Many families use Rome as the starting point for 10- to 14-day trips to Italy. Rome is my favorite big city in Europe with kids. The layers of history, the chaos, the loitering — it’s impossible to be an outsider here, as you are always drawn into the action in some way, shape or form.
I actually recommend spending at least four days in Rome (see my post on creating the best family-friendly itinerary in Italy). However, I know how hard it is to allocate precious days on vacation, and many people end up in Rome for just 72 hours. I spent a few short but sweet days in Rome with my son — here’s how we made the best of a brief stay.
For short stays, I do not recommend staying in a standalone apartment. Every Rome hotel we review has a front desk to help with directions, dinner reservations, cabs — whatever. For just a few days it’s best to have resources you can count on for help. The issue in Rome is finding a hotel in a wonderful location that can accommodate a family in a single configuration; add budget constraints to the equation and you’ve got a real challenge.
I like staying in hotels where I can walk to tourist attractions, as well as an array of interesting restaurants and shops. For this reason, I love staying in and around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, or, alternatively, around the Spanish Steps. There are many other fantastic options; see the guest post from Papavero Rentals defining the various neighborhoods in Rome — very helpful! The bottom line is that for a 72-hour stay, the location of your hotel matters more than ever. You don’t want to waste precious time getting from A to Z.
We chose to stay at the Grand Hotel de la Minerve. Just steps away from the Pantheon, the hotel overlooks a picturesque square. This location allowed us to sightsee and head to our room for a rest before heading out again. It’s a luxury boutique hotel, and the service and room quality are excellent. For something more value-oriented, Albergo Santa Chiara is right next door.
We had a room with a view over the Pantheon and at one point, while we were taking a break, someone was outside our window playing music. Both of us stopped what we were doing and experienced a “pinch me, this is utterly fantastic” moment.
After stopping for a mandatory coffee at Sant’Eustachio (another benefit of this home base: it’s a 2-minute walk from this glorious coffee experience), we hit the ground running on our first day in Rome. Our writer Nancy Solomon always recommends taking a hop-on/hop-off bus for the first day in a city. As many times as I’ve been to Rome, this seemed like the best way for me to give my son an orientation.
This was absolutely the right call, as it allowed us to cover some ground fairly quickly. The information provided in the headphones is not kid-ready, but it doesn’t really matter; we were there for the ride and visual overview. You can grab these buses near all the major tourist attractions in Rome.
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We didn’t plan on going straight to the Vatican, but as soon as my son saw St. Peter’s Square, he was ready to check it out. You can see the Vatican without a time strategy during non-peak periods, and you can’t make reservations for the basilica anyway. There is always a line, but it moves.
My one regret is not climbing the cupola. With school-age kids, climbing is fantastic, as we discovered when we climbed the Duomo in Florence. There is a long line (again, no reservations are possible), so strategize around an early morning or lunchtime arrival. Note, you do need a reservation to see the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. If you hire a tour guide, he or she can do it for you, or you can do it online. I had a good experience buying tickets from Tickitaly.com (for both Florence and Rome museums).
After fighting the crowds at a major tourist attraction, I like to loiter for the rest of the day and that’s exactly what we did. Rome’s neighborhoods are varied and fabulous for walking. In this case we wandered around Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain. There are thousands of spots to eat lunch outside where the people-watching is phenomenal. If you are looking for a piazza to park yourself, Piazza Navona is a wonderful stopping point. Lined with cafes and artisans (and no cars), this is an entertaining spot to spend an afternoon.
A formal walking tour is the best way to explore a complicated tourist attraction in a meaningful way. If you are choosing between a guide for the Vatican or a guide for ancient Rome, I always recommend hiring one for ancient Rome. The sites that comprise ancient Rome make so much more sense with expert insight — that way the guide can tell a story and kids can visualize the history behind what they are seeing. Our CB! Family Vacation Advisors maintain a list of hand-selected, family-friendly guides that we can book as part of our comprehensive trip planning service.
We engaged a guide for the Colosseum and Roman Forum and had an excellent experience. If you have more time and want a very special experience, go to Gladiator School for the afternoon. My son had a blast dressing up and learning moves. This is a huge all-family hit.
We spent the rest of our day wandering around the Spanish Steps. The streets in this area are lined with upscale shops and restaurants. It’s a fun place to explore in the evening too, when families stroll through the streets for their nightly passeggiata.
It’s a short itinerary, it’s already the last day in Rome and even after exploring the major sites above, you still haven’t seen much of Rome … sigh. You just have to know this will be the case and be OK with it.
For our last day we chose to visit Castel Sant’Angelo — used as a papal fortress, a residence and a prison at various points in time. This site also features prominently in Dan Brown’s thriller Angels & Demons. I thought this would be an exciting spot for a school-age boy. It might have been, with a good podcast or guide. We had neither, and thus we didn’t engage successfully at this attraction. It happens; lesson learned. That said, the view from the top of the tower is stupendous.
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I made up for the sightseeing malaise with a pedicab ride to Trastevere. Months later, I think my brain is still jiggling from riding over the cobblestone streets in historic Rome, but this was a very fun experience in a city with narrow streets and passageways (not as pleasant for Mom on the major roads with traffic).
We spent our last afternoon wandering around Trastevere. This old neighborhood in Rome has many nooks and crannies. Some of it is gritty, but it feels authentic and is very different from any other part of the city. The Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest in Rome and lies at the heart of this area.
Although this was my second time seeing this church, I was unprepared for the magic of our visit. Every once in a while you visit a church when lights and candles illuminate the interior in a remarkable way — this was the case here, as the gold 12th-century mosaics glowed above us. Our son already suffers from “it’s just another church” fever, and in this case he was speechless too.
Time to plan another trip to Rome. This time a weeklong stay is in order!
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