Rome with Kids: 14 Top Things to Do
Traveling with children is a balancing act that is both challenging and extraordinarily rewarding. On one hand, it's a challenge to hold little people's attention and to engage older children and teens. On the other, you want them to get a sense of place and to absorb as much of the local history, culture, and art heritage as possible. It's tempting to look for playgrounds, familiar fast food logos, and things that are just like home. But your kids are in Rome, so help them savor where they are and do things that are special to that Eternal City.
That's where this list can help. Here, you will find places and experiences that are uniquely Italian and Roman and that highlight Rome's unique place in history, but will grab kids' attention. And for good measure, there are other activities that are just plain fun. Who doesn't like sitting on steps eating ice cream - especially when it's among the world's best?
1 See Where the Lions Lived in the Colosseum
While the giant Flavian Amphitheatre known as the Colosseum is the most familiar symbol of Rome and its most popular tourist attraction, it was impossible until a few years ago to visit the part kids relish most. Deep beneath the arena floor, where the spectacles were staged, is a maze of tunnels, passages, and chambers where gladiators and wild animals awaited their deadly confrontations above. This subterranean holding area, called the hypogeum, held cages for leopards, bears, lions, and elephants that were used either in battles or as part of circuses and other performances. An elevator-like system of pulleys manned by slaves brought the animals up to the arena floor. You'll need to book ahead for afternoon public access to the hypogeum or join a package tour that includes it.
2 Learn to Be a Gladiator
Even young kids have heard of Roman gladiators, and here's their chance to learn about them from historical re-enactors who bring this ancient skill to life. Kids can don a tunic and leather gloves to learn authentic gladiator swordplay. The two-hour class begins with a visit to the museum of Gruppo Storico Romano to see genuine artifacts and to try on replicas of armor. Although kids as young as six can participate, if they're a couple of years older they'll get more out of it. Other all-day programs are more suitable for adults who want to become a gladiator for a day, but this one is especially good for children. They'll come home with a diploma to prove they're a gladiator.
Address: Via Appia Antica 18, Rome
3 Watch a Puppet Show
Puppet theaters are a long-standing tradition in many parts of Europe, and Rome has two different places where your kids can experience these. The first, Teatrino di Pulcinella al Gianicolo, is a traditional open-air puppet theater in the park on Colle del Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill), near Piazzale Garibaldi. It features the Neapolitan hand-puppet Pulcinella, familiar to English-speakers as the main character in Punch and Judy shows. On weekends, half-hour shows are staged in the morning and late afternoon. They're free, but be sure the kids have a few coins to put in the hat that will be passed around.
At the San Carlino theater, you'll find Pulcinella in a somewhat different setting and format, where the puppets interact with the puppeteers and other performers and musicians in a lively and imaginative show.
Address: Viale dei Bambini
4 Row a Boat or Ride a Bike through the Borghese Gardens
Rome's second-largest public park gives kids a chance to burn off energy, and you'll be joining Romans in one of their favorite spots. There are all sorts of ways to explore the park. Rent a rowboat on the lake, pedal around in a surrey, rent a bike, or ride a Segway. There's more: playgrounds, pony rides on weekends, gardens, and a very good zoo. You can ride around the zoo - the Bioparco di Roma - on a cute little train.
5 Eat Gelato on the Spanish Steps
Nearly everywhere in Rome, your kids will certainly spot carts and shops selling the delicious Italian version of ice cream. But there are few better places to savor your daily scoop than on the flower-decked Spanish Steps. Reputed to be Europe's widest staircase, these 138 steps are one of the iconic images of Rome, as well as a favorite meeting place for locals and tourists. It's a good place to pause while the kids eat ice cream, and you enjoy a movie moment in the spot where Princess Ann's Roman Holiday begins.
Address: Piazza di Spagna, Rome
6 Meet a Mummy and Read Hieroglyphics in Vatican City
With so many excellent museums and collections in the Vatican, it's hard to know where to begin, especially when you're trying to keep children interested. But a sure bet is the Egyptian Museum in the Cortile della Pigna. Many of the exhibits were brought from the Villa Adriana in Tivoli (a fascinating place to visit just outside of Rome), where the Emperor Hadrian had collected them. The other advantage of this museum is its size, only nine rooms, not so much that it's overwhelming. In those are some excellent examples of Egyptian art: sculptures of gods and pharaohs, basalt and painted wooden sarcophagi, mummified heads, hieroglyphic inscriptions, animal statues, and papyri. Art from ancient Mesopotamia and monumental reliefs from Assyrian palaces round out the collection.
While you're in Vatican City, see St. Peter's Basilica, maybe with a trip to the top of the dome, and the Sistine Chapel to see Michelangelo's ceiling. If you do, remember the strict dress code. Not even children can enter wearing shorts or with shoulders uncovered.
7 Look through the Hole in the Pantheon's Roof
Your kids might not expect to get rained on in the center of such an impressive and solid looking building, but there's a big hole right in the center of the Pantheon's roof. It's been there for about 2,000 years. While they're wondering why it has a hole in the roof, it might be a good time to tell them that this is the most complete and best preserved ancient Roman building in Rome, built in 27 BC by the Emperor Hadrian. What's more, its dome is more than 42 meters across and hangs there without any supports except those inside the walls.
Now about that hole: Because the walls are busy hiding the supports for the dome, there was no place for windows. So that 3.6 meter circle is the only source of light. Recent research suggests it may have had another purpose, too. The building is aligned so that on April 21, the day ancients celebrated the founding of Rome, when the Emperor entered the Pantheon at noon, the sun shone directly onto the doorway. As he walked through, he would have appeared wreathed in light as though by magic. If you go on a rainy day, you'll find a big puddle under the center of the dome.
8 Find a Giant Foot
While you're at the Pantheon, walk behind it to the Piazza della Minerva (where you'll find an obelisk on an elephant's back, by Bernini) and beyond to the tiny Via del Pie' di Marmo, which means Marble Foot Street. Sure enough, there's a marble foot there, almost as big as a small car and wearing a sandal. It's all that's left of a huge statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose cult was popular in ancient Rome. The statue was one of several large monuments in a temple to Isis and Serapis near here. Given the size of the foot, the statue must have been about 7.6 meters tall.
This isn't the only disembodied giant foot your kids can find in Rome, so you might suggest they see what others they can spot. Hint: there's one in the Vatican Museum wearing a complete sandal, and a barefoot one in the Capitoline Museum.
9 Explore the Catacombs
What kid can resist spooky tunnels, especially when they're tombs? You don't need to mention that they'll get a dose of Roman history as they explore them. Two of the best are just down the road from each other on the Apian Way. The largest is the Catacomb of St. Callisto, dating from the 2nd century AD and the burial site of several early popes. It is colorfully decorated in graffiti showing doves, fishes, and other early Christian symbols.
Below a nearby basilica erected under the emperor Constantine are the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, where the remains of St. Peter and St. Paul were hidden until they were moved to the Vatican and San Paolo Fuori le Mura, respectively. Walls here are also covered in early Christian graffiti. Contrary to popular belief, Christians didn't hide here from persecution. The catacombs were burial places for those who couldn't afford the kind of extravagant funeral monuments that line the Apian Way. You can get close to these catacombs on Bus 118.
Address: Via Appia Antica 136, Rome
10 Find a Church on Top of a Church on Top of a House
Urban archaeology is interesting to any age, but to kids, the notion of literally layers of history is especially fascinating. And it's three layers deep at the Church of San Clemente, not far from the Colosseum. After you've admired the gold mosaics inside the dome, descend to see what was discovered during some foundation repairs about 150 years ago. And then go deeper to see what lies below that.
To put it in historical order, easier for kids to picture, begin at the bottom. Sometime in the first century AD, a grand building stood here surrounding a courtyard, and next to it was a smaller brick building around a courtyard with a second-century Mithraic temple in it. Thanks to excavations, you can walk the streets of this Roman neighborhood, see the temple, and look for the spring-fed fountain - all now underground. In the fourth century, these streets, rooms, and courtyards were filled in to form the foundations for a basilica that lasted until about 1100, when it became unstable and was closed. Like the streets and buildings below, it was filled in with rubble and a new church was built on top of it - the church that stands on top today.
Address: Via di San Giovanni in Laterano 108, Rome
11 Throw a Coin in the Fountain
No tourist should leave Rome without following a tradition that's been around since the Romans walked these streets in togas. When they embarked on a journey, ancient Romans often threw a coin into a pool or fountain to ask the gods for a safe return. Today, so many tourists want to come back to the Eternal City that Trevi Fountain is always crowded and its base strewn with coins. The several thousand euros that are scooped out each night go to provide food for the hungry.
Rome's most famous fountain, Trevi was built in the 1700s, but there has been a fountain here since the first century, when it was the terminus of an aqueduct that brought water to the Baths of Agrippa. Although we have no idea which hand the ancients used to toss coins, today's tradition is to use the right hand and throw the coin over your left shoulder. Teenagers might be interested to know that while the first coin is supposed to bring you back to Rome, you can throw a second one to find love. No guarantees, of course.
12 Shop for a Picnic at Campo dei Fiori
The broad Campo dei Fiori is one of Rome's liveliest squares, not far from the Pantheon and in a neighborhood of narrow medieval streets that are a nice break from the grandeur of public monuments and the ruins of ancient Rome. Here, kids will get the feel of Rome as a real city full of people doing everyday things. The lively and colorful market in the campo is in full swing through the morning and at lunch time, when you can provision a picnic with gleaming berries and fruits, adding bread fresh from the bakery facing the campo and cheeses and salamis from the little shops that line the surrounding streets (look for one with a "salumeria" sign).
Notice the street signs in these, too - the streets are named for the tradesmen whose shops lined them in medieval times: Via dei Cappellari means street of hat-makers and Via dei Balestrari means street of crossbow-makers. Kids will be able to translate other early trades using a pocket Italian dictionary. It's about a 20-minute walk from Campo dei Fiori across the river to the Gianicolo, a large park with views over the city, and a perfect picnic spot.
13 Take a Ride in a Time Elevator
In a three-dimensional ride at Time Elevator Rome, kids can travel back in time to Rome's early days and watch the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The exciting journey back through the ages brings ancient times to life for kids in a very visual way, making them witnesses to life in ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and 20th-century Rome. Along with the grandeur of the city under its emperors, kids also see Rome in its darker days, under the Fascist regime of Mussolini. As they meet historical figures, children will feel a sense of life in those eras, complete with sounds and smells and an audio system that lets them choose from several languages.
Address: Via dei SS. Apostoli 20, Rome
14 Visit Nero's Golden House
Even though the story they doubtless know about Nero fiddling while Rome burned isn't true, kids will certainly have heard of this Roman emperor. It is true that he benefited by the leveling of a large section of the city by fire, though, and that he built his palatial Domus Aurea - Golden House - where the city once stood. It was buried by later emperors in an attempt to erase his memory, but that only succeeded in preserving it for people to see 2,000 years later. Recent excavations have revealed entire rooms lined with marble and decorated in gold and precious stones. You can see some of these rooms and halls and appreciate the unlimited wealth and power of the ancient emperors. He never finished his grand palace; his plans called for it to eventually be as big as Vatican City is today.
Address: Via della Domus Aurea, Rome