I’m not a parent, so although I know Italy is a very kid-friendly travel destination I don’t know the ins and outs of visiting Rome with children. That’s where Nancy Solomon of Ciao Bambino comes in! I’m thrilled to be able to publish this great guest post from Nancy with all kinds of tips about how to make the Eternal City exciting for kids and still fun for the grown-ups, too.
Rome is an amazing and alluring city, but many people assume it is not kid-friendly. However, what could be a better way to bring history to life than ancient ruins from an empire that spanned the globe? This doesn’t even factor in the excellent food, art, culture and the overall energy of this vibrant city.
That said, Rome can be exhausting for even the most tireless of children and adults — and this needs to be factored into planning. When we – my husband, three children ages 8, 6, 4, and I (6-months pregnant) – planned our trip to Rome, we knew that we had to approach it in a way to engage, but not overwhelm, our kids.
Applying what we learned previously about making Urban Destinations Fun With Kids, we prepared thoughtfully. Each day we included blocks of free time to play or to just hangout. In addition to sightseeing, we also incorporated unique activities like attending a professional “football” match, training at a gladiator school and swimming in a local pool. This combination of experiences left us with a sense not only of how ancient Romans lived, but also how Romans live today.
When visiting a city like Rome, of course you’ll want to see everything. You naturally pick up on that fast-paced urban tempo, but you need to adjust your mind-set to incorporate the pace of your kids. They simply cannot sustain the same speed and duration of adults. Instead of getting frustrated by this, appreciate the things you’ll see by simply slowing down. This pace, however, does means you have to prioritize your sites.
To that end, I recommend starting with an overview of the area to highlight the sites, like the Double Decker Bus Tour (hop on-hop off) tour and the Time Elevator. This provides you and your children with some context in which to view the sites you’ll be seeing, as well as allowing you to see what areas pique your interest for a follow-up visit.
In structuring our days, we found it better to do our “harder” sightseeing in the morning when everyone was fresh. Then we’d do one afternoon or evening site. We were sure to enjoy the process of getting from place to place, and we took many breaks — this was key. We stopped for sodas or coffee in local cafes, we played in parks that we passed, we let the kids look at souvenirs and play in the fountains all over the city. These small stops and moments of fun helped keep our whole group happy.
These are some of our favorite sites and experiences in Rome.
Major Sights & Attractions in Rome
- The Vatican: A key to seeing the Vatican with kids is avoiding the entry line and having an idea beforehand about what you want to see (you can now book tickets ahead of time for a fee). The Vatican, which includes the Vatican museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Cathedral, is enormous. The tour will take 3-4 hours, so you can imagine that waiting for two hours in line would ruin it for any child. If you book a private tour, it enables you to skip the entry line and tailor your tour to your speed and your interest.
- The Colosseum: We loved the Colosseum. The information is very accessible through both the audio and guided tours offered at the ticket office. Look for the dress-up gladiators outside; they make for some fun pictures. For an unforgettable afternoon, think about combining this with Gladiator School.
- Roman Forum & Capitol Hill: Although I really enjoyed it, my kids found it difficult to imagine what it was once like. It takes a lot of visualization to picture what the crumbling structures used to be. My kids liked hanging out on the top of Capitol Hill and loved the she-wolf statue with Romulus and Remus – nothing better than a story about other siblings fighting! Note: A stroller is difficult on the cobblestones and stairs. If you choose to bring one, be prepared to carry it a little. At the ruins I would highly recommend buying the overlay tour books. They show what a building originally looked like and then by removing the transparent overlay sheets they show the current status of the ruins. These books are usually available at the souvenir stands around the sites, as well as online.
- The Pantheon: What made the Pantheon so terrific was that it was one of the few ancient sites that is still intact and perfectly preserved. It is a very easy stop for the kids. No lines, you just walk in and walk out at your own pace. Plus, it’s surrounded by gelato shops.
- Castel Sant’ Angelo: A fun stop for both kids and parents. The kids explore, finding weapons, cannonballs and beautiful lookouts. Lots of steps, but the roof terrace provides an excellent view of the Vatican.
- The Spanish Steps: What I found interesting about the Spanish Steps were all the young adults congregating. My kids enjoyed listening to “American Pie” being played. Although we passed it often, it was not a place where we stayed long. We enjoyed the shopping around the steps. Although it is known for high-end designers and exclusive shopping, you can also find teen-oriented shops with inexpensive, fun souvenirs.
- The Catacombs: We didn’t do this because my kids were too young, but I did some research on what to see and there are a few options. First, the larger more frequented ones are on Via de Appia, Catacombe di San Calisto and Catacombe di Santa Domitilla. There is also a smaller sight that most people with kids prefer called Catacombe di Priscilla. If your kids find this interesting, they may also enjoy the Capuchin Crypt, where the bones of 4,000 monks are arranged into different decorations. Note: this is better for kids over 10 and can be creepy for little kids.
- Parks, Piazzas and Fountains: What makes Rome so child-friendly is that it is filled with parks and piazzas where you can relax and let your kids run around. The fountains are gorgeous and provide a quick way to cool off. Villa Borghese is a huge park with everything a child could want: large grass spaces, a zoo, playgrounds, bikes, pony rides and a pond with paddleboats. Piazza del Popolo is centered around an obelisk and fountain. It’s a perfect early morning spot for a cappuccino while the kids run around. Campo dei Fiori was a kid favorite for the bartering and local scene at the fruit market (open daily until about 12 pm). Piazza Navona is a pedestrian piazza with a constant flow of energy. Try to have your children identify the four rivers at the spectacular fountain. The street performers and artist were very fun to watch and of course don’t miss Tre Scalini’s Tartuffo (“Death by Chocolate”).
- Private tours: This isn’t so much a major sight as it is a great way to take in the sights. A few of our favorite guide groups include Context Travel, Nerone, and One Step Closer. Keep in mind that if you hire a private guide, even though you are “on the clock,” take a break when your kids get tired. Everyone will get more from the sights if they are fed and happy.
Fun Ways to Experience Rome
Of course there are many sights to see, but some of the most memorable experiences for my kids were the more unique experiences that they had. Check Viator for fun activities.
We loved Gladiator school, soccer games, cooking classes, and the Rome Cavaliere pool. You may also want to try Luneur Park, an amusement park. [Editor’s Note: One commenter below says Luneur Park is now closed.]
For water activities the Rome Cavaliere in Rome sells (expensive) day passes or Aquapiper (35 minutes out of Rome near Tivoli Gardens…might be fun to couple the two stops for a day trip) is a water park.
General Tips for Traveling in Rome with Kids
- Strollers: Although the cobblestones are hard for the little strollers (MacClarens, etc), the benefits outweigh this drawback. You can carry it when you need to, it’s easier to get in and out of transportation, and it is better for smaller restaurants.
- Reading: I bought a handful of books before our trip and brought some of the lighter ones with us. I think that this really helped prepare the kids. I can’t recommend it enough! We used Getting to Know Italy for a few key Italian words. Those few words went a long way in the eyes of the Italians. They appreciated the effort we made to speak their language. Also, my 8-year-old daughter loved the Diary of Melanie Martin. My kids also really loved This is Rome and the Italy Discovery Journal. As much as I wanted them to enjoy the books on Ancient Rome, they really didn’t get into them. They liked the fiction much better. They enjoy all the books still, and as we read them it brings back terrific memories and leads to fun conversations. I loved reading historical fiction set in Rome. I have a hard time getting through history books, but add a little juice to it and I’m up all night reading! Check out my Book List on Amazon.
- Index cards: My children are very active and waiting is hard on them, so it’s therefore hard on me. This tool has saved me many times. As long as I keep them mentally engaged, I can avoid fighting and general naughtiness. So, bring a spiral bound index card booklet. As you tour around, write questions about what they learned or did. I mean pretty basic stuff, like how many steps did we climb to the top of Capitol Hill? Or, for my 4 year old, what special type of bus did we ride (double-decker)? I do throw in a bit of history and during dinners I also have them recommend questions to write. Then, I always have a stash of gummy bears or M&Ms to dole out for the correct answers. I keep these in my car at home and we still love doing them.
- Bring a jump rope: It’s light, and it’s an icebreaker. You can throw it into your backpack and take it to any park or open space. Just tie one end to a fence and jump away (make sure it’s long enough). Kids are kids anywhere and local children will come up and want to join in.
- Spray bottle: A small, cheap spray bottle will help cool everyone off during those hot days. Plus, you can fill them up right at all the water fountains.
- Eating out: For Italians, meals can be leisurely, long events. Now, without kids, this sounds terrific. With kids, it’s a whole different story. Although the food is great and it’s easy for kids to find something they will enjoy, consider picnics, pizza or just ordering a pasta course at restaurants. We met up with people for dinner and I thought it was never going to end. I can’t tell you how many loops around the restaurant I did with my youngest… Needless to say, it was not leisurely for me.
- Medicine: Given that I have four kids, someone usually gets sick. Obviously, they have great medicine in Italy, but the brands are unfamiliar and the writing is in Italian. I always like to bring Motrin and Benedryl at least.
- iPods: Thank goodness for iPods! These have replaced our portable DVD players. They are small and we download TV shows, movies, audio books and stories. They are great on the plane, and in all tight quarters and shared spaces that travel presents. When we see a kids getting burnt out or needing a break they get the “i-bubble.” It’s how we “get away” while being all together.
Nancy Solomon lives with her husband and four children outside of Boston, MA. She is an avid traveler and enjoys sharing the world with her children, contributing her knowledge to the Ciao Bambino website. Ciao Bambino is a family travel blog and a worldwide guide to the best hotels and resorts for travel with kids.
all photos are by Nancy Solomon, all rights reserved & used by permission