Traveling with children is a balancing act that is both challenging and extremely rewarding. On the one hand, it is challenging to keep the attention of little people and to engage older children and teens. On the other hand, you want them to get a sense of place and absorb as much of the local history, culture and art heritage as possible. It’s tempting to look for playgrounds, familiar fast food logos, and things that feel just like home. But your kids are in Rome, so help them enjoy where they are and do things that are special to that Eternal City.
That’s where this list can help. Here you will find places and experiences that are uniquely Italian and Roman that highlight Rome’s unique place in history, but will grab the attention of children. And just for the record, there are other activities that are just plain fun. Who doesn’t love eating ice cream on a flight of stairs, especially when it’s among the best in the world?
Read also: 10 Highly Rated Museums and Palaces in Rome
See where the lions lived in the Colosseum
While the gigantic Flavian amphitheater known as the Colosseum is the most famous symbol of Rome and the most popular tourist attraction, until a few years ago it was impossible to visit the part that children enjoy the most. Deep below the arena floor, where the spectacles were performed, is a maze of tunnels, passageways and chambers where gladiators and wild beasts awaited their deadly confrontations above. This underground area, called the hypogeum, held cages for leopards, bears, lions, and elephants that were used in combat or as part of circuses and other performances. An elevator-like system of pulleys manned by slaves carried the animals to the arena floor.
2 Learn to be a gladiator
Even young children have heard of Roman gladiators, and here’s their chance to learn about them from historical reenactors who bring this ancient skill to life. Kids can purchase a tunic and leather gloves to learn authentic gladiator swordplay. The two-hour class begins with a visit to the Gruppo Storico Romano museum to see real artifacts and try on armor replicas. While children as young as six can participate, once they are a few years older they will get more out of it. Other all-day programs are more suitable for adults who want to become a gladiator for the day, but this one is especially good for kids. They come home with a diploma to prove they are a gladiator.
Address: Via Appia Antica 18, Rome
Official site: https://www.gruppostoricoromano.it/en/activities-and-shows/gladiator-for-a-day/
Watch a puppet show
Puppet theaters are a long tradition in many parts of Europe and Rome has two different places where your children can experience them. The first, Teatrino di Pulcinella al Gianicolo , is a traditional open-air puppet theater in the park on Colle del Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill), close to Piazzale Garibaldi. It features the Neapolitan hand puppet Pulcinella, known to English speakers as a main character in Punch and Judy shows. On weekends, half-hour shows are organized in the morning and late afternoon. They’re free, but make sure the kids have a few coins to put in the hat that will be passed around.
At the San Carlino Theater, you’ll find Pulcinella in a slightly different setting and layout, where the puppets interact with the puppeteers and other performers and musicians in a lively and imaginative show.
Adres: Avenue of the Children
Official site: www.sancarlino.it
Row a boat or bike through the Borghese Gardens
Rome’s second largest public park gives kids a chance to burn off energy and you’ll join Romans at one of their favorite spots. There are many ways to explore the park. Rent a rowboat on the lake, pedal around in a surrey, rent a bike or ride a Segway. There’s more: playgrounds, weekend pony rides, gardens and a very good zoo. You can ride around the zoo – the Bioparco di Roma – on a cute little train.
5 Eat Gelato on the Spanish Steps
Almost everywhere in Rome, your kids are sure to spot carts and shops selling the delicious Italian version of ice cream. But there are few better places to enjoy your daily scoop than on the flower-adorned Spanish Steps. Known as Europe’s widest staircase, these 138 steps are one of Rome’s iconic images, as well as a favorite hangout for locals and tourists. It’s a good place to take a break while the kids eat ice cream and enjoy a movie moment at the place where Princess Ann Roman Holiday begins.
Address: Spanish Steps, Rome
6 Meet a mommy and read hieroglyphics in the Vatican City
With so many excellent museums and collections in the Vatican, it’s hard to know where to start, especially when trying to keep kids interested. But a sure bet is the Egyptian museumin the Cortile della Pigna. Many of the exhibits come from the Villa Adriana in Tivoli (a fascinating place to visit just outside Rome), where Emperor Hadrian had collected them. The other advantage of this museum is its size, only nine rooms, not so much as to be overwhelming. In it are some excellent examples of Egyptian art: sculptures of gods and pharaohs, basalt and painted wooden sarcophagi, mummified heads, hieroglyphic inscriptions, animal statues and papyri. Art from ancient Mesopotamia and monumental reliefs from Assyrian palaces round out the collection.
While in Vatican City, see St. Peter’s Basilica , perhaps with a trip to the top of the dome, and the Sistine Chapel to see Michelangelo’s ceiling. If so, remember the strict dress code. Even kids can’t wear shorts or exposed shoulders.
7 Look through the hole in the roof of the Pantheon
Your kids might not expect it to rain in the center of such an impressive and solid looking building, but there is a big hole in the middle of the roof of the Pantheon. It has been there for about 2000 years. While they wonder why it has a hole in the roof, it might be a good time to tell them that this is the most complete and best-preserved ancient Roman building in Rome, built in 27 BC by Emperor Hadrian. What’s more, the dome is over 42 meters wide and hangs there without any support except those within the walls.
Now about that hole: Because the walls are busy hiding the supports for the dome, there was no room for windows. So 3.6 meter circle is the only light source. Recent research suggests it may have had another purpose as well. The building is aligned so that on April 21, the day elders celebrated the foundation of Rome, when the emperor entered the Pantheon at noon, the sun shone directly on the doorway. As he walked through it, he supposedly appeared in light as if by magic. If you go on a rainy day, you will find a large puddle under the center of the dome.
8 Find a giant foot
While in the Pantheon, walk behind it to the Piazza della Minerva (where you will find an obelisk on the back of an elephant, by Bernini) and on to the little Via del Pie’ Marmo, meaning Marble Foot Street. Of course there is a marble base, almost the size of a small car and wearing a sandal. It is all that remains of a huge statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose cult was popular in ancient Rome. The statue was one of several great monuments in a temple to Isis and Serapis near here. Given the size of the base, the statue must have been about 7.6 meters tall.
This isn’t the only giant foot your kids might find in Rome, so you can suggest they see what others can see. Hint: there’s one in the Vatican Museum wearing a full sandal and one barefoot in the Capitoline Museum .
9 Explore the catacombs
What kid can resist creepy tunnels, especially if they’re tombs? No need to mention they’ll get a dose of Roman history as they explore it. Two of the best are just down the road from each other on the Apian Way. The largest is the Catacomb of St. Callisto , dating from the 2nd century AD and the burial place of several early popes. It is colorfully decorated in graffiti with doves, fish and other early Christian symbols.
Under a nearby basilica under the Emperor Constantine are the Catacombs of St Sebastian , where the remains of St Peter and St Paul were hidden until they were moved to the Vatican and San Paolo Fuori le Mura respectively. Walls here are also covered in early Christian graffiti. Contrary to popular belief, Christians were not hiding from persecution here. The catacombs were cemeteries for those who couldn’t afford the kind of extravagant funerary monuments that line the Apian Way. You can get close to these catacombs on the 118 bus.
Address: Via Appia Antica 136, Rome
10 Find a church on top of a church on top of a house
Urban archeology is interesting for all ages, but for children the notion of literally layers of history is particularly fascinating. And it’s three layers deep in the Church of San Clemente , not far from the Colosseum. After admiring the gold mosaics in the dome, descend to see what was discovered during repairs to some of the foundations about 150 years ago. And then go deeper to see what lies beneath.
To put it in historical order, easier for kids to figure out, start at the bottom. At some point in the 1st century AD, there was a grand building here around a courtyard, and next to it was a smaller brick building around a courtyard with a 2nd century Mithraic temple in it. Thanks to excavations, you can walk the streets of this Roman quarter, see the temple and look for the well of spring water – all of which are now underground. In the fourth century, these streets, chambers and courtyards were filled in to form the foundations of a basilica that lasted until about 1100, when it became unstable and was closed. Like the streets and buildings below it, it was filled in with rubble and a new church was built on top – the one that stands on the top today.
Address: Via di San Giovanni in Laterano 108, Rome
11 Toss a coin into the fountain
No tourist should leave Rome without following a tradition that has existed since the Romans walked these streets in toga. When they began their journey, ancient Romans often threw a coin into a bath or fountain to ask the gods for a safe return. Nowadays so many tourists want to return to the Eternal City of Trevi fountain is always busy and its base is littered with coins. The several thousand euros that are taken out each night are supposed to provide food for the hungry.
Rome’s most famous fountain, Trevi, was built in the 18th century, but there has been a fountain here since the first century, when it was the terminus of an aqueduct that brought water to the Baths of Agrippa. While we have no idea which hand the ancients used to toss coins, the tradition today is to use the right hand and toss the coin over your left shoulder. Teenagers may be interested to know that while the first coin should take you back to Rome, you can toss a second one to find love. No guarantees of course.
12 Buy a picnic at Campo dei Fiori
The wide Campo dei Fiori is one of Rome’s liveliest piazzas, not far from the Pantheon and in a neighborhood of narrow medieval streets that provide a nice respite from the grandeur of public monuments and the ruins of ancient Rome. Here children get the look of Rome as a real city full of people doing everyday things. The lively and colorful market in the campo is in full swing in the morning and at lunchtime, when you can cater a picnic with shiny berries and fruit, adding bread fresh from the bakery opposite the campo and cheese and salami from the shops that line the surrounding streets (look for one with a “salumeria” sign).
Note the street signs too – the streets are named after the merchants whose shops lined them in medieval times: Via dei Cappellari means Street of Hatters and Via dei Balestrari means Street of Crossbowmen. Kids will be able to translate other early transactions using a pocket Italian dictionary. It’s about a 20 minute walk from Campo dei Fiori across the river to the Gianicolo , a large park overlooking the city, and a perfect picnic spot.
13 Take a ride in a time elevator
In a three-dimensional ride on Time Elevator Rome , kids can travel back in time to the early days of Rome and watch the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The exciting journey through the ages brings ancient times to life for children in a highly visual way, making them witnesses to life in ancient, medieval, renaissance and 20th century Rome. Along with the city’s grandeur under its emperors, children also see Rome in its darkest days, under Mussolini’s fascist regime. As they meet historical figures, children will feel a sense of life in those days, complete with sounds and smells and an audio system that allows them to choose from several languages.
Address: Via dei SS. Apostles 20, Rome
Official site: https://www.time-elevator.it/?lang=en
14 Visit Nero’s Golden House
While the story they no doubt know about Nero playing while Rome burns isn’t true, kids will surely have heard of this Roman Emperor. Admittedly, he took advantage of much of the city being leveled by fire, and built his palatial Domus Aurea – Golden House – where the city once stood. It was buried by later emperors in an attempt to erase its memory, but only succeeded in preserving it for humans 2,000 years later. Recent excavations have uncovered entire rooms of marble and decorated with gold and precious stones. You can see some of these rooms and halls and appreciate the unlimited wealth and power of the ancient emperors. He never finished his great palace; his plans called for it to eventually become as large as the Vatican City is today.
Address: Via della Domus Aurea, Rome
Where to Stay in Rome for Sightseeing
We recommend these family-friendly hotels near the top tourist attractions in Rome:
- Hotel Martis Palace: boutique luxury, connecting rooms for families, helpful staff, lovely rooftop terrace.
- The Independent Hotel: affordable 4-star hotel, walk to Termini station, spacious family suites, rooftop terrace.
- iQ Hotel Roma: mid-range prices, modern style, children’s playground, fitness center and sauna, self-service laundry.
- Colors Hotel: budget hotel, close to the Vatican, colorful decor, private and shared bathrooms.