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Italy review: Ischia (awesome!), Rome and Venice with older kids

PART ONE: GETTING TO ISCHIA

We took our kids to Italy – their first trip to Europe – in July 2019. Kids are ages 12 and 21 (with high-functioning autism).

We booked air, hotel and trains through EuropeanDestinations.com out of convenience. It all worked out well. They were easy to deal with and responsive. Next time, I’d probably book everything myself, but for this trip, I don’t regret using them.

Things were much cheaper everywhere than in Chicago! Leather! Purses. Shoes. Wow. Women’s clothes (in small boutiques; department stores were expensive). Wish I had had more time for shopping. Even food and taxis weren’t expensive.

We flew into Rome with air transfer to Naples. Took a taxi from the airport to the dock (Molo Beverello). There are set taxi rates for major stops, but there was a special sporting event in Naples which had a lot of streets closed, so the “predeterminata” rates didn’t apply. The taxi drivers didn’t speak English and ranted and raved and waived their hands around when we asked about the set rates. You can find the rates online and they are posted at major taxi stands.

ISCHIA

We chose Ischia because it was off the beaten path, and we didn’t want to be in big cities for the whole trip. It’s also close to Mt. Vesuvius and Pompei so we could do a day trip (although, with the ferries, it’s a long day). The best information about Ischia is the “Ischia Review” website (https://www.ischiareview.com/). Ischia is best known for its spas and thermal baths, as well as the Aragonese Castle. It’s also got hiking trails, wineries, museums, and pretty little towns and is generally low key and child-friendly. Excellent place for a vacation.

Getting to Ischia: Note that when taking a ferry to Ischia from Naples, there are multiple ferry companies and there are multiple docks. Porta di Massa has the car ferries (which we didn’t take) and, for pedestrian-only passengers, they are cheaper and slower. We used Alilauro out of Molo Beverello out of convenience (faster, more expensive, pedestrian only; no cars). Medmar also runs the faster boats out of Beverello, but they seems to run less often. Once you get to Molo Beverello, you’ll see the ticket windows directly opposite Castello Nuovo. On either end of the ticket building are large screens which show the schedule. Find which company you want, go to that company’s window, and ask for the next (“prossimo”) to Ischia. Each ticket window will also probably have a sign that says something like “Prossimo a Ischia 15:30”. Note that there are multiple ports on Ischia, so be sure you are going to the right one. “Ischia” is “Ischia Porto”. Once you have your tickets, it’s still hard to find the right dock/boat and there’s literally no one to ask. Go to the right/north behind the ticket building, by the water, where’s it’s roped off. There will be workers there who know where your boat will be. Waive your tickets at them and ask “Dove?” or “E qui?” and they will point you to the right waiting area. It’s about an hour on the boat to Ischia Porto. There are drinks and snacks for sale. Some boats have a small open deck (very windy; the boats go fast); others don’t. One crossing was a little bumpy, but not bad. Buying the return ticket in Ischia can be challenging. There’s a large Alilauro/Captain Morgan ticket office right at Ischia’s port (near but not right at the docks, southeast corner of the port), but note that there’s also a small Alilauro storefront ticket office on the street that runs along the south side of the port, and each might not sell the same tickets from day to day! Look at which boats they have posted; if your boat isn’t posted, you may need to go to the other office. The Medmar ferry ticket office is on the west side of the port.

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PART TWO: ISCHIA

Ischia Porto is east of the port, and beyond that is Ischia Ponte (toward the castle). Ponte is really cute; I’d like to stay there. Lots of restaurants. We didn’t really get to explore west of Porto (Casamicciola, which is also a port; Lacco Ameno; then Forio which has a lot of the best restaurants according to online reviews). On the south side of the island, you’ll find the best beach plus St. Angelo, which is very pretty.

There’s a good bus system. Buy tickets at bars.

We stayed in Ischia Porto because I wanted to be able to walk to the hotel from the port because we knew we were going back and forth for a day trip. We stayed at a little three-star family run place, Hotel Postiglione (http://www.hotelpostiglione.it/english/), which was a perfect introduction to Italy for the kids. We had a third-floor quad with a tiny balcony. Good AC, good towels, decent beds, good bathroom, excellent coffee, basic breakfast included. The location was great: about 10 min walk from port, right between a main road (Via Alfredo de Luca) and the shopping/pedestrian area (Via Rome/Corso Vittoria Colonna). “The Corso” is full of shops and restaurants. After dark, there’s tons of people out walking. The “bars” give you a good view of the scene, and give you snacks with your cocktails. Good with kids. (Tip: Use the cash station at UniCredit on Via Alfredo de Luca not the Bank of Naples on the Corso. After we tried Bank of Naples, our bank flagged our account for fraud and we had to call the bank. UniCredit worked well in every city and had good rates, but it wouldn’t always let us take out as much as we should have been able to. Credit cards worked fine – except once. Have a backup plan!)

Day one, we rented a boat (gozzi) with skipper. We rented through Ischia Review because they had good reviews (and reviews of anything in Ischia are pretty scarce), but the boat was actually provided by West Coast Rentals (http://www.westcoastischia.it/en/). It was awesome. Five stars to West Coast Rentals. The rental (which was cheap) included soda and water (but they threw in some prosecco), snorkeling gear, and towels. Our skipper was Gian Luigi, who was a great tour guide. He took us to quiet swimming spots, including a place where we could swim through a cave, he found fish for the kids to look at, dove down to get sea urchins for us, took us to a restaurant only accessible by boat (“the service isn’t good, and the two grandmas who cook yell sometimes, but the food is good”), gave us a tour of the restaurant’s garden including catching a chicken for the kids to pet, and made mud mask for us. Totally worth the money.

Day two, we went back to the mainland for a private tour of Mt. Vesuvius and Pompei. We are big history and volcano buffs, so this was an expensive splurge for us. We booked it through Leisure Italy because their reviews were good and their website described exactly what we wanted. Vincenzo, the guy I dealt with for booking, was very responsive via email. We were picked up in the port by Fabio in a Mercedes van. Fabio was great; very nice. He drove us up Mt. Vesuvius, stopped and showed us where to buy tickets, drove us up as far as he could, then we hiked up. It was HOT and took 30-45 minutes to hike up on loose gravel. Wear good shoes. When we got to the top, there were tours by a volcanologist, which was very nice. I wish we could have stayed longer and hiked more, but it was HOT. (88 degrees in Naples that day.) Then Fabio recommended a restaurant right outside Pompei, Hortus Pompei, which was actually pretty good for a tourist place (bustling, good service, nice to the kids), and we had a private tour of Pompeii with Livonia. It was an excellent tour. Then Fabio drove us back to the port. Five stars for Leisure Italy.

Note that for both the boat rental and the tour, we paid a deposit ahead of time and then had to pay the balance in cash. That’s tricky if you have trouble with cash stations. Plan ahead!

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PART THREE: ISCHIA AND ONTO ROME

Day three, we walked over to Aragonese Castle, which was absolutely gorgeous (ruins, views, fruit trees, flowers) and very interesting. Highly recommend it. They have a nice brochure (go in next to the ticket booth, not up the ramp; we and a few others ended up doing the tour backwards) and there’s a restaurant (maybe two) where you can get snacks and drinks with a great view. Wear good shoes; lots of stairs and tunnels.

We ferried back to Naples, caught a cab to the Centrale train station (note that there are two train stations, right next to each other!), and headed to Rome on the IntraCity train. I kid you not, the numbers of the seats weren’t in order: 32, 38, 43, 42. Never really figured out where our seats were but train wasn’t crowded.

ROME

In Rome we stayed at the Spagne Ave hotel (http://www.spagnave.com/?lang=en), which is between the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. I think we probably could have found a more convenient neighborhood, but it was ok. Lots of shops and restaurants and near a Taxi stand. Also, it was near the Corso (via del Corso), a (sometimes) pedestrian area that was a nice place to stroll. No breakfast included, but across the street and south a few storefronts is a place with good breakfasts and coffee. Check in is on second floor; desk is not staffed 24 hours, and the building is partially residential, so we had keys to front door, gate, and our doors. Desk staff spoke good English and was very helpful. Laundry service nearby. Our rooms were actually up a different staircase on the third floor. There was a small (small!) elevator for part of the climb. We had asked for a quad room but ended up with two double rooms and an external but private bathroom. All doors had keypad locks. The rooms were very nice, excellent beds, minibar (Tip: they don’t really keep track of what you take out). The bathroom was nice but was always really hot and stuffy and had some mildew around the window. Tiny shower.

There’s so much to see and do in Rome, we focused on “the biggies” and things the kids would like, and didn’t try to overdo it:
• We did a nighttime tour of the Coliseum, through Walks of Italy, which was ok. The first part was a walk between Teatro Marcello, the Forum and the Coliseum, with a tour guide who is an archeologist. He was great. Very interesting. Got us to the Forum right around sunset when the lights were turning on. Good pictures. Then our tour of the Coliseum in the dark was only ok. It wasn’t lit up as much as I thought it would be, and our guide’s English was good but odd – she used the same phrases over and over (e.g., “as you can see at least a little”). Not the best tour, BUT it wasn’t crowded, which was nice. Five stars for the archeologist part of the tour; three for the rest.
• The Borghese Gallery was good (but more for me than the kids); we bought the tickets ahead of time. You can only stay in the Gallery for two hours, but it’s not crowded. If you went upstairs first and worked your way down, it would be even less crowded. The rooms of the villa are gorgeous, my daughter enjoyed attempting to follow the map through the rooms. Seeing Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo and David and Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath were highlights for me for sure.

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PART FOUR: ROME CONTINUED

• We did a tour of the Vatican Museums (including St. Peter’s), booked through the Vatican. The tour guide was good, and headphones worked fine. But it was really HOT and very, very crowded. So crowded, it was hard to keep up with and not lose our tour guide. No air conditioning there! If I could do it over again, I’d try for an early morning or after-hours tour (or go off season). I’m surprised people don’t pass out in there. Really! HOT! We did the tour where we exited through St. Peter’s, which was nice. St. Peter’s wasn’t crowded. I didn’t notice a line to get in, but there was a huge line to get into the museums at 11 am. To keep the kids interested, we were looking for the “key” symbol (Peter’s keys to the kingdom heaven); they gave up after they counted about 200…
• We took a walk and hit the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and Largo Argentina (to see the cats; be sure to go down the stairs if you want to see the cats; good for kids). It was a nice walk to do early; it just got more crowded and hot as the day went on.

We discovered, with the kids, it was best to do something in the AM, have a good, long lunch, then go back to the hotel for a while it was really hot, then take it easy in the evening (e.g., go for a walk or get some carry out pizza for dinner). If we tried to cram too much in, we all just got crabby. We also discovered that taxis weren’t very expensive and our feet were getting really sore even with good shoes. (Tip: The Rinascente department store is a good place to get out of the heat. The top floor has all sorts of food, and the pizza is good and can be carried out. The fancy outside deck has a good view and is a good place for cocktails. I forgot to look for it, but I think there are ruins of an acquaduct in the basement.)

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PART FIVE: VENICE

Finally, headed to Venice on the Italo train, then by water taxi (vaporetto) to the Rialto Bridge stop. We bought 48 hour tickets at the crowded ticket windows outside the train station (note that 72 hour tickets for kids are cheaper than 48 hour), but didn’t really use them enough. You just tap to scan them at each stop/dock; easy to use. We were looking for lines 1 or 2 to go to our hotel and could not find the right dock. We ended up walking over the nearby bridge to a less chaotic dock and had no problem finding the right boat.

We stayed at the bustling and efficient Da Bruno Hotel (https://www.hoteldabruno.com/en/, which was about a 5 minute walk from the bridge. Our room was the very top, top room, which was a bit of a hike. The quad room was nice, the beds were excellent, there was a minibar, large bathroom, large shower, large breakfast buffet included, and the front desk staff was very helpful and spoke excellent English. They offered a free “tour of Murano”, which was great because we planned a visit there anyway. The “tour” turned out to be a taxi to Murano (very nice!) and a tour of one of the glass factories. We got there around 10am and were the only tourists there. The kids loved the glassblowing, and by the time we left the place was packed. We stopped for a very early lunch/snacks (cicchetti) along the canal off of the Colonna stop, which was very nice.

In Venice, we also visited:
• St. Marks – If it’s crowded, you can buy “skip the line” tickets for a few euros (even just a few minutes in advance on your phone). Totally worth it.
• The Doge’s Palace: The kids liked it; there are rooms of weapons, and you can walk over the Bridge of the Sighs and see the prison. We went around 5pm and the place was fairly empty. It’s open later than most things. To keep the kids interested, we were looking for the symbol of St. Mark (and Venice): the winged lion.
• Museo Storico Navale (Naval History Museum): Wow, if you like ships, this is the museum for you. Rooms and rooms of ship-related exhibits from gondolas to the World Wars. Start at the building that’s on the lagoon near the Arsenale stop; afterward be sure to visit the second part of the museum, just inland toward the bridge.
• We hung out in St. Mark’s square after dark and listened to the music, had a cocktail, took a stroll with a full moon.
• Had cocktails and cicchetti at Osteria Ae Forcoe (on Calle Bande Castello just off Salizada San Lio, just north of St. Marks.). Sat in the window and watched people wander by. Lovely.

This was my third time in Venice, and it is still stunning. Gorgeous. Loved it. Nothing bad about Venice. No, it didn’t smell. Didn’t even seem crowded if you just planned your day right and stayed away from St. Mark’s during the busy hours. I already want to go back.

We were going to take a taxi boat to the airport, but the hotel suggested the AliLaguna waterbus instead, and they were right. It only makes a few stop and is much cheaper than a taxi boat. Takes about an hour to get to the airport from Rialto. Keep your ticket; you need to scan it to get out of the dock. From the dock at the airport, there’s still a 15-20 min walk to the airport terminals and be sure to figure in the confusing and long passport control line (be sure to get in the right line!) – although they will bump you up in the line if plane is leaving; they are actually pretty good about getting people to their planes.

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Doug, great suggestion about audio tour of St. Mark's Square. My daughter would have loved that. I guess we just need to go back!

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Thanks for the report, especially the note about the Colosseum at night tour. Having done the Underground & 3rd Tier myself in the past, I had come across the night tour and wondered if it would be good (and cooler) for a future trip with kids.

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I enjoyed reading your report! We just returned from northern Italy and are looking forward to our next trip together. Thanks for sharing the details with everyone!

Laurie

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Really enjoyed reading about your trip, thanks for sharing