How to crush Rome in a week… with kids

Planning a trip to a location flush with historical sites like Rome can be daunting especially when you’re only planning on spending 7 days on the ground.

I always get a little panicky when thinking about this kind of travel – I don’t know enough about Rome and it’s history, shouldn’t I read some books? See some movies? Shouldn’t I know MORE about a place before I go?

This was probably a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I wanted to make sure we made the most of it AND not wear everyone out in the process (you know those vacations, the ones where you say you need a vacation to rest up from your vacation.) When you get limited vacation time away from work it’s important to consider the money/time=value equation. Flying overseas to spend such a short amount of time – could we actually see everything we wanted to see? Would we be able to see the major (touristy) sites and also feel like we really got to see the city as it is for residents?

How to take a tour of the underground Colosseum in Rome Italy

The Ultimate One Week Family-Friendly Tour of Rome

We were able to see most of the biggest sites in one week, fitting in the following sites without completely crushing the kids. We took advantage of local knowledge, pinging friends and family for their favorites, which is often key for getting off-the-radar treats. Eataly is cool, but the local markets are more interesting and “real”.

Here’s what we were able to see with a 10- and 13- year old in tow:

  • The Colosseum w/ underground tour
  • Pantheon (guided)
  • Circus Maximus (walk by)
  • Vatican (self guided)
  • The Forum (self guided)
  • Spanish Steps (raced up the side alley)
  • Gelato cooking class
  • Tons of gelato consumption (2-a-day minimum)
  • Testaccio Market
  • Mario Batali’s Eataly
  • Lots of walking through neighborhoods, and more!

A view of the Forum from up on another part of the Forum shows just how big it is. This is easily a full day stop if you want to see it all and learn about it.

How to Make the Most of a Vacation in Rome

Here’s how we did it, and how you can, too:

  1. Book advance tickets if you can. The lines to purchase tickets were not terrible in for the Vatican or Colosseum, but we were able to just walk right in with tickets. And some tickets, like those for a guided tour of the underground at the Colosseum, were not for sale the day of. Find Colosseum tickets here, and Vatican tickets here. This also saves time waiting in lines, which kids are notoriously bad at.
  2. Stay near public transportation, preferably in a neighborhood. We stayed in a neighborhood away from the center of town, but were walking distance to the Metro. Week passes are easily purchased at vending machines within the Metro station, and the Metro stops incredibly close to almost all major sights. Lines are clearly marked and maps were easy to follow so we could find our destinations.
  3. Be ready to walk. The best way to see most cities is to walk. You will walk more than you ever do at home, be prepared with comfortable shoes. Walking is the best way to explore a city and to see what’s beyond the major tourist sites.
  4. A spreadsheet is a great way to keep track of your itinerary, but understand that you may need change it depending on when you can get tickets for tours or museums. Be realistic, we only put down a few things to do per day and gave ourselves plenty of time for travel and meals between. More on this in a minute.
  5. Book downtime for your children (and you!) This is important. We know our kids can do a couple days of packed itineraries, but we also know they need a day of rest in between. We work while on trips (that’s why we can travel so much) so oftentimes will spend mornings in the hotel working while the kids get to watch TV, play video games, or hit the pool. We’ll head out right before lunch for the rest of the day.

How to Plan Your Days in Rome

Our working spreadsheet for Rome. Some of the things listed we did not do.

We use Google Sheets to plan our vacations, and we often start up to eight months in advance. This lets us easily shuffle things between days, share the schedule with the entire family (and any friends and relatives that might be interested). It also lets us keep links and details for each location and day, so all research is right at hand.

Once on the trip, we save these to our phone with the app, which can store them locally for offline use. But, our first stop on any trip is the SIM card shop at the airport so we have at least one phone with unlimited data for the duration of the trip.

Level Up the Experience

View from the underground of the Colosseum.

Ultimately we saw four major sites and experienced many parts of Rome that left us with some great memories. Rome is an easy city to explore because the major sites are all so close to each other. We saw so much in a short amount of time. Here’s what made our trip to Rome so great:

Colosseum – We booked an English speaking tour of the underground in advance and it was really amazing. We saw all the under-workings of the Colosseum. Tickets included a 2-day window to enter the Forum, which we did the day after.

Forum – Right next to the Colosseum. This is a sprawling complex of ruins from different eras in the surrounding hillside. It puts you in the middle of what was ancient Rome and it’s workings. You could spend hours here exploring the ruins, so it’s good to have fresh legs and spirits.

Circus Maximus – Also adjacent to the Colosseum and the Forum, there’s honestly not much to see. Walk through it en route to something else, it’s worth a glance just to see the sheer size of the track.

The floors in the Vatican were just as amazing as some of the art!

Vatican – We bought tickets online before we went, and while the line was not very long to purchase tickets when we got there, it was still nice to walk right in. It was a long visit, over three hours with a stop in the cafe (espresso and a light lunch, food was just OK) in the middle. The kids were not as impressed by the artwork and architecture as we were, so 3 hours was a little painful for them. But, the promise of Gelato afterwards is a great motivator. Always lead (and finish) with Gelato.

The Pantheon at dusk.

Pantheon – this was a treat to see. We planned on walking through, but were stopped by a tour salesman to join a tour. Normally we would pass this up, but I am so glad we didn’t. It was about €15 for our family of 4 (we haggled a bit) and we learned so much about the Pantheon that I would have glossed over on a pamphlet or signs. It’s in the center of a large courtyard with a fountain and is just a great way to spend an evening.

Food! Gelato everyday, sometimes twice – I mean, when in Rome… This was a packed week of walking and sightseeing, so multiple stops for gelato were welcomed by the whole family. Plus, we got to try all the many flavors over the course of a week! It was an easy splurge, too, because the servings are small (perfect size) and cheap – about €2 per person. Restaurants near the tourist sites will be a little less interesting/local feeling than those if you walk a little further away.

How to find homemade food in Rome Italy

One of our favorite restaurants was a small one only a few blocks away from the Colosseum (walk up the hill, above the metro exit), so don’t be afraid to just pop into the small spots off the beaten path. It’s virtually impossible to get bad food at the local joints. Most are family owned (we saw “the boss” making pies in one kitchen), and the wine is quite affordable, too.

Mercato Testaccio – view from the wine stall where you can enjoy chips and small appetizers with your glass of wine.

Farmer’s Markets – These are also a great way to experience local food. We stopped at the Mercato Testaccio which had street food and drink vendors (wine!) as well as farm stands for meat and vegetables, flowers and clothing.

“Suppli” is cheese stuffed fried rice balls, a popular street food that comes in a lot of varieties! We found plenty to try at the Mercato Testaccio – very tasty!

Cooking Classes – can’t recommend this enough. Italy is known for it’s simple and delicious food and a great way of remembering it is to learn how to make it. We used Walks Inside Rome and booked a small class to learn how to make Italian Biscotti and gelato. The best part was at the end of the class when they opened a bottle of wine for the parents!

The best cooking class for kids in Rome Italy teaches how to make gelato
Cooking classes were absolutely kid and parent friendly!
The best cooking class for kids in Rome Italy teaches how to make gelato
A gato of Lengua de Gato biscotti!
Where to find good gelato in Rome Italy
Long days may end with one or both children asleep at dinner. And that’s OK…it saves money. But they’ll still want gelato afterward.

…and then there’s this place:

The cat ruins. You’ll literally find ruins all through Rome, tripping over them here, there and everywhere. Some are more spectacular than others, but most big ones have a story. This one does, too. It’s called the Largo di Torre Argentina, and you can read all about it on the signs when you get there. The important thing to know is that the cats rule here. Under the road (directly under where I’m standing taking that photo) is Gatti Di Roma, a cat hospital, where strays are cared for and spayed/neutered. You can go in, pet them, adopt them, or just watch them come and go at their leisure. There are hundred of cats hanging out on the ruins, doing what cats do. This was probably a highlight of our kids week here.

If you only see Rome during the day, you’re missing a wonderful part of the experience. Many of the ruins are lit up, putting them (quite literally) in a new light!

What Else Should I Know?

As you can see from our list, we didn’t hit everything we wanted to, but that’s OK. We found other things not on our list that were unexpected surprises, and often those are the most memorable parts of a trip.

Locals warn of pickpockets, so it’s best to put anything that you want to keep inside a hidden pocket or deep in a pack. Wear the pack in front of you on the Metro, and just be aware of what’s going on around you. Make eye contact with strangers, and if a group suddenly starts jostling into you or someone seems to be obviously distracting you, walk away quickly. We never had a problem, but one friend had his wallet stolen on a different trip. The only other thing to know is that the street vendors are relentless around the major tourist sites, but if you ignore them and keep walking, they’re harmless.

For us, the photos and memories are the best souvenirs. But we did come home with a spray painted scene of the Colosseum. There are different artists pointing essentially the same thing, and it’s fun to watch, but they went from €15 right outside the Colosseum down to €8 two blocks away.

We went in February, so it was cold early in the morning and at night, and it’s a “wet” cold, so it feels colder than, say, Denver. Which means in the summer it’s going to be really hot and humid. Which is to say, if you can visit in Spring or Fall, you’ll have better temps. Even in February, there were decent crowds, but not overbearing. Going in the off season is sure to be less crowded.

Been to Rome? What did you like? Leave your tips and favorite places in the comments!

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