When in Rome

My husband and I thought it was time to take our two daughters, ages 7 and 9, to Europe for a family summer vacation. We’d always imagined that their first European experience would be London or Paris because of our own memorable experiences traveling there. But our friends convinced us that Italy, and in particular the city of Rome, would be the friendliest and easiest place to start. And what history there would be to see and experience! Here are some of the best tips and pieces of advice that made our trip such a wonderful family adventure:

Secure A Guide

The best piece of advice that we were given was to hire an English-speaking guide—licensed by the government of Italy—who could help the girls (and us!) comprehend and appreciate the major sights. Rome is an enormous city, with many of its signs only in Italian. Our guide also helped us navigate the museums and sights during the least crowded times of the day. We took an early morning tour of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, went on a visit to the Colosseum timed to avoid the scorching sun, and stopped into the Catacombs just prior to the noon closing so they were practically empty. My youngest daughter even got to hold the flashlight and lead us through the Catacombs herself! Our guide shared anecdotes about art and history, and took us to some of the more “off the beaten path” exhibits, churches and sights. If you don’t want to hire a guide, I suggest picking up an automated recording at the sights where they are offered—it’s worth every euro.

Stay In A Centrally-Located Hotel— With A Pool

Since there is quite a bit of walking and touring, friends advised us to find a hotel with a pool—not the easiest thing to find in Europe, but well worth the effort. The girls were able to relax in the afternoon and escape the June heat. The pool also filled the midday window of time when the major destinations were closed for their traditional, leisurely Italian lunches. We stayed at the Westin Excelsior, on the Via Veneto. There were many wonderful restaurants nearby, and we were a short walk away from the top of the Spanish Steps and the Villa Borghese park. The hotel had lovely, spacious rooms, and a fantastic concierge. The indoor pool is only a few years old and couldn’t have been nicer!

Do Your Homework

Plan ahead and determine which sights you really want to see. Rome is such a vast city that it’s impossible to “do it all” in a single visit. Get your children involved in the planning process—it will help to get them excited about the trip.

My husband discovered the website kidseurope.com, which offers a printable “My Italy Discovery Journal.” The journal introduces kids to some of the historic sights through games and puzzles that they can do on the plane—and during the leisurely (aka long) evening dinners. Other great resources include Fodor’s “Rome” (we found this travel guide to be the most detailed and accurate), and the book “Rome: Past and Present” by R. A. Staccioli, which is the first original archeological guide to Rome—the girls loved the colorful overlays depicting ancient monuments.

What To Do:

Visit The Colosseum. It’s one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

Head to the top of the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first president of Italy, for the most incredible views! Constructed of white marble, this is the world’s largest monument—think Lincoln Memorial times 2 or 3. And not to worry, there’s an elevator to the top!

Explore The Vatican, The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Technically a country unto itself, The Vatican is truly a sight to see. It is an art-lovers paradise, and The Sistine Chapel is of course a given, but there is also Michelangelo’s “La Pieta” sculpture inside St. Peter’s Church and abundant mosaic-tiled flooring and painted ceilings. Catch a glimpse of the Swiss guards who protect the Pope, dressed in colorful finery dating back centuries! Touring with a guide allows you to exit The Sistine Chapel and proceed to St. Peter’s by a charming route—you’ll be able to peek through a small keyhole to see a surprise,  view the exquisite back stairway for nobility and heads of state, and take a drink from a majestic fountain.

Visit the Trevi Fountain. This is one of the world’s largest and most famous fountains.  If you can, be sure to stop by in the evening. Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain—right hand over your left shoulder—it will ensure a safe return to Rome someday. Throw two coins and you’ll return to Rome in love!

Take a walk through the Villa Borghese and the Pincio Gardens. Go on a 30-minute rowboat ride around a lake, or rent a multi-person bike. Stroll or ride to Napoleon’s Plaza, which overlooks the Piazza de Popolo for fabulous views and photo opps.  There are plenty of spots for a quick drink or sandwich inside the Borghese park.

Eat gelato! There are so many wonderful “gelaterias” to taste this Italian gem, but for an experience, be sure to order it at GIOLITTI, one of the most famous.

Gianicolo Hill—and the 12 noon canon. Not listed in any of the books we read ahead of time, this was one of my daughters’ favorite parts of the trip. Situated on Gianicolo Hill, not far from the Spanish Embassy, is a canon demonstration that occurs every day at 12 noon.  The canon actually keeps time for all of Rome, and people set their watches by it.

Explore the Catacombs of Sebastien, just outside the city wall.

Where To Eat:

Café Ciampini. At the top of the Spanish Steps, heading towards Piazza del Popolo, this outdoor restaurant has lovely views, delicious food, and a turtle pond right in the center of the restaurant.

Giarrosta Fiorentina. On Via Sistina, just off the Via Veneto, this family-run restaurant has great food and service, making us feel instantly relaxed and comfortable. 

Pietra Valentina, near the Piazza Navona. Probably the smallest restaurant you will ever dine at!  Simone, the hostess, greeted us at the door and took care of our family with ease and warmth. The food was simple and fabulous.

“Fabio” Cooking School. During our stay, we enjoyed a family cooking lesson with Fabio at his home near the Spanish Steps. The girls made homemade pesto ravioli and a basil, garlic and tomato sauce from scratch, as well as a chicken dish featuring herbs they picked from his terraced gardens. Then we all sat down to a lovely dinner of dishes we had made together.

Caroleen Mackin is an Upper East Side mother of two.

Photo: Mackin’s daughters, Charlotte (left) and Sophie (right), at The Vatican.