Updated: Feb 2, 2021
As promised, this 2nd post is about the 3-ish days that we spent as Roman tourists. This was part of our 10-week Italian Language Immersion Summer Plan. We spent most of our time as locals (doing some local tourism as well – subscribe by clicking above to get alerts for other itineraries) and only did the foreign tourist thing during the 3 weeks that Marino could join.
It is 2nd in a multi-part series that includes the following itineraries and useful information:
- Part 2: a 3-7 day Roman Holiday – the must-see Roman to-do list (what you're reading now!)
- Part 4: Two kids, a stroller and 2 1/2 days in Venice
- Part 5: A quick escape up the central Italian Coast – Grosetto & Pisa (and why not Cinque Terre with two small children)
- Part 6: Napoli, Capri and Pompei in 3 Days (2.5 if you have to)
- Part 7: All the hidden gems you never thought to see and are so much more authentic than the usual tourist attractions (Tarano, Tropea, Gargano/Peschici, Forme, Ortolano)
- Part 8: Logistics when traveling through Italy (internet/phone, transportation in and between cities, places to stay, etc.)
In this post, I cover what we did, how we had to plan it, where we ate (locally recommended places only!), how we got around and I’ll even touch on where to stay/how to book (even though we had housing provided on the outskirts of Rome). There are definitely some lessons learned, especially when it came to planning!
If this is your first time in Rome, there is a LOT to see and everyone’s trying to see it so you HAVE TO PLAN AHEAD! Hopefully this can guide you in that planning!
If you’ve been before and want to hear more about some locally recommended sites to explore, there’s definitely information in here for you as well!
If you already know where you want to go and just want practical tips, skip around as you need. There is a lot of information to cover for each venue so please bear with me!
If you are interested in the other parts of the series – our home base, Florence/Venice Itinerary, Pisa/Grosetto Itinerary, Napoli (Naples)/Capri/Pompeii Itinerary, local favorites/hidden gems itinerary, and other practical information, please subscribe above to get alerted as each new post is published.
So, this post goes as follows:
Precautionary note about planning
General helpful tips about planning a Roman Vacation
Details about the places that require planning
Information about other places on our itinerary, especially the local spots!
A few kid-specific activities at the bottom of the post
A Precautionary Note: PLAN WAY AHEAD, especially with COVID!
Whether this is your first time or it’s been a while, you HAVE to plan ahead. When I say “ahead,” I would normally mean at least one month out, if not earlier, especially if you plan on traveling during high-season – I know!
With COVID and the more limited number of entrances now allowed, I would probably plan at least 6-8 weeks out. That’s insane! At least for me and at least when you’re also planning out other trips/itineraries for the weeks prior as well. But I think it is necessary. The last thing you want is to have to rearrange everything because you didn’t call enough ahead of time (like we had to) or not be able to see everything you wanted to.
When planning, check the individual activities to see if they have special hours/procedures during COVID. For example, the Vatican has a 7-page-long document outlining the new procedures during COVID that trumps any other information available out there, including on their own website.
Our 3 days in Rome were split up – August 13, 14, and 20 – precisely because I thought 3-4 weeks in advance booking should be ok. When I started booking, the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums were booked up on the days/hours we needed. . . so, we had to rearrange everything based on ticket availability.
Also, there are different types of tickets and some book up faster than others. For example, we could not get the “lower levels” tour of the Colosseum. With everything else we had planned, we just couldn’t adjust another day to try to find one available with that option. It wasn’t the biggest fail – but we probably could have gotten entry if I had known to book earlier out.
I should also mention, we took the train in to Rome three times for half-days in the city to explore some child-specific activities that we wouldn't have time for when seeing the sites with Marino. So, technically, we spent a little more time in Rome than just three days. Still, I think the essentials can all be done in three.
Planning ahead will also save your budget and a LOT of time and ensure that you actually get to see everything you want to see. For example, if you can’t book directly from the source, there are many companies that purchase bulk tickets for walking tours. However, these are live-guided tours and so, you are paying a premium price because they are your only option if everything is already booked directly.
As for time, it is true that some places don’t sell out BUT the lines to purchase tickets can be very long and the ability to skip those lines is helpful when you have a lot to see in a little time.
General Helpful Tips about Rome
At the time of writing this, the Roma and Omnia Passes has been suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions. Still, it is worth a mention. If you plan far enough ahead and are able to coordinate your activities so that they fall on consecutive days, it is definitely worth checking out the value of the Roma Pass and/or Omnia Pass. This was irrelevant for us because we could not schedule our activities on consecutive days.
I only recommend looking into these passes for the adults. As previously mentioned, most places have free or significantly reduced entry for children, and they can also ride public transportation free of charge. This makes the benefits of the passes negligible and might even end up costing you more if you purchase for the children.
Also, a cautionary note, many of the activities still require you to reserve a time slot, even with the card - again, because of limited capacity. So, DO NOT assume that if you purchase these cards, you do not have to reserve a time slot.
The Roma Pass can be purchased for 2 or 3 days and provides discounts at many tourist attractions. If this is your first time in Rome and you are planning many tourist places, it is definitely worth it. For the 3-day pass, the first two activities are included, while the first activity is included with the 2-day pass. The rest of the activities in the network (so check if everything you want to see is included) are discounted - so it is best to plan the one or two most expensive ones (depending on which pass you get) first. Also, there is free access to all public transportation.
Since the Vatican sites are not part of the network, you can purchase the OMNIA pass instead. It is a 3-day pass and includes the Roma Pass as well. The difference is that you also get access to the Vatican museums and a hop-on/hop-off bus tour operator. You also get skip-the-line privileges with all of your bookings.
Whether these passes are worth it really depends on what you want to see and when you're going to see it. AND please don't forget that it probably is NOT worth it to purchase one for the children. Even if you're planning on skipping the line at many places, I would calculate first whether there is really much of a cost savings for the kids.
Bring along a cardigan/zip sweater OR ALWAYS cover your shoulders!
Sometimes the most exciting discoveries in a new place are the random hidden gems you come across along the way. There are so many beautiful old religious sites all across Rome and you never know when you might want to take a peek inside. However, as a general rule, a woman’s shoulders are supposed to be covered and you wouldn’t want to miss out on one of these relics of olden times just because you don’t have something to cover your shoulders.
Packing Lunch (see below for authentic eating experience in and around Rome)
Before I tell you all the practical reasons why, let me just say that packing a lunch is the BEST way to try the incredible assortment of foods Italy has to offer. I also strongly recommend that you pack a lunch if you 1) are traveling on a budget, 2) have a tight itinerary, and/or 3) have kids.
You can stop in any supermarket and get fresh baked bread, an assortment of Italian salami (salame – singular), formaggi (formaggio – singular), and veggie spreads/marinated veggie options for a fantastic lunch sandwich (there’s a prepared foods section, too). If you’re staying at a place with a minifridge, you can save more $ if you purchase items sliced at the deli section, and even can try a larger variety of Italian foods than if you just get from the prepared food section – e.g. getting capocollo for a homemade sandwich rather than the usual prosciutto (and there are like 10 different kinds of prosciutto!).
This will be so much more cost-effective. The reality is that MOST of the tourist attractions are in the center of Rome. The other reality is that restaurant prices in the center of Rome reflect that it is a tourist location. So, you can save lots by packing lunch.
You will also save loads of time. Unless your eating schedule is drastically different from everyone else, chances are that you’ll be eating at the same time as most of the rest of the tourists in Rome. That means lines or slow table service and getting yourself to and from one extra location between tourist sights. The more convenient the location, the more likely you’ll be paying more for your food.
If you have kids, it is so much less stress to pack a lunch and plan out your day so that you’re picnicking at one of the sites with lots of room for them to run around and get their energy out. The itinerary below takes all of these factors into account and I’ve noted where we picnicked or could have if we had been more organized on that particular day, like here, at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (too hungry to take a picture while snacking):
There are water fountains – “nasoni” – all over Rome actually! They don’t look like the “drinking fountains” we’re used to in the U.S.A. but I promise, it is clean, potable water – and . . . it is really cold so it is so refreshing on a hot Roman summer day. By the way, some of the fountains are the endpoints of aqueducts that have been supplying Rome with drinking water since the time of the Roman Empire! So, just bring the water bottles and you can refill along the way with natural, cool, refreshing water!
I strongly suggest getting accommodation in the city center in Rome. Unless you have a lot of time in Rome and can really split up your itinerary over more days, you don’t want to lose time going back and forth.
I ONLY recommend this for the days of your itinerary when you plan on being in Rome as a tourist. Otherwise, I strongly recommend finding a home-base in a small town on the city-outskirts, like Tarano, which was our home base. Again, this means planning ahead to make sure you can arrange all the activities across a 3- to 5-day spread.
It doesn’t really matter what kind of accommodation you get. They’re all priced about the same – whether a private apartment or a hotel room, whether through AirBnB, VRBO, or a travel site like Booking.com. What kind of accommodation matters less than what features it has.
The main features I would make sure you have are a mini-fridge (at least), internet, and proximity to a main metro or bus line. Mini-fridge so you can stock up on packed lunch foods and snacks. Internet so you can plan out your routes – public transportation and your walking routes –, as well as download any audio tours you might need for the day.
And being near public transportation is important because Rome is pretty big and there is much to see. While I strongly suggest walking around once you get to a certain area, there is too much to see to get to everything everywhere all the time, by foot. Saving 30 min. on the front and back ends to/from hotel to a location or to public transportation or in having less transfers is really helpful when you have a packed itinerary.
Part 7 of this series has a lot more information on planning, transportation apps, etc. Subscribe above to get alerts about new posts!
Two things I will say here about transportation:
1) DO NOT RENT A CAR IN ROME. Rent a car for anywhere else except Rome, Naples, Palermo, and Milan. Rome, especially! Only cars with special permits are allowed in the city center, parking is impossible EVERYWHERE – e.g. we planned a dinner in Marino (one of the 7 Castelos of Rome) and had to switch to another Castelo because we couldn’t find ANY parking for 2 cars.
2) Try to use bus lines more than subway lines, unless you have long/far commutes. That way, you can take in more of the city sites and get a peek into more residential and non-tourist areas between tourist sites.
This are three types of places you should look up in the area surrounding your Roman home base – a “bar,” “bar/forno” and/or “forno.”
- A “bar” is where every Italian goes to get their morning coffee and “cornetto” (Italian croissants).
- A “forno” or "Tavola Calda" is the actual bakery that makes all of the cornetti and other breakfast pastries, as well as pizzas for on the go/picnic foods.
- A “bar/forno” is simply a bar that has its own forno.
I STRONGLY suggest locating a few in your area and grabbing a quick breakfast like the locals. You can have breakfast at the bar and bar/forno. If you’re going for a forno, then plan on bringing the pastries back to your accommodations for eating.
This is the best way to have breakfast the Italian way! And, it is very affordable.
Before I share our itinerary, I must say that when planning your own itinerary, it is important to see where everything is on a map to make sense of how best to plan your activities by geographic area. With so much to see, you don’t want to spend too much time on transportation. There is still enough transportation built in that you’ll see other sites/parts of the city if you try sticking to busses as your main inner-city transportation.
Also, a lot of the ticketed items have regular hours – 9a to 6p. Some might have shorter hours on certain days or in different seasons so try to give yourself more time by booking on the days with longer hours. Even if you don’t stay the whole time, you have that buffer just in case.
So, our itinerary went a little like this (everything for a single day is listed in the chronological order):
Found a grassy spot with room for the kids to run around and had our packed lunch,
Explored the Roman Forum, starting near the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (closest to the Colosseum) and moved toward the central plaza,
Fountain of Trevi,
Spanish Steps/Piazza di Spagna,
A $$$ stop at Antico Caffé Greco – a must for any philosophy/literature brains,
Pantheon (NOT inside – we were maxed out),
Bocca della Veritá,
Pass by Circo Massimo on the way to nearest subway/metro line
Commute to Baths of Caracalla,
Ate packed lunch on the grounds, with plenty of room for the kids to run around,
Catacombs of St. Callixtus (NOTE: the catacombs are currently closed during the pandemic),
Dinner at home (well, Ale's cousin's house for an amazing home-cooked feast),
Frascati for a coffee, ice cream, and street performers for kids at the central piazza
Basilica di San Pietro,
Pass by Lago di Castel Gandolfo (Pope’s official summer residence),
Dinner in Ariccia
Extras for kids:
Wandering the Villa Borghese with a pit stop at the Casina di Raffaelo,
Any of the large bookstores for Italian books – detailed list in Part 7 of this series (subscribe for alerts)!
The Devil is in the Details. . .
IMPORTANT NOTE: Especially when traveling with children, I have found that it is best to book the activities directly and not through tour operators or even general travel sites like Trip Advisor or Orbitz. The reason is that many tour operators will charge similar or even discounted rates for the children. However, many of these activities allow persons UNDER 18 years of age for FREE (with a small booking fee like $2.00). They still require you to reserve the correct number of tickets for the number of persons attending. This means, you have to "book" a ticket for the children but the ticket costs $0. Meanwhile, you end up paying for the child ticket on the other side. Therefore, I strongly suggest booking directly when you can.
Some of you, especially if you aren’t travelling with persons under 18 years of age, might want to book with travel sites because you can purchase “skip the line” tickets. Honestly, though, many of these sites have security lines you have to go through anyway. So, if you purchase in advance and come at least ½ hour before your timed entry, you should be fine and not have to purchase “skip the line” tickets. We would always try to get the earliest reservation time. This way, we didn’t have much of a line anyway.
So, the activities that REALLY require booking far in advance are:
Colosseum & Roman Forum/Palatine Hill (these are purchased together)
I don’t even know if you can say you've been to Rome if you haven’t been to the Colosseum. Although, surprisingly there are a lot of Romans who have never been! It is the largest amphitheater ever built and, in its time, held crowds of more than 50,000 spectators! Did you know they used to flood it to host ship battles, called “naumachia”?!?
What some people might be less focused on, and it really is quite unfortunate, is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. It has so many amazing nooks and crannies. You get such an incredible look into ancient Roman life, views of the surrounding area, random art installations on the grounds, and the many temples there, our two favorites being the Temple of Antoninus Pius, the Temple of Julius Caesar (he was cremated in the central plaza so there is only an altar at the Temple).
I suggest packing a lunch as there is so much to see and stopping at any nearby cafes can be costly and time-consuming, especially with kids. The Forum has so many grassy areas that you can easily have a picnic anywhere. Plus, once you’re in the Forum, it is a trek to get out and get back in again (plus, your entrance is valid only once!)
Also, there are water fountains everywhere (nasoni – all over Rome actually), so just bring the water bottles and you can refill along the way with natural, cool, refreshing water!
Audio Tour: When I say audio tour, I mean, they give you a small phone-looking device and a numbered map and you press the number to listen to information at that location on the map – not a guided tour (and thmy suggestion is is only for the Colosseum).
Dante was 7 when we went. He really loved the audio tour. He stopped at each numbered area and played the audio tour to listen to all of the details about the Colosseum and ancient Roman life. Leila, at age 3, could have cared less. I don’t know what I would have done if it had been just me with the two of them because Leila just wanted to wander around and Dante went very slowly because he was listening. It really helped that Marino stayed with Leila and I went with Dante so each could go at his/her own pace.
I say it is totally worth it if you don’t already know a lot about the Colosseum and surrounding area (for example, I didn’t know that Via Labicana – the same street my dad lived on while awaiting his asylum visa to the U.S. – used to be the main street for gladiatorial training houses).
RSVP Info: You can buy tickets directly from the official ticket office: Coop Culture. As mentioned above, you can purchase both together. Most of the tickets give you up to two days to see both sites. So, you can see the Colosseum the first day, and come back the next day to do the Forum. Still, if you're planning to follow the itinerary I suggest, you'll probably need to get to both in one day.
Persons under 18 years of age DO NOT have to pay. HOWEVER, you must include them in your purchase request, when ordering and be prepared that they might need ID to prove their age (unless it is obvious). So, your invoice will show the cost of the adult tickets and only the nominal booking fee for the children. You must include them in your count because the Colosseum can only hold a certain number of people at a time, so they must have an accurate count of physical bodies in their space.
Because 3-weeks out wasn’t enough to book the day and time we wanted, we actually went with a 3rd party vendor. We needed the earliest entrance time possible and for the day we needed, Coop Culture did not have any available. We went with Ticket Bar EU - https://rome.ticketbar.eu/en/colosseum/colosseum-palatino-roman-forum-/. We did have to pay € 6.50 per child (€ 4.50 more than through Coop Culture) but we got to pick the time we wanted/needed to make our whole itinerary fit.
If you book enough in advance, I would definitely go with Coop Culture to make the booking.
This breathtaking building, dating back to 135 A.C.E. has gone through so many reincarnations: from Emperor Hadrian’s Mausoleum, to a military fortress incorporated into the Aurelian Wall, to a dungeon where many a prisoner was held and many others were executed, to a decadent Renaissance residence.
In 1277, a fortified corridor was built connecting the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Vatican City, providing the Pope with a protected route to safety, in case of siege. It was, in fact, used in the 1500s, during the sieges on Rome, and Pope Clement VII used the fortress as his residence.
It was an incredible visit for three reasons: 1) the children were enraptured with its varied past and the intricate details everywhere;
2) the rooftop terrace has the best VIEWS of all of ROME; and
3) albeit pricey, the café has sit-down areas that look out right onto St. Peter’s Basilica and the fortified corridor that connects the two buildings – a fantastic place to pause, recharge, and drink something cool and refreshing before heading off on your next journey. If you have a chance to go back here in the evening for a stroll, the building is magnificent at night.
Audio Tour: They have audio tours available. We opted out because neither of the children were interested and I knew it would be futile to hold everyone up trying to listen to what the audio was saying. I’m almost positive there is an app you can download and for a nominal fee get the audio tour on your phone. We did, however, gather lots of information just from the free map you get and informational signs along the way.
We happened to be there on a day when it was not crowded at all – a Tuesday, and we got there first thing in the morning. Still, we bought our tickets in advance and I suggest that you do too. The entrance area was getting prepped for an onslaught of excited tourists, creating snaking lines to get to the ticket office. I think we were just lucky in that moment.
There are two sites that you can reserve with that do not overcharge on these tickets: https://www.rome-museum.com/castel-sant-angelo.php & https://www.museumsrome.com/en/other-attractions-rome/castel-sant-angelo-tickets. Other sites have higher booking fees and can cost €12 more than with these sites.
Basilica di San Pietro & the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel
I don’t know what I can say here that hasn’t already been said. . . . St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most iconic structures in Rome (technically, Vatican City – an independent State). It has some of the world’s most renowned artwork, the architecture is incredible, and the Euro-Christian history that this place houses (e.g. the map room) is beyond belief.
I was taken aback at how mesmerized Dante was with Michelangelo’s Pietá, the entry gates, the tombs, and our favorite – Sancta Veronica Ierosolymitana. Again, this guy didn’t want to miss anything on the audio tour. There were a lot of us that day – Leila, Dante, Marino and I and Alessandra and her nephew Gabri. Some were hungry, some were tired (we had woken at 6a.m. to take transportation in because Ale’s family’s Rome house required two connections to get to the Vatican. . . most Roman’s don’t purchase their houses based on convenience to city center). Dante was very sad to have to skip the last part of the audio tour so we could eat and run off to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums, which we had a 1:30p entrance for.
I must say, and I'm doing this in reverse because the Sistine Chapel is the last space we visited, but the Sistine Chapel can’t truly be enjoyed the way I’d like to, or probably anyone would like to for that matter. It is so crowded. Everyone is supposed to be quiet and pictures are prohibited. Since neither rule is ever respected, there are a bunch of security guards shuffling everyone through, shushing everyone and yelling admonitions at those they catch taking pictures. You can only imagine the overwhelm for little humans being enveloped by the mass of taller adults. Sadly, we rushed through there.
As for the rest of the Vatican Museums, you really have to pick and choose if you are with children. There is so much to see that you couldn’t possibly see it in a full day, let alone, a half day, like we had, with two tired kiddos.
The museum provides two suggested routes – a detailed map to follow, and the quick route. There is also a kid’s map that they made into a treasure hunt – can you find "X" piece of art – for each of the galleries. We kind of just did our own thing because some galleries we wanted to spend more time in than others.
For example, the kids LOVED the Hall of Maps – as did we, it was awesome to see our home base, Tarano, on even the oldest maps, as well as the small towns that friends of ours are from, like Cittaducale, and the towns along the way from Tarano to Rome, like Stimigliano.
A favorite was going down the spiral staircase at the end – when you get to the gift shop. You have a choice between the elevator or the spiral stairs and we chose the stairs. Loads of fun for both children. The elevator operator was really nice and let us go back up and down again in the elevator because it was older and – why wouldn’t kids want to go up and down in an elevator?
For the best experience, I would suggest looking at a map of the museum ahead of time and planning out which galleries you really want to spend time in. Otherwise, there isn’t enough time. We didn't do that and felt rushed in trying to plan it all out right there! The one time I didn't plan!
Now, there are other museums as well that are part of the Vatican Museums. I’ve listed one above, Castel Gandolfo – it is the Pope’s Residence and it is located on one of the seven “Casteli” of Rome. It has a decent art collection. It’s true beauty is its grounds and architecture. We chose NOT to explore it because of time and the kids having maxed out on museums from earlier in the day. We did drive by it though, paused and took some pictures, and then headed off to Arricia for some amazing food (see below).
Audio Tours: From our experience, I would suggest the audio tour for the Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica) and not the Vatican Museums. However, that is definitely a personal choice. If you are a huge art connoisseur, then the audio might give more info at the Vatican Museums. If you’re with kids or have a lot that you want to see, then you can probably do without.
As for the audio tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, there is a free version you can download to your phone (that I HAVE NOT tried, so I can’t vouch for it). Otherwise, you can get the official audio tour for (at the time) €7 or you can pre-purchase the audio tour with skip-the-line privileges.
RSVP Info/Itinerary Planning:
How you plan these sites really depends on how much time you have. One quick note: Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is FREE, if you’re ok to wait in the main admission line, which can cost you 45 extra minutes (although, this author only waited 20 minutes with a VERY early arrival time). Otherwise, if you’re tight on time, like we were, you can purchase a skip-the-line pass (which included the audio tour).
If you have even one half-day more, I would suggest exploring other options that are part of the Vatican experience, like climbing the Dome or a visit to the Tombs/Grottoes. You can do all of that in one day (pack lunch and eat in front of the piazza).
As for the Vatican Museums, you can purchase tickets that are valid for entry for a 24-hour period or a 48-hour period. If you have three days in Rome, I suggest sticking to our itinerary, as described above and purchasing the 24-hour ticket. If you have more time to spare or are prioritizing Vatican sites over some of the other attractions in Rome, then the 48-hour ticket is a good option – albeit at a higher price.
Where to book – meaning, which site to book from, depends on how far in advance you are able to book. We booked directly because of the reduced booking fees.
When you plan is VERY important. This should be the first thing you book, since it fills up so quickly (then work the rest of your itinerary around it) – especially if you are going in the summer. We almost couldn’t find a day available when we booked 3 weeks out. Again, think through your whole itinerary and your priorities to see if it is worth getting the 24- or 48-hour pass.
Interesting side note: We did not know that Ale's nephew, Gabry, was coming with us until the last minute. We planned that if he couldn't get in with us (because we didn't have a ticket for him), Ale and Gabry would just skip the Vatican museums. There are so many lines out front that it can get confusing. We pushed on through because of our "skip the lines" pass. Once at the ticket booth, we asked the employee if someone else could come through an purchase without a reservation. I don't know if he was in a good mood, or the lines near the ticket counter had died down, or just pure luck but he said to just have the person come up and pay the entrance. I wouldn't EVER trust that this could happen again but, if you happen to drop the ball somewhere or have a last minute change, it doesn't hurt to try to talk with someone.
Other Traditional Tourist Activities on the Itinerary
So, everything else on the itinerary doesn’t require so much advanced planning.
The Baths of Caracalla didn’t have much of a line so I don’t think it is worth paying the €2 booking fee per person online, especially when the under-18 entrance is free. Just pay at the entrance. When choosing between the Baths of Caracalla or the Diocletian Baths, just know that the Baths of Caracalla will give you the best idea of what they would have looked like at the time they were in use. The Diocletian Baths have been built over and around and, while some parts are better preserved, you don't get the whole picture.
This is also a fantastic space for the little ones to run around and to have a picnic at.
The Baths themselves are fantastic. Some of the mosaics are so well preserved and you can really get a feel for what it must have looked like in the past and it is the 3rd largest bath in Rome. Again, nothing has been built over it, unlike the Diocletian Baths in the city center.
Fountains and Piazze
All of the fountains and piazze are free and open to the public (we went to the Fountain of Trevi, Piazza Espagna/Spanish Steps, Boca della Veritá, and took a walk past Circo Massimo (Apologies for the lack of photos, it was hot and we were tired by the end of the day).
Just know that A LOT of tourists visit these so it is crowded! Also, since these are always open, we saved these for the end of the day and went to places with fixed opening hours during the day. An added bonus is that many of these sites are beautifully lit at night and/or have wonderful backdrops against the setting sun.
Also, they are all mostly in the same main area of Rome. So, if you're looking for accommodations in the center, you can stay in the general vicinity so that you're close to your bed after a long day of exploring. See the map above for a better idea.
The only tourist café we went to was Antico Caffé Greco – the oldest coffee shop in Rome. This is a MUST for any literature and/or philosophy buffs, if only to support it and its historical value with a small purchase.
Literary legends like Keats, Dickens, Henry James, Welles, Casanova, Goethe, Gogol, Stendhal, Byron, and Andersen have frequented this place, as well as modern day famous persons like Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana have all sat here, chatted, philosophized, and had a coffee/afternoon tea!
A word of caution that it is quite EXPENSIVE so don’t plan on a whole fancy afternoon snack (don't do what we did - we were too tired to protest when the kids requested ice cream AND lemonade) – just an espresso each. . . and better yet, have a coffee at the bar for the most economic experience (a challenge with kids but for those without, definitely the more affordable route).
We chose not to go into the Pantheon. If you do – the dome is incredible from the inside and outside and admission is free and unticketed. There is an audio tour available for €4 (at the time of writing). As you can see below, when the clothes start coming off, we know we're done!
Just be warned that there might be lines to get in, depending on what time of day you are there. We arrived approximately 1 hour prior to closing and it was packed.
The Catacombs!!!!! Honestly, pick any catacomb – you can’t go wrong. These were the official cemeteries of the Church of Rome during the 2-3 centuries A.C.E. Half a million Christians were buried here, including many saints and 16 popes.
Dante loved the experience beyond belief. We had a lovely guide (they are all volunteers) who really made it exciting and interesting and answered Dante’s millions of questions. Leila really wanted to go with Zia Ale on the Italian speaking tour, so I can only speak from what they shared and they seemed to enjoy it although it was a little scary for her (age 2.5 at the time) – plan for a lot of child-carrying.
I can only speak about these catacombs and there is no need to reserve ahead of time if you plan well. Since we knew how fresh and cool they are, we planned them for the afternoon, the hottest time of day. It was nice to escape into the cool space of the catacombs, as well as escape from the craziness of morning tour operators.
Also, the kids got to run around in the fields surrounding the catacombs while we waited for the tour to start. Great place for a picnic with many trees to hide in their shade. We were asked not to take pictures inside, so, I just want to show how great it is to come a little early and let the kids run around and just relax in the breeze.
City buses are the only public transportation that get here. So, it is an opportunity to take in the surrounding areas. Since the catacombs were on the outskirts of the ancient city, it helps you get away from the city center for a bit too.
Locations Off the Beaten Path
So, everyone’s heard of the 7 “hills of Rome” but not too many people have heard of the sette castelli romani (seven roman castles). Within the territory of Old Latium, Roman nobility would escape the heat of summer to these hills, with their two lakes and rich agricultural soil, a product of its volcanic roots.
To this day, many Romans escape the heat of the city for something as simple as an evening stroll, or as fancy as a summer house – Castel Gandolfo, sitting on the Lake Albano, continues to be the official summer residence of the Pope. We spent two out of three nights here for fantastic food, a taste of less touristic Rome, and to escape the summer heat too!
Before I share about my favorite Castelli, a quick note on transportation:
Most of the Castelli can be easily reached by public transportation. You’ll need to take the Trenitalia Regionale. (If you’d like more info on getting around and to/from Rome and other major cities, please subscribe with the link above to be alerted when subsequent parts of this series are published). Some are easier to get to than others. For example, there is no direct stop in Arricia. You will likely need to take a taxi a small part of the way.
If you plan to make a day of it and explore the surrounding areas, I would suggest renting a car for the day. If will give you more freedom of movement, and you won’t be tied just to the centers of the Castelli but can also explore the outskirts and some of the agricultural zones.
Another quick note is that Castel Gandolfo, one of the Castelli, is still very touristic because so many come to see it as part of their Vatican experience. So, if you are looking for a less-touristic experience, I would suggest one of the others.
Without further ado, my favorite Castelli, and the things we did there, were:
Frascati, also the origin of a semi-sweet white wine, has a beautiful town center and just like every other catholic town, it has a church as the centerpiece of the piazza: the Cathedral of St. Peter. EVERYTHING happens here and around here. Usually, in the evening, you’ll find some sort of street performer (provided by the government) to entertain the children. Both times, a giant-bubble maker/clown was there.
Across the street from the Cathedral is a delicious ice cream shop – Gelateria Tris. It has a million flavors of gelato and granita (Italian shaved ice) and is crowded as can be. One note on how things work – we were there with Italians who knew. . . otherwise, we would have been standing there for hours. So, you have to pay right when you get there. Then, with your receipt, you go to the counter, give them your receipt and only then, will they take your order. If they’re crowded when you’re there, no one will let you know because they’re too busy fending off the customers.
Another local stop is Bar Degli Specchi. It is a great place to stop it, cool off with A/C, and have a nice coffee on your way up to/down from the piazza. The kids will be joyfully entertained by the mirrors that contort your body into ridiculous shapes while you grab your coffee at the bar, a l’Italiano, or you can pay double, like everywhere else and sit down at a table (in- or out-side).
Oh, and the slippery floors are fun too. . .
If you really want something touristic, visit the Villa Aldobrandini, which was built in the 16th century. The inside is off limits, but, if you plan ahead, you can obtain tickets to visit the gardens. I personally think there is enough to explore without this visit and you can still admire it on your way in and out of Frascati – you can’t miss it.
I have never been as well-fed as the night we went to Arricia. . . I literally felt like I was going to explode. We ate at a La Fraschetta de Sora Ines. They were lovely. All 10 of us (7 adults and 3 children) rolled in, no reservation, and still they made it work for us without us having to wait too long. Before I go into what and how much we ate for how little, just a brief explanation of a “fraschetta.”
So, the food was SO amazing that I completely forgot to take any pictures. So, here are some pictures from the Fraschetta's website:
These places were the rural taverns that would house and feed farmers, herders, and others on their way to sell their wares in the city for a nominal fee. In the past, they would only serve bread (maybe egg) and the wine from the nearby castelli. Now, they are full-blown restaurants.
We went for the porchetta (Rome and Florence are famous for their porchetta – a type of pork roast). Enzo, Zia Ale’s dad, usually buys porchetta from someone locally, near Tarano (see Part 1 of this series) but since we didn’t have much time in Tarano while Marino was with us, we opted for a fraschetta instead.
We got way more than porchetta! Again, we were 7 adults and 3 children. We ordered two appetizer assortments, 2 liters of wine, and four main dishes. It ended up being €20 per adult and €10 per child. We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore: two trays of prosciutto, capocollo, 3 different kinds of salame, and porchetta, carciofe sott’olio (artichokes preserved in oil), zucchinne e melanzane fritti (breaded eggplant and zucchini), calamari fritti (fried calamari), olives, side salads, and I can’t even remember what else.
Honestly, we were full with just that. It’s just that Ale and I saw a few dishes of pecora (sheep) that we couldn’t resist, Enzo had to have his daily intake of pasta, and I believe some gnocchi were ordered to. We couldn’t even finish it and it hurt to move, I was so full.
Now, we only drove through Arricia because our main priority was eating at a fraschetta, the kids were exhausted, and we had already strolled through Castelo Marino prior to heading to Arricia for dinner. It really looks like a wonderful spot to take a walk after dinner. Again, all the castelli are on hills and so, the views are beautiful – looking out into the agricultural fields (vineyards and olive orchards), with the great beast of a city – Rome- in the background.
Exploring a Small Town bordering Rome
Another fantastic opportunity for a day trip, if you have the time, is to head out to one of the small towns outside the city limits.
My favorite is Tarano – I’m partial to it because it was our home base and it is where Ale’s family lives/has a second home. And, I haven’t seen another town so close to Rome that has its city/state medieval characteristics, with a wall around the city perimeter, the houses all attached to one another spiraling higher and higher to the top of the hill with the church and central piazza.
If you go without a car, then there are plenty of small towns you can run into on the Freccia Regionale (Trenitalia regional train). If you go with a car, you can go deeper and deeper into worlds undiscovered by tourists.
If this itinerary is too “museumed-out” for your brood, I suggest replacing some activities with the following child-specific/friendly activities:
It is an awesome little spot – the first private non-profit museum that reclaimed an abandoned tram depot historically known as Borghetto Flaminio in the heart of Rome, between the Piazza del Popolo and Villa Borghese.
If your kids are maxed out on “tourism” and just want a space to free play and where you aren’t worried about them running off, this is a fantastic option. Both of my children loved it. And my favorite part (although they didn’t pay attention to it) is the display of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the spiraling ramp up to the 2nd floor.
There is a timed entry and a ticket gets you in for your time slot for a full 1 hour and 45 minutes. You can sign your children up for one of the creative workshops – they offered two for two different age groups while we were there. Everything is based around social equity, respect for the child and children's rights, and sustainability and the whole place is thought out quite well from a sustainability perspective, as well.
Because of the timed entry, you really need to plan well and make sure you get there on time!
It is the Roman version of a natural history museum. I will warn that it is small and doesn’t have the best air-conditioning.
Still, if your child(ren) is/are animal and natural history lover(s), and they’ve been missing this kind of stimulation, it is a wonderful experience. Dante was natural-history-obsessed at the time and really wanted that kind of a kid’s experience. So, we went for it. We went in the afternoon and there was almost no one there (besides a group of 10 children doing summer camp in one of the halls – they let us in so we could see the exhibits in that hall).
It is also just around the corner from the Villa Borghese. So, you can definitely incorporate it into any of your activities you plan on doing in that area. You don’t need to make any reservation - although I would call to make sure there are no school field trips going on. You can pay at the kiosk and enter. I would say that a couple of hours is more than enough.
Casina di Raffaelo, at the Villa Borghese
So, if you incorporate Villa Borghese into your itinerary and you are in Rome in the summer, you will want a quiet spot to cool off and refresh before heading back out in the heat.
Enter Casina di Raffaelo – a beautiful space filled with books, nooks and even a playroom (for the toddlers). I couldn’t tear my kids away from there. They just picked up one book after another, of which there are many on display in the reading room. I enjoyed cooling off in the AC while exploring amazing books written in Italian for children on social-emotional learning amongst other topics.
It is a lovely space and you can stock up on Italian language books on a variety of topics that your kids would otherwise enjoy in English! Plus, if you don’t have time to go exploring the giant book stores (they can be overwhelming, especially if you are alone with the kids), this is a great place for them to stay amused while you shop!
There is no admission fee. We spent a good hour there, cooling off, reading books and shopping. You could easily stay more or less time, if you’d like!
Rome is a beast of a city. There are so many things to do there that I could fill ten volumes of books on all of it. In this post, I tried to focus on the must-sees in Rome, as well as my favorite non-tourists spots (mainly the Castelli and Tarano).
There is a plan in the works to create a more detailed resource for a list of additional local spots, dining options, and suggested list of “must-try foods” for each of the itineraries in this series. For now, it was too much to include (I’m sure I’ve gone way over any reasonable blog-post length out there)!
If you have immediate questions and can’t wait for that resource, please feel free to comment or email me and I will do my best to answer or get the answer from locals I know!