Our travel style has changed a lot since we’ve had kids. Before our little ones came along we loved being in the thick of things in a large city, navigating subways and walking for miles between neighborhoods. Large cities have tons to see and do and often are home to the most famous sites like the Coliseum, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower. We’ve visited Rome, London, and Paris with little kids and though we’re glad we did, the experience was much different that we were used to when we were childless in places like a Tokyo and NYC. It’s easy to attempt to do and see just too much (while juggling diapers, potty breaks, naps, and toddler moods) and stress levels of the whole family end up rising. Visiting large cities with little ones in tow is worth another post (or a few!) because it’s still an awesome experience, it just needs a bit more planning and expectations need to be in check.
We plan to travel to more large cities while are kids are small, but we’ve learned the value of visiting the small towns. I touched on this a bit with my post A Slow Day in Bolgheri, but the same goes for a number of cities across Italy and Europe. With a 2.5 year old and an (almost) 5 year old, the small towns fit our slower family pace and give us a chance to appreciate where we are without as much chaos.
Last summer our family went to England, so of course we had to see London. Even with the pouring rain we had a good time and I’m excited to go back one day, but by far the most enjoyable times of our trip wasn’t in London. It was in the small towns around London. Our first rental apartment was in St. Albans and we had a wonderful afternoon exploring the Cathedral and Abbey then strolling through a park to one of the bars with claims to be “the oldest in England” (Ye Olde Fighting Cocks). Later we spent the day at Hatfield House, the Hatfield farm, and eating our best English meal at The Red Lion. Yes, we were close to London and obviously could have spend two more sunny days there, but we never regretting the choice to go small and actual relax a bit on our vacation. We learned some lesser known history of the area, ate great food, and our kids had fun. Isn’t that what a family vacation should be?
We repeated this around Italy, choosing day trips from our home near Pisa to the lesser known, less tourist filled towns that offer us a sense of peace along with amazing food, views, and their own small historic sites.
San Miniato is hill town between Florence and Pisa that we never saw in any guide books about the area. We had a great day with some friends (and their little ones too!) exploring their small historical square, climbing a bell tower to get an amazing view of Tuscan countryside, and eating what still is the best pappardelle al cinghiale I’ve had.
If you’ve been studying some of the host nation language for your trip and are frustrated that people in the large cities often switch to English, the small towns is where to be. I’m able to use my Italian the most in these small towns less frequented by foreign tourists. I’ve also found that even if you don’t speak any of the language, the small town hospitality still shines though. We know almost zero German and managed to get a barn tour to see the cows and other animals at our apartment in St. Veit Austria. Smiles and laughs made the language barrier seem less of an issue.
Of course the small town adventures don’t have to be international. I think of a small town in Minnesota (my husband and I are both born and raised Minnesotans!) called Little Falls. There is an adorable park along the banks of the Mississippi River with a waterfall created by a dam, a zoo with bears and bison and wolves, and even the childhood home of Charles Lindbergh. This would be a quiet day compared to the museums, shopping, and traffic of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
These are just a few examples of the appeal of a small town. If you’re a “check all the boxes” type of traveler, then maybe the small towns will bore you, but that’s never been the case for us. With little ones in tow, we find the slower pace, the ease of parking and traffic, and the friendliness of the people in smaller towns has yet to disappoint. I urge you take the little ones off the beaten path a bit to really feel the authenticness in a place you can truly enjoy vacationing with your kids.