Family Travel Forum's Editor in Chief offers her advice on seeing Rome, Italy, with your big bambini, when they're old enough to appreciate a bit of history.
“Mom, it’s so funky here. Look at all those crumbling buildings and holes in the streets. Why are so many things falling down?” Thus whined our 6-year-old son, Regan, on being introduced to glorious Rome, the startlingly beautiful capital of ancient and modern Italian civilizations. After several days’ exposure to the Spanish Steps, the newly restored Trevi Fountain and other manmade wonders, his objections subsided — seemingly in proportion to the amount of gelati (ice cream) pumped into his eternally hungry stomach. This passion for the 3Ps: postri, pasta and pizza was what enabled his parents to savor Rome’s non-gustatory charms.
So, do take the kids not only for the sites and the tastes, but for the Italians’ warm welcome. And do be sure to hit the homework beforehand, with some preparation, reading material, Italian home cooking, music and movies to introduce the city to school age kids.
At Home- Do As the Romans Do
If you encourage your family to study the known pastas, from linguini to raviolini, you’ll begin building an Italian vocabulary from your larder. Then take everyone to see the local museum’s collection of Roman antiquities to emphasize how much Italian arts and architecture permeate life at home. Look for books on Roman history and mythology at the library or online, and rent Ben Hur and Spartacus.
There are two wonderful books sold widely in Rome which will make the real thing more interesting for you, particularly for the kids:
Children Discover Ancient Rome by Anna Parisi and Rosaria Punzi, illustrated by Filippo Sassoli (Fratelli Palombi Editori, 1995), are richly illustrated, easy-to-follow pocket guides which explain the who, what, where, when and why’s of Rome’s top sights. They’re written especially for kids, with lots of neat factoids and juicy rumors about the ancients.
Rome Past and Present by R. A. Staccioli (Getty Trust Publications, 2000) is a large, heavy spiral-bound book filled with photos of the major sites, and transparent overlays of the way they looked in ancient times. This format really brings the sites to life, and is the perfect tool to create hunt n’seek adventures among the ruins. Just take it into the Roman Forum and you’ll see exactly how neat a pile of old stones can become.
In Rome, All Roads Lead To the Past
The Colosseum, or Colosseo may be the city’s biggest draw but we found posing with costumed gladiators out front to be the one of most fun things about this legendary site. (By the way, no Christians were ever fed to lions here.)
For history buffs without the time to make the 3½ hour journey to Pompeii, the ruins of Ostia Antica are the most intact remnants of a once-great civilization near the capital. They are located about a half-hour south of the city near the Da Vinci airport. Avoid those wild Italian drivers at any cost, and join a bus tour which allows two to three hours to roam the reconstructed city walls and housing, plus another hour to visit the museum.
Devote two days to Vatican City and you’ll be richly rewarded. Even young children appreciate a religious shrine of this magnitude and will be amused when their parents are forced to purchase appropriately modest cover-ups (no bare arms, bare heads, exposed legs) at the nearest souvenir store.
Day one, visit the grand, gilded St. Peter’s Basilica and watch your kids race down below to linger over the mausolea and mummified remains of various Catholic luminaries. Attend the Pope’s audience (Wednesdays at 10am; call ahead to reserve free tickets) and hike up the Dome for the views. Basta! for one day.
Be sure to return another day for the Vatican’s Art Galleries and Sistine Chapel. Because their crowd control staff keeps everyone moving quickly, you’ll want to purchase a postcard set for the kids so they can study the artworks and Chapel ceiling frescoes at leisure.
The Borghese Gallery (068417645), one of Rome’s most beautiful palaces, houses one of its best collections of Italian art. If the Bernini sculptures don’t fascinate your kids, they’ll certainly enjoy running around the gardens. Call ahead for reservations since many temporary exhibits are quite popular.
Other engaging collections are the display of Italy’s all-important foodstuff at the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari (066991120), and the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Palazzo Massimo, which showcases the country’s most important archeological finds.
A Family Travels on its Stomach
The ristoranti of Rome are numerous, wonderful and pretty expensive. We particularly enjoyed whiling away time at Il Ragno D’Oro (063212362), a large trattoria and pizzeria within a 10-minute walk of the Vatican. There’s a small courtyard with friendly cats for the restless, a large variety of thin crust pizzas, and many seasonal salads and appetizers that make a ‘please just taste it’ meal fun for the whole family. Closed Sunday.
The Antico CaffÃ© Greco (06/6791700) is near the Spanish Steps. Since its establishment in 1760, clever proprietors have accepted payment in oil paintings, small sculpture, charcoal caricatures and it would seem, reams of red velvet. Today this charming tea room serves tea, hot cocoa, fabulous ice cream creations, and a line of pastry, sandwiches and other tide-me-over fare to a well-heeled crowd of shoppers on the via Condotti, Rome’s fanciest thoroughfare. Don’t let them have all the fun.
Friends sent us to Trattoria da Giggetto (06/6861105) in Roma Antica, a popular trattoria near the monumental Octavian’s Gate. While we waited for a table, heavenly music wafted by on the sultry summer breeze.
With a few quick steps we spotted the ancient Teatro de Marcello which, that evening only, was hosting a symphonic orchestra on the ruins of a proscenium stage. Our classic Roman meal consisted of rich soups, baked artichokes, and the special grilled lamb known as giggetto. About 10pm, two waiters brought over extra chairs so our son could lie down while we finished our wine. Closed Monday.
Last but not least was the search for the best ice cream. When it comes to the gelati wars fought in every Roman neighborhood, there are no prisoners and no losers. As long as you spend a few moments each afternoon and a brief while each evening visiting the local gelateria for a pick-me-up treat, you’re entitled to an opinion. During our summer visit, the branches of Giolitti and Gelateria delle Palme were vying for ‘Best Of’ in the creaminess and exotic flavors categories.
Every Day’s A Party
There are such an overwhelming number of must-see attractions that our family gave up trying after a few days. Instead, we ‘Romed’ the streets after breakfast, rested after a late lunch and focused our energy on attending a special event each night, such as the al fresco tango lessons being given at a nearby square.
The Mayor’s Office of Rome publishes a monthly pamphlet in Italian and English listing events at the various parks and amphitheaters in the city and surroundings. Listings include concerts, festivals, flea markets, outdoor movies, and many free events. Each Thursday, the daily Italian newspaper “La Repubblica” notes scheduled events for the coming week, with recommendations for children.
Going on your own is possible with advance planning, of course. Going with a tour company running family programs during the summer departures may be easier and your kids will probably make lots of friends. The following tour operators offer a combination of escorted tours and independent itineraries: Perillo Tours (800/431-1515); Central Holidays (800/935-5000); Italiatours (800/283-7262); and CIT Tours (800/539-7098).
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.