A city break bolted on to a ski vacation? The two are unlikely bedfellows. After all, remote mountain villages, knee-deep snow and fresh air are what we escape cities for. However, the access points for many Italian ski resorts are cities that have culture to enjoy and attractions for families to explore at any time of the year. A couple of days in a city before a ski vacation can give it a whole new dimension — and offer young minds more to ponder as they sit on the ski-resort chair lift.
For years, the Val Gardena valley has been attracting families to its villages of Ortisei, Santa Cristina and Selva. The scenery here is spectacular, and for families with children hungry to eat up the ski miles, there’s plenty on the menu: the resort has 109 miles of local runs and forms part of the enormous 745-mile Dolomiti SuperSki area. There’s also a 4-mile sledging trail, accessed by train shuttle to the Resciesa – from where you weave all the way down to Ortisei. Until the end of WWI, the region was actually part of Austria, so strudel is a regular feature on restaurant menus.
With its spectacular architecture, Verona is one of the most popular UNESCO world heritage sites in Italy. Conveniently, you’ll find a multitude of family-friendly activities within the Città Antica (Old City), including the medieval tower of Torre dei Lamberti, which has steep winding stairs that resemble an eye when looked at from below. Nearby you’ll find the Roman Arena, Juliet’s Balcony and the open market at Piazza delle Erbe.
With arguably some of the best intermediate pistes in Italy, Sauze d’Oulx is a great place for children. Part of the 250-mile Milky Way ski area, the slopes are best considered a place to progress on, rather than somewhere to take your very first steps on skis. Tree-lined runs, great mountain restaurants and a relaxed ambience combine to create a wonderful experience. Down in the village, the cobbled streets of the centro storico are lined with homely Italian restaurants and emit a buzzing, friendly atmosphere.
A city famous for chocolate and ice cream is always going to be a hit with kids. But beyond the culinary temptations, Turin offers plenty for families to do. At the National Cinema Museum, children can ‘green-screen’ themselves into film scenes and become part of the action. And you can catch a stunning view of the city from the Mole Antonelliana, whose glass elevator rises almost 300 feet to a viewing platform.
In the center of Italy, between the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, lie the Abruzzo Apennines. The largest resort village, Roccaraso, accesses almost 70 miles of piste and, despite the southerly location, its ski season stretches from December until early April, with lots of sunshine. The ambience is authentic and relaxed, the terrain suits families well and the hearty Italian cuisine will have visitors in raptures. One of the famous local dishes is arrosticini – thin, flame-grilled mutton skewers – and there’s plenty of pasta made locally, too.
Nearly 2,700 years old, Naples is a unique city, steeped in history. Pizza was born here: The Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba in Centro Antico – thought to be the world’s first pizzeria – began as a street stall in 1738 and opened its first proper restaurant in 1830. Its ovens, lined with lava rocks, have been baking pizza ever since. Nearby, Mount Vesuvius is a stunning climb, while the public baths in Pompeii will give kids an insight into what Roman cities were really like.
Sharing the famous Matterhorn Peak with neighboring Zermatt in Switzerland, Cervinia is one of Italy’s highest resorts. Its village sits at a lofty 6,725 feet and the top lift station at over 11,000 feet. However, despite the altitude, the ski area is well suited to beginners, with a network of wide blue runs that will boost anyone’s confidence. For those with more zip, there’s the 7-mile Ventina red run. Many great restaurants offering heart meals dot the slopes. The village has plenty of eateries too, from the unpretentious Lo Copa Pan to the upmarket La Chandelle.
It might have a reputation as a fashionista’s paradise, but Milan has plenty in store for families, too. The Science and Technology Museum is an homage to Leonardo da Vinci, with thousands of scientific objects that span the development of Renaissance thinking, including 130 scaled models based on da Vinci’s sketches, and aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling. There’s also the hugely impressive cathedral, the Duomo di Milano. Or, for a shrine to football, there’s the San Siro – home to AC and Inter Milan.
There is nowhere quite like Cortina. Kids' jaws will drop at the sight of teeth-like rocks made of limestone, frozen blue waterfalls and epic viewpoints from the Tofana and Cristallo Peaks. Yet here you can ski on slopes that are virtually empty, perhaps because many of the clientele prefer to loll about in the chic, relaxed, charming village. The mountain restaurants, such as Rifugio Scotoni in the Hidden Valley, are an utter delight – and you’ll have trouble getting out of your seat and back on the mountain. The 71 miles of local slopes are in three separate areas and are best suited to intermediates and above, rather than young children clipping on skis for the first time.
Children will be blown away by the phenomenon of a floating city. Where else can you catch a boat from the airport directly to your hotel entrance? The waterways sweep past Gothic and Renaissance-era architecture, buzzing with activity. While in summer the city center is teeming with tourists, winter calms down a bit, making it a good ski combo. Here the clichéd tourist pastimes do live up to expectations, such as a gondola ride, discovering the secrets of the Doge’s Palace or seeing the glass blowers of Murano. For something different, go fishing in the lagoon.
By Daniel Elkan