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Kids enjoy playing on the beach in Portovenere, Italy, on the Ligurian coast. photos by Alexandra Regan.Kids enjoy playing on the beach in Portovenere, Italy, on the Ligurian coast. photos by Alexandra Regan.

How to Vacation with Kids in Italy

“I love Italy!” announced our nine--year old son on our first full day in Portovenere. Although he was the first to say it, we were all charmed by this seaside village on the Ligurian Coast.

It had been rainy off and on all morning, but the weather hadn’t prevented us from exploring the city. My son and husband had already played giant outdoor chess in a choice spot on the waterfront while my daughter and I enjoyed fresh grapefruit juice in a café looking out on the stunning port, and we had all explored the village’s rocky fortress and San Pietro Church.

This is the way to vacation with the kids

We ended up vacationing in Portoverere by happy accident. While looking on the internet for a place to rent in the Cinque Terre region of Italy, I fell in love with a house high on a hillside overlooking the sea. This house’s idyllic setting among olive trees and grape vines made me forget the fact that it did not have beach access and that to get to town we would need to take a bus.

Its beauty and remoteness made it a perfect spot for a couple or a writer seeking inspiration and serenity. However, we were a family with two very active children under the age of ten, so it was probably lucky that I got an e-mail two days before departure saying that unfinished construction work meant that the house was unavailable.

In its place we were offered Villa Fiorita which--the property manager assured us--was actually a better place for the kids. We agreed to the change, and when we saw the property, its sea views and its accessibility to the beach, a playground, and the cafes, restaurants, and gelaterias of Portovenere, we knew it was a change for the better.

The sea

Portovenere, with its colorful houses perched on a rocky shore of the romantically named Gulf of Poets (Byron and Shelley once lived in the area), is a Unesco World Heritage Site, but that’s not why the kids loved it. They were enchanted by the beach across from our villa, and my husband and I were happy to relax on the rocks while they played for hours.

In late April the water was a little chilly for swimming, but the calm waters are a perfect place to wade, and it was delightful to climb the large, stable boulders next to the beach. My daughter never tired of looking for shells and interesting stones and was rewarded with treasures such as small but exquisite yellow and pink shells, a sea anemone, and polished sea glass.

Why Portovenere?

We had a week to spend in Italy, and while we could have rushed the kids through the sites of Venice, Florence and Rome in that time, we wanted to introduce the kids to the country while enjoying the relaxed pace for which it is celebrated.

Portovenere is located 70 miles southeast of Genoa, on the wilder, more rugged part of the Italian Riviera. Although many Americans who come to this area stay in one of the five villages of the Cinque Terre, I highly recommend Portovenere for a vacation with kids; we found it to be less touristy and easier to negotiate due to its relative flatness, and to have nicer beaches.

When I asked my daughter what she liked most about our vacation, she replied “The sea. When it’s sunny it looks more yellow than blue.” She’s right, the sun makes everything look incredible, but even with the occasional interludes of rain or clouds in the off-season, Portovenere is amazing.

Things to see and do

If the kids ever tire of the beach there are plenty of activities to do in and around the village that will appeal to the whole family.

It is possible to do some serious hiking right from the hills above Portovenere, but just climbing the narrow winding streets and stone staircases to the top of village might be enough for the kids. We found a tiny playground – two swings and a teeter totter – just above the Church of San Lorenzo that has the best view of any playground I have ever visited.

The little Church of San Pietro sits on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea. It was built by the Genoese between 1256 and 1277 on the ruins of a Paleochristian church that itself had been built over a pagan temple dedicated to Venus Erycina (from which the city’s name Portus Veneris derives).

Boat excursions

In addition to the frequent ferry service (as fast as and much easier than driving) to four of the five villages of the Cinque Terre, (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso) it is possible to visit the nearby islands by boat and to rent canoes and kayaks.

If you want to do some hiking in the Cinque Terre, take the ferry from Portovenere to Vernazza and hike from there to Monterosso, where you can catch the ferry back to Portovenere. This hike provides scenic variety and is not as steep as some of the others. Portovenere’s tourist website has information about boats and ferries:

Places to stay

We were very pleased with the service provided by the vacation rental agency CinqueTerre Riviera. Not only were we greeted at the villa by the owner and the property manager, the property manager also welcomed us with bags of fresh basil, pasta, tomatoes, bread and local wine. Browse the agency’s excellent English language website to find rentals.

The four-star Grand Hotel Portovenere, centrally located in town in a former monastery, also has suites suitable for families.

See Portovenere’s tourist website for additional information about hotels and rentals.

Places to eat

We ate many of our meals at home on our terrace (provisioned by a small grocery store in town), but nevertheless found time to return for lunch at Bacicio, a small café and restaurant we liked for its casual atmosphere and incredible pastas and pizzas. I ordered the same black pasta, tomato, onion, and anchovy dish several times in a row, each time wondering why I’d never had anything as good at home. Bacicio Via G. Capellini, 17 Portovenere

Ristorante Le Bocche was another restaurant we enjoyed not only for its mouthwatering fish and pasta dishes, but also for its stunning site above the rocks overlooking the sea. It is slightly more formal than Bacicio but still works with kids and you will have good views whether you sit indoors or out. The outdoor chess set is right in front of the restaurant.
Calata Doria 102 Portovenere

Local stores sell extraordinary fresh pesto—a specialty of the region—to take home and spread on bread or mix with pasta.

Alexandra Regan is a writer from Oregon who is spending a year in Italy with her family. Read more articles by Alexandra:

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Location: Europe, Italy
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