Standing in the middle of the Piazza San Marco, I gazed up at the towering campanile as its bells marked the hour. Awestruck, I turned to take in the breathtaking, mosaic-covered basilica. As pigeons darted to and fro around my feet, love songs from the world-famous Caffè Florian filled the balmy evening air and I felt as if I were standing in a film set.
Venice. Surely the most romantic city on Earth? But then I felt a little hand tugging at my skirt. “Mummy...can we go now?” asked my three-year-old son, Alex.
My husband Cornel, son Alex and I live in Venice. Before our son’s arrival, the romantic, narrow maze of streets had been ours to explore as we wished – stopping every now and then for a coffee or cool drink.
I fell in love instantly with the city – with the turquoise, glistening sea in summer and the white, mysterious mist that hovered ethereally over the canals in winter. It was, simply, a romantic’s paradise. But now, with a young son to consider, the romantic side of Venice had to be put on hold. What toddler wants to gaze at Renaissance treasures or wander around art galleries?
And so at first we did what Venice lets you do best – we got lost. Walking off the beaten track, away from Piazza San Marco and Rialto, we discovered Venice is not just a city of stone palazzi and churches or high-fashion boutiques and souvenir shops. If you look hard enough, there are actually plenty of fun things to do for children. You simply have to venture a little further into the maze that is Venice.
Giardini, or Gardens, is just a couple of boat stops away from Saint Mark’s Square. Surrounded by trees and bushes cascading with jasmine, a walk through here can feel as if you’re not in Venice at all but a rural idyll. Here, Alex pinged himself out of his buggy straps and ran off to enjoy the two parks for children. There are swings, slides, climbing frames and a see-saw – all beneath a canopy of trees: a rare sight in built-up Venice.
A few steps onwards and over a bridge, we meandered on to the island of St Elena, another haven for those missing greenery. Here, Alex scampered off to another play park, before joining in with some local Venetian children on the football pitch while we sat in a nearby café and enjoyed two cappuccini and cream-filled croissants.
When Alex tired of these play areas, we set off on the waterbus to the island of Giudecca – just 10 minutes away by boat – where there are two more parks – Redentore, behind the famous Redentore church, and another at Palanca.
But when he’d had enough of running and climbing all together, we searched for more indoor-based activities. Walking around the sestiere of Dorsoduro, one of the six areas of Venice, we stumbled across Ca’ Macana, a mask-decorating workshop. Here, children can choose a mask from 43 varieties and learn how to paint it in true Venetian style.
Alex loved selecting his mask – an eerie-looking one with a long, white nose – and then sat happily for an hour painting it every colour of the rainbow. Each session is run by a mask-decorating professional who shows children how to use colour to make a funny mask, a beautiful one or even a downright scary one.
Ca’ Macana made the masks for the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, so Alex was learning from the very best. He left, grinning from ear to ear beneath his new creation and we had a priceless, original souvenir to take home.
Evenings, however, at first were a worry. In a city of romantic, bijou restaurants, where do you take a young child? Thankfully, we soon realised Venetians – like most Italians – adore children and little ones are welcome in even the most romantic, candlelit establishment. We set off to Campo Santa Margherita, a large square in Dorsoduro, packed with restaurants, bars and cafés.
Here, we found local children playing freely on their scooters, bikes and skateboards. Alex loved joining in with them while we sipped pre-dinner drinks at a nearby restaurant. Then, when Alex’s food arrived, he took a break from playing tag to join us again. Another evening, we visited Birreria in Campo San Polo. A pizza-lover’s paradise, this friendly restaurant is also geared up for children. It has hundreds of options ranging from the classics to unusual creations with page after page of wonderfully named pizzas including one called la scoassera, which means dustbin in Venetian – because of the sheer number of toppings it has.
But often the best things for children in Venice are merely stumbled upon. One evening, walking home after dinner, we came across a large crowd. We walked nearer and saw they were all watching a puppeteer perform street theatre for children.
The kids all sat cross-legged on the stone pavement, so Alex weaved his way to the front and joined other little ones and watched the incredible, old-fashioned wooden puppets perform. As they danced to beautiful music and with Venice as their backdrop, Alex’s eyes widened with wonder. He was transfixed and so were we.
Another perfect spot for children is the Lido di Venezia – a short boat ride away from central Venice. The long, sandy beach on the island is safe for swimming and you can rent sunbeds for the day while the kids build sandcastles or swim. There are two cafés on the beachfront serving snacks and main meals all day until late October, as well as a shop selling buckets and spades.
When we’d finished making sandcastles, we hired a four-post, four-wheeled pedal buggy-bike to get us around the island. Covered with a canopy, it’s a great way to cycle safely together and keep the blazing sun off your heads.
But the one thing that Alex loved best about Venice? A gondola ride. Gondolas may look like slim vessels but they can easily fit a pushchair on board – as we discovered – so little ones can stay safely strapped in.
Our friendly gondolier let Alex stand up for a few seconds with him to hold the oar and help row. We quickly grabbed our camera and captured the moment in order to remember it forever – but from the look of pride on his face it seemed as if it was something he’d never forget.
Venice just for adults? Of course it’s not, just ask Alex.