When my son was five years old, I promised him a three-scoop gelato per day if he’d be so kind as to accompany me to Rome. With an offer I knew he’d never resist, we were off to spend our summer vacation in Rome, a city so dear to me that I stayed for five years after a study abroad stint, simply unable to pack my bags and leave. Let’s put it this way — I even went so far as to become an Italian instructor. What a gift it was to finally introduce my son, Daniel, to all the sights and sunsets that refused to stop taking my breath away.
Roman Culture for Kiddos
Italians welcome children with open arms. People won’t glare at you if your child throws a Frisbee-sized plastic UFO up in the air in the middle of a fancy piazza-side restaurant. They will smile and say “Ciao, Bello!” and give him a vanilla pannacotta or a hunk of parmigiano and a sliced pear. This was especially convenient for a single mom like me because I wanted to enjoy nicer restaurants, and I wasn’t going to let the fact that my date was a rambunctious 5-year-old stop me.
Instead, people warmed up to us and I delighted in the gracious honor that Italians have for the forever-loved Mamma. People were eager to talk to us, eager to lend a hand and happy to share a smile. Finally, I was referred to as signora and not the signorina I had been as a younger woman, and I relished the respect that came with my new title.
I knew that I would go bonkers staying in a tiny hotel room with a small child. By renting a small apartment, we saved enormous amounts of money and had a chance to live like real Italians for the three weeks that we were in Italy. I booked our studio online at Flat in Rome and we paid €770 for a two-star studio for three weeks. This was quite a bargain if you compare it to even the cheapest of pensiones.
Our studio was basic — neat and comfortable, with a Euro-style kitchen, a wooden dining table, two twin beds, and, in the hallway, a washing machine (don’t know how I would have managed without that). We saved money by having breakfast at our home away from home and keeping a supply of yogurt and fruit for post-siesta snacks to keep our hunger at bay until dinner (since most restaurants don’t open until 8 or 9pm).
Located in the off-the-beaten-path neighborhood of Testaccio, we enjoyed wandering the tourist-free streets and shopping at the local outdoor market square where, I guarantee, the fruits, vegetables, cheese, fresh pasta and pastries are the best in all of Rome. I made sure to schedule in some neighborhood down time every day, and Daniel enjoyed eating pizza-by-the-slice and playing in the little park at the center of the Piazza di Testaccio. What a treat to watch him play happily with the other children (not making much note of the fact that they spoke different languages) as I sipped a cool iced tea at the park-side café! Before you go, teach yourself and your kids a few useful phrases. He knew how to ask the other children “Come ti chiami?” and“Come stai?” and he impressed even himself with his efforts. Plus, no one can resist a cute kid trying his very best to say a perfect “grazie.”
Roman History for Kids
On our second day, we stepped back into the past via the Rome Time Elevator (Via dei SS. Apostoli, 20; 39-06-97746243). This 45-minute panoramic movie highlights Roman history with special effects (think moving seats and steam). I loved the way it summed up Roman history for kids and set the stage for 1,000 questions (Mom, why did Nero laugh when the city was burning down?) that could be explored and answered during the rest of our stay.
An entire day should be devoted to the Via Appia Antica. The catacombs of San Callisto, a series of ancient underground cemeteries used by the Christian and the Jewish communities, both spooked and amazed us. We meandered down the Via Appia Antica, stopping for panini at the Bar Appia Antica (on the corner of Via Cecilia Metella and Via Appia Antica; 338-3465440). To get there, take the metro or bus to Piramide, then take the bumbling bus 118 on to the Catacombs of St. Callisto. Be on the lookout for Dante (usually found near the entrance to the Circus of Maxentius), he’s the man that sets up a small table selling handmade flute-like instruments for calling sheep, an inexpensive, musical souvenir.
The Castel Sant’Angelo (Lungotevere Castello, 50; 066-819111), built by the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) as a mausoleum for himself, then later converted to a fortress, is a child’s dream. Scale the 400-feet-long winding ramp to the top level, where you’ll find an angelic messenger about to take flight. Each summer, Castel Sant’Angelo stays open into the late evening hours for magic shows, mock sword fights, and musical performances. Nothing beats the view from the top on a starry night. (Open daily 9am to 7pm; call for summer hours; Closed Monday).
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Traveling Rome with Kids, where I’ll share some quirky hidden spots that kids will love and our pick for Rome’s best gelateria!