The turbulence strikes just a few minutes before landing -African winds off the Tyhrenean Sea challenge even the largest of planes making their morning landings. Some deft maneuvering by the pilot, and moments later our 737 has stabilized, coasted down, landed. The umbrella pines out the window are the most welcome sight: Rome. The Eternal City, waiting, just past customs.
My 2-year-old daughter Avi and I have arrived a few days ahead of the rest of my party, anticipating a couple of days of jet lag and some delightful city wanderings. We didn’t want to spend any time in lines, so we planned a walking meander, passing the major sites but really getting the feel of the city. After all, there is no end to the list of things to do in Italy with kids. We could do so many of them for free.
HEAD INTO ROME
After a quick pass through customs, we picked up our bags and followed the signs to the train station. Purchasing a ticket for the train is a breeze – multiple automated kiosks make quick work, and if you have questions, there are staff to help out. The next-departing train to Roma Termini is well signed – just hop on, stow your bags and grab a seat.
Termini, by the way, does not mean “termination” or “end” as I thought for years – it’s the old Roman word for Baths – or more accurately, Springs. Roma Termini is built on the ruins of Diocletian’s Baths – the most sumptuous of ancient Rome’s public bathhouses, mostly in ruins but partially accessible. It’s a perfect introduction to Rome: the vibrant energy, noise, and chaos of a multinational transportation center, offset by the calm of ancient ruins occupied by the church of Santa Maria Degli Angeli e dei Martiri.
The church’s floor plan was designed by Michaelangelo Buonarotti, and features a Meridian Line established by Pope Clement XI; gilded, glamorized and decorated, the church succeeds in impressing just HOW BIG those Romans liked to build. This is, after all, 1/10th of the original bathhouse – and it’s an immensely towering church!
FAMILY-FRIENDLY HOTEL IN ROME
We had booked rooms at the Massimo d’Azeglio Hotel, part of the Bettoja Hotels collection. Immediately west of Roma Termini, it’s a fantastic destination for anyone passing through Rome or staying for a longer period. Very conveniently located for all arrivals, it’s a brisk walk to the Forum and Coloseum, and just a few minutes further to the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and Vatican. More importantly, it’s comfortable, quiet, spacious and has the best staff I’ve encountered in all of Rome.
We arrived a bit bedraggled – jet lag notwithstanding, my daughter had a bout of airsickness on the way down. We were not our finest when we walked through the doors into the marble air conditioned splendor of the lobby. Yet the doorman immediately offered to take our bags; the concierge, clearly engaged in other matters, turned to me instantly. I explained that we had booked a room, but I needed one with a large closet or alcove for the crib – and he went to work to arrange it.
After a brief wait in the bar (macarons! petit fours! prosecco!) we were whisked upstairs. A glorious fruit plate was immediately noted by Avi, while the bellhop and I tugged our luggage through the door. Within moments, Avi’s crib was settled into the spacious walk in closet; we had quickly changed, eaten all the strawberries off the fruit plate, and were off on our adventures.
DAY 1: A SELF-GUIDED WALKING TOUR OF ROME
Rome is a city that breathes her history as much as her modernity, and it takes days, if not years to really know it. A short visit demands edits, and the walk down Via Cavour is a sort of Cliffs Notes of the Eternal City:
Santa Maria Maggiore, initiated in the early 5th century, dominates the Esquiline Hill; trattorias and street stands run by recent immigrants line the road. Fascist era hotels sit side by side with Renaissance palazzi. A short walk from Termini offers one of the most magical approaches to the Coloseum, inviting you to walk on in to the living museum that is the Forum.
At every step, Vespas, Fiats and the occasional Tesla zip right by. Follow Via Cavour to the Forum, turn right, and you find yourself in Piazza Venezia. All roads lead to Rome, right? Well, all Roman roads lead to Piazza Venazia – this is the CENTER of Rome! I always take a moment to admire the deftness of the traffic control – a police officer with white gloved hands, gesturing the chaos into order.
Take the left down Via Vittorio Emmanuele, and then dive in to the warren of medieval streets to your right. This is the magical medieval Rione I – the center of historical Rome, palazzi and churches and cobbled streets meandering past boutiques and cafes. Every stone here has history – breathing in the air feels like a lesson in longevity.
Enough of the schmaltz: lunch is key; with so much to see, one must provision properly! The warren of streets by the Pantheon hide a treasure trove of trattorias, enotecas and snack bars. In my jet lagged state, I craved a sparkling white wine and some pasta – and Enoteca Corsi satisfied all! A spacious dining room dominated by scores of wine bottles, a mosaic floor and run a marvelous family, the Enoteca offers wines by the glass or bottle and a focused series of wines, antipasti and pastas at a very reasonable price. The mosaic tile floor has a bit of a vintage Audrey Hepburn feel to it – charming to arrive in a place where trend has not outwitted good taste.
Wander onwards past the Pantheon, with a pause to enter the most perfectly preserved Roman temple in existence. The piazza out front features a wonderful fountain that offers a refreshing refill on the water bottle, before continuing on to Piazza Navona, built on the shape of an old Roman horse racing track, or “circus” – the ancient foundations are visible just north of the piazza, in the Piazza delle Cinque Lune.
The fountains invite dalliance and daydreaming, and artists scattered trhoguhout the piazza sell their (some mass made) products, but the maze of streets beyond are a sensual adventure: salumerias offering carefully selected salami and cheese next to wine shops and artisanal storefronts, this is a superb place to browse for gifts and ones self.
A marvelous retreat in all this pedestrian activity is the church of Santa Maria Della Pace – and more significantly, the Chiostro Bramante. The church is a lovely example of Baroque theatrical street design, but for a parent needing a place to change a baby, I can’t speak highly enough of the Chiostro Bramante. A peaceful sanctuary removed from the hustle just outside the doors, the cloister features a cafe and restaurant on the 2nd floor, with a reading room that opens on to the Rafael frescos within the adjacent church. More importantly, the cafe has a private restroom with large window seats – perfectly sized for a changing pad and a little respite for the tiny ones.
The Tiber River is just another few minutes walk, and the view towards St Peter’s Basilica offers a great photo opportunity at sunset. Diving back in to the streets around Piazza Navona, any number of opportunities await for dinner – we particularly enjoyed Il Ritrovo Del Gusto (the return to taste) on Piazza San Simeon.
A few outdoor tables offer a lovely view on the piazza, while the cozy interior has a variety of nooks for quiet retreats. We arrived during “happy hour,” when snacks such as olives, frittata and salumi were offered at a buffet table. Accented with the Pasta alla Gricia, we snacked, dallied and enjoyed until the glow of the streetlights lulled us to quiet. Enough – a 30 minute walk and we were back at the hotel. Exhausted, we fell asleep immediately.
DAY 2: EAT. SIP. WALK.
A little jet lag waking overnight gave us the excuse to sleep in a bit, and after an abundant breakfast at the hotel, we set out again. This time we walked past the Forum, marveling at the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter and the old Senate house where Marcus Aurelius and countless others formed history.
Walking past the monument to Vittorio Emmanuele, we turned into the Jewish Ghetto. Established in 1555, this area of the city was the only legal area of residence for the Jewish population until 1870. The density of the population at its most crowded is evidenced by the towering buildings and narrow walkways – without the ability to expand out, the Jewish community built up. Ancient ruins include the Porta Ottavia, currently undergoing restoration at the time of our visit, which was one of the gates to the neighborhood; the Synagogue is also here, with wonderful tours.
Today, fantastic restaurants line the Via di Portico Ottavia, including some tavola calda (hot tables) and pizza al taglio (pizza by weight) options, ideal for a quick bite. Walk up the tiny Via del Raginella and pause by the Fontanne delle Tartughe – it was under restoration when we passed, but the turtles are charming for children.
Another block north, you will encounter the Largo de Torre Argentina. Originally excavated in the late 1920’s, the ruins of 4 pre-Imperial temples are visible, and it’s believed that the steps where Julius Caeser was murdered was right over this area. However, the kids might be more entertained by the plethora of kitties lounging about the ruins.
The southwest corner of the piazza has a set of stairs leading down to a cat sanctuary, where volunteers help maintain health amongst the feral cat population of Rome. Some are quite friendly and invite petting; a small jar of antibacterial lotion is probably not a bad idea to keep on hand. All of the souvenirs sold by the Sanctuary help support their activities, including medical intervention, spaying and neutering as well as feeding the cats.
Crossing Via Arenula to the west, the tree shaded Piazza Benedetto Cairoli leads to Via dei Giubbionari, lined with restaurants and shopping. Continue on to Campo de Fiori – a feast for the senses. Campo dei Fiori – the Field of Flowers – has been a fruit and vegetable market for centuries. Once only operating weekday mornings, it now offers longer hours.
Fruits and vegetables spill over crates, while more contemporary vendors offer pastas, truffles and smoothies. A few vendors sell the latest fashion in scarves and hats, while another features housewares – ceramics, kitchen equipment, and linens. The flower stands at the west end of the market complete the scene, cascading with color. This is a great place to buy some fruits and snacks, as well as souvenirs to take back home – the goods sold at this market are about half the price of identical items in nearby stores.
Southwest of the Piazza is the Palazzo Farnese, one of Rome’s most important High Renaissance palaces, designed by a number of heavy hitters including Michelangelo. Filled with interior frescos, it is now the French embassy and closed to the public. Further southwest of the Palazzo is Via Giulia, one of the first modern streets of Rome, laid out by Pope Julius II in 1508. It was designed to connect the government offices of the then-fledgling Rome. Modern eyes barely notice, but a kilometer long straight street was a radical concept at the end of the medieval age.
The other streets between Via Giulia and Corso Vittorio Emmanuele are a marvelous treasure trove of discoveries – handmade gold jewelry, modern artists, vintage dealers and tiny trattoria sit side by side, each with a window display inviting hours of wanders. Peppered with churches, cafes and fountains, Via del Pellegrino and Via dei Banchi Vecchi invite window shopping for hours.
We enjoy some gelatos, a caffe, and have an early dinner at Osteria 140. Walking back to the hotel, I check the pedometer – in 2 days, we’ve walked over 20 miles and explored more than 2500 years of history. Twenty miles. It’s not even the start. But exhausted, delighted, sated, we will wake up tomorrow and depart via the train station, on to our next adventure!
NAVIGATING ROME ITALY
Picking up your bags can be a challenge – they rarely tell you what carousel your bags will be at on the plane, and most likely your flight is code shared, so it’s important to check the baggage board for the correct flight number. If you’ve checked large luggage or car seats, you’ll find them near Carousel 1, just past passport control.
Getting to the City
Train: Trenitalia runs direct trains to Roma Termini, departing every 30 minutes; the train takes about 45 minutes and cost 14euro. If you are staying near a different stop, the cost can be less. Purchase the tickets from the automated kiosks, and validate them before passing through the turnstiles and getting on the train. Children under 6 ride free.
Taxi or car service: Arranged car service can cost about 50euros, while a cab will run 45euro+.
Car: Driving in Rome is chaotic and usually unnecessary, but if you must do so, be aware of Zona Traffico Limitado (ZTL – limited traffic zones). Signs are posted variously throughout the area, with varying access limitations. If your car is not registered in the appropriate zone, you will receive a 100euro ticket plus any additional fines that may be assessed by your rental company. Car parking in the heart of the city is anywhere from 35 – 55euro per day; extra for valet service. Street parking is minimally available in the heart of the city.
COMMUNICATION AND PHONES
Using your phone: Before departing the US, check with your carrier if your phone is internationally unlocked. For example, all iPhones 5 and up are unlocked internationally, meaning you can swap out the SIM card and have a local number, data and no roaming charges (SIM cards can be purchased around Rome at Vodaphone, Orange and other wireless carriers. You must show them your passport to purchase). WiFi is widely available – most restaurants and cafes show a “WiFi” symbol on their doors. You can also ask “c’e wifi?” It’s a universal need!
- Whatsapp is a great WiFi-enabled text and call service that helps you stay in touch with loved ones while on the road – just give them your new Italian number, complete with the +39 country code. You will need to change your contacts to a +01 country code, but then you can text and call free over WiFi.
- Skype is also a useful app when you are traveling internationally. You can Skype message friends and family back home at no cost as long as you are on WiFi and you can video chat as well.
Family Hotels in Rome
We loved the Bettoja Hotels Massimo D’Azeglio and Mediterraneo. The rooms are spacious, very comfortable, and well maintained. The bathrooms are huge, with full size soaking tubs, and the room amenities include bath salts, perfect for unwinding after a long day of sightseeing. The hotel restaurants have great dining options and you can relax in room with a glass of wine after the kids go to sleep. See our reviews (linked above) for both family hotels in Rome for more details.
Check rates and availability at Massimo D’Azeglio
ROME RESTAURANT RECOMMENDATIONS
Italy is one of the easiest places to dine. You already know half the words – pasta, pizza, ragu, gelato!
- Enoteca Corsi, Via del Gesù, 87/88, 00186 Roma, Italy
- Il Ritrovo Del Gusto, Via dei Coronari, 30, 00186 Roma, Italy (Piazza San Simeon)
- Osteria 140, Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 140, 00186 Roma, Italy
Notes about eating and drinking
- You’ll see the word “Bar” on all kinds of establishments. In Italy, the word “bar” is more akin to our version of “cafe.” The bar offers espresso and cappuccino, juice, cocktails, and light food like cornetti (croisants), bomboli (donuts), panini (sandwiches) and other pastries. Usually you order your drinks at the register and then give the receipt to the barista. You’ll often have to repeat your order since they usually just list the price you paid, not the item. If you sit down for table service, the price of your selections may be doubled or even tripled.
- There are a variety of types of restaurants. Enotecas are wine bars that serve food; trattoria and Osteria are casual places with wide menus, and ristoranti is a full service, multi-course restaurant. Grab our Italy Dining Guide to learn more.
- You may see a cover charge and a bread charge (“coperto” and “pane”) – this is usually assessed per person though they may not charge for a kid if the kid isn’t getting their own dish.
- High chairs are “seggiolone” and most restaurants have at least one available, though many may not come with restraints, which can be challenging if your baby is a wiggle worm.
GETTING AROUND ON FOOT
Rome is best encountered on foot. A few large thoroughfares offer direct walking routes to major sights, while the narrow cobblestone streets nooked throughout the city offer hours of discovery and scenic wanderings. Note that there aren’t many smooth walkways beyond the major thoroughfares – the kiddos in strollers may find it to be a bit of a bumpy ride. A map of Rome and phone GPS will help enormously.
Take a little time at your hotel to review the map and identify sights you’d like to see. A little focus makes wandering a lot easier.