Italy-St Marks

Family City Breaks

For a moment I thought the maître’d of the city hotel might actually bar us from the restaurant. He glanced at our toddler twins, Joe and Ellie, then fixed me with an abhorrent look as if I was trying to bring a pair of rabid, mange-ridden dogs to dinner. We’d booked an early table, the restaurant was empty and there was nothing to say that young children (or rabid dogs for that matter) were not allowed. Earlier, we’d had the ‘raised eyebrow’ treatment in an art gallery and narrowly escaped eviction from the cathedral cloisters when Joe discovered its potential for echoes.

I admit that there are certain things in the world of family travel that simply don’t mix. There’s little point, for example, in taking toddlers to an antique-riddled boutique hotel, or six-year-olds to anywhere with a low occurrence of swimming pools. But I don’t see why young children and city breaks should be considered so incompatible.

I suppose, more than anything, the city break embodies those heady days of pre-parenthood when, as a carefree couple, you could nip off to Paris or Rome with nothing more than an overnight bag and a pair of theatre tickets. You could dawdle over lunch, go shopping and take in an art gallery or two. With youngsters in tow it can become more like a city breakdown as you haul your bored offspring from one museum to another, desperately trying to do the sights between tantrums. The mistake new parents make (and I am as guilty as any) is to try to recapture the essence of a city break as it was before they had children. It rarely works.

The key to remaining sane in the city is to re-prioritise. Don’t scour the city map for galleries and museums until you’ve pinpointed the parks, public toilets, family-friendly restaurants and nearest toy shop. As tempting as that new Picasso exhibition may be, begin your city escapade with something for the kids, whether it’s a hands-on exhibition, boat ride or trip to the zoo. With a bit of forward planning you can also pick out sites that have child-friendly activities, such as quiz sheets, craft areas, interactive exhibits and, joy of joys, a crèche.

One city that went down well with our kids was Naples – though not for obvious reasons. Pushing a double buggy around the cobbled backstreets was pure hell. For some reason, though, Neapolitans have a soft spot for twin babies. “Gemelli, belissimo!” people would cry as they spontaneously grabbed Joe and Ellie by the cheeks before delving into the nearest paticceria to emerge with fistfuls of cakes. My wife, Sally, and I would then watch, bemused, as our children were force-fed chunks of sfogliatelle and other traditional pastries. I’m not sure whether Joe and Ellie absorbed anything of particular artistic or historical value during that city break – but they certainly never went hungry.

>> Top 10 Cities for Children

>> Family City Break in Paris

>> Family City Break in Rome

>> Family City Break in Amsterdam