a bed to jump on and a TV set, but I’m sure that you’d want to be comfortable on your vacation, even if you’re traveling on a budget. If you’re going to invest in a guidebook, I strongly suggest selecting one that includes hotel recommendations and consulting it beforehand. We’ve used Lonely Planet but didn’t notice the hotel and b&b category until it was too late.
If you’re going to dine out try NOT to rely on one guidebook exclusively – If you intend to dine out, it’s best to rely on a guidebook in order to avoid tourist traps, however while we found Lonely Planet’s recommendations for eateries in Florence to be spot-on, we felt that the same guide’s recommendations for the other cities we visited were hit or miss. We’ve discovered that one good way to get qualified recommendations was by asking the staff or even owners of recommended restaurants for theirs. In Florence we walked into a recommended rosticceria that offered a menu which was a bit too sophisticated for our kids. The shift manager was very understanding and recommended the restaurant next door. We ended up in one of the best restaurants we ate in during our trip (Ristorante Paoli). Another magical dining experience happened by pure chance. On the last day of our vacation, while in Venice, we wandered into a restaurant that had a bunch of Routard recommended stickers on its front door. (Antica Sacrestia) We weren’t familiar with this resource but after enjoying our meal so much I started noticing those stickers in other restaurants and pizzerias around the city. Upon return I Googled Routard. It looks like it’s a European-based travel website in French. Taste is individual, of course, and what I liked may not be your cup of tea, therefore my last recommendation concerning restaurant selection would be to consult with friends whose taste in food you trust. I’ve been following Em-i-lis – a blog that includes some great recipes for a while now. I've prepared and liked many of Emily's recipes . Through Facebook I knew that she had recently travelled to Rome with her family, so I contacted her for restaurant and gelateria recommendations and she didn’t disappoint.
Still on the subject of food. Do not make the mistake of assuming that your picky or conservative eater won’t try anything new – I have an extremely conservative eater in my seven year-old. He’s managed to be born and raised in North America without ever eating a hamburger. True story. Ask him about the highlight of his trip? He’ll tell you about the burger he ate at a restaurant in Florence where they played James Bond. The same picky eater had also consented to pasta with tomato sauce (pretty standard for most kids, I know), breaded shrimps and calamari AND, CHECK THIS OUT, meatballs in tomato sauce. After asking the server about the size of the portion we would typically end up ordering three dishes for our family of four as the portions were big enough (sometimes too big) for our kids to share. We would order one dish such as Pizza Margherita or pasta with tomato sauce as our “for sure dish” for the kids while the other ones would usually include one that was catered to our taste and another one that we liked and thought the kids would be open to trying.
Even if you’re travelling to a warm country do not leave your closed toe shoes at home – I know, I know, who DOESN’T pack sneakers? Big duh. I’ve come to accept that when I travel with my kids there is so much packing and prep and categories (don’t-pack-until-last-minute items, carry on items, suitcase items) that something will fall through the cracks. You just don’t expect it to be THE most important thing. Like comfortable shoes. While I find my flip flops and sandals not only fashionable enough for Italy (don’t judge) but also extremely comfortable, guess what, who cares that your toes are comfortable in your flip flops if your kids are going to step all over them twenty six times a day? Which leads me to the next point.
Do not forget to pack ALL OF THE BAND AIDS. ALL OF THEM - I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. Especially if you’re traveling with little boys. Especially if you only packed flip flops and sandals. I actually purchased one package with cute little Mickey Mouse characters to take with us on the trip, I look back at myself and laugh patronizingly: “look at you with your single package of Mickey Mouse band aids, having a bizzarely official conversation with the pharmacist in Rome about the nature of your child’s finger injury (see next bullet point)”. I certainly had enough band aids at home to sustain me through life without ever having to rely on the kindness of strangers but I decided to be cute. This is Katia. She wanted to be cute. Don't be like Katia.
Do not forget that your children don’t know how the most basic machinery operates in an unfamiliar environment – back to my toddler’s injured pinky and the subway system in Rome. My children ride the TTC with me sometimes but the gate system in Italy is different. The panels that snap open and close on the sides of the gate are quick and heavy which is why we put our toddler first in line. We didn’t want to risk having the doors close on him, so we decided he should go first. As it turns out we didn’t explain how the doors operate or that they will close again after they open and that you shouldn't stick your hands out as you go through. The door hit our toddler on his pinky finger and caused quite a deep cut. I still, at this point, had plenty of Mickey Mouse band aids and polysporin on hand but felt like this could be avoided.
Do not forget to take your small foldable stroller for your young child even if you don’t use it much anymore at home - My toddler will be turning four in August and doesn’t rely on the stroller often. We walked a lot in Italy and my husband carried our youngest on his shoulders until we remembered that we had our stroller which we used to make our lives easier at the airport. Duh.
Do not forget to inquire about wifi access at your hotel - by posting pictures from our trip as we were travelling I was able to keep our families back home updated on our adventures. My older child reached the age when he misses home and his friends and he talked about it a lot. As it turns out, my son's friends were missing him as well. The photos that we were posting allowed our son's friends back home to be included in his adventures to a certain degree. Some of the photos I posted prompted friends and family to share tips with me. I've received some fantastic advice from Evelyn Hannon, Journeywoman, whose website you must visit before you go anywhere just by posting our pictures on Facebook.
Bonus point for moms: do not rely on a regular adapter if you’re traveling with a flat iron (womp, womp, womp) - I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that if you're traveling with young children you may not have a lot of time to dress up or do your hair. You may be looking forward to this vacation as an opportunity to do just that. Wouldn't it be an awful shame if you took your flat iron with you not realizing that you would require a special kind of adapter for it and ended up destroying your adapter AND flat iron? As I was writing this post I found various online discussions. Some travellers purchased specific adapters for their flat irons. Others bought cheap flat irons in Europe, as an investment for future travels.
Don’t expect your children to experience your vacation the same way you do and don’t label the experience "a failure" if they don’t – on this trip we’ve seen (to name but a few highlights) the Colosseum and Roman forum, Pompeii, The Vatican and its museums including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Florence’s cathedral and baptistery. We climbed the cathedral’s bell tower, visited the Uffizi Museum and finished our trip in Venice. I already told you about my seven year old’s favorite memory from the trip - the hamburger at a random (NOT recommended) restaurant. If you ask him for some of the other highlights those would include pizza, gelato, chasing pigeons, observing bugs and hanging out in a miniscule Venice hotel room decorated like a bordello in bright burgundy wall paper. We didn’t kid-friendlify our trip in the sense that other than catering to their pizza and gelato needs there weren’t any amusement park tickets purchased and no two-level tourist buses mounted. We don’t travel to Europe every day – this was our first visit there since 2005 and we knew that this was our chance to revisit certain historical monuments and works of art and introduce them to our children and we knew that in between those visits our kids will find ways to entertain themselves. The kids often complained and objected and just as often they would get completely into it, it just seemed like their "into it" usually didn't coincide with ours. Once I've accepted that awe can't be instilled while knowledge and appreciation can I stopped feeling that slight sense of disappointment I felt when my kids failed to admire the cathedral in Florence or the fact that they were looking at a painting by Caravaggio. We also came to the conclusion that we needed to incorporate more frequent unstructured fun time at parks and playgrounds and to abandon our plan for the day in favour of resting in piazzas by fountains as children need time to be children even when the Colosseum is right there in the background, and that is my biggest take away from this trip.