Rome is one of the most visited cities in the world, attracting around 8.6 million visitors per year. However, most tourists come to the eternal city for its ancient ruins and its history, or its enduring reputation for love and romance. It isn’t usually top of the list for family holidays. But Rome has plenty to offer families with children of all ages, as long as you know where to look. If nothing else, it has some of the best pizza and ice cream in the world, and if that doesn’t make your kids enthusiastic then I don’t know what will!
I’ve lived in Rome with my husband, children (Jack, 11 and Tess, 9) and dog (Harry) for over three years now so we’re not exactly tourists anymore. We’ve slowly worked our way through all of the major sites and found a few more off the beaten track that are even more enjoyable (not to mention less crowded) than the usual tourist attractions.
Here’s a few of our favourite things to do with kids.
1. Take a Family-Friendly Tour of Rome
You can’t come to Rome and not see the Colosseum, the Forum, Circus Maximus, Saint Peter’s Basilica and other eye-popping, time stopping sites. However, children can quickly tire of queuing for tickets and shuffling around dusty ruins. Sign up with a child-friendly company such as Tapsy Tours and let them do what they set out to do, which is to make Rome fun for the entire family.
Enjoy a whistle stop tour around some of the main sites of Rome in a luxury van, then skip the queues at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and listen to your experienced guide tell stories of the people of ancient Rome – how they lived, what they ate, what they studied at school, etc. After only three fascinating hours, and with many of Rome’s top tourist sites already ticked off, you’ll have plenty of time left for the rest of my top 10 list.
2. Throw a Coin in the Trevi Fountain
Built in flamboyant Rococo style, and tucked away in one of Rome’s tiniest piazzas, is the fabulous Trevi Fountain. Recently cleaned and now creamier and sparklier than ever, it’s a spectacular creation depicting Neptune’s chariot, wild sea horses and Tritons.
Legend has it that if you throw a coin over your left shoulder into the fountain, you’ll return to Rome some day. Throw two and you’ll fall in love; three and you’ll soon be married. Around 3,000 Euros is thrown into the fountain daily, which is a lot of travel, romance and marital commitment! I recommend visiting the fountain in the evening when the crowds are (slightly) less overwhelming and the night-time lighting makes for an even more magical view of the fountain.
3. Get a Bird’s Eye View of the Eternal City
Rome looks pretty amazing from any angle, but to really appreciate the extent of the city’s beauty and the surrounding countryside, it helps to get up high. Thankfully, due to the Seven Hills of Rome, you’re never far from a good vantage point. My favourite is our local, which is the Aventine Hill. Find your way to the Giardino degli Aranci (the garden of oranges, also known as Parco Savello) for an incredible view over the river and across the city to the Vatican and St. Peter’s church.
If you walk a few steps more you can peep through the keyhole of the door of the headquarters of the Knights of Malta and see an unrivalled view of the dome of St. Peters in the distance. Other great vantage points include the view from the top of the dome of St. Peters itself, if you’re brave enough to climb the rather scary winding steps up to the top of the cupola; or take a lift to the top of the vast Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Piazza Venezia for a 360 degree view of the city.
4. Find Out Who in the Family is a ‘Liar-Liar-Pants-On-Fire’
The Bocca della Verità, or the ‘mouth of truth’, functioned as a medieval lie detector and still entertains hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. It was made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the film ‘Roman Holiday’. Legend has it that if someone has told lies, when they put their hand in the mouth it will snap shut.
There’s often a line around the block waiting to put their hands in and take their chances. It took a full year of living just around the corner from the Bocca della Verita for my daughter to finally pluck up the courage to put her hand in. She eventually explained that her reluctance was because she’d once told a little lie and thought that she’d lose a hand if she dared try it out!
5. Try Working in an Italian Supermarket or Making Pizza
There aren’t many museums in Rome that target children, but one that’s definitely worth a visit is Explora. It’s a customised museum specifically for kids with interactive exhibits about science, the environment, recycling, transport, money, society, you name it. In my opinion it’s better for younger children – less than eight ideally.
All the labels are in Italian but that doesn’t prevent children of all nationalities enjoying the hands-on exhibits. You can operate the check-out in a child-sized supermarket, sit in the driver’s seat of a fire engine, or create a dam in the central water pool. The cooking workshops held next door are excellent but to get the most out of it your children will need to understand Italian. The museum has its own pizzeria with a garden for eating outside in the summer, and the book/toyshop is excellent.
6. Play ‘I Spy’
Look carefully and you’ll see the initials SPQR all over Rome, including in the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum. There are many jokes in Rome about what the initials stand for, but what it really means is ‘The Senate and People of Rome’. Keep children interested by seeing who can find the most SPQR signs on buildings, drain covers, mosaics, plaques, etc.
Another very common sight in Rome to add to your game of ‘I Spy’ are the drinking fountains, called nasone (or big noses because of the curved shape of the water spouts), that are found all over the city. They’re safe to drink from and just as refreshing as the expensive bottles of water that touts sell to tourists in the hot summer months.
7. Take a Dip
Talking of the hot summer months, Rome can get very hot and sticky during July and August, yet there are surprisingly few outdoor public pools in the city. Instead, most Romans either head for the beach, the nearest of which is only just over 20kms away in Ostia and easily reachable by the special ‘lido’ train from Piramide station; or to one of the many small lakes surrounding Rome.
Lake Albano (overlooked by the summer residence of the Pope), Lake Nemi (famous for its surrounding woods full of wild strawberries) and the larger Lake Bracciano (good for water sports) are among our favourites. In the winter, try one of the outdoor thermal baths near Rome. Terme dei Papi in Viterbo is excellent, reasonably child-friendly (though splashing or handstands in the pool may draw snooty looks), and easy to reach either by car or by bus from central Rome.
8. Get on Your Bike
One of our favourite things to do in Rome is cycling. The roads can be a bit hairy however – everything you’ve heard about crazy Italian drivers is true! It’s safer and much more enjoyable to steer clear of the traffic altogether. You can follow a cycle/pedestrian path all the way along the Tiber River, which winds its way through the centre of the city. During the summer, the path is lined with stalls selling food and drink that stay open until the wee hours, which can either be seen as an obstacle to cyclists or a welcome distraction.
Our favourite cycle route by far is the Appia Antica: the all important road that connected ancient Rome to the south of Italy and its empire beyond. It’s a bumpy ride so be sure to hire bikes with wide tires and good suspension, and it may be too challenging for younger children. But it’s worth the bumps to be able to step (or cycle) back in time and escape the hustle and bustle of the city in a matter of minutes.
Stop off at one of the many catacombs, where mazes of underground tunnels were used for burying early Christians. Take a picnic or treat yourself to lunch in a trattoria en route. Buses run regularly to the top of the Appia Antica and bikes can be hired from the Appia Antica Caffe or Bici e Motori.
9. Park It
Rome is full of beautiful parks, of which the biggest and grandest of all is Villa Borghese – Rome’s answer to New York’s Central Park, only heart-shaped! Here you can go to the zoo; hire bikes for one, two, four or even six; take a row boat around the tiny lake; stop in at Casina di Raffaello, a baby/child-friendly space with indoor and outdoor play areas; or watch a film at Cinema dei Piccoli, the world’s smallest purpose built cinema with just 63 seats (though films are usually screened in Italian).
There are many other parks worth visiting, including the magical Villa Celimontana not far from the Colosseum, which has a great play area and lots of beautiful trees that provide shelter from the sun and ideal places to stop for a picnic during the summer months.
10. Eat, Eat, Eat!
Rome, like everywhere else in Italy, is food heaven. Roman pizza is typically made with a paper thin crust and usually best when served with simple toppings (pizza margherita – if it ain’t broke…?!). Every neighbourhood has at least two or three, and often many more, local pizzerias. Look for restaurants that advertise ‘pizza al forno’ (cooked in a brick oven) as these are by far the best. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but if forced, I’d opt for Panattoni in the Trastevere district, also known affectionately as ‘Pizzeria ai Marmi’ or ‘the morgue’ thanks to its marble table tops. You may have to stand in line, but trust me, it’s worth the wait.
Start as the Italians do with a plate of fritti misti: mixed fried things, including zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies; stuffed olives; rice balls; cod fillets; even french fries! You won’t have to wait long for your pizza, but while you do you can watch the team of amazing chefs at work in front of the blazing pizza oven. After pizza, head to Fior di Luna down the road for the most delicious pistachio gelato. From there stroll over to Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere where street performers are usually to be found. Cheap, cheerful and pure heaven!
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