Start planning a visit to Venice, and – along with gondolas and ancient canals – a list emerges of high-brow cultural pursuits: seeing the Titians, Tintorettos and Canalettos, listening to a spot of Vivaldi, donning a mask at the Carnevale, and sampling a local Valpolicella with a slurp of slippery seafood. Little wonder, then, that this is typically considered a romantic child-free destination. But as Melanie and Andy Fraser discovered alongside their two-year-old son Ben, there are plenty of family-friendly joys to be had in this ancient Italian metropolis. Here are their top five recommendations.
1. Take a Water Taxi
No trip to Venice is complete without a boat trip along the canals. We side-stepped sleepy gondolas and crowded vaporettos (water buses) for our own water taxi ride (you’ll find them “parked” all along the canals; be sure to negotiate your price in advance). There the three of us enjoyed our very own James Bond moment sat on cream leather upholstered shiny wooden speedboat. Pricey? At approximately €50 for 40 minutes, yes. Worth it? Totally. We enjoyed a leisurely sightseeing cruise, with Ben waving back at tourists on every bridge we passed under, and the driver stored our pushchair and let Ben “drive”. It truly was the best way to see the sights: fancy queuing up to stand in a 100-strong crowd on the Rialto Bridge for two minutes? I’ll view it from my own private speedboat, thank you very much. Number one memory. No contest.
2. Get Lost
With small children in tow, the prospect of queuing in hot weather to gain access to popular tourist sites is unappealing – see Rialto Bridge, above. We had as much of an adventure getting lost in the city’s narrow alleyways and piazzas. Starting at Piazza San Marco (see below) and heading north, off the beaten track and away from the crowds, we explored the shops, cafés and gelaterias (ice cream stores) that line the mainly pedestrianized city centre. Be warned: the bridges over the canals are not pushchair-friendly, but outside peak season (Carnevale in February or early March, Easter, and the summer months of June to August) the pressure to cross quickly dissipates, so we were able to stop and watch passing gondolas, complete with singing gondoliers, without forking out their €80 fares.
3. Hit the Square Running
Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) – which Napoleon called “the drawing room of Europe” – is not only an emperor’s but also a toddler’s dream, with open space, sunshine and pigeons galore. Children will love chasing, feeding or – in Ben’s case – chatting to the pigeons, in between sneaking peeks of three of the city’s main sights: the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica), the Doge’s Palace, and Torre dell’Orologico clock tower. We visited in September, so there was lots of space to run around in the fresh air. A perfect excuse to grab a gelato and rest up after wandering the streets.
4. Play Around
While Venice has museums and churches in abundance, it also has some very picturesque parks with playgrounds and ludoteca (playrooms). And it has to be said: the Italians know how to do a good playground. Head to Cannaregio in the residential north-west of the city for two of the best family-friendly parks. Parco Savorgnan, just off Campo San Geremia, has a brilliant playground with swings, slides, and even table-tennis tables. Set in botanical gardens, it is great for a picnic and getting back to nature. Meanwhile Parco Villa Groggia, (Cannaregio 3161) is a haven of peace, with paths and designated quiet places. For the kids there is a pool and a playroom named Ludoteca La Cicala e le Formica (The Grasshopper and the Ant), which runs arts and crafts workshops (pay €10 for a Venice Playroom annual pass).
5. Take to the Coast
The Venetian coastline stretches for miles, and is accessible by a 40-minute ferry journey from the main terminal at Riva degli Schiavoni (near central Piazza San Marco) to Punto Sabionni. From here, take the bus along the coast to Jesolo, hopping off at quiet resorts such as Ca’ Savio for quieter beaches with room for everyone. Here you can join in with kite-flyers or simply enjoy the sandcastles and gentle, clear surf. Jesolo itself is a child-friendly resort with Lego-inspired ‘Brick on the Beach’ festivities during the summer, giant sandcastles, and a great Sealife Centre. Ben highly recommends any of the beaches along this stretch of coast!