Discovering Florence with Kids
Like much of Italy, the city of Florence is bursting with things to see and do. The birthplace of the Renaissance is home to phenomenal museums filled with world-class art as well as incredible architecture from the fabled Duomo, clad in pink, white and green marble, to large, austere palaces built in local stone. But how do you tackle Firenze, and all the history and culture it has to offer, when your group ranges in age from 9 months to 75-years?
We were in Italy over Christmas to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. This was the first time to Florence for many of the group and any previous visits had taken place years ago (in my case, some 30 years ago!). Altogether we were 12; seven adults and five children. The eldest of the cousins was aged nine and the youngest just a baby.
A Family-Friendly LivItaly Tour
Finding a way for us all to enjoy Florence seemed like a Herculean task so we opted to call in the experts in and booked a Small Group Tour with Drawing Class, run by LivItaly Tours. This is a small, family-owned company that specialises in private and small group tours.
Normally LivItaly allows a maximum of six people on a tour (thereby avoiding the traditional tour model: large groups of tourists being herded from one sight to the next as quickly as possible). However, they kindly made an exception for us and so it was that we gathered on a rather wet and chilly morning, and the first day of our holiday, to meet our guide, Raffaela.
Our Wonderful Guide
Our meeting point was Piazza della Signoria, a large open square home to the Palazzo Vecchio, and the heart of Florence. This square has been the centre of political life since the 14th century, the setting for great triumphs and even greater tragedies. The Piazza also houses a number of sculptures, including a replica of David by Michelangelo. And it was with him, “Italy’s most famous naked man” that we began our tour.
If Raffaela had any doubts about shepherding such a large, disparate group through the city’s medieval streets, she certainly didn’t let on. And, without wanting to give away the ending, I will say that Raffaela was the reason why our tour was so great. An Italian American artist, who speaks Italian like a local and English like a New Yorker, Raffaela has been living in Florence for some 20-odd years and is a truly brilliant guide to the city.
After an introduction to Piazza della Signoria, we set off through the narrow city streets and Raffaela introduced us to daily life in Florence, a city where “art is beauty” and “food is beauty”. This personal insight is what we all enjoyed the most; seeing the city as a living, breathing place to live rather than just a museum-piece for tourists. Raffaela showed us her local vegetable store and the fishmonger where she buys her lunch. She pointed out the holes that punctuated the building walls above our head and explained that once upon a time, when political unrest kept resident indoors, locals would balance planks of wood between these holes to move from one location to another.
We strolled along “artist’s alley” as Raffaela explained how the city had been made up of various trades controlled by the guilds. Along here was Zecchi, the art store for artists. This shop is where Raffaela buys her supplies and where we stopped to pick up the sketchbooks and pencils that we would need for the final part of our tour.
An art shop has sat in this location for centuries and has always been an important destination for Florentine artists and painters. The Zecchi firm took over the business in the 1950s and has successfully managed to find, revive or reproduce all the colours and materials used by pre-Renaissance and Renaissance painters. The older kids were delighted by the row upon row of vibrant dried paint pigments lining the shelves in glass jars – it’s these pigments for which Zecchi is so famous.
Less impressed was my six-year-old daughter who wanted to know why the shop didn’t stock crayons. Raffaela patiently explained that crayons often smudge when drawing and it was this, no-question-is-too-ridiculous attitude, that kept all the children hanging onto Raffaela’s every word.
After Zecchi we wandered along to the Restoration Workshop, a studio where some of the greatest artists of the past once worked (this is where Michelangelo sculpted David, for example). Although the location has changed over the years, the current incarnation has been in situ since the mid-19th century. The workshop was shut when we visited owing to Christmas holidays but we could still peek through the window and see the tools of the stonemasons’ trade. Interestingly – although, according to Raffaela not surprisingly given Italy’s still largely patriarchal society – the workshop employs only men.
From here it was just a few steps to the famed Il Duomo, Florence’s iconic landmark that is even more impressive in the flesh than in pictures. The incredible cupola was the result of a contest held by the Florentine fathers in 1418 to find a way to deal with the enormous hole in the roof of their cathedral. But they didn’t want any old roof, they wanted something that would showcase the church as “more useful, more beautiful, more powerful and honourable than any other ever built”.
The competition was won by a “short, homely and hot-tempered” goldsmith named Filippo Brunelleschi. His design consisted of not one, but two domes, one nested inside the other. Remarkably, despite no formal architectural training, this design proved successful and incredibly, was built without scaffolding. The result is one of the most miraculous buildings of the Renaissance. It is possible to climb to the top but we were happy to admire the view from below.
At this point the walking tour usually carries on to the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s most famous bridge. But by now everyone in the group was rather cold and wet and so we decided to head back to our starting point for the drawing part of our tour.
How to find the best gelato in Florence!
Along the way Raffaela shared her best insider tip…how to find the best gelato store in town. The kids listened intently as Raffaela instructed them in how to differentiate between a good ice cream store and a bad one. Clue: don’t go for the shop that has mounds of ice cream on display as this shows the gelato is not fresh. The kids followed this rule religiously through the remainder of our Italian adventure!
Once back at Piazza della Signoria we took shelter under the outdoor heaters of a café and ordered hot chocolates to warm up. Traditionally this part of the tour takes place under the shade of the Loggia, surrounded by incredible sculptures. Our chosen location meant that our sketches were less inspired by the beauty around and us and more an exercise in getting the blood circulating again in our hands.
Nevertheless, Raffaela did her best to instruct us in various sketching techniques, which the more artistically challenged of our group (i.e., me), attempted to take on board. The kids, however, were in their element. Their results were less Renaissance-inspired and more the products of some very active imaginations but that, for me, was what made this tour so wonderful. The kids learnt that Florence was a place of great beauty and the birthplace of some of the world’s most famous art and architecture. As such, they were inspired to create their own masterpieces.
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Disclosure: I was offered a complimentary Small Group Tour with Drawing Class for the purpose of this review. However, as always, all opinions are entirely independent and my own. LivItaly Tours offer a range of tours across Italy, many of them child (and grandparent!) – friendly. For more details please see the LivItaly website.