Italy: Venice with my curious five-year-old gave me a new perspective on travel

Venice: Five-year-olds are an unpredictable bunch. We were hurtling across Venice lagoon in a water taxi when suddenly the engine cut out with a loud bang. While I was scanning all directions trying to decide which offered the best chance of not drowning, my particular five-year-old was giggling and loving every second. The engine re-started, we shot off again, and I slouched back content that the next eight days crossing northern Italy were going to be absolutely fine.

Now, I know Venice, Florence, Pisa and Bologna aren’t the first places that come to mind when you think of being adventurous, or going off the beaten track. But when you’re bringing a five-year-old, even the supermarket can quickly turn into an expedition.

For the first few years of my daughter’s life our family holidays have revolved around a pool or beach, which is great, but, to me, there’s always a nagging feeling of missing the opportunity to explore and immerse yourself in a different country and culture. I wanted us to spread our wings.

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At the same time, I was worried about how it would work in reality and how we could balance our love of travel and exploration with not overloading and boring our daughter. After all, holidays are supposed to be relaxing and a tired and bored five-year-old is about as relaxing as being hit in the face repeatedly with a frying pan.

Why we chose Italy for our family adventure

So where best to try and show our daughter that travel can be so much more than the beach? We only had a week, so short-haul made the most sense – as well as being a more environmental option.

Knowing my wife loves Italy and my daughter loves pizza, Italy was a no brainer.

There were still plenty of places for me and my wife to explore and loads of kid friendly things to do if we needed to pivot away from my plan of culture, food, architecture, history, food, some football if I could get away with it (I couldn’t).

How to get around Italy with kids

Once we’d narrowed down where in Italy we wanted to go – Venice first, onto Florence, Pisa and back to Bologna and home – we needed to work out how we were going to get around and where we were going to stay.

Accommodation all came in the form of Airbnb. I know it’s a controversial topic at the moment, particularly in Venice, but we needed a base we could drop in and out of if needed and more importantly, the option for staggered bedtimes.

Next up was the car hire – or was it? Thanks to my agonising daily commute, I hadn’t considered trusting a significant part of our holiday to trains – a mode of transport I associate with being late and overcrowded.

But then I thought about the alternative, and the stress of driving in unfamiliar cities in an unfamiliar car with different road rules, all the time with a navigator who is probably as far from Marco Polo as you could imagine. I’d be a fool to not book the train – which was also really easy, by the way.

We went on a mission to discover why Venice has so many canals.

After the drama on the lagoon, and before we’d even arrived at our accommodation, the trip had already surprised me. I had underestimated how engaged my daughter would be with her surroundings.

It may seem completely obvious that Venice has a lot of canals, but this was news to my daughter, and she was stunned. This gave me an entirely new perspective as I wasn’t seeing Venice through my eyes alone, but also through the eyes of a five-year-old: “Daddy, why do they have canals instead of roads?” I didn’t have a straightforward answer.

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After stumbling around with a few vague answers including ‘marshes’, ‘escaping the mainland’, ‘they just do!’, and other equally wrong guesses, we decided to go and learn for ourselves.

From one seemingly basic question we spent nearly all day in various museums as questions were answered, new questions took their place and very quickly we’d become, in our own minds at least, explorers, historians and adventurers. It also meant, almost by stealth, I’d seen the museums I wanted – and we were only on day one.

This new outlook was evident everywhere we went: standing in front of Michelangelo’s David in Florence, “Daddy why hasn’t he got any pants?”; “I hope she doesn’t get stuck in that shell” while we admired Botticelli’s Birth of Venus; “Why didn’t they just build it straight?” in Pisa followed up with the disappointment in Bologna’s Two Towers – “They’re not leaning as much as the Pisa one”.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.

We interspersed culture with kid-friendly activities

We interspersed museums and culture with some more kid-friendly activities that, before, I’d have grumbled about being cliché and overdone. I soon realised the reason they’re popular is because they’re loads of fun.

It took a five-year-old to make me get over myself in that regard – we painted our own Venetian masks, we joined in some carnival activities, took a gondola ride, rode a carousel and took loads of photos propping up the leaning tower.

Despite my earlier misgivings, the train was a perfect way to get around. It allowed us to spend some down time together, giving us a chance to chat about what we’d seen and where we’d been.

We watched the Italian countryside go by and we became obsessed with the speed display (well over 200 km/h). I’m already looking at where else we can travel on trains in future.

Camposanto in Pisa.

I returned home wondering why we hadn’t taken this trip sooner

Why hadn’t we done this sooner? That was entirely down to my misgivings and underestimating the curiosity five-year-olds have, but I can’t be the only parent who has done that.

I’d love to say I went away with an open mind, but truthfully, I don’t think I did. I was expecting the worst while hoping for the best.

Instead, it exceeded my ‘best’ hopes. It has ignited a real interest in the wider world in my daughter and it has given me a new lens through which to see the world. It was also just a brilliant week.

If you recognise any of those sentiments, give it a go, book that trip, don’t try and overdo it, and most importantly, always carry snacks.