Family Trip Planning Advice - UK & Italy (Spring 2023)

We’re making plans to travel internationally with our daughters (ages 13.5 and 16) for the first time, and I was hoping to get some advice. I’ve read a handful of the existing posts related to the locations we’ve chosen and picked up a few tips, but I could definitely still use some input. I’m hoping that, if I lay out some of our current thoughts, the seasoned travelers in the forum will be able to help steer us in a good direction. Thanks in advance!

Taking into account my family’s varying desires for places they’d like to see, I’m thinking of an itinerary something like this (1/5/2023 edit: this outline is mostly set now):

  • 2 nights in London
  • 2 nights in York
  • 3 nights in Edinburgh (incl. a 1-day bus trip into the highlands?)
  • 1 full day in Cinque Terre (my daughters want to do the coastal hike)
  • 5 nights in Florence (with a day trip to Lucca?)

We’re interested in a mix of historic/cultural experiences (museums, churches, historic sites) and just experiencing a little bit of normal day-to-day life in each place - sitting in a cafe, walking around, maybe seeing the countryside, etc. We’ll be traveling relatively light and probably won’t rent a car anywhere.

Our budget is moderate, so we’re looking for comfortable, central, reasonably-priced lodging moreso than fine hotels with all the amenities - and the equivalent, foodwise. We’ll enjoy good wine and whisky along the way, but we’re not going to shape too much of this trip around that (although I’ve read enough about Pitti Gola in the Florence threads that we’ll probably go there at some point).

My wife and I went to Florence and Cinque Terre once about 20 years ago, so we have some memory of those places, but we’ve never spent time in the other two (although we have friends who lived in Edinburgh that we’re going to reach out to). Looking at prices, I’m thinking it’s best to buy round-trip tickets to London, and all the other travel between our dates would just get lined up separately (train to Edinburgh, fly to Pisa/CT, train to Florence, flight to London) so that we’re back at Heathrow in time to make the flight home.

We had just started planning a version of this trip in early 2020, and all that got scuttled for obvious reasons, but now we have opportunity again, and we’re getting excited… Recs on food, lodging, travel tips, etc. are all appreciated!

Personally, I would skip Edinburgh, and spend more days in CT.

One of my daughters is quite taken with the idea of spending some of our time in Scotland, so I’m pretty confident we’re going to end up there…although maybe we could shift one of those days elsewhere.

Edinburgh rocks. I’m not sure how you fly to Pisa, travel to Monterosso, walk the trail, and head back to Pisa in a day, though

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We’d stay in CT for 2-3 nights (not in Pisa) so that we have a full day or two to enjoy the area. When done there, we’d catch the train on our last day and head straight to Florence.

Scotland is great, if you get out into the wilds, and see the really amazing castles. Edinburgh is cool, just a big detour. Aside from Edinburgh castle, for me it wasn’t a city I felt a strong need to get back to in a hurry.

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I did something like this with my kids a few years ago. For families I much preferred VRBO/Airbnb places to hotels, not just for cost but also quality. Also, after 3 days in Florence we then did 3 in Rome, highly recommended if you can swing the extra time. Experiencing the history in Rome I think is fairly important for kids this age.

I think a little rationalisation will be needed, as you’ll lose an immense amount of time to unenjoyable / stressful transfers, taking that time away from actually enjoying the holiday.

How long do you actually have? I see 9-10 days listed, but mention of full days, so is this not counting arrival / departure days and transfer days i.e. it’s actually 14 days elapsed?

Assuming arrival is in London, you may be be jet-lagged for all of that, and indeed Edinburgh. That can rip much of the enjoyment away. There’s nothing to fix that, but it would be sensible to limit expectations / ambitions for London.

You could fly to Edinburgh, but I agree with your leaning towards the train. The latter takes longer, but avoids all the cr*p of modern busy airports and the cattle-herding it feels like, plus puts you in the centre of the city at Edinburgh Waverley train station. In addition the train makes it easier to stretch your legs, take a lovely picnic (including wine if you want), and have things to do, plus some super scenery, especially as you cross the border between England and Scotland. Book tickets in advance for the best prices, and a little flexibility on travel time can save even more.

In Edinburgh, there are some good wine shops, but I’ll specifically call out the gem that is Raeburns. Zubhair always had an eye for the under the radar gems, many of which have since become incredibly sought after (e.g. I bought Accomasso Barolo from there for £25 a bottle maybe 15 years ago). Very much a wine geek’s shop.

1 day in Cinque Terre feels madness, considering the hassle you’ll have to get from Genova or Pisa airports to the village you’ll stay in. Yes it’s nice, if over-touristed, but the hassle to pleasure ratio is off the scale. Either find more time for it, or ditch it. If you stick with it, maybe choose Riomaggiore as the closest to La Spezia, and hence shortest transfer to Firenze (and indeed Pisa if you fly into there).

3-4 days in Firenze sounds reasonable enough

Can you fly back out of Pisa? It seems crazy to fly back to London and then home, having the fear of a delay trashing your connection.

Some ideas for you to mull over:

  1. In line with @Alan_Rath, ditch Edinburgh, give one of its days to London, the other two to Cinque Terre, and the time saved in one less transfer (in this instance effectively a full day), wherever you feel it would be best.

  2. What time of year is this? If summer, then the cities can be overly hot, stuffy & unpleasant. Edinburgh will avoid the worst of this, (but be prepared for the midges), but London can be unpleasant, and I daresay not ideal for Firenze. If it is summer, put more time into Cinque Terre and maybe look for other rural / coastal spots e.g. Camogli or the Langhe. If autumn/fall or spring, all should have charm, and in winter I’d lean towards cities

  3. Consider a reversal of the order, especially if you could fly into Pisa, spending a few days in Cinque Terre (the best of the options for getting over jet lag, as you’ll be walking in the open air), then getting the train to Firenze, before flying to London

  4. If you want somewhere other than Edinburgh, but that is day-trippable from London, have a look at Windsor and Eton (super easy day trip, or even half day trip), or Brighton (1 hour from London (London Bridge or London Victoria unless it’s changed in recent years). A vibrant coastal resort with a bustling promenade and pier, plus fancy shops in the ‘Lanes’, or quirky shops in the ‘North Laines’

Hope this helps

Thanks for the detailed thoughts, Ian - that’s very helpful! A few quick responses:

  • Yes, we’re looking at ~14 total days. It would be at the beginning of spring…we’re generally expecting chilly weather, but that’s the time that works with our schedules.
  • London is the place we have the least of a plan for. Heathrow is one of the easiest direct-flight entry points from the US west coast, and it just seemed a shame to have London as the gateway without seeing it at all. Many flights from the west coast to other places in Europe already go through LHR - booking a flight to/from Pisa would take us through Heathrow anyway.
  • Train travel is something we haven’t done as a family, so taking the train to Edinburgh seemed like a great way to both see some of the countryside and enjoy a leisurely time together. Glad to hear that sounds like that would work well.
  • Cinque Terre wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice (my wife and I went once ~19 years ago), but my daughters are very interested in going, at least at the moment. Assuming we go to CT, I’d be looking to stay in whichever town gives us the most flexible travel options for getting in & out of the area efficiently.
  • There’s still some room for negotiation on locations and timing for the trip…I wouldn’t mind simplifying to three central locations, but we’ll see.

What are the interests of your family? Culture and museums? London is great for those. Windsor Castle and Great Park are lovely, but the town looked a little tired last August.
Train travel to Edinburgh is easy, but not quick. We live near York and its 2 hours to either of them. York itself may be an idea if you want to break up a travel day.

and I was going to suggest York if a radical change of plan removed Italy from the plan. It’s a charming historic yet real city, and it’s c. midway on the train journey

I’ll circle back with some more thoughts on Florence but wanted to share this Air BnB. Our friends stayed there this year and we’ve booked it in October. It’s in a fantastic location central to all the major sites. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/19425752?source_impression_id=p3_1671390632_9WwcT4P0yIMi9S6S

If you do lose Cinque Terre (or Edinburgh), but want a day trip in that has some charm, Lucca is 1hr 20m from Firenze by train, and it’s a short 5 minute walk on arrival to get inside the city walls. It also has a superb wine shop, with cellar out back (Enoteca Vanni). In this way you can accidentally stumble upon it as the family go :roll_eyes: :roll_eyes: :roll_eyes:

Definitely Riomaggiore would be easiest CT village if coming from Pisa, or leaving for Firenze. It’s the most easterly village, so a single train stop before changing at La Spezia. Do check the status of the paths a week or two before going as some get closed due to winter / spring damage.

For the train travel in the UK, I use nationalrail.co.uk, but trainline is an alternative. You should be able to get a feel for prices / cheaper days or times to travel by looking at what February/March prices are now. Usually booking in advance on a set train is much cheaper than ordinary single (or indeed return) tickets. You should be able to book 4 seats together in 2nd class or 1st class (the latter usually excessively expensive, but do check as occasionally you can luck on a good price, most likely on weekends)

Re: Heathrow, it might be worth seeing what the arrival departure times are and using that to influence which is the first stop. If arriving in (say) 10am, you’ll not be able to take your hotel / accommodation on arrival, and if so, it might point towards finding a transfer to Pisa/Firenze on that arrival day. Conversely if it arrives late afternoon or evening, then best to call a halt there and get into London, or as a radical thought, would staying in Windsor be an option - taking the tube into London and back, but putting you in taxi range of LHR for when you leave.

Re: beginning of spring, that indeed does keep all options open, but possibly not the best time to see Edinburgh - might feel a little cold. I do reckon dropping that would open up a lot more in the way of day trips e.g. London to Brighton (1 hr), or Firenze to Bologna (a mere 40 mins!)

Echoing Ian, who always has the best advice IMHo, Your itinerary is complicated due to the Cinque Terri’s remoteness.

Either make it 3 nights or drop it. It’s a priority or it isn’t. Half hearted just to say you are doing it will spoil the rest of your trip due to significant extra travel time. (I’ve been there a few times and love it; in addition to other appeals, it’s about unwinding). What are the odds of rain then. Cold and rainy would really suck there, more than in a city).

Italy is about La Dolce Vita. Almost anyplace can be great. And almost anyplace can suck if you are doing the opposite of La Dolce Vita (which means to me not spending enough time to savor where you are because you are busy checking in/out, or in a car).

London is a great place to recover from jet lag as there is always something fun to do at almost any hour.

London on arrival is better than on departure due to airport tax, especially if in business class.

Sienna is a great short day trip from Florence as well.

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If you are doing CT, I would see if you can find a nice place in Vernazza, a beautiful village (we rent apartments. But I have no leads). Riomaggiore typically would be a good option, but I think the Via dell’Amore (the “Love Walk”) from
Riomaggiore to Manarola is closed until 2024. There are other paths, but they are steeper and longer

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That’s really good to know…thanks for mentioning it.

After all the good input, I’m thinking that it’s best to save CT for another trip, and we’ll instead look at three main locations with possible day trips or alternate stops in mind. York might be a good fit for us, and Lucca has been suggested to me by another friend as well in recent days.

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York is great (I have family there). So are the Highlands, which will lake some time, but a day trip from Edinburgh through Glasgow to
Loch Lomond. Loch Ness and points nearby would be an eye opener

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I’m going to disagree about CT actually, because we recently did a one night overnight from Florence and it was great. 36hrs was perfect, though we are “on the go” kind of travelers. We took the first train out from Florence, switched in La Spezia, train to Manarola, hiked all the way to Monterosso (I actually don’t recommend hiking the whole way as the ups and downs are really taxing unless you are in GREAT shape, but you can do any combo of hiking and train between the towns), spent the night there. You can hike out to Punta Mesca in the AM, then ferry to Porto Venere, bus or taxi to La Spezia train station (we did bus), then back to Florence by train. If you are coming from Pisa, the trip is even quicker of course. We had enough time to explore each little town a bit, get a few bites in several of them, then had plenty of time in Monterosso since we stayed there. We also really enjoyed walking around Porto Venere and getting lunch there, plus the ferry ride is a great complement to the hiking.

We know a wonderful young tour guide in Florence. She would get along great with your kids and come up with an itinerary that they would enjoy. PM me if you would like her contact information

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Did Florence in the summer pre Covid. Packed to the gills, super hot. Made a beautiful city really unenjoyable. Same with Venice, Rome didn’t feel as bad although we stayed outside of the city center. Now that my kids are out of school I wouldn’t set foot in the big European cities in the summer. They are so much more enjoyable in the less crowded times of the year.

George

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