Florence city centre is not the easiest place to visit with kids.The city is absolutely stunning, but the kind of experiences it offers are kind of a hard sell to kids, especially very young ones.
The colourful churches and the medieval towers that make adults travel here from the other side of the world only mean so much to small children, and while they are fully able to notice how different everything is from back home, they would still trade any Florentine building with a stop at a playground.
This doesn’t mean that you should give up on the idea of visiting and take a walking tour of Florence city centre with kids: today, we did just that and saw that with a bit of lateral thinking we all had a great day. We wanted to see Florence’s main squares and we devised an itinerary that we hoped would keep us and the kids happy.
We followed a couple of principles:
One: don’t be overly ambitious. To avoid majour breakdowns and tiredness, we always make sure that the itinerary is short and doesn’t involve too much walking (aka: time on dad’s shoulders).
In this case, we went to the city centre in the afternoon and only spent about 3 hours there. This is definitely not enough to see Florence city centre well, but it gave us a strong sense for the place nonetheless and the mood stayed good, which made for a fun day out!
Two: plan stops that have something for you but also something for the kids.
Sometimes the main landmark you want to visit is really of little interest for a child. In that case, it is a good idea to see if you can find nearby what I call a ‘parallel attraction’, something that the kids can enjoy and that can justify the visit from their point of view.
This is the itinerary we followed: thanks travelabulous for the wonderful map!
Florence city centre with kids: self-guided Florence walking tour
First stop: Santa Maria Novella (church)/ Santa Maria Novella (gelato)
We started our Florence walking tour of the city centre from the main train station, Santa Maria Novella. The station takes its name from beautiful Santa Maria Novella church and indeed the two buildings are incredibly close to each other.
Walking out from the station, the back of the church is to your right and it only takes a couple of minutes to walk around its perimeter and take in its stunning facade. Many pictures have been taken of it, all better than mine, but I was there and inevitably took the shot:
Santa Maria Novella, our first stop in our Florence with kids itinerary
Santa Maria Novella is one of Florence main churches: its original building dates back to 9th century, but it is only in 1221 that the church acquired the distinctive marble facade we now admire. In that year, the original oratory in this site passed into the hands of the Dominican order and two Dominican friars, Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi, took charge of the building work that added to the church the bell tower, the sacristy and the peculiar style of decoration known as Tuscan Gothic. When the building was completed, the church changed its name from Santa aria delle Vigne to Santa maria Novella (‘New’ St Mary).
We had hoped that the colorful facade and the many arches would capture the imagination of my kids for at least 30 seconds, but this wasn’t the case. What really took them was the gelateria beside the church!
This little shop sells juices, cold beverages and gelato and even without an active toddler makes for a nice stop (is was 33 degrees today…)
Gelato in hand, we left Santa Maria Novella and headed towards Piazza Duomo. I always try to avoid looking at maps (It’s my obsession about trying to look local…) and, in this case, I could easily pretend I knew my way around: from Santa Maria Novella the Duomo plays peek a boo and all you need to do is follow its majestic dome
Second stop: Santa Maria del Fiore/horse carriages
Santa Maria del Fiore is one of my favourite buildings in Florence. I know it’s hardly an unusual preference, but I find its colours and the juxtaposition of the marbles and the red tiles of the dome really particular. The kids did look at it and even marveled at how tall the campanile is.
Probably the two most distinctive traits of this church are the elaborate facade and the imposing red tiled dome, the iconic shape making Florence’s skyline unique in the world. The main church building was built by Arnolfo di Cambio towards the end of the XIII century, while the dome was added later, in the XV century. History tells us that the dome, the biggest of its kind in Europe, posed a problem to its builders: because of its peculiar shape and size, bigger even than the dome of the Pantheon, the dome could not be erected following traditional building methods (it would have collapsed under its own weight) and so new building techniques had to be devised. The solution to this came from architect Brunelleschi, famous for its work of perspective, who took over the supervision of the building work and managed to ‘close up’ the dome, seal it with the lantern on top and create a support system that allowed the dome to support itself.
The church and the dome are open for visits (Church admission: free; visit to the dome: 10 Euro at the time of writing) and they are definitely worth a stop. The church is accessible with strollers from the side entrance, while the dome can only be accessed by no less that 463 steps – climb with caution!
Our preschoolers didn’t seem too impressed by the history of the church, but they soon as they discovered something that caught their eyes: the tourist horse carriages parked beside it. They loved the horses and counting them (‘there is one, two, THREE!!!’ – actually, there were 5) kept them amused and entertained while we adults took the obligatory picture of the upper part of the church.
Beside Santa Maria del Fiore and just in front of the carriages, you can also admire the Battistero and its wonderful Northern door by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Stop 3: Piazza Della Signoria/ waterfall of chocolate
We left the horses in piazza del duomo and ventured towards Piazza Della Signoria, following stylish via dei calzaiuoli. This via is full of stylish shops and one of them got the attention of all four of us: it’s Venchi and it’s back wall made of a waterfall of chocolate: so decadent!
After the massive gelato we had earlier, I refused to buy additional sugary food, but I could tell from the faces of the patrons that Venchi would have not disappointed. Neither did wonderful Piazza della Signoria:
Stop 4: Ponte Vecchio and piazza Della Repubblica/the ever turning merry go round
After Piazza della Signoria, beyond the imposing entrance to the Galleria degli Uffizi, you finally reach the Lungarno and come to famous Ponte Vecchio. maybe the most iconic site in Florence, Ponte vecchio is indeed a peculiar and beautiful vestige of Medieval Florence: the walk across is, admiring the many jewelry shops, is a must in Florence, but I personally find its beauty can be better embraced from the river banks or, even better, crossing the bridge further down the river.
Bridges are always a great hit with my kids (along with tunnels) and Ponte Vecchio was no exception, but what the kids found right after it, in piazza Della Repubblica, blew all the rest out of the water: they found merry go round!
There was no discussion abut it the kids went on and, of course, we decided to act like the tourists we are and got on ourselves. incidentally,w e discovered that the merry go round is a fine example of Florentine woodwork and has been in the Piazza since the early XIX century: we had to try it!
It was a (very hot but) fun afternoon and so after the merry go round we set off to go home to our lovely Florence neighbourhood of le cure – you can read about it here, where you will also find recommended accommodation.
On the bus, a lovely woman started to make conversation with my husband and my son and, eavesdropping, I learnt hat my son loved Florence, but still preferred Rome. What? After all this?
The woman seemed to disagree with him (a true Florentine, she was defending her city) but she had to let the matter lie when my son declared solemnly that he prefers Rome ‘because nonno and nonna are there’. Rome – Florence: 1-0!