The great thing about living in Italy is the fact that you get to see Italy every single day. That also probably explains why we always choose to visit other countries when we have time to travel. After we returned from Scotland back in February and realized we only have a year or so left here, we made up our minds to see more of Italy in the near future. The Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, Sicily…they’re all on our list but Rome topped it all.
Looking at 5-6 hours minimum by car, we opted for the faster Frecce train going out of Padova (Padua). At speeds of up to 186 mph, you can easily pull into Rome’s Termini Station in 3 hours, and speed is key when you’re traveling with my kids. I booked through Italo and paid about $300 round trip for 2 adults and 2 kids–first class with assigned seats going to Rome and second class with assigned seats coming back. Honestly, the seating arrangement was better in second class but first class included non-alcoholic drinks and snacks delivered to us. Although it was 3 cars ahead, I did find a family bathroom, which came in mighty handy when Harper’s wet diaper overflowed. It’s reaaaaaly hard potty training when you’re traveling.
We booked through Airbnb for this trip. Rome can be expensive in terms of hotels. For around $150 per night, we found a one-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms, a full kitchen, livingroom with an incredibly comfortable sofa bed, and washing machine (yeaaa!) in Trastevere. In terms of location, it was a bit of a hike to get to the main sites but it was very quiet and there were great bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants, and even a large playground close by. We opted to take taxis when we were tired rather than trying to take buses or the Metro, which didn’t really get us close to our apartment anyway.
Our Favorite Sites
Bocca della Verita
If you have 7-10-year-old kids (or if you’re just a fan of the movie Roman Holiday), this is a can’t-miss. Located inside the portico at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the Mouth of Truth is a bit of a mystery. Depending upon who you ask, it was either carved as part of a fountain or as a manhole cover. Sometime during the Middle Ages, the story emerged that it functioned as a type of lie detector…person sticks his/her hand into the mouth and the hand is bitten off if he/she is a liar. Zoey thought the whole thing was awesome; Harper (2-years-old) was pretty freaked out by it.
A few tips on visiting…
1. If you visit Rome in the high-season, be prepared to wait with little or no shade. Even in early April (still the low-season), we waited about 20 minutes. Each person is allowed one photograph and there is an official standing there to enforce the rule.
2. You won’t see the Bocca della Verita from the street. Look for the church first. The portico is located to the left of the church’s doors.
3. Don’t discount Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It’s an amazingly lovely church. Take a few minutes to enjoy it before rushing through to the gift shop (which has some really neat souvenirs).
After a major $2.2 million-plus renovation, the Trevi Fountain is finally open again! I’ll be honest: it wasn’t what I was expecting. When you see it, you probably imagine a nice, large, open piazza where you can really stand and take in the glory that is Fontana di Trevi. Nope, nope, nope. This huge, awe-inspiring fountain is situated in–what seems to me–one of Rome’s smallest squares. We had Harper’s stroller at this point and had to fold it up. There was room to walk among other visitors but not much. Finding a seat or a clear shot for a photo took some time and patience but it was worth it.
Tips for visiting:
1. If you visit in the busy season, try to arrive early in the morning to beat the heat and the largest crowds. Even in early April, the piazza was was packed but somewhat maneuverable. I can only imagine what June, July, and August will bring.
2. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses. There is so much white marble that the whole piazza is nearly blinding as it reflects the sun.
3. If you are facing the fountain, there will be a great artiginale gelato (homemade) shop behind you on your left. Many of Italy’s gelato shops truck in their product these days. Artiginale shops will sell only the gelato they make themselves. It usually made from the freshest ingredients, too.
For a site to be so important and so history-filled, the Pantheon was just not enjoyable for us with the kids. The architecture was…there are no words for that kind of beauty. Historically-speaking, the Pantheon that we see today was built by the Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD atop the remains of older Pantheons that date as far back as 27 BC. At 7-years-old, Zoey just couldn’t grasp the importance of the building’s age and what it has gone through. At 2-years-old, the vastness and echo of the interior was too much for Harper. Having horse-drawn carriages out front was the bigger draw, so we were in and out of this amazing structure within 30 minutes.
Tips for visiting:
1. Consider a tour. Although there are signs, I think you would gain much more information with the help of a knowledgeable guide. I didn’t see anyone hawking tours outside the doors, so check sites like Viator or Dark Rome before you go.
2. Entry is free so if your kids are like mine, you’ve lost nothing by going in. See what you want to see, take a few photos, then head back out into the sunshine.
I’ve written and re-written this section a dozen times. Really, there’s everything and nothing to say about Vatican City. Obviously the religious flock there, especially during this Jubilee Year, but there is so much more. Art, history, architecture, politics, intrigue, stories of scandal…it’s all there in about 100 acres. It’s also not particularly a place two small kids would appreciate. Sure, there were giant cherubs and saintly relics (read: skeletons) in St. Peter’s, which my kids liked, but they really don’t get the importance of the whole place.
Because we were afraid we would never get back to Rome, we decided to book a 2-hour express tour of the Vatican Museum (including the Sistine Chapel) and St. Peter’s Basilica. To put this in perspective for you, the museums could take months, if not a couple of years, to tour in their entirety, so two hours is akin to speed-reading a textbook to CLEP out of a class two hours later. Our tour was overbooked by the tour operator so they offered us a private tour later in the day. In hindsight, this was a blessing in disguise. Our guide, an American expat booked through Viator, was so patient with our kids, who were worn out and a bit punchy at 1:00 in the afternoon.
Tips on visiting:
1. Book a tour and choose a small-group or private one, if possible. I have had good luck with both Dark Rome and Viator. There are tour operators out there that specialize in tours for families with small children, but you need to be ready to spend several hundred dollars for a tour the kids may or may not enjoy.
2. The Vatican Museum allows strollers and even offers lifts. That being said, navigating with a stroller was nearly impossible. The hallways in the museum are densely packed with people. The officials are allowed to pack the Sistine Chapel to the point that you can’t even turn around. Lifts are extremely tiny, meaning that you may have to wait a long time. If your little one can’t walk, buy an Ergo carrier before you travel. Harper is big for 2-years, yet I can still wear her on my back comfortably.
3. Because 2016 is a Jubilee Year, be prepared for larger-than-normal crowds. The Pilgrims have their own entrance into St. Peter’s but there will be millions traveling there in addition to the regular visitors.
The Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and The Roman Forum
This was truly the highlight of our trip. We booked a 3-1/2 hour tour through Dark Rome that included all 3 sites, plus the Colosseum underground which is usually closed to the public. It was the most expensive tour of our trip, ringing in at about $350 but the kids loved it. We began walking from the Colosseo Metro station directly to Palatine Hill. From there, we made our way back down to the Roman Forum, then walked to the Colosseum. I have to give huge props to our tour guide Agnese (Agnes). She was excellent and totally went the extra mile by playing peek-a-boo with Harper when she got a little antsy toward the end of the tour.
Tips on visiting:
1. Although Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum were free to enter, the Colosseum had long lines. If you plan to visit, I recommend a tour that bundles all three for the information and, if nothing else, just for “skip the line” privileges.
2. These sites are not stroller-friendly in the least. Harper wouldn’t have been able to walk that far on such steep, uneven terrain, so I wore her in an Ergo pack. There were two lifts in the Colosseum. Only one worked the day we visited.
3. There isn’t a place along the way to easily buy snacks and drinks but drinking water flows freely all over the city. If you’re planning a long tour, bring a water bottle or two to fill up as you go. For the kids, grab a few easy snacks that can get them by until lunch.
I’m almost hesitant to say it but Rome was by far our least favorite trip. The city–including The Vatican–just lacked any soul or vibrancy. It seemed dead in a way, and that’s coming from someone who ate, slept, and breathed Roman history in college. It was totally doable in 5 days. In fact, we were a little bored on day 4, which is absolutely unheard of. We all seem to have wanderlust in our DNA. I feel like you have to go to Rome once in your life just because it’s historically and culturally important, but I can’t say my kids loved it. Would I do it again? That’s a tough question. With the girls being so small, probably not. But that’s the beauty of travel…you can make informed decisions after the fact.