I know the Tuscany rental house is practically a cliché. But it made a perfect family vacation for us last summer. We traveled to Italy in August, dividing our time between Rome and Tuscany. First we spent a few days in Rome to get acclimated to the time-zone change and see a few iconic sites: the Colisseum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps. Then we drove to Poggibonsi, a town in the Chianti region, where we spent a week at a villa in the Tuscan countryside. (It makes me wince to call it a “villa”—it sounds so precious and overly fancy, when it was anything but.)
First of all, Italy is perfect for kids. The countryside is absolutely beautiful; there’s fabulous scenery and history—and water. And the people, from waiters to tour tuides to hotel concierges to gelato-shop workers, are warm and welcoming. (Well, except for the Rome taxi driver who ripped us off.) The food is obviously delicious (even on the road; seriously, eat at the AutoGrill, no joke). My picky daughter could, and did, have pizza, pasta, and ice cream every single day.
Our Rome hotel (Hotel Capo da Africa) was beautifully decorated, with high ceilings, sleek furniture, marble bathrooms, delicious Euro-style breakfasts, and a lovely roof deck where we had drinks at night. The place was stylish, well located (two blocks from the Colosseum), and definitely kid-friendly.
Because we had only two days in Rome, we knew we couldn’t do everything. To hit the highlights, we arranged a private custom family tour of the city (Rome Kids Tours). Our guide was instantly charming, full of great kid-centered information. (Given the heat, being driven around in a sparkling new Mercedes van didn’t hurt either.) She took us to sites, like a hilltop keyhole with a perfect view of the Vatican, that we never would’ve seen on our own. Plus she knew the best public bathroom and the best place to get gelato—and when to take a break from all the sightseeing, pull out her iPad and just show off silly animal photos.
As for our Tuscan “villa”? I found it easily enough on Homeaway. Il Villore, a group of stone buildings perched on a hillside, is managed by its owners 40ish son, Antonio, who’s on location most of the time; he gave general information and help, like restaurant and day-trip recommendations (and directions to the nearest supermarket). Our apartment, in Villore’s main house, had two sweet bedrooms, an adorable kitchen/dining/living area, and was surrounded by beautiful grounds: olive and fig and plum trees, lavender bushes, stone buildings, gravel roads. In every direction was a perfect view. We spotted frolicking deer and a baby wild boar. On our first morning, I glanced out the bedroom window and saw a pony grazing beneath the olive trees.
For my animal-loving kids, Villore was paradise: Beetles, lizards and butterflies were everywhere. We ate dinner outside and watched the sun set over San Gimignano in the distance. We made friends with the other families—French, Dutch, German—staying for the week. One night Antonio made pizza in Villore’s ancient woodburning oven; the other families all shared wine and stories, while the kids ran around chasing bugs and playing with the resident dog. On our last night, Antonio set up a big screen so we could all watch the Palio being run in Siena nearby. Everyone brought food, so we had a Euro/American potluck with carbonara, tripe (!), and fajitas.
Possibly the best part of all: We swam in this pool every day.
We also explored the surrounding area. Each day we drove to a different town or beach, each one more picturesque than the last: Monteriggioni, Radda, Castellini, Castiglione della Pescaia. One day we ventured to Florence—a bit more ambitious than the other small towns, but we kept it easy for the kids; we simply strolled around, tracked down sandwiches we’d liked on a trip years ago (they were worth the trek) and visited the zoological museum instead of the Uffizi.
Sure, it wasn’t perfect. My kids got whiny in the Roman heat. Driving the winding Tuscan roads in a stick shift made for some, um, memorable moments. And everything logistical had a glitch: flights, car rental, bank-card access. (Travel tip: alert your banks that you’ll be traveling abroad so an unexpected foreign transaction doesn’t trigger fraud-detection systems.) Still, it might have been our best family vacation so far. I’d say Rome is slightly better for older kids—or at least young ones who like ancient history. And renting a house in Tuscany, with its slower pace and natural beauty, was complete bliss.
Nadya lives in Bethesda, MD, and is the author of the blog Blue Locket.