My husband and I were married in a civil ceremony in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy in fall of 2000. Needless to say, Florence has a special place in our hearts. Fast forward to 2015: We have two kids and a dog and live on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs. One of our family’s travel bucket list goals is to see all seven continents, so now seemed a good time to get our kids to Europe. They were 11 and 8, definitely old enough (in our minds) to handle an international trip, and since we hadn’t been abroad since before we had kids, we decided to roll the dice on a trip back to Italy in honor of our 15th wedding anniversary. We also decided to bring our 15 year old niece. Why not? In the end, we ended up spending two weeks in Italy and France.
Goals for Our Trip
Some travel goals we had in mind when our family was planning our itinerary:
Return to Florence
Our trip was definitely going to center on Florence, since that was where we were married, and we love the city.
Day trips from Florence
I’d been to Florence twice, but really hadn’t seen any of Tuscany. Our daughter loved horses, so that seemed like a way to experience Tuscany while doing something special for her. A day trip to Pisa also seemed logical, like something kids should see, even though it’s a touristy nightmare. We considered the Cinque Terre because my husband and I had loved it, but we felt the hiking might have been more than our youngest could handle.
Seeing more than one country
While we were in Europe, it seemed like we should try to see other countries, especially since we weren’t that far from several borders in northern Italy. In the end, we chose France and Switzerland. Our original plan was to stay in Switzerland for a few days, as we love the Alps and would have loved to show the kids, but after looking at the logistics of getting there and, more importantly, the costs of travel and lodging in Switzerland, we begrudgingly decided that we couldn’t justify the cost and extra travel time to stay in Switzerland this time around. Instead we ended up staying in Como, on the lake, and taking a day trip to Lugano, Switzerland from Como to say we’d been to Switzerland (even though it looks a lot like northern Italy).
Something for the young ones
Our niece wanted to see art museums (which I’d never done in Florence), so that was easy to accomplish in Florence, as well as at the Picasso Museum in Antibes. Our son loves obstacle courses, rock walls, you name it. So we found a zipline and ropes course near Antibes in Villeneuve-Loubet, France to meet his request. And I already mentioned our daughter’s horse riding request.
Something new for me and my husband
This was going to be my 3rd trip to Italy and France, and my husband’s 2nd. We’d obviously been to Florence before, and I’d been to Antibes and loved it. I selfishly wanted to make sure we saw something on the trip that was new to me and my husband but was a reasonable train ride from the Milan Airport, and Lake Como fit that criteria.
Our itinerary ended up as follows:
- Several hours exploring NYC while on layover at JFK (walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, then took a train to Central Park), sleeping on the plane our first night
- Riding the train from Milan to Florence, and spending five nights in an apartment
- Again taking the train from Florence to Antibes, spending four nights in an apartment
- Yet again taking the train from Antibes to Como, spending four nights in an apartment
- Finally, riding the train from Como to Milan airport
While many people wing it when it comes to their lodging reservations, we decided not to roll the dice, knowing we needed to find lodging for five of us, three of whom are children. Our experience has been that hotel rooms in Europe are pretty small, and with five of us, one of whom was a teenager and only child, we were going to need more space. We also like the option of being able to do laundry while traveling, so we can pack lighter, and a kitchen so that not all of our meals were in restaurants.
As a result we ended up getting rental apartments in each of our three stops. There was not a lot of hassle to booking the apartments, though we did end up wiring money to the owners of the home in France, which was new for us.
The biggest hassle was getting in touch with the owners/managers to let us into the apartment once we arrived. Each time we ended up sitting around with our luggage for at least 30-60 minutes, frantically trying to make calls. Also, some of us had trouble with the wi-fi password in Florence, so we had to contact our manager again (who was not the friendliest guy in the world). My advice, prior to leaving make sure you’ve given them your estimated arrival time and get clarity from them on exactly when and how you’ll meet up with a manager to get in. Even doing this, you can expect some chaos.
Our apartment in Florence was located near the Mercado Nuovo. We ended up renting from a rental company directly, rather than through VRBO or another intermediary. It was spacious and had a great view onto Via Rossa. It’s only flaw was that it was about five floors up, so lots of stairs. (It also had a crazy neighbor across the alley who threw some lemon rinds at our patio after I ignored his pleas to pay attention to him, but I digress.)
In Antibes we had a very cozy but charming apartment on a side street not far off the main shopping area. It was really convenient to everything in town there. The air conditioning didn’t work all that well, but we survived. We booked this apartment through VRBO, which is our usual vacation rental source.
Our Como apartment was very nice and spacious. We booked it on booking.com, which seemed to work fine. It was modern and well equipped…except that it didn’t have air conditioning like advertised. It was hot. And it was located on Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini, a busy square that was loud at all hours of the night, which meant it was way too noisy with the windows open. Unfortunately our niece had to share a room with our kids in this apartment, but it was a large enough apartment that people could get their space if needed.
By far the most stressful part of this trip for me was making train ticket arrangements. After much number crunching before the trip, we decided it wasn’t worth the cost for us to get Eurail passes, so we relied on point-to-point tickets. I decided to buy the main train tickets in advance (from the airport to Florence, from Florence to Antibes, from Antibes to Como, and from Como to the airport). But I didn’t receive an email with the codes I needed to access the tickets, and reaching someone on their customer service line took DAYS.
At last, I finally got ahold of someone who was not terribly fluent in English, and it ended up working out, but it was stressful. Also stressful was figuring out how to purchase tickets while in Europe, especially in France where they don’t have a lot of English translation, and worrying about whether we’d be able to travel from Antibes to Como the day after the strike. (Luckily that worked out as well.)
All of that being said, train is by far the best way to get from point to point in Europe. And I still love taking trains.
Five Days in Florence, Italy
We arrived in Florence tired but excited. Mission #1: find gelato. This place, right by the Mercato del Porcellino, ended up being our favorite place. And we tried a LOT of places.
Adventures on Horseback
Our first full day there, first thing in the morning, we had a horse ride out in Tuscany booked via Italy on a Budget, a tour company. We didn’t want to save the ride until later in our stay in case there was bad weather that would have postponed or canceled our tour. The driver who picked us up was friendly and informative, and a terrifying driver. He dropped us off at a horse ranch, where we were taken on a trail ride led by a cantankerous gentleman who did not speak English. Throw in one really sloth-like horse that only wanted to eat + our jet lag, and the ride was a little lacking in romance and charm. (I’m being diplomatic here.) But the views were wonderful.
After the ride we spent a little time in Monteriggioni, a small walled community. This was a fun little jaunt. And we got this keeper of our son, which we will forever treasure.
Art and Architecture
hat afternoon we had tickets to the Uffizi Museum. I’m not an art person, and I tend to only enjoy collections of a single artist (like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam or the Chagall Museum in Nice), but it was still fun, and our niece enjoyed it.
On the next day we climbed the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo. Not for those with who have physical limitations or claustrophobia, but if you make it up to the top, the views of Florence are spectacular!
Other things we did in Florence:
- da Vinci Museums: There are two da Vinci museums in Florence (both are referenced in the link). Both are kind of interesting places to spend an hour or so, especially with kids our kids’ age at the time.
- Leaning Tower of Pisa: This is a super touristy thing to do, but we couldn’t send the kids back to the US without being able to say we saw it. What is actually cool to see in Pisa is the Keith Haring mural. Definitely look that up.
- Jewelry Shopping: I like buying jewelry as a keepsake on my international trips. Given Florence’s notoriety for jewelry, I couldn’t resist getting a pair of earrings. Also, our daughter and niece got silver charms for a charm bracelet at Walter, the same store from which I got mine 18 years before.
- The Accademia: I finally saw the real statue of David! This museum is much smaller than the Uffizi, and again, I’m no artist, so I can’t give a fair assessment, but I’m glad we went.
- Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace: This area was really interesting. We spent a couple hours wandering around, but admittedly we were pretty tired by then.
- I just love Florence. It’s very walkable, and there is so much to do and see.
- June was a much busier time to visit Florence than our past trips in the fall. There were a lot more tourists this time around.
- Eat the gelato every chance you get. Seriously.
Four Days in Antibes, France
From Florence we took a train to Antibes, France, a small resort-y town on the French Riviera. After the hustle and bustle of Florence, the laid-back speed of Antibes was a refreshing change of pace.
Water and Beach Time
The kids were quickly drawn to the water and beaches. To be clear, this is really not a beach destination. There is nothing spectacular about them, but obviously kids don’t view it that way. A beach is a beach. Our son became a pro rock skipper on this trip.
My niece and I enjoyed the Picasso Museum in Antibes. Picasso spent a few months at this very site on the water working on his craft, and he donated quite a few pieces from his time there from post-WWII through the 1940’s. This building was (and currently still is) under renovation when we were there, so we could not see everything, but they charged a very reasonable entrance fee (3 Euros, I believe) as a result. This is more my kind of art museum…focusing in on one artist. You cannot take pictures in the gallery, but we both enjoyed the art on the terrace and the views of the Riviera.
Zipline and Ropes Course Adventure
On our third full day in Antibes we ventured to Villeneuve-Loubet to find Canyon Forest, a ropes course and zipline on the edge of town. True confessions: we were too chicken to try to navigate the bus system in French, so we walked what felt like an eternity to get there. (I’m happy to report that we rectified that on the way back to the train station. We were kicking ourselves afterward for how easy it was!) It was primarily a ropes course with a long zipline at the end, which was fun. It was all of our first time doing a zipline, and we loved it! You can find our review of the course here.
We had hoped to do a side trip to Monaco on our last day in Antibes. However, on that day there was a railroad strike, so services were extremely limited, and it would have been a huge pain to get there in any kind of a timely fashion. We sadly had to abandon that plan, but the upside was a relaxing down day in Antibes of shopping, wandering the beaches, and relaxing.
- Unlike Italy, the train ticket machines are only in French. Also, the ones we encountered in that area had a weird knob technology. I was lucky to have someone who spoke English see me struggling and help me out.
- Antibes is a lovely, laid-back destination. If you need a lower-key stop on your trip, this one is great.
Four Days in Como, Italy and Lugano, Switzerland
We were on the home stretch of our European adventure, so our energy levels were a little lower than earlier in the trip, so being in a city that wasn’t too large but had access to groceries and transportation options served us well.
Our first adventure in Como was to take a ferry to Bellagio. I’m not going to lie, this part of the trip was all about my “seeing something new” goal. The kids were tired and my husband was a good sport, but I adored this part of the trip. The boat ride on Lake Como was lovely, and Bellagio itself is as charming as I’d imagined. Lots of tourists, to be sure, but lovely. The town is very hilly (not surprising), so it was a little exhausting for our tired young tourists. It’s not hard to understand why George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin have a home there.
Back in Como we decided to take the funicular we’d seen along the lake to find Faro Voltiano, or the Volta Lighthouse in Brunate, a small village at the top of a massive hill outside Como. Alessandro Volta grew up in Como, and there are several monuments to him, including the lighthouse in Brunate. The funicular was crowded, and the 30 minute walk from the station to the lighthouse was really grueling and uphill. But the views at the top of the lighthouse were worth the effort. Luckily, the walk back to the station was a breeze!
At the end of our trip, we took a day trip by train to Lugano, Switzerland. It is a very hilly town that definitely has an Italian feel to it. Mostly we went just so the kids could say they’ve been to Switzerland. And of course, everyone got Swiss Army Knives (except me, because I still have one from my first trip to Switzerland in 1997).
- We had decided to stay in Como due to its location on the train line and access via ferry to other more charming Lake Como stops. Como itself was somewhat charming in places, but if you’re looking for a full Lake Como atmosphere you should probably look to other more charming little villages you can reach by ferry from Como.
- Do not go to Lugano, Switzerland on a Monday! All of their stores were closed when we got there. Oops. We went back on Tuesday, and all was good.
- Remember that Switzerland is not part of the EU, so they have their own currency, the Swiss Franc.
- My cellphone definitely had issues with getting data or phone reception in 2015. Purchasing a local SIM card didn’t work. Maybe now, a few years later, things would work more smoothly for me. I was reliant on wi-fi for two weeks, which was a little painful. Luckily Google Maps could still show me where I was going when walking somewhere.
- Pack light! We did not check any bags on this trip. We had backpacks, since in my opinion there is nothing more obnoxious than the sound of rolling luggage on cobblestones. (No offense to anyone physically unable to carry a backpack, of course.) Since our 11 and 8 year olds weren’t big enough to carry their own clothes, we ended up packing their clothes in our backpacks. Despite strongly recommending our niece do the same, her pack was pretty full. She also purchased a few books on the trip, which made for an even fuller pack.
- I wish I had enforced a stricter mandate for the kids to sleep on the plane on the way over, since it was an overnight flight. They were completely enamored with the movie selections on the plane, so they hardly slept. I think our jet lag may have lingered a bit longer and been a little more dramatic as a result.
- I didn’t post on social media while we were gone, and I have no regrets about that. It didn’t distract me from living in the moment, and I wasn’t broadcasting to the world that our house was empty.
- We ended up having burgers at least twice on the trip to curb withdrawal symptoms for a few of our pickier eaters. Do what you need to do on an international trip. Not every meal needs to be an adventurous meal.
- If you are taking a teenager on the trip, do everything you can to ensure they have some space to themselves. That worked pretty well for us (though I should ask her how she felt about it).
- We have officially created international travel addicts! Our kids can’t wait to travel abroad again.
Is your family going to Europe for the first time? This post from Everyday Wanderer has a lot of helpful advice!
If you found this post helpful, try World is Wide’s destination from our family’s travel bucket list: