Roman Holiday with Children
Among families with young children, Rome is often mentioned cautiously and with doubts. To go or not go? Would children really be able to enjoy and appreciate what this magnificent city offers? Rome is chaotic. There is simply too much to absorb within a few days; its deep layers of culture and history are like those massively thick ancient roads built with ingenuous Roman engineering. However, Rome works. Rome can easily top your family’s chart of favourite holiday destinations. You just have to know how.
Rome and Florence for centuries were the culmination of the Grand Tour — the cultural trip among young aristocratic men in Northern Europe, especially England, to gain exposure to culture, arts and history. Even though your children are far from the age of ‘finishing school’, which was the purpose of the Grand Tour, it’s never too early to start. But be realistic with children. The goal should be pique their interest, light their love of history and art, and go home with great memories. The parents’ job is done when, one day, the children express their wish to go back to explore the city on their own.
But Rome has more to offer than culture. It’s hard not to fall in love with gelato, great food (have you seen a child who doesn’t like carbonara?), the best cappuccino, beautiful water fountains, the smell of roasted chestnuts in the streets, and the thrill of treading cobblestone roads laid by Ancient Romans thousands of years ago.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel de Russie: Its luxurious setting guarantees the best time for adults and children. The exquisite gardens and its location right by Piazza del Poppolo (and therefore, easy access to Pincio Gardens) mean that you don’t have to worry about outdoor places for your super-active fidgety little ones. It also houses the highest-standard restaurant, Jardin de Russie, and the trendiest cafe, Stravinskij Bar.
JK Place Roma: Superbly positioned between Via Corso and the Tiber River, near the Ara Pacis museum, it is a perfect base for a Roman adventure. Chosen as the best urban hotel in 2014 by Wallpaper magazine, this sleek hotel also boasts the fantastic restaurant, JK Cafe, which serves modern and classic dishes. If you need some quick outdoor time for the children, outside the Ara Pacis Museum (just a few blocks from the hotel) you will find a serene and relaxing space with water features along the cascading stairs.
The Inn & The View at the Spanish Steps: Located on the fashionable Via Condotti overlooking the Spanish Steps, this hotel’s romantic association with Hans Christian Anderson (who once lived in the building) is reason enough to appeal to anyone, especially, children. The main building is listed as a national monument and the complimentary afternoon tea is served on the beautiful terrace. The hotel also offers spacious suites in a separate building just around the corner with a great view of the Spanish Steps. Waking up in the morning to the church bells from Trinita dei Monti is unbeatable.
WHEN TO GO:
August is the worst time. It’s hot and humid, the locals are away, the city is swamped with tourists, and many public places are operating for limited hours. April-June and September-October are the times to visit. If you go in the spring, visit after Easter to avoid the crowds visiting churches and wanting to see the Pope conducting Mass in St Peter’s Square.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO WITH CHILDREN:
1. Castel Sant’Angelo – Originally designed as Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum, this massive building had many lives over the centuries as a military fortress, papal castle and prison. The sight of this majestic structure is stunning from the beautiful bridge Ponte Sant’Angelo. Get there before 9:30am and you will have the place to yourself. Enjoy the spaciousness and beauty throughout and the breathtaking view of the city from the top floor. Your children will particularly love the spiral ramp that looks like a ‘secret passage’ and the playground outside the building. Experience a dreamlike moment when you push your little child on the swing with the 1,900-year-old Roman’s Emperor’s mausoleum towering in the background.
After a bit of slide and swing, head toward Campo de Fiori. Once you pass through Piazza Chiesa Nuova, take Via dei Cappellari, a narrow quiet street. You can either explore the lively farmer’s market on Campo de Fiori or take a rest on Piazza Farnese by the granite fountains (which are actually bathtubs taken from the public Baths of Caracalla).
Take Via dei Giubbonari, lined with independent stores, to go to the Jewish Ghetto for lunch. The Ghetto was created in the 16th century by Papal Order. The minute you cross Via Arenula and approach Via del Portico di Ottavia, you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Surreal and moving, the neighborhood has many restaurants serving classic Jewish Roman dishes. Many of the restaurants are kosher and closed for Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. Try Ba’Ghetto or La Taverna del Ghetto. It’s lovely to sit at an outdoor table at Gigetto by the ruins of Portico d’Ottavia. Built by the Emperor Augustus in honour of his sister, the massive Portico is the centre of the Ghetto. Take a walk through the ruins after lunch.
After being immersed in walking around these 2,000-year-old ruins, take a short stroll to Piazza Mattei. Tucked away from the Portico, it’s an enchanting little gem with a Toirtoise Fountain and a lively bar/restaurant, Le Tartarughe, where you can get excellent espresso.
2.Villa Borghese and Spanish Steps
Walk up the Spanish Steps. No matter how touristy it may be (often so crowded you won’t be able to see the actual steps), this feature of the Piazza di Spagna is still magical. At the bottom of the steps, take in the splendour of the fountain, “Fontana della Barcaccia”. Stroll to nearby Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina. This piazza is a little gem that goes unnoticed by most tourists. Grab an outdoor table at Ciampini, where you can get everything from salads, panini and tramezzini (little sandwiches) to great coffee and ice-cream. It’s a great place to sit in the sun, put on your sunglasses, and watch the world go by.
On the nearby Via Bocca di Leone, you’ll find a cute toy store, Il Pesciolino Rosso. Pay a visit for traditional toys, such as a hand-carved Pinocchio.
In the afternoon, walk up to the top of the steps. There you’ll enjoy church bells ringing from the Trinità dei Monti church, the spectacular view of the city at sunset, and the steps’ romantic link with many intellectual and literary figures (including Keats, who ended his life in a house by the steps).
Once at the top of the stairs, walk past Hassler Hotel on Via Sistina. Turn left on Via Francesco Crispi until you see the Villa Borghese Gardens on the left. Along Viale Goethe, you will be able to hop on the little train to tour the garden. The playground is on the same street.
This splendid park is heaven for children. It includes a movie theatre exclusively for children (‘Cinema dei Piccoli’); Casina di Raffaello, an indoor activity centre, and the traditional puppet theatre ‘Teatro Marionette San Carlino’. If you’d rather spend time outside, rent a bicycle or quadri-cycle or visit the zoo (‘Bioparco di Roma’). Picnic on the grass by the playground or sip espresso at an outdoor table at CineCaffee Casina delle Rose across the street.
Once you’ve walked back down the Spanish Steps and are back in the piazza, have your afternoon espresso at the oldest bar in Rome, Antico Caffe Greco, on the fashionable Via Condotti. It’s classy and historic, with its history of intellectual visitors such as Byron, Liszt and Goethe. Try Dilla for dinner. This lovely place serves excellent Roman dishes in a cozy modern environment. It’s off the tourist map and mostly filled with locals.
After dinner, get a cone of roasted chestnuts from one of the many street vendors around the Spanish Steps. Children will enjoy the warmth and comforting aroma, and they’ll love cracking the shells.
3. A Perfect Weekend Day:
From the Spanish Steps, walk down Via Margutta (rather than Via del Corso or Via del Babuino) to the impeccably symmetrical Piazza del Popolo. This charming narrow street is filled with antique shops, little fountains, and small boutique hotels.
On the Piazza, decide whether to have your morning cappuccino at the right-wing Caffe Canova or the left-wing Art Nouveau style Caffe Rosati. After coffee and a stroll around the piazza, walk up the stairs on the eastern part of the piazza to the Pincio Hill Gardens. Enjoy the view of Rome from the terrace while the children run around the gardens.
At the end of Via del Barbuino on Piazza del Popolo is Hotel del Russie. Its restaurant, Jardin de Russie, serves Rome’s best weekend brunch, featuring the most stylish Romans in a beautiful setting in the garden. Book a table in advance.
In the afternoon, go down to the Mausoleum of Augustus for a quick glance from the Piazza Augusto Imperatore and sit on the cascading stairs by the water features outside the Ara Pacis Museum. The fountain will keep the children captivated. A block away is one of the trendiest restaurants in Rome, Gusto. Pizza is a popular item among families. Ask to be seated outside on the piazza when the weather is warm (though the inside is equally nice, with its hip and lively atmosphere).
4. East to West: Trevi Fountain – Pantheon – Piazza Navona
Go to the Trevi Fountain early in the day, before the area gets overwhelmed by tourists. The water fountain is turned off until Fall 2015 for refurbishment, but this provides you with a unique opportunity to walk right up to the relief via the scaffolding to admire this largest Baroque fountain in the city.
Nearby, the Pantheon is easy to pop in and out of with children. The sheer magnitude of the building and the ceiling structure is awe inspiring even to the eyes of little children. When it’s time to eat, try Armando al Pantheon or Ristorante Il Falchetto off of Via del Corso for great Roman dishes. Giolitti has been serving ice-cream since 1890 and is considered the best gelateria by many. For those too impatient to stand in line at Giolitti, around the corner is Grom, which serves organic ice cream. For grown-ups, coffee at Tazza d’Oro is a must try. Despite the number of tourists, this is a place loved by local devotees and serves possibly the best tasting coffee in Rome. Try marocchino, which has cocoa powder and cinnamon on top.
The best feature of Piazza Navona is the theatricality of the water fountains. Let the children be impressed by the spectacularly dynamic sculptures that adorn the fountains, which were designed by Bernini. To eat, drink and rest, walk away from the piazza and try the modern and airy at Museo di Roma.
Antico Caffee della Pace is possibly the prettiest cafe in Rome. This historic cafe has over the decades served coffee to celebrities such as Federico Fellini and Sophia Loren. Pizzeria Baffetto is arguably one of the best pizzas in Rome, and is only open for dinner. Nearby, Etabli offers great food and a hip atmosphere to those tired of the same old traditional cuisine.
5. The Colosseum and Forum
Don’t get intimated by the thought of being trod on by tourists. Buy tickets that allow entrance to both sites and start in the morning with a visit to the Colosseum. Then head to the Forum. For young children, being at the open space among the ruins of the Forum is a pleasurable way to spend the day. After a day full of history and culture, go to La Taverna dei Foi Imperiale on Via della Madonna dei Monti for hearty classic Roman dishes.
WHAT TO EAT:
For pasta, apart from the usual carbonara and cacio e pepe, try:
* amatriciana, which consists of guanciale (pork cheek), tomatoes, pecorino and pepper.
* gricia is not well known outside Italy. It’s basically amatriciana without the tomatoes. Simple but perfect.
* carciofi alla romana. Artichokes braised in garlic and mint.
* carciofi alla giudia. In contrast to the ‘Roman style’, these Jewish-style artichokes are fried and crunchy.
* coda alla vaccinara. A tomato-based oxtail stew. Comforting and flavourful.
* trippa alla Romana: Another Roman stew, this one with tender tripe.
Romans don’t eat a big breakfast. Order a cup of cappuccino with a cornetto, a type of pastry similar in shape to a French croissant but sweeter and not buttery. You can get them ‘semplice’ (simple), ‘integrale al miele’ (wholewheat with honey), ‘cioccolato’ (chocolate but really nutella) or ‘marmellata’ (jam). Another breakfast staple is a slice of ring pound cake called ‘ciambella’, similar to bundt cake.
WHAT TO PACK: