Rome with Kids: 8 Ways to Make Sightseeing Fun (Or At Least Less Painful)

Traveling in Rome with children

Want your kid in Rome to look as happy as this one? Then you’ll need to do some planning…

Sightseeing with kids in Rome? The bad news: Because of their skew towards art, history, and archaeology, some of Rome’s sights can seem less than immediately child-friendly. The good news: There’s enough here to keep kids entertained and happy. If you do it right. Truly.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re sightseeing in Rome with children.

1) Make sure you don’t stand in any lines

Kids hate standing in line as much as adults do. They’re just (usually) worse at hiding it. So make sure you avoid the lines at the top sights. At the Colosseum, use a RomaPass or get your ticket at the Palatine or Forum entrance; at the Vatican, cough up the extra €4 (yes, per person) and book your Vatican museums tickets in advance.

2) Know the limits of thy stroller

Rome by stroller

Okay, these stairs to Santa Maria in Aracoeli might be a little tough with a stroller…

I’ve said it before: Rome is a city best explored by walking. That might be fine if you have a super-energetic 10-year-old. But traveling with a toddler? You’ll definitely want a stroller.

Just bear in mind that Rome is a city of cobblestones and ruins. Translation: Any stroller you bring should have nice, sturdy wheels. It should also be light, because you’ll sometimes wind up having to fold it up and carry it—at the Colosseo metro stop, for example (there’s no elevator, just stairs), or at your B&B or hotel (many have tiny elevators, or sometimes no elevator at all).

Also keep in mind that you won’t always be able to use your stroller. They’re forbidden in St. Peter’s Basilica, for example (you can check them before you enter). So it might be a good idea to also bring a backpack child-carrier.

One thing not to worry about? Getting strollers on and off buses and public transportation. Yes, it can be daunting—but you’d be surprised at just how many strangers will help you with the task.

How to travel with kids in Rome in a stroller

Make sure you have a sturdy stroller for all the cobblestones!

3) Hit up sights children will love

I promise that they exist. Some favorites:

Palazzo Valentini makes ancient Rome come alive in a way I haven’t seen in Rome before; because it’s very dark, which can scare little ones, it’s best for ages six and up.

I haven’t done this yet myself, but at Gladiator School, kids (and adults) can try their hand at being gladiators, donning their tunics and duking it out with foam swords. Talk about making history hands-on. Apparently, even toddlers can participate.

Exploring the “hidden” ancient ruins beneath Rome’s churches, like at San Nicola in Carcere or the Basilica of San Clemente, turns a church visit into an Indiana Jones-style adventure for older kids.

Underground in Rome with kids

The underground of San Nicola in Carcere

For children who like the creepier side of things, the catacombs are as spooky as they get. You’re lucky if you see a bone, though (most were cleaned out by relics-seekers and grave-robbers years ago), so for that, head to the Capuchin Crypts, where the walls and ceilings are decorated with bones and the actual bodies of the deceased on display.

The “Mouth of Truth” is pretty goofy—it’s a possibly-ancient marble image of a face that gained worldwide fame after Audrey Hepburn stuck her hand in in Roman Holiday. And there’s always a line in high season. But I know I dragged my dad there when I was 13.

These days, Piazza Navona is essentially a breathtaking tourist trap. But the square does buzz with street performers and caricaturists, making it a draw for families. And during Christmas season, it’s home to Rome’s most famous Christmas market.

5) Find the kid-friendly parts of more “adult” sights

Like at the Vatican museums. Which—let’s be honest—can be tough with kids: There aren’t many places to sit, eat, or go to the bathroom, and unless you sprint through the long halls, it’s tough to get in and out in less than two hours, minimum.

Given that, one part you don’t want to miss? The Egyptian section, which even displays a 3,000-year-old mummy with her hair and toenails still preserved. (Ew!).

6) But remember that (almost) anything can be made interesting to kids

Seeing art in Rome with kids

Raphael’s frescoes in the Chiostro del Bramante

I mean, yes, the finer points of Renaissance art are lost on most 6-year-olds. But there is always some way to bring it down to your child’s age level. (This is coming from someone who spent a childhood of being endlessly entertained in art galleries and historical museums. No, I’m not being sarcastic. And it’s due to my family, who seriously tried to always make sure I connected, somehow, with what I was looking at. Thanks, Mom!).

Case in point: Old Master paintings. Of saints. In a museum. Not something you’d assume was child-friendly. Right?

But maybe it can be. Maybe you can, say, find an art guide to the museum—a book in the bookstore, or even just the museum brochure—and your 7-year-old can try to find the “matches” of the images in the brochure with the paintings she sees on the wall.

Or maybe you and your 10-year-old can play a game of “name that saint,” since artists generally characterized different martyrs and saints in consistent ways (St. Jerome is usually old with a red hat and a lion nearby, St. Peter has the keys, St. Sebastian holds some arrows). Or maybe your 13-year-old will be intrigued by the gory stories of why the martyrs are depicted that way (St. Sebastian has arrows because… he was shot full of arrows during his martyrdrom!). Or maybe, if neither of you know, you can try to figure it out and retell what you think is going on in the painting.

Make anything child friendly in Rome

Make this Pinturicchio painting (in the Borghese Gallery) into a game of “Name That Saint”!

Or maybe you just give your kid a sketchbook and your whole family spends 20 minutes sitting and drawing in front of a painting that catches your eye.

Seriously. You can make almost anything fun. And when all else fails, well, there’s always that coloring book/iPhone game you brought along.

7) Think about taking a family-friendly tour

Telling stories about saints and martyrs is a lot easier when you know the stories. Oh, you don’t?

That’s when a tour guide comes in handy.

A great, enthusiastic tour guide can bring art and sights to life, for both adults and kids. In Rome, one sights where I think that’s an especially valuable option is the “ancient city,” i.e. the Colosseum Palatine and Forum. After all, there’s so much storytelling potential here: The history of these sights is full of blood and gore, treachery and romance, pagan rituals and horrible punishments. And (did I mention?) it’s all true!  

How to make the Roman forum child friendly

The forum: a little daunting for parents (and boring for kids) unless you plan it right

But if you don’t know the stories yourself, or if you have a dry audioguide, or guidebook, or tour guide, then all of that gets lost. And that’s a shame. So no matter what tour company you go with, just make sure their guides get top points for being exciting and enthusiastic.

I promise that after you’ve had a guide bring the ruins to life, your child will be psyched for the “ancient Rome” unit in school.

Another tour I’ve come across that’s perfect for kids is Walks of Italy’s Rome food tour with pizza-making class and gelato. Yes, these are the guys I used to blog for; they’re also the only tour company that offers a Rome food tour that includes not only tons of tastings and a market visit, but a hands-on pizza-making class. Pretty fun, especially for children.

8) Don’t discount Rome’s parks

In Rome with kids? Head to a park

The kid-friendly Villa Borghese

Rome’s parks offer, obviously, green space for kids to run around (or rest) in. And (bonus!) they often sneak in “cultural sites,” like ancient ruins or Renaissance villas, too.

If you’re near the Colosseum, for example, considering taking a rest or a picnic in the Villa Celimontana, a 16th-century estate turned public park that’s strewn with the remnants of ancient temples and palaces, including columns, statues and a temple altar. There’s even an ancient Egyptian obelisk inscribed to Ramses II from the 13th century B.C.

Near the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo? Head to the Villa Borghese, Rome’s answer to Central Park. It has fantastic museums, but also fountains, a (small) pond where you can rent boats, lots of shade, and the opportunity to rent those funny pedi-cabs you can pedal around the park. In Trastevere, the Villa Pamphili has plenty of space for little ones to run around.

Farther out, the Appian Way is a park where you can rent bicycles and bike along the 2,300-year-old Roman road, checking out spooky catacombs along the way. And the Park of the Aqueducts is a cool glimpse of how ancient Romans brought water into the city.


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Now, Go Behind Locked Doors in the Vatican—And Visit the Niccoline Chapel

Niccoline Chapel in the VaticanEver dreamed of going behind the scenes at the Vatican? Walking through locked doors? Ducking under velvet ropes? Admiring the incredible art and rooms closed to the public, like the world-famous Niccoline Chapel (above) or Bramante’s staircase?

Good news. Now, your dream can come true.

Two tour operators now offer VIP access to the Vatican’s most hidden gems. Walks of Italy just launched its “VIP Access: Vatican Behind the Scenes & Sistine Chapel” experience, while Dark Rome offers the “VIP Vatican & Private Sistine” tour. 

(Update, 7/5/2012: You can also find this tour on Viator, where it’s named the “VIP Access: Sistine Chapel Private Viewing and Small-Group Tour of the Vatican’s Secret Rooms.” However, Viator is not a tour provider; it is an aggregator. There is no such thing as a “Viator guide” or “Viator tour.” In this instance, this tour is not Viator’s, but rather Dark Rome’s, tour [which makes it very misleading, and incorrect, that the Viator tour description says it is a “Viator exclusive”]; people who book with Viator will be put on a Dark Rome tour, with a Dark Rome guide, exactly as if they’d booked it directly through Dark Rome. Therefore, my description below of Dark Rome’s VIP Vatican tour should also be applied to Viator’s).

In both experiences, in a maximum group of 10, clients are led through the Vatican and behind closed doors by a Vatican guard (and their guide). That’s how they see such famed (but inaccessible) gems as the famous staircase of Bramante, the Gabinetto delle Maschere (with mosaics from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and the “Three Graces,” one of the world’s most famous ancient Roman sculptures), and the terrace of the Loggia Scoperta, with its stunning view over Vatican City. (This blog post by Walks of Italy has lots of photos of what all these look like).

But the most exciting stop is the exploration of the Cappella Niccolina. This was the papal chapel frescoed by early Renaissance master Fra Angelico in the mid-15th century, before Michelangelo was even born. Filled with exquisite frescoes that happen to be some of the most seminal of the Renaissance, this chapel is almost always closed to the public. The chance to experience it, never mind in a group of just 10 people, is phenomenal.

So far, the only way to visit these spots is on one of these two tours. Not on your own. Not even with a Vatican guide. Just on the Walks of Italy or Dark Rome tour.

That’s not to say these two tours are exactly the same. Yes, they’re both 3 hours long. Yes, they both visit these hidden spots, as well as the Vatican’s more accessible (but unmissable!) areas like the Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel. Yes, they both include skip-the-line access to the Vatican museums.

The big difference is in the Sistine Chapel. Although both tours explore the Sistine Chapel, the Dark Rome version visits the Sistine Chapel for half an hour after it closes to the public. (The Walks of Italy tour visits it as normal, but does include skip-the-line access to St. Peter’s Basilica upon exiting).

That leads to the other big difference: the price. The Walks of Italy tour costs €79 per adult, while the Dark Rome tour costs €220 per adult. 

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Two More Art Opportunities in Rome

Manzu piece in Rome museum of municipal modern art

A fan of art? And of Rome? Then you’ll be happy to know that two new opportunities for viewing some of the city’s best pieces have just opened up—on both the modern and Renaissance sides.

Check out my two latest pieces, “Palazzo Farnese Now Offers English Tours” and “A Home for Art Reopens in Rome,” for the New York Times. (Photo: Massimo Siragusa for the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma Capitale).

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Can’t Get to Rome Right Now? How About to L.A.?

Getty Villa, a bit of Rome in Malibu, California

Whether it’s the bad economy or the press of work, you might not be able to get to Rome or Pompeii right this second. But, if you’re lucky enough to be in California—or if you’re heading there anytime soon—then you can get the ancient Roman experience… in Malibu.

The Getty Villa, located on the border of Pacific Palisades and Malibu, is unlike any museum you’ve ever been to. First off, it’s not a museum. It’s an ancient Roman villa. Recreated.

Brainchild of oil tycoon (and art enthusiast) J. Paul Getty, the Getty Villa was designed to look like Herculaneum’s once-sumptuous, and world-famous, Villa of the Papyri. While Getty died before getting to see his dream completed, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be happy with how it all turned out. Re-opened in 2006 after a 10-year restoration, the Getty Villa boasts 64 acres of gardens, fountains, colonnades, buildings, even an ancient theater that sits up to 450 people. Every detail was done with the utmost attempt at historical accuracy, from the classical bronze statues in the gardens to the colored columns and frescoed walls.

Colonnade at the Getty Villa, a recreated ancient Roman villa in California

As for its collection? Well, it’s pretty fantastic. The museum boasts 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts, including everything from paintings (rare to find even in Italy) to mummies, pottery to perfectly-preserved jewelry. Some of the finds rival anything I’ve seen in Europe, including at the Naples Archaeological Museum and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Ancient Roman artifact at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California Bracelet of gold, glass, emeralds, and sapphires, ancient Roman, 300-400 A.D.

Ancient Roman portrait in the Getty Villa in California Mummy portrait of a woman, Romano-Egyptian, 100-110 A.D.

Painted coffin, ancient Roman-Egyptian, in the Villa Malibu Painted coffin, Romano-Egyptian, 300-400 A.D.

Ancient Roman statue in the Getty Villa, Malibu Statue of a youth as a lamp-bearer found in Pompeii, ancient Roman, 20-10 B.C.

Ancient Roman crown from the Villa Malibu in California Pure gold wreath, ancient Greek, 300-100 B.C.

Ancient vase from the Getty Villa, California Vessel of Medea killing her child, ancient Greek, 330 B.C.

And then there’s that pottery that, um, makes classical art look anything but boring. Here’s a fragment of a wine cup from about 500 B.C.:

Ancient Greek pottery in the Getty Villa of Malibu California

Yes, that’s a man vomiting because he’s too drunk. And no, that’s not the earthiest piece of pottery in the collection (…no pun intended). But the others were simply too, ah, X-rated to post.

Many of the objects, meanwhile, are in rooms designed as ancient Roman rooms would have been, setting the art off even more.

Let me put it this way: Sure, I’m an ancient Roman art-and-history geek, but for me, this villa was cooler than Disneyland. In fact, it’s kind of like a Disneyland for those of us who really like anything that still looks good when it’s a couple of millennia old.

And therein lies a potential criticism. In some ways, the whole concept of a recreated Roman villa is a bit Disneyfied. And if the actual art and objects inside were as fake as Epcot Center’s Doge’s Palace, then that would be one thing. But they hold up to the hype—and then some.

Which is why I felt just fine about feeling so excited to walk through the “ancient” Roman gardens.

Oh, and did I mention… that the Getty Villa is free? Even with the $15 that’s charged for parking, if you’re in the area, that’s, um, slightly cheaper than a flight to Rome. So, Californians: Promise me you’ll go. Soon. (Just don’t forget to book your entrance in advance, which is mandatory).

The Getty Villa is located at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. Here’s more information on the Getty Villa’s hours and directions.

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Enjoy Martedi in Arte… Throughout 2011

Martedi in arte nighttime visits through 2011 to Italian museums

Martedi in Arte — that fantastic tradition where, on the last Tuesday of each month, major state museums in Italy are open and free from 7pm-11pm — is a hit. Such a hit, it's going on all year long.

Here in Rome, participating sites include the Palazzo Massimo (a savings of €10!), a treasure trove of ancient art and sculpture; the often-overlooked, but useful, Crypta Balbi; the Pantheon (always free, but only open so late for occasions like this one); the Palazzo Barberini, filled with gems by Raphael, Caravaggio and more; Castel Sant'Angelo, the papal castle; and the Galleria Borghese, that world-renowned collection of pieces by everyone from Bernini, Raphael, and others.

So mark your calendar: The next Martedi in Arte is May 31. But if you miss it, don't worry. You've got more shots… on June 28, July 26, August 30, September 27, October 25, November 29, and December 27. Phew!

Here's a list of museums across Italy participating in Martedi in Arte.

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Crypta Balbi, a Rome Museum with an Underground Secret

Part of the underground of Rome's Crypta Balbi, a national museum of Rome

It’s probably the most-overlooked museo nazionale Romano — but for a history buff, or someone simply trying to wrap their head around Rome’s many, many years of evolution, the Crypta Balbi deserves a stop.

The museum’s big claim to fame is that it stands on remains of the Theater of Balbus (13 B.C.), and you can still go down and see the ruins, today hidden beneath the modern museum (above). While that’s cool — and, after such neat underground experiences as the columbarium of Pomponio Hylas or the Mithraic temple beneath the Circus Maximus, I’m aware I might be a bit jaded biased — it wasn’t, for me, the best part of the Crypta Balbi. Particularly as the signs for the underground section were rudimentary and confusing, making it near-impossible for anyone but an archaeologist to be able to figure out what was what.

So why go to the Crypta Balbi?

In all honesty, because it’s the first museum I’ve found that lays out what the historical center of Rome looked like in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and through to today. With accompanying artifacts.

No, it’s not with cutting-edge technology. But those maps and pictures? They’re pretty darn helpful. Now, when I walk past the Largo Argentina or by the Theater of Marcellus, I have a much, much clearer image in my mind of what not just particular buildings, but whole neighborhoods, would have looked like. (Below, the Crypta Balbi area in the late-antique and medieval periods). Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano

Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano
The artifacts in the museum, meanwhile, are actually much more extensive than I’d expected, with artifacts like the Forma Urbis Romae, a 60-by-45-foot marble map of the city that Emperor Septimius Severus mounted in the Forum to help 3rd-century visitors to the city. (Today, obviously, only fragments remain. But it’s still cool to see).Forma Urbis Romae, marble map of ancient Rome, in Crypta Balbi, Rome

Despite its treasures, the Crypta Balbi isn’t a particularly large museum. And that’s kind of nice. It means you can easily see the underground, look at all the artifacts, and wrap your mind around ancient Rome in about an hour and a half. And, after a day at the Vatican or an afternoon at the Palazzo Massimo, don’t discount the merit of not being exhausted after a museum trip.

The Crypta Balbi is open daily from 9am to 7:45pm, except Mondays. The ticket (€7 full, €3.50 reduced) is valid for three days at not only the Crypta Balbi, but also the Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, and Baths of Diocletian. It’s located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31. Here’s a map of Crypta Balbi’s location.


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In Rome, the Night of (Free!) Museums

Notte dei Musei 2011

Great news: Across Europe, museums will be free and open late the night of May 14.

Here in Rome, that includes all state-owned museums, like the Musei Capitolini, MACRO, Galleria Borghese, Palazzo Barberini, and Castel Sant’Angelo.

A little more unusually, it also includes museums not often part of these free events, like the Scuderie del Quirinale (currently with a Lorenzo Lotto exhibit); the MAXXI, with its great Michelangelo Pistoletto exhibit; and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, with its show on European 19th- and 20th-century art including pieces by Corot, Monet, Renoir, Ernst, Klee, and Picasso.

All will be open, and free, from 8pm-2am, with last entrance at 1am.

Another bonus? The Palazzo dell Esposizione hosts two piano concerts by Michelangelo Carbonara, one at 9pm and one at 10:30pm, celebrating the same time period that’s also shown with the exhibit.

Happy free culture!

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On Fridays Through Fall, See the Vatican Under the Stars

Raphael rooms of Vatican museums

If you want to avoid the usual Sistine Chapel crowds, here's one way to do it: Go to the Vatican at night.

For the third year in a row, the Vatican museums are having their "extraordinary opening" from 7pm-11pm. Last year, more than 30,000 people took advantage. And whether your day is completely booked or you'd simply like to see the Sistine Chapel and Laocoön in a bit of a more serene atmosphere, now's your chance.

The museums will be open on Friday nights from now until July 15, and then again from Sep. 2 until Oct. 28. Last admission is at 9:30pm.

The areas open in the museums are the Egyptian museum, Pio-Clementine, Galleries of Tapestries, Candelabra, and Maps, Raphael Rooms, Borgia Apartment, Collection of Modern Religious Art, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. (There's no guarantee, and it's in fact unlikely, that other areas, like the Pinacoteca, will be open).

Tickets must be booked in advance, so the full-price ticket is €19 (includes the €4 reservation fee), or €12 reduced (students, bring your I.D.s!). Click here to book.

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