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Italy Q&A: Entertaining Teenagers in Italy

Here’s another in the Italy Q&A series. It’s from Mac, who says:

I will be traveling with my husband, 16 year old son and 14 year old daughter in June. We will be spending most of our time between Florence, some Tuscan hill towns, and Cinque Terre. Do you have any suggestions about how to keep our teenagers happy on this trip? We will be taking trains and buses for transportation. Also, if you have any suggestions about lodging that would be appreciated.

Thanks for the email, Mac! Keeping kids entertained while traveling depends largely on the kinds of travelers they are in general, and the kinds of things that interest them. If you’ve taken your kids on trips before and they’re relatively good travelers, then Italy shouldn’t be a problem for them. There’s plenty here that’s interesting to people of all ages, from food to fashion to scenery. And if they’re tolerant of the occasional art gallery or museum – as long as things like shopping and gelato are sprinkled liberally in as well – then you probably don’t have anything to worry about.

Having said that, most of Italy’s bigger tourist destinations are getting better about providing parents with new ways to help translate all this important stuff they’re seeing into words even the youngest of travelers can understand. Florence, for instance, partnered with Disney Publishing Italia last summer to create essentially a “Disney Guide to Florence.” It featured Donald Duck and family romping through Florence’s main attractions, explaining them in a way that young kids can understand and appreciate. When I was in Florence recently I picked one up, but all they have left now is the Italian version (it was completely free, and incredibly popular). I don’t know if they have plans to reprint it for the upcoming summer tourist season, and I’m not sure if it’s targeted at an audience that’s really too young for your kids’ ages, but when you swing into a tourist information office in Florence you might ask about it anyway. And, in general, I’d suggest that in whatever city or town you visit you find the local TI (tourist information) and ask what resources and guides they have for teenagers.

In addition, a book came out last year (I have it at home, but haven’t had a chance to review it yet!) called “Rome with Kids: An Insider’s Guide” – I know you don’t have Rome on your itinerary, but you might see if your local library has this book to find out if there are any overall tips you can get from it in terms of helping kids understand what they’re seeing when they see Italy. One book I have and have used on several occasions (including once when we escorted my husband’s then 18-year-old sister around Italy) is Rick Steves’ “Mona Winks.” Unfortunately it’s now out of print, but I believe Steves has put the self-guided tours that were once in that book in each of the country-specific (or city-specific) guidebooks he writes. The great thing about the self-guided tours in “Mona Winks” was that they were just in-depth enough for you to understand why you were supposed to be impressed by what you were looking at, but Steves doesn’t dwell on everything in a museum or gallery. He points out the important stuff and moves you right along. My 18-year-old sister-in-law was as interested (if not more) in the tours as my husband and I were. Check a new Rick Steves Italy book out of the library (or thumb through one in the bookstore before you buy) to make sure there are self-guided tours in there.

Of course, part of the issue with teenagers (and younger kids, too) is not that they won’t understand what they’re seeing, but they’ll just get plain old bored after awhile. And that’s understandable. Heck, I get bored after awhile! I’m not a parent, but in my own experience it’s important to not be so rigid with your plans that you can’t take a break or choose to do something else midway through any given day. If, after one or two museums or galleries I’m “museum’d out,” I’ll take a break by either walking around a part of the city I find charming, browsing shop windows (or actually shopping!), or even just sitting in an outdoor cafe with a coffee or a gelato, enjoying the view. You know your kids better than anyone else, so you’ll be able to know when they’re ready for a break!

A couple things you might consider, depending on what your kids are into, is to treat them to something especially Italian as a “reward” for sticking it out through galleries or museums or the like. If someone’s really into music, find out what the latest and hottest Italian pop (or whatever) group is and buy a CD. If someone really likes shopping, keep an eye on what color all the locals are wearing or the one that dominates all the fashionable shop windows, and buy something in that color. These are fun ways to take home a piece of a vacation, and then when friends back home say, “Oooh, that’s cool, where’d you get that?” the reply can be, “Oh, I picked it up in Italy” with a little smile. That’s pretty fun.

For the destinations you’re hitting in particular, I’d say the biggest challenge might be the Tuscan hill towns. In Florence, there’s plenty of shopping and gelato (don’t forget to eat lots of gelato!) in addition to the galleries and museums. In the Cinque Terre there’s great hiking and a couple decent beaches (provided your kids like hiking and beaches). In the Tuscan hill towns, there’s basically lots of pretty things to look at that’ll make romantic adults sigh and swoon… And may make kids roll their eyes. You don’t say how much time you’re spending in each place, and of course I don’t know your kids, but that’d be the part I’d be most concerned about with entertaining them.

Also, since you’ll be taking mass transit between destinations, remember to have them bring along stuff to keep themselves happy while on the train or bus. For me, that’s something to read and my MP3 player, and your kids may be the same – but just remember that they’ll need something to do when looking out the window at the pretty scenery gets boring.

I’ve gone on a bit here, but I’m not a parent – so if you want to chat with other traveling parents for more ideas or actual tips for visiting Italy, I’d recommend you sign up on the BootsnAll message boards and check out the Traveling With Children forum. It’s a nice group of parents (many of whom are taking long-term round-the-world trips with their kids!) who are eager to swap tips and ideas. There are also entire websites dedicated to traveling with kids, which you can find by searching for “Italy for kids” or “Italy with kids” or the like.

As for lodging, you can search for hotels or hostels (the latter listings also include budget hotels, B&Bs, and some apartment rentals) in the cities you’ll be visiting. In the Cinque Terre many of the real budget places are apartment rentals, and many are also tough to find online. It used to be you could just show up in the Cinque Terre and find someone waiting at the train station with a sign advertising rooms for rent – that’s harder to do these days with as popular as the area is, so I’d advise booking ahead. Florence is littered with hotels at every budget level, and many Tuscan hill towns have a good combination of hotels and B&Bs. I’ve stayed in San Gimignano and Siena; with either one, I’d recommend finding a place within the old city walls so you’re right in the middle of the stuff you want to see. It also makes it much easier to go out for an evening walk with a gelato in hand when it’s right out the front door of your hotel.

Whew! I think I’ve covered everything, but please let me know if you have other questions! Have a great trip!