Rome: Italy’s Grand Museum

From the toppled columns of the Forum to Vatican City to the cobblestone streets of Trastevere, Rome has something to appeal to everyone.

All roads may lead to Rome, but what happens when you get there? How do you decide what to see first, how to get from place to place, whether to concentrate on one theme or risk spreading yourself too thin? How do you choose between the incredibly rich treasures of the Vatican and the ancient sights of the city that was once the capital of the western world?

Crowded one upon the other are medieval churches on top of ancient basilicas, above Roman palaces; blocks of houses and apartments incorporate ancient Roman columns and inscribed stones. Streets and piazzas follow the perimeters of long-gone ancient amphitheatres and stadiums. Rome is like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle built from the stones of two millennia.

Knowing Rome’s neighborhoods

Any city becomes more manageable when it is broken into smaller bites. Because Rome is so big, some of its sections don’t really have the feel of a neighborhood, but others seem almost like little cities of their own.

Seeing the sights

No list of Rome’s top attractions is complete, so most lists break them into subjects: ancient, Renaissance, Christian, art, etc. Not all of these interest everyone, and most visitors would like to sample a little of each. Some sights are must-sees for everyone. Bring the kids into your planning, especially if they have studied ancient Rome, since they may have their own list of places they want to see.

The Colosseum leads the list as an icon whose very silhouette says “Rome.” Tickets include admission to the Palatine Hill (a peaceful place where kids can poke about in ruins to their heart’s content), and you can avoid long ticket lines by starting there and arriving at the Colosseum with tickets already in hand. Kids will be especially pleased by the costumed Roman soldiers inside.

The Roman Forum tops everyone’s list, but for most it is a disappointment. So little remains that its ruins show little of the power that held a large portion of the earth in its grip for almost five centuries, and whose influence is still felt in our architecture, language and political systems today. Few structures are still recognizable: The Curia is a 3rd century A.D. reconstruction; only its ancient, brilliantly patterned floor remains from the original. The Column of Phocas, opposite, still has its dedicatory inscription. The Temple of Romulus is now the vestibule of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, whose 6th-century mosaic apse is outstanding.

Far more impressive is my daughter’s favorite of all the sights of Rome, the Pantheon. It is the most complete ancient Roman building in Rome, built in 27 B.C. and rebuilt by Hadrian in the 2nd century A.D. No supporting arches or vaults are visible; they are hidden inside the concrete walls. Pope Urban VIII had the bronze roof melted down to cast the altar canopy for St. Peter’s and the cannons of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Vatican City and its dozen museums take several days to see. Better, we found, to see the church and its crypt, and perhaps go to the top of the dome, then visit the Sistine Chapel to see Michelangelo’s amazing ceiling (which he did not paint lying on his back). Remember that the Vatican has a strict dress code—not even children can wear shorts or have bare shoulders.

Lodging and dining

Fortunately, except during Italian religious holidays, lodging is plentiful in Rome. A good option for those staying more that a few days, and for families, is one of the many apartments that are rented by the week. Not only do you have more independence, but you have the option of eating an occasional meal “at home” and of being part of a neighborhood. A good source for these apartment stays is Enjoy Rome,

Italians love children and welcome them in all but the very classiest restaurants. With smaller children or those who are especially impatient, it’s better to choose one that is not a ristorante or enoteca. Ask for un seggiolone (high chair), usually available. 

Cafes and bars (which are more like cafes, and not the same as American bars) are good choices for lunch—look for those with sandwiches displayed if your Italian is not good—you can just point to the one you want. Café Aracoeli, on a terrace halfway up the Vittoriano monument, has a good view and good lunches, as does the Café at Musei Capitolini, also on a terrace. [Read our article on family-friendly restaurants in Rome for more recommendations.]

Those without children in tow should head across the river to Trastevere, where they can browse among the posted daily menus and join late-dining locals in wine bars along the way. Food is consistently good in this neighborhood off the tourist routes, and the experience is unmatched.

Rome for families

Fabled city that it is, Rome can be overwhelming—it’s so big, so spread out and there’s so much to see that it is even more daunting when you’re traveling with children. Their attention span and patience may not equal yours, and their agenda may not include standing in lines or traipsing through gloomy churches and museums. These problems occur in any city, but Rome presents even more challenges to parents.

Like any place else, the trick is in finding those things that appeal to a child’s imagination, curiosity and fascination for the quirky and the mysterious. Rome may be more of a challenge, but it presents a lot of opportunities as well.

For older children who have studied ancient Rome, there is the attraction of familiarity, of seeing firsthand places that had existed for them only in the classroom, such as the Forum and Colosseum. But if they watch carefully, they also will find bits and pieces of ancient Rome hidden all around the city. Arches disappear into more recent buildings, windows are bricked in and half covered by later structures, streets curve around the long-gone foundations of arenas, bits of inscribed stone and carved columns are built into walls.

My daughter made a treasure hunt of these re-used fragments, “collecting” enough, she estimated, to construct an entire building. Her favorite, though, is still the enormous marble foot she found in a street off the piazza behind the Pantheon. None of us could picture how tall the whole statue must have been.

However, if you have younger children and their interest in climbing around on ruins begins to wane, the city offers two attractions designed for kids, worth adding to your itinerary.

Time Elevator Roma is an animated look at Roman history for kids, a simulated action movie complete with special effects and seat-belted moving chairs. Explora is Italy’s first children’s museum filled with hands-on activities that teach children aged up to 12 about themselves and the world beyond. It has a puppet theatre and playground. Admission is timed, and by reservation only.

But there is much more in Rome to fire a child’s imagination. Getting to know the city and its neighborhoods is interesting in itself, and the long history offers many other springboards, from gladiators to spooky catacombs.

Getting there and getting around

International flights from North America arrive directly into Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, which is connected to the city’s Termini Station by trains every half hour. Once your luggage is in your hotel room, the best way to get around the city center and historic sights is by walking. Use public transportation for longer trips to the Vatican and Trastevere and the catacombs. Rome’s metro is not very useful for getting around the city center because its two lines are more designed to shuttle commuters in from the suburbs.

For more information visit TravelMuse's Rome guide.  

Destinations: Vatican, Italy, Rome

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

Good but lacks unique detail The article is informative but lacks the amount of detail necessary to plan an itinerary. I also feel the nature of the content is not significantly different from that in Lonely Planet, Rough Guide etc so there's a low incentive to switch.....i'd expect to see some truly differentiating content here.