Based in California, Eric Stoen is the go-to guy for all things family travel-related. Parents seeking inspiration on where to travel with kids find their fix in Travel Babbo’s content, where his worldwide adventures elicit awe and envy in equal measure. Florence has played a special part in Eric Stoen’s journey, so we sat down to get the scoop over coffee at Ditta Artigianale Ferrucci.
Tell us how Travel Babbo came to be.
I was in healthcare for 18 years and traveling with my kids every chance I had. When I took my daughter to Antarctica when she was only eight years old, I found that it was this amazing, kid-friendly place, yet I wasn’t hearing many people talking about it as a family destination. I wanted to tell more people about it, and so I started a blog. Then, in 2012, I entered a photo contest with Condé Nast Traveller and the prize was 25,000 dollars towards a dream trip. I managed to win and chose to bring my family to Florence. I had spent a year studying and falling in love with the city when I was younger, and I wanted my family to make their own memories here. They booked us an amazing two-week stay with things like pizza making, gelato making, paper making and kid-friendly visits to the Accademia and the Uffizi, as well as a scavenger hunt through the Bargello. During the trip, several different people referred to me as “babbo”, so my kids started to call me that too; it stuck! I made it my domain name when I started travel writing as a full-time career. I wanted to inspire people to travel, not just to Antarctica, but everywhere in the world that is kid-friendly and that people might not have thought about. When my kids were young, I would let them choose somewhere to travel each year and we would have a one-on-one bonding trip. We ended up seeing places like Australia, Easter Island, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, places that I would not necessarily have otherwise seen.
Why did you choose to study in Florence?
At my elementary school, they put up Renaissance art all through the hallways while we were studying it, and I was really taken by it. Six years later when I was looking at universities, I saw that Pepperdine University had a study abroad programme in Florence for a full year. It was the best decision I made and I still love everyone who was here with me. It wasn’t necessarily the best way to learn Italian because you’re in this group of Americans, but I loved it and it opened my eyes up to the world, getting to know Europe one weekend at a time. In 1991, when I was here, faxes were a big deal and phone calls were rare, so we were isolated in a sense and it was amazing. Trains brought us everywhere we wanted to go for three-day weekends. I’ve returned to Florence many times since then.
How do you think Florence has changed over the years?
The part that I love is that there are fewer cars in the city center every year. When I studied here, there was constantly scaffolding around the Duomo because cars drove around it and it was getting filthy. Bit by bit, they have closed off more streets and I love being able to walk kilometers in the city center encountering barely any car traffic. Obviously, now there are more tourists, but I can’t be against that because that’s how I started out here. I’m not a fan of the 55-person tour groups coming in on buses from cruise ships. They’re not getting a great impression of the city because they’re seeing everything at the hottest time of day and only seeing the main sights.
Do you feel there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with being an influencer?
I will never promote anything that I don’t absolutely 100 percent believe in. If people are using their money to go to a destination based on lies, they’re not going to have a great time and I shouldn’t be encouraging them in that direction. I’ll only write about the best things that I find. I have found, unfortunately, that sometimes there have been places I’ve recommended that became too popular (of their own making also!), to the point that I nearly wanted to take them down from my website because now sometimes we can’t even get a room there!
What’s your favourite neighbourhood in Florence?
I love Santo Spirito in the city center. I don’t even mind the tourists because everyone has the right to be here and see Florence. However, the noise at night from people in the streets and trash trucks early in the morning can be an issue, so San Niccolò is idyllic because there’s much less noise and it’s only a ten-minute walk to the Ponte Vecchio.
Would you consider Florence a kid-friendly destination?
There aren’t a lot of parks and places like that in the center, so you need to seek out interactive activities. You can’t drag kids on an adult tour through a museum because they’ll be miserable, so a kid-friendly tour is definitely a better idea. When we did them, the kids were frequently given paper and pencils to draw their own interpretation, which they loved. Florence can be super kid-friendly, but you need to do it right.