The history. The people. The ruins. The culture. The FOOD! There is so much to see and do (and eat!) in the Eternal City of Rome. Here’s how we made it a light experience for our family.
Exploring the Roman Forum.
I love visiting other countries. I love meeting the people and hearing their language and seeing how they live. I love the different landscapes and architecture. I love learning about the history of a region. Because exploring is one of the ways I “play,” travel is lots of fun for me!
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to pack up and take a 10+ hour flight to the other side of the world. Especially with young children in tow. (Read about how we pack, with kids here.) But because directing is another way that I “play,” half the fun for me is planning the trip! And with a little bit of planning, our trip to Rome was filled with light!
Here are a few things we did to make our trip a light one:
- Stay a While – Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor could you see even a sliver of it in a day! That’s why when our family decided to visit this winter, we decided to take a whole week. This really works well when you’re staying somewhere like a big city where there is a lot to do. Our next trip to Italy, we’ll be city-hopping in the north… but that’s another trip.
- Find the Right Accommodations – For our family, this meant finding an apartment in the heart of the city. If you’re the type who doesn’t want to cook, clean, or travel with small children, then a hotel may be right for you. But with a family of 4, we appreciate having separate bedrooms! And having a kitchen to cook meals in. And a washing machine to do a load of laundry (which also means we can pack fewer clothes.) For this trip, we found a fantastic 2 bed 2 bath apartment right off Campo de Fiori, the open market piazza. It was wonderful to be in a home-like environment and really helped us feel like we were living like Romans for a week!
The view down our alleyway toward Campo de Fiori
- Keep the Schedule Light – I used to try to cram as many things to do as possible into a day to get my “maximum” experience. But all I ended up doing is completely exhausting myself and turning everything into a less-than-memorable blur! I’m getting better about planning one big thing to go see and then having a few other options to see if we have time or inclination. In Rome, this meant one day we saw the Colosseum (and adjoining Roman Forum & Palatine Hill) and that was the only thing that was planned. If that was all we got to, great! If we happened to do more because we had the time and energy, that’s great too! As it turned out, the bus ride from the Colosseum back to our apartment took us past the Altar of the Fatherland, and we decided to hop out and see it. But it was in the spirit of exploration and not checking sites off a schedule.
Climbing up the many steps of the Altar to the Fatherland.
- Buy Tickets Ahead – Once I decided what our one big thing would be everyday, I purchased ahead of time any tickets that we would need. In Rome this is especially important for some of the more popular sites. Without a pre-purchased ticket, you will be standing in extremely long lines to get in. We bought our tickets to the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums a month in advance and pre-booked our entry time. This meant that on those days, we walked right into both and got on with the “oohs” and “aahs!”
- Use Public Transportation – One of the best things we did was buy a week bus pass. (By the way, children under 10 are free with an accompanying adult.) Our first day there, we bought a CIS (or 7 day pass) at a tabaccheria (tobacco shop – I know it’s weird, but that’s where they sell bus tickets.) Our first ride on the bus, we validated the pass in the yellow machine behind the driver. From then on, we just hopped on any bus, tram, or metro to take us where we wanted to go. It was great! It made it so easy to get around the city.
- Locate Restaurants Ahead of Time – This is one that I have learned the hard way. And I’m still learning. I get the grouchiest when I’m traveling and I’m hungry and tired and don’t know where to eat. It’s not pretty. Since I know the one big thing we are planning to do each day, I spend a little time online and in travel guides before the trip, looking to see what good and reasonably priced restaurants will be near our location. For example, the Lonely Planet guide to Rome tipped me off to a local sandwich shop on the west side of the Roman Forum that was supposed to be both good and inexpensive. When we finished up our exploration of the Forum that day, I led us all down several little alleyways to Alimentari Pannella Carmela. It was one of those marvelous hole-in-the-wall shops that only the locals know is there and has fantastic food! We had the most delicious sandwiches on focaccia bread… mmmm. A little extra time before will help you find some amazing places to eat (not to mention the best gelato!)
Enjoying amazing gelato from Old Bridge Gelateria on the northeast side of the Vatican wall.
- Learn Some of the Language – I’m lucky in the fact that my husband lived in Italy for two years as a missionary, and speaks Italian quite well. However, I didn’t want to completely rely on him to communicate while we were in Rome. When we booked our tickets last fall, I downloaded the Duolingo app to my phone and began learning Italian. Just a few minutes a day while waiting to pick the boys up from school meant I knew enough basics to get by quite nicely. In fact, on at least two occasions, I left the boys with my husband and went exploring through the cobblestone streets of Rome by myself. I went grocery shopping, stopped at our favorite bakery, spoke to several people in the piazzas, all in my enthusiastic and limited Italian! And the locals really do appreciate the effort in speaking their language (even though most of them speak some English). What was also fun, was several times on the bus, a local would try to speak English with us. I think they were excited to “practice” and it was fun for us too. My favorite moment was in a gelateria when we were all enjoying our daily gelato. My husband turned to the boys and asked, “What do you say if it’s good?” To which the boys responded, “Che buono!” (It’s good!) All the young Italian ladies behind the counter erupted into cheers and “bravo!” It was great fun!
- Be Selective About Souvenirs – We told the boys ahead of time that we would buy them one thing from Rome. (It actually ended up being two things – oops!) Whenever they saw something they might like, I took a picture of it. After a few days, they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted. The next opportunity we found that had the item they liked, we bought it for them. Being clear at the start minimized (not eliminated!) the requests for toys. And once they had their item, they knew that was it. Mostly! For me, I’ve written before about my decision years ago to buy Christmas tree ornaments as my souvenir on my travels. I love finding something that represents the city that we are visiting. And it’s so fun to pull them out every December and remember the memories. On a very rare occasion, I may find something else that I like that I will genuinely use (like a pair of carved wall hangings from Maui that now grace the walls of our bedroom), but more often than not, I’m happy to just bring home my ornament.
One from the Vatican and one from Rome… they are different countries after all!
- Be Open to Opportunities – Remember how I used to pack every single day with activities until I collapsed? That also didn’t allow for changes to the itinerary when opportunities arose. Once a simple schedule is in place, a certain level of flexibility makes exploring so much lighter. Sometimes, it’s giving yourself a break, like when we emerged from the Vatican Museums to head to St. Peter’s Basilica and the line to get through security wound half-way around the square! Rather than stick tight to my schedule and further exhaust us all, we just came back on a different morning when we were fresh. In fact, that next morning when we went to St. Peter’s, our exploration afterward took us over to Castel Sant’Angelo, a site that wasn’t really on my radar as a must-do. But because we were flexible, and it looked really interesting as we got closer to it, we decided to buy tickets and go in. Much to our delight, it was a fascinating place and had great views! Being flexible both helps you not push too hard (especially the small people!) and helps you find unexpected opportunities.
Happy explorers who just emerged from the castle (Castel Sant’Angelo) behind them.
If you want to know what our schedule looked like after all of this, here’s what we did:
Main stop: A leisurely walk exploring Borghese Gardens (and trying to get over jet-lag.)
Main stop: The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill.
Other stops: Altar of the Fatherland
Main stop: The Vatican Museums
Other stops: The Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain
Main stop: The Rome Italy Temple
Main stop: St. Peter’s Square and Basilica
Other stops: Castel Sant’Angelo, the Spanish Steps, and Piazza Navona
Main stop: The beach at Ostia
Of course, in between all of these stops there was lots of eating! Pizza by the slice abounds and comes in some amazing taste combinations. I found myself really enjoying the potato pizza!
So many pizzas, so little time…
Focaccia and piadina sandwiches with delicious filings are everywhere. (My favorite was caprese: fresh mozzarela, tomato, basil, and balsamic vinegar.) And of course, the pasta! I finally crossed off my bucket list: eat caccio e pepe in Rome!
When you let the 6-year-olds take the picture, they might cut your head off!
It was an amazing week. We crossed all our must-see sites off the list. We ate the most amazing food. We thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the culture. Just a little bit of forward planning made our trip to Rome, one filled with light!